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Prologue

TABLE OF CONTENTS

This article was first published in the 1980 Harvard Architectural Review.  It was amplified and updated in 2018.

NEW 2018

SPACE AND ANTI-SPACE

PLAN OF THE  MILL OWNERS’ ASSOCIATION BUILDING

Le Corbusier, Ahmedabad, India, 1954

PLAN OF SAN CARLO ALLE QUATTRO FONTANE

Francesco Borromini, Rome, Italy, 1630

90’ - 0”

90’ - 0”

Borromini’s Church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane and Le Corbusier’s Mill Owners’ Association Building shown in the plans above are unrelated in any conventional sense. They are from different places, different times, with different clients and functions. San Carlo is a church for a charitable order of Catholic priests built in 1630’s Baroque Rome; the Mill Owners’ Building is a conference center for capitalist businessmen built in 1950’s modern Ahmedabad, India.

Yet, when the drawings are juxtaposed here at the same scale, it shows that these different buildings are surprisingly similar; they use the same pattern of order in an identical architectural arrangement; both are bisected squares with their main rooms filling the left half. The empty right sides are similar too, one a cloister the other an open loft. The two buildings are actually the same size, 90 feet across their front facades.

The main rooms dominate each arrangement and correspond in similar dynamic treatments; one curving up into an elliptical dome with cupola, the other one spiraling through the roof into a clearstory skylight. Each room is emphasized by detaching it from the building’s outer boundary through a separating layer; Borromini’s on the left side, by a sequence of mini spaces that lead to the corner stair tower, Le Corbusier’s on the left side, by an empty slot that runs between the continuous room partition and the outer wall. There are even corresponding small details; both have switch back stairs in the front right and curved spirals in the back.

It’s as if Le Corbusier used the entire concept of Borromini’s organization as a conscious antecedent for his own design, stripping away the Baroque while maintaining the same formal structure, translating it into a new, modern architectural language.

Whether or not Corbu did this, the juxtaposition of these similar plans serves to reveal an important, radical difference. They have very distinct, even opposite, conceptions of architectural space.

The interior of Borromini’s “San Carlino” is divided into many differentiated spaces, each a distinct hollow shape, each a discrete entity, linked together in a rich articulation of plastic, geometric volumes. The interior of Le Corbusier’s Mill Owners' Association is the opposite. It involves a group of discrete differentiated objects placed in an undivided, continuous, neutral and formless void that flows through and around the building.  It is designed in one, empty, invisible, formless space. But, San Carlo is designed of space itself, created full, visibly formed, defined, and enclosed.

The modern free plan in architecture rejected the construction of space in order to display the independence and complexity of the sculptural object. Purity of object rather than clarity of place would rule. No closed defined volumetric Space would be possible in this free-plan conception. No interruption of the a priori background void would be permitted. The universal continuum of neutral space was the essence of the new architectural paradigm. The Modern idea of space was deliberately inarticulate, conceived as ubiquitous and unrestricted, extending everywhere.  Le Corbusier had an ambiguous, but accurate term for it: “ineffable space”.

This article, Space and Anti-Space, was originally written to challenge the validity of this exclusionary idea of a universal background space in architecture and urbanism and to show the consequence; a rejection of all other forms of aesthetic Space. Thirty-seven years later, as this article is updated, the inarticulate void still dominates. Nothing has changed.

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Prologue

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  1. 1)Perspective: the perception of space as volume, integral with geometry and form.

  2. Abraham Bosse, Les Perspecteurs, 1648