Transparency III: towards materiality

This is my third article on transparency, this time I will propose qualities that reintroduce materiality and meaning.

The modernist appeal for transparent architecture is the direct result of the aesthetic ideal that there should be no distinction between form and content, between object and meaning. An architecture that should no longer express and symbolize, but function. This functionalism can be seen as an expression of the post-mediaeval world. In the epochs following mediaeval times man wishes to free himself from the totalitarian authority of the church and be able to explore reality unrestricted by dogmas and traditional ideas. This interest in utopian universal values has led to a tendency to free ourselves from structures and stable places, such as house, city and country in order to live a more mobile life.

But in the end this has lead to placelessness and the eradication of the experience of time. The past three decades show a new interest in the feeling of rootedness and the experience of belonging to a specific place and moment in time. In order to call himself human, man needs an environment that possesses an ‘imaginable structure’ offering rich possibilities of identification. The Norwegian architectural historian Christian Norberg-Schulz puts it this way: “only when man has taken possession of space, defining what is inside and what remains outside, we may say that he dwells… a man cannot feel at ‘home’ in a space without limits”.

This shift to more identifiable buildings requires architecture to present a recognizable density and materiality, an architecture which meets the desire to experience causality and sensual reality. The introduction of sensory pleasure and applications which presents a haptic and bodily invitation will satisfy the needs of our imagination, dreams and embodied reactions.

In my first article I already mentioned briefly the qualities that I believe can create more meaningful and spiritually invigorating buildings: imperfection, contradiction and ambivalence. In what follows I will explains these qualities a bit further in order to propose an architecture in which the properties of transparency and truth are combined with the properties of matter and myth in an attempt to heighten its experiential quality and its psychic impact.


Imperfection is in some sort essential to all that we know of life. It is the sign of life in a mortal body, that is to say, of a process and change. Nothing that lives is, or can be, rigidly perfect: part of it is decaying, part nascent…And in all things that live there are certain inequalities and deficiencies, which are not only signs of life but sources of beauty.” – John Ruskin

In the western world we have a great tendency to aspire, in a large way through technology, for perfection. But when perfection is achieved interaction has come to a hold. The natural life demands constant interaction, due to the inadequacies of its individual elements. In the representation of imperfection, there is a chance that human beings will participate in efforts to complete the inadequacies.

An architecture of opposites can make it clear that even individual phenomena, in their imperfection, can be enriched to a perfect whole. Through contradiction architecture can aim for more vitality as architect Robert Venturi aims for in his 1966 Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture: “I prefer ‘both-and’ to ‘either-or’, black and white, and sometimes grey, to black or white. A valid architecture evokes many levels of meaning and combinations of focus: its space and its elements become readable and workable in several ways at one”. Like Yin and Yang, the use of contrast results in more intensive effects. Precisely the supposed opposite creates attraction, interaction and connection, as well as producing a unity.

Ambivalence, or the uncertainty of ‘what is’ and ‘what it seems’ promotes richness of meaning over clarity of meaning and thus can create a more poetic architecture. These multiple lays of significance and imprecision of meaning revive our curiosity and make us look more closely. Our senses become more intensely aware. Ambivalence and contradiction in architecture give rise to more than simply spaces, they can make it possible for people to gain new experiences and perhaps even new insights by widening their spectrum of perception.

With the use of transparency and myth in the ways as described above, architecture will posses the presence and authority of real walls. Through this creation of ‘architectural poetry’ architecture appeals again to our desire for sensual reality.

Louis Vuitton Store, New York.  Architect: Jun Aoki. Photo: Andrew McRae, 2007

Louis Vuitton Store, New York.
Architect: Jun Aoki. Photo: Andrew McRae, 2007