THE MATTER OF VOID - FROM ABSOLUTE SPACE TO DYNAMIC FLOWS | ENHSA conference paper | Barcelona, Spain, 4-6 September 2014

This paper addresses air as a constituent material of space and a primary mediator between human body and the environment. We propose the notion of architecture of air that is not only concerned with rigid matter as a determinant of space but primarily with forms of energy within a given spatial framework, such as heat transfer, air flow, light scattering or electromagnetic fields. The main issue discussed here is the intangible materiality of space, the invisible aerial processes that significantly influence the perception of built architecture. Whereas Modernity was largely grounded on the Newtonian notion of absolute space as an independent aspect of objective reality, the computational era has made us equipped to see the dynamic air that constitutes the environment. Space is no longer considered void nor uniform, but heterogeneous: material and fluid. Accordingly, the design process is being increasingly modified to include the impact of the ephemeral and unstable environment on the architectural object. Most of these changes today are reflected in the final phase of every major project, and involve computational fluid dynamics (CFD) studies of wind and ventilation issues conducted upon an already defined building, usually in order to apply certain mechanical systems and thus resolve any energy losses.

Apart from the issues of energy efficiency, the atmospheric approach raises another important topic - one of subjective perception of space. The aerial phenomena trigger the sensory receptors in our skin, and thus we experience space around us. We feel the air, not the building itself, and it is the air that we should be constructing. However, the elusive nature of these ephemeral, invisible and unstable processes makes them usually difficult to visualize and comprehend. As Mark Wigley (1998) suggests, uncontrolled atmosphere displaces the architect, because it is precisely the atmosphere that the architect is expected to produce. Therefore, practicing architects tend to create an illusion that they have the atmosphere under control. The truth is that it is usually beyond their understanding and left adrift, between carefully constructed form on one side and unstable environment or unpredictable occupant on the other. The emerging architectural theories propose that the construction of atmosphere should be approached as an architectural problem, instead of it being overlooked and dismissed as an engineering issue. However, to design the invisible behaviors, we need new architectural tools for visualization and a new scope of knowledge for understanding and controlling what we manage to see.

This paper speculates that the formal expression of a building and its inner aerial processes are inextricably linked. By designing the geometry of a building, the architect is actually conditioning the air within it. Thus, every architectural object could be studied as an instrument for constructing the atmosphere, its formal expression being a direct result of this process. In this way, with innovative technology, existing architecture becomes an immense and extensive source of new type of knowledge in terms of air. The first part of the paper briefly reviews the theoretical arguments that have significantly influenced this hypothesis, outlining the emerging tendencies for a detailed and extensive exploration into the complexity of space and its impact on architectural thinking today. Secondly, we focus on the human body within such space, discussing the active exchange between the living body and its ephemeral environment. The final part of the paper tests the proposed speculations in the form of an experiment - a CFD simulation conducted upon a traditional 16th century Islamic bath building, in an attempt to unravel the architectural thinking about air and environmental behaviors in the past. The dynamic spatial flows within buildings have been, due to their invisibility, mostly neglected by written histories of architecture (Banham, 1984, p.12). This experiment aims to pose the following questions: (1) what are the hidden aerial processes within ancient architectural spaces?; and (2) how can these processes influence our understanding of architecture today? Drawing on Reyner Banham's book The architecture of the well-tempered environment, we suggest one step further - employing advanced digital tools based on computational fluid dynamics to explore the architecture of the past. The main goal is to illustrate a way to a new methodology of architectural research, one consistent with our own age and its scientific progress, which might lead to reconsidering the materiality of space and the role of air and atmosphere in architecture altogether.

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