Sunday, November 4, 2018

La Bôite à Miralces or the Faceless Building

This essay was published in the collection "The Power of Skin", which is dedicated to the subject of the building enclosure. The collection was edited by Professors Nicolás Mauri and Quique Zarza of the School of Architecture at the Polytechnic University of Madrid in 2018.

Le Corbusier, La Bôite à Miracles
The contemporary concept of the building enclosure as a skin is based first and foremost on technical criteria. It arises with the separation of structure and enclosure in the development of the Modern Movement. From the first appearance of the structural frame in Chicago skyscrapers to Le Corbusier's Maison Domino and the postwar curtain wall, this technical innovation converts the building enclosure into a non-load-bearing membrane whose principal practical functions are to offer protection from the extremes of the exterior climate and to contribute to maintaining optimum environmental conditions on the interior.

With this development, certain traditional attributes of the building exterior as a "facade" can be abandoned. The building enclosure may still play a representative role, functioning as a "dressing" or adornment that establishes a sense of character and social status. It can still be used to represent, through its composition, the structural system or internal organization of the building, though just as often it is configured to represent its own non-load-bearing condition. But in its most radical expression, when the enclosure is conceived as a continuous, uniform sheath that wraps around the building in its entirety, the concept of the facade as the "face" of the building is annulled.

This subliminal condition of having a "face" depends on the building‘s apertures, its windows, balconies and doors, elements that establish, with their human scale and function, the connection between social and urban presence. Without recognizable apertures, this connection is interrupted, converting the enclosure into a mask, and the building into an enigmatic presence.

By the term "face" I mean more an action than a physical feature. We might more accurately term this action as "presenting face", in which the facade takes its place, in clearly anthropomorphic terms, in the social space of its setting, in Hannah Arendt‘s "space of public appearance", as cited by Kenneth Frampton.(1) Examples include, at one extreme, the main façade of the Monastery-Palace of El Escorial, located north of Madrid in Spain, in relation to the paved plaza in front of it, and at another, the more modest palaces and houses that line Madrid's Calle Mayor. Whether dwelling, church or public structure, the building takes part in a ceremony of social engagement with its context that can be compared, for example, to the rules of comportment of the Spanish Court, or of a military dress parade, in terms of dress, bearing, and regard, of seeing and being seen, with the appropriate marks of station and mutual respect, all backed by the underlying tension of a mutual measurement of force.  Velázquez‘s Las Meninas offers a charming informal "take" on this calculus of social presence that verges on parody: around the axis of regard established between the Infanta and the King and Queen, the varied cast of characters, by their actions or the potential unpredictability of their actions, tense the limits of proper decorum in almost balletic terms: the Infanta herself, who displays the contained energy of a child, her chatty child attendants, the dwarf, the dog, the retreating gentleman in the doorway, presenting himself even as he turns away (here the evident connection between the social and architectural space), and the unbridled gaze of the painter himself, who is regarding  exactly whom? – the royal couple, a mirror image of himself, the viewer?

Juan de la Corte, Fiesta en la Plaza Mayor, circa 1630,
Museo Municipal de Madrid

When conceived as a continuous skin or sheath, the non-load-bearing enclosure annuls this theatrical play between the building and its urban setting. An early example is the uninterrupted mirror-glass of Henry Cobb‘s John Hancock Tower in Boston (1967-1976). In a 1985 article, Rafael Moneo found a relation between the "featureless" skin of the building and the aims of minimalist art, a connection that continues in many of the more recent examples we shall examine. In minimalism, he finds, citing the writings of Robert Morris, "the image [of the work] is reduced to the point where it coincides with the object that the artist has produced, without any mediation whatsoever, without subscribing to any possible signification...." (2)

John Hancock Towerl Boston
Source: Wikicomons. Credit: Tomtheman5, 7 July 2007.

In accordance with this definition he notes the Hancock Tower's "de-materialization of constructed reality", and its aspiration towards "a minimum expression, the descanso of forms, the extinction of signification".  He observes that, "As a material reality, the John Hancock flees from our grasp, leaving only its abstract volume, as if it were a minimalist stele. Its architecture is perceived as radically different, 'other'... " Perhaps most strikingly, he draws attention to the building's alienation from its context, both the immediate surroundings of Copley Square and as a presence on the city skyline: "The skyscraper, the John Hancock would seem to affirm, can only be an abstract solid, fragile and immaterial, that is delicately inscribed in the city fabric, although it appears to ignore it: the John Hancock is an iceberg that floats, and as such, is adrift."

The only point of "weakness" in this image of minimalist aloofness, Moneo continues, occurs when the illuminated interior is revealed through the glass at night, and with it, the building's human scale, as well as the skin's essential function as a membrane or filter that mediates between inside and out.

The Hancock is thus a kind of stealth tower. Its alienation and otherness are very much a product of the late 1960s, an image of power –in this case corporate power– that is uncomfortable about presenting a public face in a time of widespread political protests, and that is uncomfortable too about its surroundings, at a time when North American cities were caught in a cycle of racial conflict, middle-class flight and decline.

In more recent work this quality of otherness provoked by the continuous enveloping skin is developed as a more positive value. A key metaphoric or typological image for this contemporary approach is Le Corbusier's 1948 drawing of the "Bôite à Miracles" or "magic box". He represents the magic box as a monumental, solid rectangle characterized only by the tiny black dot of an entry. He depicts the monolith on an empty plain whose vast spatial extension is indicated by minuscule dots and strokes of the pen, which may or may not represent human figures.(3) The featureless volume of the exterior converts the interior into something of a mystery and therefore a seductive lure. The type thus functions more as an icon than as an absent presence, although it preserves an aura of otherness.

Significantly, Le Corbusier proposed the magic box as a prototype for a theater, explaining, "Scenes and actors appear the moment the miracle box appears; the miracle box is a cube; with it comes everything that is needed to perform miracles, levitation, manipulation, distraction, etc."  In a strict functional sense, Le Corbusier is describing a "black-box" flexible theater space, but in a broader sense, as a contemporary architectural type, the magic box transfers the "space of public appearance" of the traditional urban scene to the interior, where users become its "actors".(4)

Jean Nouvel, DR Concert Hall, Copenhagen
© Bjarne Bergius Hermansen, ceded by of client.

Jean Nouvel touched on many of the attributes of the magic box in his project description for the DR Concert Hall in Copenhagen (2003-2009), which features a media-facade for projecting digital images: "It will be a ... mysterious parallelepiped that changes under the light of day and night, whose interior can only be guessed at. At night the volume will come alive with images, colors, and lights expressing the life going on inside.... The interior is a world in itself, complex and diversified." He concludes, "Mystery is never far from seduction."(5)

Dominique Perrault confirmed the typological relevance of the image when he named his Olympic Tennis Center in Madrid the Magic Box (2002-2009). In this case, the three sports halls, with their brightly-colored seats and operable roofs, are encased in a massive rectangular pavilion with an open-air perimeter screened in curtains of metal mesh.

Projects such as these, which take part in the latest and most radical investigations into the formal qualities of the building skin, depend on more recent technical developments involving the configuration of the building membrane. One of the richest sources of innovation has come from rethinking the ventilated cavity wall. This system, first introduced in the late 19th century, was originally applied mainly in masonry construction. But in recent decades the system has evolved to incorporate many other materials, particularly for the exterior cladding, which is often extremely permeable, and therefore not necessarily solid  or continuous. The inner layer of the assembly –which is often a conventional double-glazed curtain wall–  performs the bulk of the task of insulation and enclosure. The cavity is a space of tempered, ventilated air that buffers temperature extremes. Like a bris-soleil, the outer layer thus functions more as a shield against the elements than an enclosure.

The versatility of this system has allowed architects to explore a stunning variety of sensorial experiences using different kinds of materials in surprising ways. The outer layer can function as a veil, as Perrault's tennis stadium, and as in the galvanized, perforated metal panels that screen Estudio Entresitio's Medical Clinic in Damiel (Castilla - La Mancha, 2003- 2007). It can appear weightless and evanescent, as in Rafael de La-Hoz's Telefónica complex in Las Tablas, Madrid (2002-2007), where it is composed of a plane of frameless, super-transparent glass, supported only by isolated sheets of glass that project perpendicularly from the main curtain wall. Alternatively, it can be exaggeratedly solid, as in Antón García-Abril's Conservatory in Santiago de Compostela (1998-2002), clad in massive blocks of granite scarred by long vertical drill cuts. Or in contrast, stone can be treated as if it were glass, as in Manuel Gallego's Research Institutes at the University of Santiago de Compostela (1998), where the architect hangs oversized, thin sheets of granite from the frame within the cavity wall, setting each piece afloat with open, mortarless joints.

Alejandro Zaera, housing, Carabanchel, Madrid. 
Photo ceded by archtiect.

With the bamboo facade of a social housing block in Carabanchel, Madrid by Alejandro Zaera an Farshid Moussavi of FOA (2007), we return to strategies of minimalism and the sensuous, even fragrant material richness of arte povera, in which "significance" is supplanted by sensual stimuli. The bamboo is mounted on hinged louvers, and encloses the continuous galleries that wrap around the building. The operable louvers give the monolithic image of the volume a contrasting human scale, and capriciously reveal its interior, creating a dialogue with the "otherness" of the volume that feeds the dynamic mechanism of our attraction to the work.

Herzog and de Meuron's CaixaForum Madrid (2001- 2008) converts the building skin into both a textured and a signifying surface. The architects take the masonry shell of the industrial building that originally occupied the site, lift it off the ground, and wrap it around the new volume like an animal pelt, an exotic trophy. This rather surreal strategy challenges preconceptions about the authentic and the ornamental, and about the nature of recycled historic settings.

While these projects focus mainly on the material qualities of the skin as an external enclosure, others investigate how its qualities as a filtering membrane can shape the internal experience of the work. A crucial step in this direction is the shift from the concept of the "magic box" to the "magic lantern", in which volumes are clad in translucent glass, glowing with natural light during the day and with artificial light from inside at night. A series of works has explored this concept with increasing intensity, from Rafael Moneo's Kursaal in San Sebastián (1989 - 1999) to the skylight lanterns and lobby of Steven Holl's addition to the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City (1999 - 2007), and SelgasCano's El Batel Congress Center in Cartagena (2012). This last project is clad in a cavity wall composed of extruded bars of methacrylate and polycarbonate, whose curving sections distort visual transparency like a prism, and refract the thin lines of color laid into the plastic.

SelgasCano, El Batel Congress Center, Cartagena. © Iwan Baan.

The illuminated translucence of these works is both alluring and displacing. It converts the facade into a barrier that is almost as unmediated as a solid sheath, but in which structural elements inside the wall, as well as object and people on the other side, become suggestive silhouettes. The luminous public spaces of the interiors bathe us in a theatrical aura. This is true especially in Cartagena, where the effect has a comic, playful edge, in its references to Pop and sci fi imagery. SelgasCano create a sense of luminous spatial immanence and otherness, of heightened awareness and estrangement, that once again gives visual protagonism to the balletic play of our movement, mutual regard and social interaction – less formally choreographed and hierarchical in this case than in the court of Felipe IV, and more about individuals and couples in patterns of flow. Thus, while Nouvel's DR Concert Hall transforms the building skin into a luminous digital image, SelgasCano put us inside the screen.

Several works by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of SANAA further investigate the themes of transparency, reflection, veiling and a displacing immanence, including the curving glass walls and interior partitions of the Toledo Art Museum in Ohio (2006), and the low, elongated galleries of the Louvre Lens (2012), finished in aluminum, which in Iwan Baan's photographs seem to float over the landscape in a haze.
SANAA, IVAM Museum, Valencia (project)

One of SANAA's most intriguing projects is their unrealized enlargement of the Instituto Valenciano de Arte Moderno (IVAM, Valencia, Spain, 2002), where they proposed to enclose the existing building and the entire city block it occupies in a "skin" of perforated steel panels. In their project description, they claim that this macro-volume will function as an ideal permeable membrane, creating "a delicate separation between outdoors and indoors" that will "transform the wind into a gentle breeze" and "transform the direct light into a luminous atmosphere." Inside, the existing building, its roof and entry court all become active spaces occupied by people and art. (6)

SANAA's "skin" approaches the condition of a bubble, a controlled, artificial habitat. In this respect, it brings to mind Buckminster Fuller's 1960 proposal to cover New York in a geodesic dome, as well as the pneumatic structures of Jose Miguel Prada Poole that were largely inspired in Fuller. Prada Poole's ephemeral domes for Ibiza's Instant City (1971) and the Encounters of Pamplona (1972) were the most essential expression of the magic box: a tensile skin of translucent, brightly-colored plastic film, entirely without structure and supported on pressurized air, with a sealed interior accessed by valve-like flaps. Artist Isidoro Valcárcel Medina recalls of the domes in Pamplona, "The space was rather magical, so immense, with the light filtering through the arches, which gave it an orangish effect, and the continuous sound of the ventilators." (7)

Prada Poole, Pneumatic Structure, Pamplona, 1972. Credit, see Note 7.

Despite the distance covered, the concept of the building enclosure as a luminous membrane, as proposed by SelgasCano, SANAA or Prada Poole, still has something in common with the non-load-bearing masonry enclosures of the first Chicago skyscrapers. In his essay, "Frank Lloyd Wright and the Text-Tile Tectonic," Kenneth Frampton shows how Louis Sullivan's decorated facades of brick and terra cotta were conceived as a kind of weave, and were conceptually anchored in Gottfried Semper's theories that the origin of building is found in fabric, knots and the tensile structure of the nomadic tent – an idea carried further by Frank Lloyd Wright in the interwoven patterns of his textile block system.(8)  

Semper's concept is also related to the drawings of a "primitive temple" that Le Corbusier published in Vers une Architecture, which actually represent the Jewish tabernacle in the wilderness, as Kenneth Frampton and others have pointed out.(9) The illustration depicts a monumental tent structure that can be considered a precursor to the Bôite à Miracles. Prada Poole's tensed bubbles bring this idea home again, while we can look back and find woven, patterned "fabrics" in the play of digital pixels across the façade of the DR Concert Hall, in the fitted cyclopean stonework of García-Abril's music conservatory, in the bamboo of the Carabanchel housing or the tensed glass sheets of the Telefónica complex. As rendered in almost any material, the non-load-bearing enclosure can be understood as a woven membrane and, in a certain sense, its encloses as essentially tent-like.

Le Corbusier, Primitive Temple
The importance given to enclosure as opposed to structure in this line of development sets it apart from the tradition that extends from Viollet-le-Duc's concept of structural rationalism, of an architecture based on "organic" and "rational" principles of construction. This alternative concept moves through the Gothic Revival, Barcelona Modernisme and Brutalism, for example, and can be ascribed to the work of contemporary figures ranging from Richard Rogers to Santiago Calatrava. These parallel lines of investigation offer a dialectic between the sensorial effects of architectural space on the one hand and the technical means of construction on the other.

To these two groups we should probably add a third, which has been concerned more exclusively with restoring the civic "face" of the building in the courtly, Baroque sense that we have discussed above. This third path was part of the Post Modern attempt to revive or reinvent the civic values of the traditional city, a period that forms a transitional bridge between the alienation of the John Hancock Tower and the arrival of the iconic magic box, though this is a discussion I will have to reserve for another time.

But as we have seen, the line of contemporary architecture that most radically explores the nature and limits of the building skin contains contradictory drives. On the one hand, it would seem to pursue the limits of its own dissolution into spatial atmosphere, seeking to subsume its material being into heightened perception. And on the other, in its essential condition as a barrier, its drive is to withhold, mask, and displace, to interrupt social space and to put into motion the dividing and attracting mechanisms of the semiotic lure. In both these drives, towards heightened perception and seductive withholding, I think it can be fairly stated that its principal point of reference is the endlessly fascinating allure of the illuminated digital screen, and the new, virtual space of public appearance it has created, which is the true and authentic magic box of our time.


1.    Kenneth Frampton, "Prospects for a critical regionalism," Perspecta: The Yale Architectural Journal 20, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts,1983, p. 147-162.

2.    This and following quotes: Rafael Moneo, "Sobre el John Hancock del I. M. Pei & Partners," Arquitectura Bis, No. 52, December 1985, Barcelona, p. 4 - 12.

3.    Le Corbusier, “The Heart as a Meeting Place for the Arts,” lecture presented in CIAM 8, Hoddesdon, England, 1951, published in:
Jaqueline Tyrwhitt, J. L. Sert & Ernesto Rogers, CIAM 8: The Heart of the City,  Pelligrini and Cudahy, New York, 1952.

Luis Moreno Mansilla and Emilio Tuñón introduced me to "La Boite à Miracles", and I discussed it in a text on their work:
David Cohn, "Razón y Forma," 2G No. 27, Mansilla + Tuñón. Obra reciente. Recent work, Gustavo Gili, Barcelona, 2003, p. 6 - 19.

The concept is related to "the cube that works" that Alejandro de la Sota attributed to Le Corbusier: Alejandro de la Sota, Alejandro de la Sota, Arquitecto, Pronaos, Madrid, 1989 p. 176.
4.    Le Corbusier, Ibid.

5.    Ateliers Jean Nouvel, "Danish Radio Concert House," Ateliers Jean:

6.   SANAA, IVAM Extension Project, 2002. Digital press document in the files of David Cohn.

7.   Pepa Bueno, "Esto se hincha," in: José Díaz Cuyás and others, editors, Encuentros de Pamplona 1972: fin de fiesta del arte experimental, Museo Reina Sofía, Madrid, 2009, p. 244.

8.    Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture, Architectural Press, London, 1927, p. 66. Analyzed in: Kenneth Frampton, A Genealogy of Modern Architecture: Comparative Critical Analysis of Built Form, Lars Müller, Zurich, 2015, p 58 – 73.

9.    Kenneth Frampton, "Frank Lloyd Wright and the Text-Tile Tectonic," Studies in Tectonic Culture, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass, 1995, p 93 - 120.


La Bôite a Miracles
Nicolás Mauri and Quique Zarza, editors
The Power of Skin: New Materiality in Contemporary Architectural Design
Arcadia Mediática, Compaq, Arkrit (Escuela TécnicaSuperior de Arquitectura, Universidad Politécnica de Madrid), 2018, pages 225 - 240 (In Spanish and English)