The Strategies of Mat-building
Dismantling and reframing programme and composition, mat-building envisaged architecture as a dynamic, flexible armature
We owe the term mat-building to Alison Smithson. Her article ‘How to Recognise and Read Mat-Building. Mainstream Architecture as it has Developed Towards the Mat-Building’ in Architectural Design of September 1974 included a definition of this type of building and an extensive list of works and projects from the 1950s to the ’70s related to it. Several studies have recently revived the interest in this topic.1 As in the case of the buildings themselves, the appeal of re-reading Smithson’s article lies in its open and flexible theoretical framing.
Smithson reviewed the items discussed at Team 10 meetings, pointing out that mat-buildings were not dependent on a specific architectural language, and identifying certain contemporary works as offshoots of this phenomenon. ‘Mainstream mat-building became visible, however, with the completion of the Berlin Free University’, she said − but what are the characteristic features of a mat-building? We aim to answer this question by analysing five case studies: four projects mentioned by Alison Smithson and another in our own locale of Valencia. Our research, which gave rise to an exhibition, explains and provides clear examples of the main mat-building strategies. The basic hypothesis focused on three compositional principles: metrics, programme and place.
To understand those decades of the last century, some context is needed. The link between Team 10’s ideas and French structuralism had already been analysed, demonstrating the belief of that generation of architects in the new social sciences, the application of relational thinking to the programme, and the legacy of linguistics to be seen in the re-organisation of architectonic and urban concepts.2 Examples include the revised concept of association, the concern for cultural identity, and the understanding of urban life as a function of the relationships among its inhabitants.
It is no coincidence that this happened at a time of social and economic growth. After recovering from the Second World War, the countries of central Europe aimed for a welfare state requiring new programmes for a growing middle class. Large housing estates, tourist facilities, universities and administrative centres were often commissioned with short lead-times and governed by notions of flexibility and growth. They all allude to Opera aperta (The Open Work) a term coined by Umberto Eco in 1962 in the realm of aesthetic theory, insofar as, as with works of art, their lack of formal definition is precisely the key to their potential multiplicity. ‘The author is the one who proposed a number of possibilities which had already been rationallyorganized, oriented and endowed with specifications for proper development’, writes Eco.3
Much of the architecture designed on the basis of these referents is systematic from conceptual and constructive perspectives, and shares strategies during its creative process. Mat-building seemed to use new tools that dismantled the compositional principles of the early modern period. In the last quarter of 1963, Georges Candilis, Alexis Josic and Shadrach Woods worked in conjunction with the German architect Manfred Schiedhelm in two competitions, the results of which took critics by surprise. Although the design for the reconstruction of the centre of Frankfurt-Römerberg was not retained, it triggered a heated debate that culminated in the announcement of the winning design for the Free University of Berlin.
The Frankfurt plan entails thoughtful interaction with a well-established setting. The local council that organised the competition wanted to rebuild the city centre in keeping with the historical character of a site that had been bombed during the war, by using ‘town planning featuring small blocks − either modern in style or imitating the old ones’.4 However, the planning approach was based on a compositional network that could be adapted to cater for the city’s future needs. The authors defined the project as a flexible megastructure on a scale directly related to the pre-existing construction.
Many of Candilis, Josic and Woods’ aspirations finally materialised in the paradigmatic Free University of Berlin whose open-plan design − typical of the universities in the 1960s − matched the characteristics of mat-building perfectly. This university is an exceptional example: its construction involved the French engineer Jean Prouvé and was overseen by the Berlin studio run by Manfred Schiedhelm, in collaboration with the American architect Shadrach Woods. In addition, the university was reconditioned and enlarged with a library by Foster + Partners, resulting in new reviews.
‘In the Free University of Berlin, the module is a function of time: 65.63 metres (another Modulor dimension), is roughly the distance covered by a one-minute walk’
Le Corbusier and Guillermo Jullian de la Fuente’s design for the Venice Hospital (1964-65) is seen as the culmination of a line of work, but could also be deemed to be a sort of mat-building. The search for an element able to repeat itself and spread out culminated in the definition of the design module, or Unité de Bâtisse: a volume with no facades, lit by natural light directly overhead, with access on the ground floor, and which spirals upwards and is complemented by a horizontal circulation grid.
Another singular case is Alison and Peter Smithson’s design for Kuwait entitled ‘Urban Study and Demonstration Mat-Building (1968-72)’.5 This project involved two points of particularinterest to the subject under study here: its empathy with Arabic culture and tradition of open spaces, and the introduction of climate control elements. The architects of the Kuwait project, despite its later date, once again employed a mat-building design because it enabled them to include the vast and heterogeneous programme required by the original ideas competition.
Oblivious to the theoretical framework of these discussions, but undeniably immersed in a discipline, many works of architecture reproduce mat-building principles with remarkable simplicity. This is the case of the building designed and built between 1970 and 1974 for the Universitat Politècnica de València by L35, an architectural practice from Barcelona. Like other contemporary campuses, the design of this campus incorporates the departmental programme into its functional distribution, and is built of prefab concrete characterised by an obvious formal clarity.
Compositional principle 1: Metrics
A mat-building is a large-scale, high-density structure organised on the basis of an accurately modulated grid. A first look at any mat-building geometry shows a ground plan in the form of a regular grid that constitutes the general order. However, further analysis of the drawings reveals certain specific characteristics.
First, the size of the module used for the project is surprising. Frankfurt, Berlin and Venice have the red and blue series of Le Corbusier’s Modulor in common. Georges Candilis and Shadrach Woods met and began their careers at Rue de Sèvres, and their indebtedness, in this respect, is clear to see. In any case, in each of the three proposals just a few centimetres provide the starting point for designing buildings hundreds of metres in size (Figure A).
In addition, the Modulor series forms the module which is multiplied in both directions to create all kinds of variations. In Frankfurt, Berlin and Kuwait half modules were also employed. In Venice, there are few complete modules in the plan since most lack a quadrant (Figure B).
The basic Frankfurt module is approximately half that of Berlin, and is determined by the width of the pedestrian streets: 3.66 metres (Modulor dimension) which just happens to be the same as the archways around the Odéon theatre in Paris.6 The complete module measures 36.47 metres, ie, the depth of the adjacent buildings. In the Free University of Berlin, the module is a function of time: 65.63 metres (another Modulor dimension), ie, roughly the distance covered by a one-minute walk.
The formal construction of Venice Hospital starts with consecutive additions: several Unités de Lit or bed modules (based on a module of 2.96m, a Modulor dimension) combine with several service rooms to form a Unité de Soins, or treatment module. Four Unités de Soins and the respective corridors constitute a Unité de Bâtisse; and finally, the hospital consists of a specific number of Unités de Bâtisse, square rooms about 60m along each side.7 Le Corbusier uses a completely different procedure to form a size very similar to the one used by his colleagues in Berlin (Figure C).
On the other hand, Alison and Peter Smithson’s buildings in Kuwait, using a basic module of 20 metres (4 x 5 metres), and the Universitat Politécnica de Valencia, with a 36m module (based on the 3m series), approach the Frankfurt scale and demonstrate the effectiveness of round-figure metrics.
Furthermore, it must be said that the final result does not exceed a specific maximum dimension, ie, 400 metres, or a six-minute walk, according to the other scale used. It would seem that larger dimensions would overwhelm and jeopardise the design.
Finally, the analysis of the underlying patterns in each case study revealed a complex grid of strips forming a tartan-like fabric. Each strip can be understood to be a widened grid line that houses a set of specific functions. This purpose-built grid is simply a framework or fixed base upon which a volume may (or may not) be built. It is precisely this ambiguity that enables compositional flexibility resulting in stratified and profusely perforated buildings (Figure D).
Compositional principle 2: Programme
Issues related to the programme also arise in the form of shared strategies in mat-building. In the words of Alison Smithson’s definition, ‘Mat-building can be said to epitomise the anonymous collective, where the functions come to enrich the fabric, and the individual gains new freedoms of action through a new and shuffled order, based on interconnection, close-knit patterns of association, and possibilities for growth, diminution and change’. The five instances studied do indeed respond to this premise, directly linked to the relational thinking prevalent in the 1960s and ’70s.
Under Claude Lévi-Strauss’s influence, structuralism embraces social phenomena like an ‘abstract organization constructed from relations among elementary units’. Indeed, the structure would be ‘a set of rules for defining relationships and correspondences’. These words can be applied literally to the functions of a mat-building, based on dismantling the programme’s functions, emphasising circulations and destructuring formal hierarchies.
In the Frankfurt and Kuwait projects, the architects mention functional hybridisation as a value added. In both cases, the design includes offices, shops, housing, hotels and cultural facilities: different activities enabling the building to always be seen as a living organism. In Frankfurt, each of these parts of the programme is hardly recognisable on the general plan. Candilis, Josic and Woods were called ‘anti-monumental architects’ − a label they were very proud of − because their urban intervention had no hint of representation more in keeping with the site’s symbolic nature. In Kuwait, the Smithsons do not detail the regulations; there are no furnished plans or sections − the activities on each level are only described in the architects’ report. Administrative services are laid down like layers, moving from public to private realms, pierced by vertical communication towers and ventilation shafts.
The Venice hospital also uses layers of functions similar to those in Kuwait. The Unité de Bâtisse or basic design module follows a pre-established order by levels. The ground floor built on pilotis is a public area consisting of two mezzanines where general services are provided and admissions take place. The next level is used for medical assistance (surgeries and operating theatres) and is also subdivided into two mezzanines that separate circulations from the other areas. The top floor is occupied by wards. Since each Unité de Bâtisse is intended to accommodate a medical service, adding them together enables all functions to be interwoven like an intricate pipe network. Some ramps and corridors are reserved for doctors and patients while the vertical cores are occupied by lifts for visitors and ‘dirty’ and ‘clean’ service shafts.
Kuwait and Venice also resemble each other as regards circulation. In both cases the freedom of movement permitted by an unobstructed ground floor − emphasised by dotted lines on Alison and Peter Smithson’s plans − contrast with the movement in a building conditioned by vertical circulation cores.
Meanwhile, the Berlin and Valencia projects make it clear that the departmental programme characteristic of European universities in the 1960s is suitable for mat-building. First, university operations tally with the relational concept of the mat-building insofar as they prioritise correspondences between departments rather than the traditional separation into independent faculties. This fosters informal pedagogy based on the spontaneous encounters between students, teachers and researchers in the wide corridors. It also caters for increasing numbers of students and changes in curricula which require flexible structures that can be enlarged. And, finally, it encourages the free-flowing exchange of knowledge in keeping with the mat-building’s inherent lack of hierarchy.
In Berlin, the real teaching occurs in the common areas such as interior walkways, courtyards and the gentle ramps between the two levels of this distinctly horizontal organism. In Valencia, the design process is dictated by a painstaking study of the departmental programme: depending on the number of semesters in which a student on one degree course attends two different departments, the architects quantify the intensity of the relationship between the two departments. They then use these data as coordinates to draw a topological organisation diagram that establishes the relative position of the departments and their distance from the centre of the university: the Agora. After this analysis, the resulting organisation diagram is accuratelytransferred to the general plan. The architect of the mat-building is, above all, an organiser.
Compositional principle 3: Place
House and city have an identical nature to which the mat-building offers a structural synthesis.8 The dialogue with the (urban) place to which the mat-building belongs − or, at least, helps build ex novo − is the third principle in common to the five cases analysed. Not for nothing did some reveal the well-established city to be a staunch supporter of the project. This is the case in Frankfurt: the site of an old urban fabric destroyed during the war is now equipped with a network that has recuperated some of its former morphological features within a new order: the previous grain texture, the connection with the immediate setting and the functional multiplicity of the replaced fragment can be seen in the new, reorganised formalisation. The Candilis, Josic, Woods design demonstrates the common values of the traditional city and the urban fabric composed by the mat-building.
The care with which Le Corbusier depicted the buildings typical of Venice near the future hospital reveals a regard for the historic city similar to Candilis, Josic and Woods’ attitude to Frankfurt which, in the case of Venice, also concerns cultural identity. It is, in fact, the campiellos (squares) and calli (streets) of Venice that structure the in-patients’ floor: an immense tapestry raised above the lake on an increasingly large building. In this way the different Unités de Bâtisse reflect these two elements of Venice urbanism as if the construction of the hospital was an enlargement of the city it was built for.
In Kuwait, the minarets of mosques are used as nodes of a visual web that fragment the mat-building and canalise the galleries while anchoring the new design to the tradition of the place.The minarets operate as a network of fixed points in the territory that offset the lack of urban definition in a way mentioned by the Smithsons in the article ‘Fix’, published in the December 1960 issue of the AR.9
On the contrary, the universities of Berlin and Valencia are both isolated from the consolidated city. Each could, however, be said to be a city in itself − with Berlin capable of spreading outand weaving its networks between the isolated buildings of Berlin-Dahlem, and Valencia capable of recreating a recurrent urban utopia of those days by employing a horizontal stratification that strictly separates vehicular traffic (on the ground floor) from pedestrians (on a platform characterised by spontaneous social interaction).10
Before Alison Smithson called this type of architecture ‘mat-building’ in 1974, Shadrach Woods had already referred to the Free University of Berlin as a ‘groundscraper’. In some sketches for that competition Woods declared, ‘In skyscraper type buildings disciplines tend to be segregated. The relationship from one floor to another is tenuous, almost fortuitous, passing through the space-machine-lift. In a groundscraper organisation greater possibilities of community and exchange are present without necessarily sacrificing any tranquillity.’
Both terms were equally expressive and summarised some strategies opposed to modernity as it had been known so far. Form did not follow function; on the contrary, there were noaprioristic forms but certain human activities that would eventually define them. The city was not functional but relational, not made of isolated objects on a free ground floor. Now, ashapeless built mass was spreading out and absorbing any variations in the plan. This is no place for singular figures but for a system prone to serialise, regulate and repeat them. All these standpoints reveal the logical continuity of architecture in keeping with the environmental concerns of the ’60s and ’70s. Shadrach Woods devoted his last books to explaining this new direction to American readers − What U Can Do (Rice University, 1970) and The Man in the Street (Penguin Books, 1975) − and an ironical Alison Smithson reproached him for such theories which, in her opinion, only made sense wherever the Modern Movement had not yet made inroads.11
1. Since the Harvard Design School published Case: Le Corbusier’s Venice Hospital and the Mat Building Revival, Hashim Sarkis (ed), Munich, London, New York: Prestel Verlag, 2001, many academic articles have been published in different journals.
2. Jean-Louis Violeau: ‘Team 10 and Structuralism: Analogies and Discrepancies’, in Max Risselada and Dirk van den Heuvel, Team 10. 1953-81. In Search of a Utopia of the Present, Rotterdam: NAi Publishers, 2005, pp280-85.
3. Umberto Eco, The Open Work, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989, p19.
4. Georges Candilis, Bâtir la vie. Un architecte témoin de son temps, Paris: Infolio Éditions, 2012, p231.
5. AR September 1974, pp179-90.
6. As the assistant architect Manfred Schiedhelm recounts, this Corbusian Modulor dimension of 3.66m was considered functionally ‘very suitable’ in the Candilis, Josic, Woods studio. The architects’ office was near the Odéon theatre and they often went past it.
7. María Cecilia O’Byrne Orozco, El proyecto para el Hospital de Venecia de Le Corbusier, thesis. Director: Josep Quetglas, Departament de Projectes Arquitectònics, Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya, 2007.
8. Alan Colquhoun recalls Alberti’s analogy when addressing the ‘superblock’, in Collected Essays in Architectural Criticism, London: Black Dog, 2009, p78.
9. Alison & Peter Smithson, ‘Fix’, AR December 1960, pp437-39.
10. According to Reyner Banham, ’60s university campuses are the fulfilment of certain urban utopias which, in many other cases, never got off the drawing board. See Banham: Megastructure: Urban Futures of the Recent Past, London: Thames and Hudson, 1976, p131.
11. Alison Smithson, ‘A Worried Man. Man in the Street. By Shadrach Woods’, AR November 1976, pp317-18.