menu

JTAIT

008_ FOOD

THE VERTICAL CUT: FORM AND SUBSTANCE

This then becomes the key point about the section, and more importantly of ‘designing in section’, how does the section reveal the true value and worth of the building?  When we take a vertical cut through our buildings what are they?  Honest yet predictable burgers, diamonds; or Scotch eggs and geodes of surprise and hidden value?

 

Form and Substance – The Burger and The Scotch Egg

I have been thinking about the section lately.  That vertical cut we take through our buildings to explain their scale, form, construction and probably most crucially – what is going on inside.  As usual, my mind drifts to food.  Following an (unusually?, typically?, who’s counting?) unhealthy weekend, it struck me that two humble foods – the burger and the Scotch egg could actually tell us a little bit about that most important of drawings – the section.

 

Burger – Whole
Burger – Section (The vertical cut reveals the same as the exterior view

 

Scotch egg – Section (the vertical cut reveals a surprise)
Scotch egg – Whole

 

 

Let’s start with the similarities.  Aside from worryingly high levels of saturated fat, both burger and Scotch egg are too big to eat in one mouthful, (or at least they should be if made right).  You invariably need a knife to perform a vertical cut, through each creation before eating.  This ‘section’ reveals the layers which contribute to the whole.

 

The section of the burger does not reveal anything of surprise.  The inside reflects the outside, form reflects substance.  The vertical cut describes the same as the external view.  Bun, beef (or otherwise) patty, lettuce, bun, patty, lettuce, bun.  The arrangement visible externally is faithfully created in the cut.  The ‘section’ of the burger then is the outside manifest as the inside, and vice versa.  An honest (if you don’t think about what’s in the ‘meat’) predictability.

 

The section of the Scotch egg however does reveal a surprise.  The inside does not reflect the outside, form does not reflect substance.  The vertical cut describes more than the external view.  The small globe of breadcrumbs becomes a thin veneer, a golden crust which yields to a thick layer of sausage meat wrapping a whole boiled egg.  The arrangement visible externally is unfaithful to that visible in the cut.  The ‘section’ of the Scotch egg then is the process of revealing the true nature of the object.

 

In both cases we see the duality of the concept of the ‘signifier and signified’.  The form and the substance of the burger correlate such that there is a direct relationship between how it appears externally, and how it is made.  While the external form of the Scotch egg blurs this relationship.  The shell acts almost as a ‘Trojan horse’ used as a tool to create surprise, if not deceit.

 

The Diamond and the Geode

Parallels can also be found in geology.  The burger becomes a diamond, the Scotch egg –  a geode.  The form of the diamond reflects its substance – clear, glittering externally and internally.  Its external form is continuous, solid, clear, indistinguishable from its interior which exhibits the same qualities.  The geode, however appears externally as simple, gnarled grey rock.  The cut however reveals a surprise.  The benign exterior yielding to a glittering, crystal interior.  The true value and worth of the ‘rock’ is revealed in section, in a vertical cut.

Diamond – the section reveals the same transparent substance as the interior
Geode – the section reveals the a glittering, precious substance in the interior

 

This then becomes the key point about the section, and more importantly of ‘designing in section’, how does the section reveal the true value and worth of the building?  When we take a vertical cut through our buildings what are they?  Honest yet predictable burgers, diamonds; or Scotch eggs and geodes of surprise and hidden value?

Friedrichstrasse Skyscraper Proposal (external view), Berlin, 1921, Mies Van der Rohe
Friedrichstrasse Skyscraper Proposal (plan view), Berlin, 1921, Mies Van der Rohe

 

Perhaps the purest example of a ‘diamond’ type building occurs at the emergence of Modernism, with Mies Van der Rohe’s Friedrichstrasse skyscraper competition entry of 1921. The proposal was a watershed moment in modern architecture, but also in the development and popularisation of the idea of a transparent ‘skin’, in this instance glass, of a building enclosure entirely separated from its structure.  As Korn has stated: …’There is evidence of a new structural concept where all load-bearing elements are kept within the core of the building, leaving the outside wall to be free to be nothing but a wrapping to enclose and allow light to penetrate’.  Van der Rohe was the first to imagine the skyscraper without a decorative or structural frame of masonry – taking the principals of honesty, transparency and light explored by Walter Gropius in his Fagus Factory design of 1911, amplifying and multiplying them tenfold.  A new architecture of ‘skin and bone’.  This conceptual project demonstrated the possibilities of a continuous, uninterrupted glass skin across multiple floors – a concept which became a defining feature of modern architecture from the 1920s onwards.  Most crucially the external form was a pure and direct manifestation of the interior.  The section reveals what is visible from the exterior view – tapered, stacked floor plates shrouded in a diaphanous exterior.  There is no duality between form and substance.  A diamond.

Bienecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, New Haven, 1963, Skidmore Ownings and Merrill
Section – Bienecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Protected glass book tower highlighted in yellow

 

In contrast, for the purest example of a geode type building it is hard to look past the Beinecke rare Book and Manuscript Library of Skidmore, Ownings and Merrill led by Gordon Bunshaft.  Completed in 1963 at the height of the ‘brutalist’ sub-style of Modernism, a tough gnarled exterior betrays a glowing treasure trove of an interior.  The seemingly hermetically solid, almost hostile exterior is in fact a ruse, a Trojan horse.  This effect is performed by two ingenious tricks.  Firstly, what appears as concrete panels externally are in fact 30mm thick pieces of transparent marble.  These seem grey and opaque from the outside but allow diffuse light to enter to the inside of the building.  This trick not only deals with the technical concerns of balancing the need for ambient working light and protecting the books from sunlight, but serves to warm and illuminate the interior through its cold, hard shell.  Secondly, Bunshaft further reinforces this idea of the outside as a protective shell with the inclusion of a six story glass tower of the true heart of the building lies at its core.  A precious egg, or crystal buffered by the reading and working spaces in turn wrapped in the protective marble shell.  The section reveals what is not visible from the exterior view – a warm, inviting interior enveloping a precious glass core. A duality exists between form and substance.  A geode.

Interior – Bienecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

 

Designing in Section

The section, the vertical cut, is not only the key drawing in explaining these two buildings, but it is clear that they have been designed in section.  At Friedrichstrasse, the section created the absolute clarity with which the ‘skin and bone’ concept of a continuous glass envelope, stacked floorplates and internal structure combined into a pure diamond-like form.  At the Bienecke library, the process of designing for the restrictions of the brief, regards protecting the inner core of the library from light, could only have been developed in section.  A precious core surrounded by layers of indirect and direct protection in the form of space then shell.

 

This approach, of designing in section, can either be used as a means to reinforce the honesty and clarity of an original concept and the relationship between its from and substance; or it can be used as means to create intrigue and unexpected delight from an unassuming exterior.  These two examples however are special and pure.  Absolute paradigms of type.

 

Often in the realities of large scale construction and/or capitalist production, the values embodied in these two buildings are manipulated for private gain.  Many buildings are stacked like burgers – floorplate upon doughy, meaty floor plate in an exercise of financial and spatial economy.  They may have been drawn in section at some point as a draughting exercise, but not as a design exercise.  The section of these buildings is explicative of the interior and explains stacked floor plates similar to van der Rohe at Friedrichstrasse.  However, crucially the section is stripped of any conceptual worth and replaced with a drive for economy and repetition.  The skin is often no longer continuous (an uneasy mix of spandrel panels and insulated infills) and the structure no longer internal allowing it to fuse externally, awkwardly with the transparent shroud.  Banal, confused exterior displays banal, confused interior.  These buildings are not diamonds, but exercises of economy and efficiency and this is clear in the section.  At the extreme of this spectrum we can see Mies van der Rohe’s own Seagram building, an exercise in repetition and predictability.  A development without the clarity of concept that the earlier Friedrichstrasse proposal strove for.  At the Seagram, infills, structure and glass combining in repetition rather than towards a unified whole – which has been badly replicated in every city centre, as well as peripheral housing estate since.

Seagram Building, New York, 1958, Mies van der Rohe
Elevation and Section (right), Seagram Building

 

 

 

Under Demolition – Cabrini Green Housing Project, Chicago, 1957 A. Epstein & Son

 

 

Similarly, often rather boring, bland buildings can be dressed up to be more interesting thanthey actually are.  The shell acts as an elaborate lie hiding a perfunctory, repetitive interior.  In a reversal of the Bienecke library, the surprise becomes spectacle and deceit.  Crucially this deceit is external.  The glittering crystals are placed on the outside, masking the grey gnarled interior.  The form is now glittering surprise, while the substance is dull and prosaic.  The section becomes an exercise in calculated deceit, designed from the outside to inside, form masking substance.  However, unlike the geode or the library, the sense of delight and anticipation is not revealed. On entering the building, delight turns to dissatisfaction, anticipation to boredom.  Glittering, diverting interior betrays dull, repetitive interior.  These buildings are reverse geodes, exercises in deceit to dazzle and obfuscate behind cheap profit driven economy, again an effect best described in section.  At the extreme end of this scale we can see this in Ribarts’ elephant a detailed fake ‘sculpture’ hiding a series of standard 19th century rooms and spaces.  This Louis Quinze trope emerging again in post-modernism – a prime example being Future Systems Bullring building, Birmingham where the bulbous metallic discs of the facade disguise a rather typical mall design in section.

 

 

 

Exterior – Elephant, 1748, Charles-Francois Ribart
Interior – Elephant, 1748, Charles-Francois Ribart

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Exterior – Bullring (Selfridges), Birmingham, 2003, Future Sys

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Section – Bullring (Selfridges), Birmingham, 2003, Future Systems

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The scale of incommensurability between inside and outside can be a tricky one for the architect to navigate.  Too little and the building can become sterile and predictable; too much and it can appear overtly showy and deceitful.  The real magic of designing in section happens in between these two extremes between predictability and fakery.  This is where the act of designing in section reveals the inherent tension between inside and outside, offering opportunities to reinforce or disrupt the organisation shown in plan or in the exterior form of a building.  Playing with the gap between the image of a building and its content – its form and substance.  Next time you design a building ask yourself is it a diamond or a geode?  Or if you must and you are hungry, a burger or a Scotch egg.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *