Home > ALO > Transparency I: Layering of Planes/Layering of Spaces

Transparency I: Layering of Planes/Layering of Spaces

Literal Transparency vs Phenomenal Transparency, Real Transparency vs Seeming Transparency, Substantial Transparency vs Organizational Transparency, Actual Transparency vs Implied Transparency, Transparency of Seeing/Looking vs Transparency of Reading, Transparency of Observation vs Transparency of Interpretation.

Figure 1: Still Life, 1919, Jeanneret/Le Corbusier: overlapping of planes, Figure 2: Müller House, 1929-30, Prague, Adolf Loos: Raumplan as a succession of layered spaces

Transparent (adjective)

Having the property of transmitting light without scattering to that the objects lying beyond and behind are seen clearly; allowing passage of a specified form of radiation; fine or sheet enough to be seen through-diaphanous

Middle English, from Medieval Latin transparent-, transparens, present participle of transparēre to show through, from Latin trans- + parēre to show oneself

Synonyms include: clear, crystalline, liquid, lucent, pellucid, and see-through

Antonyms include: cloudy or opaque

Related terms include: colorless, diaphanous, translucent, semi-translucent or –transparent, glass


Two types of Transparency: the distinction

As can be seen from the dictionary definitions, the term transparency implies the optical or observational notions of showing or seeing through. Colin Rowe and Robert Slutzky in their essay ‘Transparency: Literal & Phenomenal’ refers to a passage by Gyorgy Kepes,

“If one sees two or more figures overlapping one another, and each of them claims for itself the common overlapped part, then one is confronted with a contradiction of spatial dimensions. To resolve this contradiction one must assume the presence of a new optical quality. The figures are endowed with transparency: that is, they are able to interpenetrate without an optical destruction of each other. Transparency however implies more than an optical characteristic, it implies a broader spatial order. Transparency means a simultaneous perception of different spatial locations. Space not only recedes but fluctuates in a continuous activity. The position of the transparent figures has equivocal meaning as one sees each figure now as the closer, now as the further one.” (Gyorgy Kepes, Language of Vision, quoted in C. Rowe & R. Slutzky, 1982, Transparency: Literal and Phenomenal, The mathematics of the ideal villa and other essays)

Rowe and Slutzy continue to add that, “‘Simultaneity,’ ‘interpenetration,’ ‘superimposition,’ ‘ambivalence,’ ‘space-time,’ ‘transparency’: in the literature of contemporary architecture these words, and others like them, are often used as synonyms.” (Rowe & Slutzky, 1982)

However, despite the dictionary definition implying transparency to be a material state or condition of allowing passage, transmission, diaphaneity, amongst others, the notion of transparent planes overlapping each other can suggest further interpretations, such that there is something else at play other than just a physical transparency (Rowe & Slutzky, 1982). This other type of seeming or implied transparency, that is an interpretive transparency, or an interpretive mode of seeing-through, can be distinguished,

“at the beginning of any inquiry into transparency, a basic distinction must perhaps be established. Transparency may be an inherent quality of substance-as in a wire mesh or glass curtain wall, or it may be an inherent quality of organization-as both Kepes and, to a lesser degree, Moholy suggest it to be; and one might, for this reason, distinguish between a real or literal and a phenomenal or seeming transparency.” (Rowe & Slutzky, 1982)

Hence the dual phenomena of transparencyliteral and phenomenal, real or seeming, substantial or organizational, actual or implied transparency.


Transparency in Painting

Rowe and Slutzky comments of the Cubist canvas of the early 1910s as illustrative of these two orders or phenomena of transparency (concepts alluding to space-time relativity), and they compare and illustrate the difference between literal and phenomenal transparency in Picasso’s The Clarinet Player, 1911 (being literal, a figure in deep space) and Braque’s The Portuguese, 1911 (being phenomenal, a shallow flattened extended space).

Le Corbusier’s Still Lifes’ speak of both literal and phenomenal transparency; of both overlapping transparent figures (wine glass and bottle) and overlapping – yet flattening – planes (objects) in space. The painting depicts spatial ambiguities; a property of transparency, due to an illusion of deep yet shallow space; a fluctuation of back and forth movement of objects and planes advancing and receding simultaneously.


Transparency in Architecture

The notion of spatial interpenetration, of which Sigfried Giedeon has mentioned in his texts on Le Corbusier’s buildings, is concurrent with the industrial, art and architectural movements of the era, that is, the fascination with the space-time continuum, relativity and the fourth dimension.

Rowe and Slutzky describes the workshop wing of the Bauhaus as a case of literal transparency whereas Le Corbusier’s villa at Garches as an example of phenomenal transparency.

The vertical layer-like stratification of Le Corbusier’s villa at Garches produces a layering of the interior space of the house and creates a succession or sequence of laterally extended spaces travelling one behind the other (Rowe & Slutzky, 1982).

“throughout this house, there is that contradiction of spatial dimensions which Kepes recognizes as characteristic of transparency….The five layers of space which, vertically, divide the building’s volume and the four layers which cut it horizontally will all, from time to time, claim attention; and this gridding of space will then result in continuous fluctuations of interpretation.” (Rowe & Slutzky, 1982)

This continuous fluctuation of interpretative readings reaffirms the notion of seeming, or what will be later referred to as an implied transparency, as opposed to a real or actual transparency. The fluctuation or oscillating planes or layers produces an ambiguity of spatial depth in its simultaneity of vision or perception of multiple or overlapping planes and readings.

Thus, in architecture, the principles of frontality and stratification, that is, the layering of frontal planes is a device to construct and articulate space in order to achieve phenomenal transparency (Rowe & Slutzky, 1982).


Loos: Raumplan, the Layering of Space

“My architecture is not conceived in plans, but in spaces (cubes). I do not design floor plans, facades, sections. I design spaces. For me, there is no ground floor, first floor etc…. For me, there are only contiguous, continual spaces…Storeys merge and spaces relate to each other.” Adolf Loos

“Loo’s Raumplan…turned the experience of the house into a spatio-temporal labyrinth, making it difficult to form a mental image of the whole” (Colquhoun, 2002). This thus reiterates the notion of space-time interpenetrative spaces of simultaneity. It is such that transparency is a condition of betweeness in these terms of successive and continuous stratification, overlapping, layering, and superimposition of spaces.

The Villa Müller depicts a “[spatial] continuity between rooms…created not by omitting walls but by piercing them with wide openings so that views were always framed and the sensation of the room’s spatial closure was maintained” (Colquhoun, 2002). The viewer ‘journeys’ through the spatial continuum of the phenomenally transparent layered planes-spaces.

As such, Loo’s notion of the Raum – (or Space) – plan is a case of phenomenal transparency, that is, a transparency produced by the organization and articulation of sequential and continuous spaces, divided by planes or frames ordered in a layered or stratified manner.


Eisenman: Actual Transparency vs Implied Transparency

Figure 3: Eisenman’ axonometric analysis diagram of Terragni’s Casa del Fascio: layering of frontal planes, Figure 4: Eisenman’s House II: a layered reading or interpretation; actual vs implied

In Peter Eisenman’s formal-geometrical analysis of the Casa del Fascio by Giuseppe Terragni, he describes the frontal plane of the southwest façade as a series of successive layered planes from front to back (Eisenman, 2003). This interpretive study can be seen as a forerunner to his own investigative projects of layering planes and spaces, seen especially in his early house projects.

In Eisenman’s article on Cardboard Architecture: House II, “the implied planes formed by the columns and beams cut through the volumes in such a way as to create a condition in space where the actual space can be read as layered. The layering produces an opposition between the actual geometry and an implied geometry; between real space which is negative or void and implied volume which is positive or solid” (Eisenman, 1975).

Eisenman then describes a “dialectic or an opposition between an actual relationship and an implied relationship in the environment using the column and the wall, and the wall and the volume” (Eisenman, 1975). Here the actual and the implied relationships of transparent modes or operations are seen in opposition to each other, creating ambiguous dialectic or double overlapping readings of planes and spaces.

Eisenman thus achieves an overlapping-multiple reading or interpretation of transparent yet ambiguous conditions by means of working between two modes or readings of transparency, actual transparency vs implied transparency, or similarly, literal vs phenomenal transparency, or real/substantial vs seeming/organizational transparency, that is, the two modal operations of layering, the layering of Planes vs the layering of Spaces.




  • Definitions courtesy of Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary
  • Colquhoun, Modern Architecture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002)
  • P. Eisenman, House II 1969 – Cardboard Architecture: House II, Five architects: Eisenman, Graves, Gwathmey, Hejduk, Meier (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975)
  • P. Eisenman, G. Terragni, et al, Giuseppe Terragni: transformations, decompositions, critiques (New York: Monacelli Press, 2003)
  • Rowe & R. Slutzky, Transparency: Literal and Phenomenal, The mathematics of the ideal villa and other essays (Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 1982)
  • Raumplan [online]. [cited 14 October 2010] Available from: <http://www.mullerovavila.cz/english/raum-e.html>


Figure References:

  • Figure 1: Alan Colquhoun, Modern Architecture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 141.
  • Figure 2: Alan Colquhoun, Modern Architecture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 84.
  • Figure 3: P. Eisenman, G. Terragni, et al, Giuseppe Terragni: transformations, decompositions, critiques (New York: Monacelli Press, 2003), 96.
  • Figure 4: S. Cassarà & P. Eisenman, Peter Eisenman: Feints (Milan: Skira, 2006), 84.
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