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Come rain or shine: Joseph Deane on Weather Architecture

In a vision influenced by the picturesque and romanticism, architecture and weather interweave mutually crystallizing in timeless objects

The ‘hermetic double neutralising wall’ was Le Corbusier’s ultimate attempt to isolate architecture from its environment. Consistency and control were its ideals. Like Georg Simmel’s reading of the ruin, the fear of the architect was that his exquisite creation might somehow be undermined by the will of another agent: Nature. In Weather Architecture, his seventh book, Jonathan Hill seeks to deconstruct this conceit as part of his ongoing investigations into the nature of architectural authorship.

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John Constable, A Cart on a lane at Flatford

Anyone who is familiar with Hill’s teaching at the Bartlett will be aware of his interest in the relationship between weather and architecture. However, what is perhaps surprising is the specificity with which Hill has chosen to examine such an expansive topic: by allying his research with the philosophies of the Romantic and the Picturesque, Hill hopes simultaneously to raise both movements from their ocularcentric connotations and highlight the continuing significance of their shared tenets.This might at first seem an unnecessary aside to what is already a considerable task, but it does serve to ground the research in a critical context that makes it more readily applicable to contemporary practice.

Throughout the impeccably referenced 320 pages of text and photographs, Hill suggests that we are still bound to the hubris of a ‘technocratic Modernism’.Itself a philosophical vestige of the Renaissance, this practice sees the artist rule as autocrat; truth as universal; and beauty as formulaic. By comparison in the tradition of the Picturesque beauty is to be understood as subjective; perception as variable; and creativity as aleatory.Hill’s principal aim is to show how these motifs − together with Romanticism’s attachment to the senses, time, decay and the imagination − are critical if we are to reach a more holistic understanding of architecture, ecology, politics and the self. Architecture has to be considered ‘an incident in an environment with which it converse(s)’, writes Hill. The problem at the root of Le Corbusier’s neutralising wall was the presumption that Architecture, together with all human constructs, could be somehow isolated from the complex, immersive phenomenon that we call ‘nature’.

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Gunnar Asplund and Sigurd Lewerentz, Woodland Cemetery, Stockholm, 1915-. Sculpted mound. Photograph, Jonathan Hill

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Sverre Fehn’s Nordic Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1962 punctured by a tree: an example of Modernism in tune with the natural world

With each chapter of the book Hill draws from an array of Romantic and Picturesque art, philosophy and architecture to illustrate weather’s unequivocal role as a creative agent. Whether this be through its political effects on cultures, its somatic and emotional effect on humans, or its unpredictable physical effects on their creations, in each case it is the blurring of the natural and the manmade, the interrelation of nature and culture, which forms the thematic crux of the text.

However, Hill is not suggesting that Modernism has been wholly devoid of such sensitivities. Far from it. Nikolaus Pevsner advocated a movement more romantic in its ethics: situated, emotive and reactive as opposed to international, mechanical and inert. Sverre Fehn and Sigurd Lewerentz accomplished this by effectively translating the national romanticism of Scandinavia into what Christian Norberg-Schulz called a ‘romantic Modernism’. The particularities of Nordic light, clouds and air defined the region’s cultural sensibilities and came to form the raison d’être of its architecture. Culture and climate, landscape and vernacular, were considered reciprocal authors.

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Sigurd Lewerentz, St Mark’s Church and Parish Offices, Skarpnäck, 1964. Photograph, Murray Fraser

Similarly, Alison and Peter Smithson’s numerous works, in particular their ‘House of the Future’ (exhibited 1956) and Upper Lawn Pavilion (1959-62), rejected the Modernist hermetically sealed unit in favour of an architecture that was open to weather’s advances. Testing the assumption that ‘some loss in environmental comfort is amply compensated by, and even necessary to, a more complete experience of nature’, Hill cites these examples as indicative of a Modernism that is both poetic and pragmatic.

Weaving his argument with clarity throughout, Hill arrives at an understanding of weather, architecture and user as ‘co-productions’ of one another. Examining Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage, together with Joseph Turner’s 19th-century London studio, we find an alignment of these agents.While the former found itself under the shadow of a nuclear power station on the exposed brim of Kentish coast, in the case of the latter, soot-laden rain from an industrialised city streamed in through the roof. In both cases, however, the biome of architecture, weather and inhabitant is to be considered a hybridisation, with each element produced in variable measure by human and non-human actors.

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Alison & Peter Smithson, House of the Future, Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition, Olympia, London: the sitting room

RIBA3736 credit as John McCann / RIBA Library Photographs Collection

It is here that Hill’s research becomes most relevant. However, those who are familiar with the works of Erik Swyngedouw, Matthew Gandy, Jane Bennett or Antonio Damasio would perhaps like to have seen Hill’s work make better reference to its wider academic context. The Picturesque and Romantic idioms that he draws upon − overshadowed as they are by the persistent rationalism of the Enlightenment − have recently found renewed significance following discoveries in contemporary physics, neurology, geography and the social sciences. One cannot help but think that the book would have done well to capitalise on such an engaging body of sympathetic literature.

That said, Weather Architecture remains an impeccably researched and thought-provoking work in its own right. By shifting the trend of normative thought, Hill hopes we can arrive at a revived, more dynamic understanding of the complex ecology in which we are embedded. Architecture is not a timeless object. It is part of an infinitely complex network of actors of which the architect is only one. Natures produce cultures and cultures produce natures. The dialogue between weather and architecture is a microcosm of this inseparable interrelationship.

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Gunnar Asplund and Sigurd Lewerentz, Woodland Cemetery, Stockholm, 1915 Gravestones among the trees. Photograph, Jonathan Hill

Weather Architecture

Author: Jonathan Hill
Publisher: Routledge
Price: £34.99

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