1. Fluid Transparency
To stand before a giant fish tank at the aquarium is to experience the curious sensation of being two places at once. With only a clear wall in between, ‘here’ on this side one is on dry land surrounded by air, while ‘over there’ on the other opens an aquatic world. Not so long ago, aquarium tanks were relatively small affairs, peered at through window like openings in the wall. Today’s aquariums, however, have impossibly huge tanks where awesome volumes of water press at us with awesome force through layers of acrylic ten centimetres thick.
To see through walls like this represents a major paradigm shift, as different as architectural elevations and cross-sections. When looking through a window, the view beyond is inviolate, self-contained. Not so with a transparent wall: an environment that ought to permeate everywhere suddenly cuts off at an invisible boundary, leaving its sheared face fully exposed. A visit to the aquarium in days gone by was like going to the circus; now one is fully immersed in the experience.
Thanks to these aquariums, we now have a clearer image of aquatic life, how the underwater plants and animals move in ways unimaginable above ground. Particularly in deeper, previously inaccessible waters, where the increased water pressure makes the deep-sea swimmers lethargic, the swaying fronds heavy. Like the subdued dramatics of Noh theatre, all is continuous movement caught in a slow-motion time warp, each cell and body part suspended at half-speed. Moreover, the reduced transparency of water shows everything as if through a silk curtain. A gauzelike diffusion that sets the reality of things off at a fixed distance. One loses the vital physicality; we see glazed fruits floating in a gelatine universe.
In one project currently under construction, my initial image was of an aquatic scene. Sited in the very heart of the city, facing onto an avenue lined with large beautiful cedars, a transparent cubic volume rises seven storeys from a 50 metre by 50 metre square ground plan. Seven thin floor-layers are supported by thirteen tubelike structures, each irregular non-geometric tube resembling a tree root, thicker toward the top as it nears the soil surface, splaying slightly and bending slightly. These hollow tubes are sheathed in a basketry of plaited steel piping, mostly covered in frosted glass. The effect is that of hollow translucent candles.
In the margin beside my first sketches for these tubes I wrote: Columns like seaweed. I had imagined soft tubes slowly swaying underwater, hose-like volumes filled with fluid. Without resorting to the typical wall-without-windows – no glass façade dividing the building from the street, no clear acrylic plate out of a massive fish tank – I wanted to express the cut face to another world.
But why the aquatic image for a building on solid ground? For one thing, water is the primal shape-giver, the source to which all forms trace back. Trees, for example, as they branch out recursively from trunk to twig to leaf tip resemble nothing so much as rivers that gather tributary streams and empty into the sea. The thick opacity of the trunk dividing into ever-finer branches, gradually forming an intricate membrane, and finally attaining the near-transparency of the leaves – the very image of fluidity.
If this is true of a tree above ground, how much more fluid then those plants and animals that exist underwater? Their very forms embody such movement. As with fish fins, those parts that suggest movement grow more transparent further out toward the tips. Motion and form meet in fluidity, and fluidity is always translucent-to-transparent.
2. Erotic Transparency
Translucent objects always seem to be in transition from opaque to transparent. I am reminded of insect metamorphosis: the transparent larvae just out of their hard pupae are covered with a milky liquid; then in an instant, contact with the air turns them into adult insects with hard, clear wings. A half formed translucent gel state stirs transformative imaginings; the moment it turns transparent and solid and fixed, that ambiguous fascination is lost.
Certain architecture, such as the early works of Mies van der Rohe, almost attain such gelatinous, near-fluid translucency. Known as the creator of transparent glass-and-steel 20th century architecture, Mies at the beginning of his career built with opaque materials – brick and stone. Then suddenly in the 1920s, his architecture undergoes a metamorphosis. In sketches for ‘Glass Skyscrapers’ and his Barcelona Pavilion interior, fluid translucent spaces truly come to life.
The Barcelona Pavilion, the German pavilion at the 1921 Barcelona World’s Fair, was steel in structure, but it was stone and glass that gave it flamboyant dynamism. The stone mosaic covering the abstract planar formation of the walls describes a boldly fluid wave pattern. Poised between these stone-faced walls, greenish frosted glass screens give the impression of tanks filled with water. The various planes play across at right angles, but never actually intersect. Rather, they overlap with the shallow outdoor pool surfaces to create a fluid space: the very image of solid form slowly melting away to a liquid state. A most erotic space.
Similarly, the Japanese designer Shiro Kuramata was keenly attuned to such transparency in contemporary society, and actively pursued it in his creative work. Very intuitively, at times playing the ‘villain’ of bad taste. From the start of his career in the 1960s he frequently used clear acrylic in his furniture designs.
In one such acrylic chair, the furniture-object virtually disappears, leaving only the ‘primitive’ act of sitting. His clear wardrobes and bureau-dressers were even more powerful in this regard. The reason being that storage, the act of putting things away, is essentially one of hiding objects in opaque, unseen places. But here, far from hiding them, the clothes on hangers and folded garments are displayed floating in space. The material box-forms vanish and only the act of storage remains – in an erotically charged space, might we add. The effect of his transparent touch was not unlike trespassing in some forbidden room, catching a glimpse of what one is not supposed to see.
Three years before his death, one particular Kuramata design made direct gesture to the eroticism of the transparent. The clear acrylic chair ‘Miss Blanche’ (1988) achieved a heightened transparency by scattering artificial roses through its ‘empty’ interior. The red petals float this way and that as if drifting in a stream; floral patterns released from the heavy upholstery fabrics of old and turned into real flowers suspended in clear, liquid space.
Where making things transparent seemingly ought to have been the most abstract of acts, a divesting of form into pure space, suddenly there appears an all-too-real, even seductive presence. This polarity, these startling reversals, this real-unreal ambiguity are distinctly transparent tastes.
3. Opaque Transparency
Transparency, however, is not always so light and clear. We Japanese have willingly surrendered any opacity of self so as to blend into today’s society. We live see-through lives, undistinguished from anyone else in an extremely streamlined regulatory system. Urban Japan has become a convenience store peopled by instant snack foods wrapped in plastic and lined up on a shelf. We are mere signs, wholly transparent, devoid of any scale of value. What’s more, this mediocre transparent existence is entirely comfortable. And yet, as the individual in contemporary society turns ever more transparent, architecture and the city are becoming conversely more opaque.
One major characteristic of the contemporary city is that each space is utterly cut off from the next. Interiors portioned room from room, walls everywhere. Such perhaps is the destiny of social control: a vast homogenised cityscape is fragmented into places with almost no spatial interrelationships. This is especially true in commercial spaces, where divorcing the interior from the external environment facilitates dramatically ‘staging’ the premises. Spaces thick with shining product are clearly set up, when seen from a slight remove, on the basis of their uniformity and particularity; spaces seemingly so idiosyncratic are merely the accumulation of introspectively inflated fragments of homogeneity – this is today’s city.
Walking through Shinjuku or Shibuya Station, two of the most complex spatial configurations in central Tokyo, is a very strange experience. All the criss-crossed levels of communication, intersecting train and subway lines, the three-dimensional knots of interlinking pedestrian passageways between, commercial spaces surrounding and interpenetrating and surmounting this maze, everything is designed to make us lose our way inside a viewless world almost entirely cut off from the outside. All we have to go on are signs and verbalised cues. While we are in the midst of this complicated experience, it is all we can do to create a correspondingly abstract and semioticised mental space.
What is demanded of today’s architect is to discover ‘relationships’ between such hermetic, fragmented spaces; to seek opaque-yet-transparent connections between multi-layered spaces. In a project commissioned by one Japanese city, a Fire Department completed two years ago, I tried to realise an ‘opaque transparency’. Almost all functional aspects of the building were raised on rows of columns to the upper storey. This so-called ‘pilotis’ structure allowed the ground floor to maintain a continuity with the street in the form of a parklike space left open and accessible to all. The only provision is that a dozen or more fire trucks and ambulances and various pieces of training equipment be kept there as well. In the middle of a turfed area, two tower structures large and small are strung with climbing ropes and a long rope bridge between for the fire brigade’s daily exercises. There is also a drowning-rescue practice pool and a small gym. The townsfolk can drop by and watch the fire fighters go through their paces; meanwhile the corridors connecting the individual rooms on the upper storey look down onto whatever is going on below. There are even lightwells through the upper storey floor to allow communication between levels. All this is designed to give the fire brigade a ‘face’ in the daily life of the town, not just in the event of emergency.
The building is not by any means glassed-in or transparent. However, openings here and there in the floor make for a certain dynamic between levels above and below – what I call ‘opaque transparency’. Glass buildings aren’t the only way to achieve transparency; no, the task on hand today is how to forge relationships between otherwise walled-off spaces.
In The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa and Other Essays (Cambridge: MIT, 1976), Colin Rowe terms such relations ‘phenomenal transparency’ as opposed to ‘literal transparency’. In the title essay he cites by way of ‘phenomenal’ example the early works of Le Corbusier or the paintings of Ferdinand Leger; and ‘literal’, the Bauhaus architecture of Walter Gropius and the artworks of Lazlo Moholy-Nagy. In other words, while the latter is merely composed of transparent elements, the former layers non-transparent ‘blind’ elements so as to create transparent interrelationships. Take, for instance, Le Corbusier’s famous early work, the ‘Villa Stein’ at Garches (1927) and its abstract layering of overlapping vertical and horizontal planes. The effect is such that despite the actual volume of the physical building, the composition becomes a cubist painting with planes of no visual depth advancing and receding in a non-Euclidian space.
Now more than ever, architecture must deliver such spatial relationships. For despite our apparent transparency, like all-too-colourless products lined up in a convenience store, we continue to build ever more solid barriers between us. Not that we should return to the world-without-walls collective existence of times past – even if we could. The key lies in introducing new openings through the walls we have already built.
(trans. A. Birnbaum)
First published in Suké Suké by NUNO Corporation.
Image courtesy of NUNO Corporation.
Image courtesy of NUNO Corporation.