Six Conditions of a Cube

A definition of a cubic space that is based on the idea of 6 equal sides is useful for mathematicians but restrictive for architects. Imagine instead that you define a cube as a space determined by six different conditions. The top and bottom are easily distinguished: one is a ceiling and the other a floor. As such their roles, materials and effects are considerably different. The remaining four sides can also be differentiated if you consider something as straightforward as sun orientation. Put into a context the four vertical sides of a cube would have four distinct relationships to light. One of your sides might contain an entry, thus rendering one side a ‘front’, one a ‘back’ and the other two as ‘sides’. If in your particular context the side on the left has a space outside of it that is different to the one on the right then these sides can start to take on different characteristics.

From this point of view a cubic space and its resulting characteristics is really something that emerges from the specific conditions that define the perimeter. Put another way, you should never conceive of spaces as abstract cubes, blocks or hermetic rooms. Every space that exists in the world has an orientation. Therefore, it requires more energy and explanation to conceive of and defend a space that is undifferentiated. It should be normal, rather than exceptional, that spaces consist of defined boundaries that differ, rather than consist of walls with holes in them.

How does this help?

This should help you consider all spaces as being determined by their location and relation to other spaces rather than conceived as isolated or abstract volumes. The cube in this discussion is nothing more than a stand-in for any space that you may be designing.

Source: There isn’t a precise source for this idea, but it is exemplified in the way Le Corbusier designed his spaces.

The triple height entry hall of Le Corbusier’s Villa La Roche exemplifies this approach very clearly. The floor and ceiling are self evident in their difference. The four sides can be defined as such: 1) East facing side – entry, crossed by a bridge that links the gallery and residence; 2) South facing side – circulation with overlooking balcony with library overlooking at top level; 3) West facing side – blank, no articulation, acts as a foil for the other three sides; 4) North facing side – circulation, both vertical and horizontal. The four sides could be defined as entry/bridging, overlooking into cube, reference wall, and movement wall. Each side acquires a conceptual as well as functional role giving the space a dynamic character. I would also note here that this idea works not just abstractly as seen in an axonometric, for example, but experientially. The south side provides bodily experiences of the three levels, floor, middle and ceiling. The East is crossed by a bridge that links and relates interior and exterior. The north side is experienced through stairs and passages that run both parallel and perpendicular to the space. Only the west wall remains purely visual and abstract.
The main space in Chareau’s Maison du Verre is a cube-like volume with 6 distinct sides. Leaving the floor and ceiling aside, the four vertical sides can be understood as: wall of light (right), wall of books (directly ahead), screen ‘wall’, and circulation/services ‘wall’. Two of these, the glass block wall and library are flat and abstract, and work together as a planar ‘L’ configuration. The other two are not so much walls, as thick zones of activity. What I call the screen wall is a storage/shelving/railing system (just visible at left)  that partially obscures a passage way leading to bedrooms. The fourth wall, which is not seen in this photo (it is where the photographer is standing) is another thick zone of activities – horizontal and vertical circulation, storage and service spaces. These two thick and occupied zones compliment the two planar ones.

The two examples shown here happen to be cubic spaces and were chosen because they are clear examples of the principle. As noted above, this principle is not really about cubic spaces but about the way any space can be defined as a set of conditions rather than walls.

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