The way we move through buildings has changed throughout history. In classical architecture, individuals would go through a sequence of spaces in which use and circulation tended to overlap. Rooms and chambers had different symbolic meanings in a hierarchical organization which reflected a stable, codified social life. A new paradigm emerged with modern bourgeois society: liberation from certain social constraint led to liberation from physical ones.
A new paradigm emerged: a rationalist, mechanistic architectural approach subordinated form to function and channelled movement through corridors, which became the main surface for movement, giving birth to a clear distinction between use spaces and circulatory spaces which allows both functions to happen efficiently and without conflict. Yet at the same time, modern architects like Le Corbusier developed strategies like the promenade architecturale to allow the user to experience a coherent, meaningful spatial and temporal narrative. But this desire for fluidity and efficiency in movement led, since the mid-20th century, to the emergence of a new circulatory strategy based on eliminating boundaries. Use spaces and circulatory spaces fuse once again in large unified surfaces which allow for a multiplicity of alternatives without significant restrictions to movement or visual perception. Contemporary architecture, therefore, develops an obsession with flows, fluids, rhizomes, folds, simultaneity, field conditions, flexibility and indeterminacy, both as means and ends, as formal devices and organizational strategies; just as “real” architectural space becomes subordinated to the virtual realm.
However, our new spatial environment leads to several problematic issues. As critic Javier Sáez pointed out, the individual, “liberated” from physical limits and constraints, ends up facing an uncertain, confusing and alienating visual landscape in which the apparent “freedoms” are illusory at best. Without any guiding criterion, one can become overloaded by the visual field and the infinite possible trajectories that can be chosen to reach any point. Instead of encouraging our freedom, it causes inertia. The architect, on the other hand, tends to produce overwhelmed and overflowed containers or surfaces which cannot materialize the same meaning and symbolism that architecture could represent in the past, and they cannot allow the user to experience a coherent narrative through a sequence of sensations. Sáez proposes a “blocked plan” as a strategy to renew our awareness of space and architecture, forcing the user to make meaningful choices. He cites Le Corbusier as an example of how modern architects can achieve this: in his “free plans”, pillars often become obstacles in the user’s movement. Many of his projects feature a main entrance or facade in which central columns or pivot doors block the access through a central axis, while at the same time revealing its geometrical role in the internal distribution.
In Le Corbusier’s Maison Cook, for instance, a central column violates the classical pattern of creating an odd quantity of bays in a facade to produce a central one which acts as the main entrance. Instead, the column produces doubt and uncertainty for the visitor, who has to discover where the actual entrance to the house is located. In this process, the visitor becomes aware and conscious of the act of entering a building. This could be considered a modern, secular reinvention of an ancient idea: central columns have occasionally appeared in architectural history at the entrance of temples and sanctuaries. They signalled a ritualistic act: by blocking the access to a sacred realm, visitors would gain awareness of the significance of this action. In Le Corbusier’s promenade architecturale, therefore, one can experience a modern take on the use of form and volume to create a certain symbolic reconstruction of the totality of the building, in which a certain narrative emerges in the movement and exploration through space and around matter (as Josep Quetglas explains when he analyses this project, Le Corbusier’s unique version of “symmetry” is related to an attempt to use circulation through the house to produce a coherent narrative about the unification of opposites). Obstructing an efficient, rational, functional movement becomes a strategy to reconcile modern, rational, Apollonian ideals which an emotional, Dyonisian impulse. This intentional rhetorical aspect is something which contemporary architecture struggles to produce, impoverishing our experience and understanding of our physical environment.
Ramiro P. A. Piana is an architect. He got his degree from the National University of Mar del Plata.