client, Harry Gullichsen, admired Wright’s Fallingwater, which provided a
major inspiration for Aalto’s sketch phase of Villa Mairea – a fact that is
demonstrated by one of Aalto’s early drawings for the house (figure 3).
Pallasmaa (1998, p. 78) writes that “resemblances in [the] ambience [of the
two houses] are not so clear in the drawings or even the photographs, but
the actual experience of the two houses forces one to a comparison.”
architects shared a common creative ground in drawing on nature to discover
timeless patterns for their architectural designs.
that he “could draw inspiration from nature herself” (Wright 1954, p. 22),
while Aalto claimed that “the profoundest feature of architecture is a
variety and growth reminiscent of natural life.
like to say that in the end this is the only real style in architecture” (Aalto
1998, p. 31).
An Architecture of Re-presentation
Before examining the two houses through the natural symbol of inside and
outside, it is important to delineate more fully Harries’ discussion of the
role of architecture in human life so that one understands why he gives
considerable attention to natural symbols.
In The Ethical Function of Architecture, Harries (1997, p. 291)
argues that a central value of good design is that it breaks us free from
the everyday and “beckons us toward a better life, a bit closer to the
ideal.” He claims that, in bringing us nearer to the better parts of
ourselves, the best architecture has a re-presentative function – in
other words, it helps us to remember what a particular mode of human being
For example, the successful house sustains and replenishes a sense of
at-homeness, just as a well designed church reminds worshippers of their
faith and offers, just in being what it is, a physical context where that
faith can be continuously renewed. In this sense, the successful building
“re-presents itself in such a way that it renders itself more visible in its
essence” (ibid., p. 136).
deserve to be called a work of architecture a house cannot just be a
house... (T)he house must represent a house, and by so doing, re-present itself as a
house... create the fiction of a house. The same can be said of a church, a
museum, a city hall, an airport. Representing other architecture, the work
of architecture re-presents itself in the image of the ideal, creating a
fiction about itself. By its choice of what to represent and of the form of
representation, it communicates a particular understanding of what is taken
to matter in architecture, signifying a particular ideal of building and
thus of dwelling (ibid., pp. 119-20).
emphasizes that, practically, architecture's ability to re-present cannot be
expressed directly but presupposes a “natural language of space” (ibid., p.
125), which, in turn, is founded in the ways in which we, as human beings,
especially as bodily beings, exist in and experience the world – for
example, experiences of moving or resting, getting up or lying down,
recognizing light or dark, encountering heaviness or lightness, feeling
openness or closure, and so forth.
Architecture, says Harries, can articulate and focus this natural language
of space through material expression. “Buildings speak to us,” he writes
(ibid.) “because our experience of space and therefore of particular spatial
configurations cannot but be charged with meaning.
re-presentation of buildings, architecture re-presents and lets us attend to
that ‘speech’.” From one point of view, a classical Doric column is an
ordinary post sustaining weight.
At the same
time, however, this column re-presents the essence of post in that the thick
muscular swelling of its fluted shaft suggests the post’s upward thrust
countered by the weight of the entablature bearing down – the two opposing
motions brought together and reconciled through the material form of the
compact buttonlike capital. Here, the Doric order expresses explicitly in
physical form the reconciliation of upward and downward forces that the
simple post speaks of only implicitly.
In part three of Ethical Function and elsewhere in his writings,
Harries (1988, 1993) investigates what he calls a “semantics of the natural
language of space” (1997, p. 180). The heart of this semantics is contained
in the lived fact already alluded to “that we exist in the world, not as
disembodied spirits, nor as beings who just happen to have bodies, but as
essentially embodied selves, who by their bodies are inevitably assigned
their place in the world – on the earth and beneath the giant hemisphere of
the sky” (ibid.).
In developing this semantics of embodied spatiality practically, Harries
draws on the idea of natural symbols, by which he means the
underlying patterns of experience marking essential qualities of human
nature and life – for example, qualities of direction, of weight, of
materiality, of temperature, of light, of existence as an individual alone
but also as an individual who is part of larger human groups, and so forth.
symbols, I understand symbols that can be derived simply from an analysis of
[human] being in the world. They are not tied to a particular culture or
region, although, inevitably, different cultures will appropriate them
differently (Harries, 1993, p. 53).
Function, Harries explores such natural symbols as vertical and
horizontal, light and darkness, up and down, and inside and outside. For
example, he considers how the dialectical tension between vertical and
horizontal arises from the bodily relationship between the vertical axis of
the upright human body and the horizontal plane of the Earth surrounding
that body in all directions. There is the lure of open spaces and movement
as they exist in tension with the wish to have roots and a home. There is
the vertical's skyward movement toward spirituality and inwardness, which
counters the horizon's expression of physical expansion and material
cultures and historical periods express the vertical-horizontal tension in
different ways but, whatever the particular manifestation, it “presupposes
an understanding of the meaning of verticals and horizontals inseparable
from our being in the world” (Harries 1988, p. 45).
Harries (1997, pp. 192-97) also gives attention to the natural symbol of
inside and outside, which is “bound up with the awareness of our own bodies,
with their openings so much like the windows and doors of buildings” (ibid.,
The creation of an inside automatically shapes an outside, which then
relates to inside in a dialectic relationship. On one hand, inside
establishes physical and psychological security and safety and thus can
facilitate a sense of identity for the person or group (Jacobson et al.
1990; Relph 1976; Thiis-Evensen 1987).
other hand, inside can also involve “a suffocating darkness that our
imagination peoples with images that both fascinate and terrify” (Harries
1997, p. 195).
These oppositional possibilities of inside and outside point toward an
important quality of natural symbols: their ambiguous nature – for
example, verticality reflects, on one hand, spirituality and religious
humility but, on the other hand, symbolizes human pride and assertiveness,
as with the Tower of Babel.
In regard to the
ambiguity of inside and outside, the example that Harries offers involves
windows, which provide a sense of interpenetration and exchange between
outside and inside but also shut insiders in or allow the inside to be
overrun by the outside (Harries, 1997, pp. 192-98; Thiis-Evensen 1987, pp.
251-82). How to reconcile such seeming oppositions?
suggests a lived flexibility between secure enclosure and openness to the
outside – “sheltering walls and doors and windows through which light
and air [and the world] can enter” (ibid., p. 196).
Inside and Outside
We find such a lived flexibility in Fallingwater and the Villa Mairea.
hand, both houses evoke a powerful sense of insideness by opacity,
which, in Fallingwater, is expressed in roughly dressed stone masonry and
concrete walls; in Villa Mairea, by white-painted, solid walls. On the other
hand, the transparency of the houses’ glass windows opens inside to
outside and thereby connects the two. In both houses, the architects created
a strong sense of insideness yet, at the same time, devised masterly ways to
connect inside and outside and thereby create a robust continuity. This
inside-outside relationship translates into environmental and architectural
experience in four different ways: (1) in-betweeness; (2)
interpenetration generated by inside; (3) interpenetration generated
by outside; and (4) intermingling.
each of these relationships in turn.
In-betweeness involves a place neither inside nor out. It
incorporates a threshold whereby a strong dialogue between the inside
and outside occurs with a unique in-between experience as the result. For
Wright, in-betweeness was an intentional aim: “We have no longer an outside
and an inside as two separate things. Now the outside may come inside and
the inside may and does go outside. They are of each other.
function thus become one in design and execution if the nature of materials
and method and purpose are all in unison” (Wright 1954, p. 50).
Fallingwater’s deep doorway located at the east main entrance is one
in-between place as are the projecting terraces that, as extensions of the
rooms within, are neither in nor out.
The depth created by the terraces and the overhanging volumes
above give the balconies a quality of outdoor rooms. As in-between spaces,
they become thresholds mediating the contrasting domains of insideness and
trellis-like openings projecting from the guest bedroom to the south and the
trellis stretching to relate the house to the north driveway are other
important elements transforming inside and outside to an in-between.
For Aalto’s Villa Mairea, in-between places include the deep, projecting
main entrance canopy, the covered terraces below the studio, the west side
of the flower room, and the terrace that leads to the sauna.
Perhaps the most
powerful in-between experience is fostered by the entrance canopy, which
works as a threshold to mediate the lived-transition between outside and
gradually decreases from the wide open outside to the entrance canopy and
then to a tight passageway that gives an impression of entering a narrow
The wide transparent glass openings used in both houses, particularly in
Fallingwater, play a crucial role in facilitating in-betweeness.
omitted walls and vertical frames from window corners to dematerialize solid
walls. The absence of walls and frames opens a new opportunity to see the
importantly, these glass corners bring attention to the fragility of the
wall, thus dissolving its presence and merging inside with outside.
interpenetration of the inside out involves physical form extending outward,
interpenetration of the outside involves surrounding space
intermingling with the inside through the enclosure and cradling of physical
On its south side facing Bear Run, Fallingwater interpenetrates the outside
by projecting balconies reaching into space and endowing that space with a
sense of vertical presence.
The projecting balconies, by penetrating into the outside space, allow
that space to penetrate back into the building mass (figure 5). As a
result, the interpenetration creates defined spaces that belong
simultaneously to inside and outside.
Fallingwater’s precarious placement on the rock embankment above the stream,
the dominant spatial expression of these spaces is vertical – between
above and below.
In contrast, Villa Mairea’s interpenetration of the outside much more
involves a horizontal expression; as with Fallingwater, the reason relates
Mairea is located at the crest of a gently rising hill, the actual site on
which the house stands is relatively flat. Aalto used this generous expanse
as a space with which the house could engage spatially. The u-shaped plan
cradles the outside by forming a partial courtyard, which belongs to both
inside and outside
(figure 6). The worlds of house and nature can meet
as equals in this space.
In intermingling, architectural and environmental elements are used
metaphorically to bring the meaning of outside in, and inside out.
For example, the interior presence of natural elements reminds us of the
outside, which we then experience vicariously. By echoing features of the
natural site, intermingling enables experiencers to be aware of the outside
as they remain inside. In the opposite way, interior elements brought
outside invite the safety, comfort, and culture of the inside.
Intermingling allows one domain to assert itself in the other, thereby
establishing another kind of kinship and relationship between inside and
In Fallingwater, Wright used the rock boulder protruding in front of the
living room fireplace as one means to bring nature in.
of the boulder with the fireplace powerfully expresses the phenomenon of the
ground, which is particularly a feature of the outside. The outcropping
evokes a feeling that one is literally living with a primordial force of
nature but in a secure, protected way (Thiis-Evensen 1987, pp. 53-55).
Similarly, Aalto used roughly cut, natural stones in the Villa Mairea’s
living room fireplace, though this use is not as unusual as Wright’s, since
these stones do not have the literal earth-sourced connectedness with site
as Fallingwater’s boulder does.
Both architects use inside and outside elements in a more metaphorical way.
example, Fallingwater’s waxed flagstone floor appears as wet ground, thus
reminding one of the running water outside.
addition, the waxed flagstone conveys safety and hazard simultaneously –
safety, because of the strong attachment and anchorage the stone floor has
with the natural ground; hazard, because of the impression the floor gives
Aalto’s effort to simulate a sense of the surrounding forest inside Villa
Mairea is another example of intermingling at this more metaphorical level.
outside forest surrounding the house is echoed in the rhythm of columns and
poles in living room, music room, library, entrance hall and staircase.
Arranged in irregular groups of one, two, or three, these columns suggest a
deliberate intention to minimize any regular geometry and to remind one of
the natural world outside. In an opposite way, Villa Mairea’s covered
outdoor terrace is an outside space given a quality of the inside by
treatments peculiar to inside space.
terrace’s clean, tidy, white-painted posts and beams suggest the inside, as
does a rustic fireplace, which speaks to comfort and warmth.
In Fallingwater, Wright intermingles outside elements inside but, other than
introducing pieces of sculpture, does little with intermingling inside
Villa Mairea exhibits as much presence of inside elements in the outside as
outside elements inside.
argue that the intermingling of inside and outside is more balanced in
Mairea than Fallingwater.
A Non-Arbitrary, Revitalized Architecture
In claiming that architects today face a crisis in knowing what constitutes
successful building, Harries points out that there is no one dominant
representational paradigm (like Abbot Suger's vision of the Gothic church,
for example) that has been powerful enough to establish a shared
In turn, Harries
links this lack of representation at least partly to an obliviousness of
natural symbols: "What architecture lacks today is what the great styles of
the past provide: a developed system of symbols that architects could
presuppose and therefore did not have to invent...."
1997, p. 133).
We to not wish to imply here that Harries's solution to current
architectural difficulties is some single grand representational paradigm
grounded in natural symbols. Instead, Harries emphasizes that, in this
postmodern era of diversity and multivocity, the need is a series of
creative efforts and experiments that might establish new representational
types – for example, he mentions as possibilities the theater, museum,
public plaza, and landscape garden – that have today the equivalent power
that, for example, the Christian church had in earlier times in the West
(ibid., part IV).
Harries (ibid., pp. 130-32) also emphasizes that natural symbols are only
one aspect of an invigorated architecture – one must also take into account
conventional symbols (symbols only understood by an awareness of
cultural and historical significances – e.g., the cross as a symbol of
Christ's crucifixion) and metasymbols (symbols drawn from past
traditions in a playful but arbitrary way – e.g., the postmodernist use of
Classical motifs). Ultimately, however, natural symbols may be the core of a
revitalized architecture because they sustain and reflect “an origin that
does not lose its power with the passage of time because it has its
foundation in the very nature of human dwelling” (ibid., p. 109).
At the same time, Harries emphasizes that natural symbols can never tell us
how to build but, instead, can only help us to think about how our buildings
might be made more thoughtfully (Harries 1997, p. 11).
To create a
non-arbitrary architecture grounded in human being-in-the-world requires a
deep understanding of what human beings and nature are.
understanding in hand, architects might have a powerful tool to envision
architecture enabling people to find their place in the world.
In creating two houses that speak to the natural symbol of inside and
outside (as well as to other natural symbols like light-dark,
horizontal-vertical, up-down, and center-periphery – see Assefa 2002),
Wright and Aalto could be said to demonstrate the kind of revitalized,
non-arbitrary architecture that Harries envisions.
In this sense, Fallingwater and Villa Mairea provide invaluable models
for current design education by demonstrating an architecture that arises
from and speaks to human being-in-the-world.
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Pallasmaa, J., ed., 1998. Alvar Aalto: Villa Mairea.
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Relph, E., 1976. Place and Placelessness. London: Pion.
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The interpretation of inside and outside presented in this article
is drawn from the first author’s master’s thesis in Architecture –
see Assefa 2002. A shorter version of this article was published in
Environmental and Architectural Phenomenology Newsletter, vol. 14,
no. 2 (spring 2003), pp. 11-15. Photographs are from the authors’
collections; all drawings are by Enku Mulugeta Assefa, other than
the Aalto sketch, which is from Pallasmaa 1998, p. 78.