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The interior

Between detail and city
Text by
Cees Dam

Is there still such a thing as the interior? Is it more than decoration? More than fitting out a building with all sorts of accessories according to the latest fashion?

Interior designers are responsible for the curtains and the wallpaper; they choose the white marble or the coconut carpet. Maybe they go a little further, developing a general concept for the interior spaces of a whole building, from the panelling to the seating and the lettering. But that is normally where their job ends. From this perspective, interior designers can do little more than decide on surfaces and decorations within a setting designed by other specialists: a literally superficial role.

This approach is, all too often, what clients, architects and interior architects themselves have in mind as they work. That is not merely unfortunate; it implies that the interior’s significance has been vastly underrated. It overlooks the fact that most of our daily activities take place indoors.

The interior is the stage for our everyday rituals, as well as for the activities that mark major life events. The space of the interior not only affords shelter and a suitable enclosure for individual lives; it is also a meeting place where people have experiences together and give expression to them. This makes the interior the place where the function of the built environment takes its most compact form.

The interior is the space in which people experience the most direct, somatic connection to the built environment. It is like a large raincoat with a smooth outer surface and a soft lining that caresses the skin, fastened shut with a zipper or a row of metal buttons. In the same way, the architectural materials of the interior are varied and rich in texture, ranging from soft to hard, from warm to cold, from dull to lustrous.

In short, an interior can combine different worlds in an astonishing and breath-taking way.  In some places they collide, while elsewhere the transition is more gradual. It is never sufficient to deal with each space independently. On the contrary, the intricacy of interior design lies in the integration of the spaces an in the contrast between experiential worlds.

Interiors lose much of their power when taken out of context, as we see in museum period rooms. These are often truly stunning examples of finely-honed craftsmanship; even so, there is a sense of something missing. Consider the rich experience of a majestic stairwell with a cool marble floor and dark, freshly polished oak wainscoting that you can smell and touch, having passed through an archway of foliage and ascended the limestone steps to the tall front door before entering? No museum can compete with that.

The interpretation of the term ‘interior’ has now become so narrow that it is possible to hire an architect for the exterior alone. But the result is deplorable, simply deplorable!

A building’s different spaces must once again be regarded as parts of an integrated whole, and also as integrated into the street and the entire city. That makes the interior the place where the contrasting worlds of outside and inside converge, or to sum it up in a maxim: the interior is the inside of the outside. 

The title of this lecture refers explicitly to the urban context of the interior. I do not regard the inside of the outside as a specialized field, any more than I see a building as capable of seceding from the rest of the city. Rather, I tend to see interior spaces as rooms adjoining the outdoor rooms of the city, as Giovanni Battista Nolli so vividly illustrated in 1748 in his famous city plan of Rome.

Map of Rome by Giovanni Battista Nolli, 1748

Nolli’s map clearly shows how a city – to be more precise, the city before modern urban planning – can be read as a whole. That whole branches out into streets, squares, alleys, courtyards, gardens, and the inner spaces of churches and other edifices. All these spaces form separate rooms; together, the constitute a series of experiences.

Nolli distinguishes between the depiction of churches and other public buildings and the large dark mass of residential buildings, which are not open to the public, but form settings for the lives of particular groups and individuals. The difference between public and non-public buildings seems essential to me as we go on discussing the interior between detail and city, because this difference offers a very cogent explanation of why interiors are so wildly varied in nature. On the one hand, there are the interiors of public and publicly accessible buildings that have acquired a place in the collective experience of the city’s people. On the other hand, there are the interiors where individuals or groups of people live and work. In both cases, there is a transition between two domains: the outside and inside.

The transition between the two domains is depicted by the entrance. While the information in the face is transmitted through the retina, the building’s entrance is where physical contact begins.

Even when a façade has depth, its story is always two-dimensional: the organization of a surface. At the entrance, this surface is passed through. This subject has inspired much writing and discussion. My topic here is the architectural translation and determination of the experience evoked by a building.

I previously mentioned the interplay of the visible and invisible, expressed in the façade. Entering a well-designed building always feels a bit like a journey of exploration: a dialogue between expectations and their fulfilment. That experience involves every part of the building, every architectural element. Different ambiences emerge between dark and light, wide and narrow, or high and low. The experience of a building begins in the street and ends in the innermost part of its interior. The experience is built up of the architectural transitions between different ambiences: the doors, the openings, the atriums, the stairways.

In this context, one might well ask whether the entrance from outdoors is really all that different from the doors, gates, and corridors elsewhere in the building. The special status of the entrance, when approached from the exterior, stems from the fact that it is not a local transition but a place where the building as a whole closes in on itself. One of the essential questions about the entrance is therefore whether, and to what extent, the interior is visible from the exterior.

In the building in Dam Square, the accessibility of the interior is in fact the narrative presented by the treatment of the entrance. The door is not really a door but a very high gate, open in the daytime, which offers a view of the entrance hall. After dark, the white light of the street lamps is reflected by a large stone panel slid in front of the glass door. The crevice between the stone cladding of the façade and the door panel has a stepped contour, like a form of detailing.

I have pointed out that at the moment you enter the building, you come into physical contact with it for the first time; for instance, you feel the doorknob or the material of the vestibule. Accordingly, this tactile aspect – sensing by touch – has a stronger influence on your experience in the interior than it does when you are out in front of the building. Your movement through a building is not guided solely by your eyes and head; just as importantly, it is an act of feeling – feeling your way.

Materials from a vital component in the perception and experience of space. At the entrance, as nowhere else, the building closes in on itself, because here the material of the outer skin converges to a point with the interior. Inside, the variety of materials is, if possible, even greater than on the outside. Cool metal beside smooth, glossy veneers, silk beside marble, iron beside soft leather. There is no limit to the materials that can be used once the climate has been shut out. Furthermore, because the space is delimited and the dimensions are smaller, the material properties of the surfaces and the details come into much sharper focus.

The importance of the relationship between size and materials has been memorably described by Carlo Scarpa. He uses the example of a long passageway that gradually narrows. When the passageway is six metres wide, it is made of earth; at a width of four metres, of masonry; at two metres, it is stuccoed; and at one metre, the material is stucco lustro (a kind of faux marble). Once the passageway has become extremely narrow, Scarpa recommends gold.

Materials define the place and make it possible to estimate distances. Materials create order and establish which elements are important and which are not. The handrail of a banister is more important than the uprights, and the material of a doorknob is more likely to draw attention than that of a baseboard. You might say the material indicated the hierarchy of elements, if not for the fact that a building’s strength often lies precisely in how it confounds expectations, in the element of surprise.

Contrast between light and dark are also essential to the experience of the interior. The spatial form and materials are dependent on light’s influence for their effect. Light-dark contracts make the experience of the building richer: low, dark spaces open out onto high, well-lit halls; materials with glossy surfaces reflect light, while elsewhere in the building the light is absorbed completely.

City hall Almere in 1986

In Almere, the visitor finds the concrete of the outer walls repeated in the entrance hall. In the interior, this material works together with the lustrous panels of lacquered steel on the ceilings, the iron latticework, and the rosewood veneering. These materials are not simply clumped together, however. Rather, their application must work together with the space to create an overall visual impression.

The everyday use of the city hall should be an adventure that never grows dull. In Almere, one illustration of this principle is the routing through the building. Users are guided through spaces with various features: the low entrance hall and the low passageways with glass roofs converge on a lift hall that runs the full height of the building.

Full-height spaces and sight lines ensure that the building can consistently be perceived as a whole. In the design process, they determine the main thread of the narrative; in the users’ experience, they form an empty space that connects the rooms of the building. Large and small dimensions find their place in the building’s organization and perception. The stairwells are also important structural elements of the design and have been assigned a conspicuous colour.

To see how this interplay of elements is expressed even in the details, consider the banisters throughout the building. Every component – from the handrail, the uprights, and the glass panels, right down to the bolts – is visible and well-defined. The architectural details are first dissected and then reassembled.

This approach yields sculptural details that recapitulate the scale and rhythm of the entire architectural composition in microcosm. Other details, in contrast, are flat and clearly mass-produced. Glass facades and marble panels with an abstract finish form a background against which the artisanal detail of the banisters stands out vividly. The volume of information presented to the eye remains balanced; next to the richly detailed spots are flat surface that allow the eyes to rest.

The design of the interior is an integral part of architecture, inseparable from the design of the outer elevations or the organization of space.

This text is an excerpt from the speech that Prof. Cees Dam delivered upon accepting the office of full professor of interior architecture in the Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment at Delft University of Technology. The full speech can be found in the book ‘On architecture: Visions and dreams by Cees Dam’. ISBN 978 94 6208 412 4

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