Autonomous or Appropriate

New National Gallery and Woodland Chapel



Photo of Katrin Terstegen

Katrin Terstegen

Assistant Professor

Cal Poly Pomona University



This paper examines two profoundly different design approaches: one, herein called ‘autonomous’, where the building’s design is governed by internal rules, independent from context and program, and the other, here called ‘appropriate’, where the building is designed in direct response to both.

Mies van der Rohe’s New National Gallery in Berlin from 1968 serves as an example of the ‘autonomous’ direction. The building is raised on a plinth and removed from the site, and its architectural and spatial expression can be found in the vocabulary of Mies’ oeuvre but it is not specific to site and brief. The building itself is coherent in itself, and there is no discrepancy between the interior and the exterior.

Gunnar Asplund’s Woodland Chapel in Stockholm from 1920 is an example of the ‘appropriate’ direction. The chapel responds to the site by adopting scale and materiality of the surrounding forest, and the design of its interior space is governed by the ritual of the program. As a result of this tailored response to site and program, the building is formally ‘misaligned’ – there is a deep disconnect between the exterior façade and the interior space, and this also produces the intended effect of surprise.

However, despite these differences, the two buildings share one thing: an entry procedure that begins beyond the building’s thermal envelope. In that sense, both buildings have a deep threshold.

The paper aims to examine the various factors that come into play by using either one of the two design directions. Using the ‘appropriate’ approach may mean that various components in the building will not follow their ‘true nature’ and are not ‘honest’. This includes the expression of structure as well as the application of materials. However, this paper does not aim to make a value statement of either of the two directions. Instead, this examination opens up avenues to further research into the potential conflict of a formal approach in architecture against a program-driven approach.


The context in which a building is situated often requires design responses that are in conflict with its program. These external forces can include planning regulations that govern materials, massing

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The Long Entrance: Façade as Deep Threshold

Before we study the differences between these two buildings, we will examine the one thing they have in common: a prolonged entry procession. We will look at the façade not

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The Inside and The Outside

Both projects are similar in that they offer a scripted entry procession but it is at this point of entry, at the edge of the envelope, where the two buildings

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Context and Program as Modifier

Context and program are two forces that strongly impact the design of a building. Once introduced, the design ceases to be a mere conceptual model and needs to take a

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Appropriate or Autonomous?

Inevitably, as we examine the two directions - one “autonomous”, the other “appropriate” - the question arises whether one is superior to the other.

We can look at it from a

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This paper examines the two opposing positions towards the relationship of interior and exterior, as a result to a building’s response to context and program.

One position is the misalignment of

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Rights and Permissions


Evans, Robin. “Mies van der Rohe’s Paradoxical Symmetries.” in Translations from Drawings to Buildings and Other Essays. AA Documents 2 (1997): 232-272.

Frampton, Kenneth. “Mies van der Rohe: Avant-Garde and Continuity.” in Studies in Tectonic Culture. The MIT Press (1995): 159-207.

Venturi, Robert: “The Inside and the Outside.” in Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. The Museum of Modern Art (1966): 70-87