What we imagine is the experience of space
Photo:© Andra Ionel, 2021, Valerio Olgiati, Villa Alé m, Alentejo, Portugal, 2014.
Architecture creates space by passing it through the filter of imagination and representation. In the age of digital media, the image in architecture is becoming the main tool to persuade and fascinate. But can the true experience of space be captured in the medium of image?
In the summer of 2021, I had the opportunity to visit Villa Além and Peiro de Cha, two houses designed by Valerio Olgiati in Alentejo, Portugal. If we study the two floor plans, we easily deduce the theme around which both houses are ideated: the garden.
What we do not see in the textured floor plans is the context. On the plans, both buildings appear to be invention-like, buildings that stand for themselves, independently of the site. Indeed, the floor plans suggest the way one moves through the houses. They indicate similarities – e.g., both living rooms face the garden – but also significant differences: Villa Alé m appears to have a more formal character, the hierarchy between spaces being strictly determined, while the character of the rooms in Peiro de Cha appears to be rather informal and domestic.
However, by visiting the houses, one discovers new aspects of the projects. Villa Alem is placed on a hill, while Peiro de Cha is located in a valley. In Villa Alem the garden is enclosed by four strong walls. The house itself is part of the enclosure of the garden. The garden opens towards the sky, in virtue of the inclined walls. In Peiro de Cha the walls relate differently to the surroundings. The house itself is placed like a precious object in the garden. The garden blends visually into the valley, having no boundaries. Villa Alé m has thus a citadel-like character, where the contact with the vast horizon is framed by the openings in the walls. Peiro de Cha has instead the character of a plateau, expanding into the valley, while being protected by it.
While conventional drawings communicate all the information necessary to understand intellectually the main topic of the project, a building can be fully experienced only in person. The drawings rationalise and intellectualise an architectural intention, but there is a significant difference between representation in design and the concrete experience of space. When we architects design a building, we do not think of it in terms of an image. The purpose is not the plan, the object is not the representation. What we imagine is the experience of space. This is what drives us in design. While we must give this experience the form of an image, we should not confuse what is being represented with the representation.
Andra Ionel is an architect based in Bucharest and Mendrisio. She studied architecture at UAUIM in Bucharest and Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany. She has been an intern at offices in Basel, Freiburg and Karlsruhe. She has worked for SO-IL in New York City during her stay in the USA. Since 2020 she is a lecturer at the Accademia di Architettura in Mendrisio, leading a first year Bachelor’s design studio at the chair of Professor Valerio Olgiati. In 2021 she founded ZEIA architecture studio together with Elena Zara.