Box 6: Palazzo Barberini - Negative Space

Page 25

Box 6: Palazzo Barberini - Negative Space

Page 26

The ground floor plan of the Palazzo Barberini is completely open to the exterior along a central organizing axis. It penetrates from the front court, through two loggias, into an oval stair hall behind a semicircular apse, then emerges into a grotto, and onto a ramp that flows up into the asymmetrically-arranged, rear parterre gardens, level with the piano nobile (B6-a,b,c). It is a dazzling linkage of positive spaces that funnel down, squeeze in, and squirt out in a dynamic cascade of Baroque sequential flow, the loggias even prefiguring the later modern piloti, that hold up buildings above.

Built into thick walls along this axis is an oval stair hall of positive space oriented laterally across the axis of the primary sequence causing a pause; its walls are intertwined with stairs and recesses contained within them as negative space providing an actual situation in which the condition of negative space can be experienced (B6-d,e). The service stairs, minor passages, and hidden chambers contained within the walls of both the stair hall below and oval room above it, operate as a second world of activity independent of the main sequences. These internal wall spaces and the main oval stairs themselves can be perceived as a parallel architectural experience that passes through the main spatial volumes of the building in unexpected and even contradictory ways.

From the oval stair hall one can choose to either continue along the main axis to the gardens via the ramp, or climb the stair (B6-f).

This is where the surprise of negative space occurs by actually moving through the walls and altering their sense of solidity. Expecting to land in a corresponding interior oval room above, the stairs instead thrust through the thick rear facade of the building to climb out under a window directly onto the upper terrace at the level of the piano nobile, top of the ramp, and parterres beyond (B6-g).

From this exterior arrival point, a central door in the facade finally connects back inside to the matching oval room on the piano nobile, over the stair hall where it all began (B6-h). Inside, there is no evidence of the necessary headroom for the stair below. It has apparently disappeared: two spaces, the curved stair hall and the oval room, are somehow impossibly made to co-exist at the same point in plan.

In fact, a condition of negative space has been produced which disguises the location of the stair space, absorbing it into the raised sill and recess of the monumental window and balcony accessed from the oval room (B6-i). This illusion of solid and the dimension of thickness is a condition of negative space which provides a simple resolution to a difficult circumstance of function and location. This is achieved through the thickness of walls and by a reversal of the understanding of solid and void along the sequence of movement.

Nolli map fragment, Palazzo Barberini, Rome, showing the external axis in the figure/ground.

Ground floor plan, Palazzo Barberini begun by Maderno, 1628, completed by Bernini and Borromini.

B6-d  Ground floor plan of the oval foyer.

View of axial sequence from the parterre garden, through the oval foyer into the entry court.

B6-e  Piano nobile plan with main oval room.

Sketch of rear window into the oval foyer at stair to below, shows the plunging negative space through the doorway.

Sketch of interior view of the same window over the stair to below, shows positive space within the room.

View of the oval stair hall on the ground floor. Ahead is the grotto and ramp to the gardens, the stairs lead directly to the upper garden terrace.

View of rear window, balconies, and stair to the oval foyer from the rear terrace.

View of rear garden wall of the oval space on the piano nobile. The stairs lead to the projecting balconies; the central door leads to the upper garden terrace.

Photo: Andrea Jemolo

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