Case Studies


Peter Blundell Jones—'Holy Vessel', in Architects' Journal, 1 July 1992, p.25.

Dreams in Light', in Architectural Review, April 1992, p.26.

Plan of main floor



The small chapel at Fitzwilliam College in Cambridge, UK, was designed by the British practice MacCormac Jamieson Prichard , and built in 1991. It is a clear and understandable building which illustrates a number of the themes discussed in this book.

Identification of place

The chapel has been attached to the end of a wing of the existing college accommodation (designed by Denys Lasdun in the 1960s). It faces a large tree (which was already there) almost in the centre of the rectangular college grounds. The circle which outlines the plan of the chapel identifies a place which enjoys a particular relationship with this tree.

The fundamental purpose of the building was to establish this place as a place of worship. It has done this 'first' by cupping the place between two brick walls curved around like protecting hands; these form a cylinder which contains the chapel.

Basic and combined elements

The principal architectural elements of the chapel are wall, platform, aedicule, focus, cell, column and glass wall.

The platform is the main floor of the chapel (see the Section, on the next page). Being raised it makes the chapel interior feel apart but, because of the glass wall that faces the tree, not separate from the land outside.

On this platform is the aedicule—apparently composed of four pairs of columns arranged at the corners of a square. The columns in each pair are structurally separate: the inner four columns support a central square flat roof; the outer four support a secondary pitched roof which spans between the outer walls and the roof of the aedicule.

The focus of the aedicule is the altar, a simple table covered with a red cloth.

Below the platform there is the cell—a crypt-like meeting room totally secluded from the outside world. Its floor level is slightly lower than that outside.

Site plan

Site plan

Within this meeting room, and enhancing its crypt-like quality, the structural supports of its ceiling, which align with the columns of the aedicule in the chapel above, appear as heavy masonry piers—battered as if to suggest they need to spread a heavy load—providing a strong and visible foundation.

The platform, the aedicule above with its altar, and the cell beneath, are all enclosed and protected by the two curved side walls, arcs of the circular plan. The open end, between these two walls, is the large clear glass wall through which the tree can be seen.

Though there are many subtleties, the building makes simple and direct use of these elements. Each seems to fulfil its timeless purpose: the walls enclose and protect; the platform raises a special place above ground level; the aedicule frames a specific place—that of the altar which is the focus and heart of the building; the cell separates a place from everywhere else; the columns act structurally bearing the loads of floor and roof, but also help to define space; and the glass wall allows in light and is certainly for looking through.

Modifying elements • light

In the morning sunlight streams into the chapel from the east through the branches of the tree and the large window.

In both the chapel and the 'crypt' there are narrow perimeter rooflights that allow light to wash down the walls: softly on overcast days, and with a pattern of sharp shadows when the sun shines. With the changing light and slowly moving sun patterns the interior is never quite the same twice. At night the lights inside turn the chapel into a lantern or lighthouse.

By contrast with the harsh purple brick on the outside, the inside colours are soft and warm. This image of a warm interior is further reinforced at night when the inside light and colour contrasts with the darkness. The altar cloth has the warmest colour.

Elements doing more than one thing

The platform is a floor and a roof; and the glass wall allows both a view out and makes a lantern at night.

The aedicule defines the main chapel space and the place of the altar, but it also helps to

This section is drawn facing the tree. You can see the platform (which has a curved under surface) supporting the aedicule in the chapel above, and supported by the piers in the meeting room below. The altar stands on the platform in front of the large east-facing glass wall. You can also see the gaps at the perimeter of the roof and around the edge of the platform floor, which allow light to wash down the walls of the chapel and the meeting room.

Plan at chapel level, showing the square aedicule and the four subsidiary spaces it helps to make: the place of the two stairs from the entrance; the place of the priest's stair rising under the glass wall from the meeting room beneath; and the place of the organ at the rear of the chapel.

Plan at 'crypt' level, showing the entrance, and the four piers which support the floor of the chapel.

create four subsidiary spaces: the place of the organ (at the rear of the chapel); the places of the two stairs which curve up from the entrance below; and the place of the priest's stair up from the 'crypt'.

The inner walls which are the boundaries of the crypt, and which define all three stairs, also form the bases of circumferential seating in the chapel.

As in any building there are many other things doing more

than one thing at once: the spaces between each pair of columns accommodate the vertical radiators; the organ is housed in a wall which also contributes to the enclosure of the chapel, and defines the place of another stair.

Using things that are there

The chapel uses the end of the existing wing as an anchor; it uses the tree as a companion. But it also uses, and exploits, the place between the two which previously lay dormant.

Primitive place types

The chapel identifies a place of an altar together with its associated place for worshippers. There are many precedents for such 'primitive' places being bounded by a circle or aedicule; here it is both.

Architecture as making frames

The chapel sits in the frame made by the other college buildings and their gardens. The circle of the building itself is a frame for worship. Within, the seating on the circumference is a frame within that frame; the aedicule is a frame within a frame within a frame; the altar is a frame within a frame within a frame within a 'Russian Dolls'.

The glass wall frames a particular view of the tree, as an abstract picture, but also making a link between the internal space and nature outside,

(rather like the Student Chapel at Otaniemi, where the cross is an external focus).

Temples and cottages

Architecturally as well as in purpose the chapel is a 'temple'. The aedicule stands on a platform above the natural ground level. The form of the chapel is geometrically disciplined; its materials are carefully finished. And although it is attached to an existing building and relates to the tree, it does not submit to either. The building's one submissive characteristic is perhaps its use of bricks which match those of the older building.

Circles of presence

The chapel creates its own circle of presence, which houses the altar with its circle of presence, and which responds to, and exists within, the circle of presence of the tree. Through these overlapping circles one may carry one's own.


Inside the chapel the six directions are defined by the six sides of the cubic geometry of the aedicule.

The lateral directions are blocked by the side walls. The direction to the rear loses itself in the area of the organ; the down direction is the floor and the 'crypt' beneath (see the Villa Rotonda by Palladio), the presence of which one is reminded of by the stair-wells.

The two directions which hold greatest importance in this chapel, as in most traditional religious buildings, are the up and the forward: the forward passes through the altar and the glass wall to the tree and the rising sun beyond; the vertical—the axis mundi—though not strongly emphasised by the architecture of the building (there is no spire, or vault, or cupola), is simply implied by the coincidental axes of the cylinder of the outer walls and the cube of the aedicule; this centre, together with the four horizontal directions, is recognised, but undem-onstratively indicated, by a faint cross of pairs of parallel lines inscribed across the ceiling of the aedicule.

Social geometry

Like the Woodland Chapel by Asplund in Stockholm (Case Study Five) the internal shapes of both the chapel and the meeting room recognise and establish the social circle.

Space and structure

The principle structural elements of the chapel—the frame of the aedicule and the flank

This is a simplified three-dimensional drawing of the chapel space; it does not show the staircases up from below. It does show the position of the aedicule between the two curved side walls, and the two main directions: the up and the forward.

The form of the chapel seems to hang on an armature of geometric shapes and volumes. In the plan you can see a pattern of squares and circles.

The geometric arrangement of the section is not so simple, but you can still extract lines which appear to regulate the shapes and positions of elements.

walls—are also the principle space defining elements.

In the 'crypt' the space is defined by the four structural piers. The space is also defined by the curved walls of the three sets of stairs, which are not roof supporting.

Ideal geometry

Although it is sometimes difficult to establish exactly which ideal geometric shapes and volumes an architect used in determining the form and disposition of a building, it is clear that the Fitzwilliam Chapel is organised on a conceptual armature of circles and squares, cylinders and cubes.

The aedicule is a central cube, which is extended by half a cube towards the tree, and a full cube to the rear, making the organ place. On plan, the central square of the aedicule (which laterally is measured to the centre-lines of the columns, and longitudinally to their outer faces) sits within another squar- e, one-third larger, which determines the radius of the curved walls; and a circle subscribed within it seems to determine the positions of the four outer columns of the aedicule and the radius of the circumferential seating and rail behind the altar.

(As in the Villa Rotonda), the geometry of the section is not as clear and simple as that of the plan. The central cube of the aedicule is there, but it is not a purely spatial cube—its height is measured from the platform floor to the top of the upstands around the flat roof.

The square of the aedicule in section is extended downwards as half a square to determine the height of the 'crypt', though again this includes the depth of its roof—the platform.

There appear to be some other alignments: the angles of the batters on the piers in the crypt seem to align with the tops of the outer columns in the chapel above; and the angle of the slope of the capstones on the side walls seems to derive from a long di-

agonal line through the section, from the notional bottom corner, through the base of the inner aedicule columns on one side, and through the top of the aedicule columns on the other.

Transition, hierarchy, heart

For such a small building the transition from outside to inside is elaborate. This accords with the idea that holy spaces should be reached through 'layers of access' (as suggested by Christopher Alexander in 'Pattern 66' of A Pattern Language).

The route follows an architectural promenade through a hierarchical arrangement of spaces, and culminates in the chapel itself, where there is a view of the outside from which one has come; (comparable with the 'window' on the upper roof terrace which is the terminus of the architectural promenade through the Villa Savoye).

To get into the chapel one first goes under the link between it and the existing wing of college accommodation. Thus the way in is provided with an integral protective 'porch'. (This was intended to have been part of a covered walkway, following the line of the innermost pathway on the site plan, creating an inner courtyard garden for the college. The walkway has not been built.) Through the entrance there is a vestibule with the door to the meeting room opposite. One rises into the chapel up either of the two stairways which run just inside the curved walls. In this way one emerges into the chapel, not on its main axis, but at either side.

Parallel walls

Notwithstanding the circular plan and the related arcs of the side walls, the chapel has some of the characteristics of the architecture of parallel walls.

A comparison has already been made with the Student Chapel by Siren and Siren at Otaniemi. In both it is the side walls that identify and protect the place of the chapel; in both, these act like blinkers blocking the lateral directions and framing a particular view; in both, one's passage through and into the chapel transforms one's view of the outside world. But whereas in the Otaniemi chapel (where the chapel is not lifted on a platform) the drift of movement runs longitudinally along one of the walls, here the dynamic is an upward spiral—or rather a pair of spirals runningin counter directions, up each of the staircases onto the raised platform.



Peter Blundell Jones—Hans Scharoun, 1995, pp.74-81.

Schminke House Elevations

The Schminke House was designed by Hans Scharoun, and built for the German industrialist Fritz Schminke in 1933. Schminke owned a noodle factory in Lobau, close to the border with Czechoslovakia. The house was built on land to the north of his factory.


The site available for the house was generous in size. The adjacent factory lay to the south, and the best views were to the north and northeast. (This of course set up a conflict between sun and views.) The land had a slope, though not a dramatic one, from the southwest down to the northeast.

Scharoun was designing at a time when the new architecture promoted by Le Corbu-sier and others in the aftermath of the First World War was an exciting prospect. In 1923 Le Corbusier had published Vers Une Architecture, in which he celebrated (amongst other things) the beauty and adventure associated with ocean-going liners.

Scharoun had been a contributor to the Weissenhof housing exhibition in Stuttgart in 1927, alongside Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, and others.

The use of large areas of glass and of steel as a structural material were well-established, and some architects—Le Corb-usier in particular—had been experimenting with the free-planning that framed structures made possible (for example in

the 'Dom-Ino' idea of 1914 and in the Villa Savoye of 1929), and the reduced division between inside and outside which large areas of glass allowed. The development of central heating had also made planning less centred on the hearth; and electric lighting had been available for some years.

Scharoun had an adventurous and wealthy client who seemingly wanted a house which manifested his forward-looking, 'modern' mentality. Mr Schminke would have had one or two resident servants.

Identification of place

Scharoun's task was to identify places for all the mixed activities of dwelling: eating, sleeping, sitting being sociable, bathing, cooking, playing, growing plants, and so on.

Basic elements

The basic elements which Scha-roun employed were, primarily: the platform, the roof, the wall, the glass wall, and the column. Most important of these are the two horizontal platforms and the roof, between which all the internal spaces of the house are contained, and which also form the terraces at the eastern end.

Other basic elements used include: the path, only clearly defined when in the form of staircases and in the landing on the upper floor; the pit, which identifies the area of the conservatory; and the canopy which identifies the place of the main entrance. There is a hearth which is a focus, though not a particularly imposing one, in the living area. Also, the chimney stack to the central heating boiler, at the western end of the house, acts as something of a marker, though possibly Scharoun wanted to play this vertical element down, against the prevailing horizontality of the platforms and roof.

Although these basic elements combine to form the house in its setting, Scharoun seems to have tried, for the most part, to avoid the traditional combined elements of enclosure and cell. These are found only where unavoidable: in the maid's bedroom, the sanitary provisions, and in the children's bedrooms. Elsewhere, in the main living spaces, and in the master bedroom at the eastern end of the house, the cell is not used; such enclosure being negated by the use of glass walls.

Modifying elements

The most important modifying element in the Schminke House is light. It has been carefully planned with sunlight and views uppermost in the mind of the designer. Also, the provision of electric light has been very carefully thought about, and used precisely to identify different places in the house.

Schminke House Living Room

The views and the sunlight exert opposing forces on the house. To the south of the site, in the direction from which the sun shines, is the less attractive prospect—the factory. The better views are to the north and northeast. Schar-oun tackled this dilemma by allowing the sun's light into the building through the south -facing walls, part of which is formed into a conservatory, but also orienting the living spaces towards the views, through glass walls on the northern face of the house. On both of the main living levels of the house he projected decks out to the north (the pointed deck on the upper level is particularly distinctive), seemingly designed to catch the summer evening sun from the west.

The lighting plan shows the care with which Scharoun used different kinds of electric light to help identify different places within the house. He de-

Schminke House South Elevation

signed light fittings especially to achieve a variety of effects; some of them he actually called Platzleuchte—place-lights. (Two photographs, reproduced in the book on Scharoun by Peter Blundell Jones, show the great difference in the character of the living spaces in sunlight and at night, and the dramatic effect of the different kinds of electric light used by Scharoun.)

Elements doing more than one thing

The house contains the living places, but it also acts to divide the site. Its angle creates an entrance area off the access road; and its mass separates the factory from the garden.

Inside, the main internal stair and the hearth in the living space are two distinctive examples of elements used by Scharoun to do more than one thing at once.

The stair between the entrance level and the upper level of the house is situated just op*

posite the main entrance. It has a slight change of direction, curving on the bottom three steps. The primary purpose of the stair is obviously to make a pathway, a link for moving between the two levels. It is also used as the main part of the physical separation between the service end of the house (1) and the living parts of the house (2). The stair also does a third, more subtle, thing: its precise position and its angle on plan work to 'nudge' people entering the house to the right— i.e. towards the living places.

The hearth in the living space performs its timeless purpose as a focus, but it also acts as a divider between the piano place (2) and the living area (1).

Using things that are there

Scharoun used the views to the north and northeast to help in the organisation of his plan. But probably the most effective thing he used that was already there was the slope of the land. The effect of this is most apparent at

the important east end, which accommodates the principal living spaces. The slope allowed entrance into the house not at the lowest level (the traditional ground floor), but at the intermediate level, rather like boarding a boat. It also meant that, although one enters at ground level, without rising up steps or a ramp one finds oneself, once one has reached the eastern end of the house, a storey above ground. This effect is further exaggerated on the upper level— on the 'prow' outside the master bedroom, where one may survey the rolling land from a commanding height. The most frequently encountered photographs of this house show it like a small modern pleasure boat at its moorings.

Primitive place types

The house contains, but does not seem to celebrate in traditional fashion, the usual primitive place types one finds in any dwelling.

There is a hearth in the living area (which plays the various roles mentioned above) but it does not seem to be the raison d'etre of the living spaces; there are other, more interesting architectural things going on.

Architecture as making frames

Like any house, the Schminke House frames the lives of its inhabitants. It does this in particular ways.

It emphasizes the horizon-tality of those lives, with its division into three pronounced horizontal levels which relate to the landscape around.

It doesn't enclose those lives in a protective carapace; its platforms and roof protect them from the sky, but the transparent sides make them open to the horizon.

And its allusion to ships and sailing seems to suggest that the house is a vessel rather than a cell; accommodating adventure and change through time and space, rather than security in enclosure and stasis.

Temples and cottages

Three particular characteristics of the Schminke House belong to the 'temple': its separation of the living spaces from the ground level at the eastern end of the house; its use of highly finished materials; and its apparent arrogance in the face of climatic forces (Scharoun was no doubt depending on the central heating to make up for the heat lost through the large areas of glass, and on modern materials to prevent the flat roof from leaking).

In the lower of these two drawings you can see (reading from left to right) the distorted circles of presence of the dining table, the hearth, the piano, and the table in the solarium. It also shows the lines of passage which thread between and through them. The upper drawing shows the principal lines of sight in the plan. Notice that they follow three principal directions: one set up by the main entrance; another by the living area; and a third, at an angle, by the main stair and the solarium.

Otherwise the house exhibits some 'cottage' characteristics: its responsiveness to site— sun and ground; and its thorough relation of planning to purposes.

Although in this house there is an underlying armature of orthogonal geometry (a 'temple' characteristic) it is Scharoun's responsive attitude—to sun, to site, to views, to function—that twists this geometry into an irregular plan form. Though this results in a sculpturally interesting form, particularly at the picturesque east end of the house, Scharoun was not motivated solely by a desire to make form or paint pictures with his architecture.

Thus Scharoun's plans exhibit subtle conflicts between different kinds of geometry.


First, there appear to be no instances where Scharoun has allowed the shapes of his spaces to be determined by ideal geometric figures, no circles, no squares, no rectangles with particular harmonic proportions.

Dismissing ideal geometry as a way of making decisions about the positions of things, his conflicts seem to have been between the geometries of being and of making. To these were added his perception that the site had within it two different grains.

One of the most obvious characteristics of the house is that it is not a simple, orthogonal form. The geometry of making is not given the highest priority, but is allowed to be distorted by other pressures.

These other pressures begin with the circles of presence, distorted as they are in most instances into rectangles of presence, and with the social geometries which constitute the various places in the house: the dining place, the place around the hearth, the place around the table in the solarium (at the extreme east end of the main living floor).

Next there are the lines of sight, within the building, and also from the inside to the outside. Scharoun seems to have seen the latter—the views—as

Casa Schminke

being at an angle to the lie of the land which set the datum for the general grain of the house.

This overlaying of the different geometries, with a refusal to submit to the geometry of making, produced a distinctive response to the six-directions-plus-centre. The plans of the house have two overlapping grains. The 'up' and the 'down' direction are, at most positions, contained by the horizontal platforms and the roof. But with the four horizontal directions, the situation is more complex.

Taking the entrance as the starting point one is aware of the 'forward' and of the 'rearward'; one is also, as one enters, very much aware of the 'right', but the 'left' is diminished, being replaced by the deflection of the stair, (in the way already mentioned,) to reinforce the 'right' direction.

At the other end of the house, at the solarium, something different happens with the four horizontal directions. Here it is the 'forward' (roughly to the north) which is deflected, to focus the space more on the better views.

The house has no one centre, but a number: the hearth, the dining table, the table in the solarium,.. It seems that for Scharoun the most important centre was the mobile person.

Space and structure

The structure of the house is a skeleton of steel frame. Its columns are not laid out on a regular grid, but respond to the complex attitude to the six-directions mentioned above.

Schminke House Plan

At the east end of the house the vertical structure—the columns—are reduced to a minimum to increase the openness of the spaces. Even so they still contribute to the identification of places.

There is a column in the solarium which seems to help to identify its extreme corner; there is another on the deck outside which supports the prow above, and which also makes a 'doorway' between the deck at the top of the steps down to the garden and the narrower deck outside the solarium; and there is a third column in the conservatory,

In this drawing you can see the complementary grains of the house. They distort the simple geometry of making to take account of the alternative grains suggested by the lie of the land, the views, and the direction of the sun.

about which Scharoun seems perhaps to have been less happy—it looks as if he tried to camouflage its structural identity by painting it with small squares of different colours, making it into an elemental sculpture (as distinct from a place identifier) amongst the cacti.

At the other end of the plan the spaces are more definitely enclosed by walls and windows. The boiler chimney stack, at the extreme west end of the house is built of brick— a weighty contrast to the apparent levitation of the decks at the other end of the house.

The static places in the plan tend to be at the extremities: the dining area; the solarium; the conservatory; the bedroom and the prow of the deck on the upper floor. The heart of the house

is probably the living area, with its static focus the hearth. In some circumstances however, this heart also works as a dynamic space, a route from the hallway, which is the datum place of the house, to the solarium. Other, clearer dynamic spaces are the stairs, the deck outside the piano place, and the corridor landing on the upper floor.

The canopy over the main entrance begins a process of transition from outside to inside the building. This process of fairly abrupt enclosure is reversed by the progressive openness of the rest of the house.

Scharoun was adept at making zones between the inside and outside. There are the various decks on both levels, which create an intermediate zone which is neither inside nor wholly outside. There is the conservatory too, an inside space which also, unlike the majority of spaces in the house, has contact with the sky. And there is the solarium itself, which is a space more open than the living room but less so than the decks—a zone between the two.

The dining area, not quite a zone between, is defined by the overhang of the landing above. It is at one end of what looks to be the remnants of a parallel wall space, which sets up an axis into the countryside through the broad window over the dining table.

On the upper floor the layout is more cellular, until one comes to the master bedroom which insinuates itself amongst a composition of planar walls, mostly arranged orthogonally,

Irn i-i i /f but with one wall slightly skewed to broaden the view to the northeast. This one piece of wall obeys neither of the two grains set up on the main living floor beneath; its 'freedom' is due to the independence of the two floors allowed by the 'Dom-Ino' idea.

The house is clearly stratified. There is an undercroft dedicated to the services of the house—the boiler room etc. The entrance floor, in the middle, is at one end a piano no-bile. The upper living floor, further from the ground, is the sleeping floor, its contact with the sky manifest in the deck prow outside the master bedroom which, in the summer, basks in evening sun.


The Schminke House was the last house that Scharoun designed before the Nazis in Germany imposed restrictions on the styles in which architects could work. Unlike some of his Modern contemporaries Scharoun chose not to leave Germany. He designed a number of houses during the Nazi years, each with the outward appearance of traditional cottages. Scharoun expressed his rebellion against Nazi constraints covertly, by continuing to explore the potential of the non-orthogonal organisation of space into places. These are the plans of his Baensch House, which dates from 1935, two years after the Schminke.

Peter Blundell Jones Hans Scharoun

Reference for the Baensch House:

Peter Blundell Jones—Hans Scharoun, 1995, p.13.

Reference for Merrist Wood:

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