Looking for the Axes of [(Non)-Centrality]
Among a few themes we’ve already mentioned that we are exploring here at the studio (adaptability, improvisation, kinetics) is the role of ‘centrality’ in the design of domestic space. What follows below is an email conversation between a few of us attempting to clarify the notion and consider ways centrality and non-centrality interrelate in the reconfiguring of the domestic, and potentially open up new and different experiences within. This is a new theme we’ll be considering application in future projects that also ties in with the others.
On May 18, 2014, at 2:30 PM, Bryan Finoki wrote:
Nick said: “I’m interested in talking about the moments in domestic space where the seams tend to tear a little…. where there are cracks, leftover spaces, evidence of a non-centrality at work. Yeats’ gyres, etc.”
So, in response to his curiosity, perhaps as good a place to start as any I suppose is to define ‘centrality’ in architecture. I can imagine various iterations of this, perhaps by thinking what is also the lack of centrality:
1 – Sub-centrality by morphosis: The entire architecture constitutes ‘centrality’ and over time, through new uses, through invariable decay, modification and morphological process, new spaces open up within it – these spaces would be said to perhaps counter the space’s centrality.
2 – Sub-centrality by design: An overarching sequence of spaces creates a totality of an architectural space (a house, f.e.), but there are other spaces that by design exist in parallel (an attic, or a sub-basement, different nooks/crannies, kinetic additions, modular partitions) that can create spaces outside the ‘centrality’ of the larger spatial diagram.
3 – Sub-centrality as everything that is not a singular sweet spot within the space that is more central than any other portion contained in the architecture: Just as Emily Dickinson’s bedroom window may have constituted a ‘panoptic center’ for observing everything outside of her house; and, just as I’ve described that spot within a house from where as a child I found and was always able to monitor every other aspect of the house simultaneously (as a sort of strategic vantage for seeing/listening), centrality is merely that specific zone, or hub within a space that seems to unite all other spaces harmoniously. Often times perhaps the kitchen, or the living room, etc.
So, first, give me a succinct definition for ‘centrality’ and perhaps contrast it with different configurations? Are there multiple concepts within architecture of the role of centrality?
Should it be designed for, or should design be balancing this with the natural breakdown that occurs where spaces invariably develop in the cracks?
Should those cracks be left to find spaces on their own, or should design help nurture them?
What does this mean about the hierarchical spatial DNA of a space?
Are we looking into flattening the spatial ordering of the domestic, de-designing the notion of a middle superseding space within the domestic household?
When I think of the Möbius House, for instance, I perceive centrality as those moments of shared space between the two that separate but ultimately remain inextricably linked. Centrality is folded in on itself in that case, extracted from itself long enough to create a kind of twin space (able to accommodate two peoples’ needs for separation from one another within a single space), but ultimately centrality becomes those shared spaces (a particular window, the transit corridors). It almost takes Nick’s concept of centrality and inverses it, making the leftover spaces, the clefts, the only semblance of centrality: a connection of crack spaces which together form a fragmented whole of centrality.
We could then even get into Weizman’s work on the military’s wormholing through Palestinian homes as a means of not just avoiding the central battlefield that is the streets, but creating new tracts within the core itself; spaces within spaces, new centrals forged in the peripheries. Etc.
I will start there.
On Mon, May 19, 2014 at 3:39 PM, Matthew Baran wrote:
On Mon, May 19, 2014 at 7:52 PM, Matthew Baran wrote:
Is a Yeats’ Gyre in residential architecture like that space at the kitchen cabinet toe kick in the corner where the broom can’t really reach and all the nasty little food crustules collect and grow black and viscous, like the portal to another dimension?
Sent from my iPhone
On Monday, May 19, 2014, Nick Sowers wrote:
You had me there until “portal to another dimension”. The food crustules are a dimension unto themselves, who needs another dimension? That’s like something Bill and Ted would say.
Bryan – I like this, especially the way you have organized the thinking between morphosis (or you could say entropy?), parallel dimensions, and some kind of multiverse. I do worry that we are too focused on the domestic. Yes, that is what almost all of the work is on, but the concept of centrality in architecture, and in sound, maybe would be best explored outside of the domestic? I think you have a great sense of it conceptually, so the challenge is now on Matt and I – can we co-develop a philosophy about making space?
On Mon, May 19, 2014 at 11:14 PM, Matthew Baran wrote:
Just to be clear, are we talking about dimensional / measurable space, or a space-time / event-space continuum?
On Tue, May 20, 2014 at 3:51 PM, Bryan Finoki wrote:
Ahh… the kitchen crumbscape. I actually find these sorts of informal pockets and architectural pocket holes quite fascinating. But, of course I would! They become a kind of repository for discarded stuff, lost belongings. Like the change that falls into the crevice of the couch cushions, or the sock that gets lost in the clothes dryer. These same kinds of mysterious traps on an architectural scale is an interesting prospect, if not phenomena in the sub-archival nature that exists within any space over time, no?
I remember my grandparents had this space underneath a stairwell that usually became a place for either storage or a place for me to build a child’s play fort. But there was this one portion right underneath the first step where things would fall, blow into, and the design was funky, it was not as accessible. Anyway, over time I was the only one who crawled back that deep as a kid and I found the craziest things: lost mail, money, a missing 10 of Diamonds playing card, dog hair, my grandmother’s ear ring. It became this odd collection spot for the afterlife of lost personal items.
To scale that over time, a house that is the burial site for entire generations of inhabitants’ lost possessions. Office buildings as the lost archives of the corporate unconscious. Aliens one day come to walk through the ruins of human civilization, vacant of everything except these hidden time capsules embedded into the architecture. And we’re always carving new secret niches into it. I recently stayed at an AirBNB cabin not long ago, and left a funky drawing I did of the space inside one of the low ceiling’s wood boards. I will check to see if it is still there next time I go.
We secretly crave spaces outside the gridded design of centrality. We look for places to hide some part of ourselves within; a private refuge within our own fortress — a space that we have fancied on our own that no one else knows about. It’s sort of like the personally self-encrypted space within the formal structure itself. A bunker within a bunker. An off-grid getaway within the very matrix of the grid itself.
And why wouldn’t we want to explore that as a design element? Spaces to withdraw within the space itself. Like a snail able to recede one degree deeper into its own shell. We need this kind of natural breathing space within any given dimension of habitat. To hide, to shed ourselves, to protect our secrets and revel in our own hyper-sensitivities. A place for the wounded and for personal pullback.
I am now thinking about the movie Being John Malkovich, and the infamous Floor 7 1/2 — what a fabulously absurd concept that was. Spatial compression, interstitial bureaucracy, the half-baked office space with the secret portal into projected narcissism and megastar psychic ego-hacking. Ha.
Anyway — what would a space completely devoid of centrality look like? Does this automatically get at the absence of a hierarchy? Are we moving towards a network of heterarchies now? A space that defies any ranked sequentiality of spaces? Is this a self-reassembling kinetic collection of spaces that don’t require one another but come together to form a more empowered whole? Are we thinking about the architecture of an insect colony? Could this then feed back into the conversation about Nomadics?
On Tue, May 20, 2014 at 3:59 PM, Bryan Finoki wrote:
David Gissen would probably have something to say about the ‘Architectural pocket holes’ and the ‘crumbscape’ — as perhaps part of an inevitable spatial fabric that over time only adds to the new naturing of architecture. Are the hidden nooks and crannies, and the overall schema of non-centrality inflated within the bowels of the formal blueprint an under-appreciated aspect of the space’s overall identity? He might laugh at this, as well. But I suspect as a historian he would marvel at this other side of centrality, and while not proposing anything for it he would cross-section it as a historic terrain through which to observe the evolution of our relationship to architectural logic over time. I would love to trace that relationship throughout architectural history, of centrality to non-centrality (particularly as a psychic response to habitat); is there a morphological spatial arc which has unfolded that also mirrors some cultural and/or political logic of the times?
On Wednesday, May 21, 2014, Nick Sowers wrote:
This is a really great provocation, Bryan. Lemme see if I can weigh in on some of this.
So-called open-plan kitchen-dining-living, originally made possible by the introduction of reinforced concrete and/or steel frames in the early Modern residential architecture of the 1910s and 1920s suggested a breaking away from the hierarchy of rooms, breaking away from circulation as movement from node to node (or from periphery to center). Modernism (at least the notion put forward by Corbu, Le Plan Libre) proposed a universal, non-hierarchical, free-flowing, smooth space.
The projects we design (one way to look at them at least) are stage sets for the prospective buyer, who walks here and there through a house, but convenes somewhere to ponder the big decision. Curiously, there appears to be a centrality within the open plan. If one were to trace these paths through a house, one might imagine a nexus where the fingers of movement converge. This moment could be a microcosm for the life of a house. That somewhere, it seems is often the kitchen, or the kitchen island. The island becomes a bastion from which to observe the domestic plain below.
We recognize in our current work that these big open plan rooms are what sells the house, yet the most interesting moments to me are the edge spaces, and left-over bits of hallways or fragments of stairs or other geometric conditions brought about as a response to site conditions. The pieces that are like glue between larger volumes. These moments destabilize the power and centrality of the big open plan.
The struggle we have here is to do something really interesting with these fragments, all the while facing the constraints of what must sell, what will maximize profit. For while the prospective buyer and the given psychology of the buyer is held up as the standard which to design to, the actual occupant will be left with many decisions to make about how to actually live in an open-plan environment. Are the spaces actually big enough to live in… when there aren’t enough nooks and crannies, interesting spots as you mention Bryan under the stairs, where do people really find themselves? Where to create the “bunker within a bunker”?
On Wed, May 21, 2014 at 11:29 PM, Matthew Baran wrote:
It is an interesting discussion. I have to admit that after some time, all of the open plan houses start to feel like so many widgets. The psychological space that exists here is something has been processed into a commodity with mass appeal. There is no real innovation, and is in fact maybe only slightly separated from the craftsman or Victorian ‘style’ home. Those get the open plan treatment as well it should be noted. Maybe I’m being a little harsh and I may be in need of an antidepressant, and further, this is all off topic, but it seems to me that the ‘central’ moment is something grafted onto the modern home buyer as the middle of the open plan, therefore we can logically conclude we should put the fucking kitchen island there. Then they can easily recognize that as the place to decide to buy the house.
I was pretty happy with the recent Helen plan, and your effort to convince me to stick with it. I wish we had more time to work on it. The current / beginning point feels that it gains some complexity and ‘decentralization’ in its spatial configuration. This may in fact be the edges destabilizing the ‘power’ of the open plan. I only wish we had more time to vary the section a little more in that same respect, possibly ‘decentralize’ or perhaps ‘de homogenize’ it. In any case, I would really like to find ways to incorporate this thinking into the larger designs, perhaps in addition to, or through, examining the crumbscape.
Well, that’s my pragmatism bringing it all back into some GD floor plan. Carry on…
On Thu, May 22, 2014 at 10:06 AM, Bryan Finoki wrote:
Both of you have made very interesting and revealing comments. Nick, I appreciated that brief history lesson on modern arch and the birth of the open floor plan as a philosophical challenge to the hierarchy of rooms, etc. And Matt, the notion that centrality is something grafted onto the buyer via the kitchen island — that centrality is a mere fabrication or illusion of a command space within the unmoored openness of the surrounding floor plan — it’s curious. To what extent centrality actually exists in physical volume and to what degree it is more of a psychological projection? One occupant’s sense of a home’s ‘centrality’ could simply be another occupant’s periphery, and vice versa.
Naturally, there is the more predictable and easily observable domain of centrality that recurs especially given the commodified widgetry that these domestic blueprints repeat over and over — Nick, that animation of the prospective home buyers wandering through the space and all fingers of movement connecting around the island sums it up perfectly (and incidentally, I think that would be a very good set of time lapse videos to produce, actually) — but, what if all that is only artifice of centrality? In reality, I think there are many ‘centralities” that we inhabit, and each of us finds these differently. The man who spends more time in the garage building, working out, tinkering, etc.; the kids who dominate the upper floor as extended playroom from their respective bedrooms; the work-from-home mom who may live inside a closet that she’s converted into a home office openly connected to the master bedroom. The automobile still might be for some long distance commuters the most central place of their entire existence. Airplanes for global consultants. And so forth.
Instead of a polarizing relationship between center/periphery, stable and de-stabilized, what if the new floor plan could be a balance of many customizable centers? Connective mini-centers? Kinetic micro-centrality? Could each closet always be designed for the possible build-out of a converted home office? Could the space under the stair well (as I found naturally as a chid) be designed as an extended play pen for the kiddy-poo’s? Could there be flows between these spaces so there isn’t a vying for supremacy so much as a new hybridity between centrality’s breakdown and it’s constituent revision through out the space?
I don’t know, I’m rambling, perhaps. But a parallel centrality seems interesting to me, not just an activated set of counter-centralizing spaces. I think the possibility for multiple centers in a single space is interesting.
In terms of the “bunker within the bunker”…I am almost inclined to say that the occupant has to discover and achieve this for his/herself. The idea of designing a “bunker within a bunker” almost defeats its own purpose, which is: for the occupant to somehow etch themselves into the space independently of any other person’s or even the space’s own knowledge of itself.
Certainly, on an institutional scale you could devise a colossal crumbscape for the entire company’s headquarters building, or a giant housing block, as an intra space of some sort — a building-wide crumbscape that acts as a different kind of recycling system, a self-composting landscape that unites the entire building somehow through epic porosity and flow. That would be activating the periphery, I guess. But, I also like to think about the inherent poetics that go into places, that defy design, and that just naturally form through use over time. And in some cases it’s the very fact that the side stairwell has no connection to the center, that the useless bit of closet is in fact totally useless that allows for these secret bunkers within bunkers to persist. So, flipping it: maybe it’s the very disjointed nature of the “extraneous glue volumes” that actually provide for insulated secrecy within a given space. Maybe we shouldn’t be un-designing those, or over-activating them, but making them even less connected in some regard. I know, that is just playing Devil’s advocate.
I still think the kinetic thing has a place in mediating ‘centrality’ with the other ‘satellite volumes’ of disconnect.
On May 22, 2014 10:21 AM, “Bryan Finoki” wrote:
The other quick thought I had: the open space floor plan has really fed into, and perhaps was born out of the fact that the modern household and even businesses have become a function of our evolutionary multi-tasking lifestyle. The family now can cook and eat and stuff their faces while simultaneously watching TV, helping kids with the homework and reading them a bed time story, while also doing some work from home on the laptop, or jogging on the treadmill. The lack of walls and transparency is just opening up to the hyper-space that matches the multiple overlays of activities we perform together given the compression of time and availability, and the extracted value of labor. We live as hyper-performers of multiple functionalities all happening at the same time and the kitchen Island is the architectural equivalent of the iPhone that way. The iKitchen…
Given the hyper-spatiality of the modern space and lifestyle (simultaneously collapsed and opened up by the fact that labor time is always on), perhaps its about operating in the folds of this transparency’s veils, and the opposite: operating and creating niche within the overlays: hyper-nooks and crannies. Spaces to simultaneously hide and take solace, to retreat to observe and participate. Cubicles for home life that interact with the entire surrounding while also extracting themselves into solely their own kind of space. But, maybe that’s what the modern home has already become? Perhaps it has to engage technology somehow differently. A new nook not just designed for iPhone withdraw, but meant to put you inside the iPhone – total datascaping architecture. I mean, where are we moving in the future. No center, no periphery — just the endless expanse of a shared consensual space that is itself one single infinitely unfolding datascape.
Look at Gizmodo’s Home of the Future. Will every home have its own 3D printer, CNC machine, matter compiler — completely run by A.I. via iPhone? Will food be printed organically one day? Will all architecture be 3D printed? Forget shopping, even gardening. We will live inside the bosom of new machines—the entire house an open architecture of networked machines, our own bodies included. The only thing center about it will be the Human form itself that travels within in it all, constantly migrating — a single fleshy globule of centrality always shifting about the small confines of the space, like a human marble, seeking and butting up against corners and angles looking for a view outwards. Centrality is wherever you will wander for a moment’s reverie in the house.