Spatial Structure

Spatial Structure

Reviews: Books

Mauricio Pezo and Sofia von Ellrichshausen :

Spatial Structure

By Ane Gonzalez Lara
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It seems to be clear to any architect or architecture student that enclosing space is one of the main tasks of architecture. Oddly, however, Maurizio Pezo and Sofia von Ellrichshausen argue that when architects, critics, or scholars describe an architectonic piece, they generally talk about the conditions of the project itself rather than about the generated space. Spatial Structure addresses this element head on, dealing with the concepts around space, its articulation and composition, and many other aspects of it through a series of essays and related drawings.
     The essays, written by Pezo and von Ellrichshausen, are a compendium of ideas that gravitate around thoughts and theories about spatial relationships that the architects have developed over a decade of practice. The authors are both architects and academics: Pezo and von Ellrichshausen have their own practice in Concepcion, Chile, and are also professors at the Universidad Catolica in Chile and the Illinois Institute of Technology in the United States. Thus, the essays here are the result of having tested their ideas about space and architecture not only theoretically, at the different schools where they have taught, but also professionally through their eponymous practice.
     As the authors write, their book is “a mode of resistance to many architectural production tendencies” (9). Pezo and von Ellrichshausen do not delve into sustainability, efficiency, economy, or urban planning, issues that motivate the work of many of their peers, but instead pursue the very original act of analyzing space with the assumption of “architecture as a form of knowledge” (6). The spatial form that the architects analyze and describe throughout the book “is a form without context and without style or indication of origin. It is the basic form of relation amongst spatial units” (139). With these premises in mind, Pezo and von Ellrichshausen develop different theories about this concept throughout the book.

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     Spatial Structure is divided into three different chapters or “moments of intensity” (8). In the first chapter, titled “Articulated Air,” Pezo and von Ellrichshausen trace an itinerary on a personal ideological field developing different ideas and theories about space. In this chapter, among other topics, the architects describe the spatial quality of architecture, how the context, program, and construction process shape architecture, and how they approach projects based on an intensive formal determination. “Conceptual Schemata” is the title of the second chapter, and it continues the theses of the first one but is more calmed than the previous and actually “tends to contradict the spontaneous and automatic intellectual construction” of the first chapter (124). This chapter deals with the speech of architecture, the schematic representation of space, Kant’s ideas about space, and their own observations around the spatial qualities of architecture. The book’s last chapter, “Architectonic Model,” brings a more theoretical and even more controversial analysis of the ideas around space. The argumentative process in this chapter is more direct, and the authors outline their opinion on the intention of architecture and the dogma of architecture.
     Interwoven throughout the written essay is a second mode of interpretation, a painted essay. These somewhat abstract, architectural images with thin and immaterial walls have their own pace and structure through the book, appearing every six pages. They share the same ideology, hand, and spirit of the text, but they are not meant to be simultaneous graphic representations of the ideas that the book exposes. At the same time—and not to distract anyone from reading the eloquently written essay—one can grasp the essence of the book by just going through the authors’ exquisite drawings. The reader can spend almost the same amount of time analyzing the images that he or she has spent reading the book. By looking at their beautiful composition and color palettes, the viewer then understands the additional essay that the set of images offers to readers. Pezo and von Ellrichshausen allow the paintings to impose their own pace on the written essay while connecting to it, maintaining the independence and authority of each.

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            One of the book’s most eye-opening conclusions, gleaned through the authors’ thorough and extensive research on the words that the most prestigious editorials used to describe architecture in the twentieth century, is that “all the architects of the last century … acknowledge the fundamental incidence of space in architecture but, almost as happens with superstitions, nobody speaks about it” (129). Additionally, after going through this tedious and almost obsessive research, they note that “all of which architects say about their works, with a few exceptions, does not address so much the spatial phenomenon but more of ‘the other things’ that give it a form, which are no more than the very conditions of the commission (the characteristics of the surroundings, the programmatic concerns, the material technicalities, etc.)” (129). In this regard, their description in the second chapter of Alvar Aalto’s Experimental House, Jorn Utzon’s Can Lis, Adalberto Libera’s Casa Malaparte, Charles Moore’s house in Orinda, Lina Bo Bardi’s Glass House, and Konstantin Melnikov’s House, only using spatial terms, becomes a great example of how the architects argue that buildings and spaces should be described. These buildings or “artifacts” are purposely introduced “without much context, program or construction,” only focusing on their units and their articulation (139). Pezo and von Ellrichshausen thus model an analytical discourse centered on space as a primary characteristic, demonstrating the value of “speak[ing] about it,” after all.

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     Even if the book is written from the aforementioned duality of the writers as both academics and architects, one side seems to be much more present than the other in this book. Spatial Structure clearly focuses more on the academic and theoretical side of the architects than on their side as practitioners, even to the point that their rich and extensive built work is hardly mentioned throughout the book. One could think that the reason for this absence is a lack of coherence between their two worlds, but it is just the opposite case. The built work of Pezo and von Ellrichshausen becomes even more meaningful and full of intention after reading this book and being able to put their two worlds together. After reading this book, one finds the same ambition to interpret and interrogate space in both their writing and buildings.
     Spatial Structure is a book full of convictions and ideas about space that addresses the importance that space has in any architectonic task. The book breathes new air to both the practice of architecture and its theoretical dimension by using an old and presumably well-known concept. By doing so, they create new knowledge around space, a ubiquitous and somewhat forgotten, though fundamental, architectural element. Or, as the architects write, with this book they keep on “turning raw material from raw material” (316).

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