Crafting Clouds

Instructor: Joel Sanders

Despite their ephemeral nature, clouds have had a pervasive influence on architecture, landscape and the visual arts. From images of smoky towns in the midst of industrialization, to Romantic landscape paintings and the modern-day data-cloud, clouds have a unique capacity to capture our collective imagination. Equally an intellectual and physical construct, the series of narratives we have intertwined with our observations and impressions of clouds are just as fleeting as the forms of the clouds themselves (Fig.1).

Figure 1. Wanderer Above The Sea of Fog. Caspar David Friedrich. 1818

Figure 1. Wanderer Above The Sea of Fog. Caspar David Friedrich. 1818

The term ‘cloud’ is a loose one, encompassing accumulations of smoke, dust or vapor in our atmosphere that may be the result of natural or man-made processes. They represent a sub-nature; a realm beyond the natural or the supernatural that ‘is most fearsome, because it describes the limits in which contemporary life might be staged.’1 Clouds and the broader concept of sub-nature can provide a valuable framework for operating at the interface between landscape and architecture, forcing a critical re-evaluation of our interaction with each, and questioning received assumptions about the natural world.

Vitruvius argued that the first social aggregations took place around open fires in forest clearings, where heat from the fire formed favorable climactic conditions for gathering (Fig.2). This concept of fire at the center of our social spaces has continued to inform architectural theory; Gottfried Semper understood architecture as an act that emerged from the basic act of lighting a fire, and he theorized ‘a belief that architecture began as a protective act surrounding the open-pit fire or hearth.’2 While fire has been theorized as the nucleus around which architecture and society condenses, smoke – its unavoidable by-product - has proved more problematic. It is often understood as a strange and alienating presence, a characteristic that led to the Romantic fascination with the meditative and sublime qualities of clouds and smoke, as well as its promotion by architects such as Karl Friedrich Schinkel and A.W.N. Pugin as a symbol of the moral degradation associated with the Industrial Revolution. In America during the same period, smoke was tied to a narrative of abundance and prosperity.3 Currier and Ives’ famous 1868 lithograph, ‘Across the Continent’ shows a railroad train pushing out across the Great Plains in search of new opportunities, leaving in its wake a dense cloud of smoke that envelops onlookers. Ahead, the railroad is still being laid, while in the foreground a prosperous town has already been established; smoke is synchronously the self-evident waste-product of a new technology and an important socio-economic signifier (Fig.3).

Figure 2.  Primitive Huts (After Vitruvius). Claude Perrault. 1652

Figure 2. Primitive Huts (After Vitruvius). Claude Perrault. 1652

Figure 3.  Across the Continent. Currier & Ives. 186

Figure 3. Across the Continent. Currier & Ives. 186

During the Industrial Revolution in particular, smoke was understood as an alienating cloud of disease and ill-health. It appeared in greatest quantities at the very margins of architecture, emitted from formal aberrations such as smoke-stacks and chimneys. Within buildings, the foul odors emitted by the human body, coupled with exhalations of tobacco smoke or carbon-dioxide, created unbearable conditions in over-crowded and under-ventilated spaces. In such a context, smoke can be interpreted as an important, though undesirable, agent of interface; through its murky presence, architecture, environment and the human body can be readily understood as discreet parts of a single system. The ability to calibrate this system was an indicator of wealth and social class. The upper classes were able to create environments in which smoke, landscape and people were invariably separated. The rolling landscapes of Picturesque gardens were developed in emphatic antithesis to the choked, smog-filled industrial atmosphere of the cities (Fig.4). Where the city created a space of collapse in which architecture, landscape and people were part of the same whole, Picturesque gardens and the Romantic movement encouraged a meditative distance from nature, celebrating the individual’s capacity for objective self-reflection, independent of the crushing crowds of the industrial city (Fig.5).

Figure 4.  Sun Setting Over Industry and River at Ivry. Jean-Baptiste Armand. 187

Figure 4. Sun Setting Over Industry and River at Ivry. Jean-Baptiste Armand. 187

Figure 5.  Chatsworth House Garden. Capability Brown. 176

Figure 5. Chatsworth House Garden. Capability Brown. 176

As well as a novel aesthetic phenomenon, the large quantities of smoke and smog in the cities and towns of the period ‘gave rise to environmental problems of the utmost urgency and baffling novelty.’ 4 Sanitary and ventilating techniques had to be improved, while the potential profit inherent in extending the working day resulted in an ‘unprecedented provision of artificial light.’5 In addition to providing lighting, industrialists were forced to improve ventilation in order to maintain efficiency - workers were unable to work in conditions where they could neither see nor breathe. Concurrently, hospitals and sanatoriums took advantage of the new technologies in the belief that the ability to draw fresh air through a building by means of mechanical fan systems would lead to improved health.

The Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast, designed in 1903 by Hanman and Cooper, is an early example of the deployment of such a system at the scale of an entire building (Fig.6). The plan of the building is designed to be as compact as possible, in order to minimize the length of ducting required. The duct is ‘one of the most monumental in the history of environmental engineering; a brick tunnel with a concrete floor, over five hundred feet long and nine feet wide,’6 that serves as an enormous plenum, distributing fresh air throughout the building. An innovative system of dampened ropes served to humidify the air as desired and to filter the air from the smog and pollution it carried with it; the rate of moisture applied to the ropes could vary depending on atmospheric conditions. Wards received tempered air from slots near the ceiling, and foul air was drawn through ducts in the skirting around the perimeter of the rooms. During the winter, heat was added via a booster pipe that ran the length of the plenum, and from coils located in the entrance to each distributor. The system represents one of the first to provide warmed and cleaned air to all the spaces of a major building, and is also one of the first attempts to systematically control the humidity of air. In order for the environmental system to function, the architects adapted the plan and section of the entire building to accommodate particular flows of air and moisture. Both the inhabitable spaces and the mechanical systems of the building are conceived of as elements in a continuous system that is in dialogue with exterior conditions. The building is revolutionary in the architects’ willingness to adapt its section and plan to accommodate the environmental system selected, and in its engagement with external climactic conditions.

Figure 6.   Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast. Hanman & Cooper. 1903

Figure 6. Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast. Hanman & Cooper. 1903

Alongside the practical experimentation with ventilation and filtration strategies, architects such as Claude-Nicolas Ledoux and Etienne-Louis Boullée developed theoretical projects that employed the phenomenological aspects of smoke to great effect. Boullée’s renderings of his design for Newton’s Cenotaph (Fig.7) evoke an aesthetic of the sublime that developed themes already being explored in architectural literature and imagery in early and mid-nineteenth century England.7 In its invocation of a perfect spherical form standing in stark contrast to an ambiguous, cloud-filled background, Boullée’s project promotes an aesthetic separation of object-architecture from its environment that was to be an important influence on Modernism. The building’s separation from its environment is emphasized by renderings of the building’s interior. Operating on an inverted diurnal cycle, small holes in its upper limits appear like stars in its dark interior during the day, while at night, a great illuminated sphere hung in the center of the dome to simulate the day. Massive in scale, the building’s interior represents a sublime other world, entirely enclosed and independent from the world outside.

Figure 7.  Newton’s Cenotaph. Etienne-Louis Boullee. 178

Figure 7. Newton’s Cenotaph. Etienne-Louis Boullee. 178

The world that Boullée so emphatically rejected was the focus of Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s attention during a visit to England in 1826. Schinkel was impressed by the evolving architecture of the factories, and the ‘smoke from hundreds of tall obelisks’ in a ‘grey, smoke-filled town built on hills and valleys.’ To Schinkel the smoke-filled atmosphere made a ‘dreadful and dismal impression,’8 a statement that recalls imagery invoked by William Blake’s poem, London:

“I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow. 
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear 

How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls, 
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls 

But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlots curse
Blasts the new-born Infants tear 
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.”

 

In Blake’s poem, the darkness and soot of London’s streets is projected onto its populace, enveloping everything in a shroud of misery. The sentiment was developed by theorists such as A.W.N Pugin, who explored the moral dimensions of Britain’s prolific production of smoke. Pugin drew direct comparisons between the smokestacks of the factories and the church spires they were gradually replacing in order to highlight what he perceived to be the moral deterioration of British society (Fig.8). Similarly, John Ruskin saw the smoke of the industrial city as emblematic of moral denigration, but promoted the apparently benign smoke of the rural cottage and its hearth as a symbol of moral purity within a broader, romanticized landscape. Ruskin and Pugin’s writings were to eventually inform the development of the Arts and Crafts movement in Britain, which idealized the decorative arts and promoted traditional craftsmanship and simple decorative techniques. From its inception, the Arts and Crafts movement was tied to the notion of economic and social reform, yet by promoting smoke-free, pre-industrial towns and cities, it also promoted certain deleterious class stratifications that had already begun to be established in Britain. It was accepted that the lower, morally corrupt classes moved within the thick smoke and odors of the city center, while the wealthier classes were able to take pleasure in the atmospherically and morally pure landscape of rural England (Fig.9). The contrast is neatly summarized in an extract from Ruskin’ s ‘The Poetry of Architecture,’

Figure 8.   Revival of Christian Architecture. A.W.N.Pugin. 1843

Figure 8. Revival of Christian Architecture. A.W.N.Pugin. 1843

Figure 9.  Kirkstall Abbey. Thomas Girtin. 1800

Figure 9. Kirkstall Abbey. Thomas Girtin. 1800

 ‘There is no motion more uniform, silent or beautiful than that of smoke; and, therefore, when we wish the peace or stillness of a scene to be impressive, it is highly useful to draw the attention to it. In the cottage therefore, a building particularly adapted for scenes of peace, the chimney, as conducting the eye what is agreeable, may be considered as important, and, if well-managed, a beautiful accompaniment…but in buildings of a higher class, smoke ceases to be interesting…the associations it arouses are not dignified…now, when smoke is objectionable, it is certainly improper to direct attention to the chimney…where smoke is ugly, decoration directs attention to its ugliness.’9

Though the Arts and Crafts movement did have some impact in America, the rapid growth of new cities and the importance of Industrial processes in the production of materials and supplies for the country’s westward expansion focused the attention of architects and engineers on a series of innovations that were to have a significant impact on subsequent developments in Europe. As well as the development of the skyscraper, American architects and engineers pioneered the development of air conditioning systems, humidifiers and innovations such as ‘the glass door, steel furniture, air-conditioning and radiant heat.’10 These new technologies served to dramatically change the relationship between buildings and the surrounding landscape, introducing the possibility of architecture as an autonomous formal entity that was to profoundly influence the development of the Modern Movement.

An early example of this change in attitude was the Reliance building, located in downtown Chicago (Fig.10). Designed by Burnham and Root in 1890, the Reliance building was an early skyscraper, developed in response to rising land values in the city center. Though its structural innovations were profound, it is also interesting to note that the building was clad in a thin skin of terracotta tiles that allowed it to be easily washed in order to remove the accumulated soot and grime deposited by the atmosphere. Rejecting the strategy of retreat from the city espoused by Ruskin and Pugin in Europe, the necessity of siting the building in the commercial heart of Chicago, and its adjacency to the city’s clouds of smog and soot led to its innovative façade design. The emphatic choice of white tiles ensured that the the building stood in stark contrast to its surroundings, announcing itself as a formally independent element in the city fabric. The choice of terracotta was also tied to the structural consideration of having to provide a light cladding system that would allow the building to achieve the greatest possible height. The thinness of its skin led to numerous issues with smoke penetration, and made clear the importance of being able to effectively condition the building’s interior.

Figure 10.   Reliance Building, Chicago. Burnham & Root. 1890

Figure 10. Reliance Building, Chicago. Burnham & Root. 1890

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin building represents another early example of the architectural potential of this evolving relationship between buildings and the atmospheres surrounding them. Designed in 1904, the Larkin Administration Building in Buffalo, NY, (Fig.11) was located alongside the main rail tracks into New York, ensuring a constant stream of thick smoke from the passing trains. To deal with this problem, Wright designed a system capable of effectively isolating the building from its environmental context, creating ‘one of the first air-conditioned buildings in the country’11 in the process. The form of the exterior is a direct expression of the environmental management system selected for the building. Four corner towers surround the central office space, which was sealed from the outside (windows were provided, but they were not operable). Air from the top of the service towers was drawn down through ducts to be cleaned and heated in the basement, before being blown up riser ducts in the stair towers and distributed through specially designed hollow bricks on each floor. Like the Royal Victoria Hospital, the form of the Larkin building is the result of the environmental management system chosen, and is not derived from the exploitation of an environmental technique. In both cases, the architects allowed the environmental system to inform the organizational logic of the building. However, unlike the Royal Victoria Hospital, Wright’s solution represents a radical attempt to entirely decouple architecture and its environment, an approach that was to greatly influence the Modern Movement.

Figure 11.  Larkin Building, Buffalo, NY. Frank Lloyd Wright. 190

Figure 11. Larkin Building, Buffalo, NY. Frank Lloyd Wright. 190

As the twentieth century advanced, the means of producing energy began to disperse, spreading outwards from the city center into the expanding zone of the urban periphery. The clouds of smog from factories were replaced with an entirely new type of cloud, that of the automotive exhaust. The automobile and its attendant infrastructures – including roads and highways – were a major new technological infrastructure whose effects on architecture were just as profound as those of the industrial infrastructure of the previous century (Fig.12).

Figure 12.  Holland Tunnel and Ventilation System. Clifford Holland & Erling Owre. 192

Figure 12. Holland Tunnel and Ventilation System. Clifford Holland & Erling Owre. 192

Strategies for the removal of exhaust led to new architectural typologies - such as the ventilation tower - and new conceptions of urbanism. Modern architecture continued a process of disengagement from the surrounding environment that had begun during the Industrial Revolution and was developed in Wright’s Larkin building and Chicago’s downtown. Modern architects sought to provide a clean, bright and well-ventilated interior environment to promote the health and well-being of inhabitants. Le Corbusier’s urban visions promote a clear distinction between architecture and roadways, employing a constructed landscape as a buffer between the two. In the Modernists’ urban schemes, the interface between the internal environment and the atmosphere beyond began to be drawn as a harder line. The spread of automotive infrastructures combined with real estate pressures in the city led to ever-more radical plans for a hermetically sealed architecture adjacent to roadways, as in Paul Rudolph’s 1972 project for the Lower Manhattan Expressway (Fig.13). Projects such as this one could only be imagined as a direct result of the emergence of technologies that allowed architecture to seal and calibrate internal conditions independent of the fluctuations or composition of the environment externally. Rudolph’s vision was one of exponential vehicular growth, necessitating the collapse of architecture and infrastructure into a single system made possible by continuing improvements in climactic control systems for buildings.

Figure 13.  Lower Manhattan Expressway. Paul Rudolph. 197

Figure 13. Lower Manhattan Expressway. Paul Rudolph. 197

The development of new technologies, both structural and environmental, informed the aesthetic choices of the Modern Movement in the early twenties as architects sought to embrace technology, neglecting many fundamental requirements for human comfort. The Modernist development of the glass wall for example, had numerous ramifications on the quality of internal environment. The idea of the dematerialized building skin (primarily conceived of as a continuous plate glass membrane) led to the loss of the environmental qualities inherent in traditional building envelopes, such as thermal mass and shading. Gradually, it became clear that the glass wall was inadequate as originally conceived, and would require a number of alterations to make the internal environment of buildings comfortable. In response, Le Corbusier developed the concept of the hermetically sealed interior, conditioned by ‘la respiration exacte’ 12 which could mediate extremes of temperature and minimize the discomfort brought about by the dematerialized envelope. His theories were applied at the Cité de Refuge, which though comfortably warm in the winter, was so hot in the summer that a brise-soleil had to be developed and applied to the façade to shield the inhabitants from the glare and heat of the sun (Figs 14&15). Instead of promoting an understanding of the qualities of the traditional, massive wall, the development of the brise-soleil served as a further justification for the tightly controlled, largely transparent building membrane that the architects of the modern movement advocated. Le Corbusier took this approach further, proposing that regardless of geographic or climactic location, the internal temperature of a building should be maintained at 18C through an environmental management system that represents a ‘closed circuit’13 capable of ensuring that ‘the buildings of Russia, Paris, Suez or Buenos Aires…will be hermetically closed. In winter warmed, in summer cooled, which means that pure controlled air at 18C circulates within forever.’ 14

Figure 14.   Cite De Refuge. Le Corbusier. 1929

Figure 14. Cite De Refuge. Le Corbusier. 1929

Figure 15.   Cite De Refuge Brise Soleil. Le Corbusier. 1929

Figure 15. Cite De Refuge Brise Soleil. Le Corbusier. 1929

The initial willingness of architects and planners alike to embrace the automobile and its attendant infrastructures was tempered by a series of high profile failures such as the project for Washington Bridge Extension Complex (1963), which proved uninhabitable due to the pervasive fumes from the roadway (Fig.16). The emergence of exhaust as a primary concern in Western cities and the subsequent evolution of technologies such as catalytic converters and double-skin facades as methods of eliminating it, point to the broader social implications of the automotive cloud, and the fact that ‘in many ways, exhaust represents an uncivilized past from which a more clean and global city will emerge.’ 15 The development of atomic power as a cheap and seemingly endless fuel source furthered this ‘narrative of transformation,’ 16 and led to a broad shift in our understanding of architecture’s role relative to technology.

With the advent of the atomic age, the threat of deadly radioactive clouds led architects to respond with the creation of a total environmental envelope. Experimental groups such as Ant Farm in California and Archigram in Britain experimented with architectures of isolation. The gathering pace of the space program coincided with these experiments; the sealed capsule and personal breathing apparatus of the astronaut took the concept of the sealed building envelope to the extreme.

During this period, inflatable architecture evolved from early conceptual work into sophisticated semi-permanent structures. One such structure was the US Atomic Energy Portable Theater by Victor Lundy and Walter Bird (1959), a new type of architecture that evolved in direct dialogue with the environmental system it engaged (Fig.17). Though structurally and materially innovative, the theater is particularly noteworthy because of the sophisticated interplay between pressure, temperature, airflow and containment that make it possible.17 As Banham eloquently summarizes,

‘Instead of a rigid built volume to which power must be applied to correct its environmental deficiencies, we have here either a volume which is not built and rigid until environmental power is applied to it, or a manufactured environment (conditioned air) and a bag to put it in.’ 18

Figure 17.   U.S. Atomic Energy Theater. Victor Lundy & Walter Bird. 1959

Figure 17. U.S. Atomic Energy Theater. Victor Lundy & Walter Bird. 1959

Beyond the apocalyptic visions of a post-nuclear world, nuclear power made available a great deal of cheap energy that could be easily distributed electrically across vast distances. The availability of power in unprecedented quantities led to the possibility of creating environment without enclosure, an architectural strategy pushed to its limits in Las Vegas (Fig.18). In the Las Vegas strip, ‘structure is the least dominant element in the definition of symbolic space…what defines the symbolic places and spaces of Las Vegas…is pure environmental power, manifested as colored light.’ 19 The need for physical elements to define space was displaced by the ability to harness power to produce ‘virtual volumes’ 20 whose boundaries are gradients at the edge of zones of power distribution and energy flows rather than physical membranes or barriers. Reyner Banham recognized the possibilities of this approach in his seminal essay, ‘A House is not a Home,’ published in 1965. Banham looks back to the origins of architecture and suggests that rather than attempting to create shelter as an entity independent to its environment, we should look to the campfire as a viable environmental model for a new kind of architecture created by, ‘actually interfering with the local meteorology.’21 Banham suggests that the campfire provides a model whose freedom and variability cannot be equaled by conventional architecture. It is a space whose boundaries are determined by climactic phenomena,

‘The direction and strength of the wind will decide the main shape and dimensions of that space, stretching the area of tolerable warmth into a long oval, but the output of light will not be affected by the wind, and the area of tolerable illumination will be a circle overlapping the oval of warmth. There will thus be a variety of environmental choices balancing light against warmth according to need and interest.’ 22

Figure 18.   Fremont Street, Las Vegas. 1965

Figure 18. Fremont Street, Las Vegas. 1965

Banham’s writing is a radical extrapolation of architectural experiments that were already well underway by 1965. His vision of the ‘Un-house’ of the future was inspired by the ever-increasing quantity and sophistication of mechanical equipment being incorporated into contemporary architecture (Fig.19). The illustration of his article “A House is Not a Home” with a rhetorical image of a house stripped of all enclosure to leave the mechanical systems bare, highlights the degree to which architecture had become ‘a baroque ensemble of domestic gadgetry epitomiz[ing] the intestinal complexity of gracious living.’ 23 Banham understood environment as an anti-architectural force that could enable architecture to disengage from its stifling history and enter into a new dialogue with contemporary technical and social conditions, ‘align[ing] his concept of environment with the resource-driven, technological and natural techniques of postwar American capitalism.’24

Figure 19. The UnHouse. Reyner Banham. 1965

Figure 19. The UnHouse. Reyner Banham. 1965

The capitalist socio-political context that Banham was operating within was driven by the ready supply of cheap and seemingly limitless energy, a narrative that influenced the techno-utopianism of much of Banham’s writing. In September 2012, Japan announced plans to cease all nuclear power production, marking a major step towards the end of the global atomic age, and enforcing a contemporary understanding of fuel as a volatile, unstable resource, whose use is dramatically destabilizing the global environment as we know it. Though the threat of nuclear apocalypse is a narrative that is still being deployed as an aggressive weapon by global powers, global attention has diverted to the impending threat of global warming and the possibility of an environmental catastrophe. In response, architecture has been tasked with taking on the logistics of the environment; ecological theory has provided a framework for the discourse, promoting the notion of sustainable practice as a means of reducing the impact of architecture globally, saving humanity from the invisible, odorless threat that hangs above us.

Though the cultural and contextual integration of architecture into its surrounding context is still an important concern, the primary contextual concern of contemporary architecture is of its relationship to nature. In his proposal for the ‘un-house’, Banham presciently theorizes a new relationship between architecture and landscape that describes the interface between interior and exterior as a fluid, dynamic boundary. It is precisely this boundary that is at the very core of many critical questions in the discipline today.

The role of nature in architecture is a broad issue that has had a profound effect on the discipline beyond the climactic and environmental concerns already discussed. Nature has provided architecture with ‘aesthetic inspiration, formal models, and proportional constraints.’ 25 Even in periods when architecture has seemingly retreated from nature in its quest for disciplinary autonomy or formal resolution, ‘nature was always the sublime other bracketed by such rationality.’ 26 The imminent threat of environmental apocalypse has pushed nature to the forefront of the discipline once again. Where architecture’s previous engagement with clouds was largely a function of separating the internal environment from the harmful effects of the exterior, contemporary architecture is tasked with finding a far more delicate balance, harnessing the climactic potential of the natural environment in order to minimize the release of clouds of carbon dioxide that are inherent in the production of architecture itself. Though much attention has recently focused on architecture as the image of nature, the biological morphogenesis that is the result of contemporary investigations into parametric design does not address this more critical interface of architecture and environment.

Historically, clouds are the atmospheric indices of a momentary coagulation of social, economic and industrial forces in a particular place, at a particular time. The interface between architecture and this climactic context at any given time is the physical evidence of the precise calibration of these forces. However, the global environmental crisis facing our society casts this interface in new light. Architecture can no longer be considered in terms of the more or less permeable boundary it draws between interior and exterior, but must now be considered a fundamental component of the atmospheres it engages. Given this condition, the boundaries and limits of the discipline itself have been called into question. Where Banham suggests the ‘un-house’, contemporary practice is moving towards un-architecture, that is, practice beyond disciplinary specificity.

This move has led to the emergence in the discipline of a theory of ‘territory,’ moving beyond the idea of architecture as enclosed environment towards an understanding of architecture as ‘the simultaneous production of architectural objects and the realms surrounding them.’ 27 The term ‘territory’ suggests considering the environment as broader than a pre-existing social and natural setting, without returning to a concept of architecture as an autonomous object. Understanding architecture as a territory suggests the possibility of engaging with the environment in a nuanced way, strategically ‘tinkering’ 28 with nature in a critical manner and moving beyond theories of environment and autonomy as they are currently understood.

In this context, the concept of ecology has emerged as a means of theorizing the shift of focus from object to field within the discipline. Ecology is understood to imply the collapse of the architectural object into a field of relations, a state that is perceived to be inherently ‘natural.’ The two words, “ecology” and “nature” are used almost interchangeably within contemporary discourse surrounding sustainability and ecological urbanism. Given the significance of the issues of climate change and the global carbon cloud, it is important to consider such terms in more detail and to define an approach that adopts not only the image of nature, but also questions the role of the man-made architectural object.

Figure 20. B_Mu Tower, Bangkok. R&Sie. 2002

Figure 20. B_Mu Tower, Bangkok. R&Sie. 2002

Figure 21. B_Mu Tower, Bangkok. R&Sie. 2002

Figure 21. B_Mu Tower, Bangkok. R&Sie. 2002

Ecology is a branch of the biological sciences that deals primarily with the relations of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings. Ecologists do not focus on the characteristics of individual organisms, but rather seek to describe systems that define a field of discernible relations between elements. While the term ‘nature’ is a general term that broadly defines the phenomena of the physical world, the word ‘ecology’ promotes an understanding of the natural world in which the network of relations is the deeper reality rather than appearance of elements themselves.

Contemporary sustainable design understands nature as a system in equilibrium, thrown out of balance by the industrial activities of the human race. Terms such as ‘carbon-neutral’ belie the fact that the rhetoric of sustainability promotes an artificially constructed equilibrium with the maximum potential benefit for long-term human occupation. The extent to which our contemporary understanding of nature is a construct is masked by the LEED branding and pervading imagery of ‘green’ that cloaks much contemporary architecture, while many fundamental assumptions about the discipline and its environmental ramifications remain unchanged from the Industrial Age.

Contemporary architectural projects by practices such as R&Sie(n) seek to subvert this accepted relationship between environment, architecture and atmosphere. In opposition to a strategy of distancing architecture from pollution and its effects, R&Sie(n) designed the B-mu Tower (Figs. 20&21) for a site in downtown Bangkok to attract pollution, using it as a material to create the enclosure of the building. In doing so, R&Sie(n) challenge preconceptions of the protective, enclosing role of architecture, whilst confronting the public with the physical evidence of Bangkok’s polluted environment. Though the B-mu tower is certainly an element within a larger system of industry, it is also noteworthy as building that emphatically asserts its presence within the city as an architectural object.

The role of the object is of critical importance when considering the expansion of the discipline into the realm of ecology or territory. The philosopher Graham Harman eloquently asserts the importance of the object in any relational understanding of a system stating that,

‘there are problems in relationizing the world in this way. For one thing, if the entire world were exhausted by its current givenness, there is no reason why anything would alter. That is to say, if there is no difference between the I who is what he is and the I who is accidentally wearing a yellow shirt from India at this moment, then there is no reason why my situation should ever change. An injustice is thereby done to the future.’ 29

Harman’s philosophy led him to the development of an object-focused ontology, finding in Heidegger ‘the roots of a metaphysics of things which does justice to the autonomy of objects.’ 30 Heidegger rejects a phenomenological understanding of objects as entities perceived in relation to the mind of the viewer, so that an object can never be understood as the sum of its relations to other objects (including people), ‘therefore there must always be something about the object that is in excess of its qualities and relations.’ 31 Harman refers to this as “the dark nucleus of objects,” a space that is entirely withdrawn from other objects, that is the very being of the object at hand. The quality of this space cannot be exhausted by a list of its qualities or relations to other objects. This primacy of the object is not recognized in the concept of an ecological or field-based approach; ‘the field is not real in the same sense that the object is.’ 32 The construct of the field also informs our understanding of terms such as ‘nature’ or ‘world,’ words which describe an aggregation of real objects in a conceptual container that is actually not a real object. The recognition of this fact has led critics such as Timothy Morton to suggest an alternative strategy that could produce “ecology without nature,” a concept which by extension, might produce an architecture without nature. This approach would require that the fundamental characteristics of an object – its object-ness – are recognized. Instead of a mythological or sentimental understanding of nature, we might take a ‘turn towards the particularities and the essential strangeness of the objects themselves.’ 33

The work of Sean Lally and Weathers Architects often focuses on the potential of the architect to curate moments of strangeness within a broader environmental framework as a means of producing an ambiguous yet productive interface between architecture and landscape. Weathers’ evolving body of work represents an important attempt to create a thoroughly contemporary model of architecture, one in which the particularities of climate and environmental context are as critical as the architectural elements themselves. In their Vatnsmyri Urban Plan (Fig.22), Weathers seek to create productive social space centered on clouds of gas; exhaust vapors combine with the heat of bodies to produce idiosyncratic, variable microclimates in a broader environment. Echoing Banham’s Unhouse, Lally rejects the notion of capturing gas, and embraces a fluid concept of environment as a constantly evolving element in direct dialogue with the human body.

Figure 22.   Vatnsmyri Urban Planning, Reykjavik. Weathers Architects. 2007

Figure 22. Vatnsmyri Urban Planning, Reykjavik. Weathers Architects. 2007

The approach taken by Weathers at Vatnsmyri is expanded to the scale of the city in their urban planning proposal for the Tamula Lakeside in Estonia. In their Tamula plan, Weathers Architects seek to engage the climactic and environmental dimensions of their site as much as its geographical and topographic features. Reacting against typical urban strategies that focus on massing as an abstract exercise divorced from the climactic context of a site, Weathers describe their urban plan as ‘an attempt to meet the programme and activity needs of the site while simultaneously addressing seasonal planning: an attempt to consider how activities change throughout the course of the year while also creating opportunities for their artificial extension.’ 34

The design of the buildings reflects these ambitions. Each of the main buildings on the site takes the form of a large pyramidal structure designed to trap rising heat. This heat is reintroduced into a series of large open spaces beneath the main building volumes. The ambition of the project is to allow for the climactic zone beneath each building to be a dynamic one: expanding in the summer months and contracting in the winter months to reflect the varying levels of excess heat generated by the building. During the winter, this topography of heat shrinks to the size of the building envelope, thereby condensing activities to smaller area contained within the building’s perimeter. The architects propose that the scheme’s climactic footprint therefore becomes the driver of programmatic and spatial organization. This is emphasized in the representation selected to describe the project. The drawings focus little on materiality and form; instead the architects choose to present their scheme in a series of quasi-scientific environmental diagrams. The section is presented alongside a series of graphs describing the buildings’ potential to extend periods of activity associated with the summer and winter seasons (Fig.23). The diagrams refer to an expanded territory of architecture, suggesting a series of operations beyond immediate site and architectural envelope that consider the building as a component within a broader environmental field, one whose form and characteristics are in direct dialogue with the seasons.

Figure 23.  Tamula Masterplan, Estonia. Weathers Architects. 2008

Figure 23.Tamula Masterplan, Estonia. Weathers Architects. 2008

The diagrams produced by the architects to describe the project are also telling with regard to the project’s broader environmental ambitions. A figure-ground plan of the project evolves into one that describes the various gradients of heat on the ground plane; the buildings appear as dotted lines within a gradated field, enforcing the notion that atmosphere and energy is privileged as an architectural element over building mass and form.

The representational technique employed in the site plans (Fig.24) further privileges the climactic over the explicitly architectural. As in the diagrams, the buildings are once again relegated in the visual hierarchy of the drawing. While the site’s surrounding context appears as white poche against a black background, within the Tamula site, Weather’s buildings are represented purely as thin dotted lines that denote the boundary of the building envelope. A geography of contours is replaced with one of heat gradients and fluid fields of atmospheric effect. Instead of a single site plan, the architects present three – corresponding to summer, fall and winter months – thereby rejecting the notion of an overall ‘image’ of the project. In the summer months, the gradated climate zones expand and merge with each other to form a single, large-scale field, while in the winter months, the contracting fields become discreet and disparate entities. In representing their work this way, the architects make clear that primary driver of their scheme is the climactic interface between public, program and site, and not architectural form.

Figure 24.   Tamula Masterplan, Estonia. Weathers Architects. 2008

Figure 24. Tamula Masterplan, Estonia. Weathers Architects. 2008

The final representational tool employed by the architects to describe their project is a series of sectional diagrams (Fig.25) exploring the various environmental conditions created by their architectural interventions, and elaborating on the programmatic potential of each. The diagrams analyze four key elements of the scheme: the commercial, pool/dock, hotel/spa, and beach waterfront areas. Each diagram presents the same space during summer or winter days and nights. The organizational system that determines the operation of the scheme is therefore clearly defined as a variable and flexible one that is based on the expansion of the existing seasonal variations of the site. The limitations to the activities taking place on the site are not material ones such as the presence of walls or floors, but rather environmental constraints such as temperature, precipitation and seasonal shifts in daylight hours. The architects state that this is achieved, ‘with local climactic manipulations that harness the available energy produced by the glazed pyramid shapes of each building mass, creating expanded and alternate seasons and new program overlaps.’ 35

Figure 25.   Tamula Masterplan, Estonia. Weathers Architects. 2008

Figure 25. Tamula Masterplan, Estonia. Weathers Architects. 2008

However, despite the architects’ attempts to portray the potential of this approach – hotel guests enjoying a large terrace and pool in the summer and a heated terrace beneath the building’s protected canopy in winter – the physical interface between the buildings and the landscape that would make possible such rich programmatic overlaps is not described. The buildings – when they are shown – appear to be floating above the landscape, operating primarily as heat traps. Where the buildings touch the ground, there is a sharp divide between interior and exterior, so that their design lacks the nuance of the climactic gradients that are described in the architects’ other drawings. The exceptions to this are the instances where the architects’ interventions operate on a scale close to that of the human body. Their proposal for a series of semi-enclosed fire pits and ‘warming stones’ on the shoreline suggests a more convincing synthesis between structure, enclosure and climate. The small scale of the structures allows a limited number of people to occupy them, so that the heat from the fire and from the bodies of the occupants is released in the same space. The heat is trapped directly by the structure (not redistributed as in the large buildings proposed) so that the structure, occupants and heat source are all in a direct relationship with each other. Furthermore, these small cabin structures are the only ones that appear to be somewhat materially resolved. The timber cladding visible in the section diagrams of the project serves as an efficient insulating material that supports the structures’ role as insulated, heated enclosures that evoke the language of saunas or steam rooms. This material dialogue between enclosure and function appears to be lacking elsewhere in the scheme, where the buildings are described as large transparent volumes of indeterminate material. Though the architects are interested the potential of architecture beyond its surface perimeter, the almost complete lack of resolution of the interface between the building, landscape and its occupants is a distinct weakness of the scheme. A more considered approach of this interface may have allowed the architects to consider the potential of their plan to not only extend climates to conform with existing activities, but rather to begin to subvert existing climactic qualities to promote a new methods of engaging with the landscape. This speculative potential is lacking in the architects’ renderings which show the normative activities of swimming and sailing in the summer and ice skating in the winter.

Despite this weakness, it is important to note the shift from the hermetically sealed interiors of Le Corbusier’s Cite De Refuge to the expanded climactic territory claimed by Weathers Architects. In Corbusier’s project, nature is understood to be a static element, one that must be kept separate from the equally static, conditioned world of the interior. For Weathers, the interface between architecture and nature is not limited to tectonic or formal considerations; they seek to engage ‘a spectrum of materiality that encompasses the parameters of nature itself, including its climates,’ 36 an approach that is ripe with potential despite the limited scope of the architects’ representations of the project.

Their masterplan offers a convincing critique of many of the assumptions of the carbon-neutral zero-waste space of sustainable development, rejecting the tropes of familiar ‘high-tech’ green development in favor of a more thorough exploration of the very limits of architecture and the territory it can lay claim to.

Considering buildings as elements within a far broader environmental and infrastructural context may serve as a performative technique that could allow a reformulation of the relationship between landscape and architecture, rejecting the tropes of ecological and green design and the ‘passivity and asocial qualities attributed to architecture’s natural environment.’ 37 The work of contemporary practices such as R&Sie(n) and Weathers Architects has the potential to force us to challenge our assumptions and undermine our existing experiences of architecture and landscape. A thorough consideration of buildings and the sub-natures they produce - clouds of heat and humidity or flows of air - can enable us to better understand our environment as a product of social and historical processes, moving away from the notion that landscape is a benign surface for pleasure, towards an understanding that it is a three-dimensional component of architecture and urbanism that necessitates an engagement with the corporeal, social and political aspects of the discipline.

 

Footnotes

1 David Gissen defines the subnatural as the realm in which we can barely exist in the state that we currently conceive ourselves. 
2 David Gissen. Subnature : Architecture’s Other Environments. (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2009), 23.
3 David Nye, “Energy Narratives.” Narratives and Spaces: Technology and the Construction of American Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), 78.
4 Reyner Banham. The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment. (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1969), 29.
5 Ibid., 30.
6 Ibid., 80.
7 David Gissen. Subnature: Architecture’s Other Environments, 47.
8 Ibid.
9 Ibid., 49
10 Frank Lloyd Wright as quoted by Kaufmann, Edgar, ed. An American Architecture (Pomegranite Books: San Francisco, 1998), 137-138.
11 Reyner Banham. The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment, 86.
12 Ibid, 156
13 Ibid., 159
14 Le Corbusier quoted in Reyner Banham, The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment, 160
15 David Gissen. Subnature: Architecture’s Other Environments, 79.
16 David Nye, “Energy Narratives,” 77 
17 Reyner Banham. The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment, 274
18 Ibid.
19 Ibid., 269
20 Ibid. 269
21 Reyner Banham, “A Home is not a House” in Art In America, No.2, April 1965
22 Ibid.
23 Ibid.
24 David Gissen, “Introduction.” Architectural Design, May/June 2010, 8.
25 David Ruy. “Returning to (Strange) Objects. Pratt Architecture Manual, Spring 2012. 39.
26 Ibid.
27 David Gissen, “Introduction”, 8
28 Ibid.
29 Graham Harman quoted in David Ruy, “Returning to (Strange) Objects”, 40.
30 David Ruy, “Returning to (Strange) Objects”, 40.
31 Ibid.
32 Ibid., 41
33 Ibid., 41
34 Sean Lally, “When Cold Air Sleeps.” Energies: New Material Boundaries. 60 
35 Sean Lally. “When Cold Air Sleeps,” 62
36 Sean Lally. “When Cold Air Sleeps,” 63
37 David Gissen, “Introduction”, Architectural Design. May/June 2009. Vol79, No 3. 214.

Bibliography

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Banham, Reyner. The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1969.

Gissen, David. Subnature : Architecture’s Other Environments. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2009.

Gissen, David. “Introduction.” Architectural Design, May/June 2010. Vol 80, No.3.pp 8-13.

Kaufmann, Edgar, (ed.). An American Architecture. Pomegranate Books: San Francisco, 1998.

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