Gradient architectures

Mobile, fluid, continuous. For Kerstin Thompson the concept of "gradient architecture" is a way of thinkingand building inbetween. Four current projects demonstrate the possibilities.

This is an article from the Architecture Australia archives and may use outdated formatting

“There are no other differences than gradual differences between different grades of difference and no difference.” William James, p14, Daidalos 73 1999.

“Gradient architecture” describes an architecture articulated by an increase or ›› decrease in the magnitude of a property (for example light, privacy, interiority) observed ›› in the passing from one point or moment to another. At Kerstin Thompson Architects ›› our projects have consistently engaged with the interstitial: with the spaces between ›› architecture and landscape, figure and ground, inside and out, public and private, ›› new and old. We emphasise the in-between conditions of architecture, whether in ›› form or use, to explore an architecture that negotiates between traditional opposites.

For us gradient architecture is a tool for actually building the moments between ›› these opposites.

Thinking about our work in terms of gradient architecture allows us to both ›› consolidate and extend these interests. Gradient architecture is highly articulated and ›› differentiated; it is also about forming and describing the relationships between things.

It describes both a design process and an outcome that is always explained in terms of ›› the relationship between different conditions, and by questions of relativity.

Architecture, like language, is structured around difference. This difference can be ›› articulated in a range of ways, for example, by gradients or by juxtaposition. Both ›› modes raise questions of relativity, but the ways that each articulates difference – in ›› particular the ways in which they engage with the traditional oppositions that structure ›› architecture – are distinct. Whereas juxtaposition maintains the distinct qualities of the ›› opposition by assuming a clear boundary between the elements or conditions being ›› juxtaposed, gradient architecture is a device for dissolving the boundaries between ›› opposites. Formally, an architecture of juxtaposition is likely to be an aggregate of ›› distinct parts that together form a differentiated whole. The language of gradient ›› architecture, as we are currently exploring it, also registers fixed distinctions between ›› forms, programs and qualities. However, our experience of these is never about clear ›› breaks between conditions or elements (as it is, for example, in a series of architectural ›› photos). Instead, it is a mobile, shifting and graded apprehension of these ›› characteristics. Gradient architecture is about our experience in time, about the ›› changing qualities of form that are experienced partially, sequentially and obliquely.

Such difference is, for me, a more interesting proposition than “newness” (for example)

because it allows for change by degrees – for more subtle and complex relations of like ›› and unlike.

If we think of our experience of architecture as often gradual, one consequence is to ›› stop thinking of architecture as constituted by discrete categories, forms and gestures ›› and to begin thinking about the flow of a continuum, or continuous gesture, becoming ›› or unbecoming one condition or quality. This imaging of gradient architecture produces ›› alternative opportunities for architecture. For example, rather than a space being ›› understood as dark in contrast to a light space preceding it, a gradient architecture ›› would regard these spaces as more or less dark along a continuous length. The space ›› may present itself as a single entity that transforms along its length to form a ›› differentiated whole.

A musical helps to explain this idea. Steve Reich’s Music for Eighteen Musicians is, ›› for our purposes, a gradient work. It is structured around the voices and instruments of ›› eighteen musicians. Their instruments are bled in and out of the foreground. The point ›› at which these shifts occur is difficult to pinpoint because the presence and intensity ›› of different sounds flow and merge together to form a seamless transition between ›› one state and the next. The same happens with tempo – alternative times are woven ›› together. The listener is almost unaware of the shift between a slower or faster pace.

This musical analogy suggests that gradient architecture is about temporality as ›› much as it is about spatiality. A gradient architecture is best understood as working ›› with movement, which presupposes time: to experience the transformation and ›› differentiation of gradient architecture one must move through it, or, at a minimum, ›› move an eye over it. It is activated through occupation. Architecture in this mode is ›› spatial work that is relentlessly re-temporalised. Architecture ceases to be monumental ›› because it is transformed at every moment of the day. Gradient architecture is ›› constituted in and through the use of space – in the performance of place.

Much contemporary architectural discourse concerns the concept of blurring, ›› particularly the notion of blurring distinctions between landscape architecture and ›› architecture, or figure and ground. Outcomes can be compelling as graphic ›› representations and computer renderings. However, as built architecture they are often ›› problematic. In particular, the seam or joint between one material condition and the ›› next often undermines the project of blurring. Gradient architecture, as I imagine it, is ›› able to explicitly articulate these seams while also avoiding oppositional structures. By ›› its very definition, “gradient” allows for stepped calibrations, for incremental shifts in ›› building fabric or elements. The scale of these calibrations is dependent on the type ›› and speed of movement that the occupant will bring to the space. Blurring is produced ›› by the occupants perceptual processes as they experience the space. Gradient ›› architecture is a concept about relations and relativity. Each thing is more or less in ›› relation to the next.

So, how might gradient architecture give form to the moments between extreme ›› conditions? How can gradient architecture shift between opposites? The following ›› projects from our office illustrate how a series of gradual or incremental changes and ›› shifts can bring together or merge opposing conditions or qualities. Each project is ›› activated through use, and each is enabled by concepts of gradients.

Long Life Loose Fit Masterplan for RMIT Technology Estate ›› Our original proposal for the masterplan of the Long Life Loose Fit buildings of RMIT’s ›› Technology Estate was in five stages. The brief required an explicit application of bio-climatic ›› design principles. Rather than apply these as secondary systems to a ›› traditional building envelope, we devised a form that is the product of the solar ›› orientation of the site. In response to the path of the sun, the building’s form and ›› associated skin, articulated by three bands in different degrees of transparency and ›› opacity, twists. In a constant state of transformation it uses a gradient to shift ›› between being more or less of a roof or wall relative to the solar orientation of ›› the surface.

We were commissioned to develop Stage 1 only. The major challenge was how to ›› reflect the continuous nature of the original masterplan with only part of it built. How ›› could we suggest the larger ambitions of the project through a single stage? The use ›› of gradients, intrinsic to the original design intent, was extended to solve this problem ›› of the incomplete masterplan.

The masterplan explored a gradient between the roof and walls to dissolve the ›› point of distinction between them. In developing Stage 1 we relied on colour and ›› landscape gradients to dissolve the distinction between architecture and landscape.

Parts of the building were camouflaged in the landscape, shifting it between being ›› the foreground or the background. At times the building is part of the landscape ›› rather than a discrete object that is clearly separable from its surroundings. The ends ›› of the building are disguised, suggesting that it is the continuous gesture of the ›› original masterplan.

Hallam Bypass Sound Walls ›› A central aim of our sound walls to the Hallam Bypass is to differentiate and localise ›› the various places along the length of the freeway. The treatment of the walls varies – ›› in the scale of the zigzags, in colour and in opacity – in order to register the different ›› scales and features of the adjacent landscape. For example, the walls beside ›› residential allotments are distinct from those beside reserves or watercourses.

The walls orientate people in their travels – whether on foot, bike or by car.

However, rather than assemble a series of discrete wall sections linked only by ›› proximity or materials, we conceived the walls as a gradually transforming single ›› entity. An associated decrease or increase in the intensity of a dominant colour ›› amplifies the spatial expansion and compression produced by the zigzags. For ›› example, on approaching the Eummemmering Creek the zigzags compress, the use ›› of ochre colour intensifies, and clear acrylic panels increase the transparency of the ›› walls. Conversely, as one moves away, the zigzags expand, the ochre is gradually ›› replaced by charcoal, and the walls return to being opaque. Like Reich’s musical ›› weaving, one condition is gradually replaced by the next. With the speed of car travel, ›› the wall forms a dramatically evolving element that is understood through movement, ›› and that amplifies the experience of the bypass.

Gradient House 1 ›› Taking a lesson from Shinohara’s “House under High-Voltage Lines”, this design ›› exploits planning requirements and site constraints to define the maximum volume ›› permitted. The use of gradients, in both section and plan, enables a more efficient ›› negotiation between these constraints than a stepped rectangular form would.

Planning regulations required that the building be single storey to the street, while ›› the client brief necessitated a double storey in part. We graded the envelope from ›› low, wide and dark at the street end of the site to high, narrow and bright at the rear.

As the building increases in height it moves further away from the north boundary of ›› the neighbouring property in accordance with setback requirements. The “problem” of ›› the site becomes the enabling constraint – the device for architectural delight.

Gradient House 2 ›› An existing warehouse shell is domesticated – in part by the insertion of a circular ›› drum. This forms a courtyard, a lantern and a lung for the adjacent interior spaces.

Rather than prescribe three rooms around a square courtyard, we used the non-directional ›› circular form to grade between the spaces of stasis and spaces of ›› movement; between one “room” and the next; between intimate space and public ›› space. The walls of the drum are made of panels of glass and perforated timber ›› sheet. Arranged in varying intensities, they grade the quality of light entering the ›› interior from bright to dark.

A further lantern is inserted to the south-east corner of the building. This houses a ›› stairwell linking the entry, an apartment at the first floor, and finally a roof terrace. It ›› forms a vertical gradient of intimacy between public and private space. This gradient ›› is associated with further ones of light and mass. As one ascends through this space, ›› the light intensity increases and the stairs shift from massive to skeletal.

Kerstin Thompson is the principal of Kerstin Thompson Architects.



Published online: 1 May 2001


Architecture Australia, May 2001

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