The Missing Element(s) / atrium



At the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale, Rem Koolhaas and a host of co-researchers/authors presented a list of what they claimed to be the fundamental building elements “used by any architect, anywhere, anytime.” Elements, a book-turned-exhibition, documents the evolution of a series of building components, beginning from their early origins, across modernity, and into their speculative futures in order to exhibit their conventional uses and unconventional adaptations. The 2,336 page encyclopedia examines fifteen elements that range from the ancient floor, as the foundation between the upright body and the building, to the modern escalator as a means of mass transportation in the urban realm. 

Koolhaas isn’t the first architect in history to proclaim what he believes to be the fundamental elements of architecture, but the delivery of his treatise comes at a time in the profession in which the standardization of building parts has threatened to reduce the architect to a mere composer of catalogued items. By revealing each component’s radical transformation over time, Elements destabilizes their standard identities so the architect is able to freely speculate the future possibilities of their evolution.

The Missing Element(s) is a research project that endorses Koolhaas’s building taxonomy as a significant contribution to architectural discourse, as it urges architects to rethink their fundamental media. However, The Missing Element(s) also engages Elements critically, in order to further probe Koolhaas’s treatise. If the main intention of Elements is to analyze the fifteen most fundamental architectural components, the box set creates the dilemma of excluding what it does not include.

To explore this question, one must examine the composition of Koolhaas’s box set, while preserving his intention of defining and analyzing architecture’s basic building elements. Taken as comprehensive, Koolhaas’s periodic table can be divided into two thematic categories: enclosure and occupancy. The enclosure elements are the basic building components that construct a “space”, whereas the occupancy elements activate the space into a habitable building. In the enclosure category, elements 1 through 4—floor, wall, ceiling, and roof—are the primary means of creating a space, while 5 through 8—door, window, façade, and balcony—are the supplements that transition the user between interior and exterior realms. In the occupancy category, elements 10 and 11—fireplace and toilet—fulfill the basic human requirements for habitation, while elements 12 through 15—stair, escalator, elevator, and ramp—facilitate circulatory channels throughout the building. As an interface between enclosure and services, element 9—the corridor—is the only element comprised of other components. Formed by a union of floor, wall, and ceiling, the corridor anomalously bears a spatial condition, differing from its otherwise off-the-shelf counterparts.

The corridor constitutes an inconsistency in Koolhaas’s set as it shifts the dialogue from strictly material components to that of a spatial element. Therefore, it opens the discussion to the consideration of other spatial typologies. Given that the corridor exists as a horizontal connection on a given floor, it finds its vertical equivalent in a missing element: the atrium, a void that serves as a connection between floors. 

The atrium, in analogous fashion to the corridor, serves as a link between the categories of enclosure and occupancy. In its capacity as an enclosure, the atrium is composed of floor, wall, ceiling, and roof, which are in turn activated by doors, windows, and balconies in order to foster a functional space. To the occupancy functions, the atrium’s void provides ventilation, light, and plumbing utilities, while also enabling vertical circulation via the stair, escalator, elevator, and ramp—thereby affirming its necessity for any building of two floors and higher.

Beyond its significant interrelationships to the other elements, the atrium possesses a meaningful history that has the potential to contribute to Koolhaas’s investigation of architecture’s fundamental elements. The origin of the atrium dates back to the genesis of architecture itself, and spans diverse cultures, typologies, and scales. Although formally characterized as the central opening within a building, the atrium’s most impactful contribution lies in its propensity to create the fundamental gathering space for the unfolding of social interaction. 

The story of the evolution of the atrium begins by short-circuiting the debate on the mythical origins of architecture. Whether it was the cave or the campfire that served as the catalyst for our collective tradition of establishing built environments, both organizations exhibited atria-like phenomena in their capacities as central spaces for gathering that simultaneously provide environmental benefits. The vertical opening made its first appearance in a built structure as the central courtyard that enclosed the communal fire pit in the Neolithic Yarmukian site dating back to 6400–5800 BCE. Later, the formal courtyard developed into a critical space throughout buildings in a multitude of ancient civilizations, including those of China, Greece, and India. 

The first critical moment in the development of the atrium-proper occurred in ancient Rome. Due to dense urban-living conditions, the Romans internalized the courtyard in order to create a secluded space that was open to sky but partitioned from the city. The typical Roman domus positioned the open-air atrium within the center of the home, where it served as an innermost assembly space allowing smoke escape from fire, via the compluvium, and water collection via the impluvium. 

Technological developments continued to progress across centuries, reaching the Industrial Revolution (1760-1840), when the innovation in techniques for producing iron, steel, and glass ushered a second wave of advancement in the evolution of the atrium. Since this period, the atrium has grown evermore significant as the central element in diverse building typologies ranging from office structures to prisons, cloisters, theatres, malls, and more. The atrium has evolved from primitive gathering space to large void in the building for the collective.

It is peculiar that Koolhaas excludes the atrium from Elements, given that its role in making buildings into social condensers has been a consistent theme of his works. Many of the projects produced during OMA’s formative years employed the atrium as a pivotal space in the building parti: Zeebrugge Sea Terminal (1988), Jussieu—Two Libraries (1992), and Tres Grande Bibliotheque (1989)—where he specifically states the design is based on the “Strategy of the Void” as a means to connect programs. Further, Koolhaas has been able to transform the vertical opening condition to connect multiple programs within the building and to the city in many of his later projects, such as Prada NYC & LA, Cornell’s Milstein Hall, and Seattle Central Library.

Given the atrium’s extensive presence in the history of architecture and this incontestable evidence that Koolhaas understands its importance as the collective space of a building, it is unclear why the vertical opening was omitted from Elements. One possibility is that Koolhaas did not want to associate himself with the atrium’s introverted origin, a theory that perpetuates the atrium as having anti-urban tendencies. This line of reasoning is supported by Koolhaas’s critique of John Portman—the father of the modern atrium—for his Atlanta Peachtree Center; Koolhaas claimed the use of the atrium in the interconnected buildings created a complex that further disconnected the user from the city. Regardless of his reasoning, the atrium is a curious omission from Elements—it has been profoundly influential in the development of mankind and architecture, Koolhaas’s box set proclaimed objective to explore. 

Due to its ever-presence and variability, the atrium exists both everywhere and nowhere, allowing its important contributions to society and architecture to go easily unnoticed. Although it is an element as old as architecture itself, the atrium has been the subject of surprisingly little literature and documentation. Adding the atrium to the forthcoming second edition of Elements will aid in initiating an understanding of how deeply the void has impacted architecture, whether in its purest form or more unusual alterations. Documenting the history of the atrium will not only reveal its substantial presence in the development of architectural traditions but, as with the other elements, will encourage free speculation into its evolutionary possibilities.

Yet by no means does the atrium complete Koolhaas’s periodic table. One can argue for the inclusion of the Luminaire as the agent for all electrical components in the building—completing the Occupancy trifecta of Mechanical (Fireplace), Electrical, and Plumbing (Toilet).  As the ambition of Elements is to study the history of architecture’s most fundamental components in order to speculate their future, every building component should be examined. So, this essay now asks: are there any other missing elements?  


The Missing Element(s) / atrium is thesis project completed under Assistant Professor R.A. Svetz at Syracuse University in Spring 2015. The project was selected for Super Jury Awards and later given the Dean’s Citation for Excellence by Dean Michael Speaks.