From SAN FRANCISCO’s fire to Louis Kahn’s death in NEW YORK. How false ceilings shaped American architecture: 1906-1974

english with russian translation

An architect and a scholar in history of modern architecture Manfredo di Robilant will give a lecture on the history of the falce ceillings.

The ceiling is a very sensitive surface of buildings; it reacted with amazing clarity to the shift from irrational pre-modernity to rational modernity.

As to the first, the astonished admiration that a frescoed vault can induce was well described by Charles de Tolnay in the introduction to his book on Michelangelo’s ceiling for the Sistine Chapel (The Sistine Ceiling, 1945). As to the second, Reyner Banham described with the same effectiveness the intriguing complexity of false ceilings in his chapter on “Concealed power” in the International Style’s corporate buildings (The Architecture of the Well-tempered Environment, 1969).

All through the history of architecture, ceilings have been very visible places of structural as well as artistic experimentations. Indeed ceilings are related to the act of looking up, thus something that a visitor of a building usually do intentionally, with the significant exception of hospitals. Louis Kahn once stated that he was horrified by the idea of dying while looking at a false ceiling. In this statement he was probably influenced by the fact that since the primitive age looking up has been associated with invoking the gods, and false ceiling tiles could easily frustrate this attempt…

During the 20th century, ceilings became a place for housing air conditioning and heating ducts, electrical wires, sprinkler systems, telecommunications cables and CCTV. Hence, ceilings ceased to be surfaces for displaying symbolical meanings through paintings and decorations and became technical surfaces. Moreover, since the end of 19th century the need to protect steel structures prompted the diffusion of false ceilings as fire-resistant surfaces, and the obsession with noise-control in interiors favored the use of false ceilings as noise-absorbing surfaces.

The clash between the task of satisfying material needs and that of conveying symbolical meanings in architecture is implicit already in the Vitruvian triad of commodity, firmness and delight (commodity and firmness embody the first two terms, delight embodies the latter term). The history of architecture in the 20th century made no exception to the pervasiveness of this conflict/compromise, despite the claim of Modern architecture to privilege utility, in search of a rupture with older traditions.

If many building elements and building solutions could be selected to investigate the interaction or opposition between utility and symbol, ceilings and false ceilings seem to be particularly appropriate for this task. Indeed, they climactically embodied the two poles of this opposition, but nevertheless they also embodied the interaction between the two…

This talk investigates the false ceiling by narrowing the focus on the US, and by creating a narrative from the San Francisco fire of 1906, when false ceilings were tested for the first time on a large scale as fire-resistant surfaces, to Louis Kahn’s death in New York’s Penn station, 1974.

Manfredo di Robilant is an architect and a scholar in history of modern architecture. He recently completed a post-doc at the Polytechnic University of Turin and he has been Visiting Scholar 2012 at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montréal. He has taught at the Naba, Milan, and he lectured at the Washington University in St. Louis, the Harvard Studio in Rotterdam, the University of Bremen. He has been assistant to the editor of the monthly «Il Giornale dell’Architettura» and he published reviews and interviews on «Log» and «Domus». Manfredo oversees “Ceiling” an