intervene essay by Peter Fend October 1981


Peter Fend    October 1981


We are approaching a time when the wall shall no longer have to be. We are approaching a time when the tradition of fortification shall no longer govern the definition of spaces. Ann Messner’s intervene conveys us towards such a time.

intervene, true to its Latin meaning, inter-venes or comes between, the inside and outside or a building. It enters and organizes the space on both sides of a wall, and it makes the wall become a structural aid, an accessory, to that task. The wall becomes a means to transmission between spaces rather than a barrier separating them.

In a standard brick loft building with load-bearing walls, Ann Messner takes out the windows, constructs a steel bridgework for each window, and then suspends that bridgework from bars placed across the top of each window. By tradition, the window is simply an aperture through which to see and shoot. But in intervene, the window becomes an opening through a load-bearing structure from the top of which can be suspended a transversing bridge. The window functions like the tower of a suspension bridge, and the wall simply becomes a structure for holding the window up.

Much has been written about the revolutionary effect of steel construction on the character of walls in buildings. It has been said that steel frames have allowed walls to no longer bear the load of the building’s floors and to therefore no longer be thick barriers of down-bearing mass. So there rose generations of office buildings and modernist houses in which walls were simply curtains, simply sheets of glass and light weight panels.

But old habits die much slower than we suppose. Even though with modern construction the wall no longer heed bear up the structure as in the fortress of Jericho, it still is a sheer barrier, still is a strict determinant of space between inside and outside, still is a block to movement. Walls may not bear loads, but they still act as if they do; they still act as absolute truths which can be violated only with correct forms of windows and doors—onlywith correct forms of apertures through which to see or breath and gates through which to (with permission) proceed.

If the technology of steel construction (or wood construction and other high strength member construction) were fully expressed, the notion of buildings as walled forms would come to an end. The notion of discreet and separate Buildings would come to an end. There would no longer be distinct Edifices with their inside and complementary outside. The load-bearing elements at a particular site would simply become framework and scaffolding from which to suspend bridges, platforms, chambers, means of transferring from one space to another. Buildings would be replaced by Bridges. There could of course be walled and enclosed spaces, but they would be set amidst the structural framework as amidst a bridge, rather than being stacked vertically within walls, within some absolute container, as if the only way to deal with gravity is to stand absolutely upright. If the actual potential of steel construction were realized, the distinction between inside and outside would—cease to exist, and a city could become more like a forest or bower (with its relatively greater or lesser enclosures) than like a Saharan mountainscape with sheer cliffs.

intervene is a commentary on and an alternative to such cliffs.  lt comments in particular on a building that is immediately in view as one looks through it and through the window frames from which it is suspended: the AT&T Long Lines Building in downtown New York. That Long Lines Building is literally a fortress. It is built to withstand all but a direct nuclear hit. It rises for 25 stories with a steel skeleton, but it is surrounded by massive and absolutely windowless walls for the entire height—until the very top where, in a few window-like openings, it affords ducts for ventilation. The Long Lines Building does not need to be walled for structural reasons; it needs to be walled, apparently, for military reasons. The same bridgework which Ann Messner suspends and delicately counterweights from bars slung across the tops o windows in her loft building, could also be suspended and counterweighted from bars slung across the tops of the openings in the top of the Long Lines Building. That is technically possible. But it is aesthetically unthinkable for the Long Lines Building. For that building is a Building, a walled cliff, a fortification, an adamantine testament to some desire for separating inside from outside at all costs.

Of course there are dangers in life, and of course it is important to set up barriers, or walls, between private worlds and public spaces. Perhaps too. in today’s political climate, it is regrettably important to encase certain sensitive activities in thick concrete. But this does not mean that the structures which allow us to act and move on a great number of levels other than the ground—which is the prime reason for building load—bearing structures and conducting architecture—have to themselves be shear-surfaced fortifications. This not mean that, while we may have once relied on massive outside piles (or walls) to bear the weight of levels above the ground, we still have to rely on an architecture which looks as if it still relied on such massive outside piles. We could instead rely on an architecture—which looks—and feels—the way it truly works. An upright structure can function to suspend another structure proceeding at perpendicular or other angles to it. lt can become a framework for hanging or alternatively, uplifting, a great variety of levels, pathways. floors, spaces, areas for movement. It can become a provision for movement and access rather than a barrier to it. Even with a standard stone weight-bearing wall, Ann Messner has been able to illustrate this possibility. She has simply allowed the stability of that wall to support, through the areas of exception to its piling (the windows), structures which define and create spaces utterly permeating its plane. Instead of allowing upright structures to encase one space, she shows that such structures (like any stable framework) can support any number of spaces.

Such observations are elementary and, when made, obvious, but they are generally ignored by even the best-trained of architects and engineers. Buildings are still thought of as discrete Buildings which, like plants or cliffs, must be firmly rooted in the ground as if they were extensions of the ground—like fortifications. It is proposed to a recognized engineer author of several texts on architectural engineering, that structures could be made more lightweight and flexihle—almost like scaffolding—if they were sheltered from wind load by windbreak-canopies. The engineer says that is not so because while wind might push the top of a building while the bottom remains firm, so that even if one eliminated wind load one would-still have to build the structure rigidly enough and strongly enough to withstand shifts due to earthquake load. The engineer thinks of an architectural structure—whose function is to support various levels for human activity other than ground level—as a bunch of piles stuck firmly in the ground and rising firmly from the ground to he continuous with the ground. But this is not true of suspension or even most cantilever constructions. It is not true of the Brooklyn Bridge—or even of well-designed arch bridges. It is not true of the lunar landing module. It is not true of Messner‘s intervene. If the entire loft building were tilted and did not break (which would be difficult since the building is made of rooted walls) still the intervene structure would not fail. There would only be some need, perhaps, for adjusting the suspended-counterweights.

In a city of bridges, rather than firm-set towers, everything depends from and connects with everything else, so that an aerial mesh of forces knits the structures together in a skein which is relatively free of shifts in the ground. With efficient building materials like steel, each “building” is already a firmly interconnected mesh which in itself need not fracture if the ground shifted. But they do. What makes such structures fracture nowadays is that they are not bridged and tied together and interconnected; so they each stand stalwart, divided, ready to fall with the slightest shift in load and consequent sliding to one side of all its supported weight. What makes efficient-material structures fracture nowadays is their still being built as if they were supported by outside walls. If the steel were allowed full expression and if structures were slung, suspended, counter-weighted like scales, cantilevered from floating foundations, to the point of effecting an enormous fabric above the ground, then structures would tend to maintain equilibrium—or at least would not fracture—as the ground might shift or erode or sink. The spatial-transmission effected by the slung bridgeworks of intervene could become a standard vocabulary, a standard experience, of city life.

The result would not simply be greater flexibility and resilience to earthquake, it would not simply then be a meaningful structural rationale for windscreens that break wind load and other loads operating aerially. It would also be an emotional and physiological experience of moving and being within public and private spaces which behave as the body itself behaves: in suspension, in elastic and dynamic equilibrium, in continuous counter-weighting and tension-compressing, in an extremely-dense interpenetration of forces; in a manner which we can emotionally and passionately understand.

It is possible, of course, to stack up toy building blocks and make a wall or tower and then put something special on top. It is possible, of course, to elevate levels above ground in this manner. It is possible, of course, to build a Jericho fortress. But if you set up structures that way, its not hard to make everything come tumbling down. You only need to move the bottom blocks a little out of line.

If you want protection against enemies, you might build walls and you might hope that everything stands upright. But the technology of warfare and communications are such nowadays that walls afford little if any defense, and the technology structural engineering —especially bridge engineering—is such nowadays that walls or towers become an absurd misuse of tension-bearing materials. Why continue standing up building blocks and hanging “curtain” walls when you can intervene through the window holes in those walls and make the walls, as structural-members, convey transversal, and perpendicular structures which break out of the single plane?

The city has been supposed to be urban, which in Latin means being “walled.” But in nature most structures function simply to lift masses above base ground: a city can and should function for strictly that elevating—and hence interconnecting and inter-vening—purpose. Instead of urban centers, as they are called, cities could, and by economic reasoning should, become inter-vention centers. Intervene is a model for the rational and efficient city, for the city which is in phase with the technological realities (both military and structural) of our time.