Saturday, January 2, 2010

Focal Points

When successful, architecture first attracts our attention by an exterior magnetism that is a combination of proportion, materials, and siting. Realtors call this “curb appeal” but great architecture has a draw much deeper than glib marketing lingo. A combination of curiosity and esthetic enticement draws us inside and then, through exploration, provides a rewarding spatial experience. The rewards, especially in great architecture, are many and varied. They can be emotional, as in the awe-inspiring experience of a great cathedral. They can be intellectual as in the geometric rigor of a Greek temple. They can be purely physical as in the rejuvenation provided by a spa. The sequence of events in exploring architecture can unfold on different paths and different levels of interpretation, even in the same building. Among the rewards of such exploration - regardless of style, materials, or function - is encountering a focal point.

A focal point is a design feature that makes an architectural experience meaningful. As an architectural element, it provides a goal for our explorations. It acts as a reason for our investigation of form and space. It anchors architectural composition. A focal point may incorporate symbolism, as with an altar in a church or a fireplace that attracts the company of friends and family. Or it may simply be an abstract emphasis within the total spatial experience.

Most fine art has some version of a focal point because it is a useful tool for organizing creative expression. Focal points create order out of chaos and provide resolution for conflict. In literature, conflict leads to resolution providing a dénouement for the narrative, which acts as a focal point. In music, a crescendo will seize our attention through increased intensity and become a focal point.

The focal point of a painting is the center of interest that holds our attention. In The Birth of Venus by Botticelli (1445-1510) the focal point is, of course, Venus. Everything in the painting forces our attention toward this center.
Venus is framed by trees, landforms, and flowing draperies. Other figures direct their eyes and gestures towards her. Green peninsulas literally point toward Venus; the entire structure of the painting establishes her as the focus of our attention. This arrangement of elements is intentional. Without such organization, a painting would be a collection of things without meaning.

The center of interest is not always the literal geometric center of a work of art. It is the point where the weight of the work is concentrated. It is the visual center of gravity. It is the area that your attention naturally settles upon. Venus happens to be the geometric center of her painting, but in Argenteuil by Claude Monet (1840-1926) the focal point is well off-center: the building at the end of the road.
It is a focal point because every other element in the composition gestures towards it: the bold line of the horizon, the edges of road and water, the angle of trees as they diminish in perspective. Despite being off-center, the location of the focal point is undeniable and easily diagrammed.
Another way to analyze Monet’s painting is to look at the planes of color that orbit around the focal point in pinwheel fashion. Reduced this way, the compositional energy of the painting becomes clear. In the generation after Monet, artists such as Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) and Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) based entire schools of painting on just such compositional elements.

Unlike with a flat canvas, architectural focal points are three-dimensional. Architecture is not a static art and it is an artificial limitation to view it from only one vantage point. We can do this with paintings or photography, but architecture is three-dimensional and requires movement. If we limit our experience of architecture to just pictures, we flatten it into a two-dimensional experience. This renders it unreal and we are unable to fully appreciate whatever focal points the architecture contains.

In St. Peter's Basilica, for example, columns, aisles, and chapels align three-dimensionally to channel our attention on the ultimate focal points of the high altar under the dome and the throne of St Peter beyond. But it requires our movement through this space to fully understand this meaning.
As if this intention is too abstract, numerous sculptures and paintings frame the nave with gestures in the same direction, literally pointing the way for us. The art and architecture of St. Peter's propels us forward until there is no doubt where our attention must go.
When done right - with grace and subtlety - these artistic incidents seem natural. In fact, the idea of a focal point is analogous to events in the natural environment. Art is an abstract reflection of that which nature provides effortlessly and abundantly. Flowers are the focal points of plants. Lakes and rivers the focal points of valleys. A captivating sunset a focal point on the horizon. These natural phenomena provide the foundation and inspiration for artistic explorations.
Examples of focal points in architecture can be as straightforward as a fireplace in a residence or as majestic as a dome above a mosque.
Other architectural focal points could be a dramatic stairway, an aperture looking upon beautiful scenery, or a vista through interior space.
Such elements of themselves are not automatically focal points. They depend on their position in plan and their relationship to other elements in the design. They become focal points when designed as key features that demand our attention and reward our exploration of architecture. Composition is important in this context, and that is part of the art of architecture. You might guess – correctly – that focal points can come about inadvertently and have unintended negative results. A closet door as the main feature at the end of a gallery, perhaps. Or a stairway uncomfortably close to an entrance. These are two common examples of building elements that become focal points for no good reason and to no good effect. The result is likely underwhelming, even annoying.

A building may have more than one focal point – especially very large buildings. If the goal of architecture is to enhance the enjoyment of place and make experience vital, then our imaginations need to be stimulated. In the example of Monet’s painting, you might say that the sailboat is a second focal point. The eye tends to be drawn back and forth between boat and building. This movement establishes a dynamic tension that adds interest to the painting. A series of focal points makes architecture more interesting and satisfying. A major focal point is a necessity for most structures, but every space should have minor points of focus on a more intimate level. A complete work of architecture will have delights at every turn, in every room, and in every space. In this way architecture becomes an exciting series of spatial events and ultimately focuses our attention on the enjoyment of life.

Botticelli and Monet paintings in the public domain.
St Peter’s interior by Giovanni Paolo Pannini in the public domain.
St. Peter’s sculpture, Janine Pohl. .
St. Peter's altar, NicvK.
Flower, Jon Sullivan.
Lake Torres del Payne, M. Knorr.
Sunset, Jerry Segraves.
Fireplace, Rob Munger.
Mosque dome, Chapultepec.
Stairway, M. Knorr.
Spa, M. Knorr.
Gallery, Rob Munger.