Centering a Town: 10th. Effort/Complexity


I like complexity and contradiction in architecture.

Robert Venturi


This effort was influenced by Peter Eisenman’s House II:

of which I have made a model that can be found here, with discussion.

In both we start with a regular cubic grid, then submit it to a series of shifts and other adjustments. My design is much quieter, however, and where Eisenman rethinks structure and form of the total space, inside to out, my changes are largely surface, on the exterior.

My program doesn’t allow much room for transformation. Above, a rough plan of the second and third floors, largely dominated by the four medium-sized classrooms at the corners. The classrooms are separated and spaced evenly around the entry and stairway area, open through all four floors, with railings on the stairs and walkways for details and accents. Visitors see the whole layout upon walking in. I debate making part of the classroom interior walls glass for openness and to enhance a sense of space and perception of the overall structure. I know as an instructor, however, I liked privacy. The narrow area, at the top, is for an elevator, restrooms, and utility.

I stayed within the Central Hotel site this time, about 90 x 70 feet. The building is determined by and contained within a cubic grid, each cell about 10 x 10 x 10 feet, not including the posts and beams. I made a slight adjustment at the side corners. There is another layer of gridding, inset, that does not conform to the main grid and is not regular or complete. The two layers of gridding interact in a variety of ways.

My first priority was that all rooms have substantial windows for light, view, and ventilation. But I also wanted some area of brick surfaces to give the building substantial presence. The brick columns at the ends help transition this building to that adjoining.

The first floor, as in previous designs, is for exhibition, civic functions, and administration. Its layout can be developed in many ways and could be made flexible to adjust to changing needs. The large windows, at street level, are for display. The building will announce its program to passersby.

Rear view, at the left of the above diagram. This face most shows the regular external grid. Again, a view block is needed on the first floor. All brick space on the visible sides, with three exceptions, is contained within the regular grid, including the posts and beams. The regularity of the outer grid is most apparent in this face. Here, as throughout, the inner grid is determined by the widths of the windows, 2, 4, or 6 units (a unit equals the width of the smallest plastic piece, which is also the width of the posts). Though several window patterns repeat, their layout is not regular, in part because the interior walls of the rooms do not correspond to the overall outer grid, and adjustments had to be made, for example the two unit column near the middle.

The fourth floor is similar to the second and third, except two rooms have been removed at the rear, on the left of the plan. Also the ceiling extends to 12 feet. This large space, some 40 x 70 feet, is open and can be divided up by shelves, chairs, and tables, all movable. It could be used for study, small meetings, conferences, or just individual rest and reflection. Or for large assembly once the furniture has been rearranged. The view of the old courthouse, its trees, a small landscaped park, the bridge, and the river is quite good here.

This potential view is one of the salient features of the site, more and more a rarity with recent growth.

And because of the layout of the streets it will be preserved in the future.

I have placed the main entrance along Philadelphia, where it commands the plaza.

I’m not interested in a large formal entry. I wanted some depth for cover from the weather but also a large glass space to light the interior structure. The stairs and walkways can be seen in their entirety when one enters. The partial grid, offset, just inside the opening, qualifies its size and creates a compression that is released when one approaches the doors.

This face presents the most tension and variety. Against the absolute predictability of a regular grid, here all manner of patterns can be traced, only to give way to others. The inverted L of brick communicates with the smaller square, on the left. Horizontal beams have been removed from the outer grid on the right to present vertical elements that help anchor the L and counterbalance other tensions.

The vertical elements also introduce the corner tower, a vestige from my ninth design, which is the same height as the back room and establishes the significance of this corner at the plaza as the center of the St. Johns downtown area. Some members are missing from the tower, however, either inviting filling them in or challenging the notion of a tower. The tower, in fact, was the main cause I added an extra unit on the corners, and that decision had rippling effects throughout the whole design.

Front view, along Lombard, which has a smaller entrance. Here vertical beams have been removed from two floors of the tower, creating horizontal sections that counterbalance the vertical sections on the side. The upright L speaks to the column at the end.

I suppose structurally the building is overdetermined. Then again some seeming structural members are suspended, against expectations, such as the two unit column on the right, like the one at the back, that extends three floors but rests on nothing. Its function is not to support but to contain the interior wall of a classroom. The floor-to-ceiling windows, front and back, define the center (almost) and stand at the ends of the corridors.

There are five different window patterns for the ten classrooms, and each might assume its own identity. This variety helps offset the sense one is in a standardized module that is repeated. In many cases columns stand in front of the windows. Students and instructors will have to work around the intrusions and piece together an outside view that will require some analysis and reconstruction. Hopefully something similar is happening inside with the instruction.

All the decisions I made followed a necessity and desire that would be hard to track down now. But in so many cases there were options that could have gone either way. The building presents options and contains uncertainty. Unity comes from counterpointed tensions and the apparent and implied outer grid that sets expectations, holds the building together, and provides the basis for the excursions.


At the same time that the problems increase in quantity, complexity, and difficulty they also change faster than before.

Christopher Alexander, cited in Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, a statement of our times.

The movement from a view of life as essentially simple and orderly to a view of life as complex and ironic is what every individual passes through in becoming mature.

Amid simplicity and order rationalism is born, but rationalism proves inadequate in any period of upheaval

A feeling for paradox allows seemingly dissimilar things to exist side by side, their very incongruity suggesting a kind of truth.

August Heckscher, Complexity.

It is not enough for the poet to analyze his experience as the scientist does, breaking it up into parts, distinguishing part from part, classifying the various parts. His task is finally to unify experience. He must return to us the unity of the experience itself as man knows it in his own experience.

Cleanth Brooks, Complexity. Adjust for gender.

People sometimes say that words are now used as flat counters, in a way which ignores their delicacy; that English is coming to use fewer of its words, and those more crudely. But this journalist flatness does not mean that the words have simple meanings, only that the word is used, as at a distance, to stand for a vague and complicated mass of ideas and systems which the journalist has no time to apprehend.

William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity. Venturi refers to him often in his book, an obvious influence.

This is our world now, where we vacillate between futuristic utopias and visions of apocalypse. Look at the language of the last election and the state of our verbal culture, at how much we have become fractured into narrow whims and absorbed in broad passions. We devote ourselves to specialized disciplines that do not speak among themselves. Or we delight in personal chaos yet deflect complexity of any kind, giving ourselves instead to the most direct, the simplest expression, which speaks loudest. No wonder many of us promote the purist color and want to build protective walls and throw people out. But the rest of us have to ask whether we have been aligned the last year by anything more than our outrage, our desire for removal of that man. Or we have surrendered to the simplest, purest desire of all, profit, and endowed it with absolute freedom, which means absolute power, and watched it flow to the top. Cathedrals have been replaced with corporate monoliths that dominate our public streets.

From my comments in my post on Eisenman’s House II.

Background and Previous Designs

Other designs for this project, along with background material and more photographs of site, can be found here and at these posts.



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