Sunday, May 2, 2010

Great Room

The first six images here are part of a series of works called "Cathedral Floorplan Etchings" by artist Tyrus Clutter. They were made through a special process where actual floor plans of European cathedrals were printed with several different colors and sometimes text. I've included these to point out a similarity between these churches and the Great Room of my house, which is the space at the top of the plan on the right of this page.

At the center of each of these plans is a square, defined by four columns and flanked by secondary spaces. Simplifying this plan to its essential order yields a nine-square grid: one square at the center, four at the corners and four directly adjacent to the center. What is special about the nine-square grid can be seen by comparing it to the four-square grid. With the latter the center is an intersection of lines; with the former the center is a square, an area - architecturally, a space. A space in the center, surrounded by a
ring of eight other spaces.

As seen in the church plans here, this grid is often modified to accentuate the hierarchy already built into it. In addition to being the center, the central square is often made much larger than its surrounding squares. Volumetrically, the center space is almost always the highest, and the most brightly lit. The gesture is four forces coming from the four corners of the earth. Where they collide with each other is a great architectural drama,
an explosion of space and light.

The center becomes so lofty that it seems a kind of Jacob's ladder, a vertical thrust more to do with heaven than with earth, a way for angels to visit us. The four arms by contrast are about this world, extending horizontally in each of the four cardinal directions. This spatial order speaks in parables. People come from everywhere to gather in worship to God, then take light back to their places in the world. A person comes in from work, sits in prayer to God, then goes back to work filled.

This building form expresses the rhythms, the oscillations, between relationships symbolized by horizontal and vertical directions, between mission and worship, people and God, earth and heaven, that characterize the Christian experience.

My great room space, shown in plan below (with floor patterns) and cross-section next, is similarly a modified nine-square grid. The center square is about twice the width of the outer spaces, about twice the height, and is capped by a skylight. Volumetrically, as at the center of the cathedrals, a horizontal space is penetrated by a vertical space - an intersection between earth and sky.

The cross shape is obvious two-dimensionally in the cathedral plans, and more abstractly in my great room plan. But perhaps more significant to both is the three-dimensional "cross" happening between two opposite volumes which we can inhabit. The place where the two volumes overlap is special, an intermingling of the heavenly and the earthly, a symbol of Jesus.

I didn't borrow this spatial order from the cathedrals. I've only recently noticed the similarity. I've also only recently noticed that I've been working with variations on the nine-square grid for about fifteen years. Below is the plan of a library I designed as a second-year student. The central core is illuminated by a colored glass skylight.

And here is a top view of a model for a marionette puppet theater I designed in third-year. The center space and four corner spaces (stages) are open to the sky.

Even when in my final fifth year project I was compelled to design a church with free-form curves, the spatial organization still shows a central inner space surrounded by outlying spaces. Over the center space here are large skylights.

In the section through this church the transition from horizontal (mission, earth) to vertical (worship, heaven) is directly expressed through a hyperbolic curve.

The power of this spatial form lies in its communication of a central, essential experience of the Christian life following the two greatest commandments to love neighbor and to love God - a focus on both horizontal and vertical relationships. I think this is why the cathedral builders used it, and also why I have kept returning to it, and return to it now for one room of a house. It seems that God has been giving this form to his architects for quite some time.

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