Simple but complex, complex but simple

April 19, 2022 • design recipes • Views: 159

Barcelona Pavilion, Mies van der Rohe. Photo: Ashley Pomeroy at English Wikipedia

One of the most intriguing pieces of design is Mies van der Rohe’s pavilion for the International Exposition in Barcelona in 1929.

What makes this structure so brilliant?

The way in which Mies divided the load-bearing structure and floor plan, freeing the partitions of their roof-bearing duties? The purity of the lines and the perfection of each detail? The flawless execution of the design?

Yes, all this – undoubtedly.

But the most brilliant thing here is actually, I think, how Mies has placed his partitions, creating a complex pattern of paths that we follow with both our legs and our eyes.

Barcelona Pavilion, floor plan. Source: 3coma14, Wikipedia

The work of the partitions is here not to enclose space but to direct our movements and channel them – and our gazes – through a labyrinth of spaces and experiences of different kinds. The Barcelona pavilion is an intermediate point on the route of the international exposition of 1929. Visitors enter the territory of the pavilion on one side and leave it on the other; each has to find his or her own way through. Between the entrance and exit points they must choose their path at every step. Mies’ partitions are positioned in such a way that their axes almost never coincide: they sometimes block the path ahead, sometimes open up opportunities to move or see further.

In spite of its relatively small size (approximately 900 square metres, including both pools), the Barcelona pavilion contains a whole world of diverse experiences. It is both complex and incredibly simple at the same time.

The same mix of simplicity and complexity can be seen in Moisey Ginzburg’s designs for small two-level apartments in his Narkomfin building. The F-type apartment here fits a one-and-a-half-height living room, staircases, and a double bedroom into a floor area of just 37.5 square metres. The subtle difference in levels (in the case of the upper of the two apartments shown here: after entering from the corridor, you ascend 1.15 metres to the living room, then a further 1.15 metres to the bedroom) gives the apartment a vertical as well as horizontal direction, a sense of separation as well as conjunction of the different functional spaces, and a feeling of both compactness and spaciousness. The ingenious way in which the upper and lower apartments interlock in this two-apartment slice of the building allows both apartments to be accessed from the same corridor.     

F-type apartment, Sovremennaya Arkhitektura, 1929, No. 1, p. 14
Narkomfin building, perspectival drawing, Sovremennaya arkhitektura, 1929

Simple yet complex, complex yet simple: we find this principle at work in small forms too.
Take Hubsch’s Divide: a piece of interior architecture whose rhythmically placed horizontals and verticals form a pattern which is balanced but without being symmetrical. The intricate assemblage of shelves is not only aesthetically pleasing in itself but provides an ideal stage for functional and beautiful objects.  
HUBSCH: Divide shelf unit, black

Nordal’s Square (mirror) is an instance of complexity derived from a simple form. Three iron rectangles intersect with one another, forming further stepped rectangles on each of the four sides. Only the central inner rectangle is reflective. The generation of a multiplicity of shapes from the three intial figures is endlessly intriguing.

NORDAL: Square mirror, black finish
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