Transparency: Literal and Phenomenal

Transparency: Literal and Phenomenal – Colin Rowe and Robert Slutzky

This week, we were asked to read Colin Rowe’s investigation of transparency and its subdivision into literal transparency and phenomenal transparency. Rowe begins his essay drawing upon painters from the early 20th century’s cubist movement to introduce and define his dual view of transparency. With this set of evidence, Rowe sets out his basic tenets that define transparency:

“Transparency may be an inherent quality of substance, as in a glass curtain wall; or it may be an inherent quality of organization. One can, for this reason, distinguish between a literal and a phenomenal transparency.”

In this way, Rowe defines literal transparency as the physical translucence inherent in a material or structure. There is no ambiguity as to the form or that which lies behind the plane of the transparent surface.

Conversely, phenomenal transparency exists when a designer deliberately abstracts space, not through the use of overlaying transparent planes, but through the reorganization of multiple spacial grids that would normally define a plane.

Below are two paintings that demonstrate these notions of transparency.

Moholy-Nagy, La Sarraz. 1930

Fernand Leger, The Three Faces. 1926

In the first first figure, La Sarraz, the painter paints with obvious transparency in his pigments in order to layer the receding layers of planes. What results is an organization of shapes that are clearly in superimposition with one another in a vacuous expanse suggesting outer space. Nothing is left to the imagination since the transparency of the planes allows the viewer to see through each layer.

Conversely, Leger’s painting suggests a reordering of the various spacial planes as each of the three sections of the painting invade and repel the neighboring spaces. In this way, the viewer is called upon to conceive the reordering of the painting in order to complete the thought. However, Leger has left no instructions for the audience, and so the image’s ambiguity allows for a myriad of interpretations.

After his study of cubist paintings, Rowe necessarily turns to the world of architecture in order to more thoroughly expound his notions of three dimensional transparency of space. The two chief examples that Rowe selects are Gropius’ Bauhaus workshop and Le Corbusier’s villa at Garches.


Villa at Garches

Gropius’ Bauhaus is incontrovertibly a model of literal transparency. The curtain of glass that drapes over the workshop’s faces demonstrates material transparency that leaves little to the viewer’s imagination. One can perceive the glass and framing behind it, and the space behind the glass is easily recognized. Furthermore, the literally transparent is best viewed at an oblique angle (hence the diagonal, two point perspective of the photograph) in order to define space in a more complex way. The regularity of the grid that connects each of the building’s faces further informs the viewer of the space presented, and very little is left to the imagination.

Alternatively, Le Corbusier does not rely on material transparency to present volume and shape; rather, the villa at Garches’ irregular facade and broken grid present enough detail for the viewer to complete the thought on his or her own. In a sense, the architect provides a suggestion of what the volume of the space might look like behind the opaque walls, and the viewer is allowed to conjure up the hidden spaces. Rowe asserts that Le Corbusier purposefully included design features that act as points of reference that imply spaces not immediately discernible.

When I first read Rowe’s argument about the villa at Garches, I will admit that I did not fully comprehend, nor buy into what he was saying. However, I finally grasped what he described when I realized that the frontal view of the villa at Garches compared to a frontal view of the Bauhaus yield very different interpretation of the buildings at hand. The Bauhaus would appear as a huge curtain of translucent glass with a plane wall lying behind and a gridded division of the translucent plane by the metal on the glass. However, the villa at Garches presents multiple geometric planes that are both positive and negative spaces of the facade. Le Corbusier breaks up the face of his villa by adding and subtracting, opaquing and opening up his surfaces in an irregular way that adds depth to his volume. However, Le Corbusier does provide enough clues to the viewer in order to reconcile the form of the house and create an illusion of complex volume behind the home’s facade.

I think an easy way to understand phenomenal transparency and the implication that it suggests an end result or volume is the comparison to a Cambridge University study on how we read and interpret written language.

Try and read the following paragraph:

i cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid; aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno’t mtaetr in waht oerdr the ltteres in a wrod are, the olny iproamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae.

Could you read it?

It is suggested that the reason you can read the paragraph above lies in our mind’s ability to reorganize information that we perceive and conceive of something that makes more sense to us. Rowe argues that phenomenal transparency has just the same effect on the brain. By breaking up and mixing spacial planes, designers are able to complicate the notion of physical space and do not need to rely on transparent materials to reveal the volume hidden behind a fasade. That is not to say that we will always arrive at an accurate conception of the hidden space of a building, but designers give us more to engage in psychologically when phenomenal transparency is at play.

In short, it can be said that the chief differences between each form of transparency lies in how the viewer interacts with the design. Literal transparency is perceived and definite, while phenomenal transparency is conceived and indefinite.

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