Jonas Salk along with architect Louis Khan set out to create a unique campus for scientific research with the Salk Institute. Not only did the project program suggest a new way of science disciplines to work together with adjacent labs and offices, but also with an aesthetic in Salk’s words, “ to create a facility worthy of a visit from Picasso.” Kahn, who was an artist before an architect, understood the goal, designed a building that met function and form goals, and on that has proven over fifty years now to resonate with a timeless beauty.
Timeless beauty makes a great space. So what does that mean? One given is the Institute sits on a pristine sea cliff. The simple plan takes full advantage of that. Yet, the plan goes one step further and creates a central plaza, an opening to the view for all participants. It becomes an open stage to inspire. In 2010 this was literally achieved with the Chihuly sculpture installed right on the plaza.
The two main buildings bracket the plaza. Down the center of the plaza is a thin water element defining that center and disappearing over a ledge at the horizon, a simple gesture to infinity. The building a representational sculpture is timelessness manifested.
The design incorporates very few materials – concrete and travertine – and very few colors. It stands strong as a piece, but also becomes a backdrop to sea and sky. It’s timeless in its restraint.
This is a great space because of its simplicity, restrained choice of materials, and flexible openness to function and site.
Perfection Does that make great space?
Many would agree that one of the most beautifully perfect spaces is the interior of the Pantheon. Set in the center of Rome, it began as a Roman temple to many gods. Later it became a church, which probably saved it from the papal pagan-purge of ancient Rome.
Its perfection lies in it structural geometry. It is a sphere set in a cube. Yes, this may make our rational minds feel comfortable with such symmetry and proportion, but what takes this space to a greater status is its magnificence. This is achieved through sheer size underlined by the fact that it was built with ancient means. It is the largest masonry dome in existence. The dome is 142 feet in diameter and weighs five thousand tons. However, the architect didn’t stop with size, he added design elements that enhance the space.
The architect emphasized the domed space with three simple design devices, which you can find in some of your favorite buildings. First, a hierarchy is provided with the ground level statue niches projecting out into the space, above them are receding blind windows, above those are indented coffers and above those the greatest void, an open oculus, or circular hole. Second, all these elements radiate up and decrease in size to emphasize height, acting as up pointing arrows. Third, as Eric Gibson in the Wall Street Journal (July, 21, 2012) said, “the oculus is many things. It is the Pantheon’s basic design module. It is an act of consummate architectural audacity. Most of all, however, it is a portal to the heavens.”
Great space isn’t made just with perfect proportion or super-size, but with added architectural design, which manipulates and transforms and yes, surprises.
Spanish architect, Rafael Moneo designed the Cathedral of Our Lady of Angels in Los Angeles about ten years ago. Time as shown that the cathedral and grounds serves its initial design criteria to inspire with light, welcome diverse users, and incorporate current technology as a celebration of its age.
So what does that mean to the common experience?
Start with the purpose of the building. It is a place of worship and inspiration to seek spirit, solace, and community. The sheer size of the place accommodates many (largest cathedral in North America), and the large entry plaza serves as a welcoming gate way. The walk from busy street to quieter garden with the masking sound of water to silent halls shows how the sequence of purposefully designed spaces directs the journey and mood. So whether one comes alone or for a community gathering, the flow of space directs the users to the purpose of the space.
The main sanctuary is a common church form of pews facing an altar, which provides a common reference for everyone. Yet the space is different from expected cathedral forms of a cross-shaped plan with rows of columns, and walls of stain glass windows. Inside the filter of light from places above and hidden add to the mystery of holy place. The light comes in like a stain glass window but it is filtered differently, creating shadows on the walls that change through the day. So instead of a stain glass picture telling the story, the light is like a brush in God’s hand, creating an ever-changing story. This makes the space more alive.
The architect also incorporated current technology from structurally large open spaces to internet connections and modern lighting. Like the old stone masons building higher and wider cathedrals with the structural innovation of flying buttresses, today’s architect relies on new materials and methods to create larger open interiors.
Great space, why? It is an example of familiar references to old forms, connecting with many people. It uses up to date technologies to give it a reference to today and a place in history. It fulfills and inspires its purpose.
photos by Dan White
Leon Battista Alberti, an architect artist of the 15th century wrote, “ Beauty is the adjustment of all parts proportionately so that one cannot add or subtract or change without impairing the harmony of the whole.”
When experiencing our built environment we see and feel the parts as well as the whole and when these things are in harmony we can be more attached, excited, and inspired by that environment. Take for example a space you are very familiar with, your own home or room. Look around, what makes it comfortable? You may think the right amount of light, sound control and temperature play a part, as well as views out windows, size and much more. But what makes it inspiring? Maybe nothing, it is ordinary in a cookie cutter sort of way. However, there could be a perfectly framed view a perfectly sized corner niche that encourages relaxed sitting and suddenly the parts add to the experience. The whole is in a style you enjoy, take pride in, and says “home” to you. Suddenly you understand why well-designed space can enhance your life.
This is what architects think about all the time. Why are spaces great? How can great spaces enhance the participant’s experience? I plan to take examples from the past and present, explain the whole and parts of these designed spaces, and discuss why designed spaces matter.