Monolithic Architecture

12 Apr

I came across an article about a month ago entitled “Megaexterior,” which according to the blog I found it on ( was originally published in the moon issue of Volume magazine. A friend of mine sent it to me and when I first read it I thought it was a joke.  This is not unusual since we send each other funny things we find on the internet with some regularity. The article was strangely written in my opinion and lines like “ the proverbial ‘really good’ science fiction movie” and “boxes he notoriously had specially fabricated so that they fit snug; just so” threw me off; however, the more I read the more I realized it was not a joke and by the end I was captivated.

Focusing on the monolith, featured originally in the short story “The Sentinel” by Arthur C. Clarke and later in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick, the author makes the argument “that an object, a discrete thing, may be transformative purely through its presence.” When related to architecture and urban planning, this is a very powerful idea, a manifesto even.

I can only speak for myself, but I believe simple, monumental, bold moves in architecture are more powerful than a thousand ornaments will ever be. I like squares, I like straight lines. I like positive space juxtaposed with negative space, solids and voids. Simple geometry maintains an understandable order, and for me that is comforting.

This is not to say that I like designs that are merely “simple.” What I like are simple concepts. Through the manipulation of a mathematical construct or pattern, a design can be simultaneously simple and complicated. It is the simplicity of the concept that allows the design to have meaning and as a result be transformative. If the concept is simple enough and based in fundamental, geometric laws of nature, the inhabitants will be able to inherently recognize and connect with it.

An example of this idea would be a square piece of paper equally divided into four smaller parts by drawing only three squares.  The paper provides the context on which the concept will be applied; the three squares drawn create the pattern. The fourth square does not need to be drawn because the pattern has already been established and the negative space is equal to the size of positive space, which falls inline with the pattern and so your mind fills in the blank and the composition appears balanced.

The example above essentially demonstrates the idea of the “monolith;” a discrete object that is transformative because the foundation of its creation; its concept or pattern creates a language through which communication can occur. Today, firms like MVRDV, Steven Holl Architects, and Adjaye Associates, exemplify this kind of design style.  Before them it was Louis Kahn, Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier and as the article points out, the builders of the Pyramids.  These historical examples give credence to the opinion that designs based on simple, geometric, natural concepts stand the test of time.  They draw us in and make us want to preserve them for future generations.

I will admit there are other ways to achieve meaningful architecture and I wouldn’t want to limit possibilities. It is also important to point out that a concept is just the beginning. Good architecture requires many more steps: less glamorous things like details, engineering, specifications, and code compliance, the choice of materials and the integration of utilitarian necessities. For me, however, the best designs always seem to be rooted in simple concepts. You may disagree but hopefully we can agree on one thing: like the monolith, architecture should always strive, purely through its presence to be transformative. Otherwise, what is the point?

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