Alan Maskin: The Art of the Impluvium

For two weeks, A+A is featuring guest posts by some of this nation’s finest architects, curators and designers. We made a simple request of each: Give us 300 words about your favorite building and its architect, and why both are important. Today, Alan Maskin of Olson Kundig Architects looks at an ancient and ingenious system for storing rainwater and cooling spaces in warm weather:

A series of ancient architectural elements working in tandem – domus, compluvium, impluvium and cistern – come together to create what I would call my favorite room. Much of my work in the public realm is rooted in architectural precedent.

The domus (the ancient Greek and Roman word for home) contained an interior vestibule called an atrium, which was comprised of two parts: a compluvium and an impluvium. The compluvium was the roof and ceiling configuration that sloped to an opening in the center of the atrium, providing daylight. When it rained, water fell into an impluvium—an ancient rainwater catchment system—that used standing water to cool interior spaces in warm weather. A cistern beneath the impluvium stored water overflow for household purposes. The combination formed an ingenious and beautiful manner of collecting, filtering and cooling.

On sunny days, the opening in the ceiling framed the sky similarly to the sky spaces created by contemporary artist James Turrell. I’ve often wondered why this historic model hasn’t been reinterpreted in modern design more often, as the ancient Greeks and Romans preceded Turrell’s work by thousands of years. The only time I’ve seen anyone build on this idea was Charlotte Perriand in her sketch for the design of an unrealized beach house. Her drawing depicts a sloping tensile structure and centralized water collector. On the side of the sketch, Perriand wrote the word impluvium.

At a time when water conservation and the integration of cisterns in contemporary architecture is critical, we should reconsider design solutions like these from thousands of years ago. I hope to design one on a project one day.

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Photo credits: Lavoir_impluvium_Igé.JPG. Lavoir à Impluvium d’Igé (Saône-et-Loire, France). Photo: Clément Bucco-Lechat (source: Wikimedia Commons); Baigneux-les-Juifs_-_Lavoir_2.jpg. Lavoir de Baigneux-les-Juifs, Côte-d’Or, Bourgogne, FRANCE. Photo: Christophe Finot (source: Wikimedia Commons)