Payette’s Women in Design Group (WiD) organized a series of presentations to celebrate the work of women architects, focusing on the topic of Nature in Architecture. This topic can touch on a number of elements in building design – siting, views, materiality and weathering, among many others. I explored the connection between the inside and the outside via building “immateriality.” In this case, immateriality is not about dematerialization. It doesn’t necessarily mean stripping the building of its enclosure, or minimizing its material quality. It is rather about the creation of an ethereal structure that reinforces the connection to nature or its immediate surroundings. This connection could be done in a numerous ways – through transparency, reflection, screening and minimal structure, to name a few.
The Alyson Shotz Mirror Fence is enough to make one realize the strength of conceptual immateriality. It is a physical partition that separates side A from side B, however it is manifested in mirror coated aluminum that reflects the conditions adjacent to it. For example, whether it is spring or fall, the fence reflects the green grass or the colorful leaves to mimic the site and disappear from view.
On an architectural scale, thinking of a glazed house open to the surrounding landscape makes me wonder about the juxtaposition between the desire to connect with nature and yet the necessity to protect from the elements. No matter how open the building wants to be, it still needs a material suitable for climate control. Whether we choose to open the space to the outside, or to screen it, this choice to control the transparency is manifested in a material choice. I have explored ethereal structures of women architects to analyze material treatment in an effort to connect inside to outside, to screen the space or to express the building interior.
The work of Kazuyo Sejima has pushed the limits of minimal structure over the last few years, reinforcing elegant and clean joinery. Transparency, lightness and reflection are key in most of her work. The Serpentine Pavilion was designed as a building without any detail. The plywood and aluminum composite roof was to be supported by 155 stainless steel columns, 2.36” diameter thick (1). Although the building was intended to be open without any wall enclosure, the connection to the site is reinforced through the reflective underside of the roof.
The Toledo Museum of Art Glass Pavilion, on the other hand, reinforces the reflectivity on vertical surfaces, strengthening the connection to the surrounding landscape. It is cited as an object on an open plot of land, having an axial relationship to the main museum building across the street, yet maintaining a loose relationship with the landscape. The use of the highly reflective curved glass on the interior blurs the relationship between the outside, the inside and the in-between. It allows for a screening of solid forms that otherwise block the utmost transparency through the building. It is also interesting to note that the joint at the perimeter of the building articulates a clean and minimal seam between the building and the site, emphasizing the lightness of the building’s reinforced openness to the surrounding landscape.
Louvre Lens is a building that, like most SANAA work, maintains the clean and minimal articulation. However, what is fascinating is that a transparent or a translucent material is not necessary for the desire to blur the building with the surrounding context. The polished and anodized aluminum panels reflect the surroundings at various climactic conditions. The interior gallery spaces are also very ethereal, where the architecture becomes a neutral background for the art.
Some of the projects by Anne Lacaton of Lacaton Vassal and Regine Leibinger of Barlow Leibinger express immateriality in different ways. Anne Lacaton’s projects take on ethereal nature through the use of translucent screens. The project’s materiality typically comes out of the programmatic nature of the building. The Trumpf Gatehouse by Barkow Leibinger, on another hand, is an expression of how innovative technologies push material and structural capabilities to the limits. The laser cut and welded sheet metal allows the steel roof to cantilever 66 feet across the driveway.
In regards to the work of Elizabeth Diller, the following three projects highlight three different ways to connect people with nature through architecture. Architecture can reinforce the connection to the surrounding environment from the inside or from the outside of the building. Glass is the material we usually think of when we want to maximize transparency. Different types of glass and ways in which it is used could work to an architect’s advantage. The use of reflective glass in the Perry and Marty Granoff Center for the Creative Arts at Brown University reflects the surrounding context during different weather conditions. But at night, when the lights are on, the interior is expressed, emphasizing its own materiality and changing the appearance of the building.
At the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in Boston, Diller forces a visual connection to nature through a loss of the frame of reference. A framed view is a familiar architectural move, typically opening onto a spectacular landscape. But at the ICA, the framed view comes with a twist. When one enters the Mediatheque, they face a surreal encounter with the Boston Harbor, where only the slight motion of the waves can be perceived. The rest of the harbor comes into view only at the bottom of the steps.
The Blur Pavilion is the ultimate architectural dematerialization through a literal connection with nature. Here instead of protecting the visitors from the elements, it exposes them to the mist generated by the structure itself. Being a thin tensegrity structure with nozzles spritzing water to create an apparent cloud, it is a structure that is literally made up of nature. With this project Diller Scofidio Renfro want to emphasize that architecture can be found anywhere.
Gregory, Rob. ‘Serpentine Pavilion by SANAA, Serpentine Gallery, Hyde Park, London, UK.” The Architectural Review August 1, 2009.
Hurley, Amanda Kolson. “Trumpf Campus Gatehouse.” Architect Magazine August 10, 2009.