Blur the Bifurcation

[Gottfried Semper, “Caribbean Hut”]

In studio, we continue to study Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian houses, the Herbert Jacobs House I (1936) in particular. Our analysis is moving away from an examination of the subtly-differentiated “event space” of the main living area and moving on to the building envelope, considered as a kind of woven fabric wrapping, or a folded surface. This was and is a bit confusing to me, and I don’t know exactly where our instructor is going with this line of thought (an attempted re-imagining of the Semperian “Primitive Hut” diagram, with respect to Usonian-era FLW?). So this is the project for Wednesday: to continue “unfolding” the house, and to try to detect patterns and seams in the resulting fabric.

While I’m not sure how our immediate assignment relates, I am beginning to get a sense of the overall arc of the project, which will eventually culminate in a re-imagining of the Usonian house, making use of contemporary methods and materials.

A reductive interpretation of Gottfried Semper’s “Caribbean Hut” could yield the following elements, an expression of the essential in architecture:
1) Earthworks, the foundation,
2) Shelter, the roof,
3) Structure, beams and columns,
4) The woven wall, a nonstructural enclosure,
5) The hearth, the heart of the house.

While this diagram is fairly easy to spot in, say, Wright’s prairie houses (and even easier in the Chicago steel-frame skyscraper), in Usonia the diagram begins to break down: the woven walls thicken and become structural, the column elements are less distributed, they coalesce in large masonry pylons, the roof cantilevers, supported by the masonry units (but also somewhat by the wooden walls), the foundation is thinned and merges with the ground. Perhaps most importantly, the bounds of enclosure are pulled within the building envelope, and the extent of the building begins to blur.

Semper’s hut can be reduced even further, to the following diagram:
The building has a relationship to both the earth and the sky, but is not seen as a part of either. Bifurcation: even the earth and sky are distinct and separate.

A more nuanced worldview may result in the following diagram:
The distinction between the earth and sky begins to blur. Of course, the earth and sky participate in the same physical processes, the same ecosystems, and to consider them as distinct entities is somewhat naive, physically speaking. To reflect this appreciation of the interconnectivity of natural systems, the enclosing walls can also begin to blur, and the building begins to participate actively in natural processes. For an architecture to be “organic” or “ecological” it must necessarily participate in natural processes, whether that means allowing sunlight and air through the envelope, or allowing the construction materials to decay naturally.
To logically conclude, the building enclosure would become so indistinct as to be invisible, interior and exterior would lose all meaning, yet the building would still function as a mediator of the environment: it would still be occupiable, even if the boundaries are indefinite.

I believe that the project is working up to this: If we consider the Usonian house the best approximation of an ethereal, atmospheric, organic architecture thus far conceived, and the development along that line was only restrained by the limitations of methods and materials (wood, brick, glass) then we can conceivably continue that line of inquiry, using our more advanced tools and materials.

Using our 3D modeling software coupled with engineering packages, it is possible to create a building envelope that “works” due to its form and orientation, but what I find most intriguing is the possibility to investigate new materials. How would a structural wall made entirely of super-insulating aerogel look? What about carbon nanotubes as microcolumns? How can advancements in material science aid in the dematerialization of the wall? What can we learn from advanced fabrics? What “sustainable” materials could be used? Is there necessarily a distinction between the organic and the high-tech?

More on this project as it continues…

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