Free «Transparency: Literal and phenomenal» Essay Sample

Colin Rowe, co-author of this article, was a British-born architectural historian and critic who is known as one of the major influences on urbanism and world architecture between 1950 and the end of the twentieth century. His work in city planning, urban design and regeneration was particularly influential. When it came to reviewing works of architecture, as well as trends, Rowe developed a new paradigm of analyzing history by looking at existing works and then speculating about what could have happened next, if alternatives to existing trends had appeared. This was an approach that frustrated his peers in architectural history, but it also inspired a new generation of upcoming architects to look at history not as a source of precedent, but as a springboard for the imagination. By comparing sets of cultural events that traditional historians would not, because they were part of separate categories, he was able to build new synergies of imagination that allowed him to see connections between works that others did not see, and develop design ideas that were completely different from what others had conceived.

Robert Slutzky, the other co-author of this article, was a painter and writer by training, who taught in the fine arts department at the University of Pennsylvania. As a painter, Slutzky focused on the relationships between form and color. Many of his works featured grids and squares in bright colors, and the relationships of those shapes with the lines that graced his paintings served as a two-dimensional reflection of architecture. As part of his work in education, Slutzky helped upcoming architects look at the space in which they can build as a painter would, instead of how a builder with materials would look. While this might not have been important when considering the architecture of “form follows function” thinkers like Louis Sullivan, more modern architects such as Le Corbusier had to draw on such Cubist influences as Picasso and Braque to develop their innovations. Working together, Rowe and Slutzky collaborated on “Transparency” to respond to the International style, an angular, almost hygienic approach to building that took all of the energy, all of the possibility out of design, in their opinion. They wanted to demonstrate that the amalgamation of ideas that took place in the design of buildings in the Renaissance, Baroque and other periods needed to take place for modern architecture as well.

I will be writing a summary of the main points of this article, and I will also blend in different notions of transparency, rounding out with effects that the ruminations of these thinkers have had on modern architecture.

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The focus throughout “Transparency” is on the different meaning that one can associate with the word that is the title of the article. Obviously, the word can literally refer to an object through which one can see, but it can also refer to articles that permit one to see through, even though they would not be able to do so in the real world. The Cubist way of rendering planes is an example of this – after all, you can’t see through canvas or paint, and so the artist must render the illusion of transparency using those materials. Creating the illusion of transparency is one of the key missions of architecture, which has one more dimension than painting. Rendering that third dimension transparent, as an architect, can permit the translation of artistic meaning from the painter’s canvas to the public square as an edifice.

Critique of Article

Rowe and Slutzky begin with the literal in their analysis of transparency, and they look at this as the property of being “pervious to light,” allowing the viewer to peer into the inside of a structure. This was not a part of architectural design until the advent of Cubism; Rowe and Slutzky attribute this to the “machine aesthetic” that was a part of the modern; literally, the word refers to “the inherent quality of a substance, as in a glass curtain wall” (Rowe and Slutzky, 1963, p. 46). Many architects use this idea to characterize specific visual traits in their buildings, and the literal form of transparency has the convenience of avoiding the philosophical quicksand that the idea of “phenomenal transparency” would bring to a conversation of design.

Peter Rice would follow up on the ideas of Rowe and Slutzky, as outlined in this article, by separating the idea of “transparency” into several different classifications. One commonality that the categories in his taxonomy all have, though, is a connection to the physical state of translucent material. He defined three different types of “transparency,” and the first was “one-way transparency.” Initially, home builders wanted a way to permit as much light as possible into the home without threatening structural integrity. The earliest ways of accomplishing this included the use of translucent sheets or materials, followed by glass pieces. Any opening in a roof or wall that allows light through, providing a visual connection between the inside and the outside, qualifies as this first type. A second type is “two-way transparency.” As building design improved, architects were able to plan for larger windows in the walls of their homes. These larger windows allowed visual connection to pass both ways through those windows; as Rowe and Slutzky describe this, one can access “a simultaneous perception of different spatial locations by using translucent materials or building volumes”(Rowe and Slutzky, 1963, p. 45). The third sort of “transparency” has to do with the ability to engage the views that are distant as well as enjoying a building’s immediate environs. A transparent door, or wall, in this paradigm has to become more important than the connection between inside and outside.

After leaving behind literal transparency, one moves toward the space that seems to exist between solid objects, also known as phenomenal transparency. In differentiating between literal and phenomenal transparency, Rowe and Slutzky assert that:

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Transparency may be an inherent quality of substance, as in a glass curtain wall; or it may be an inherent quality of organization. One can, for this reason, distinguish between a literal and a phenomenal transparency. (Rowe and Slutzky, 1963, p. 46)

While this description aptly works when discussing Cubist painting, it can be difficult to apply this to a three-dimensional form such as architecture. After all, painters can choose whether or not they want to suggest the third dimension or remain flat. In architecture, designers have no choice – they must accommodate the third dimension. Because of the difficulties of approaching this topic in a meaningful way, many architectural critics have been willing to limit the discussion of transparency to the notion of materials – which limits the discussion to the literal. As Rowe and Slutzky indicate, though, this phenomenal level of transparency has almost nothing to do with the conditions of the materials involved. Instead, phenomenal transparency has to do with the way that a building’s design can be read. As Rowe and Slutzky continue,

although one can obviously see through his windows, it is not precisely here that the transparency of his building is to be found…[r]ecognizing the physical plane of glass and concrete [in villa Garches] and this imaginary (though scarcely less real) plane that lies behind it, we become aware that there transparency is effected not through the agency of a window, but rather through our being made conscious of primary concepts which ‘interpenetrate without optical destruction of each other.’ (Rowe and Slutzky, 1963, p. 50)

Another way to put this is that a building’s shape should be able to show the design concept to the viewer, without sacrificing the design. The shape of a particular design and its concept have a close relationship.

Going forward from the work of Rowe and Slutzky, though, the next logical layer of transparency has to do with meaning. Note back in the previous paragraph the notion of concepts being able to exist without destroying one another. For there to be a true transparency of meaning, there cannot be a line drawn between content and form, or between meaning and object. This philosophical point is what unifies all of the movements under the umbrella of modernist aesthetics. The notion is that modern pieces do not require any sort of interpretation, because when one experiences the work, the interpretation takes place at the same time – the experience is the meaning. Of course, moving from philosophy to practice is not easy, and so the challenge for modern architects has become finding a way to design and erect buildings that show that phenomenal transparency in a meaningful way.

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There are some representative works that exemplify the various stages of transparency that Rowe and Slutzky discuss. Walter Gropius designed the Bauhaus building in Dessau, and the workshop wing features a glass curtain facade. The designer wanted the entire wall to provide a visual connection from both within and without. Again, literal transparency is primarily concerned with the building materials' ability to let light through.

One-way transparency is in just about every home built since 1960 in the United States, but it dates back to the very first tipi tents as well. Any building that has a functionally used opening, whether this is a hole in the roof or a skylight, that permits light to enter, has one-way transparency. Light comes in, providing functional translucence, but no visual connection is created from either inside or outside the house. With this sort of transparency, it is the fact that the material allows light to get from the outside to the inside of a structure that is key.

Structures with two-way transparency allow light and visual connections to be made from within and without. While the workshop wing of the Bauhaus building in Dessau allowed light in, in this case the full transition from mere translucence to transparency is completed. An example of a building that has two-way transparency is the Tugendhat House, designed by Mies van der Rohe. The facade features large glass planes, so that the interior can actually “include” the view of the landscape surrounding the house, thus blending the home's exterior and interior. The purpose of this is to create what Rowe and Slutzky termed the “simultaneous perception of different spatial locations” (Rowe and Slutzky, 1963, p. 45). In this situation, the most significant element is that blending of exterior and interior into one unified space.

Moving from two-way transparency to a transparent plane is more a matter of scale than a matter of material. Mies van der Rohe designed the Glass Skyscraper Project. The function is similar to that of two-way transparency from the inside, in that the viewer gets a blending of the interior and exterior of spaces within the larger building. However, the fact that a transparent building shape can serve as an icon or symbol on a city skyline is what pushes the building from transparency to the transparent plane. This sort of structure has not only transparent properties but also transparent capacities.

The transition to phenomenal transparency, as was stated earlier, begins with a nod toward the tendencies of Cubism. Georges Braque's 1911 painting The Portuguese, at first glance, might seem like a jumble, but as you allow your eyes to adjust to the varied planes, there is one plane that consists of a grid of interlocking horizontal and vertical lines, floating over a plane that features a pyramid that dominates most of the composition. Both shapes are visible, and they both take up the same space. Neither is transparent, at least in the sense that a piece of glass or a piece of plastic wrap might be. Both planes contain images, but both are visible – neither has been dominated by the other. As Rowe and Slutzky assert, this painting “offers the possibility of an independent reading of figure (the pyramid shape, as described in the original text) and grid (the division of horizontal and vertical elements)”(Rowe and Slutzky, 1963, p. 47). Because of the way that the painting is organized, it is possible to appreciate multiple forms and states of existence simultaneously. Because you can see the pyramid and the grid at the same time, it is impossible to determine which is the “correct” plane – an ambiguity that is central to modern art.

Moving from painting to architecture, as has been mentioned earlier, is a more problematic transition when it comes to phenomenal transparency than it is for literal transparency. However, Le Corbusier's Villa Stein at Garches is a structure that Rowe and Slutzky found instructive as an example of this transition being done successfully. They describe this project as one that is “primarily occupied with the planar qualities of glass...[they] can enjoy the sensation that possibly the framing of the windows passes behind the wall surface” (Rowe and Slutzky, 1963, p. 50.  It is possible to look at the building, but also see the idea that has been put in place behind it, without losing significance for either of them. The transparent capacity of the glass planes is what accomplishes this, as viewers can understand the design and see the shape, thanks to the translucent window materials and the transparent plane.


As both the extensive lengths to which Rowe and Slutzky have gone to give an exposition of the notion of transparency and the variety of meanings that different designers have taken from that notion indicate, this idea of creating structures with phenomenal transparency remains one of the most challenging adventures facing the modern architect today. However, moving to phenomenal transparency may not be the epistemological shift in paradigm that one assumes. Consider the fact that just about every structure starts as a concept, and that concept will be the basis for all of the elements that go into the basic design. This is the basis of phenomenal transparency – the question of how to convert an idea into shapes, into walls, into bricks, into a finished building? The methods that come from the answer to this question show the particular depth of abstraction and imagination that people are willing to put into the project. Architecture that does not dabble in philosophy is fine for middle schools and community centers; architecture that dares to imagine, though, will not be obsolete in a matter of decades, will not look old and tired soon after completion, but will dazzle the sensibilities of viewers for centuries to come.

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