the disorienting column

roberto gargiani, anna rosellini

a+u #637, 2023

If an element has existed in the body of architecture that has at the same time represented the technical reason for the act of supporting and the symbolic value that elevates construction to the art of communication and symbol of a civilisation, this can be found in the column, which not by chance, over the centuries and in the various theories formulated in our discipline, starting with De Re Aedificatoria, has been pointed out to be both the strongest part of the wall and the primary ornament of architecture.

In the first decades of the 21st century, turning back to consider the column in light of the contradiction discovered by Alberti is not a sophisticated and useless academic game concerning the fate of that one element. 

Since its appearance, fala has taken such a convincing and intense position of experimental provocation that it has triggered reactions from leading architectural journals, has been pointed at as a paradigm of a dangerous hedonism, and has left indifferent the so-called School of Porto, annoyed by suspicion of betrayal; and at the same time, and conversely, to have aroused the excitement of consumers of Instagram images, and to have fuelled the escape into a deliberately self-contained collage (but which was not the concept of collage professed by fala).

fala's position in the contemporary debate symbolically coincides with that of the columns in their architectures, which usually deviate from the position where they are expected to be erected today; they disengage themselves from logical mores by stepping to the side or forward of the beams; and they claim their own meaning, which to almost all of us had now seemed out of date.

For these reasons, fala’s columns force us to question not so much what they are, but what they point to. After an initial reconnaissance of the works built between Porto and Lisbon, and of the archives, we sensed the presence of a tragic substance in fala's work, against the backdrop of the tumultuous events that are sweeping architecture, from political and social issues to climate and sustainability, and that fala observes, subsumes, reflects upon and declines without being conspicuous.

fala's architecture pretends to be naïve, and only pretends because everything, from the work in its environmental, technical, cultural and historical context, to the single line that weaves a logical ornament for its construction, to the division of space of Japanese ancestry, is the result of a reflection that takes place on the basis of rules that aim to make each work the theorem of a constellation. fala updates that constellation, work after work, through large panels of drawings that they affix to the walls of their studio in order to keep an eye on the cultural phases of their production and to understand the reason for being at a certain point in a trajectory. Of that trajectory the column may be said to be one of the parameters, and also the most eloquent indication of an intellectual restlessness.


The construction of the column as a paradigm of a cultural displacement goes back to fala's early works; the resumption of that column in the most elementary and celebrated framework of the 20th century - that Domino which appeared in the studios of fala members even before the group's constitution and was celebrated in their project Polikatoikea (2011-12) - takes place in a recently completed house in the suburbs of Porto, and then continues in the projects now in progress for the construction of large public social housing buildings in which fala amazes sceptics who tended to relegate their architecture to naïve and a-political disengagement, or to the hedonistic universe of collage.

Our academic exercise, as historians grappling with the repertory of instances of the fala column, begins with the one eccentric column that traverses all floors, in the competition project for the National Centre for Contemporary Arts [005], in Moscow (2013), as a clue to the insertion of a typical theme of Japanese and Swiss architectural culture, whether by Kazuo Shinohara or Valerio Olgiati, into the work of fala. 

At the same time, the column is used in the Parthenon [008], a project for a park pavilion - "a structure that supports nothing", explains fala. When columns do exist, such as the two in the building in Lisbon where fala realised the Chiado Apartment [025], they are transfigured by a reflective coating, announcing the ways in which columns and beams can be taken over to make them meaningful fragments in space.

"A marble column which holds no other function than to create spatial punctuation and questions": this is stated by fala about the design for a kiosk in Chicago's Millennium Park (2014-15), which is a narrative about architecture written against the backdrop of the crisis of the discipline's cultural autonomy, and to pay homage to Shinohara, Asplund, Mies and also Rossi. The title of the text, Little Kiosk Artistically Considered [027], is a parody of the famous article by Sullivan who was a master of inventing columns that pretended to carry.

In the competition for the Bauhaus Museum building [028], in Dessau (2015), fala proposed a grid of columns slid from square rooms and topped by a mighty hollow prism clad in stone slabs, as if their Parthenon had become a sovereign shelter once again. The device is such that it isolates, in each room, a column that is moulded into a spindle like a sculptural work worthy of inclusion in the museum, in homage to Valerio Olgiati's columns in House Kucher.

Roof, walls and columns stand between them in enigmatic and semperian relationships, as in Mies van der Rohe's Barcelona Pavilion, and as in works by Shinohara. This is fala's way of creating their teutonic Neue Nationalgalerie through the disjunctions introduced between the elements of the structure to isolate the column. A similar disjunction characterises the project for housing in the Quartier du Désert [046], in Lausanne (2016), where the columns emerge in exceptional positions, dressed in black marble. Even in transforming a factory in Lugar de Ribaçais [052] - the Reasonable Housing - into an apartment building, fala leaves columns and exposed reinforced concrete beams of the original structure isolated in space.


In the 'unorthodox space' for the family reunion in the House for Three Generations [023], fala erects a square column that does not reach the ceiling to declare that it is non-load-bearing, despite being made of exposed reinforced concrete. The column is the alternative to the wall required by the head of the family so as not to be disturbed by his wife busy at the cooker, and is justified with the hypothesis of being able to attach folding walls to it.

When designing the House for Three Generations, fala is busy studying the reuse of a garage in Lisbon, the Garage House [040], which has a colossal square central pillar from which curtains run to articulate the continuous space. But the origin of the column in the House for Three Generations must be sought in the cultural references that accompanied the formation of the members of fala, and in their desire to attribute to that element the value of a symbol of the very identity of architecture, aware of the risk of outdatedness in still posing in those terms the question of what is the substance of the discipline at the beginning of the 21st century.

Columns erected as symbolic presences in space had been seen by fala in the houses of Shinohara, Sakamoto or Ando. However, the measure of the 20-centimetre gap from the ceiling is calculated with the intention of pretending that the column is still load-bearing, so as to eradicate any symbolic meaning of Japanese derivation, and to bring the column back to the question of the definition of space. 

The meaning assumed by the column reveals a Swiss theoretical origin in the work of architects dear to fala. Rudolf Olgiati had introduced slits between the columns and the canopy at the entrance to the Radulff house, so that the shadow was all that remained of the capital. The shadow gaps had been amplified by Peter Märkli in the pairs of non-load-bearing columns placed in the façade of the villa in Mels following his discussions with Olgiati about the columns of the Radulff house. In the measure of the gap proposed by fala between the column and the ceiling in the House for Three Generations, Olgiati and Märkli's anxieties about the fate of the column (and of the language of architecture in contemporary times) are reflected, albeit indirectly.

The fala column determines the orientation of the parquet floor strips, as was the case with the eccentric pillar, à la Shinohara, which in Valerio Olgiati's Gelbe Haus also generated the geometry of the floor joists as an essential part of the structure.

For the design of the House for Three Generations, fala brings together images of both Shinohara's House in White with the column isolated in space, and the flat house in Binningen, by Oliver Lütjens and Thomas Padmanabhan, where a marble-clad pillar marks the symbolic centre and functions as a door knocker.

Supporting the roof of the House for Three Generations is a reinforced concrete pillar, which is invisible because it is reabsorbed into the closures of a room. In the disjunction between the invisible supporting pillar and the non-load-bearing column is reflected fala's bet for an idea of architecture freed from the justification of its logical and technical construction, and to be argued with the force of the intellect alone - an idea as fragile and courageous as the existence of the non-load-bearing column.

"Columns are architecture before being structure" is a fala statement that reconnects that element to the theories of Alberti and Semper, to the reflections of Rudolf Olgiati and Märkli, to certain columns by Álvaro Siza and Shinohara, even to those of Valerio Olgiati. But the references do not quite account for the fala column. Not far from the House of Three Generations stands the Ana Luisa’s family home, which at its centre has a Tuscanic granite column erected to pretend to be a support.

The discovery of the 'unorthodox' column in the House of Three Generations is declined by fala in the column erected in the centre of each room in the House with Four Columns [059].

The pole

In the curved domestic space of the House with a Curved Wall [058], fala's column takes the form of a puny metal pole with no structural function, which touches the ceiling at its highest point, to reveal its cartilaginous consistency and remind us of the fragility of architecture made into a poem of space. It is other metal and puny poles that fala raises to form the portico of Six Houses and a Garden[075], but necessary to support the eaves of the roof and to give back to the complex the character that used to be ensured by the collective bathroom located in the centre of the garden.


The columns of the House for Three Generations and the House with Four Columns and the poles of the House with a Curved Walland the Six Houses and a Garden are raised according to refined degrees of ambiguity so as not to reveal their static role.

With those columns and poles, fala appears intent on criticising the tectonic certainties of those who have declined Siza's lesson in a single direction, to the detriment of the enigmas disseminated in the Faculdade de Arquitectura in Porto. The highest degree of ambiguity - because nothing allows the truth to be understood - is reached in the facade towards the garden of the House in Fontaínhas[057]. The large window is pierced by a cylindrical concrete column painted pink and placed under an exposed reinforced concrete beam. The colour alone suggests that the column has no other function than to belong to the geometric composition of the railing of the opening on the first floor.

The play on the disorienting column continues in the House without idea [087], where fala decides to construct a cylinder out of blue-painted metal to be inserted under the reinforced concrete beam, again in the façade towards the garden. The ambiguities of the concrete column are resolved in the fragility of the screwed tube; but they become perceptible only by touch and at a distance at which the screws can be seen.

The fala column takes a step forward from the beam and ends up standing alone, in their House and Atelier [067], fala's professional headquarters and the residence of its founding members.

The blue-painted cylindrical column, raised in front of the office window, is meant to reassure about the solidity of the opening at the foot of the façade (similarly to what fala attempted in the House along a wall [088]). Although descended from that of the House in Fontaínhas, the column is detached by a sufficient distance to create a similar ambiguity to that of the column in the House for Three Generations. It is intended to signal to any sceptical clients that the function of its sisters in the history of architecture has not always been that of mere support.

After Alberti, some of the greatest theorists, from François Blondel to Semper, had tried to prove the origin of the column in the stele and tripod by exalting its purely symbolic significance in times of technical and scientific upheaval, and well before the Japanese and Swiss architects made an similar use of it in their works, from which fala started to question the meanings of their column. The tragedy taking place in the discipline at the beginning of the 21st century does not seem so different from those experienced in previous centuries, at moments of greatest crisis; and the columns of Alberti, Blondel, Semper and fala take on the burden of being its revealing agent.

Contextualist framing

Another column, always unsettling for its enigmatic role in the construction, and a beam shifted from its usual position into a framework, contribute to the character given by fala to the House under a Big Roof [072], in order to fulfil the client's desire for a dwelling with traditional Portuguese features. In the catalogue of works taken as reference, ranging from Siza's early houses to those of Rudolf Olgiati, Shinohara and Itsuko Hasegawa, Fernando Távora's house in Ofir stands out. 

Three fragments of the skeleton of the House under a Big Roof are extracted from the walls to tell a story that in complicated ways puts themes such as the leaning column and the parastas back on the agenda, and that fala extends to the beam. The fact that two of those fragments appear in the main façade indicates the intention to create a framing for a house that intends to infiltrate the others and look traditional, as desired by the client.

The column is an outgrowth of the invisible corner pillar belonging to the framework and declares its non-load-bearing role by stopping well below the mighty beam. But that beam, too, is an outgrowth of the invisible load-bearing beam, and emerges at the ends to wink at the beam that peeps out beyond the wall in Távora's house. In the corner opposite that of the leaning column, fala reveals the presence of the framework pillar with a prominence that is typical of a classical parastas.

The combination of beam and column had already appeared in the House in Fontaínhas, as well as in Reasonable Housing; but now it is being exhibited in the main façade makes the combination address the post-modernist orders, to show the art of unusual and disorienting disjunctions, in a discourse of architecture that fala entertains by themselves, in the generous hope of helping to safeguard the theoretical core of the discipline.

One of fala's photographs at the House under a Big Roof is designed to bring the loggia of the neighbour's house into the frame; to that house is addressed the written narrative with the column and beam that the photograph reveals to have been proposed to stage a disjunction similar to that achieved with the blue and white in the neighbour's loggia. It goes without saying that fala's disjunction is as sophisticated as those of Shinohara, Rudolf Olgiati or Távora.

The architect has become a juggler who shuffles the cards of references to surprise with a house that has all the characteristics to be ignored, were it not for the fact that some of the pieces stand together in such a dissonant and alienating way that they impose themselves even on an inattentive gaze. fala shows an awareness of the goal of a "challenged vernacular" achieved with its sophisticated ungrammaticality: "an architecture of familiarity and confusion".

The “hanging” column as a “clef”

After several disconcerting columns, fala takes reasoning to excess by trespassing on an artifice that had characterised the miraculous effects of the 'clefs pendantes'. fala does not follow the rivulets of technical history to rediscover that constructive tradition. Their trajectory still passes through the studies initiated during their stays in Switzerland and Japan.

The desire of the client of the Suspended House [079] to have all rectangular rooms on the two main floors is the constraint that leads fala to fix the centre of the project at a point located in the house where the cross-shaped walls converge, above the shared basement space. The walls are offset by a few centimetres, justified by adjustments dictated by regulations and the functioning of the rooms.

fala's composition is secretly Swiss, in a similar manner as that of Lütjens and Padmanabhan. The geometric point of convergence of the doors takes the form of a figure modelled according to a profile derived from the offset of the walls. It is as if the creative intensity usually poured into designing walls with complex profiles has crystallised into that single element due to the orthogonality of the walls.

The system of frames, mullions, counterframes and cornices for the doors, and the intrusion of the grooves and bulls of the column bases (actually, geometric figures dear to fala), are put together to generate the surprising profile of the upright section in the centre between the openings. The result is an exceptional concrete column that, contrary to what the material would suggest, does not support any structure.

The fact that the modelling of the liquid material of the concrete is that of the voids in the door wings makes the fala column a piece of Chillida-like sculpture. But fala always lay their cards on the table, like in the sophisticated and ironic game staged by François Mansard with the visible column and the suppressed ones in the staircase of Balleroy's castle. Those who entered the Suspended House saw in the basement the column with its strange profile, isolated in space, and which did not touch the floor but descended from the ceiling like a 'hanging clef', because immediately after the construction of the floors fala had a part of the base removed so that the column revealed that it was suspended and unhinged the feeling of stability of living, to the point of inducing the client to suppress it.

Olgiati explained the significance of his cantilever roof for the Graubünden parliament building in Chur by using the term 'hanging column'. fala looks at its column with interlocutory curiosity and researches its possible meanings through a game of comparisons that conjures up the table of Five Gothic Columns with their Plans, taken from an 18th century manual, and Door, 11 Rue Larrey by Duchamp. After the suppression of the column, fala associates their invention with the suspended columns of Alvaro Siza, Atsushi Kitagawara, Robert Mittelstadt and Toyokazu Watanabe, and the OpArt tortile effect columns designed by Jiro Takamatsu.

In search of what can make each piece of architecture the chapter of a story with increasingly logical traits, fala realises, in the centre of the House around a Chimney [077], a hollow column in exposed reinforced concrete that is the chimney of the only fireplace located on the ground floor. On the upper floors, the chimney becomes the door knocker of the room doors, as in the Suspended House; but its functional status is preserved by the absence of the modelling that characterises the 'suspended column'. fala makes use of these mirror games for their architectural narrative, which also ends up involving the superimposition of columns. In the House around a column [143], bordering the stairs, fala superimposes a cylindrical column, an octagonal column and a square column in a vertical sequence - a 'Vignola' transformed into a children's playground.


After several 'moves of the horse', performed to break free from all contemporary academia, it is likely that future fala columns, their combinations and overlaps, will reassemble in the ranks of an economical Domino framework that could still be characterised by eccentricities such as to remind us that the fala column was once displaced and isolated.

If this is to be the theoretical and poetic perspective, then the House with an Inverted roof [125] could be pointed to as the provisional closure of a trajectory that returns to consider with renewed attention a logical construction of the framework, after having passed through the column detached from the slab, the column made into a metal pole, the column suspended and the one moved to the side to escape any bridling in some tectonic. It was necessary to break away from any kind of academy, be it Portuguese, Swiss or Japanese.

A single cylindrical column of the House with an inverted roof, foreseen in the plans and then suppressed, is finally raised isolated in the apex of the terrace on the first floor, to resonate with the landscape, to complete the row of pink-painted sisters, detached from the free façade and belonging to the elementary Domino framework, and to continue to manifest the disorienting feeling of incompleteness. It is not a detail that the concrete cylinders erected by fala to be isolated coloured columns are not painted in their upper surface.