“Every moment happens twice: inside and outside, and they are two different histories.” Zadie Smith
Two memories emerged with startling clarity recently. Prompted by a television program, and for reasons which I do not understand, I was at once transported to Louis Kahn’s Unitarian Church (1962), where an orchestra was performing on the screen and, curiously, to Bramante’s Tempietto (1502). Why my memory banks leaped from Rochester to Rome, and from Kahn to Bramante, is a mystery. But the 16th century portion of my suddenly vivid memory conjured up my first encounter with the Tempietto almost 50 years ago – one of the first times a building and a room brought tears to my eyes (though not the last),
Interior of the Tempietto – perfection
and then the second portion of memory and images, from some years later, appeared: my first few minutes sitting alone in the breathtaking sanctuary of the Unitarian Church.
Louis Kahn’s Unitarian Church
Louis Kahn’s Unitarian Church – interior
Thankful for this sudden mental treasure, I thought: I am going to make and share a list of the great architecture that I have found most moving, most compelling and most enduring in my memory.
I began taking notes: Kahn’s church, Bramante’s Tempietto, Wren’s St. Stephen Walbrook, Hawksmoor’s Christ Church Spitalfields, Soane’s house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, Tipu Sultan’s Summer Palace in Mysore, the Chapel at Versailles, Beijing’s Forbidden City, temples in Kyoto, Nizamuddin’s Dargah in Delhi, the original Supreme Court chamber in the U.S. Capitol, Woodland Cemetery, the Pantheon, Eastern Market in Washington, the Sistine Chapel, the Laurentian Library in Florence, Asplund’s Stockholm Library, the UVA Library, Monticello, a cell at Auschwitz, Wagner’s Vienna Post Office, the Shanghai Train Station, and on and on and on….
As I examined the mounting pile of paper scraps with building’s names scrawled on front and back, I noticed something interesting. The list was dividing itself into two categories. First was the architecture of the outside: buildings and exteriors.
John Soane’s house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields
And the second category was the architecture of the inside: rooms.
The Breakfast Room in John Soane’s House: a room inside a room
I liked many of the items on the building list, but those that summoned the most powerful memories, and the images that seemed most indispensable, were the rooms. Rooms that, even for a few moments, I have actually inhabited. Even in a short second, one can sense that the stage is set for some action, however mundane or fleeting, in the human theater.
I say this with a certain, and perhaps unusual, bias: I was trained in the theater as a much younger person, and my early design heroes were not Wright and Wren but scenic designers: Robert Edmond Jones, Edward Gordon Craig and Josef Svoboda (who was trained as an architect). They gave me potent images of places – kinds of rooms inside of the theater room – in which the drama could begin to unfold. Take a look at this setting for Tosca by Svoboda (1947). Even if you don’t know the story – or Puccini’s music – you can sense that this character in center stage is in the midst of a critical moment in his life: the room inclines to his moment of crisis.
And of course in art and paintings we are asked to visually enter and experience rooms as settings for astonishing events. Like this, in Giotto’s ‘Annunciation to St. Anne,’ where an angel of the Lord somehow passes through a window and into the sheltered Saint’s presence.
Or we can experience a more mundane but nonetheless striking – and sheltering – setting, as in this room, and painting, of 1828 by Emilius Baerentzen entitled ‘Family Circle.’
Imagine this room, the interior of Louis Sullivan’s National Farmers’ Bank (1908) as a rich and inspiring setting for the transactions of your financial life. Every room we enter as we go from place to place every day should be this notable, this stirring, this memorable. As Sullivan said, “A proper building grows naturally, logically, and poetically out of all its conditions.”
The point of this, I am concluding, is that architecture must begin with rooms – places where the human heart and mind can enact the drama – or comedy – of our lives. The rooms of our lives are each a kind of theater. It was Louis Kahn who said “The room is the beginning of architecture.” I think I might say more: architecture must give us rooms where our memories come to life, either because of stories of things that happened there – to us or in tales told to us – or because we can powerfully, even movingly imagine the drama and intense human experience evoked by these places. So, Mr. Kahn, we might say ‘The memorable and poignant stories of our lives that rooms succeed in staging and enabling, or dramatically suggesting, are the beginning of architecture.’
And I would add, as I have tried to show, the memories and poignancies borne in our rooms need not involve high drama, but may instead evoke or express our daily circumstances and emotions. These are rooms with shape, rooms that are defined and have walls, ceilings, floors. These are rooms that have detail and color, rooms that speak to and occupy our senses. Rooms of memory are not rooms whose (mostly modernist) makers have aimed to make increasingly transparent, to make dissolve, evaporate, disappear. No. We need rooms to contain us, to act as frames for our views of the day (or night), rooms where we can stage our lives and our memories.
In the end, once we have connected our rooms to memory and imagination, we can start making buildings which might actually become architecture (Mr. Kahn: “The plan is a society of rooms.”). Rooms can become buildings, buildings that must be useful in every way, durable and resilient, and of course, and ever important, beautiful. Like this: beautiful inside, and out – Gunnar Asplund’s Stockholm Library.
Having spent a fair amount of energy and time reflecting on rooms, and their role in defining and creating architecture, I have then begun to wonder about another scale of room: the urban rooms of squares and piazzas. Place des Voges, in Paris, created by Henry IV and dating from 1612, might be an example of an urban room.
These urban rooms, whether created by kings or commoners, are fundamental components of our urbanism. Almost without exception they include overt expressions, often in monuments, of the most memorable moments in our common life. We linger in these rooms, we celebrate, we protest, we meet in pairs or crowds. These rooms, too, are critical stages for the dramatic events of our urbanity.
This need to have stages for the theater of life in our cities is neither western, as in Place des Voges or perhaps Siena’s Piazza del Campo (with its famed Palio – a horse race in the square),
nor eastern, as in Tiananmen Square in Beijing,
or Market Square in Ahmedabad, India
We have traveled from a small and humble room for a family to great rooms in the life of cities. Each contains our memories. Each is a stage upon which great theater comes to life. Elie Wiesel tells us: “Without memory, there is no culture. Without memory, there would be no civilization, no society, no future.”
Or in other words that I esteem, I remember the Italian writer Italo Calvino: “The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls.”
2 thoughts on “Inside, Outside, Rooms, Memory.”
Howard, this is really wonderful. I’m struck by the overlap to something I published this week: https://www.planetizen.com/features/115260-expanded-approach-analysis-cities Maybe we’re on to something?
Thanks for taking a look. I am just starting into your essay. More soon.