The Opposite of Architecture

September 27, 2008

For a printable version click The Opposite of Architecture PDF

A minimal work of art designed to live in memory by Landscape Architect, Peter Walker

It’s next time again.

Instead of coffee this month, perhaps we can share a refreshing cup of tea and a shortbread biscuit. It has been a time of great intensity. I can’t recall three weeks which have been more varied or more interesting. I’ve had the great good fortune to interview two world class architects on both sides of the Atlantic and the ideas they have expressed are radically transformational.

Surprisingly, both of them discussed, in their own ways, the topic of last month’s Blog. Surely, you will extend artistic status to negative space – this month epitomized by the courtyard. I mean, by artistic, an otherwise useless thing which can often provide a big impact.

What is the purpose of the courtyard? How does it work? Why is it needed? Why would one dedicate valuable real estate to such an ephemeral thing?

The first architect I interviewed did a great job of asking and answering these questions. He sort of fell out of the sky and landed in front of the camera for a rush project about new buildings and landscaping at Cleveland Clinic. We created a half hour show for them in a whirlwind two weeks which has left me catching my breath. Peter Walker, who is probably the greatest Landscape Architect alive, generously gave me an extended interview describing his concept behind the landscaping and formal site planning created for the Clinic. He also talked about everything from the exquisite refinement of the French garden master Le Nôtre, to the minimal art of Don Judd and Carl Andre; three highly sophisticated artists from whom he has drawn inspiration. The ideas he expressed, laced with insight and artistic references, are truly gorgeous and I will append this blog with excerpts of a transcript for you to enjoy.

Landscape Architect, Peter Walker, talks with Cleveland Clinic CEO, Delos M. Cosgrove III, about the minimal art fountain at the Clinic’s new front door.

You can imagine my astonishment when, unprompted by me, Peter Walker launched into a lofty discussion of negative space. When he started down this delightfully spacious and elegant road, my jaw practically hit the floor! After thinking about the many comments and shared experiences written and posted on the Blog over the past month, he could not have known how passionately interested I was in his comments and how eager I was for his ideas.

The initial concept of the water, stones and trees garden creates a minimalist new entrance to Cleveland Clinic

Here is a taste of what Peter Walker had to say:

“This business of having nothing show, is true of most of our work. Because we tend not to make objective things, we’ll make a fountain or something, but typically we work in the negative spaces. We work in the space that the building sits in, or the space that somebody plays baseball, or it’s a space for other purposes and whatever beauty you bring to that, you bring to the space itself, not some object within it. It’s almost the opposite of architecture in that sense.

If you think of architecture as interior space, which people don’t today as much as they perhaps should, it’s very much the same. But if you think of the great buildings of our period that put so much emphasis on the outsides, their sculptural form, it’s the opposite of that, because we have no sculptural form.

Often when you plant things, people look at them and they’re just green – it’s like looking out the window when you’re driving around – you know, it’s just green. It has no meaning, it has no specialness, you don’t even focus on it.

It’s simply the background for other things, for activities of various kinds. So, over the last twenty-five years, I’ve tried very hard from an artistic point of view, to try and find more ways of making these places special while still performing the same functions that landscape generally performs – which is a setting, and to some extent an empty place.”

Demetri Porphyrios explains the roots of Collegiate Gothic in front of St. John’s Chapel – a paragon of Gothic Architecture at King’s College in Cambridge University.

The second architect gave me an enlightened tour of Cambridge University for the documentary we are producing about two very different buildings recently completed at Princeton. This documentary is called Extreme Visions. (See In Production). Demetri Porphyrios, whose offices are in Great Portland street in London, is a traditionalist and describes himself as a classical architect. He is every bit as impassioned about Architecture as is Mr. Walker and since both of them are excellent teachers, I feel as though I have been through an intensive crash course in Architectural thinking.

Demetri Porphyrios was born in Greece and his father was a scholar of Homer who felt that Architecture was too much of a trade where his scholastically brilliant son might get his hands dirty. Demetri, therefore, studied Art History, for a while, before going to Princeton to study Architecture against his father’s wishes. His teacher at Princeton, in the early 1970’s, was a young Michael Graves. Demetri’s eyes twinkled behind his stylish purple eyeglasses as he qualified his professor by explaining this was Michael Graves filled with the white boxed ideas of Le Corbusier, rather than the Michael Graves who became known for a certain kind of geometric post modern building and designer products sold at Target.

Demetri’s buildings at Princeton are defiantly traditional Collegiate Gothic buildings with a crenelated castle tower and a “moat” filled with trees and striking courtyards setting off his buildings with (you guessed it) sublime green negative space. See him now at Cambridge telling me to stay off the lawn.

“We don’t walk on the grass here in Britain.” I stare down at my idiot feet and wonder where they came up with the moronic notion that lawns were places for vulgar sunbaths and litter-strewn picnics or playing frisbee with the dog? How did those stranger’s shoes at the end of my long legs get over here on the lawn next to the trespassing tripod? Have I lost my mind?

The impact of the courtyard here hits you like a very old brick. It is a sublime effect which “centuries of care has wrought from the turf of England.” Later in the day, we saw the gardeners simultaneously mow and roll the living green fabric, creating a checkerboard in the nap of the lawn, sort of like rubbing your finger the wrong way across velvet.

Digital Cinematographer, Martin Hampton, on location at Kings College at Cambridge University for the Telos documentary, Extreme Visions.

We came to Cambridge to find the origins of the Collegiate Gothic style as adopted and transformed into something American by the most prestigious universities in the New World. What we found, of course, was not one thing but many things. What is this need to search for style and expect that style to be a single, easily understood thing? Isn’t anything worth examining more delightfully complex than something you can name with a single word?

It is totally irrational to expect a small city constructed over a period greater than 500 years to be homogenous like a developer’s Ye Olde Englishe scheme.

At Cambridge we saw enormous, richly-detailed, Gothic masterpieces both religious and profane. Kings College Chapel, a fully religious Gothic wonder, sitting right next door to the grand entrance of the (secular) King’s College were the primary demonstration of this important idea. Our first long shots of the day were taken across a meadow showing “The Backs” of the chapel and college buildings. The King’s own cows were in evidence lounging near a canal complete with punter moving slowly across the frame in the early morning light. The porter was kind enough to let me know the cows are rare, only 350 of this breed remain, and they are also important for another reason. Without the cows upon it, the ownership of the land would be ceded from the King, to the people of England.

"The Backs" at King’s College in Cambridge. The King’s cows insure the land remains with the King.

Cambridge is not just Gothic, Religious Gothic, Neo-Gothic, or even Collegiate Gothic. There are Palladian arcades, Tudor facades, Round 20th Century squat towers made of glass, and Victorian porticos. We saw modernist buildings make brutal juxtapositions of cheap 1960’s concrete against flourished cut granite. Medieval fortresses with rubble stone walls frame castellated towers with almost drawbridge style entrances. Punctuating all this are gargoyles, gilt clocks, knights in armor, monstrous chimera, giant granite orbs, miniature greek temple cupolas, sundials, purple ivy, carved stone lace, obelisks, perforated tracery, and heraldic rampant lions squaring off against rearing horned horses. Look closely and you’ll find two seventeenth century Renaissance facades sandwich a red brick filling from the 12th century! The red brick building has the look of a monastery and in a profound respect for its old architectural bones it has been preserved and still functions to this day.

A red brick "filling" from the 12th century between two gorgeous Renaissance facades at Cambridge.

Through all of this sensory overload, is the courtyard. The sublime unifying idea. An elegant, important gesture of negative space in a cluster of hugely varied architectural styles. These courtyards are filled with serenity. They are at once timeless and relaxing. In Cocteau’s phrase, they “pluck naked beauty from the thin air in which she resides.”

I grew up in suburbia. All the houses on my street looked exactly the same. We were proud to own the “model” home of the developers project but any time I went down the street to my friends houses I knew just where everything was because the plan of my house matched theirs exactly. The only variable was that the planners created a break in the tedious “ticky tacky” by making every other house a mirror image. Every identical house had a lawn. A patch of green setback (ours was mostly crabgrass) which was the length of the double wide driveways. There was nothing interesting about these lawns – they were just there begging to be mown. They were the banal essence of the drive-by meaningless green Peter Walker described above. If you were really lucky, you had a newly planted spindly tree trying to grow as fast as possible in a vain attempt to give character to an otherwise ugly cookie-cutter landscape. The tenuous conceptual connection of these lawns to the grandeur of the English courtyard seems much more than half a world away.

Is the purpose of the courtyard merely to frame the building? Or, is one of the mostly unthought of purposes of the building to frame the courtyard? When seen from above, as a bird in flight, the courtyard organizes an otherwise chaotic landscape. It provides definition and clarity. It provides the physical and psychological distance for architectural appreciation. It provides the expensive-but-worth-it vantage point, a calm space for reflection in an otherwise crowded city.

Demetri Porphyrios explains,

“When you look at the organizational principles of Collegiate buildings at Oxford and Cambridge the main idea of the spatial organization is the idea of the court. In Italy, there was the cortile, the small piazetta. In England, it appears as the gathering place of initial settlements; literally cut out of the forest where humans could be together. Courts are simple things and are totally trans-cultural and trans-historical.

The open space varies in size but it allows the hierarchies in the surrounding buildings to be seen and appreciated. (In this case, at Selwyn College at Cambridge, a Chapel, the President’s Building, The Great Hall, and the "Bread & Butter Buildings – dormitories.) A court is a minuscule image of the city. What for me is fascinating about the typology of the courtyard is that it provides the intensity of the city. It allows you to see and appreciate the intensity of urban habitation.”

For Cleveland Clinic, a large urban project in search of coherency, Peter Walker’s design provides the entry way, the vista, no less than the ceremonial introduction to the institution. It borrows from the formal French garden and modern minimalist artists at the same time. Between a long allée of trees, two stretches of massive shallow pools contain rocks and water. The rocks are set in a totally unnatural geometric pattern like an orchard.

The fountain in front of the new buildings at Cleveland Clinic. Conceptual minimal art meets medicine.

In front of the main building is a stunning fountain. Unlike a normal sunken pool, Peter Walker creates a “piece of water”– an acrylic donut holding up the water with no visible means of support. It is at once astonishing sculpture and fountain. Peter Walker wanted it to be a fountain with everything extraneous taken away. It is sophisticated and daring. If seen in the context of minimal art, it becomes a metaphor for medicine. What do I mean? In minimal art Peter Walker explains, “How much can you take away before this thing falls apart?” He says this with a hint of irony. I’m reminded of the first principle of medicine from Hippocrates, “First, do no harm.” The doctor always has to be concerned about unintended consequences, however well intentioned. Sometimes, in the treatment of the sick – less is more.

If Walker’s art is conceptual, how does this memorably serene gesture, which literally “runneths over”, connect to the broader mission of medicine? I’m not sure why I think both of these concepts draw force from the same well, but I feel as though they do. Perhaps your comments and insights can point me in the right direction.

Until next time with much love, Tom


  • martina says:

    Dear Tom,

    I wss intrigued to think about courtyards. I started dreaming about the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. The courtyards are always filled with the sound of water, from fountains and pools. There is always a bit more breeze, than in the inside rooms, and even the covered colonnades. One is invited to look through an arch toward the mountains, or through a covered arch toward the flower gardens beyond the doorway. Always there is the paradisal sound of running water, trickling, rushing, or playing from the fountains. As in the way you describe the “Backs” at Cambridge, there is a feeling of all the people who over the centuries have seen the same beautiful scene you are witnessing, and sighed, as you are sighing. Over the main entrance there is a line exhorting the visitor to give alms to the blind; “because there is no pain in life greater than to be blind in Granada”.

    Actually, to hear the fountains may make the blindness less painful, but to smell jasmine and roses as well would lift the spirits even more! I believe one of the greatest postings here is the one by William Kiser, about Pelli’s suggesting pools of water in front of a hospital, mirroring the pools at Bethesda. I love that idea. I would like for the entrances to hospitals to be arches of water, the paths edged and rounded by water, tunnels of water to suggest a sort of baptismal journey toward healing. We could do so much with water, to reduce the painful noises and jarring psychic overload in hospitals from terrible alarm systems which are overloading the consciousness of every caregiver and member of the healthcare team. We could really help soothe people, calm people, improve slumber, increase ease and resfulness, simply by using water more skillfully in architectural design of hospital spaces! And it would be such a blessing to incorporate more courtyards, such as one has all around in the Alhambra, delighting the mind, the eyes, the senses. Thanks for another very interesting reflection!

  • Thomas Randleman says:

    Dear Tom,

    Finally had a moment to look at your Blog and found the information regarding Cambridge particularly interesting. I visited there during the eighties and was impressed by the respect for the past while looking to the future. The quality of the architecture and landscape remains for me, a perfect setting for learning and growing as a human being in spaces that are humane. By this, I mean an enviornment which is condusive to learning while at the same time having reverence and respect for the past all within “spaces” that give one “room” and combat the chaos of moden life. There are so many little pockets of greenery and places to sit and relax while looking a a “vista.” Many of our modern spaces have forgotten how lovely a vista in the distance can enhance not only architecture but our sense of pleasure. The “Backs” are a lovely way to spend anytime of day, knowing that many others who have walked there centuries before have enjoyed the same views and pastoral quality of the scene right in the heart of a city. Of course, not only are the collection of colleges and universites a wonderful tapesty of England’s heritage, the city itself is vibrant and has many architectural gems, the Fitzwilliam Museum being only one.

    Thanks for the opportunity for me to remember this wonderful visit.


    Thomas Randleman is a design consultant with exquisite taste and a superb interior designer – TB

  • Adele Silver says:

    Tom, thank you for including me in your blog. Interesting stuff about negative space, Did not know Walker was doing C Clinic entry etc, have been looking forward (far into future, I fear) to his collaborative work at World Trade Ctr site. Glad to have the chance to read these interviews, your comments, and other responses. Best, Adele

    Adele Silver is an Art and Philanthropic Consultant who has written extensively on Art Education. For many years, she was with the Cleveland Museum of Art, where she wrote a Guide to the Galleries. She now lives in New York City. – TB

  • Dear Tom,

    I have enjoyed your latest blog ,”The opposite of architecture”, especially your conversation with Peter Walker regarding the creation of his magnificent “courtyard” entrance to the expanded Cleveland Clinic.By masterful use of Trees, stones and water he has created a welcoming, peaceful, comforting environment, a “sublime green space”, to greet worried, anxious, hopeful, disease laden patients of the future. At last Cleveland Clinic has a “front door”, and one which in and of itself has healing value.

    I am reminded of discussions which the great architect, Caesar Pelli , and I had in the early 1980s as plans were being developed for the “Crile building”. Caesar envisioned a series of pools of water cascading across the green space in front of the building.We were inspired by biblical stories of the healing quality of the pools of Bethesda in ancient Jerusalem. It was there that Jesus is said to have cured a man with paralysis of 28 years duration (John: 1-18) Our dream of falls of curative waters did not become reality because of budgetary constraints!

    Peter Walker and Clinic leadership have in fact created Cleveland Clinic’s own ” Healing Pools of Bethesda” with the incredibly beautiful fountain and the lovely shimmering pools of water which welcome all who come to Cleveland Clinic for care. Let the healing process begin!

    Many thanks for sharing your great thoughts for all to enjoy.

    With warm regards, Bill

    Bill Kiser was the Chairman of Cleveland Clinic from 1976-1989. He and his team developed the first real master plan for the Clinic’s expansion. It was called, The Century Plan. At the time, it was the largest hospital development plan in the Nation. – TB

  • Paulette Glovesen says:

    I was so interested to read that you had been to one of my very favourite places, namely, Kings College, Cambridge. I went to Evensong there once and it was sublime. But I am an addict of the ‘Voci Bianci’ or Cathedral Choristers having been brought up in a Cathedral City. Now to courtyards. I must have owned the smallest courtyard in the world, in the flat I owned in Venice. You will remember it. I adored it. Firstly, it was precious ‘outside space’. Secondly, it was so mysterious, being walled on all four sides so the only way to look was up. Up to the glorious skies, tree tops and chimney pots. One could hear but not see so one’s thoughts were full of imagined scenes on the other sides of the walls. Walls which called out for flowers and greenery. But the most lovely sensation was that of fresh air and privacy.

    Paulette Faulkner adores Venice and lives in Poole, U.K. – TB

  • Finnius says:

    Great photos and commentary! Thanks for the upbeat, informative, and insightful perspectives.

    Finnius Ingalls is an architect and lives in Boulder – TB

  • John Ziegler says:

    I understand the notion of negative space, but space is space, regardless of its shape and its boundaries. To say that it is negative implies that it is the opposite of something else, which is not really true, except in the absolute sense of a hypothetical hollow box that contains the space inside (‘positive’ space), and excludes the space outside (‘negative’ space).

    I prefer thinking about space as a fluid, to be shaped and then inhabited, to travel with it and through it. Given that Tom interviewed one of the great designers and traditionalists of our time, I must confess that I am prejudiced, having had the pleasure and honor of working with Dr. Demetri Porphyrios on the construction of Whitman College at Princeton University. A day does not pass without my enjoying the experience of walking around, through, into, and out of Whitman College.

    To be decidedly non-architectural, I’ve described Whitman College to be like an English muffin, filled with nooks and crannies. In designing Whitman College, Demetri has not contained space as much as he has enhanced it. The space that envelopes Whitman College flows dynamically, as do the people who enter its domain. Demetri has given ‘here’ and ‘there’ special meaning. There is always a foreground and a background, a starting point and a destination. Demetri enhances the spaces between the two by creating intermediate objects, some permeable, others impenetrable. Demetri always modulates the great Space, simultaneously giving value to it and to the structures that shape it.

    Never totally contained, each space and suggestion of space draws one into its fold. Visual clues in the architecture suggest movement, and as with many buildings on the Princeton University campus, options abound. Therein lies the genius of the planning; successfully manipulated, space becomes dynamic, and the otherwise heavy-handed structures are simultaneously robust and lively. The courtyards (and other semi-enclosed spaces) vary in scale, and they acknowledge their neighbors. The comparatively intimate north court has an unmistakable identity, even as its lawn openly flows downward to meet Elm Drive, the main north-south route on campus. The semi-sunken east court provides a connection to the main entry gallery, and becomes the foreground to the symbolic tower of Whitman College that one views beyond the gallery and the apparent but not quite visible south court. And the south court itself, not quite contained, becomes a semi-protected enclave for celebrations all the while being quite permeable to the north, east, and west by a series of steps, arches, and cloister.

    Thus Demetri has created a series of courtyards that provoke, engage, welcome, and shelter. Style is not irrelevant in this hamlet, but it does enrich the space that surrounds it. And space returns the favor.

    John Ziegler is the Construction Project Manager for the recently completed Whitman College Complex at Princeton University. – TB

  • abe frajndlich says:

    hello tom,

    just keep the flow coming.

    it’s all good.

    i’m here,

    your friend,


    Abe Frajndlich is an outstanding photographer of photographers (among other celebrities). He has a fabulous new show on Minor White opening at the Howard Greenberg Gallery in NYC Sept. 12-Oct. 18 – TB

  • Jan Lewis says:

    The simplicity of the use of negetive space with the sound and visuals of water is one of the most peaceful forms of art I know. Thank you for a wonderful story.

    Jan Lewis collects contemporary art. She and her husband live in Miami and are major benefactors of the Cleveland Orchestra. – TB

  • Charles Michener says:

    Tom –

    A few days ago I had a magical demonstration of negative space in action at the Pulitzer Collection in St. Louis. The architect is the Osaka master Tadao Ando, who makes origami-like buildings out of reinforced concrete, the walls of which don’t so much define rooms” as lead you on a metaphysical journey – as the garden paths do at the princely retreat of Katsura near Kyoto. My visit coincided with an installation of Dan Flavin’s neon tubes. As in a musical canon, each piece was chosen and placed to extend and echo other Flavins as well as their own reflections in a pool outside. Shadows deepened the gravitas (see Junichiro Tanizaki “In Praise of Shadows”. The Pulitzer’s one permanently installed piece – a large Ellsworth Kelly painting of two panels, sky blue and slate gray – established a magisterial still point. As I meandered from Flavin to Flavin, frequently stopping to retrace my steps and let the mystery sink in, I could see the sun setting outside, the city disappearing before my very eyes.

    Wish you’d been there . . . Charles

    Charles Michener is a senior editor at the New Yorker and was the Culture Editor at Newsweek for a decade. He is currently working on book about Cleveland titled, The Hidden City. – TB

  • Once again your inspiring post has led me to dream about unexpected topics, and this time it is the useless, ephemeral, empty, anti-architectural courtyard. How can this gesture of empty space, as you put it, have any meaning? It reminded me of a place I once wrote about. This was a well-known girl’s school that built an elaborate new home in the 1930s and hired none other than the illustrious landscape architect, Albert D. Taylor to construct an outdoor theater. This was not a Hollywood Bowl type outdoor theater. There were neither chairs nor wooden stages…just grass and plants and trees and hills. After Taylor completed it, he told his client that it would be another six years until it was ready. His architecture was one that actually had to grow to reach maturity and match his own sublime vision.

    The girls at the school adored the place for its beauty. One of the students wrote: “How often have I walked from the playgrounds, thinking of the coldness of the day and the bleakness of winter when, suddenly looking to my left at the new theater, I saw a vision of bright colors and glorious sunshine…As a background to all this, are green and flowering shrubs with tall trees. In the foreground is a soft grassy hill, gently sloping up from the stage, and there sits the audience.” Clearly, this young girl appreciated, as well as anyone, the designed beauty of emptiness, where a “grassy hill” itself becomes architecture. But, a danger comes with this planned emptiness. Sometimes this “opposite of architecture” is vulnerable to being filled with “functional architecture.” Tragically, this 1930 Taylor-designed open space was destroyed by a new gymnasium, and few pictures of it today even survive.

    Tom concludes this month with another inspiring cliff-hanger of a notion. How do rocks and water connect with and become a metaphor for medicine and healing? I cannot begin to answer, but humbly offer this in response. Each year on the anniversary of my father’s passing I find a rock that somehow represents something of me at a given moment in time. I search for just the right one each year. They come from the rock garden designed in the shape of a long, flowing river outside the hospice where he took his final breath. I now have seven that I arrange on an otherwise empty shelf in my home. They are a reflection of seven years of absence. To me rocks and rivers are a metaphor for life, and death. I am not sure what my collection means, but I find that I look at it almost every day. I find it to be my own “memorably serene gesture.”

    Mark is a historian and quite obviously an exceptional writer. He can be visited at – TB

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