Carving mass: to frame the center

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Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University


Architecture frames life. By framing I mean that it gives individual awareness perimeters which shape the habits of the mind while the material frame supports the life of the body. We live in the center of our awareness. Some of Wallace Stevens’ poetry explores the habits and the shape of consciousness. Consider these lines: I measure myself / Against a tall tree / I find that I am much taller / For I reach right up to the sun / With my eye / And I reach to the shore of the sea / With my ear. (1)

A building is a physical entity which gives us rooms and spaces. A dualism lies in thing and void because it necessarily constricts movement as well as shaping the consciousness as one moves to and fro and as one gazes into the distance. One’s desire to do these things may be frustrated by a poor building, while a well-formed building might encourage a choreography of consciousness, a mental dance. More than any other art, architecture presses upon daily life. It reminds us of the duality of mind and body. When we can enjoy the dual nature of architecture, we become more aware of our wonderful creatureness. A pleasant opposition forms between a sensed object-building and a sensing, willing, walking, inquiring creature. Tactility and other physical qualities which are sensed contribute to vital awareness. I define architecture as the art of building that serves vital feeling over time.

Exterior conditions also frame life. Literal enclosure is not required. For example, a field may form a realm, that is, an ordered place under the sky. We know where we are in a realm. In a city, the parts belong together when most of them are ordered by common elements such as a street or a market square. In the United States, most familiar cities and towns are formed by the street. Often the buildings and the street make a canyon-like room for movement and activity. The life that flows through the street creates a city and nourishes it. Commerce, symbolic activities like parades and social activities like teen-age cruising maintain street life in even the smallest and most ordinary towns.

The thesis project proposes a multiuse building to pull people into a downtown center. Pulaski, Virginia is the chosen town which I will describe in the next section. I begin the design with mass conceptually carved out to frame experience. The building I designed gives Pulaski a stronger downtown edge. This makes a boundary and a turning point to reinforce its identity as a place people feel proud to call home, and to renew the firm pattern of density to guide future builders and planners. This is necessary to forestall the common disintegration of the urban edge into a straggly commercial strip with disconcerting gaps and irregularity. Consider now the specific details of one small town.