Friday, 24 August 2012


I recollect a summer vacation in New York City a few years ago and witnessing a stunning sunset as it aligned with the city’s uniform grid, framed by Manhattan’s vertical sky rises. People took to the streets blocking traffic to photo the astrological urban phenomenon.

Every year Manhattan’s distinct uniform grid layout (as does any city with this patterned master plan) lends itself to becoming an astrological calendar. Sunsets begin around May and last for a few months, on a clear night the uncluttered western horizon of NY provides the perfect backdrop to this spectacle.  Over the years it has become something of mini solstice gathering, with the public halting the city’s incessant movement for a few moments to witness an everyday wonder that so often gets forgotten and missed in an urban context.
These spontaneous gatherings, not organised or corporately funded, occurring in the one the world’s busiest metropolises, in a place not designated for public crowds is poignant. It reminds of the importance and innate wonder of sharing such an experience. The ancients recognised this and deliberately utilised it for worship, politics, and to disseminate ideals. In contemporary society, our busy lives and fragmented cities obscure, much of the natural phenomena we unconsciously yearn for. When however these same cities unexpectedly assist a natural spectacle, we are forced to stop and reflect. The urban henge reminds us all of our shared cosmological journey and thus serves as an important opportunity for human connection.

Thanks to for reminding me of this event.


Thursday, 16 August 2012

Michelangelo's Repertoire of Invention

I first came across these images of Michelangelo’s designs for fortified defenses around Florence on the blog of Lebbeus Woods. They are hugely compelling visual documents, which only but hint at Michelangelo’s enormous repertoire of invention.

Michelangelo was commissioned by the Florentine Republic to design these bastions in the early part of the 16th Century. At this time Florence was under the threat of attack from the Papal armies wishing to restore the Medici family to autocratic power.* When the attack arrived, the city’s defensive wall had been strengthened by Michelangelo’s fortifications. As a result Florence was able to defend herself for close to a year against a supreme army. Florence succumbed to the military might through an act of political treachery in 1530. *

The geometries of these drawings derive from their very practical purpose, allowing structural defense from the incoming missiles of the attackers and allowing retaliation from the defenders.

On their own they radiate a complex beauty and power. As an architect looking upon these drawings, the forms look almost contemporary not something expected from the renaissance epoch. The top image here is particularly powerful, as begins to hint at the mechanics of Michelangelo’s genius. The plan appears to be drawn in ink with the masterly control of superfluous brush strokes. Interestingly it lies on top of a set stunning and sensitive figure studies. Other sketches in this set also create a superimposition of the architectural solution atop of the figurative study. Here is an interesting point to depart into a conversation on the interwoven links between the depth of Michelangelo’s anatomical understanding and his engineering faculties.

For me these sketches from the great renaissance masters illustrate the importance of fluidity within architectural thought and discipline. It could be argued, that the diet of intensive observational and anatomical drawing that the renaissance period cultivated develops a powerful non verbal understanding of mechanical and structural principles. Lebbeus Woods, argues that it is Michelangelo’s extreme precision and dexterity with free hand line (no doubt a result from his latent genius and hard graft refining this skill through observational drawing) that allows him to be so courageous and inventive with the forms explored in these sketches.

These sketches, largely unseen amidst the multitude of masterpieces from Michelangelo, are just as inspiring. They remind us of important faculties we possess as humans, and the latent potential of imagination fused with perseverance and dedication.


Monday, 13 August 2012

Primitive future: The Improvised spaces of Sou Fujimoto

Nest or Cave?

Sou Fujimoto recently posed this question at the opening of his lecture at the GSD Harvard. He eloquently explains his concept of a ‘nest’, which implies a space that has been specifically prepared for human habitation.  A cave is the opposite of this: a naturally formed space, which to be used for dwelling requires a creative act on behalf of a human. The cave alters the behaviour of its occupant by offering no clear way in which to use the space. Although to some degree this ambiguity is inherent in all spaces, the cave is completely undefined. He calls these creative acts of appropriation the beginning of architecture.

Within the cave the body needs adapt to the space to meet its needs. As the body adapts, the space takes on a new subjective and temporal definition, unique to each occupant. A harmonious relationship is established between the body and space. The ambiguity of the cave offers a surprisingly flexible architecture, and it is this idea that Sou Fujimoto has explored in much of his conceptual and built work.
His buildings and experimental homes create spaces within spaces that blur into one another and have no definite boundaries or pre determined routes through them, requiring the user to create their definition through use - akin to the cave or a natural setting. In Primitive Future house Fujimoto explores an architecture that begins to relinquish prescribed spaces.

In his work the Wooden House project we see these ideas manifest into their first built work, Fujimoto explains:

'I thought of making an ultimate wooden architecture. It was conceived by just mindlessly stacking 350mm square. Lumber is extremely versatile. In an ordinary wooden architecture, lumber is effectively differentiated according to functions in various localities precisely because it is so versatile. Columns, beams, foundations, exterior walls, interior walls, ceilings, floorings, insulations, furnishings, stairs, window frames, meaning all. However, I thought if lumber is indeed so versatile then why not create architecture by one rule that fulfills all of these functions. I envisioned the creation of new spatiality that preserves primitive conditions of a harmonious entity before various functions and roles differentiated. There are no separations of floor, wall, and ceiling here. A place that one thought was a floor becomes a chair, a ceiling, a wall from various positions. The floor levels are relative and spatiality is perceived differently according to one’s position. Here, people are distributed three-dimensionally in the space. This is a place like an amorphous landscape with a new experience of various senses of distances. Inhabitants discover, rather than being prescribed, various functionalities in these convolutions.'

 For me it is interesting to consider the importance that Japanese Zen traditions place on the rituals of the everyday, and use this for illuminating the context within which Sou Fujimoto works. For example making a cup of tea in a traditional tea ceremony is highly a refined meditative exercise involving precise controlled movements and a heightened sense of awareness of the body in space. This awareness of the body is a key aspect to many Zen practices and is often viewed as a gateway to spiritual insight. When we inhabit or navigate an undefined organic space we seem to naturally become of aware of the body as we search for ways to adapt and utilise the space. It is this heightened state that Fujimoto refers to as the primitive conditions of harmonious entity.
House NA develops these ideas further . 21 floor plates at varying heights connected via stairs and ladders create a house with a gradation of spaces that flow into one another. The home offers a unique dwelling experience, emulating a nomadic quality and sense of movement that echoes habitation amongst trees.

“The intriguing point of a tree is that these places are not hermetically isolated but are connected to one another in its unique relativity. To hear one’s voice from across and above, hopping over to another branch, a discussion taking place across branches by members from separate branches. These are some of the moments of richness encountered through such spatially dense living.”- Sou Fujimoto