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Buildings within buildings: on fragments, blurred thresholds and endless interiors


Spaces that have all the basic threshold qualities of architecture, but are themselves a part of a larger structure, force us to rethink how we expect architecture to behave 

One of the best among the many bon mots attributed to the great Scottish architect Isi Metzstein is his response when challenged on the leakiness and difficult construction of his buildings: ‘I think it’s because we had to build them outside!’ Very droll, of course, but it actually says something about the slippery question of what architecture, deep down, actually is. Of course, we know it when we see it, but determining the precise location of architecture’s boundaries with, say, furniture, sculpture, or engineering, is a fruitless task.

But having to be built outside seems like one of the better axioms to help with the definition. Because isn’t it, after all, really all about shelter, about the creation of a threshold between the miserable and dangerous outside and a comfortable interior? Origin myths of architecture such as Gottfried Semper’s, place the creation of an environmental boundary right at the beginning, second only to early humans gathering round a fire, while at the apotheosis of the 20th-century’s technological optimism there were moments like Reyner Banham and François Dallegret’s A Home is Not a House, architecture as little more than an electronically inflected second skin, nearly not there at all.

A whole host of other questions are raised by this definition. A Heideggerian might object that the sheltering aspect of a building is trivial, and that architecture only happens when the structure in question has some relationship to dwelling, while the semiotically inclined might say that there’s only architecture in the endless recombination of spatial motifs, that the architectural content lies in the political and social meaning of a structure. 



Peter Zumthor’s Kolumba Museum in Cologne adopts a ‘framing’ approach of facades within facades

Source: Travel collection / Alamy

But in more pragmatic terms, the way we build means that a building almost invariably has an envelope, a barrier where the climate is held differently from that of the outside, and a boundary, where legal and occupational claims over spaces meet each other. Whether it’s facades or party walls, fences or walls, doors or gates, there’s a tendency to want clarity over these different territories.  

But there’s a surprisingly common form of space that gets these distinctions muddled – what of spaces that have all the basic threshold qualities of architecture, but are themselves a part of a larger structure? What to make of buildings within buildings?

‘What of spaces that have all the basic threshold qualities of architecture, but are themselves a part of a larger structure?’

The earliest building within a building I can recall noting as such was the street of buildings recreated within the shed of Glasgow’s old Transport Museum, including various shops with glass facades, all directly under a visible ceiling. Even as a child I found it bizarre, and many years later when I visited the Zaha Hadid replacement, I was amused to see that this much-loved attraction had been recreated in the new museum, but contorted to follow the whimsical twists of the fancy roof above.



The monumental second-century BC Pergamon Altar is completely enclosed within a vast room of the eponymous museum in Berlin

Source: Hemis / Alamy

This isn’t uncommon, and it is in museums where most buildings-within-buildings can be found. Centuries of imperial raiding have led to such strange experiences as the Classical altar of Pergamon (in what is now Turkey) being found entirely within a room of the eponymous Berlin museum, its monumental facade, colonnade and staircase bathed in a diffuse creamy light from the roof above. It’s a very strange experience, as the standard topology of an ordinary building, a facade through which you pass from outside to inside, is folded in upon itself, windows looking out to the inside, facades marking no real threshold.

One of the keys to being able to achieve these spatial effects was the technological capability of structural engineering. Once the big roof became possible, then more traditional forms of space – so often limited by the spans of stone and wood – could be enveloped at no great expenditure. Perhaps the best example of this is the Crystal Palace as it was rebuilt in south London in 1854, where as part of its educational mission its giant shed was filled with a series of recreations of historic architectural styles, ranging from Byzantine to Egyptian, from the Renaissance to the Alhambra.

1942 mies van der rohe envisioning architecture moma new york 2002 1942 92

1942 mies van der rohe envisioning architecture moma new york 2002 1942 92

Mies van der Rohe’s 1942 collage of a proposed concert hall within an Albert Kahn aircraft factory, from Envisioning Architecture (MoMA, New York, 2002)

Source: DACS 2017

Photos from the time reveal an uncanny world where highly detailed mock-ups of historic architectural styles appeared to float within the abstracted industrial grid of the palace, occasionally having to clumsily accommodate junctions with the girders and columns. The effect must have been similar to that experienced at the Ideal Home Exhibition, which began in 1908 in the giant sheds of Olympia, with complete semi-detached houses sitting awkwardly within the glazed interior.

This vision of buildings-within-buildings had a long way to go. Mies van der Rohe’s 1942 collage of a proposed concert hall depicted a space defined by coloured planes floating within a photograph of the interior of an Albert Kahn aircraft factory, marking a total separation of envelope and programme that would be explored to extremes by the radical architects of the following decades. These visions included Buckminster Fuller’s 1960 dome over Manhattan, apparently justifiable through savings in heating and cooling costs for the buildings inside, or later the floating ecosystems of the space colony movement, which would have required a more fundamental environmental threshold than any earthbound building.

‘The endless interior of capitalism is understandable as both a spatial and political metaphor’

This ‘outsourcing’ of the envelope has a number of effects. Making a building watertight and minimising heat loss are challenging on even the simplest job, and letting this task happen further out allows for much more free spatial play. The fantasy of the big utopian roof accompanied the reality of the big commercial interior, the unstoppable rise of leisure architecture of the sort Rem Koolhaas identified as ‘Junkspace’, declaring in 2001: ‘There are no walls, only partitions’. Koolhaas speculated that ‘air conditioning has launched the endless building’, a sentiment that echoes Peter Sloterdijk’s theory of ‘bubbles’, an endless series of thresholds between inside and outside that define human experience from the molecular to the interstellar.

The endless interior of capitalism is understandable as both a spatial and political metaphor, and the sheer fantasy of the shopping mall – with its endless recombinations of architectural history delivered as fast as you can fit them out in plasterboard – leads to some totally surreal examples of leisure space. 



The Crystal Palace, rebuilt in south London in 1854: its giant shed was filled with recreations of historic architectural styles

Source: Philip Delamotte / Historic England Archive

To take just a few examples, I remember laughing out loud when I first saw distressed-jean-maker All Saints’ recreations of dilapidated Victorian warehouse architecture within the pristine halls of Westfield shopping centre, and the crescent of Miami-esque buildings orbiting through the O2 under the fading roof of the Millennium Dome is truly a sight to behold. Or take the now infamous retail architecture that has sprung up inside Stansted Airport, the crystalline beauty of Norman Foster’s vision of global travel now transformed into a slalom of budget retail frontage, including what looks like a derelict windmill rising up into the once gloriously abstract roof. 

There is a kind of a logic that runs through these odd kinds of spaces. There’s something of an uncanny quality to them, a disorder that comes from seeing architectural elements out of their natural position. There’s also the fact of their fragmentary qualities, the gaps and incompleteness that are made possible by not having the integrity of a singular building form. 

And if we accept this logic, then we see that there’s something romantic about it. Think of all the grand tour sketches, the etchings of Piranesi or paintings of Caspar David Friedrich that show small peasant huts nestled within ruins. Or, similarly, what of ruins enveloped by new constructions to protect them from further decay? Occasionally buildings like this are born from emergency, such as the vast new steel roof that was recently moved into place over the ‘sarcophagus’ of the destroyed reactor at Chernobyl, while sometimes they are opportunities for architectural expressions that gain their power from setting off a new creation against some appealing rubble.

16 de vylder bavo

16 de vylder bavo

De Vylder Vinck Taillieu / BAVO transformed a ruined villa into a space for therapy at the Caritas psychiatric institute, Melle, Belgium

Source: Filip Dujardin

It’s even possible for buildings to achieve both of these things. One part of the Hedmark Museum in Norway features a glazed space-frame envelope built to protect the ruins of Hamar Cathedral, a structure which echoes in visually dematerialised fashion the ghostly outline of the nave and aisles inside. But adjacent to this is the famous museum building by Sverre Fehn that takes a completely different approach to the same problem. Over a series of excavated ruins, Fehn built a new concrete and timber building, enveloping, completing and framing various fragments of the medieval structures. This is a complex mix of the new and the old, the building and its framed interior, with individual exhibits spatially framed again by bespoke display furniture.

This slightly decadent approach is something architects are often partial to indulging, for example in Zumthor’s Kolumba Museum, which built crispy grey Roman brickwork walls on top of the rough stones of a war-damaged church, perhaps leaning more towards a ‘framing’ approach of facades within facades, a historically embedded threshold quality often visible in the work of Enric Miralles and Benedetta Tagliabue as EMBT.

More spatially enigmatic is Witherford Watson Mann’s celebrated Astley Castle in Warwickshire (AR October 2012), which nestled a contemporary structure into the crumbling walls of an abandoned country house. WWM allowed their building to retreat within the walls of the existing, and there are windows from outside to outside, domestic spaces that lie outside the thermal threshold, a subservience to the ruin that comes straight from the world of the 18th-century Grand Tour. 

11 chernobyl credit still from youtube bionerd23

11 chernobyl credit still from youtube bionerd23

New Safe Confinement (NSC): the steel structure that will encase the ‘sarcophagus’ of destroyed reactor no 4 at Chernobyl nuclear power plant under construction in 2013

Source: Bionerd23

Belgian architects de Vylder Vinck Taillieu recently completed a project for a psychiatric hospital in Melle, near Ghent in Belgium, where a ruined villa has been transformed into a space for therapy and other activities. It’s full of intelligent and occasionally frivolous touches, which is appropriate for what is effectively a folly, including plenty of inside-out subversions – rooms with no roof, framed windows looking from outside to outside. The project has a number of enclosed interior spaces built into the structure – greenhouses within the larger building, including what may well be the world’s only inhabitable building within a building within a building!

Buildings within buildings represent a rather Mannerist approach when practised by architects, manipulating spatial material in processes of disintegration and involution, inviting us to take pleasure in the juxtaposition of different spaces, materials and decoration, emphasising the historic depth of inhabitation. But commercially it constitutes a sort of folk-practice, blithely unaware of what might actually be appropriate, creating a surreal scenography if we stop and look deeper for a moment. Whichever way the rules are broken, the fact of their breakability brings to our attention just how we expect architecture to behave.