Conditions - Pier Vittorio Aureli and Martino Tattara - Platforms: Architecture and the Use of the Ground

Platforms: Architecture and the Use of the Ground

Pier Vittorio Aureli and Martino Tattara

Jørn Utzon, Sydney Opera House, Sydney, 1959–1973. Image: DOGMA, 2019.

October 2019

In 1962, Jørn Utzon, the architect of the Sydney Opera House, published a short yet seminal essay titled “Platforms and Plateaus.”1 The text is an account of his fascination with the architecture of the platform, of which Utzon mentions a few examples, including the giant platforms in the Yucatán, the plinth upon which Old Delhi’s Jama Masjid sits, the floor of a traditional Chinese or Japanese house, and the mysterious architecture of Monte Albán in Mexico. By highlighting the platform, Utzon put forward an idea of an architecture that defines space without enclosing it. Yet it is precisely the subtleness of the platform as a space that manipulates the most essential datum of existence—the ground—that makes this type of architecture an ambivalent form that both enables and restricts what happens upon it.

Utzon’s interest in the platform can be developed further, toward a more critical genealogy of this architectural form. Platforms are not just pedestals that function to single something out of their immediate context.2 They are alterations of the ground that can be read as tangible indexes of power relationships. It is not by chance that since the nineteenth century, the term has been used outside of architecture: first within parliamentary politics—to refer to party policies and institutions—and, more recently, in the digital world, in order to address giant internet corporations that mediate interaction between groups of users. Like their physical counterparts, both the political and the digital platform refers to space that at once facilitates and conditions use. Since it is an apparatus of social order whose function is based on the stability of recurring patterns of behavior, the platform therefore embodies the quintessential meaning of institutional power.

Çatalhöyük, Southern Anatolia, 7,400–5,700 BCE. Image: DOGMA, 2019.

Leveling the Ground

The term “platform” comes from the Middle French plateform or platte fourme, which means “flat form.” The word refers to a specific physical artifact: a raised level surface.3 Arguably, the act of raising and leveling the ground is connected with human domestication and the gradual rise of sedentary domestic space. The anthropologist Tim Ingold wrote that hunter-gatherers perceived the land not as a surface, but as a constellation of permanent “landmarks,” such as mountains and lakes. With the gradual passage to semisedentary and sedentary life, permanence became more an issue of domesticating land as a “surface.”4 If the rise of domestic space predates the rise of agriculture, then leveling the ground for the sake of inhabitation can be seen as the earliest form of permanent living.

The earliest known semipermanent homes, such as those discovered at Ohalo (21,000 BCE), on the southern bank of the Sea of Galilee, contain early evidence of the platform. The consolidation of the home as an enclosed permanent space was paralleled by the leveling of the dwelling’s interior,5 on top of which sat an inch-thick cushion of alkali grass.6 This gesture of demarcation by elevation is evident in other ancient domestic spaces, such as houses found in Byblos (8,000 BCE), north of Beirut, in which floors were carefully flattened to ease their cleaning. Moreover, this kind of leveling was frequently the result of the fact that homes were often used as burial places, too. Burial was instrumental to dwellers in legitimizing permanent occupation.7

Yet a level floor was not just functional, but also symbolic: with its smooth and slightly elevated surface, it reinforced the contrast between the interior and the uneven topography of the outside landscape. The floor thus turned the house into a stage on which to perform what was the essential purpose of early permanent dwellings: the ritualization of life.8 Rituals are activities performed according to a predefined set of actions. The performance of a ritual always involves the definition of a place whose form is clearly organized in order to ensure its continuity. The floor of many early houses was comprised of a platform built purposely to differentiate areas dedicated to different activities, such as cooking, fasting, and sleeping—conferring theatrical emphasis to essential reproductive functions.

This is clearly visible in one of the most extraordinary examples of Neolithic domestic architecture, the settlement found at Çatalhöyük, southern Anatolia, which was inhabited between 6,500–5,500 BCE. At Çatalhöyük, houses were accessed from the roof, which acted as the main stage for much of the inhabitants’ daily lives, especially during the spring and summer. Activities inside the house were organized not by enclosed rooms, but by platforms of varying height—some were used for cooking while others were used for sleeping. Some of the platforms were built on pits in which deceased household members were buried. These were often adorned and clearly distinguished from other parts of the home. Çatalhöyük shows how, in early forms of sedentary inhabitation, the horizontal datum of the ground and not the vertical enclosure of walls defined the structure’s use.

Anu Ziggurat of Uruk, Iraq, ca. 4,000 BCE. Image: DOGMA, 2019.

Mounds, Steps, and Floors

With the rise of early cities, the use of platforms expanded from houses to large-scale structures. In Sumer Uruk, imposing platforms were used to set apart monumental complexes, such as the White Temple, from the rest of the city.9 Entire cities built by the Indus Valley civilization, such as Mohenjo-daro, were constructed on top of gigantic platforms made of mudbrick. These served two main purposes: they raised settlements against the floods and provided solid foundations.10 Moreover, as the entire population was involved in their construction, the building of platforms was the embodiment of both a communal effort to settle a specific place and make it inhabitable and that community’s control of the ground. A similar process was at stake in other civilizations, such as the Hohokam culture, which flourished from AD 300 to 1500 in the North American Southwest.

Recent interpretations of the use of these platforms are often contrasting.11 While for some archeologists, such as Douglas B. Craig, they signified social integration by collective labor and were used for communal ritual and fasting. For others, such as Mark D. Elson, they were venues of social differentiation, where inequalities between members of society were created.12 These contrasting interpretations address the ambivalent role of platforms as means for both communal gatherings and social asymmetry.

Yet it is precisely the explicitness in which ancient platforms played out social and symbolic roles that made them quintessential public archetypes. As was the case with domestic floors, platforms were stages that gave public emphasis to the actions that took place upon them. It is for this reason that, in many ancient examples, such as Mayan pyramids and Greek sanctuaries, steps became the main architectural feature.13 The role of steps in these structures was to theatrically emphasize the movement of people by orienting them and providing a sense of rhythm. Historian Mary B. Hollishead argued: “[T]he foot’s repeated contact with a sequence of horizontal surfaces at regular, predictable intervals translates to a sense of organization and system. Close intervals and compression of steps express intensity of effort, or conversely, broader spacing brings a slower rhythm.”14

Threshing floor, Greece, fourth century BCE. Image: DOGMA, 2019.

Public platforms could also address static situations, such as the gathering of a community around a focal point. This is clearly evident in one of the most important examples of platforms in the Western ancient world: the threshing floor, a circular space made of compacted ground or paved stone, fenced off with rocks or delimited by a ditch. Threshing floors were used to separate grain from straw by having bulls or horses circle around, stomping on the harvested wheat. As argued by archeologist Nikos Chausidis, the perfect circularity and flatness of the floor, along with the rhythmic circling of the animals, allowed farmers to view the threshing floor as paradigm of the circularity of nature in harmony with the seasons and the movement of celestial bodies.15 In ancient Greece, this perception of the threshing floor was all the more evident, given the steep topography where flat ground was at a premium. Because of their geometric form and prominent siting, threshing floors thus also operated as gathering places. Their congregational function was often an anticipation of important civic structures, such as the bouleuterion (βουλευτήριον, or assembly house) and the theater.16

Archeologist Bonna Wescoat notes that threshing floors were places of encounter, witness, and transformation, not only in the Greek world but throughout the ancient Mediterranean. They figure in the Old Testament and in the accounts of the Eleusinian Mysteries as prime spaces of ritual action.17 These associations between gathering, ritual, and performance are visible in the so-called “theatrical circle” of the Sanctuary of the Gods in Samothrace (600 BC). Here, the circular, level floor, framed by benches, merges the form of the threshing floor with that of the khoros (χορός), which originally designated the dancing floor. Indeed, the Greek word for threshing floor, halos (ἅλως), is etymologically close to the word khoros.18

Sacral circularity and axiality can be recognized as a paradigm for many more remarkable ancient types, such as the orchestra of Greek theaters, the ring of Roman amphitheaters, hippodromes, stadiums, and the podium of concert halls.19 Yet the ancient threshing floor shows a typology of ritualistic architecture that was still linked to everyday use. It therefore represents a condition whereby theatrical action was deeply embedded in daily existence, and did not require too ceremonial or monumental an architecture. The symbolic and the utilitarian uses of space reinforced each other.

Theater circle in the sanctuary of the Great Gods, Samothrace, Greece, fourth century BCE. Image: DOGMA, 2019.

Stages, Plinths, and Playgrounds

The platform as a theatrical space is perfectly embodied in the orchestra (ὀρχήστρα) of the ancient Greek theater. The orchestra was the flat ground between the scene and the audience; it was also a sacred area, since within Greek civilization, theater was a form of worship. It is important to note that in the performance of a tragedy, the orchestra mainly served as the space for the chorus, the group of performers who collectively commented on the dramatic action by reciting, singing, and dancing. The orchestra—at least in the early development of the Greek theater—was thus not a stage for individual performers, but literally a dance floor for intensive performances that often involved audience participation. Precisely for this reason, the orchestra had to be perfectly flat and wide, and preferably circular form. The orchestra is an example of a platform that blurs both the distinction between audience performers and spectators, as well as theater and religious ritual. Here, the simple and abstract architecture of the platform functions as a powerful device that orients, solicits, and organizes a collective body, giving it a specific form.

It is therefore not by chance that theater—a manipulation of the ground, with its composition of wide, flat surfaces and steps—became extremely influential in the development of modern monumentality. Think of the modern Renaissance and Baroque villa, which in many cases is nothing more than a composition of sloping surfaces and terraces acting as stages. Examples include Donato Bramante’s Belvedere Courtyard, whose construction started in 1503, and Pirro Ligorio’s Villa d’Este, started in 1560. Here, the sloping landscape is reinterpreted through a sequence of plateaus connected by monumental ramps and flights of stairs.20 In both cases, the villa is conceived as a gigantic, multilevel stage, on which every gesture would acquire a performative solemnity. It is important to remember that the massive earthworks that were necessary to build a monumental villa garden on a slope were often used by landowners as a way to dispossess local residents of their use of common land. In order to hide the violence of this dispossession, landowners partially opened their villas as public “open-air museums” in which admission was granted based on a strict code of behavior.21

Donato Bramante, Belvedere Courtyard, Vatican, Rome, 1503. Image: DOGMA, 2019.

The garden as a sequence of platforms and plateaus formalized this code through carefully choreographed sequences of movements and stoppages. Soon such theatrical landscapes made of platforms and ramps were expanded from the villa to the city. During the Renaissance, and even more in the Baroque European city, slopes often provided the opportunity for ground alterations that would turn circulation into a processional spectacle. The most notable example of this approach is Alessandro Specchi’s design of Rome’s so-called “Spanish Steps” (1725), a monumental staircase that connects Piazza di Spagna with the church of Trinità dei Monti. Here, the steps are both a means to ascend to the church and a system of benches cascading toward the piazza in the manner of a theater.

Yet precisely at the time that the city was being designed as a theatrical space, theater itself was becoming increasingly confined to a specialized architecture whose function was to establish a clear-cut distinction between stage and audience. It is important to note that simultaneous to these processes was the increasing control and suppression of theatrical performances on the streets, which had been an important tradition of medieval Europe. What was at stake in the shift of theater from outdoor to indoor spectacle was the possibility for elites to establish rules for performing in public, thus limiting the political influence of theater to the social life of a city.22

Adolphe Appia, stage for Orpheus and Eurydice by Christoph Willibald Gluck, 1912–1913. Image: DOGMA, 2019.

A fundamental break with the strict separation between stage and audience was promoted by the Swiss scenographer Adolphe Appia, whose work is considered among the most influential contributions to twentieth-century theater.23 In 1909, Appia conceived an innovative type of stage that he defined as “Espaces rythmiques.” These were meant for the performance of eurhythmics, a discipline invented by Émile Jaques-Dalcroze to teach rhythm and musical expression using bodily movements.24 Appia conceived these rhythmic spaces not so much as scenography, but as a platform composed of steps, ramps, and a low wall—an architecture reduced to its simplest volumetric expression. He intended this abstract design to extend from the stage, far beyond the traditional scope of scenography, and to make bodily movement the absolute protagonist of the stage.

Appia and Émile Jaques-Dalcroze collaborated in 1913 on the staging of Orpheus and Eurydice by Christoph Willibald Gluck for the Hellerau theater, where the set was reduced to a gigantic staircase that could be arranged in different ways. Indeed, Appia conceived theater as a space of interaction, in which architecture would provide only a horizontal articulation. Appia imagined a whole world no longer enclosed by walls or scenes but rather made up of platforms, where no prescribed way to interact or perform was put forward. In Appia’s idea of the stage, the platform became an abstract form, an ostensible artificial ground devoid of any symbolism and institutional control, and ready to enable unforeseen ways to live and move together.

Le Corbusier, Unité d’habitation, Marseille, 1947. Image: DOGMA, 2019.

Architectural historians have noted the influence of Appia’s Espaces rythmiques on two remarkable examples of platforms in modern architecture: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s plinths, a recurring motive in most of his projects, and Le Corbusier’s idea of the roof garden (the terrace at the Unité d’Habitation in Marseille is one of the best realizations).25 In Mies’s Barcelona Pavilion, the Seagram Building in New York, and the Toronto-Dominion Centre, the plinth both supports the built structures and provides open space free from any specialized program. His subtle use of steps in the Seagram Building’s plinth is certainly reminiscent of an important example of platform in ancient architecture: the crepidoma, the stepped platform on which temples were erected. Yet unlike in temples, the steps of the Seagram Building monumentalize the empty space in front of the tower, rather than the tower itself.

Mies van der Rohe, Seagram Building, New York, 1958. Image: DOGMA, 2019.

In Le Corbusier’s roof garden at the Marseille Unité, architecture is reduced to an abstract composition of platforms and volumes, which the architect envisaged as a playground for both children and adults; in his own words, an “esplanade for physical culture.’”26 The roof garden includes an open-air theater built in concrete, where, like in Appia’s stage design, performances could be held “without any mise-en-scène or expenses.”27 Architectural historian Ross Anderson has remarked how Le Corbusier’s roof garden reveals a great affinity with Appia’s Espaces rythmiques, not just in terms of form, but also in purpose: in both cases, the architecture of steps, platforms, and bare volumes incites intense use and physical movement, rather than contemplation.

Aldo van Eyck, Playground, Sumatraplantsoen, Amsterdam, 1965–67. Image: DOGMA, 2019.


Even more significant are Aldo van Eyck’s hundreds of playgrounds built in many of Amsterdam’s in-between spaces between 1947–1978. These playgrounds can be interpreted as an “urban” realization of Appia’s radical reinvention of the stage as a platform open to unforeseen uses. These humble examples of architecture, made mostly of repetitive elements such as concrete blocks, different surface materials, and metal circles, squares, and triangles, were conceived as platforms where the “everyday” dimensions of life—understood as the repetitive aspect of life—could take place. One of the striking characteristics of Van Eyck’s playgrounds is that they were not fenced; this element differs from most other playgrounds at the time. Instead, they were occasionally marked either by raised surfaces, by deploying different surface materials, or simply through the careful positioning of small walls and benches. This suggests an active participation of both children that had “to develop the skill of anticipating danger and manage it” and parents who had to watch their children cooperatively.28

Participation and active imagination were also stimulated by the abstract character of the playground structures. These did not have a prescribed function, and instead provided simple support to constant invention and reinvention. Amsterdam’s playgrounds, similar to the platforms proposed by Appia, Le Corbusier, and Mies, implicitly question the relationships between inside and outside, figure and ground, top and bottom, which have settled over the millennia to reinforce the (private) possession of land. It is only the utopian reinterpretation of the platform put forward by Appia and Van Eyck—as defined and yet-unbound space—that opens up radically alternative ways of using the ground beyond possession and control. Opening up the design of the ground to new forms of imagination is particularly urgent today, when access and use of urban space are often strictly determined by codes of behavior and rights of property. Moreover, the right to access of differently-abled users demands a radical rethinking of the architecture of the ground towards inclusive solutions. It is precisely the right to freely access and use the ground as exemplified by Van Eyck’s playgrounds that should inspire alternative ways of conceiving the open spaces of our cities. Of course spatial justice is something that goes far beyond what architectural form can do on its own, but architecture can and should be mobilized to offer at least glimpses of unforeseen possibilities.


Jørn Utzon, “Platforms and Plateaus: Ideas of a Danish Architect,” Zodiac, No. 10 (1962): 113–140.


In this regard it is important to distinguish the platform from the plinth since the latter is often considered as the base for another object as in the case of theorist Tahl Kaminer’s account of the use of the plinth in modern architecture. See: Tahl Kaminer, "Von Ledoux bis Mies: The Modern Plinth as Isolating Element," Architectural Research Quarterly 23, no. 1: 21–32.


See Nick Srnicek, Platform Capitalism (London: Polity, 2016).


Tim Ingold, The Appropriation of Nature: Essays on Human Ecology and Social Relations (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1987), 130–164.


See: Peter J. Wilson, The Domestication of the Human Species (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), 45.


Jerry D. Moore, The Prehistory of Home (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2012), 23–55.


Ibid., 67.


Richard Bradley, “A Life Less Ordinary: The Ritualization of the Domestic Sphere in Later Prehistoric Europe,” Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 13:1 (2003): 5–23.


See Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus, The Creation of Inequality: How Our Prehistoric Ancestors Set the Stage for Monarchy, Slavery, and Empire (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014), p. 236.


See Gregory L. Possehl, The Indus Civilization: A Contemporary Perspective (Plymouth: Altamira, 2002), 101–103.


See Owen Lindauer and John Blitz, “Higher Ground: The Archeology of North American Platform Mounds,” Journal of Archeological Research, Vol. 5, No. 2 (1997): 169–207.


See: Douglas B. Craig, James P. Holmlund, and Jeffrey J. Clark, “Labor Investment and Organization in Platform Mound Construction: A Case Study from the Tonto Basin of Central Arizona,” Journal of Field Archeology 25 (1998): 245–259; Mark Elson and Dr. Abbot, “Organizational Variability in Platform Mound-Building Groups of the American Southwest,” in Alternative Leadership Strategies in the Prehistoric Southwest, ed. Barbara J. Mills (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2000), 117–135.


See Mary B. Hollinshead, “Monumental Steps and the Shaping of Ceremony,” in Bonna D. Wescoat and Robert G. Ousterhout, The Architecture of the Sacred: Space, Ritual, and Experience from Classical Greece to Byzantium (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 27–65.


Ibid., 28.


Nikos Chausidis, “The Threshing Floor as a Symbolic Paradigm in Ancient Observatories,” in Dejan Gjorgjievski, Giving Gifts to God: Evidence of Votive Offerings in the Sanctuaries, Temples and Churches (Skopje & Kumanovo: National Institution Museum of Kumanovo, 2017), 43.


Bonna D. Wescoat, “Coming and Going in the Sanctuary of the Great Gods, Samothrace,” in Wescoat and Ousterhout, The Architecture of the Sacred.


Ibid., 84–86.


See: Charalambos Kritzas, “Nouvelle inscription provenant de L’Asclépiéion de Lebena (Crète),” ASAtene 70–71 (1992): 278.


Ibid., 42.


See: Arnaldo Bruschi, Bramante (Bari: Editori Laterza, 1973), 138–139.


Olivia Neves Marra has offered a very interesting analysis of this aspect of the Renaissance Villa in which the pastoral beauty of the garden and its precise formalization into a carefully coreohraped sequence of spaces was meant to sublimate the violence of dispossession perpetrated by landowners into a persuasive spectacle often accessible to the public. See Olivia Neves Marra, The Garden as Political Form: From Archyetype to Project (PhD dissertation, Architectural Association, 2019).


On this issue, see Carol Symes, A Common Stage, Theatre and Public Life in Medieval Arras (Ithica: Cornell University Press, 2007).


See Ross Anderson, “The Appian Way,” AA Files, No. 75 (2017): 163–182.


On “Espaces rythmiques” and the collaboration between Appia and Dalcroze, see Adolphe Appia: Attore, musica e scena, ed. Ferruccio Marotti, trans. Delia Gambelli (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1975), 40–42. See also Richard C. Beacham, “Appia, Jaques-Dalcroze, and Hellerau, Part Two: ‘Poetry in Motion,’” New Theatre Quarterly, Vol. 1, No. 3 (August 1985): 245–261.


Anderson, “The Appian Way,” 177; Fritz Neumeyer, The Artless Word: Mies van der Rohe on the Building Art, trans. by Mark M. Jarzombek (Cambridge: MIT Press 1992), 56.


Le Corbusier: Oeuvre Complete, 1946–1952, ed. Willy Boesiger (Zurich: Girsberger, 1953), 222.




Richard Sennett, The Craftsman (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 232–235.

Architecture, Performance
Archeology, Rituals & Celebrations, Public Space, Choreography
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Pier Vittorio Aureli co-founded DOGMA in 2002. He teaches at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London, and is a visiting professor at Yale University.

Martino Tattara co-founded DOGMA in 2002 and is an assistant professor at KU Leuven, Faculty of Architecture.

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