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Toying with Gravity

Nov 30, 2017 01:21PM ● Published by Matthew Schlueb

It is that time of year: strings of lights emerge from storage boxes to be strung along roof overhangs, outlining neighborhood houses at night. The air has a festive feel, each gust of cold winter wind swaying these strings, the lights becoming twinkling stars in the sky.

Hanging holiday lights from the eaves has an additional pleasure for me. It is a chance to channel my inner Shaker propensity for placing things into suspension, to toy with gravity. Architects relish playing with such things, and I guess that is why I find myself living inside a house with sloped walls—an excuse to question the most ordinary of things, such as a bookshelf. Suspended in space by cables from the ceiling, out away from the sloping walls, a bookshelf becomes a swing, in tensile dialog with Mother Earth.

One of my favorite architects, Antoni Gaudí, was a master of gravity, understanding its pull on structures, giving weight to materials. His Catalan creativity utilized an ingenious method of study to isolate and tune this planetary force imposed on buildings. By inverting architectural models upside down, arches became hanging slings, allowing gravity to shape their curvature to the most stable profile, a catenary arch—the same profile used by the Inuit to construct igloos with blocks of ice to withstand the collapsing weight of compacted snow on top.

Further, Gaudí would tie a series of strings with small weighted bags from the inverted arches, to represent the intersecting points of columns carrying roof loads. Like a mechanical calculating machine, his model of weights and strings would adjust naturally by gravity alone, determining the position and inclination of each structural member, intuitively designed to be in perfect balance with the ground underfoot.

The close of another year reminds us that nothing is permanent; all things change. Even something as immense as the planet earth is also temporary, its surface continually shifting, shaking the foundations of our buildings, mountains rising, ice sheets fracturing. We may wish to live in a world that is fixed, with certainty, where all things are known. However, reality is not, permanence is an illusion.

To compensate, our houses have an appearance of stability, ordered and tidy, a solid roof overhead. So much so that when something unexpected comes along, something not planned for, it can be quite unsettling. We are reminded that life can be unpredictable, nature is constantly adjusting, reacting, re-centering, ignoring our desire for the contrary. Maybe our houses need to be more soluble, permeable, allowing the outside in. Could the walls of our homes and the things they house bring us more in harmony, at ease, with an ever-changing world?

For example, the shower in my own house has a hanging curtain made of glass plates, the result of several factors related to frugality, practicality and my fondness for gravity. While taking a shower, the slightest of movements cause the plates to rattle, the sounds of a wind chime in a soft breeze. It is a subtle thing; however, the experience becomes infused with a sense of fragility, the brevity of a breeze, the transience of a moment. I may not notice these things as my mind wanders while showering, yet my senses are tuned, subconsciously. I am refreshed mentally, beyond just soap and water.

Around the house, I continually seek out ways to create these tensile structures, things within the home that communicate with the world outside, in this case speaking through the natural force of gravity. Whether it is a bookshelf masquerading as a swing or a shower curtain as a wind chime, these little games that I play with the fabric that make up a home immediately and transparently register an authentic interaction with the world outside, despite living inside walls under the shadow of a roof. And maybe by doing so, a sensitivity and meaningfulness returns, no longer masked by a slow entropy numbing unnoticed.

On the eve of a threshold into unknowns, rafters and eaves need a good shaking, since wind chimes are often missing. A string of holiday lights is about the only thing found hanging from the roof of a suburban American house.

Matthew Schlueb is a registered architect and owner of SCHLUEBarchitecture. For questions or comments, contact Matthew at nhm@finalmove.com. This article is part of an ongoing series addressing architectural issues for homeowners.

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