Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Venice Vedi Vici

Unlike Expo 2010 Shanghai China, where the great attractor is iconic pavilions void of content, the Venice Biennale is a banquet of architectural treats set within the majesty of Venice a city that has been on every great architects road map since the Grand Tour was established. Venice an inspiration for architects for centuries, firstly great magpies Sir John Soane followed by John Ruskin, whose ‘Stones of Venice’ became the pattern book for Victorian architecture. Later, a setting for Italian rationalism and urbanists such as Aldo Rossi, whose ‘Theatre of the World’ (1979) floated up the Grand Canal. Post modernist James Stirling’s Bookshop Pavilion (1991) adorns a Venetian ‘Central Park’ and modern master Carlo Scapa exquisitely detailed Querini Stampalia (1963) a select few recent interventions in the city itself. Venice, a set piece for study, has resisted contemporary architecture, with noteable recent exceptions, Tadeo Ando’s ‘Punta della Dogana Museum’ (2009), Santiago Calatrava’s bridge ‘Ponte della Costituzione’ (2008) and David Chipperfield’s ‘San Michele Cemetery’ (2007) though iconic still seem hidden by the overriding existing city image.

The Architecture Biennale, festival of culture continues this pattern of cultural inquisition and experimentation as if Venice were a sacred land and place of cultural worship. Now in its 13th presentation the Architecture Biennale is just getting into its stride catching the established Art and Film Biennales now in their respective 55th and 59th exhibitions. For architect David Chipperfield, director behind this year’s theme 'Common Ground' the Biennale is a 'church' in which Anglo-Saxon practice is put under the spot light. There is something of the crusader spirit in Chipperfield's attempt to reveal, "our struggle - to find commonality in the process of building - certainly in Anglo-Saxon nature and immediate war between architect and contractor". Conflict is seemingly invited for Common Ground to mediate in its very curation. In briefing, participants were asked "what are your prime issues?', to try and make a confessional for believers and non-believers, who "If we can talk better amongst ourselves maybe we can discuss it better with society”.

The act of curation whilst striving to give an exhibit a timeless quality is a statement on occupancy and territory rather than a programme announcing a particular style or approach. Arguably the first curated architecture exhibition was “This is Tomorrow” (1956 and replayed by the ICA 1990) an exposition of work by the Independent Group a mix of artists and architects, including architects Alison and Peter Smithson, and curated by critic Reyner Banham, where each exhibitor was asked to put forward their own interpretation of the relationship between architecture painting and sculpture. In exploration of this field of ideas existed the borderline world between architecture and the arts. As did critic Kieran Long in curating the Biennale who toyed with juxtaposition and placement of each exhibit, bringing Zaha Hadid and Hans Kolhoff together, a deliberate to attempt to highlight personal and public sparring.

So what is this shared place? Territory that is Common Ground?  Like a pop festival the Biennale has moved in the intervening half-century, from small, impromptu, mildly subversive gathering to major landmark on the media sponsored calendar drawing together vast swathes of International designers as well as diverse population. Established firstly to further the debate, as of 2010, a festival that attracted 170,000 visitors. Writer Rob Young, in ‘Electric Eden’ talks of the British Music Festivals and “how in microcosm, it has enacted many of the ancestral tensions in the relationship between the people and the stewards of the land, between commons and private ground.” In many cases, the Biennale festival has also provided the opportunity to “test legal limits, flout property rights and set up encampments that permit a brief taste of alternative modes of living.” The British Pavilion “Venice Takeaway” participants embraced this ‘joie de vivre’ more than many, notably architects dRMM learning from a small floating community in Ijburg, Amsterdam and architects Liam Ross and Tolulope Onabolu examining the positives in a deregulated building code in Lagos, Nigeria.

In Biennale the Common Ground is populated by research reflecting the current trend for architects to both teach and practice, increasingly common and fuelled by a the recent global demand and expansion of higher education. The idea of ‘wissenschaftlich’ or 'research' came to be grafted onto the native traditions of teaching and scholarship in later nineteenth century Anglo - Saxon universities. Here universities 'credentialise' the profession, a mechanism for assuring society only those with approved qualifications are allowed to practice architecture. The imperative to pursue the fuller understanding of any subject matter once established, as part of an academic discipline constantly tends to exceed and subvert the imperative to meet immediate or local needs. Architecture departments with sub disciplines such as history and critical theory have became accepted parts of the syllabus signaling a pull away from the practical to forms of enquiry with their own protocols and ambitions. The same drift is very evident in the history of science faculties so often established with the hope of benefiting local industry through inventions and other technological advances, but in time passing over into what is now often called blue skies research. Enquires driven by intellectual logic of the discipline rather than by the imperative to address an immediate practical problem. Research has become a way of extending architects authorship, striving for perfection and masking further commercial gain in the shared global arena of trans-regional research.

The flight to research and quest for perfection takes us away from architects subject core values and so Chipperfield’s Common Ground affirms the inherent paradigm in the praxis of architecture, "If we only show beautiful objects then we continue the myth of self interest that separates us from society". On the way to perfection architects have lost the ability to engage the low code that once partnered the high code and along the way alienated society. Who can forget modern architect Alison Smithson writing on Beatrix Potter or the late great architect critic and writer Katherine Schofield babbling about the merits of popular ‘Carry On’ films and actor Sid James, both championing changes in established patterns of working by attempting to change the public perception of architects.

The universal ideas that bind architects to society seemingly emerge only in a moral code where freedom is impaired something Richard Sennett, the first to politicise space, showed by unpacking plans of the Roman Forum in “The Spaces of Democracy” (1998). The Japanese pavilion exhibition 'Home-for-All'  by architect Toyo Ito makes a case for architecture replacing what is lost and reinstating democracy, "'Since the modern period, architecture has been rated highest for its individual originality. As a result the most primal themes - those of why a building is made, and for whom - have been forgotten", Ito by inverting the digital media that globalised the Japanese tsunami is now harnessing the FaceTime generation so architects can now include communities in complex design discussions and filling the contemporary void created by declining architect authorship. A very human response to a social need and a worthy receipt of the Golden Lion for the Best National Participation awarded to Japan.

Now in the Common Ground what do we do? The role of the curator in exhibiting architecture is now sealed, research is trans-national and shared, what about the development of a universal moral code in which the architects sense of right runs parallel to societies, to a vanishing point at which a shared sense of freedom appears? Answers may lie with Rem Koolhaas, rumoured to be director in waiting of the next Architecture Biennale, who in his thesis ‘Delirious New York’ (1978) saw Venice as a Blueprint for modern prophecy, a “Culture of Congestion will arrange new and exhilarating human activities in unprecedented combinations. Through Fantastic Technologies it will be possible to reproduce all ‘situations’ – from the most natural to the most artificial – wherever and whenever desired. Each city within a city will be so unique that it will naturally attract its own inhabitants”.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Landscape into Architecture

A Royal Air Force Hercules drop plane flying in the distant, over Salisbury Plain, sends what appear to be stone obelisks falling to earth in a patterned array. The familiar sight and its payloads are regular visitors to the Plain, an ancient landscape, where little has been added, apart from the occasional barn or aircraft hanger. Like the aircraft, its other military companions are also seemingly born out of necessity and the pragmatic application of technology. Untethered to any particular place these regular visitors allow observers to date, in identified architectural details, what is otherwise a timeless landscape.

Modern architects rarely credit the rural landscape as inspiration for fear of revoking traditions and craft that essentially predate the emergence of the architect. The Arcadian rural idyll has hardly ever been uttered in the same breath as architecture, always seen as too primitive, and kept at bay by patterns of occupation first established by monastic wallgardens, farmyards and later examples of English country house and garden. 

Occupied Fields
Architect Herbert Tayler (b.1912) writing in 1959,“Landscape is more than a pretty titivation of the earth’s surface, and it is a deep subconscious need. There is nothing fanciful about this and luckily most people recognise it quite simply in their love of gardens and plants and of the countryside.” At the same time he was careful not to attribute any excess sentimentality to countryside living. Explaining in his 1960 lecture to the Architectural Association how a ploughman when asked his thoughts about ploughing replied, “Well marm, I sits and looks at this bleedin ‘field and then I blasts it”.

Embedded in the 700 rural houses built by Tayler and Green(1938-1973) in Loddon, Norfolk -prototype for national housing – is a pervading sense of occupied landscape. The rural influence of the Swedish architect Gunnar Asplund (1885-1940),in particular the Holiday House, Stennas Sweden (1937), reflected a post-war popular interest in Scandinavian architecture also promoted by the Architectural Review, who labelled it ‘The New Empiricism’ (1949). For Tayler and Green, echoes of Scandinavia existed in the landscape where North of the Waveney the streams cut into the clay fields are still referred to as ‘becks’, a legacy of the earlier Danish colonists.

National Homeland
The International Style, a major architectural movement of the 1920s and 1930s spearheaded by the work of Le Corbusier in France and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius in Germany, had become the dominant style in Western architecture of the middle decades of the 20th century. In Scandinavia, its lessons had soon been grafted to a substructure of national building traditions infused with a sensitive handling of locale, landscape, light and natural materials. Here the conditions that molded Modernism were different from elsewhere in Europe: industrialisation had less of a drastic impact; timber was plentiful and the rural vernacular was a continuing point of reference. Scandinavia Moderns included Alvar Aalto (1885–1976) in Finland and ArneJacobsen (1902-71) in Denmark, both of whom had been tutored by Asplund. The demands for climate ensured that modernism could not be an excuse for poor detailing or construction and national traditions valued architecture enough to want to invest in it.

This national sense of the rural pervades in the work of Danish architect, Arne Jacobsen and his design for a new post-war undergraduate college. St Catherine’s College (1962), built on an Oxford meadow was described by critic Sir NikolausPevsner in his ‘Buildings of England’ as, ‘a perfect piece of architecture. It has a consistent plan, and every detail is meticulously worked out. Self-discipline is its message, expressed in terms of a geometry pervading the whole and the parts and felt wherever one moves or stops.’ Reyner Banham who worked with Pevsner on the Architectural Review called it in 1964 "the best motel in Oxford. With 130 new bedrooms, and slightly wider beds, it is time to check into St Catherine's north quad".

A keen gardener, Jacobsen was instinctively drawn to subtle hues of green in his architecture that included specifying all planting for the college quad, deliberately omitting anything that would flower. The St Catherine’s College grid further unified and was something reliable and timeless, both beneath and on the surface of things. For Jacobsen, the modern glass façade of each of the student study bedrooms was not to expose modernist qualities. Blinds were requested to remain closed, so as to reflect the surround trees in the landscape, many of whichwere taller than the two-storey college buildings. Jacobsen’s designs varied the composition of elemental components in a similar way to painter, Graham Sutherland, whose work described by artist George Shaw (b.1968) uses, ‘Horizon lines fold into foregrounds. The vertical becomes the horizontal. What was solid becomes fluid. What was on the surface is buried and what was buried emerges into the air. What was in the light at the present day becomes hidden as history claims the view as though it was the weather’.

ATV Architecture
The influence of landscape and its inherent praxis ‘the festival’, or indeed the military exercise, is apparent in, ‘The Walking City’(1964) by Ron Herron (b.1930-1994) of agit-pop architects Archigram. The Walking City constituted intelligent buildings or robots as giant, self-contained living pods that could roam. The form derived from a combination of insect and machine and was a literal interpretation of Corbusier's aphorism of a house as a machine for living in. The pods were independent, yet parasitic as they could 'plug in' to way stations to exchange occupants or replenish resources. The citizen is a serviced nomad made by a future ruined world in the aftermath of a Cold War nuclear attack.

The Walking City exhibits some of the qualities found in‘Terminal Architecture’ (1998), by Martin Pawley (b.1938-2008) in which car and house were part of the same mechanism. Motorways, ‘Like houses, too big, too expensive, too old. It all got out of control. They just closed them down in 2025 and everybody drove directly to where they wanted to go,….no houses, noroads. Terminals. Four wheel drives. All-Terrain-Vehicles (ATV’s). You know it makes sense.’ For Pawley, technology will allow architecture to answer pragmatic and human needs in reply to spiralling national economic decline, the result of bankrupted nations.  

Monday, 7 May 2012

Manufacturing the Bespoke

Bob Sheil, Bartlett Director of Technology & Computing, has edited a new book of essays from international architects and academics. ‘Manufacturing the bespoke’, celebrates latest processes of architect self-building, laying claim to new emerging practice in which the immediacy of building is fundamental to securing the future role of the architect. For Sheil’s we are at an ‘event horizon’ in which new digital tools have extended the creative process within construction and enabled more reflection, fine tuning and testing by architects before delivery of the best possible design.

Many of the examples in the book, such as work by Sixteen* makers, Nat Chard, Phil Ayres and Philip Beesley use the latest fabrication techniques to make work, principally, for gallery exhibition. Adopting tactics and techniques championed by artists interested in ready-mades, initiated by Marcel Duchamp in 1913 with ‘Bicycle Wheel’, a wheel and stool assemblage. Early manufactured craft is also found in the strange readymade post-war hybrids made my enthusiastic amateurs from decommissioned military hardware. Later examples, include adaptations by furniture designers Ron Arad 1981 ‘Rover’ chair and Mark Newson 1986  ‘Lockheed Lounge’, both use manufacturing processes to design and assemble limited edition furniture from industrial components.

For architects, as Reyner Banham said, reflecting in the Architectural Review in 1960 on the modernists sincere flattery of technology, “a trend that has been with us since the beginning of the century; the marriage of the logical objectivity of abstract aesthetics to the experimental objectivity of advanced science. It goes back to Perret, it also has roots in de Stijl and Constructivisim, In the guise of the ‘logical formalism’ of Mies van der Rohe it has served the important function of easing the acceptance of curtain walling and other additive prefabricating systems as ‘architecture’ in a sense that can be assimilated to the lore of the operation.” For Banham, technology will naturally lead architects to examine and reassess all building components as a means to maintain authorship.

Design authorship is questioned by Stephen Gage: “The introduction of an auto-bespoke approach to architecture will inevitably diminish the role of the individual designers and craftsmen, who will always seek to mould the world according to their own particular vision. This applies whether the procedure of replicating given forms is mechanical or whether it is done by hand. In the 15th to 19th centuries (and indeed much of the 20th century), all the repeats and modifications of pre-existing ideas were drawn by hand by poorly paid draughtsmen and then either made by machine or by hand by poorly paid craftsmen.’ Gage who does not seem to lament the demise in craft and skilled workers sees benefits in ‘the goal of today’s researchers in the technical and formal field is to be able to move directly from the model to fabrication. “Auto-bespoke architecture, like auto-bespoke suit production, offers the possibility of reducing design-thinking time and therefore cost.” For Gage, technology will counter the possible loss of authorship in this self-build process and offer a “digital thumbprint of the designer observable in the work”. 

Similarly, the self-building students at the Auburn University Rural Studio are offered by Sheil as an example of a new way of practice in which architects design as they build. Here complex geometries is achieved by shear numbers of spatially aware architecture students who emulate the digital manufacturing techniques by building what they draw and follow the guiding principle of Samuel Mockbee, the Rural Studio founder. Anderson Inge writes of Mockbee who “recognised knowledge and professional training in architecture as a form of wealth that could be shared to positively influence the quality of life for people and communities that were impoverished. His focus was almost exclusively on the goal of connecting the architect-in-training with a ‘client’ who quite simply needed fundamental help, help with homes or community buildings.” Inge misses one of the key advantages in this relationship of immediacy to building and that is the architect’s tendency and skill to simplify the construction in order to facilitate it. There has to be a reliance on simple labour intensive methods of construction using screw-fix fasteners, how else does one capitalise on using so many students to build? This reiterative process of building to simplify building is key as it distinguishes Rural Studio self-build from that practiced by sixteen* makers where fabrication from computer facilitates complexity. Both can be repeated and replicated and reassuringly, neither can be mass-produced. You only need to recognise the design investment of 75,000 drawings needed to assemble six million components to build the first of 1,200 Boeing 747s to realise how far from manufacturing architects remain. 

Sheil should be credited with revealing the inherent contradiction in digital technology. It is possibly the last uncharted frontier of architectural evolution, offering either a place of refuge for a dying profession or new opportunities for a profession just getting into it’s stride in which architects are sole authors of making and have capacity to offer design and build services. However, one only has to look at the application of technology in manufacturing, traditionally to de-skill production and transfer authorship from local craft to global conglomerate. This either points to a future in which mega-size architect practices compete for global design blueprints maybe in the vain of earlier mass housing derivatives championed by Jean Prouvé’s La Maison Tropicale or Eric Lyons Span House Developments. Or, a future of universal emancipation in which technology facilities a transfer of the methods of production to the proletariat who not so much as seize the socialised means of production, but are ‘gifted’ it. A point pre-empted by Frederick Engels in his 1877 manifesto, at which “Man, at last the master of his own form of social organisation, becomes at the same time the lord over Nature, his own master – free.”

(A printed version of this is available in Blueprint Magazine issue 315)

Friday, 6 April 2012

The Passenger

This year the Brunswick celebrates forty years, a quarter of which I have shared as my home in this “good piece of city”. An apt phrase awarded by its architect Patrick Hodgkinson revealing a human quality to his iconic Central London megastructure and also honoring it’s monumentality. Originally lacking simple refinements such as heating, the blow air ductwork, more akin to the cabin of a 1950s cruise ship, blew warm air on to cold conservatory windows making condensation waterfalls like no other. Flats principally come in one or two bed sizes in which many welcome the abundant light, generous spaces and sense of designed-in democracy. All apartments share common values such as the conservatory living room, out of which was to slide a similarly profiled glass winter-garden enclosure to the balconies until it was later omitted to save costs. All flats face east or west and either look in on the ‘concrete valley’, where nearest opposing neighbours are 100metres away, or look out on framed Bloomsbury London vignettes.

Given a £30 million pound retail face-lift in 2008 the Brunswick housing above was finally homoginised and painted the colour Hodgkinson had always wanted ‘Regency Cream’ as used in the eighteenth century Regent’s Park terraces by architect John Nash. A carefully selected reference from Hodgkinson’s repertoire of another similarly ‘good bit of city’.

Unlike the Nash terraces the perceived impermeable London terraced Brunswick is broken by multiple opportunities to explore. Writer Jane Jacobs in “The Death and Life of Great American Cities’ talks of the way city blocks need to be perforated and short, citing “opportunities to turn corners must be frequent.” Published in 1962 to great acclaim it is likely to have influenced the young Hodgkinson fresh-faced from the Architectural Association and designing his first and, not known at the time, also his last major commission. The Brunswick is a living embodiment of Jacobs ‘short block’, the perceived impermeable walls of concrete are perforated by “fluidity of use and the mixing of paths, not homogeneity of architecture that ties together city neighbourhoods.”

Crucially the iconic stepped section and concrete A-frame makes opportunities for multiple perforations similar to that which break the Brunswick plan into ‘short blocks’. Oblique views dominate connecting offices to residences and housing walkways to the streets below. Housing walkways offer some shelter but are predominately exposed, above the fourth floor. to the weather making them more akin to external streets. Apart from providing passive surveillance and useful ‘defensive’ spaces the multiple views promote diversity and mixed uses at different times. Jacob’s talks about streets multiplying in successful city districts in which even alleyways become streets. The Brunswick void of alleyways but abundant in similarly narrow walkways that combine and link zones of activity, preventing what Jacob’s refers to as “the stagnation of these long blocks with the fluidity of use that an extra street could bring”.

The Brunswick’s inherently neighbourly design is reason why so many residents still live here since completion in 1972. Qualities no better captured than by actor Jack Nicholson in Michelangelo Antonioni’s “The Passenger”, also completed in the same year, who was filmed walking down it’s steps, from housing to shopping streets, in one seamless flowing filmic cityscape,......a journey I repeat in my daily routine.

(A printed version of this is available in Blueprint Magazine Issue 314)

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Eleven Slides Maketh Architecture

The opportunity to establish a new course of study offers some reflection on how the practice and teaching of architecture have diverged over the last 20 years. The New BA (hons) Architecture Course at Norwich University College of the Arts, commencing in 2013, explores the relevance of teaching to industry and practice. Placing importance on allowing each student to develop their own way of working and to be learned enough to place their praxis within the context of architectural history. Knowledge of design history and processes in defining the aesthetic qualities of architecture other than building, what John Betjeman referred to as the 'otherisms'of atmosphere and setting, will be key factors in defining a unique and local flavour. Important qualities that come out of the expeditionary faculties good schools of architecture traditionally held in conducting local fieldwork and understanding the qualities that give Norfolk and Norwich a strong local identity that is 'twinned' internationally, either through tourism, trade and other ethnological factors.

Pattern Book / Purist Collage

Learning from history to familiarize each student with the complexity of architecture and guide new design aesthetics is established in the first year of study where we first look at the architect collector and influence of the 'Grand Tour'. Starting with the 'Young' Soane and his first house commission, Letton Hall Norfolk we look at the role of pattern books in collecting and importing classical styles into the eighteenth century neo-classicists who in blending a desire to emulate with local craft and materials created new architecture that was far removed from the renaissance Palladian Villas. Importantly by understanding this way architecture was designed we reveal a similar approach adopted by Le Corbusier in mapping classical proportions and importing these into modern architecture. Studies will be 2d, initially drawing and observational to create the necessary ingredients that each student can then use to make their purist collage.

Forms in Space / Forms as Space

Following a similar pattern to the earlier exercise we now immerse each student in the Arts & Crafts and the qualities the country house and local craftspeople gave to houses by Lutyens, Voysey and Prior. Blessed with three outstanding local arts and crafts houses Happisburgh Manor House by Detmar Blow, Overstrand Hall by Lutyens and Home Place by Edward Prior we will immerse ourselves in furniture that comes 'out of architecture' and likewise how furniture mimics habit and creates space. We also look at the industrial aesthetic of objects dictated by use, be they the rudder of a boat or the casting of an engine block in making a suspended mobile study titled 'forms as space' in which the composition of familiar objects in suspension creates new spatial relationships. This is a 3d compositional study exploring similar 2d themes looked at in the earlier Purist Collage brief.

Future Memory

The final project of the first year's study is a comprehensive design brief asking students to work as a team in studying, surveying and making a diorama in which each of them will display scale models of their 'future memories'. Each future memory is an unoccupied structure that is infused with ideas representing time and shared memories. Suitable examples include memorials, clock towers, cemeteries,...

Casting Space

Following a site visit students are asked to make interpretive plaster-casts of found urban conditions. Making multiple cardboard molds to try and cast and link spaces within. In the final cast students are asked to rescale this and inhabit it by drawing sections that in the drawing make architecture. The exercise is a very good way of reversing the liner design programme as each cast is examined as a 'found' condition that holds a design waiting to be found and revealed.

Cities Stories

Revisiting design history learnt in first year studies students are asked to apply their knowledge and demonstrate an understanding of the different styles defining regional, national and international culture. These are presented as a 5 minute travelogue based on a filmed 'journey'.

Climate Construction Technology Design

Examining the influence of climate and technology on structures. Includes the passive energy differences and uses of lightweight versus heavy structures and how chosen materials can influence design aesthetics, the empirical feel of new spaces including acoustics and light. A key focus for this part of the course is an introduction to Part B and Part L of the building regulations and how different structures meet different statutory criteria.

Special Interest Report Each student is asked to write about a current industry trend in the making of architecture to demonstrate the value of research in manufacturing and predicting or 'future-proofing' architecture.

City Slice

100 metre long city section at 1:100 as a device to find potential sites for the 'readings' and 'inserts' studies below. City Slice is contextual studies that reinvent the city in a similar way in which we only remember key moments of a journey to work. Creative interpretation of the traditional scaled architectural section is encouraged.

Readings / Inserts

Group analysis and discussion of the different sized sites discovered in the City Slices and investigations into suitable housing modules that can be replicated and composed to send 'echoes' into the larger sites.

Local into Global

Charles Jenck's mapping of architectural styles is the starting point for each students design briefing document that will direct their third year studies and research.

Global Contexts / Local Spaces

The final brief is a comprehensive design project exploring 'twinning' of local regional emphasis exported to an international location or imported from a global context into a local space. By now each student can apply the full repertoire of architectural design history and make knowing decisions about their work and how their work connects with and expands earlier studies conducted by iconic architects.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Ways of Seeing

In the 1950s poet John Betjeman emphasized the importance of setting and atmosphere in each description in his, 'Collins Guide to English Parish Churches'and recognized the needs of the modern mechanized architect tourist.

"Authors were asked to write 'setting' after a church where the site or village was attractive. I found it necessary to supply brief prefaces to each country and large city, describing it's characteristics in scenery and building materials and houses."

Similarly there is something very parochial in seeing an Apache Helicopter, abandoned after hitting power cables and sitting in an Suffolk field in 2012. This unexpected event within a field makes one more aware of the field. What critic John Berger in 'Ways of Seeing", celebrating it's fortieth anniversary, referred to as a field narrative and describing how they link to make a shared folklore. The event draws your attention to the field and, almost instantaneously, your own awareness of the field then gives a special significance to the event. Berger further states the criteria for an ideal 'field' that is useful for architects considering a sense of place in which a new building or event occurs:

But the ideal field, the field most likely to generate the experience, is:

1. A grass field. Why? It must be an area with boundaries which are visible - though not necessarily regular; it cannot be an unbounded segment of nature the limits to which are only set by the natural focus of your eyes. Yet within the area there should be a minimum of order, a maximum of planned events. Neither crops nor regularly planted lines of fruit trees are ideal.

2. A field on a hillside, seen either from above like a table top, or from below when the incline of the hill appears to tilt the field towards you - like music on a music stand. Again, why? Because then the effects of perspective are reduced to a minimum and the relation between what is distant and near is a more equal one.

3. Not a field in winter. Winter is a season of inaction when the range of what is likely to happen is reduced.

4. A field which is not hedged on all sides: ideally, therefore, a continental rather than an English field. A completely hedged field with only a couple of gates leading into it limits the number of possible exits or entrances (except for birds).

Two things might be suggested by the above prescriptions. The ideal field would apparently have certain qualities in common with (a) a painting - defined edges, an accessible distance, and so on; and (b) a theatre-in-the-round stage - an attendant openness to events, with a maximum possibility for exits and entrances. For Berger however,"suggestions like this are misleading, because they invoke a cultural context which, if it has anything whatsoever to do with the experience in question, can only refer back to it rather than precede it".

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Brunswick Centre Weather Effects

Architect Weathermen

Jonathan Hill’s latest book “Weather Architecture” acknowledges the creative stimulus of inclement weather in the emblematic Rousham Garden by architect William Kent (1685-1748) whereby Hill portrays the sense of the picturesque and rural idyll that pervades. Here the English empirical garden transcended the ancien regime by mixing allegory from ancient Rome with gothic and Arcadian symbols referring to England’s pastoral past. Repeating a pattern of cultural independence established in the fifteenth century by Henry VIII’s Act of Supremacy and separation from Papal Rome and in the sixteenth century when Sir Edward Coke argued that the unwritten law of England went back to the Druids, bestowing upon Parliament an ancestry reaching back to the Anglo Saxons.

Hill as he says ,”is asking us to see the value in history and looking at places in a detailed way to expand the current environmental meta-narrative. Rousham Garden (1741) was planned as a place to heighten ones awareness of nature, never a sequence of separated spaces, always a series of oblique picturesque views with multiple perspectives and allegorical readings in all directions. The surveillance offered by the garden and that encouraged participation was made possible by use of two distinctive military features, ‘the ridge’ and ‘the ha-ha’ both familiar and likely encouraged by the client, General James Dormer.

Following Sir John Soane’s interest in William Kent, later picturesque theories and fascination in the influence of climate Hill examines the national interest in the subtle variations and poetic effects of weather. Soane’s concern for climate, tested by use of instruments to measure time and atmosphere, drove him to make and inhabit a complex interior as a garden and expand picturesque narratives through his phased alterations to 12-14 Lincoln Inn Fields. For Hill, today’s architects’ deal with climate rather than weather – weather is what you experience at a specific time. In Greek,‘ the moment’ is same as the word ‘weather’. Weather challenges the common perception of architectural authorship. How as Hill says, “others understand architects but also how architects understood there own work. The best architecture has always embraced context and must inherently be harmonious with the weather. Though few celebrate the Haywood Gallery (1968) brutal stained concrete, it was surely intended that way in which the seasons are made visible, recorded and remembered. If one accepts the intentional nature of architecture to ‘weather’ then as Hill suggests one also recognizes the contribution weather makes as a co-author.

Hill examines the art of weathering in the eighteenth century trend for ruination due to empiricism's attention to subjective experience, the heightened historical awareness in the Enlightenment's concerns for origins and archaeology, and the value given to imagination, time and metaphor. Whether found or fabricated, the ruin related the present to the past, imagined or real. It could evoke a lost idyll that would never be repeated, transfer gravitas and authority from one era to another, or suggest that the successes of the present will surpass those of the past. As Hill says,” whether classical or gothic, ruins developed the eighteenth century discourse on nationhood and nature,….the visionary ruins of Piranesi and Soane were appropriate to an era that valued self-expression, temporal awareness and multiple meanings and the potential for language reinvention” The recurring attitudes to the environment are picked up in the mid-20th century where, “as before creative architects looked to the past to imagine the future using the weather as their principal means to recognize and represent time. Using Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House and his perception of place Hill questions whether Mies intended the house to flood and when one should recognise the weather’s role in affirming the northern romantic tradition. Farnsworth continues romantic investigations earlier established by his interest in Karl Friedrich Schinkel. Mies stated, "if you view nature through the glass walls of the Farnsworth House. It gains a more profound significance than if viewed from the outside', Hill argues, “within its vulnerable interior the full effects of weather and weathering are amplified and experienced, from the pleasant beauty of sunlight to the painful beauty of cold and condensation, from the majesty of thunder and lightning to the fearful flood when immediate danger overcomes the sublime”.

Rather than subtle mediation, the Farnsworth House exemplifies the more fully romantic immersion in nature that is less familiar with German romanticism, emphasizing engagement as much as transcendence. We do not know if this was Mies's intention. One response to this dilemma is to recognize the architects debt to romantic classicism, acknowledge his experience of the American landscape, and speculate that his purpose at the Farnsworth House was a more extreme interaction between architecture and nature. Another is to focus less on the architect's intentions and more on the building's fate, acknowledging the weather's role in affirming the northern romantic tradition.

Either way, within the Farnsworth House ambiguity a hesitant margin exists between it's architect and the weather. For Hill, Farnsworth is a hinge between the early modernist control of nature and the later modernist accommodation of nature.

Twentieth century weathering is a quality imbued in material. Mies who in designing the Barcelona pavilion found,” my experiments with a glass model helped me on my way and I soon recognized that by employing glass, it is not an effect of light and shadow one wants to achieve but a rich interplay of light reflections". Nature is seen in the polished surfaces not transparency of the Pavilion's many reflective surfaces, water, chrome, red onyx, two green marbles, yellow travertine when wet and glass is either clear, white, grey or green.

Hill credits the weather and a 'sense of north' in allowing modernism to connect with national romanticism and flourish in Germany and Scandinavia. The Nordic climate does not encourage submission to the seasons and gentle weathering. The dialogue with nature remains, but rather than the benign encounter of the picturesque or romantic classicism it is confrontational as well as celebratory and closer to the romanticism expressed in nineteenth-century landscape paintings. Architect Sverre Fehn is for Hill an author of weather, successfully exporting the northern romantic mist to a milder Italian climate, in 1962 Fehn blurred architecture and nature to the extent that Nordic light is the Nordic Pavilion's principal material.

Hill’s treatise is timely, both in charting the cultural history of environmental discourse and in paving the way for future areas of special architectural interest. There seemingly exists a tipping point in teaching sustainable design and “Weather Architecture” broadens the discourse and encourages critical re-evaluations of contemporary responses to climate change.

(A printed copy of this is available in Blueprint Magazine Issue 313)