We float

by diego terna

text published on C3 Magazine, n.310

But now we float

Take life as it comes

PJ Harvey, We float, Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, 2000

In some moments in the history of architecture, architects have felt the need to relate buildings to more dynamic forms of construction, often producing utopian projects. Among such projects are the Walking City by Archigram, or trenchant texts such as this which discuss one of the famous machines à habiter:

Anonymous engineers, mechanicals working between the forge and the grease of the factory, have designed and built formidable things such as steamers. We terrestrials are not able to appreciate, and it would be nice, to teach us to admire the works of the “regeneration” that we were given the opportunity to walk the miles corresponding to the visit of a steamer.

Le Corbusier, Towards an architecture, 1923.

More than a century earlier than Le Corbusier, in 1804, the French architect Claude Nicolas Ledoux published Architecture considérée sous le rapport de l’art, de moeurs et de la législation. This text contains 125 tables of drawings, to which others would be added when Daniel Ramée compiled his two-volume work about Ledoux in 1847.

Some of these tables describe the famous projects of the Parisian propylaea and the visions of the city of Chaux. One of these drawings, lost in the  overwhelming flow of prospects, plans and sections, tells an amazing story, which, although not well known, would become the basis of some of the most visionary projects of the 1900s (from the steamers of Le Corbusier to the Teatro del Mondo by Aldo Rossi).

This is a fragment of Propylaia, placed on a boat and shipped to imaginary shores. A neoclassical architecture, severe, which compares with history, from the Greeks onwards, embarked on a small ship, complete with flag at the bow.  It is incredible to see the memory of a Greek temple with its colonnades and sharp shadows under the sloping roof, floating on the water.

A comparison of architecture with dynamicity.

The architecture is fixed, immutable, but as if by magic it moves and becomes animated. And, doing so, it assumes its most rigorous and historical forms. It is a kind of liberation that frees architecture from a place: it can come to life and follow the same paths taken by people.

The movement gives architecture a greater complexity, a sort of completeness, as if to accept the human need to move, to remain settled in one place but with a determination to escape quickly in another direction.

The steamers of Le Corbusier do nothing but capture this imaginary, a world in constant motion and thus constantly changing, as the century that is about to arrive, in the early 1920s, and which we are witnessing today.

Not always, though, it is possible that the architecture is in real movement: it can be a steamer, it may be the propylaea of Ledoux, but the architecture remains tied to the place where it is built. The steamers and the floating propylaea have, in effect, a common element: water, the embodiment of mutation and movement.

Architecture has always had a special relationship with water, irreplaceable source of livelihoods and a privileged means of transport. Yet, apart from these important purposes, water is a dynamic counterpart to the static architecture, also simply for the series of reflections that is produced by lighting conditions.

Being on or close to the water allows a building to construct a field of controlled change, to enjoy a kind of stability in motion, which gives richness to architecture and different points of view.

The two buildings presented below have forged an unbreakable bond with the liquid world, returning to a state of ambiguity regarding the static transience of the water. The crucial fact can be found in firmness and motion: the water is there, and yet it escapes and changes. The spaces of the two museums, therefore, do nothing but satisfy this characteristic, or better still, promote it. Both, in fact, define spatial devices that emphasize the passage of water: the project of MID Estudio consists of a series of volumes leading directly down from the skylight and following a thin layer of liquid that runs along a line in the interior of the museum.

Air and water seem to meet, with the light that falls copiously to the ground, emphasizing the encounter with the trickle: it thus forms a return to the original water, the canal that runs alongside the building; a communication mediated by the volume of the long skylight supported on the cover, which, in addition to light and air, seems to enter the memory of the long canal into the interior of the museum. This is a memory that, still mediated and channelled within accurate views, we can find in the bow-windows (inspired by those of Miralles), small meditative spaces, where it is possible to sit and gaze at the slow movement of water.

Juan Domingo Santos also created a place of meditation, a slender parallelepiped, which serves as a cover for the precious water. A volume of wood, with a simple construction system, which superimposes a series of wooden planks, so that there is a small distance between them. From these small openings the light enters plentifully, making the walls a sort of elongated chessboard of brightness and shadow. It is still the light that mediates the relationship between architecture and water, perhaps to emphasize the sense of movement with the light reflections that dash relentlessly along all sides of the big box.

Some points, then, reveal a touching levity: the large wood volume, for example, does not rest entirely on the ground, but rises in a small stretch to accommodate a slip of water. Drowned in this, a multitude of logs accompany the path of the water until the interior, where, again, we discover an exciting place: a small bridge, that allow one to enter the slip of water, and be, ideally, immersed in the swirl of water, air, and light, floating in a world of pleasant tranquillity.

The architecture, here, finds slight ripples, it resembles a small temple floating on an ironic boat and it discovers that water, flowing, gives it a characteristic that cannot have, but, paradoxically, has already acquired: movement.