Visual interpretation of the negative space in the Herbert F. Johnson Museum.

Visual interpretation of the negative space in the Herbert F. Johnson Museum.

My dad once told me that there are two kinds of architects: the ones who can understand spatial transparency (the privileged) and those who cannot (the rest). Robert Slutzky and Colin Rowe develop in “Trasparency” and “Transparency 2” (from Architecture Culture: 1943-1968, by Joan Ockman) an understanding of how a building’s formal structure can demarcate spaces. They single out two types of transparencies: the literal and the phenomenal.  The first refers to how a material like glass, although physically “transparent,” is still tangibly present in the structure’s form. In contrast, phenomenal transparency allows for a simultaneous perception of different spatial locations within the same space. The idea is that, like in an optical illusion, forms are suggested –or implied, as Peter Eisenman would prefer to say– rather than depicted. In other words, it allows for spatial stratification within given limits. Phenomenal spaces are never different, but differentiated. Like in Cubist paintings, phenomenal forms are suggested, not stipulated. The viewer defines what he/she sees.

In ‘Transparency 2″, the authors try to explicate more concretely the idea behind literal and phenomenal transparency. Two examples stand out: the facades of Le Corbusier’s Algiers Skyscraper and Michelangelo’s  San Lorenzo. The facades have a basic, skeletal organization, yet a closer look reveals that “objects function as a series of relief layers for the further articulation of th[e] space” (Ockman, 218). That is, the arrangement of the formal elements can refer to multiple interacting planes at the same time. The shapes get “transfigured,” since they “change,” while still preserving their original form. Hence, different understandings get revealed through the interrelationships between figures within a composition. Like in a El Lissitzky painting, each figure, in relation to another, exists in a kind of floating tension that “forces” one’s eyes to focus on them in various ways. Possibilities are rather endless.

As a result, phenomenal transparency can efface the boundary between the figure and its ground – which alludes to the way we phenomenologically experience the world around us as a sum totality. This refers to Gestalt psychology and means that our sensory perception already processes the information it receives before transferring it to the mind. If, our senses are “intelligent” (Ockman, 224), then the possibility of apprehending new levels of information expands the potentialities of space.

This being said, “Transparency 2” lags behind its first part because it is limited to the discussion of phenomenal transparency in façades. “Transparency 1,” by focusing on how phenomenal transparency gets revealed through the interplay of architectural spaces, the authors could show how the built environment as a whole and not just figural elements on the façades can communicate powerful implied meanings. If the architect should be assigned a social role, then the interaction between spaces can be imbued with philosophical, social, and political messages through phenomenal transparency. For now, I will briefly focus on phenomenological implications.

While theorists, critics and the common person alike tend to argue in regards to design styles that the essence* of architecture lays somewhere within the topic of space. Although I consider that architecture cannot just be simplified into the issue of transparency – style, technique, representational medium, etc. are indeed important –, I agree that it founds the architecture discipline. While painting concerns itself with paint (and color), sculpture with an array of materials, and dance with movement, architecture irreducibly deals with space.By understanding the literal and the phenomenal we can analyze how space can affect a spectator (consciously and subconsciously –I even  wonder, sexually? –). As the authors note: transparency “is richly loaded with the possibilities of both meaning and misunderstanding” (Rowe and Slutzky, 22). If space can serve as a tool for human self-reflection, then through transparency, the architect can reveal different ways of what it means to be human: not only the beautiful, the pleasant, and the entertaining, but also the ugly, the offensive, and the uncanny. In depth interpretations of how literal and phenomenal transparencies affect spectators can transform the architectural practice into a way of being that interprets and renews human existence in the world more honestly.

On a final note, as the philosophical postmodern trend grew on me in the last years, I have constantly looked for definitions or interpretations of what would be the postmodern space. From the literature – primarily focused in Derrida with side readings of Eisenman, Venturi and Scott Brown –, I can say that po-mo spaces (try to) recognize the Other to reflect tensions and contradictions.  I now think that if we classify traditional space as literal and modern as phenomenal, only the latter – by opening up the possibility of multiple spatial readings that simultaneously include and exclude each other – can realize postmodern principles. But then, how can one differentiate between modern and postmodern built environments aside from preferences in style? Maybe the postmodern intelligently uses both transparencies at the same time. Nevertheless, no doubt many architects through history have playfully and successfully employed the use of transparencies – evidence that for now makes my answer seem sophomoric and baseless.

(Writing this I wonder: Could the construction of a text yield readings of phenomenal transparency?)

*I usually avoid using the word ”essence” because it implies a traditional philosophical notion of Truth and its understanding that can never be grasped. Even though I have decided to insert it in the text, I clarify that the essence is somewhere within the boundaries of the topic of space, which means that it can never be fully grasped.

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