Archis 1999 #11

Het sex-appeal van de zwaartekracht / The sex-appeal of gravity

— by

There is nothing sexy about gravity. Shards of crockery on the floor, a government minister falling through a fence, a shattered bridge in wartime. Other natural forces have more appeal. The bright light of electricity, the pulsing of kinetic energy, the warm glow of ultraviolet rays. Accordingly, the position of structural consultants is a deplorable one. They are saddled with the unenviable job of working against gravity. There is precious little glamour to their existence. They never rub shoulders with film stars, pilots and racing drivers, or make the covers of popular magazines unlike computer engineers or rocket scientists. They are dogged by the invisibility of gravity. Is that why, for a whole century, they have been leaning over backwards to create sexy buildings? Towers like the legs of a ballerina, bridges like orchestral harps, roofs like the taut sails of a spinnaker. The ultimate goal is an expressive structure, intended to convey the supposed interplay of forces.

Nothing is less true. Gravity is a dull force, always pointing straight down, at right angles to the earth’s surface. The slanting diagonals of a space frame, the spanned stays of a suspension bridge, the splayed legs of a transmitter tower sad figures of speech for the very opposite of gravity. Structures of supports, props and lashings, struggling not to fall down. A fight against time, which ultimately they will lose through wear, erosion or the wrecker’s ball, a collapsed heap of rubble.

The column is possibly the most pathetic of all supporting elements. It reveals the architect’s impotence. He wants the building to float, but can’t manage it. The structural consultant gets the thankless task of making that inconvenience invisible (or at least as tenuous as can be), which is obviously impossible. The unfortunate structural consultant tumbles into the trap, inviting the architect’s eternal contempt. Malevich’s and El Lissitzky’s experiments with Tektons and Prouns, architecture which ignores gravity, are beautiful to behold. Until, that is, a real project is proposed: the Wolkenbügel. Sadly, these splendid smoothing irons cannot smooth the clouds because they are obliged to stand on feet, like grounded model aeroplanes. A building resting on columns has the same sad appearance as a boat propped up in dry dock.

To my mind, the worst cases are the columns standing just in front of the facade, looking helplessly conceited. They can be found in work by Hans Ruissenaars, and also turn up in Jo Coenen’s new library. There’s nothing more detrimental to the ode to gravity than a column. The most glaring example is Jan Hoogstad’s Unilever building in Rotterdam, a clever cruciform office type with an imposing overhang, which is rendered ridiculous by the oversized toothpicks mounted beneath it. If you have to have columns, ‘gravity architecture’ is best served by those which look the least capable of bearing a load. The forest of crisscross stems under OMA’s Villa d’Ava, the columns of letters of the Minnaert Building, the caryatids of the Stèle temple, the ‘wetrag’ columns of Niemeyer’s Brasilia. They suggest evasive bearing behaviour, thus gaining admiration for the fact that the building is standing upright. A selfrighteous row of columns beneath any of these examples would have been fatal.

The architect’s obsession with invisibility and floating has assumed such proportions that, following the slender columns of the seventies and the tensioned wire constructions of the eighties, he has managed in the nineties to get the structural consultant to produce all-glass spans.

In my view, buildings without all these sexy attributes are much better demonstrations of gravity. A building should be lumpen, surly and sullen. It should stand there, in all its hamfisted glory, anchored in the earth, a mountain of heaped-up matter. The most tangible representation of gravity is not the column, but the cantilever. It is the precarious condition of a foreshadowed fall. An imminent threat, an unsettling balancing act. It refers to ominous cracks, deafening roars and muffled cries. A ghastly derringdo, in which the diver, muscles tensed, manoeuvres his toes to the edge of the divingboard, in preparation for his deathdefying leap. The column may not feature as an architectonic element in our work, but the cantilever certainly does. The heads of fire stations, the holes in the Ytower, the projecting roof villas in Sittard, the funnels of the Minnaert Building. Depicting gravity is, in our case, depicting weight, not the slenderness of its resolved vectors.

Elegant structures call upon an idealized image rather than on reality, much like photographers’ models in a glossy. The postcard elegance of Van Berkel’s Erasmus Bridge triggered off a heated debate on whether or not the play of forces should be correctly expressed. Yet that design only really got me interested once the bridge unexpectedly began to sway and had to be secured with orange nylon cables. In that state, the boldness of the enterprise became apparent, and acquired a brazen force. Regrettably this strengthening addition was soon disguised in the trendy design of the cable stay dampers.

It brings to mind the difference in shape between Pamela Anderson and the French female artist Orlan. Both bodies have been ‘enhanced’ with silicones one in predictable, the other in unpredictable places. The former confirms the caricature of the female form, by enlarging the feminine attributes. The latter, with its alarming interventions, emphasizes the full force of the female image. Clearly then, real loadbearing constructions represent the act of falling. It is the power of being frightened that does it, like in the famous photo of Yves Klein. The best representation of gravity I have ever seen was by the renowned Dutch structural consultant Arie Krijgsman.

I remember him in our office, after we had proposed making a huge cantilever, jumping several times with both feet in the air and his arms stretched out in front of him, yelling: "It’s a bomb! It’s a bomb! It’s a bomb!" We watched his efforts to convince us of the outrage of the proposed cantilever in amazement. Still, the beauty of his violent gestures had the opposite effect. Each time Arie forcefully returned to earth, it confirmed for us the visual force of the cantilever, which our sympathetic consultant was so energetically displaying with his own body.