The White Page Dilemma
“Experiments,” “process,” “data processing,” “inputs”… all these words have made their marks in architecture over the last 5-10 years, occupying the lexicons of architectural paper publishing and architecture websites alike, making them read like scientific magazines.
It would appear that even the creative process involved in architecture has become as scientific and as calculated as possible. But beside all the laboratory talk, beside all the systems, developed in so many cases to bring architecture closer to a mind-easing sense of control…
Do architects attempt to completely sever their own inner desires and obsessions from the creative process, banning such desires for not being measurable enough? Are we ashamed of sometimes inexplicably, sometimes viscerally desiring?
Can architects still manage to utilize a certain architecture of desire?
Is there still room for “want” in architecture?
In the search for an experimental, unavoidable, scientific look, we seem to have eradicated words like “want,” “need,” or even “like,” considering them as uncontrolled, unpredictable quantities. We do not talk about them–it’s not “the right thing to do,” or even the “architectural thing to do.” Nevertheless, wanting, desiring plays a great part in the process that faces the creation of a project, whether we hide it or not.
Let me be clear about this: there’s no monogram to an architecture project; no table, no instructions to read first; and the line that separates a masterpiece from a total failure is getting thinner and thinner everyday. Of course there are systems, of course there is data, of course there are schemes (sometimes made by men, sometimes made by mice), but to paraphrase the words of Saint Thomas Aquinas, at the end of this path, where is the initial motor of creation, of projecting? Where does the spark of desire begin–if in fact it ever does–and has it anything to do with desired ideas and plans?
This is the cornerstone, the axis and the main cause for the sleepless nights an architecture student faces. It is, even more, the main divider (in a profession so fond of almost-religious classifications) between those professionals who make architecture and those who simply build with style. Do we, as architects, do what we are compelled by our inner desires to do, or do we compromise? It’s a difficult game to play, an almost impossible-to-reach balance that makes this question as passionate as it is complicated.
Architecture Is Made Of Obsessions
While an architecture student in Madrid, I still remember one of my first classes with Luis Moreno Mansilla and Emilio Tuñón. We faced our first project courses craving a magic recipe, willing to find it everywhere: The five points of architecture from Le Corbusier, the server-serviced spaces from Kahn, The white simplicity of the New York 5 , the freshness of Venturi, and even the simple, almost Zen, compositions by Tadao Ando. (Raise your hands those of you who haven’t tried to compose a floor plan like Louis Kahn or Ando…and failed.)
By the time we arrived to Mansilla’s and Tuñón’s class, the truth seemed to lie in Miguel Fisac’s definition of architecture, the admission that good architecture work contains a certain “I-don’t-know-what,” and that is precisely what makes it great.
Not a very encouraging perspective, but maybe a realistic one; one which assumed that parts of the creative process come from our own inner self, elements that are absolutely impossible to explain or program.
Luis Moreno Mansilla had another way to look at it, but basically he was in the same route:
Architecture is made in great part of your obsessions and brought to reality with the help of technique.
That phrase still is written in an old Moleskine notebook in my studio. It felt nice at the time to understand that the process of projecting in architecture was indubitably in touch with our most human, obsessive side. It was, in many ways, liberating.
The Folder Of Ideas That Wanted To Become Stone
It was about that time (late 1994) when Tuñón and Mansilla started facing their first major commissions and projects in a career that hasn’t stopped since then–and that, contrary to what has become per usual in this profession, has maintained a huge level of coherence.
Obsession, technique: they seem to be present in T&M work, project after project. From their first interventions as collaborators with Rafael Moneo on the Miro Foundation in Palma de Mallorca, they continued on with the treasure jewelry box that is the Museum of Archeology and Beaux Arts in Zamora, the great cascading spaces in the section of Museo de Castellon, and the clearness of Museo de los Sanfermines or the Teruel Pavillion where an X marks the spot telling everybody that “Teruel exists.”
In an interview for a Spanish architectural magazine, T&M stated their obsession with “the process in which ideas become stone,” referring to the moment in which an obsession, a photograph, a text read years ago, a movie or something completely out of the traveled path of architecture popped up in the making of things and appeared as a clear idea that turned into–or at least inspired–a project.
Emilio Tuñón has referred to this as “the folder of ideas.” Almost all of us have accessed that folder in a moment or another, whether it was a computer one with links, pictures and small texts, a Moleskine with notes taken on bus stops and boring conferences, or even a real cardboard folder, laying about our studios. A folder made out of ideas that wanted to become stone, and that as professionals, we wanted to try.
When the commission for MUSAC arrived to their studio, Tuñón says, only one idea was waiting inside the folder. Their minds only held one obsession, one desired item. It was a spark, ready to start a chain reaction.
The idea was to use a mathematical pattern, composed of rectangles and diamonds: a pattern of infinite growth that would provide a space richer in geometry and possibilities of use.
Their desire had become an idea in the folder, and as part of this process of becoming stone, it was about to became a game plan.
The Game Plan
It was Toyo Ito who, after completing Sendai Mediatheque, stated the end of pure formalism and advocated for a new architecture of blurred limits. In his words:
The program is useful to implement the actions of people in space.
Ito was talking about liquid architecture, a program that, far away from other compositional rules, creates human action and is mainly based on it.
To implement actions in space: is not that a kind of game, a game-plan to be precise?
Johan Huizinga established in his book Homo Ludens a simple set of rules to define “play,” based on a ludic concept of game: play is free. Play demands order. Play is order, absolute and supreme.
Consider MUSAC through Huizinga’s lens. Though MUSAC’s floor plans may look like pure formalist stiffness, they are actually a perfect example of freedom in architecture design:
Freedom to play. And “play” is a very serious business in architecture.
How? Take a page from Tuñón’s and Mansilla’s playbook. Create a set of rules based on the nature of the building–a game-plan–and stick to it, letting this order solve the building growth. Simply forget about the classic, given structure of an architectural project development (in terms of facades, plans, sections, program etc), as they’ll solve themselves, because the structure’s premises are contained in the basic rules we have decided.
In the case of MUSAC, the size of the exhibit zones demanded a specific modular dimension. This led to the establishment of a single beam size. The necessity to have more than four vertical planes in some of the areas demanded a scheme made out of rectangles and diamonds. Deploying them involved fulfilling program needs and adjusting orientations for lighting, responding wisely to external conditions that perfect the rules instead of distorting them beyond recognition.
So you have established a game plan: A set of rules based on some initial premises (like in the game Monopoly, you’ll need to have money and a set of rules to control purchases and mortgages, since the purpose of the game is taking all the other players to bankruptcy). Now action, and play, can begin.
The Endless Building
Ito’s words implied a total refusal of classic (and not so classic) formalism: refusal of composed facades, regulatory traces (as jaded as they may sometimes be), and of the classic geometry of appearances. His was the idea of a building conceived as the result of applying a set of inner rules that would provide its own limits, taking it far from the compositions magazine photographs used to love (and that usually contained nothing more than a kitsch passion for appearances).
MUSAC is, in this matter, relentlessly coherent. It ends where it ends. It could be bigger or smaller, not necessarily depending on a strict composition but on the needs provided by the program affecting the pattern and interacting with the game plan.
Something similar happened when Le Corbusier proposed his Museum of infinite Growth in 1931–a spiral-like building that would grow exponentially on demand. Even though we could consider this a first approach to a “shapeless” building, the truth is that L.C.’s obsession with nature mathematics and his more-than-patent interest at this time for natural shapes (which may have derived from his beginnings as a watch maker) make the museum a very clear spiral that still maintains some of his first ideas about pilotis and fenetrês a longeur.
A closer relative can be found In the Spanish Pavilion for the 1958 World fair in Brussels by Corrales and Molezun. Based on a single structural cell (an umbrella-like pillar that contained its own ceiling, water collecting system and the technical means to install lighting and voice circuits), the building grew to accommodate the items showcased at the fair.
MUSAC raised the stakes to a new, completely unexpected level. Its game plan was clear, its rules were established. The environmental conditions (size of the building place, program, climatology) created a limit—one that wasn’t there as an imposition, but rather as a natural, uncomplicated way to stop the growth of a complex building that responds to the quite difficult task of hosting a museum of modern art. What in C&M’s building can be an advantage (temporal, ready-to-made construction), is actually much more complex when dealing with a steady, permanent program that is nevertheless subjected to some of the flexibility impositions the pavilion had to bear.
On a much larger scale, the MUSAC’s creators, counting its mathematically-based growing system as a powerful and unique weapon, exemplified a singular form of freedom. It set the creative process free of the usual constrictions, be they formalism at its best (the box, the box inside the box, and so on…), or the specific need for a pregnant shape that overcomes and makes the “modern architecture” in the project present by force.
MUSAC, although being a museum (an archetype of “container” architecture), is not at all defined “a priori” but during its creation and projecting process. Once the architects know the rules, the rest is a game, a magnificent and serious one indeed.
The Path, Not the Destination
And what is a game, after all, but a pattern? But the tricky part is that this particular use of the pattern system (a very common method for architects) supposes not the end of the quest for project schemes, but the beginning, or at least the path to travel, openly and with no prejudice.
This game supposes a path through the data provided by the numerous and almost endless agents that intervene in a construction the size and importance of MUSAC. A path that works like a good mathematical set of premises: The clearer, the cleaner these premises are, the more easy the corollary and theorems would adapt to them.
Where other systems end, MUSAC’s pattern-like game plan established the beginning of an efficient chess match that would adapt to the circumstances of every piece, addressing each in the very specific terms controlled by their creators. Let’s not forget: this control issue is an old architectural obsession, which in this case, away from impositions and draconian measures so common to many public buildings, present themselves as playful, even enjoyable items.
Action / Re-action
MUSAC set a different concept of usability born from the creative process that led to its design. That concept was based on freedom and interaction. Architecture is understood as an action, before a static construction, so frozen in time and development that it is real only for a few seconds at the time of its inauguration and forgotten soon after.
The space, the real leading actor in the building, reacts to the necessities of its users, and allows them to establish a different relationship with the programmatic contents of the museum, including the atrium, a void in the ongoing system of rectangles and diamonds which appears in the floor plan without any drama and simply acts as part of this immense playground.
That’s precisely one of the most astonishing experiences about MUSAC: Once you have read about it, walked its spaces, learned its simple greatness, you have to realize it becomes a great building. It achieves that certain thing you can’t completely define that relates to desired ideas and old obsessions. Most important, the structure does this–or rather, its architects do it–without any complication or flamboyant speech to hide behind.
The Haunting, Passionate Idea
Behind it all, no matter how much we try to understand it or explain it, lays an idea. It’s the kind of idea that comes from desire, one so deep we wouldn’t even realize its presence, haunting us, hiding some place in our experience, waiting the exact moment to appear.
As architects, we have managed to escape the constrictive methods of pure isolated technique. We are no longer forced to pack spaces in a programmatic dictatorship only based on pure economic patterns or styles. An idea can make a whole building come alive.
Just an idea from a folder. Just something that, as an architect, you want to include in a creative process. A desire.
A desire used to confront a blank piece of paper, embracing the fact that desires and obsessions are part of what makes the human creative process, and architecture, so interesting.
A desire, kept close and wanting to become stone. A game plan with all its deep and absolute meanings, and maybe a lot of passion.
Certainly, sometimes, it is all that it takes. It may seem little, but in this world of empty icon buildings and so often empty gestures, it is a lesson.
by Jose María Echarte
Jose María Echarte is an architect and writer. He has worked as an official architect for the public service, developed projects for other architects, and is an associate in a small handcraft studio dedicated primarily to to public building design competitions. He is an editor for n+1, a Spanish architecture criticism blog.
All photographs by Hansbrinker