MUSAC. SIX LANDSCAPES.
“Next time you have an idea, work without it”
Louis Kahn’s advice to Carles Vallhonrat
LIFE AS TRANSFORMATION.
Every work of architecture, as a hardly particular case of human activity, lives in the realm of transformation. It is the latter that gives meaning to our task, as it becomes the voice of human rebellion. In the face of a predetermined nature that follows its course independently, the purpose of rebellion is to take shelter within that which changes, which is modified, which turns different after we pass through the world; because this way it becomes a witness to our existence and, in short, proof that we exist.
Our aim is to explore this transformation as a clustering technique or mechanism inside the project. Like a coin that spins on the table showing both sides, this transformation is presided by the exchange of attributes: that which has existed and what will exist.
TRANSFORMATION AS A TECHNIQUE FOR DESIGN.
Let us imagine a set of border conditions (meaning ideas and feelings) on a project. The first observation we must make is that a project has not only a specific physical location, a material landscape: it has also other landscapes, other contexts as important as this. It has a natural territory, but also another that is social, political, cultural or historic. One could also speak, in short, of an intellectual landscape. In some manner, the project magnetizes and mobilizes part of this world toward itself; it demands its presence. In the beginning, however, it appears as an invertebrate set of questions. Let us attempt to tour the MUSAC through these landscapes.
The first territory is the most subjective, whose borders we will establish, for now, at our very own obsessions: in this case, the presence of equality and diversity. This idea is introduced through systems of expression; that is, through rigorous geometries, which allow for variation in the modification of section, illumination… The result, still generic, forces that dual feeling so common in us humans for which we consider ourselves at once substantially equal and inalienably different, into the work. It is, in a way, an a priori condition whose form is still to be decided.
What we do know is that its definition must invade the intellectual territory of architecture with which we are concerned here, and which has unfolded throughout the last twenty years—at least on the paper that the (arbitrary) hand of the architect wields over the final form of everything. Ever since the exhaustion of architecture as a self-referential discipline was declared, we have certainly witnessed a progressive establishment of methods to arrive at formal definitions that are in principle “beyond the architect.”
The inrush of computers, scaling, the graphic representation of activities, diagramming, or the transposition of flux, are but particular instances of the will to remove the definition of form from the architect’s hand. At least in theory.
From this standpoint, field geometries (those that are defined by what is adjacent to them, without a hierarchy) appear as figures whose heart is in the pieces themselves and their relationship, rendering the final form of things irrelevant, as they could have more or less units, be smaller or larger, and the “memory” of them would be the same. Mathematical field geometries border the discussion about the final form of things, and appear as a system that is capable of becoming particular according to the real needs of the project. Thus, those problems that we must resolve become a guide to a formal resolution, and so the system is altered to find light or shadow as necessary, setting up views or relationships according to real needs. In a way, problems to be resolved are constituted as a guide to the resolution of problems.
Here, that is, now, it should be clarified that the narrative discourse implies a certain linear condition of succession that clearly does not correspond with the project in its becoming. But we accept that only great literature is to turn what is linear into non-linear, to control time and arrange it differently—for literature, also a particular case of life, is not, after all, concerned with space as much as it is with time. Space is but the vessel to contain time, as should be architecture projects. So we will continue onward, so long as we agree that what shows itself as linear is in fact rather tangled.
The material condition of the building enters the world of the project through the idea of restriction: floors, ceilings, beams, are executed in white reinforced concrete. Their restriction is but another side of the idea of equality and diversity, because, as we said before, diversity is only visible trough equality.
The project now faces a more precise but also, perhaps for that very reason, more graphic challenge: what is its relationship to the historical context? Here we can observe two movements of transformation. The first refers to the plan of the museum proper, which is constituted by a set of squares and diamonds that comply with the rules of equality and diversity and the mathematical field. What is so beautiful about it is that its geometry comes from a Roman mosaic that has been scaled. León, as a Roman-founded city (its name comes from the military camp of the Legio VII) regales us with that geometry, which, after being subjected to a scaling process, generates a trace on plan—a surveyor’s layout. The façade undergoes a similar process: Its colors come from the other great public space of the city, the León Cathedral. The colors of the oldest stained-glass window in the Cathedral are subject to a process of pixelization by which they expand and become generic, inundating the façade.
One characteristic of the project comes to the fore in the fist place: that which exists needs to undergo a process of transformation in order to be admitted by the project. Secondly, that process of transformation corresponds to current tools or concepts, that is to say that it is “dated.” Thus, elements that belong to history are transformed to become part of the project by way of contemporary mechanisms. Scaling is thus ironically linked to initial investigations about the non-form, but also to Pop art, in the same way that a pixelization operation could not have been done more that a few years ago. What we are interested in, however, is the process of removal that the project undergoes: suddenly, the final form of the plan becomes irrelevant. Likewise, color is not the result of personal choice. This renders it not-owned or, to put it differently, the color of others.
Now we turn to the aim of the building: to establish a relationship mode between people and art and, especially, between people in the space for art. Here lives the most purposeful condition of space as, in the face of a static relationship model between the person and the work of art—both in terms of its position and of the type of involvement it generates—, the MUSAC decidedly relies on a series of flexible and undifferentiated spaces that permit (that demand) the viewer’s involvement in the changing and interactive work of art. Setting aside thematic or chronological concepts, space culminates the progressive invasion of the public realm into that of the exhibition, until the two of them merge. The negation of the hallway (meaning of specialization)draws art close to life by homogenizing space and turning it all into the place for both transit and exhibition, blurring the borders between the two. (Here we could find a muted trace of the Córdoba Mosque: not only for its condition as a mathematical field, independent from its final form, but also for its undifferentiated condition, whereby transit and prayer acquire various shapes at any given time).
Although we could travel through several other territories, we will visit only one more: that of nature or landscape as the stuff that surrounds the project. During the seven years that we spent on the construction of the Zamora Archeological Museum and the León Auditorium, we drove through the fields of Castilla y León every Thursday. This was enough time to admire the flocks of birds that inhabit the least populated area in Europe. We thought about how to make a building in which, regardless of its shape and number, a flock would always be a flock, governed nonetheless by a small and rigid set of rules, a mere function of speed, wind, and the distance between one bird and the next. When we looked down and observed those endless plowed fields, with their strict internal order—the distance between one furrow and the next—which is the very reason for its disorderly perimeter—small, large, straight, irregular—and there was life there, so much life, we wondered… could a building like that be made? And perhaps that was where everything started, and the rest are just words…
THE UNEXPECTED AS THE AKNOWLEDGEMENT OF LIFE.
Perhaps all creative activity ends up lingering around a rational work system able to contain—as a vessel does—a certain degree of surprise to avoid caging the project; a set of mechanisms able to include external elements that are incorporated from a place “beyond” our creativity; a way of summoning transformation—a continual transit between objects and ideas, ideas and objects—that is capable of solidifying thoughts and revealing the brilliancy of matter, whose very quality can lead us to an unexpected spot, continuing the process without losing its track. In this way, the work accumulates layers of visualization or doors to understanding, which on the one hand open up space to different interpretations (they widen the site of those who travel though it) and on the other, and this is perhaps most important, create links between them, like secret threads. Transformation, the expression of life, appears then not only as a way of bringing together the forms-ideas of the project but, above all, as a way of summoning the unexpected and inhabiting that desired place where one can be surprised and recognize life.
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Luis M. Mansilla