A liminal space
In February I travelled with my students to California. We were following in the footsteps of European architects Rudolf Schindler and Richard Neutra who emigrated to the West Coast a century ago. They took with them the germ of an idea - “Modernism” - and transposed it to another place, climate and culture to which they were not accustomed. For our students, the field trip was an opportunity to also see things to which they were not accustomed. Then, to return to Europe where they might reconsider the culture and climate they had thought so familiar. In particular we asked the students to look at the façades, and in each case to consider their construction, spatial properties and atmospheric potential. We wished to draw the students’ attention to the liminality of a façade, and its role in relating the culture of architecture to the natural world outside.
In this piece, I would like to explore what I believe is a false distinction between ethics and aesthetics in architecture. I would also like to take a look at the purpose of buildings, and the role perception and experience play in our understanding of them, in particular the crisis of reason experienced by the current generation of architects when considering why and how to make a façade. These are questions I ask in practice and of my students, questions on which the Californian work could shed light, along with that of our practice and our European contemporaries.
It is in the liminal space of a building’s façade - arguably the most public, most physical realm - where our experience of bodily life is most acute. Indeed, the corporeal experience of architecture begins at the threshold of the façade, and for this reason, I am interested in the edges of buildings, both as fabric and as spaces in and of themselves. How can façades - that create shelter and temper our internal environment - help us attend to the natural world as opposed to demarcating a space apart from it?
The nature of the perimeter wall or envelope of a building has changed radically in the last 50 years. In a past, the construction of buildings had been, I am going to say, vernacular, by which I mean governed or at least influenced by available materials be that stone, clay, earth or timber. The plan forms of buildings were dictated by these available technologies, by the capacity of material to bear load and to span and therefore shape and define space. Furthermore, that causality was transposed to the face of the building. These causalities coincided with the functional requirements of domestic shelter, secure sheltered storage, exchange and congregation. These types can generally be distinguished by their size or scale, and their geometry, be that linear, concentric or a grid. More complex functional demands could be met by a combination of these types.
Over time, the functional demands placed on buildings became more specific, and the metrics and combinations of space more particular. These compositions of differently dimensioned spaces became increasingly complex, and the parts inter-related by space for circulation. Next, the enclosure of rooms and the structural systems required to support floors and roofs became independent of one another. William Le Baron Jenney’s fire-proof steel frame construction developed for the Fair Store (Chicago 1890-91), Le Corbusier’s Maison Dom-Ino (1914), and Mies van der Rohe’s Brick Country House (1924) all contributed to the technological solution by which the containment of space and the structural system might be disassociated. Although this is not the cause of the current crisis of reason, the conceptual and technical developments of Jenney, Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe may be cited as an early unraveling. Over the last century, evermore complex and specific functional demands have been placed on the interiors of buildings.
In his book The Ethical Function of Architecture (1997), Karsten Harries argues that the “objectivity” characteristic of modernity meant architecture was part of a technological culture, antithetical to the Heideggerian dwelling. One aspect of this technological culture has been to focus on the environment, or at least on the technologies used in response to it. Of course, buildings have always provided shelter from their environment to those who dwell in them. And the ways used to devise shelter have resulted in perceptible character - mass offering the possibility of stable temperatures in warm or cold climates, and large eaves and canopies affording protection from the sun and the rain. Modern technologies, fabrics and systems in this regard evolved intermittently throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries.
However, the direction was away from the handmade and the substantial, and towards the technological and the lamina. This progression arguably reached its conceptual apotheosis in Buckminster Fuller’s proposal for a geodesic dome over midtown Manhattan (1968) which reduced the construction of “wall” and “roof” to a single membrane. Graphically and geometrically, the architect’s goal had hypothesized that there need only be a line separating inside and out. And it is a dubious correlation of ethic and aesthetic which the High-Tech architects sought to promulgate. Physically and conceptually, the building had evolved from one of substance (typically walls), first to a frame and finally to an envelope.
Not surprisingly these glasshouses and membrane-clad buildings did not perform well and relied heavily on energy intensive conditioning systems to create habitable interiors. Nevertheless, the damage was done; a technological conclusion of sorts had been reached which revealed the façade not to be a cultural proposition, which had to do with history, but simply a technological device.
The intensification of concern for the environment, and more specifically and prosaically for performance, subsequently led to a return to something approximating to a wall. However, in its new guise the characteristics of the wall are quite different. It is a more complex configuration consisting of a number of layers or elements, some serving its performance and others, character, emphasizing the importance of what we see. Inside, the envelope is divided into abstract and imperceptible technical systems and layers of material. The fabric is not matter, as such, but a series of lines that perform discrete technological roles. The reasoning that underpins these abstract elements has been separated from the sensible and perceptible aspects of a building.
The modern technological concern for performance has displaced the art (techne) of construction. Instead, the absolute and abstract requirements of building physics translate into physical things - the various elements - that now constitute what is commonly called the building envelope. The cause and effect of this technology - that the skin perform as an environmental device - on the building’s perimeter prevents materials from being used appropriately. In so doing, the perceptible, which had previously served an approximate role, that had been observed to work over time and historically had given rise to construction, has been lost. As a result, the architect is deprived of reason to make a building in which to dwell. This presents the architect with an ethical dilemma.
In summary, the façade has been deprived of both its vernacular and 20th Century Modernist roles, having little to do with construction or the relationship between inside and outside. Instead, it has disintegrated into a series of performative layers disguised on the outside by a carapace of form and graphic patterns.
So, our field trip to California served as a reminder of how things were, and the clarity with which architects had in the past responded to the natural world. Again and again, we experienced in this strand of 20th Century Modernism the direct way in which the internal morphology and world outside were coupled together by kinds of fabric and their disposition to form an enclosure. Greene and Greene knew their clients who commissioned the Gamble House (1908) had come to California from the Midwest to spend the winter months in Pasadena because of the favorable climate. As a result, their house is encircled by verandahs and external sleeping terraces. This connection with the outside is developed and strengthened with the Schindler-Chase House (1921-22). The house is famous for its innovative but elementary tip-up precast concrete walls. But these constitute about half of the façade, the rest being timber framed glazing and canvas sliding screens. Schindler likened living in his house to camping. He designed the house for himself and his wife Pauline, and Clyde and Marian Chace. Each had their own studio arranged en enfilade in a pinwheel plan. Beneath a cantilevered porch, each studio opened directly onto the garden which was itself conceived as a series of outdoor rooms. Both the studios and the garden rooms were planned with fireplaces. Neutra, who lived in the house from 1925 to 1930, continues to explore these ideas ten years later with the Neutra VDL Studio and Residences, which was destroyed by fire in 1963 and rebuilt the following year. By the Sixties, the language is more refined in large part due to the technologies that Neutra chooses to exploit, but the essential idea remains the same: the façades exploit their liminality and are generative of the architecture.
We also ventured to La Jolla to Kahn’s Salk Institute where, unlike a house, the complexities of the program are not so amenable to simpler technologies and a more immediate relationship between interior and exterior. However, Kahn finds a way to make sense of a demanding brief for highly serviced laboratories, and to make this most abstract of environments humane. He does this by lining the elevations that flank the open courtyard with a freestanding concrete construction of staircases, bridges and terraces which all give shelter to the perimeter. Their effect, much like the vernacular, is approximate and not to be confused with the performance of the equipment used to service the laboratories. Into this construction he places screens of teak. These, together with the freestanding vertical concrete walls, form enclosures to create studies for the most senior researchers. Concrete and timber construction are articulated, and the elements differentiated. The studies serve to represent the human scale and the minds at work in the institution’s research. In turn, the architecture of the courtyard conceived by Kahn in collaboration with Mexican architect Luis Barragán represents a community of minds. The abstract activities of the scientists can as a result be read in conjunction with the natural world. Activities that are implied by the architecture. Sunlight and shadows trace across the concrete surfaces. From one hour to the next, and from one season to another, the colors change and so the building serves to measure time. The work of the scientists is grounded in and protected from the natural world it frames, but is also represented as a cultured activity. In Salk, Kahn exploits liminality in a way that few would for nearly half a century.
Fast forward to 2006, to Johan Celsing’s Årsta Church in Stockholm which was completed in 2011, to a contemporary building that unites the performative and cultural aspects of construction and addresses the schism between ethics and aesthetics. The church is an extension to an existing building. The cubic building is founded directly on a rock outcrop and constructed from diaphragm walls of loadbearing brickwork exposed inside and out.
Standing in the 13x13 m space, the church is a well ordered whole. The part of the wall that one can touch is glazed brickwork which thickens further at the base to form a bench. This is the terrestrial realm. Above, the celestial, roughly mortared brickwork walls are coated with limewash. Here, the walls are punctuated by substantial openings. The roof - a concrete canopy - is supported by beams that crisscross the space, representing a conscious decision on the part of Celsing to resist order.
There are a number of apertures in the glazed brickwork. One is a landscape window directly opposite the vestibule that connects the new space to the original building. The sill of the window coincides with the bench, the head with the juncture between glazed and limewashed brickwork. The glass is set on the outside face of the wall revealing the meter-deep construction, and the interstitial space within the construction of the wall - required for structural stability and thermal insulation -, to be space. The strata of construction communicate ideas about the human condition. Questioned about the ethical dimension of the work, Celsing spoke - in a conversation while I was visiting the church in 2018 - of a “kindness” for those who use his buildings.
From the outset, our practice focused on the meta-functional configuration of the plan. And, with existing structures, it exploited latency in morphology and matter. The threshold between inside and outside has also been a constant interest - replacing windows with doors, introducing decks and galleries, prioritizing circulation outside the building. With Talkback (1999-2001), the office and the idea of work were associated with these liminal spaces, not the interior. However, while writing the book Redefining Brutalism (2017) and designing Chadwick Hall (2012-2016) student housing for the University of Roehampton, I began to pay more attention to the nature and construction of the façade and to treat it as inhabited construction.
Unlike Talkback, student housing does not incorporate significant congregation space. The plans cluster students in flats and houses, and in so doing provide a modicum of social structure. However, the masterplan took pre-existing landscape features and used these to compose associations between buildings. But it is the walls of Chadwick Hall which are important here. The walls are loadbearing. They derive their logic from the decision to give each student a balcony and therefore to be able to construct trabeated walls comprising brick piers and concrete beams (the balconies). The construction draws on the dual histories of the nearby 18th Century villas by Thomas Archer, William Chambers and James Wyatt and the 20th Century concrete slab blocks of the London City Council’s (LCC) Alton West Estate.
This construction encases conventional concrete structures inside loadbearing walls. Interiors are wrapped in heavy “ruins” that create space for balconies - that connect the student to the community - mediating between the common ground of the garden and the private realm of the individual’s room. The ruins play down the performative aspects of the enclosure and instead heighten the primitive and perceptual dimension of human experience. More than any other element, the window offers generosity and the means by which to see, hear and smell.
To this end, the wall becomes two walls, one technical (and conventional), the other perceptible. The former is encased by the latter - a freestanding loadbearing structure of masonry piers and precast concrete beams. The most frequent condition shapes a one-meter deep space between the brick piers. The face of the student’s room, and the liminal space created by building the wall, is an indication of their private domain. The space is occupiable and associates each with fellow students in the garden. The piers with their arrowhead plan form re-orientate the wall, so approaching a transverse condition; they are the antithesis of Buckminster Fuller’s lamina envelope. The construction realizes a third condition, between interior and garden - another building that frames another space. By contrast to congregation space and the collective experience that it affords, this construction offers those who dwell in these rooms common experience - an isolated experience but one that is repeated in the construction of the perimeter walls and spaces, that are common to all.
Our housing projects in London extend this idea. For example, Frampton Arms is planned as three villas, whereas Lyttelton forms a new urban block and a palazzo of sorts, but both distill a building to two types - cellular masonry-faced interiors and framed exteriors. Frames are precast concrete and free-standing, serving as the spatial counterpart to the largely prescribed cellular domestic interiors. The architecture is elaborated by gestures which help to weave the buildings into their context - loggias coupled to each of the masonry structures disguise the literal requirements of communal circulation and private outside space; bridges create a sense of drama and delight on the way to apartments; a balcony forms a canopy to an entrance. Loggias lend shape, form and scale to each brickwork structure. The nature of the façades is the generative element in the making of our architecture. It is their liminality that serves to negotiate between the publicness of the city and the privacy of a dwelling, and at the same time to express approximately but recognizably the role of the building and the façade to make shelter.
The architecture of Stephen Taylor’s Plashet Road housing exhibits similar properties. Designed for a site in East London, the scheme combines a community center, a children’s nursery and apartments, and the architect argued for “a sense of permanence” befitting the neighboring Victorian public buildings. Its outer perimeter - a series of crescent façades facing the street - trace the line of the tree roots beneath the ground. Out of this curious shape, a rectangular court is unexpectedly cut. This communal courtyard garden is surrounded on all sides by a colonnaded gallery. The architecture couples indoor rooms and outdoor rooms.
The design of these buildings offers a hypothesis for how the architect conceives differently of collective and common experience. Collective experience is programmed not functionally but anthropologically into the plan, in the composition of that plan, whereas here common experience is constructed in the fabric, and in the manner in which that plan is realized materially, and that is most evident in the perimeter walls of a building. Collective experience -
congregational spaces and associated plan types - structures both intentional and unintentional communities. Chadwick, Frampton Arms, Lyttelton and Plashet Road realize the other experience - common experience, a condition that might lead to empathy, and common understanding, and it is the way we build, the how, I would argue, that matters so much more to common experience. Lethaby spoke of “reasonable building” rather than architecture i.e. the idea that the architect builds well.
The nature of the liminal spaces in the margins of a building differ one from the next. A study of the threshold becomes therefore a study in type. In the case of the dwelling, the significance of the threshold lies in its capacity to associate the inhabitant with, and disassociate it from, the city; and the way in which it might establish common ground between neighbors, and within an urban quarter, all of which depend on the sensible qualities of these external environments. Something that is recognizably civilized, communal, perhaps egalitarian, at least associative, and yet its humanity dignifies the individual whom encounters this architecture. Of course, the “ideal” to which I refer is relative to the situation for and in response to which it has been conceived. Like the novelist, the architect uses narrative, events or elements, characters or spaces, to reveal truths, and universal ideas that are more widely applicable.
It is our capacity as architects to make sense of these questions -
at once mathematical, social, physical, spatial and poetic - that introduces the ethical dimension into what we do, and so to begin to reconcile the aesthetic and the ethical, to tame the unbridled pursuit of the aesthetic. Reason is brought to bear, not through the accommodation of the necessary - the apparent foe of pure beauty - but the tangible manner in which human relations lead you, the architect, to act in the moment of creativity, to establish possibilities, recognizable conditions and situations that might elicit a response and certain behaviors.
Location: Bergamo, Italy - Client: Immobiliare Parco Locatelli
Completion Date: 2015 - Gross Floor
Area: 19,800 m2 - Construction Project Manager, Quantity Surveyor:
COIMA - Architect and Art Director, Façade Design Project Manager:
Antonio Citterio Patricia Viel - Project Architect: Joseph Montaleone
Main Contractors: GDM Costruzioni,
Design Project Manager, Services Engineering, Cost Estimator: TEKNE
Structural, Urban Planning, Construction Project Manager, Fire System and Safety: Studio di Architettura Pietro Valicenti
Acoustics: Studio di Acustica Applicata
Landscape Design: AG&P Architettura dei Giardini e del Paessaggio - Director of Testing and Sign-off: Lorenzo Imperato
External Paving: Blustyle by Cotto d’Este
Raised flooring in the Norr porcelain stoneware collection: Mirage
OS275 and EBE85 painted galvanized steel frames: Secco Sistemi
Unless otherwise indicated, photography by Andrea Martiradonna, courtesy of
Antonio Citterio Patricia Viel