Onofre & the architect

Onofre & the architect

As a introductory exercise to the master thesis project, Christian Kieckens takes on the part of Onofre Bouvila1, a city dweller who during a period of three months asks five design questions bound by a storyboard. The design questions are given a critical interpretation and answer by myself, the architect. It is meant as an exercise about architectural thinking and as the prelude for the eventual design proposal for the thesis project.

Onofre Bouvila is the protagonist and central figure in the novel The City of Marvels, written by Eduardo Mendoza.

Leon Krier in 1980 proposed the Insula Tegeliensis for his design of the city centre of West Berlin as a reaction to the traditional closed perimeter block.
Leon Krier. Rational architecture, 1978: The reconstruction of the European city. (Brussels: Archives d’architecture moderne, 1978), 168 – 169.

Four of the five design questions are summarized on the next pages because of their major relevance to the thesis project. They are presented in their original form as a dialogue. Each answer by the architect is substantiated both textually and visually. This way the discourse between Onofre and the architect is easy to follow.

A metropolitan house
Onofre Bouvila wants a permanent place to transfer his experiences. He asks the architect to help him in his quest for elementary and essential spaces and to generate some guidelines to shape a set of separate buildings.

The architect thinks the ‘urban collage’ and tradition, together with the daily needs of urban life found in a city quarter—housing, work, education, leisure, culture—should serve as the basis for the design of a metropolitan house. A cluster of various ‘building types’ are brought together around a public courtyard.2 The boundary of the block and the unification of the buildings is emphasized by a ‘galleria’. This way, the block becomes generous and creates value for both the city and itself. The whole functions as if it were a ‘city within a city’.

Fig. 1
Conceptual illustration to support the design ‘guidelines’ written in the text for a metropolitan house.

Fig. 2
Rendering of the vertical city dwelling in a sunlit sky above the smog clouds and congested city.

Mein Haus [Campanile]
Onofre realises that a vertical dwelling, a tower, a ‘Hochhaus’ is the only possible way to build a manifesto. A vertical city dwelling, a present and inconspicuous house in the city. A house with the necessary familiarity, useful but transferable and thus sustainable. With a shape as a harness and gesture in its own language to the city. As historical architecture has always been in his opinion.

The traditional city has ultimately given way to the ‘culture of congestion’ and has quickly mutated into a true metropolis. The sky is the only remaining form of nature, but unfortunately a permanent smog cloud ensures that even this remains hidden. The sun can barely provide the city of daylight. The ever so pleasant city now is a scary and dark place. One looks up longingly, in search of fresh air, time and space.3

‘‘… the first Metropolitan paradox: the greater the distance from the earth—the more unnatural the location—the closer the com-munication with what remains of nature (i.e., light, air, views, etc.).’’
—Rem Koolhaas, ‘Life in the metropolis’ or ‘The culture of congestion’.

Building vertically offers the only remaining freedom. The higher, the more one can remove oneself from the (inhabited) world and the closer one can find oneself to nature. The tower works its way through the smog, away from the drab metropolis into a sunlit sky. The resident has the opportunity to gradually escape the urban chaos within the same building, with views of the surrounding landscape changing as he climbs. At the top, one can finally find mental and physical isolation and explore new horizons.

The vertical city dwelling is an architecture that enhances everyday life. A house that blends the needs of urban existence with the possibility to escape from it. A liberating gesture to the densely built city. An utopian solution to a dystopian situation.

Fig. 3
The cube poured in concrete and put on a pedestal. It becomes both scale model and permanent sculpture.

One of the most emblematic paintings speaking to Onofre’s imagination is undoubtedly The Tower of Babel by Pieter Brueghel. The view on the road that is moving like a spiral toward the top to end there in a sublimation made Onofre wonder what would be going on in the innermost of the ‘tower’.

Consequently, he poses the architect the question to search for the ultimate experience of a stairwell inside a cube with a side of ten meters. Identity is obtained by a process of transformations of the cube-gestalt. He asks for a ‘model’ in both the theoretical and the pragmatic-imaginative sense.

In Pieter Brueghel’s The Tower of Babel both void and mass express themselves in a spiral and both sublimate at the top. Mass and void could thus be interchangeable. A negative form, a spiral surrounding a central void may thus be formed. The top of the spiral is not the end point per se, but it may also be a starting point. Start and end are once again interchangeable and therefore equal. Subsequently, the idea of an ‘endless ribbon’ presents itself, without start or end.4

Inspired by Max Bill’s Endless Ribbon sculptures that represent a Möbius strip – a mathematical surface with only one side and only one boundary component.

With these ideas a stairwell is created existing of multiple trajectories through mass and void. Surrounding a central space, an atrium, trajectories move both on the outside and inside of the cube. The atrium is visible from the outside but only accessible by climbing and descending the staircase. Through the use of concrete, the weight of mass is emphasised and the cube becomes both a scale model of an architecture and a permanent sculpture in itself.

Ambition & utopia
The discourse with the architect did Onofre realise he was in search for something specific, which he wasn’t able to formulate until then. He wants the world, a new world, contained in his project without denying his own origins.

Wasn’t the architect Onofre himself all along? Or was he merely a fictive person of his imagination? The architect, Onofre himself, decided to develop a new vision, a new city, something from today to turn into tomorrow what would not become yesterday. A kind of ultimate dream about the reality that is architecture: an urban piece, or a new city as a piece of architecture. A personal ambition, maybe an utopia. As a city full of marvels.

The architect’s origins lie in today’s traditional European city. But in his travels to Asia the architect saw, however, how the cities here have already surpassed the West with quite a lead in terms of size, height and density. Globalization and hyper-urbanization causes these facts to also become relevant in the near future for the European city.

His quest finalises in the ambition to make an architecture in this global context: a metropolitan ‘house’ the size of a city block permitting more uses than only housing. A set of houses, a merger of architectures. A new world contained in a project which acts as a city within the city. A house the size of a small city and a city the size of a large house.

Fig. 4 & 5
Hong Kong both by day and by sunset. Photos were taken on a trip in 2011. The city served as the main driver for the subject of the thesis project.