Inside Out, Outside In

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009
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The Pembroke Hill School campus before Gisolfi's redesign.

Peter Gisolfi’s oeuvre is diverse enough to merit five separate categories in his new book Finding the Place of Architecture in the Landscape: townscape, campus, landscapes and buildings, gardens and houses, and transformation.

Gisolfi's new buildings helped create a sense of place and focus to the campus.

But as Gisolfi presented the book to a crowd at the Center for Architecture on April 15, what stood out were the commonalities in his approaches to those various projects, not their differences. In particular, he is attuned to the nuances of the figure-ground relationship and how the placement of buildings shapes the spaces between them. Adding a single new building becomes a form of spatial acupuncture: At the Pembroke Hill School in Kansas City, MO, the addition of an Early Childhood Center transformed the campus’s nebulous blob of negative space into two coherent, well-defined quadrangles. In Peekskill, NY, Gisolfi’s team built a new middle school perpendicular to the existing community center, creating a strong corner that formed the edge of a new town green.

One of his favorite ways to deal with the figure-ground dichotomy is to blur it. In a private residence in Englewood, NJ, a series of outdoor rooms morph seamlessly into building and back again, from mostly open (a lawn bordered by a wall and a fence), to enclosed but open-air (a rose garden), to sheltered and partially open (a veranda), to sheltered and entirely open (an arcade and porte-cochere). In a resort on the Guadalupe river in Texas, that interweaving of inside and outside happens vertically: A masonry wall forms the spine of a staircase that leads visitors from a glassy pavilion overhanging the water down to a terrace 30 feet below, via a series of alternately sheltered and open spaces. Blurring the inside-outside distinction even more, the structure is designed to allow the river to flow through it when the water level rises.

Orienting a building in the landscape also means thinking beyond its immediate surroundings, Gisolfi said, asking rhetorically: “Where’s the sun, where’s the street, what’s the difference between north and south?” The orientation of the new Peekskill Middle school, for instance, is dictated by the nearby Hudson river, creating stunning river views from all the hallways and public spaces in the building. And in his large-scale housing developments, Gisolfi draws inspiration from the Pueblos who designed their houses to respond to the sun, orienting them towards the south and angling them to capture the sun’s low-slanting rays in winter and fend off its high rays in summer.

Those constraints imposed by a project’s setting are what make it great, Gisolfi emphasized. “The inspiration for me comes from defining the boundaries of the problem,” he said. In a competition to design a 300-unit housing complex in Eagle Ridge, CO, those boundaries included a steeply sloping site, a main road that snaked through it, and the need to orient all the buildings to the south to capture solar energy. That in turn defined the central design challenge, how to create logical, legible spaces among the buildings within those parameters.

Gisolfi’s not the only one whose creativity thrives under constraints. A former music theory and composition student at Yale, he closed his presentation with a quote from the composer Igor Stravinsky: “The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self of the chains that shackle the spirit.”

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