“Our time is taking the sculptural abstraction of a regular building perhaps further than ever before. Still, all of our “blobs”, “algorithmic structures”, “wedges”, “potato chips”, etc. are re-organisations of a limited set of elemental building parts. The catalogue of these parts has remained the same ever since our ancestors had THE idea of human history: the switch from finding shelter to building it.
For better or for worse, a wall is the defining building part for human beings. Whereas most terrestrial animals visually focus on the ground, we decided, some 3 million years ago, to stand up and face ahead. Still, during the first years of our life, people do a literal shift of focus from plan to elevation. Many people can read basic floor plans sufficiently to locate walls and rooms, but have trouble understanding sections - the location of horizontal planes in the third dimension. Although in most climates the roof is the most essential element for weather protection, the sociological value of the wall – its ability to define privacy and ownership – makes it the most prominent building component. Walls can provide a feeling of security and safety. On the other hand, they can create disconnection or captivity. The Great Wall of China is said to be the one single structure on Earth visible from the moon. What kind of messages are we sending up there? What is it that walls actually do?
Walls Between Us
The most famous wall in recent history is the Berlin Wall (1961-1989). It embodied separation. The barrier wall built in the West Bank between Israel and Palestine continues the tradition. In nearby Jerusalem the Western Wall proves that walls can function as a symbolic unifier, in addition to being mere tools for keeping the evil out. As the Western Wall is also significant to the Muslim faith, and the subject of armed conflict between these cultures, it also proves the fact that walls are never just simple matter-of-fact structures. Even the Berlin Wall became, with time, a tool of communication.
Through ornamentation to posters and graffiti, wall paintings are the oldest known existing way of sending messages over time. Wall paintings connect us to thoughts from our forefathers 30 000 years ago. As most of us nowadays live in cities, it is walls, more than anything, that define the spaces of our lives: they frame our view of the world. According to how walls in an urban scale are placed, they create street vistas that underline either opportunities and hope, or limitations and oppression. Is it a coincidence that it is Wall Street where so much of the contemporary life is defined? Meanwhile, climbing walls, squash court walls, walls of sound, and many others are used to keep our bodies active and our minds alive.
Break on Through
Modernist architecture tried to get rid of the wall. It was made non-load-bearing and transparent, with the aim to blur the border between inside and outside. Architecture figuratively reflected the trauma of political separation and unwanted boundaries. We are now entering the time after ultimate transparency. The idea is being killed by trends, such as reality TV, that are just taking it all too far. In architectural terms, we have learned that transparency without distraction was a dream and that non-existence is not reality (these ideas may be achievable in the virtual real – never mind a few firewalls). We are in the process of defining new goals for an ideal world – and ideal walls. Lately, ecological needs are conveniently supporting this awaited re-definition. All in all, walls keep us safe. A borderline is not only a place to separate but also a place to meet.
So, there is no reason to put walls down… but there is reason in building great doors and windows.”