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Mundaneum in Brasília

Much has been written about the “leftover” spaces of the megalopolis, the holes which the laws of development have determined should be left unbuilt – at least for now. Brasilia has holes, too, but they are premeditated; determined by the limits of textual interpretation rather than economics. Brasilía’s holes come with cultural and historical baggage that Houston’s “drosscape” has not acquired.

The site for this project is probably the most charged urban void in any city in earth. Surprisingly, however, it’s actually not one of Brasilia’s preserved voids – it was always planned to be filled. Lucio Costa’s original design for Brasilía describes this site being filled with what it basically a floating glass terrarium – a floating bar building right in the middle of the city’s primary visual axis. To further complicate things, the building’s “scale”—as determined by its location within Costa’s pilot plan—is “aggregate.” Buildings here, by original concept, precedent, and by zoning law, are supposed to be complex mixtures of commercialism and culture (high and low.) In fact, this commercial-cultural vision extends so far that the oversized billboards on the adjacent buildings are actually in the original description of the city. These buildings are about spectacle – it’s the argument of Pop provocatively overlaid on the most symbolically charged intersection in all of modernism. Cleverly, all the other buildings in the area managed to step out of the way of these impossible tensions, literally avoiding them by taking the sidelines adjacent to the axis rather than occupying the axis itself. Every building except Costa’s glass box.

In deciding how to occupy the site, we have essentially three strategies to choose from. We could go with a full-on spectacle strategy, analogous to the adjacent billboards or a colorful, poisonous frog. The complete opposite of this approach would be to get the building out of the way by burying it or hiding it. But a more interesting solution is to try to bring the void and the aggregate into a sort of uneasy but productive relationship – to try to navigate the situation through synthesis rather than exclusion. Hence a third frog: we can see through the frog (though our gaze does not emerge unaffected) as well as into the frog (where we might emerge somewhat horrified.)

How do we produce these conditions? We have an answer already in Brasilia: it’s present in Costa’s conceptualization of the city as an experiential itinerary.

The architectural translation of the itinerary is the narrative promenade. The promenade converts the building’s facades into programmatic spectacles. Spatially, Otlet’s original conception of the mundaneum is obsolete: in the age of the internet, we no longer need a physical presentation of the entire world’s knowledge – architecture is less competent than the internet in giving us this. Instead, architecture is leveraged to produce curated narratives; specific, temporary, and polemic rather than totalizing. The building becomes a cultural destination because of its curatorial specificity, not because it fulfills a totalizing aspiration; the promenades offer a social and cultural experience which is unique, up-to-date, and digestible.

The project’s internal organization is the result of a wall that stretches parallel to the building’s long axis, pressing the promenades up against the facades in order to project their program out into the city. The wall produces three spatial relationships: the public trajectory of the promenade as it moves along the wall, the more intimate public-private occupation of the wall’s poché, and occupation of the top of the wall (open plan administrative and office space), which allows one to look down onto the promenades, but never into the wall itself.

The interior of the wall is conditioned by the adjacent promenades of the library (top of the drawing) and the exhibition/gallery space (middle of the drawing.) The flows of public circulation along the promenades eddy into the poché space of the wall, switching from a trajectory condition to more intimate spaces. Because the mundaneum program is curated, it also demands constant updating to keep people coming back. The wall provides a flexible structural frame for cheaply reconfigurable interiors—not the “kit of parts” of the 60s utopian projects, but sheer walls that gypsum board and studs can be sloppily attached to. The poché within the wall and below the ramp of the middle promenade create an excess of available space for redundant systems to support this reconfiguration. For example, you could visit one week and a door might open into reading room, while the next week it opened into a larger art installation that also acts as a sectional “jump-cut” circulation route from the library promenade to the interior gallery promenade.

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