Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Daylight and Meaning in the Architecture of Gunnar Birkerts

You can read the text of my article on Gunnar Birkerts (and earn AIA continuing education credit) at this address: http://www.louispoulsen.com/en-us/Downloads/Literature/AIA_CES%20Credit.aspx

L’Institut du Monde Arabe

[Mechanical devices]

For L’Institut du Monde Arabe (The Arab World Institute, 1981-1987) in Paris, Jean Nouvel devised a system of mechanical diaphragms that open and close in response to daylight. The installation is formidable and sleek, with the diaphragms, which vary in size and configuration, located within the void of a double glazed assembly. Each such module, with its array of 121 operable diaphragms, is approximately 9’ – 6” (290 cm) square.1 The modules take up all but the ground floor level of the eleven-story structure at the south elevation, so that the daylight-receiving façade, in effect an automated shutter system, is ten modules high by twenty-four modules long. It’s big.

The individual diaphragms are much like those found in a traditional camera. The aperture size changes by means of a ring by overlapping stainless steel elements that open or close to permit more or less light to pass through. Computerized light sensors signal a system that activates these shutters. Changing south light is signaled by rapid clicking sounds, the movement of the diaphragm blades, galloping across the façade. The sight and sound of the adjusting diaphragms is reminiscent of the information updates on an old train station itinerary display.

Each intricate diaphragm is composed of reiterative geometric shapes. This design motif is familiar to us from the world of photography but also reminiscent of traditional Islamic geometric artworks. It precedents can be found in graphic designs such as garden plans,2 rugs, tiles, and traditional light-filtering screen work and plaster relief in Islamic Spain where they filtered sun and developed shadow. The geometries were always employed to delight the eye, organize surfaces, and regulate light. In a departure from traditional Islamic installations, at the Institute, control devices, switches, tubes and signals, are fully exposed as well. The geometries tie the program of the building to its cultural roots, founded in a part of the world characterized by intense sun and heat.

The smooth packaging of the devices behind tinted glass means that the they are not available to catch sunlight and make patterns of shade and shadow as they would, say, at the Alhambra. In Granada, the sun is higher in the sky and it grazes the plaster reliefs to create shadows. In Paris, where the sun is lower and the sky more frequently overcast, the diaphragms regulate sunshine and diffused skylight that is more perpendicular to the façade.

One would like to say that Nouvel’s installation is innovative in the sense that it suggests a method of regulating daylight that others might employ, but this is not entirely so. The dependence on so many moving parts--a mechanical system--is as close to the thinking of our time as it is to the time of the Eiffel Tower (1889) with its graceful celebration of custom-fabricated structural and spatial elements. Nouvel’s marvelous array of shutters is not so different from the Tower’s exposed members, except that his move; or from the many, nearly useless gears and levers in Charlie Chaplin’s film, Modern Times (1936).3 (What do they really accomplish?) But we’ve moved beyond the age of moving parts to a world of pixels, and smaller elements: we are now able to regulate light at the molecular level. At the larger scale of architectural works, an understanding of daylight suggests that there is a greater advantage to permitting the sun to move across elements correctly located in the path of its radiation. Moving parts don’t necessarily offer a useful increase in our ability to control sunlight, at least not one that is warranted economically. It is usually better to let the sun do the moving.

As we have seen at the Alhambra and elsewhere, traditional wood screens, fixed in place, work just fine, as do traditional shutters with manually operable blades or panels, such as shutters. In fact, Nouvel’s shutter system, with its many moving parts, does not always operate properly. Fortunately, L’Institut du Monde Arabe is quite beautiful, and still effective as a screen, even when stuck: the sun continues to do its work.

1 El Croquis 65 65; Jean Nouvel 1987 1994, Madrid: El Croquis, 1994; page 74

2 Charles W. Moore, William J. Mitchell, and William Turnbull, Jr., The Poetics of Gardens, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1988

3 Charlie Chaplin, Modern Times, (1936) Warner Home Video, 2003.