The doubling of the sky

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Introduction

Sascha Roesler

Fig. 1: Flared-head columns in reinforced concrete (diameter varies with storey, or rather load)

Robert Maillart: grain warehouse, Altdorf (CH), 1912

Fig. 1: Flared-head columns in reinforced concrete (diameter varies with storey, or rather load)

Robert Maillart: grain warehouse, Altdorf (CH), 1912

Only when we stare at the ceiling at night do we really first appreciate it. The dream of the insomniac is that the ceiling above will finally disappear. A whole genre of 20th-century literature was dedicated to the ceiling being the counterweight to the ruminations, doubts, worries, and anticipations of the insomniac, and turned the ceiling into the canopy over the modern soul. "It is a special type of sleeplessness that produces the indictment of birth." (E.M. Cioran) The fact that in reality today we have to think in two dimensions, without structure, when considering the answer to this, is the outcome of a r ationalisation process that has given birth to the flat slab of reinforced concrete being the normal case. The primary job of a floor today is to carry loads over typical spans. For economic and not architectural reasons we therefore almost always resort to flat slabs. The majority of all building tasks, residential and office buildings, are characterised by their flat slabs. Prestressing techniques mark the culmination of a technological evolution during which thinking in terms of joists and beams shifted step by step towards thinking in terms of slabs and plates. Even downstand beams, the leftovers of the old timber joists, are regarded as a disruption in modern concrete construction, not only from the economic viewpoint, and are avoided wherever possible.

In the architectural sense the flat slab of the "Dom-ino" house type developed by Le Corbusier in 1914 was programmatic. Its combination of frame and flat slab suggested a hitherto unknown degree of freedom in the design of the plan layout. The plan libre propagated through this system was, however, still restricted to a certain extent because the floor slab used by Le Corbusier at that time was a Hourdis-type hollow clay block assembly and the staircase was still linked to the internal beam arrangement. Concentrating the design work on the plan layout, which was finally achieved with the arrival of the flat slab, favoured the progressive neutralisation of the modern floor slab and determined the wall as the space-defining component. The view of the soffit and the plan on the floor had become merely backdrops to the space structured by the walls. Homogeneity, flatness and an indifference to direction determine not only the architectural expression of the flat slab, but are today normally the abstract prerequisites for this in order to elicit the economic efficiency of the space. And of course the floor area is also the yardstick with which the economics of an architectural project is calculated.

Today, the question is how the diversity of possible fl oor forms can be reintroduced into everyday building tasks. The timber j oist floor, a popular method of support since ancient times - and up until the Second World War still the dominant method in the Western world -, was supplanted step by step by steel beams and reinforced concrete slabs. A quick review of the historical development prior to the flat slab shows the diversity of design inherent in this process of development. The works of Claude Turner in the USA and Robert Maillart in Switzerland provided sufficient momentum to propel design in the direction of the flat slab with its indifference towards direction. The difference between the traditional floor supported on beams or joists, as François Hennebique used for his concrete structures, and the flat slab with flared column heads is that the flow of forces into the columns can be recognised.

No less decisive was the change in society that accompanied these engineering developments. The upsurge of the services and consumer society plus housebuilding for the masses led to the development of new types of construction - office towers, shopping centres, high-rise apartment blocks - and to a hitherto inconceivable manipulation of the interior environment. Building services of all kinds - sanitary and electrical lines, ventilation, I ighting - are today, whether clad or left exposed, the matter-of-course elements of the modern fl oor. So the floor has turned into a complex "flooring system", the horizontal component upholding the interior environment. Polytechnical versatility - regardless of the material of the loadbearing structure - has now become the technological characteristic of the floor (and hence the ceiling). Layer upon layer, above and below, the structural floor designed to carry loads has been given new functions over the past 100 years in order to meet all the newly emerging social needs. To the layman the "ceiling" is the soffit of a horizontal layer of the building - the surface that spans over our heads. But considered as a complex, multi-layer component, the ceiling is also the underside of the floor to the next storey. Impact sound problems from above or a fire demonstrate not only the separating but also the bonding character of this component. Accordingly, we must distinguish between - and consider the mutual dependency of - the phenomenology of the soffit as a boundary and the technical treatment of the floor as a component that includes the floor construction of the storey above. This mutual dependency becomes especially clear in expansive interiors where the floors span considerable distances. The "underside" must be and is visible but direct access is not possible.The sheer expanse of the floor component calls for ingenious structural solutions. Starting from this double meaning - the floor as soffit and as component -, I shall discuss three conceptual approaches in the following, approaches that characterise the architectural handling of floors - and soffits - to this very day. Irrespective of the particular materials used, these approaches seem to me to show the correlation between the visibility and technicisation of the floor, an aspect that increased with Modernism.

Fig. 2: The roof as a "baldachin"

Frank Lloyd Wright: office building for Johnson Wax company, Racine (USA), 1940-5C

Fig. 2: The roof as a "baldachin"

Frank Lloyd Wright: office building for Johnson Wax company, Racine (USA), 1940-5C

Fig. 3: Structure of a steel cellular floor deck dating from the 1950s from bottom to top: fire-resistant suspended ceiling, cellular floor deck, transverse duct for services, floor covering

Fig. 3: Structure of a steel cellular floor deck dating from the 1950s from bottom to top: fire-resistant suspended ceiling, cellular floor deck, transverse duct for services, floor covering

- The soffit as a canopy: Now, as ever, the soffit exposes those assembled below, brings them together, highlights individuals, causes them to rely on themselves. The soffit as an artificial sky, the symbolic character once attributed to the soffit, is echoed sometimes more, sometimes less distinctly in modern soffit finishes.

- The stacking nature of the storeys: As the construction of high-rise structures started to evolve, the stacking of the storeys became not only a technical challenge to many advocates of Modernism but also a social Utopia. Architectural expression and social consciousness can be found in the repetition of the floors.

- The longing for a different spatial order: The opposite nature of walls and floors seems to be obvious in everyday building. But in fact since the dawn of Modernism we have seen, again and again, attempts to dissolve this oppositon, to create continuity between wall and floor, wall and soffit, above and below, inside and outside.

Baldachins

"Baldachin" is another word for canopy and is derived ultimately from Baldacco, an early Italian name for Baghdad. Originally, it was the name of a precious silk which was imported into Europe from Baghdad. Owing to the exclusivity of this silk material, it was used as an ostentatious textile ceiling over the heads of the powerful and important. The simple supporting framework, four poles were enough, reinforced the notion of a surface floating free in space. The baldachin made possible a wall-less space within a space, and it was precisely this that showed those underneath to be unapproachable. The idea of an individual sky for those persons who have to be protected, those whose outstanding individuality has to be emphasised, is unmistakable here. Portable versions of the baldachin (testers) are still used today in religious processions. What has remained, however, is not such temporary sky imitations but instead permanent, domelike canopies of timber or stone to cover the bodies of the living - the thrones of kings, the testers of bishops, the beds of princes - and the substitutes for the dead - statues on tombstones.

Looked at in this way, the baldachin is a reduced form of covering, a gesture of presentation and not a mere utility surface. This distinguishes the baldachin of the Middle Ages from our present perception of the soffit. The baldachin creates a symbolic space below itself, but not an accessible surface above. To access the "floor" above - to walk on it - would be regarded as a symbol of its profanity! To this day, the floor-soffit coalition still remains in this dilemma, trapped between symbolic meaning and profane use.

Cladding

The suspended ceilings used today in so many different building projects remind many of the baldachin, rendering visible a will to present the modern individual in his or her daily business and lend him or her comfort and

Fig. 5: Alvar Aalto: public library, Viipuri (RUS, formerly FIN), 1927-35

Fig. 6: The sections show the wave-like shape of the suspended ceiling. Acoustic considerations governed the shape of this wave.

Alvar Aalto: public library, Viipuri, (RUS, formerly FIN), 1927-35

Fig. 6: The sections show the wave-like shape of the suspended ceiling. Acoustic considerations governed the shape of this wave.

Alvar Aalto: public library, Viipuri, (RUS, formerly FIN), 1927-35

security. Even the simplest suspended ceilings in open-plan offices are evidence of the attempt to harmonise complex interior environment requirements with a certain degree of architectural representation. In many places it is the suspended ceiling and not the soffit of the loadbearing floor component that is seen internally. And this boundary layer meanwhile has to fulfil countless functions. As the spatial expression of technical necessities (Sire protection, sound i nsulation, l ighting units, loudspeakers, sprinkler systems, etc.), the finished ceiling in architectural terms is all too often merely a compromise. The double

Introduction

Fig. 7: Perspective view: all services are routed within the depth of the lattice floor construction.

Eero Saarinen & Associates: General Motors Corporation Research Centre, Warren, near Detroit Michigan (USA), 1951-57

Fig. 7: Perspective view: all services are routed within the depth of the lattice floor construction.

Eero Saarinen & Associates: General Motors Corporation Research Centre, Warren, near Detroit Michigan (USA), 1951-57

effect of a suspended ceiling - it is a form of cladding and at the same time creates an intermediate space - results in an architectural effect whether we like it or not.

The cladding character of this layer favours an inherent logic unconnected with the loadbearing structure, which was nevertheless attributed to it again and again in the history of building. Whether the textile-like timber soffits of Alvar Aalto or the pictures projected onto the ceilings of a hotel in Lucerne by Jean Nouvel, the soffit as architecture becomes an image, and the soffit cladding the leitmotif for the whole building.

The textured soffits like those devised and used by Robert Maillart, Pier Luigi Nervi, Frei Otto, Heinz Isler, or Santiago Calatrava also take on a similar, clad character. The difference between l oadbearing structure and cladding has become obsolete in the works of these engineers. Gottfried Semper was surely the first to press for such a view of architecture. He recognised the link between the German words decken (to cover), entdecken (to discover) and Decke (the German word for floor component and ceiling), which showed the gestural nature that had once accompanied the origin of these things and so

In buildings with extensive services the various media - electricity, heating, water, ventilation - require their own zone, which can occupy a considerable depth, in some cases even the full height of a storey. In the Salk Institute in La Jolla (Louis Kahn, 1965) the services zone became an accessible room in order to ensure simple maintenance and upgrading.

In an architectural sense the Centre Pompidou in Paris (Rogers and Piano, 1976) marks the culmination of the progressive technicisation of the building. This structure witnessed the first-ever application of the preliminary ideas of Archigram and others stretching back 15 years. The building services were no longer the shameful thing that must be hidden but instead had become the governing spatial principle of the building. Le Corbusier's vision of the modern building as a machine had been turned into a hands-on experience here by displaying the technical i nfrastructure - the building as a stage for the building services.

Fig. 10: Lattice beams at 13 m centres each span 48 m without any intermediate columns and therefore ensure maximum flexibility for the interior. The building houses a museum of modern art, a centre for industrial design and a public library.

Renzo Piano & Richard Rogers: Centre national d'art et de culture Georges Pompidou, Paris (F), 1976

Fig. 8: Detail of floor construction: V-shaped precast ferrocement elements; wall thickness: 3 cm; total depth of floor (incl. floor finish): 50 cm

Pier Luigi Nervi: Galbani office building, Milan (I) 1955/56

Fig. 9: Galbani office building Milan (I), 1955/56

Reinforced concrete floor by Pier Luigi Nervi Design: E. Soncini, A. Pestalozzo permeated architecture as well. The ceiling, a covering, enclosing, protecting structure, is simultaneously tangible and intangible. Its textile nature as given by the language undermines the image of a heavyweight floor structure above us. Semper shrinks the three-dimensional separating layer to an incorporeal surface - skin, textile, clothing, coating: "In all Germanic languages the word Wand [wall] (of the same origin and basic meaning as the term Gewand [garment/vestment]) refers directly to the ancient origin and epitome of a visible space termination. Likewise, cover, cladding, barrier, seam, and many other technical expressions are not symbols of language applied late to building, but rather certain indications of the textile origins of these components."

Fig. 10: Lattice beams at 13 m centres each span 48 m without any intermediate columns and therefore ensure maximum flexibility for the interior. The building houses a museum of modern art, a centre for industrial design and a public library.

Renzo Piano & Richard Rogers: Centre national d'art et de culture Georges Pompidou, Paris (F), 1976

Stacking

If the thread towards the profane means an advancing utilitarianistion - becoming secular, worldly - of things, then the modern floor-soffit conglomerate is the place where this process has become particularly effective. Defying all handed-down symbolism, it is the most profane of all building components. No other component has been transformed to such an extent in the course of the technical and functional developments of Modernism. The brief and the technologies have changed radically within a very short time and opened up new design opportunities for architects and engineers. It was also the arrival of the skyscraper at the start of the 20th century that characterised the structure and significance of the f loor and its soffit

Movable Louvers Facade Clap Component

Fig. 13: Rem Koolhaas: "The skyscraper as utopian device for the production of unlimited numbers of virgin sites on a single metropolitan location."

Reproduction of a caricature taken from Life Magazine, published in 1909

Fig. 13: Rem Koolhaas: "The skyscraper as utopian device for the production of unlimited numbers of virgin sites on a single metropolitan location."

Reproduction of a caricature taken from Life Magazine, published in 1909

decisively. They became a "separating layer" in a vertical stack and an "infrastructure zone" for horizontal services.

"Everything is devoid of gods" is how Cioran succinctly expressed the terminus of this increasing profanisation - and in doing so forgot that it is precisely this absence that prepares the ground for religious input. The glorifying of the profane, which had been elevated to a precept by the beginning of the 20th century, would have been inconceivable without the increasing technicisation of living conditions. Right from the start this glorification was charged with Messianic characteristics, the salvation of the individual. Within this, "feasibility thinking" tallied with the far more vague notion of "homelessness". Both were embodied symbolically in the new high-rise buildings. No other type of building inspired such flights of fancy as the skyscraper rising skywards. Like no other type of building before, the high-rise block embodied the realisable opportunities of a society fascinated and surprised by modernisation. In all this, the fl oor component has become the platform for these opportunities and the dominating structural element in the f acade. It was only the multiple stacking of the floors that had rendered both of these architectural phenomena visible. Peter Sloterdijk called the "serialism" of such stacking as the "transition between elementarism and social Utopianism". Stacking leads to both architectural and social added-value.

The f loor component becomes the structuring principle of the facade; the building rising vertically is given a horizontal component. The Marina City towers in Chicago designed by Bertrand Goldberg are excellent examples of this. Here, the cantilevering floor slabs reinforce the layering of the building. This pair of towers represents a rare example of high-rise architecture using balconies.

Multiple stacking establishes a direct relationship between the repetition of identical storeys and the appearance of the entire building. Rem Koolhaas devised a formula for this: the greater the number of storeys, the more lasting is the impression of the overall form. In his famous study of the skyscraper architecture of New York (Delirious New York) he includes a caricature of a skyscraper that appeared in Life Magazine in 1909. The building, drawn as an iron Srame, consists merely of a stack of country houses and their associated gardens. The underlying thought of a storey-by-storey stacking of different worlds turns architecture into the infrastructure for individual, storey-related fantasies. The building, generally conceived as a functional unit for a principal usage, dissolves into disparate storeys for this or that function. The floor becomes an artificially created, empty island that can be occupied and made habitable from time to time. The inheritance of this architectural development - the storey as an array of opportunities and a standardised element in a larger whole - has brought benefits for low-rise buildings, too. A faithful implementation of this concept could be seen at the World Exposition EXPO 2000 in Hannover in the form of the Netherlands pavilion designed by MVRDV. The floors in this pavilion functioned as platforms for man-made, independent landscapes visible to visitors even from afar.

Fig. 14: Stacked landscapes ("Isn't the Issue here new nature?")

MVRDV: Netherlands pavilion at the World Exposition EXPO 2000 In Hannover (D;

Fig. 14: Stacked landscapes ("Isn't the Issue here new nature?")

MVRDV: Netherlands pavilion at the World Exposition EXPO 2000 In Hannover (D;

Möbius strips

In 1865 the German astronomer August Ferdinand Möbius described an infinite, curved surface in three-dimensional space that has just one edge and hence no distinguishable top and bottom. If we run a finger along the Möbius strip, we reach the other side of our starting point. This is due to the twist in the surface within its development. Depending on the position on the surface, what was formerly inside is now outside, the outside turned to the inside. Orientation in a conventional sense is not possible with such a figure because every segment of the surface is given an opposite meaning during the development. Conventional terms for describing spaces, like above and below, left and right, front and back, do not apply.

Just how much architecture is duty-bound to observe such terms in its thinking is demonstrated in practice, where the basic building blocks are walls and floors. The Möbius strip is therefore an example of a three-dimensional anti-world whose description and realisation depends on discovering new terms. Levels and no longer storeys, inclines and no longer walls and floors, fluid transitions and no longer enclosed spaces will probably dominate this anti-world. Landscapes and urban lifestyles are the models for an architectural realisation. Attempts to render such different spaces conceivable have accompanied the modernisation of architecture from the very beginning. The dream of the levitating surfaces of Russian Constructivism was also the dream of a f loor that had discarded its supporting structure. Even the laws of gravity were relieved of their validity at this moment of social upheaval.

Diagonals

An awareness of vertically stacked interior spaces was Adolf Loos' starting point and goal, and he hoped that his breakthrough would come with the new frames of reinforced concrete. Loos developed his method of design, which was intended to overcome the traditional thinking in independent storeys and which only became known as the "spatial plan" later, in the 1920s, in the premises of Goldman & Salatsch in Vienna (1911). Levels made visible and storeys no longer separated from each other characterised this building. The floors became effective interior design elements, more space-generating than space-enclosing objects. The various functional zones were differentiated by way of distinct storey heights -2.07 m for the seamstresses seated at their machines, 3.00 m for the cutters standing at their tables, 5.22 m for the steam-filled pressing room - and this had to be compensated for constantly through mezzanine floors, galleries and landings, the edges of which were therefore exposed internally. This constant up and down gave the connecting stairs the character of a route, a path. The principle of stacking the storeys, so fundamental to modern architecture, had been conceived for the first time - alternatively - as an intertwining of vertically stacked levels.

Whereas Loos' floors were designed as platforms that lent his architecture its specific interior atmosphere, some 40 years later the French architect Claude Parent elevated the terrain to the space-forming fundamental principle.

Brutalist Logo

Fig. 15: Different levels made visible

Adolf Loos: Goldmann & Salatsch premises, Vienna (A), 1909-11

Fig. 15: Different levels made visible

Adolf Loos: Goldmann & Salatsch premises, Vienna (A), 1909-11

The ground, regardless of whether it was natural or man-made, established an abstract space continuum and contrasted a world of functional, separate spaces with another one involving fluid transitions and networking. Parent, like no other architect before him, placed the slope - the reflex to a terrain seen as sculpted - at the focus of his architectural creativity. He proposed the incline plane (fonction oblique) as a possibility for a different experience of space contrasting with the three-dimensional Cartesian system represented in architecture by walls and floors. Imbalance

Fig. 16: The first implementation of the fonction oblique: the nave is dominated by two sloping roof slabs.

Claude Parent & Paul Virilio: Saint-Bernadette du Banlay à Nevers (F), 1965

Claude Parent Slope

Fig. 17: "Life on the slippery slope!": Sketches for fonction oblique (structure of living area)

Claude Parent

Fig. 17: "Life on the slippery slope!": Sketches for fonction oblique (structure of living area)

Claude Parent

Fig. 16: The first implementation of the fonction oblique: the nave is dominated by two sloping roof slabs.

Claude Parent & Paul Virilio: Saint-Bernadette du Banlay à Nevers (F), 1965

Bernadette Banlay

Fig. 20: The Möbius strip as a code for hitherto unknown geometry

Foreign Office Architects: Virtual House, 1997

and destabilisation, the consequences of living on sloping planes, were Parent's guarantee for space perceived once again as authentic and corporeal. The architecture should thus contribute to testing a new, hitherto unknown experience of space.

It was only after the introduction of CAD for architects on a wide scale that the designs proposed decades before by Loos, Parent, and others began to find wider acceptance in everyday architectural practice. Furthermore, since the beginning of the 1990s we have seen the publication of architectural designs that elevate the landscape to a new model of urban architecture. Thinking in layers creates continuous surfaces extending beyond storeys and buildings, and in doing so distinctions such as floor and wall, inside and outside, lose their significance. It is no mere coincidence that architectural practices such as Unstudio and Foreign Office Architects are experimenting with the Möbius strip as a code for hitherto impossible geometry. Floors and walls are losing their horizontal and vertical definitions, are becoming curves, ramps, diagonals and folds, and since then persist in a zone of indistinguishability.

Fig. 20: The Möbius strip as a code for hitherto unknown geometry

Foreign Office Architects: Virtual House, 1997

Fig. 18: Plan of Möbius House

UN Studio/Ben van Berkel & Bos: Möbius House, Amsterdam (NL), 1993-98

Fig. 18: Plan of Möbius House

UN Studio/Ben van Berkel & Bos: Möbius House, Amsterdam (NL), 1993-98

Further reading

- E.M. Cioran: The Trouble With Being Born New York, 1976.

- G. Semper: Der Stil in den technischen und tektonischen Künsten, Erster Band, Frankfurt a.M., 1860. - English translation: G. Semper Style in the Technical and Tectonic Arts; or, Practical Aesthetics, vol. 1, Munich, 1860.

- P. Sloterdijk: Spheres Hi - Foams, Frankfurt a.M., 2004.

Fig. 19: Wall and floor, inside and outside lose their significance as distinguishing features.

UN Studio/Ben van Berkel & Bos: Möbius House, Amsterdam (NL), 1993-98

Fig. 19: Wall and floor, inside and outside lose their significance as distinguishing features.

UN Studio/Ben van Berkel & Bos: Möbius House, Amsterdam (NL), 1993-98

Introduction

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