A few years ago, the Georges Pompidou Center in Paris invited a small group of architects to think about architecture show that would feature new media rather than traditional architectural objects such as models, plans, and photographs. Despite the subsequent cancellation of the show due to a lack of funding, we had already started developing a concept based on the idea of interviewing four people from different fields and different generations, and asking them the very basic question “What is architecture?” Among the different people, we wanted to ask a child, we wanted to ask an artist; and we also wanted to talk with a philosopher.
Our philosophical interview, which took place four years ago, was with the then 96-year-old Hans Georg Gadamer, who studied under Martin Heidegger and became one of the greatest figures in German philosophy in the twentieth century. The interview was especially interesting because Gadamer’s words sounded as if from another time and world, a period when architecture had a kind of unbroken quality about it and a now lost sense of the real. We asked Gadamer to describe what he saw architecture to be in the most general terms, and without reference to any specific architectural works. In his response he did not offer any theoretical explanations but instead told us a story from his childhood, growing up in the town of Breslau.
In the home of his parents, which was one of the Gründerzeit middle-class villas in the town, there was a wonderful parquet floor in the formal reception room, which the children (including the young Hans Georg) were not allowed to enter except on special occasions like Christmas. Describing the piano and billiard table that stood on this bare floor, Gadamer spoke of this surface as something magical – a wonderful wooden floor, immaculately well kept and polished so that it filled the space with the smell of wax. Every once in a while a friend of his father’s would come to visit, and because it was often raining in Breslau, he would enter carrying his dripping raincoat and umbrella. The man, like his father a professor at the university, always appeared to be immersed in his own thoughts and would, upon entering the forbidden room, always place his coat and soaking umbrella right down on the magical floor. As a child, Hans Georg would be horrified that a friend of his father’s would do such a thing. He still vividly remembers the image of the polished wooden floor decorated with water droplets from the sodden umbrella.
I often think of the Gadamer story because of its idea of the real. Gadamer’s floor describes a concept of reality that does not exist anymore – the artisanal and traditional background of the floor itself has been lost for quite some time – but what makes this surface so interesting is its architectural potential for today. In this sense, Gadamer’s floor can become an emblem for a very powerful design strategy in its emphasis on materiality, gravity and maintenance, and its focus on the floor as a floor.
One of the most important architectural elements that makes Tate Modern in London such a successful building with artists, curators, and the visiting public is the wooden floor that we introduced on almost all of its levels. Irregular and untreated, the oak floor planks are simply nailed down onto their joists – brutal and beautiful at the same time. It is both rough like a piece of industrial architecture and soft like fashion designer Vivian Westwood’s hyper-sophisticated fabrics. We wanted to introduce a specific floor surface so as to ground or root people within this huge building, to exaggerate the sense they have in standing up vertically in front of the works of art. So, unlike Gadamer’s parquet, the Tate Modern floor is an intellectual rather than an artisanal product. We were not interested in the nostalgia of revitalizing long-gone methods of traditional production, but we are interested in the physical result, in the physical reality of traditional architecture. To achieve this sense of the real, we developed and tested full-scale mock-ups of almost every major detail in the building as part of a process driven by thinking, discussing and trying, rather than rehearsing individually the necessary technical skills.
The Tate Modern floor, in this way, became a prototype for our conceptual and strategic approach to architecture, an approach that is often masked with the traditional costume of architectural elements we all seem to have some-how seen before – comfortable and familiar. This wooden surface is, of course, not a single and isolated piece in that new museum. It is bound to the overall concept of the whole building, based on what we like to call aikido strategies. This is a system through which we try to take the preexisting as a quality that we use for our own purposes, transforming it into our own energy, as in the martial art technique of aikido. So what once seemed to be alien, hostile, and insurmountable all of a sudden becomes a field where you can act and dictate the architectural and urbanistic scenarios.
The importance of these strategies became obvious to us when we were first faced with the huge brick mass of the existing Bankside power station. What could we possibly do? We could not propose tearing this huge brick mountain of a building down, or destroy any of its obvious architectural elements, such as the chimney (which initially we did not see as relevant to a museum of contemporary art). Another paradox of the existing structure was the obvious intention of its architect, Sir Giles Scott, to connect the building to the brick tower of the cupola of Saint Paul’s Cathedral immediately opposite on the other side of the Thames – a building that has a particularly strong urban and symbolic power, in contrast to Bankside, which becomes more secluded and unpublic the closer one comes to it. Scott’s design had been made to be prominent and concealed at the same time; people had to be kept away from it. This was something we had to change, and in a way reverse, without destroying and losing the powerful energy of the existing structure. So we decided to drastically cut away low-rise additions to the main body of the building that were literally masking the site. After these first operations we then added, piece by piece, elements such as the north entrance, the ramp and the light beam, in a kind of genetic surgery, whereby the new pieces would join an existing architectural family, speaking the same language, almost as if they had been there all along.
Inside the building we decided to remove all of the machinery of the former power station, so as to reveal the structure in its most naked state. We became aware that the building was nothing but a huge envelope for that machinery: there was not a single space designed to be different from another; everything was filled with steel structures, platforms, boilers, valves, turbines, engines of every kind. With all of its generators removed the turbine hall immediately struck us as a space of enormous potential, a volume that in an almost archaeological way could be dug out so as to become visible to approaching visitors. People, we felt, should be able to reach the lowest point on the museum site, where all the existing structures could perform internally even more powerfully than the way they reveal themselves externally. At the same time, we wanted to achieve a nonhierarchical layout of the different levels in the museum, avoiding basement and main levels, and to suggest a more democratic treatment of space for a building that looked to become one of the leading museums of the twenty-first century.
Once we dug out the turbine hall we found the resulting space to be incredible and overwhelming, but it was almost too big and too industrial to serve as a public entrance to the new museum. In particular, we hated the domination of the vertical steel structural columns, and felt that we had to find something that both enhanced the power and logic of the churchlike interior while diluting its monumental impact. We tried many things until we found the light boxes, which, like the large glass piece on top of the building, seem to float, to be unstable in some way, and to cut through the steel columns. The fact that they are mounted in front of the steel structure (and not behind or in between) makes the column appear less powerful than the light and glass. These light boxes have multiple functions, which are both dynamic and static: as quiet, more intimate spaces for visitors to rest; as windows that look both from the galleries into the turbine hall and from the hall into the galleries; as illuminating beacons for the main entrance; and, in a strange way, as almost cinematic monitors that project the movement of people.
In the gallery spaces we looked to continue to play with these various dichotomies, framed the whole time by the hard physicality of the wooden floor. Interestingly, a number of the artistic works that fill the completed galleries in the Tate Modern also allude to this overlapping of contradictory elements, notably Gary Hill’s video installation, Between Cinema and a Hard Place, from 1991. As described by Sophie Howarth in the Tate exhibition catalogue, Hill uses video images to explore the metaphors, rhythms, and intonations of language. In a darkened room twenty-three television monitors, both black and white and color, are stripped of their outer casing and arranged in lines like stones marking a boundary. Across the screens visual sequences unfold and fragment, moving from left to right. Initially it seems as if the images are triggered by a voice reading from “The Nature of Language”, an essay by Heidegger. However, as the work continues, the precise correlation between sound and image becomes increasingly unclear. Monitors switch on and off, images flicker and blur. Scenes are transferred from screen to screen or extend across multiple monitors. The images explore the relationship between domesticity and landscape, and reflect on concepts of emotional and geographical closeness, which are the heart of Heidegger’s text. Some were filmed from a moving car and include houses, windows, bridges, fences and signposts–the frontiers that define or delimit space. As its title suggests, the work also questions the relationship between cinematic and real space. The physical presence of the hardware contrasts with the immateriality of the video imagery, the immediate gallery environment with the televised landscape. The spaces between the monitors insistently fragment the flow of images, underscoring the sense of dislocation expressed in the text.
For us, the title and description of Hill’s installation reads like a formula for understanding the spatial concept for our Tate project as well as for the design of a number of other projects currently being developed by our office, notably the Kramlich Residence and Media Collection in Oakville in the Napa Valley, north of San Francisco. The Kramlich project is conceived as a superimposition of three types of spaces: an immaterial (cinematic) space below grade; a hybrid of material and immaterial space on the garden level; and a real and material space in the attic and along the roofscape. The first of these is a suite of dark rooms specifically designed to project and present media installations from the Kramlich Collection, for example, Hill’s Viewer or Bill Viola’s Greeting. A labyrinthine system of interstitial spaces connects the different dark rooms, creating a kind of soft and flowing corridor between the various artistic installations.
The whole below-grade area of the building is a kind of immaterial and shapeless architecture in which no architectural form or particular material should be visually active. The visitor is exposed to the radiating light of the artist’s work rather than to the material world of walls, ceilings and floors delimiting the galleries. In approaching the building, imagine yourself walking or driving through the lush vegetation of that Napa Valley, with the intense smell of trees and bushes and the glaring daylight. All of a sudden you find yourself in a totally artificial world below grade. Your perceptions of reality will then literally shift into something cinematic and almost immaterial.
On top of this hidden dark space sits a glass house entirely built of curved, intersecting glass walls. Living spaces, bathrooms, guest rooms, pool, master bedroom are all woven into each other like a labyrinth of flowing transparent spaces. Maintaining some sense of the cinematic, certain parts of the curved glass walls can be decorated with the projection of films, videos and other electronic media, which unlike paintings and sculptures can be switched on and off, alternating in the process between the material and immaterial. The transparency of the glass walls also provides spectacular views into the landscape and lush Kramlich garden. These views into nature enhance the physical aspect of the glass house, while the electronic images projected onto the glass walls seem to dematerialize the architectural space.
The roof is the third and most physical part of the Kramlich Residence. Structurally and architecturally it is totally different from the below-grade area and the glass installation, a seemingly expressive architectural style that derives from the wide spans and large canopies that we wanted to create. Exaggerating this sense of difference, the steel beams and girders are clad in a translucent Teflon membrane that can be lit at night, transforming the whole roofscape into a huge lantern. Within the roof structure we also left empty certain spaces between the large girders so that we could excavate and create intimate rooms, like the irregular shapes of a domestic attic. In this sense, these chambers are very traditional rooms and are decorated with wooden floors, wallpaper and conventional doorways opening out onto the roof terrace, heightening a feeling we wanted to create of the real.
In this way, the Kramlich Residence offers a variety of different spaces far beyond the traditional needs and program of a private residence. But the most interesting thing for us is not so much this variety but the shifting concept of reality inscribed in its sequence of rooms. These shifts are based both on our architectural strategies and on the almost subversive curatorial idea we developed of placing art objects everywhere, mixing functional everyday domestic devices with technically highly sophisticated art installations. In fact, the whole house is characteristic of our approach to architecture, inspired by a concept of evoking and merging issues of the natural and artificial, the material and immaterial, art and nonart, the public and the private.