Diagonal Apology

by Mauricio Pezo, 2012

Published in PRODUCTORA 1., the first monograph on the studio. (Texts by Mauricio Pezo, Kersten Geers and Miquel Adrià, ARQUINE, Mexico City, 2012, ISBN: 978-607-7784-26-5)

The word “diagonal” comes from the Greek, (diagonios), a term composed of dia (“through”) and gonal (“angle”). To put it simply, a diagonal is a line connecting two nonconsecutive vertices of a polygon or a polyhedron. Given a rectangular polygon of angles ABCD, its two possible diagonals are AC or BD. Given a rectangular polyhedron of ABCDEFGH, its four possible diagonals are AG, BH, CE or DF. For the geometer it is a straightforward matter to establish that the number of diagonals in a plane may be calculated by subtracting its proximities and reiterations; i.e.: Nd=n (n–3)/2, where n–3 determines that there are no diagonals toward itself nor towards its two adjacent points and where the division by 2 determines that an AB relationship is the same as BA, and therefore does not count. Insofar as it is a geometric prism, a building may be described in at least two dimensions: according to the diagonals of the planes that confine the space or according to the diagonals of the same confined space (equivalent to the volumetric diagonal, something like a “triagonal”).

There are two PRODUCTORA projects (coincidentally, both intended to be built in China) that explore a formal system apparently based on flat diagonal structures (not three-dimensional). The fact that it is only an appearance, on the surface, should not be mere chance.

Each “Chinese project” could be described as a rotated floor plan with regard to the format (of the limits of the site as well as of the computer screen or page of a book), but which in themselves continue to be rectangular structures (both in plan as well as in cross-section). In both cases, the diagonal that establishes the format is merely two-dimensional and issues from a 45° rotation; that is, the only symmetrical and balanced angle in relation to the right angle that organizes the internal distribution of each piece.

The project for the Mexican Pavilion at the Shanghai Expo (2009) consists of an open structure with 17 parallel walls with 16 spaces in between. The walls are equivalent to abstract planes. Beyond the limited representation for the competition, it is difficult to imagine these walls with the physical weight of their construction materials. They seem to be inert diaphragms, hard and immaterial. In these rectangular spaces, the density of the interior does not issue from the system of walls; rather, it stems from the nuances of the shadow cast by the walls themselves, the raised floors, the branches of a tree placed just off-center and, above all, by the furniture and objects that cram the show. The totality of the system does not have enclosures (there are no corners); instead, there are programmatic strips; it is a chain of narrow corridors (approximately 3 meters wide) that come together into the distance. There is no containment. A segment of the exterior stands in array with another exterior, which adjoins the next. Each strip is a narrow intermediate space, something uncomfortable, through which a rather informal circulation is articulated, over two levels. The crossings between strips are always well-defined cuts into the opaque and abstract continuity of the wall. The sequence was formulated, in contrast to the hermetic and dark exhibit hall of the typical world fair, as an open and transparent enclosure, in order to underline the “visual relationship” with the exterior. To see what? The festive and provisional world of a fair that does nothing but reveal its temporary nature, not only in its brief duration, but the very march of time (and light) during the day and night. Similar to Van Eyck’s Pavilion in Arnhem (1965) or the Nasher Piano Center in Dallas (2003), the schema of parallel planes tends to suppress the interior nature of the space; its overexposure leaves the extension of the strip totally naked. But the reading of this barely furnished design has a radical grammar that instead reminds us of the heliographic Ferrari drawings; neighborhoods with continuous fields, with informal overflows of life that is simultaneously urban and domestic, intimate and collective, indoor and outdoor, artificial and natural. The neo-plastic simplification of the floor plan may also refer to the residential artifacts of Archizoom; a paradox of industrial serialization, repetition and anonymity, a perverse mechanism that in its pure individuality, suppresses any vestige of community.

As an almost literal premonition of the compositional pattern, in the Villa in Ordos 100 Complex (2008), the square floor plan is also divided into diagonal strips. Here each strip is a solid, autonomous and separated from the other strips. This is a sequence of 8 axes that segment 9 strips; 5 that are opaque or interior and 4 that are transparent or open. Here, a search for its ancestry is inevitable: from the Hedjuk’s Diamond Houses of the 1960s, to Mondrian’s Tableau paintings of the 1920s. But unlike the Mexican Pavilion, the distinctions between one strip and another are not planes; instead, they are inhabitable volumes (a kind of thick line). Perhaps as a means of recovering a certain domestic scale, this enormous house is fragmented into little dwellings. Perhaps the modesty stemming from Asian luxury makes the proposal a system of corners for an introverted and labyrinthine life. There must be forgotten sections in some corner of the house. There are no windows in the perimeter of the square design; the exterior is a blind perimeter. There are only windows “between” the strips; in this way, the perspectives are short, almost without depth, and the blindness is even more acute. The only visual vanishing points lie in parallel to the strips, and belong to situations of informal living, on terraces or raised patios. With the exception of the automobiles (whose logic is the infrastructure outside the gates), all of the furniture is aligned with the interior walls. Thus, daily life is regulated by the contact with the thickness of each straight-edged wall. Therefore the rotated format is practically unperceived from within. The delicate stratification of slender planes for a life that is almost immaterial, almost timeless (and in this sense, closer to the expo pavilion), is in this case beefed up with monolithic blocks of brick; a heavy mass piled into parallel bodies and truncated at each end, as though it were mutilated by a guillotine. Imagine the precise detail of the outer corner, sharp and piercing; perhaps with small pieces of brick that have been broken in the manufacturing process or eroded by arid winds. It is an edge that not only summarizes the conflict of the formal composition but that, helpless in its sharpness, lays bare its conceptual logic; the expression of a certain hostility towards the surroundings.

It is no accident that in both projects the sequence of the strips has a sloping section. This formal resource sets up a visual effect of distortion of perspective. This illusion dilates or compresses the vanishing point depending on the position of the viewer. We could speak of a double polarity: perspective on the one hand, and continuity on the other. The rigidity and monotony of the design implies a reversible experience. Openness and transparency for the lateral approach (parallel to the walls); opacity and separation for the frontal approach (perpendicular to the walls). However, unlike the sharp cut of the perimeter of the house, the pavilion floor plan does no more than suggest a system of mirror-like diagonals: in exchange for a diagonal line, what occurs here is an orthogonal placement flanked by a zigzagged perimeter (of rectangular cuts).

However it may be, with sharp diagonals or in a serrated line, why rotate the design? Why tediously underline this misalignment between interior and surroundings? Is it perhaps to forget that there where these works will be installed the “street” is nothing but a fiction, a functional contraption for a context overrun with the excesses of advertising and promotion? Perhaps this formal strategy is little more than a rhetorical or, rather, defensive resource, to announce that the formats in which works are inscribed are a product of other systems of efficiency, as distant as they are irremediable, that operate according to the lines set out by a lot with regard to the market.

Perhaps the verdict is a simple one: architects have every right to escape from the circumstances that impinge upon them and, in the best of cases, to rise above them. It is conciliatory, and in fact very politic, to contextualize the constructions with the project’s discourse and operations. But a small degree of perverseness, a touch of autonomy and opposition, may be one of the last resources for maintaining the integrity of an architectural work. Especially for those that are inserted into territories exhausted by their own vanity.


Villa in Ordos, PRODUCTORA, 2008