Monday, March 30, 2009

Volume = Space

The accompanying pictures are examples of volume. I have written about volume in several publications (Builder Architect, New Home Showcase, and A Course in Architecture) and lectured on the subject to numerous builder's groups and architecture students. I come back to this concept often because volume is a defining characteristic of architecture. It is the one quality that distinguishes it from sculpture, painting, and the other arts. and there could be no better subject to "kick off" this blog.

Volume is simply space. Architecture — almost by definition — is the enclosure of space.

We are accustomed to thinking about architecture as one style or another, categorizing a building as Victorian, colonial, contemporary, or whatever. Historians dissect style like biologists do flora and fauna. Such analyses can be interesting, but if they are our only way of looking at architecture, we have missed the point. It is like writing the notes of a song without listening to the music. We do not want to look at architecture; we want to experience it.

Stylistic expressions are just the surface veneer over the essence of architecture: volume. Volume is the space within. Volume = Space.

It is, perhaps, surprising that the important part of a building is the void. The solid structure is just there to give shape to what is not.

Volume is what makes architecture, but this does not mean that more volume is better architecture. Big spaces have the potential to inspire, but without the added element of human scale, they can be intimidating or, worse, banal. Frank Lloyd Wright understood this issue very well. A typical device of his was to modulate space by compressing it with low ceilings upon entering before opening up to high ceilings in a principal space. The larger volume became more meaningful by contrast and uplifted the spirit. The low ceilings gave human scale to the space.

There are many ways to manipulate volume and add interest to architecture. Changes in ceiling planes, the shape of walls, colonnades, and arcades are a few examples of sculpting space to affect experience. We need both grand spaces and intimate retreats, depending on our mood and the function of the building. Our response to architecture is favorable or unfavorable depending on how well our need for beauty has been met by the shape of space. Great architecture is a sequence of spatial events that molds our experience and directs our focus to elicit emotional responses. Usually, the goal is to evoke positive emotions: grandeur in a cathedral, calm in a bedroom, alertness in a conference hall. But the point can be illustrated by one deliberately negative example. The Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. (by architect James Freed) is a building designed to make people feel uncomfortable. The exterior massing seems to enclose something bad; it looks more like a nuclear power plant than a museum. Strange interior angles and a disjointed sense of scale define a sequence of spaces that instill a feeling of dread. Most visitors are unaware of the source of the subtle emotional cues transmitted by the architecture, but the intentional unease remains.
Fortunately, appropriate opportunities for disconcerting architecture are rare. Most of the time the architect’s goal is to enhance and enrich everyday experience. Architecture has the power to do that. Volume is one way in which it is accomplished.

Top: Volume ceiling with ridge skylight defines a living/dining area divided by a two-way fireplace. Architecture by Michael Knorr & Associates.

Middle: Pantheon, Rome, Italy. (Photomontage: Rob Munger.)

Bottom: Private gym in Denver, CO designed by Michael Knorr & Associates. (Photo: Rob Munger.)