Tough love: a study of the architecture of Pezo von Ellrichshausen



A study of the architecture of Pezo von Ellrichshausen

David Leatherbarrow



Love that has yielded to the right order can no longer be understood as craving and desire because its direction is not determined by any particular object but by the general order of everything that is.1

Hannah Arendt

In Built upon Love Alberto Pérez-Gómez linked together three concepts that can be said to be essential in any architectural work: project, program and promise. I have called them “concepts,” which they are of course, but they can also exist concretely and give durable form and legibility to spatial and social agreements (Figure 9.1). He addressed the interrelationships of these three terms in the second part of the book, where the meanings of the prefix pro were described.2

Project making, to start with the most obvious case, is essentially prospective. Projectum, the English word’s Latin stem, meant something cast or thrown forward. With respect to architectural drawing, Robin Evans captured this sense of the word very well when he described the construction of a perspective as a “projective cast.”3 Alternatively, one can think of the flight of a fisherman’s baited hook, sent on its way in the belief that a catch is somewhere “out there,” the wide target of the cast. Advance is also indicated by the term’s cognates: projectile, projection, projector, and so on. Yet, the advances to which Pérez-Gómez refers occur not only in space but time; pro indicates temporal progress as well as spatial projection. Priority can refer to phase or position, something anterior or in front of. Projects move forward in weeks, months, and years, just as they advance outwardly in feet or meters. As such, a project constitutes something like an offering, extended to another person or place, whereby relationships change. Donations of this kind often involve giving ones word – making a promise – that in turn inaugurates a program of activity or involvement. In architecture, narrowly defined, a program is a proposal for new ways of living in altered settings and spaces. Still another pro- word points to the enactment of a program and its promises: every project unfolds as a process, over which architects have no more than partial control. The full realization of a project, program, or promise is also conditioned – maybe largely so – by the pre-existing structures or order of the world in which it is to find its place and play its role. In the epigraph cited above, the world, “the general order of everything that is,” is the target of desires (projects) that have, Hannah Arendt says, “yielded to the right order.”

Figure 9.1 Pezo von Ellrichshausen, Casa Poli, 2002–5, side elevation (photo by author)



Figure 9.2 Pezo von Ellrichshausen, Casa Poli, 2002–5, window frame (photo by author)


“For love of the world” is the answer Arendt gave when asked why she had devoted her entire life to philosophy. So important was the theme that she first thought to use the Latin version of the phrase (amor mundi) as the title of the text ultimately published as The Human Condition.4 The world she had in mind was not, of course, the planet earth, not even the natural world; it was all of that plus the human order that had (and has) been discovered and established within it – including all of our buildings, cities, cultural institutions, stories, histories, laws, and so on. Another evidence of her long-standing concern with the adventures of affection is the title and subject of her first book, Love and Saint Augustine. The true correlative of desire, she argued, is something lacking in one’s life, something or someone wanted as a counterpart. A sense limitation is required for this experience – self-limitation especially, sensed at the edge or boundary of one’s abilities or capacity – and something beyond it, some image of richness or abundance, in a person, a place, or some wider quarter of the world (Figure 9.2). Anne Carson, in Eros: The Bittersweet, described this liminal situation under three interrelated headings: “Finding the Edge,” “Logic at the Edge,” and “Losing the Edge.”5 In architecture an analogous relationship exists between the needs of the work and the resources of the world, played out at the building’s borders, through elements that enclose and open the interiors, constructed of course, and defined geometrically. Were we to ask the architects whose work I will consider, Mauricio Pezo and Sofia von Ellrichshausen, why their buildings are defined so substantially, precisely, and resolutely, I suspect their answer would be some equivalent to Arendt’s for love of the world, for they, too, explore the spatial, social, and personal “logic at the edge.”

The geometries used by Pezo von Ellrichshausen seem simple, disarmingly so (Figure 9.3). In a time when formal experimentation often seeks novelty above all else, the plans and sections of these buildings appear out of season, at least initially. Yet, if a desire for something spectacular does not prevent us from looking at their work more closely, the designs reveal exceptional refinement, elegance, and inventiveness. Here is my opening question about their work: how can inventiveness occur when plans deploy familiar forms, forms that might seem to result from uncritical borrowing?

The square appears in the plan of many of these buildings, variously resized or adjusted proportionally, by doubling, adding or subtracting a half or the length of the diagonal – nothing new in that. Likewise axial symmetry, seen so often in this work, is an unfashionable but well-known instrument of plan arrangement; although the lines of composition in these layouts generally do not structure spatial passage, the main rooms of the Cien House and the mid-plan stairway of Arco House are exceptions. And finally, the nesting of smaller spaces within proportionate subdivisions of primary forms is an equally recognizable motif of compartition – Alberti, whose term I am using, argued for this procedure centuries ago. Assuming that the reuse of familiar techniques is not an end in itself, two explanations suggest themselves: either Pezo von Ellrichshausen intend their geometries to be representational in some way, or they are mechanisms of design technique. Nuanced differentiation shows that there is nothing mechanical about these arrangements. Nor does formal variation appear to be the aim, even if it is in evidence; rather, it is the result of precise attunement to the requirements of inhabitation and the opportunities of the location. If one says these plans are representational, it is because they anticipate and trace patterns of inhabitation, proportioning, one can say, the ratio between what the work lacks and the world supplies. But this kind of specification is only the first indication of their allegiance to the principle of amor mundi.

Aug 9, 2021 | Posted by in Building and Construction | Comments Off on Tough love: a study of the architecture of Pezo von Ellrichshausen
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