chapter  1
14 Pages

Breathing walls

WithDavid Leatherbarrow

When the Dominican fathers of San Juan Puerto Rico fi rst offered Henry Klumb the commission for the Church of San Martin de Porres (1950), he turned them down.3 In explanation of his refusal, he gave two reasons: as a Protestant he felt he could not design a conventional Roman Catholic church; and as a modern architect he could not build in the Spanish colonial style that everyone on the island had become used to. Eventually he overcame both obstacles and designed a fascinating little sanctuary. My concern, however, is not with the building as a whole, but just one of its parts, an element I will call the breathing wall (Figure 1.1). Obviously, the term is metaphorical. So far as I know, this particular formulation was not used by Klumb, who employed a number of other terms to describe the elements that allow buildings to admit fresh and exhaust stale air. Le Corbusier developed an equivalent vocabulary in his proposals for respiration exacte in modern buildings.4 In what follows, I will study this single element in order to use it as a foundation for more basic arguments about architecture and life. The breathing wall is a useful topic because it operates in three ways simultaneously: technically, as a device for modifying the climate; practically, as a way of structuring the events that defi ne a (religious) institution; and symbolically, as their representation. With respect

to this last aspect, a single quotation from the architect should be suffi cient to indicate the amplitude of meanings sustained by the breathing wall: ‘one of the human necessities of prayer [Klumb said] is the ability to breathe, therefore the circulation of air is something that has to be considered by the architect [in the design of a church].’5 That more is involved than getting oxygen into the blood is clear: both religious and prosaic breathing supply the lungs with what they need, but something else is involved in the former. One does not need to be a Catholic to know that the Genesis account of human beginnings hinges on this ‘something else’, for nothing less than mankind resulted from the inspiration of soil: ‘the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.’6 Nor is a confession of faith required to see evidences of the extra-respiratory consequences of breathing in the parallel account of origins in the Pentecost myth: communication and community resulted from an inrush of air. The report in Acts 2 is as follows: ‘suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it fi lled all the house where they were sitting […] and every man heard [all the others] speaking in his own language.’7 In both stories, breath was simultaneously an instrument and sign of new life. The Greek word for breath or vapour, atmos, clarifi es why the mood or quality of an architectural setting, such as the nave of San Martin de Porres, is often named its atmosphere.