The French architect Henri Ciriani used to tell the parable of Michelangelo’s square (an imaginary square that he might draw to start off a design). It stated that when Michelangelo drew a square, all sorts of decisions and conditions were already known and decided. That is, as soon as you know the length of one side of the square, you knew how high you could go because you know what it was being made of – stone or marble, for example. It also suggested mass, the amount of light that came in, how open or closed it was, and so on. This was given by the limitations and knowledge of available building materials and construction technologies. When Mies van der Rohe drew a square, nothing was decided. That is, with modern building technologies the height, density, character, transparency, etc., are all up in the air. For Mies, even the fact that he might place steel columns at the corners meant very little. The proposed space could still be very high, or low, very open, or closed, massive or light. In this sense, for Ciriani, modern architecture requires that you decide everything, or put another way, that you determining everything. Pre-modern space was of considerably different character than modern space. The expectations of exterior space (generally public) where well-known as were those of interior space. I would add that Michelangelo’s square determines its walls or piers which in turn determine the relationship between interior and exterior – and it did this with a single gesture. The material was often the same on each side. Modern space is less clear about inside and outside. Picture here any canonical modernist project breaking the box with flowing exterior and interior space together here (Wright, Schindler, Rietveld, Mies). The modernist wall then had to qualify an increasingly uncertain and abstract exterior while qualifying an increasingly polyvalent and abstract interior. I have it from a good source that Herzog and de Meuron choose to privilege the inside or the outside. For example, when they want an exquisite flat and abstract exterior surface this means the details on the interior are often horrid (and vice versa). David Adjaye supposedly demands that both interior and exterior work equally well. This makes things much harder for the designers, detailers, builders and clients. It is not a question of a right or wrong approach; this is simply to say that there is a choice, and if there is a choice there is an issue, there must be something at stake.
It then occurs to me that Louis Kahn understood this problem and came up with an interesting solution. Knowing the differing demands of the inside versus the outside and the difficulty of reconciling these Kahn decided to make the wall spatial. More precisely he doubled most dividing surfaces (as did Michelangelo). Floor and ceiling become two planes rather than one. Exterior walls are doubled – one responds to the exterior, the other to the interior. It’s there in the Adler house, the Esherick house, the Bryn Mawr dormitories, Unitarian Church, Hurva Synagogue, Yale Art Gallery (in section), Salk Institute (see above image), Exeter Library, Kimball Museum (you’ll have to use you imagination with this one), Richards Medical Laboratories, and many of his unrealised projects. By the time he gets to Dacca he’s transformed this idea into something of great complexity – somehow entire buildings are treated as thicknesses. In one swift move (but remember this took him years to develop), Kahn engages with the problem of modern space, the interior/exterior conflict, and with the multitude of choices brought on by modern technologies. That is, the technology of the outer skin does not have to impinge on the resolution of the inner skin. No compromise is necessary. This is, again, in no way meant to say that Kahn’s solution is best – Adjaye and H&M have taken different positions on this. What all of them recognise is a conceptual understanding of the problem of reconciling inside and outside space. This idea was speculative until I thought of Kahn. The clarity and rigor with which he articulates this notion of the wall and pier turned the hunch into a concept.
Michelangelo had it easy.