Sunday, 19 February 2012

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)

1 comment:

  1. I know you’re talking predominantly about the weather, as opposed to weathering, but the mention of ruins reminded me of Chris Woodward, head of school at the Bartlett during my degree, saying the purpose of proper construction detailing – copings, flashings, drips, etc – was to slow a building’s reversion to its natural state, i.e. forest, through the action of wind, rain, frost moss, ivy, buddleia. The mesmerising city-scapes of the film 'I Am Legend' serve rather well as an illustration of this process. Stewart Brand’s book ‘How Buildings Learn’ has some great sequences of photos of buildings gradually collapsing, reminding us that architecture works in four dimensions (including time), not just three. Architects are notoriously uninterested in the fourth dimension. I wish I could remember who it was (Simon Alford, perhaps?) who explained to me the 3 ‘F’s in architecture – not ‘Form Follows Function’, rather the lament that architects just want to ‘Finish it, Photograph it, then F*** off’!