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Architects mess with us, sometimes for the better. For instance, the concept of “compression and release” was designed by famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright. By building narrow hallways with extremely low ceilings that lead into large, main rooms, guests would experience restraint, then release. Does this release mean feeling more sociable? More inspired? I asked architectural historian and Princeton University professor, Beatriz Colomina, on the plays between anxiety, relief and awe in modern architecture.

Architect Frank Lloyd Wright loved to play with low ceilings and high ceilings. The lobby has a very low ceiling, contrasting with the living room’s ceiling, which is really high. The guests, when entering the lobby, feel compressed, claustrophobic and intimidated somehow. When stepping into the living room, they suddenly feel liberated and very social.

Fallingwater has that effect, hasn’t it? [Fallingwater is a house built over a waterfall in southwest Pennsylvania by Frank Lloyd Wright, Editor’s Note]. Fallingwater is so low. I was impressed by how low the ceilings were, so interesting. I think you are right, there is this effect of making you pass through a small space that compresses you. I’m not sure if it’s intimidating or intimate. Then it releases, almost like a birth—you come into this and poof you are open into this other space. Also—I suppose it’s a trick too—if you create a more compressed space, then the other space appears grander. The scale of it suddenly changes. I think architects play a lot with this because one mood is also affected by the previous space.

"The release, after a ceiling compression, makes you feel almost like a birth.”

What about stairs?

I was thinking about the stairs—but more in film than in architecture, like in Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” for example. Stairs, of course, are a big thing in films; they pick up on that element in architecture to dwell on these fears, whether it’s “Vertigo”—throwing you down the stairs, killing you. Niemeyer has this very beautiful spiral staircase. Stairs can also define the way you make an entrance, and that has been fully exploited in films. Le Corbusier tries to eliminate the staircase and make it more like a ramp. Sometimes you think modern architecture is a form of early accessible architecture—back to Villa Savoye: you go by car, you enter, you go up that ramp, you keep going up—and practically you can do the entire house without having to use any stairs.

I’m thinking of the Guggenheim. It makes me anxious.

It makes you anxious. You see, again it’s part of the same idea of this spiral continuous flow... Why does it make you anxious?

I don’t know—it’s infinite.

Yes, exactly—it’s the spiral. It’s the idea of the spiral... which is the idea of the infinite.

Also, there is no flat ground.

Yes, never.

Stairs are a succession of small flat surfaces…  Wandering inside the Guggenheim makes me more seasick than anxious actually.

Yes, it’s a little bit like that because you’re never on, as you said, horizontal ground. You’re always on a little slope, which makes your body adjust. This is exactly what also happens on a boat, you’re constantly doing this. This echoes the disorientation we talked about regarding Le Corbusier’s houses. Maybe it’s destabilizing. You don’t know where you are; there isn’t a front or a back. You don’t know which ground you are stepping on. Le Corbusier is capturing the spirit of our times in which everything is actually in movement. It’s a positive thing because he sees architecture as something that represents the society of his time, instead of stability that traditional architecture is supposed to reassure you are in a secure place in the world. Modern architecture doesn’t do that.

“Le Corbusier is capturing the spirit of our times in which everything is actually in movement.”

In terms of material, you were mentioning glass, but do you think concrete, for example, like Ricardo Bofill’s gigantic volumes of concrete, can give a lot of assurance and confidence somehow?

Architecture has always been thought in terms of these questions—of new materials that became valuable. Concrete was one of them. Perret was a great innovator on this. Le Corbusier was very interested in concrete, as well glass and of course steel. You have these three materials and a lot of histories of modern architecture are written from that point of view. Concrete allows a new form of structure, in which the wall itself doesn’t have to carry the weight anymore. It allows you to have bigger openings or even the whole glass. It’s the same with steel. The materials are working together to produce effects that were not possible with traditional machinery in which the weight of the house is carried in the walls, and therefore, you can only punch it in a limited way not to undermine the safety.