Architecture of the diaphanous

Riccardo M. Villa

PhD candidate at ATTP and Research Assistant

Thesis Supervisor: 
Univ.Prof. Dr.phil. Vera Bühlmann

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Friedrichstrasse Skyscraper Project, Berlin-Mitte, Germany (1921)

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Friedrichstrasse Skyscraper Project, Berlin-Mitte, Germany (1921)


Architecture of the Diaphanous: Between Project and Speculation


The starting point of the present research is to confront architecture with the modern and contemporary myth of transparence. Since the ‘reform’ of Saint Denis by Abbot Suger, moving on to Paxton’s ‘Crystal Palace’, Bruno Taut’s ‘Alpine Architecture’, Mies van der Rohe’s architectures of prisms and screens, whose legacy seem to last until the present day, architecture has been obsessed with its own ‘dematerialisation’. This can be seen in parallel to the modern scientific quest for a total objectivity of its own investigation, the struggle to reach a truly ‘scientific’ view, or one in which there is no difference between what one sees and what is seen, where subject and object stand in a seamless and impartial dialectical relationship with one another.

Aim of this research is then to investigate transparency as the ‘emplacement’ (locus, or ortung) of a third, questioning and opening up the dialectical polarity. The “accident” of transparency should then be replaced with the “substance” of a translucent diaphanous. The verb dia-phaino in Greek means ‘to appear through’, in that sense being translatable in the Latin trans-pareo from which ‘transparent’ comes; the diaphanous is then the transparent medium, a generic kind of crystalline substance through which images are rendered visible.

The diaphanous is what can index an absolute (continuous) space of potency and translate it into the immediacy of finite (discreet) images. In these terms, the diaphanous is very similar to architecture. The very act of enclosure from which edification starts (the temenos) can be seen as a way to provide a finite form that nevertheless can welcome and address an absolute space of potentiality, as a way to ‘encrypt’ it. Both architecture and diaphanous can be seen as devices of translation between the continuous and the discreet, as what makes ‘life unfold between walls’.

The architectural project will be then seen in contrast to the modern myth of planning (as a transparent and exhaustive forecasting) and compared instead to the philosophical one of the problem (from the Greek pro-ballein, ‘throwing before’, as the Latin pro-iectare): the setting-up of a certain disposition or method relative to a quest over a certain object or, in other words, the outlining of the conditions for its possible solutions.

If transparency is the device of projection, then reflection will be associated with speculation and invention. Once again, this is quite remarkable in the case of architectural representation: It is in fact through the means of a mirror that Brunelleschi proves the ‘truthfulness’ of perspective drawing as he had invented. As an ‘emplacement’ in which things appear in their pure image, stripped from any material ‘extension’, the mirror is the figure through which an architectonics of knowledge can be best investigated. It is in the additional ‘reflective turn’ that architectural projection and philosophical speculation can be looked at in their pure form.

It might nevertheless be quite a difficult—if not impossible—task to provide a ‘picture’ of a transparent medium, as well as of a mirror. How can one ‘draw’ transparency itself, without representing what it is seen through it? How can one do the same with a mirror, without just falling into the report of whatever it is reflected? For these reasons, the diaphanous will be approached by multiple ‘circumnavigations’, the scope of which will be to ‘sound’ the nature of this crystal. A range of topics will be then challenged through it, starting from modern and contemporary architecture itself, in its relation to politics, philosophy of law, anthropology, technology, science, and aesthetics. These different ‘facets’ will eventually translate and reveal the architecture of the diaphanous.


—“Architecture of the Diaphanous”, presented at the 2018 Sophistication Conference, TU Wien

—“Modernity at the Mirror”, lecture on invitation of the Architekturtheorie Zwei course at the University of Innsbruck