When you hear ‘nature’ look for ‘culture’

From a design or research perspective there is no such thing as ‘nature’, ‘natural’, or ‘common sense’. Natural should be taken in both senses of the word – the ‘unspoilt’ or ‘non-man-made’ part of the world and natural as in obvious. Nature or the natural world is a relative concept conditioned by cultural preferences. For example, landscapes were not always seen as something with aesthetic value which explains the absence of landscape painting as a legitimate art form before the 18th century (in western culture).* Therefore, there is always some cultural viewpoint at work when speaking about nature or referring to something as natural.

When someone says ‘it goes without saying’ you need to ask why it should not be said (or questioned). This often refers to the idea of common sense which is considered instinctual, eternal or natural (second nature). As with nature ‘common sense’ changes and evolves and has no absolute or fixed state.

The point here is that you should question those things that seem second nature, obvious, traditional and common sensical, not because obvious and traditional things are bad but because there is always some cultural basis behind it. In the most extreme cases common sense is used to hide uncomfortable questions or conditions. In other cases it may simply stand in the way of better, more progressive or sustainable solutions.

*Picturesque landscapes are often though to be patches of preserved and unspoilt land but are in fact artificial and composed clusters of trees, lakes, rivers and hills. The lakes and hills in Prior Park, Bath, for example, are all man made. This image of nature subsequently coloured what we think a natural landscape should look like. Another example is the present and protected form of the South Downs in Southern England which have aquired their look due to centuries of sheep farming. This image is now protected as a ‘natural’ landscape.

Source: The idea of questioning ‘common sense’ comes from Roland Barthes who often questioned everday ideas or habits only to find rich cultural and historical origins behind them.

South Downs National Park

Threshold: Link and Separator

The manner of connecting one space to another is too often and too quickly resolved by nothing more than a door. Although many of us grow up with nothing more than doors as separators and connectors between rooms if we look more closely at historical examples you’ll see more nuanced ways of linking and separating spaces. This is generally referred to as a threshold – a zone of passage or pause between two spaces, areas or rooms. Thresholds acknowledge that the character of any two adjacent rooms is rarely identical; therefore, some form of transition is often desirable. A door is one of several possible solutions to linking and separating spaces. Screens, passages, unaligned openings, wall thicknesses, among other devices, offer other ways of achieving the same means but with different effects. In some cases, thresholds become so extended that they become intermediary spaces in their own right.

Before throwing in a way, punching a hole and dropping a door in, first ask what the relationship between the two adjacent spaces is. You may find, firstly, that a wall isn’t necessary but that perhaps a screen or row of columns might serve the purpose of separation and individual identity for each space. If a wall is needed, the door isn’t necessarily an automatic solution for passage. A opening in a thick wall might provide enough of a threshold between the two spaces by accentuating the thickness of the wall as a barrier and separator, while remaining connected with a door-less passage. The position of the opening itself, at a corner, in the middle of the wall or room, also provides visual clues as to whether it is normal to pass from one to the other without question.

If a door is used, the location of the hinge side and direction of the swing can either block or provide views inward when the door is left ajar such that an occupant can be more or less inviting by leaving the door partially opened.

Taken further, the idea of thresholds is also about mediating movement from one type of spatial status to another – for example, from a very public to a very private space. A door requires a firm decision to enter, yet you may have no idea of what type of room is on the other side and whether it is permissible or desirable to enter. A threshold space can signal changes in the status so that a greater sense of a private realm is signalled – a thoughtful user will pick up on these signals and understand whether they should proceed. In public buildings such issues are paramount and help to mitigate the necessity for signs, locked doors and sealed off areas. Most public buildings include spaces through which any passer-by may enter and proceed but also include spaces which may be for employees only and hence private. Understanding thresholds as transitions and mediators adds meaning to movement in architecture as well as add clarity to how spaces should be interpreted and used.

Flexibility vs. Polyvalence

Flexibility can be interpreted in several ways. The most common (and overused) approach is where spaces are made physically flexible via moving walls or panels. In this case the space is physically re-configurable. However, flexibility can refer to program or use and can be accommodated in a space that is fixed. If you know which two or three uses go into a particular space you may be able to design it so it is flexible without requiring reconfiguration. The most overlooked idea is polyvalence where spaces are open to multiple interpretations and ways of being appropriated. This is a kind of flexibility which is about the way people use a space individually or interpret or adapt it for themselves. While many students reach for the moveable wall answer first, it may be that another type of flexibility is more appropriate.

Readings: Adrian Forty, ‘Flexibility’ in Words and Buildings.

Windows: Light, View, & Air

Windows are too often treated as nothing more than rectangular openings in walls. The window establishes a relationship between inside and outside for a variety of reasons. Windows may be used for light, views or ventilation – and they may developed to deal with these aspects individually or in combination. The size and form of a window also frames the relationship between in inhabitant and the exterior. A small opening may be used to frame a specific view; a horizontal window may relate to the horizon; a vertical one may allow the entire body to feel connected to the exterior. Some windows may be used for nothing but light, placed above eye level.

The placement of the window within the thickness of the wall also has consequences. Windows flush with the surface of the exterior tend to flatten the exterior wall possibly making the wall feel like a membrane. A window set towards the inside of the thickness of the wall helps the mass of the wall to be sensed and hence gives the wall a greater sense of weight. The placement within the wall also has particular effects on the interior.

Conceptually windows can be treated as: punctures in walls, preserving the integrity of the wall surface; cracks or gaps that interrupt wall surfaces; horizontal strips that sever the verticality of wall surfaces; etc.


See Constructing Architecture, Materials Processes Structures, ed. Andrea Deplazes, Birkhauser. There is a section on ‘Opening’ (p.200) which includes a discussion of the debate between Le Corbusier and August Perret on the horizontal versus vertical window, plus an outline of window types based on their formal properties (opening as a hole, opening as a horizontal strip, opening as joint, opening as a transparent wall).

Zones Instead of Walls

Imagine the boundary between inside and outside or between one room and another to be a zone rather than a wall. This will alleviate a number of problems and open up design possibilities. The zone can be articulated as a double wall, thick wall, inhabited wall or thick threshold. This thickness can be used to house storage spaces, mechanical systems, or be inhabited with window seats, built in furniture or other amenities. In some cases you may even be able to house circulation within the zone. This thickness can also be used to allow for differing sizes among adjacent rooms while avoiding an irregular overall building outline. That is, you can allow for differently sized rooms while keeping to geometrical alignments that can help maintain the clarity of your scheme – a series of rooms as a bar or a cluster or spaces reading as single larger figure. The zone gives you breathing room to negotiate internal needs with external clarity. Working only with walls (and particularly with walls of a single thickness) will create problems when you get into larger scale resolution of your design.

In practice you will find that thicknesses are required for many practical reasons – mechanical systems, plumbing, structure, wiring, and so on. It’s a good habit to develop early on.

Student Plan 1: This is a typical early plan made to test layout, scale, use and organisation. The spaces are concieved as independent cells defined by walls that have no identity other than doubled lines separating spaces from each other.

Student Plan 2: This is a series of plans testing layout, use and organisation. Again the spaces are defined by walls which are seen only as boundary defining elements. This results in an overly simplified wall/space opposition that lacks ambiguity, thresholds, in-between spaces or spaces with multiple characteristics.

Esherick House, Louis Kahn: This plan demonstrates the use of zones rather than walls to help organise and bring clarity to the plan layout. Note the exterior walls top and bottom which are treated as thick boundaries with niches on the interior side. The two living spaces are separated by a thick threshold comprising the stair and inset entry vestibules. During the design process it is likely that these zones were adjusted to resolve the interior spatial dimensions against the desire to produce a clear rectangular external volume.

Bryn Mawr Dormitories, Louis Kahn: This composite plan shows three different levels of the dormitory complex. Each level demonstrates different uses of the ‘wall as zone’ or ‘thick wall’. The band of bedrooms, in themselves, can be seen as a thick inhabited wall zone. Note that Kahn’s spaces are rarely defined by 4 straight walls, but are nearly always articulated to create thresholds or occupiable spaces.


Spence R. Kass ‘The Voluminous Wall‘ describes how the walls of St. Peters in Rome is really a thick space that is sometime occupied or used to modulate light. The article focuses on this one project but makes links to Louis Kahn and Alvar Aalto.

Related Post: Six Conditions of a Cube