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The Big Rethink Part 8: Lessons from Peter Zumthor and other living masters

The reappraisal of past architecture and the integration of its achievements into a new, higher level of synthesis underscores the transforming ethos of ‘transcend and include’, epitomised by this examination of the work of four exemplary living masters

These Campaign essays are spurred by recognising this as a period of epochal transition, provoked by, among other factors, conditions so precariously poised and threatening that we cannot continue to blindly stumble forward. Instead we must act with the full awareness and responsibility that current knowledge should have, but has not as yet, made incumbent upon us so as to progress towards an inspiring and viable vision of the future. In part this vision would be shaped by a reappraisal of past triumphs and failures, including in architecture and urban design.

The lessons learnt can then be synthesised in an unprecedentedly complete approach to the conception, in theory and design, of the built environment. We might then live more sustainably, not least because we feel more at home in the world and with ourselves because once again relating to community and place, culture and nature. This process of integrating the past achievements while moving on to a new, higher level of synthesis is an example of what Integral theory calls ‘transcend and include’.

This is the last of three essays looking at past architecture for lessons to inform this process. Each essay offers only a few examples, from what should be an exhaustive exercise, to inform and be synthesised in architecture adequate to the emerging era. The first of the ‘transcend and include’ essays in May touched upon a few lessons worth integrating in an architecture adequate to the emerging epoch from vernacular, historic and modern architecture in general.

The second, in June, drew a tiny sampling of such lessons from just four great masters of modern architecture. In this third essay we derive another paltry sampling of lessons from architects still active today, whose work belongs to times that saw an increasingly diverse range of approaches evolving in the wake of the masters touched upon in the second essay. As with the architecture of this earlier period, the overall impact of this architecture has been problematic, particularly in urban terms. But there has also been much fine architecture and copious innovation and experiment.

This reappraisal of past architecture as the initial step towards transcend and include differs in emphasis from the studies of historians and those being churned out by students in masters and PhD programmes. In a transitional period such as now, it is also far more important, yet largely neglected in academe. It should be the subject of many essays or a number of fat books. Because of this, to look cursorily at the work of only four architects (as too with the June essay) from such a vibrant and various period of production seems almost absurd, and any choice of architects can only be extremely arbitrary.

Equally arbitrary is to select architects rather than areas of exploration and expertise − such as urban thinking, technical innovation or green thinking, to name at random only a few. But this essay, like all the others in this campaign, should be seen merely as a prompt to provoke a much more comprehensive, collaborative and increasingly urgent Big Rethink. Besides, there is an underlying theme that manifests in very different ways with the four markedly different architects discussed; and this also links their work back to last month’s essay.

That essay discussed the loss of a sense of place and aliveness from the contemporary built environment. This loss is largely because modern architecture tends to suppress relationships, both with other buildings and with most of whom we are as humans. This characteristic is inherited from the larger modern paradigm: its emphasis on reductive, materialist and mechanistic modes of thought, the AQAL diagram’s Right Quadrants, tends to eclipse the Left Quadrant realms of experience and meaning where the sense of relationship and the associations that go with it are forged. So the four architects discussed here are chosen not only for being very different, but also because the work of each provokes thought about the very different kinds of relationships architecture elicits.

Four living masters

Two of the architects may seem relatively obvious choices: Herman Hertzberger for his exploration of function, an issue so central to modern architecture that Functionalism is its synonym; and Renzo Piano, a master of advanced construction technologies, for some a key characteristic of modern architecture. But Hertzberger is chosen also because his approach to function is not only as understood by an objective detached observer (Right Quadrant) but also emphasises the creative responses of the users (Left Quadrant), thus establishing qualitatively different relationships with them.

Although initially a narrow technocrat, Piano’s work has progressively broadened to cement sensitive relationships with context and culture, and empathic relationships with users. A major consequence of modernity’s undervaluing of relationship is the creation of an alienating built environment and a general disenchanting of the world. A necessary step to sustainability is to re-enchant the world and evoke reverence and connection with it.

Here, the early architectural projects of Emilio Ambasz have much to teach us. Peter Zumthor’s architecture is striking in its mastery of materiality and craft. But he reports that his starting point in design is with the atmosphere and associations he wishes to conjure, and so with the memories these stir and the complex sense of relationship these elicit between personal past and physical setting. Thus while all these architects have expertise in the Left Quadrants, they are also concerned with the Right Quadrants, from which come the initiating impulses of the designs of Ambasz and Zumthor.

Herman Hertzberger

Modern architecture might be synonymous with Functionalism, but the foregrounding of functionalist concerns precedes Modernism. It starts in the late 18th century with prison and hospital design and concerns with visibility and ventilation, respectively. But this is a highly constrained approach to function that dictates a single predetermined mode of use, an approach only apt to some situations. Early modern architecture, particularly in its use of the free plan, reacted against this sort of functionalism, introducing flexibility in the looseness of definition and overlapping of spaces and functions, so sponsoring spontaneity and choice.

But the utilitarian rhetoric and ethos of modern architecture more generally led to a narrowly mechanistic concern only with such objective concerns as space standards, ergonomics, efficient functional relationships and cheap construction, and so to an arid and alienating architecture. This was becoming apparent by the middle of last century and led to inevitable reactions such as Brutalism that added an abrasively muscular oomph, and other approaches such as those associated with various members of Team X.

Particularly significant for the ideas developed in these essays was the response of Aldo van Eyck and Herman Hertzberger, who were concerned not only with how buildings were used (functioned − Left Quadrant) but also with the inner experience of the subject-user (Right Quadrant). So too, as explained in the June essay were the great masters of Modernism, those Van Eyck called the ‘Great Gang’. Hence van Eyck spoke of ‘homecoming’ and thresholds, the latter prolonging and intensifying experiences of transition, and devised ambiguously abstract architectural elements whose potential uses could be creatively interpreted in various ways − as in his seminal Amsterdam Orphanage (AR March 1982).

Haarlemmer Houttuinen housing by Herman Hertzberger

Haarlemmer Houttuinen housing by Herman Hertzberger: external access to the dwelling units and the external private space employ many devices to promote personal display and community interaction

Hertzberger could be seen as extending and almost codifying this approach, particularly in his mid-career from which the examples discussed here are taken, which is what makes this work of such great didactic value. Moreover, the work of van Eyck and Hertzberger was a reaction against the lonely individualism and fragmenting atomisation of modern society and so provided many prompts to social interaction to initiate the re-formation of community. The designs and writings of both display an inspiring faith in the capacity of architecture to aid social regeneration, so leading to mean-spirited attacks by arch cynic Rem Koolhaas, when still desperate to make his mark.

A suitable building to introduce aspects of Hertzberger’s design approach is the terrace of housing, Haarlemmer Houttuinen (AR August 1985), that sits between a busy route out of the city and a quiet new vehicle-free street near what were Amsterdam’s western docks. But, as with all examples of his work discussed here, we focus on only a portion of the building: the external access to the residential units and the external spaces related to each unit. Both of these are handled so as to bring the pedestrian street to life and help forge community − in part by prompting a degree of publicly visible self-expression.


Haarlemmer Houttuinen housing by Herman Hertzberger

Piers standing forward of the block provide an emphatic rhythmic articulation to the public space and support projecting balconies split between pairs of upper maisonettes. These second-storey balconies also shelter the external entrance stair that rises to the first-floor entrances to the maisonettes, while at street level are external spaces outside the entrances to the ground-floor flats.

Particularly striking are the many degrees of gradation between inside and out, and also between the public, semi-public and private realms. These gradations, and other devices like arranging the top row of the concrete blocks edging external spaces so that the holes in them might be used as planters, constitute a range of provocations to interact with and find potential ways of using them. Such interactions and embellishments make a public statement of personal identity.

Plan and central atrium of one of the Apollo Schools. The atrium is a multifunctional space in the corner of which are transitional spaces that relate to both atrium and classrooms

Plan of one of the Apollo Schools: The atrium is a multifunctional space in the corner ofwhich are transitional spaces that relate to both atrium and classrooms

Coaxing residents out of anonymity in this way, and the copious opportunities to meet when coming and going, are just two ways Hertzberger helps the birth of community. Such concepts and devices might seem to be examples of an architect’s wishful thinking, but prolonged personal observation of Hertzberger’s works from this middle period of his career reveals that residents and others respond to them exactly as envisaged.

This is well demonstrated at the Apollo Schools in Amsterdam (1983), a pair of Montessori Schools. Here again we discuss only a tiny part of each building, the central atrium and the spaces adjacent that are both part of the atrium and extensions to the classrooms that open off each of its corners. This atrium, with its floor of large steps, serves many uses: hall for school gatherings and performances, meeting place for small groups, perhaps from different classes, or simply as somewhere for a lone child to recline and read, perhaps using the step above as a desk. It is thus a space that changes in mood and use many times through the day.

To a lesser extent, so too do the small spaces overlooking it that provide refuge for a single child, or small groups, quietly pursuing independent activities, yet in touch with their classroom and aware of the other classes using or passing through the atrium. These are buildings of very special atmosphere (or were when I spent time there nearly 20 years ago) born both of the richness of activities and interactions the design encourages, and the feeling of intimate reciprocity between building and user this interactivity elicits.

Many architects speak of creating vertical streets, of stairwells and lift landings becoming vibrant social spaces. But only Hertzberger has convincingly achieved this, first in a housing block in Kassel (AR October 1985) and then in one in Berlin (AR April 1987), and done it so well it is astonishing other architects have not adopted his solution, which again is our limited focus here. In both schemes each stair serves a pair of flats per floor.

A portion of the front face of Kassel housing

Kassel housing: Hertzberger designed vertical streets of stairwells and lift landings to be vibrant social spaces in the block

But instead of being shut away in a tight shaft, the stair looks outwards through both faces of the block, is also lit by light flooding down beside and between the flights, and the whole is overlooked from the kitchens. These latter are the pivotal spaces in the flats, from where a parent can keep an eye on wherever the children might be. Besides opening into the living rooms, the kitchens overlook the generous balconies, which in typical Hertzberger fashion have a more private portion tucked below the balcony above and a portion overlooked by it, so inviting neighbourly conversation if you sit there.

Through a similar ingenious device, residents can indicate whether or not visits from neighbours are presently welcome. Each flat is entered through a pair of front doors, an outer glazed one and an inner solid one. If only the glass door is closed, passers-by see into the flat in a clear gesture of welcome; but closing the solid door is an equally clear deterrent to casual visits.

In the Kassel block, the uppermost half landings bulge into generous bay windows. Hertzberger had expected these to become communal playrooms for the children. Instead it is the mothers who mainly use them, often with smaller children, as places for communal coffee and chatting. In Berlin this communal facility is on the roof as a covered outdoor space with barbecue facilities for communal gatherings or single family use. The Berlin block, in particular, has other common facilities, including the shared central court and elements within it, all of them prompts to community interaction.


Plan of Kassel housing: the stair hall and balconies are designed to promote social interaction

In traditional cities, more stable and homogeneous populations than now lived in buildings that lasted, so community was more or less inevitable, aided by familiarity fostered by working close by and meeting regularly in church, pub and elsewhere. But modern architecture and planning, and factors like more heterogeneous and mobile populations as well as the illusion of self-sufficiency brought by wealth, have destroyed and now inhibit the formation of communities. Yet community remains vitally important to socialisation and self-knowledge, to mental and even physical health.

To regenerate community in the emerging era will probably require more assertive modes of prompting social encounters and community interaction than are found in traditional architecture, and are generally missing from modern architecture. We thus have much to learn from Hertzberger’s architecture and the relationships it elicits with us as partners in interactive engagement with it, so discovering potentials within the architecture and ourselves. As discussed in an earlier essay, this is a fundamental purpose of architecture, to help us become more fully human according to our evolving understanding of what that means.

Renzo Piano

Although his output has taken a decisive wobble of late, with his inappropriate (to put it mildly) London buildings and the convent that desecrates the approach to and setting of Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp chapel (AR August 2012), Renzo Piano is arguably the most significant architect of our times. If you imagined looking back on today from the future, and assuming environmental collapse and resource exhaustion has not reduced us to living in thatched mud huts, then his is the architecture most likely to be a stepping stone to that future.

In poetic resonances, if not in actual performance, his work evokes the ecological and evolutionary sensibilities of the emerging epoch: it seeks to harmonise technology and nature, and integrate the latest products of technological evolution into local context, in part by combining them with traditional materials and crafts. Thus the best of his buildings insert themselves into their physical and cultural setting like a new species in an eco-niche, transforming, yet revitalising rather than damaging, and bringing elements around into a new focus so that the design seems like a flowering of these local forces in a way analogous to Paul Klee’s depiction in the painting shown last month.


The Menil Collection, Houston, by Renzo Piano Building Workshop, glimpsed between a pair of bungalows

Piano’s early ventures in construction explored such narrowly technical challenges as spanning the greatest distance with minimum material − and few, if any, still exist. This first phase climaxes with the Pompidou Centre (AR May 1977), the ephemeral delicacy of the early structures now inflated to a monument to the idea rather than the reality of flexibility. The building is both a triumph and a dead end, as Piano recognised in dissolving the partnership with Richard Rogers and embarking on an intensely exploratory period in partnership with engineer Peter Rice. From this he re-emerged into the limelight he has enjoyed ever since with his first mature work, The Menil Collection in Houston, Texas (AR August 1983).

At The Menil, Piano − whose practice from then on is the Renzo Piano Building Workshop (RPBW) – first fuses the leading edge of global high-tech, of a highly crafted sort, with local construction materials and tradition, here America’s two modes of vernacular construction: the clapboard-clad timber construction of the surrounding bungalows, which are part of The Menil complex; and the steel frame, exposed to echo a nearby Philip Johnson building in his Miesian mode and detailed in a Craig Ellwood manner.

Oversailing these is the high-tech roof with ferrocement light-diffusing ‘leaves’ whose cross-sectional shape recalls the products of Charles and Ray Eames, who with Ellwood were prime exponents of the mid-century Californian architecture that was an apogee of American Modernism. The gridded plan is an intensification of the urban grid, which in turn intensifies the surveyor’s grid that encompasses the country.


JM Tjibaou Cultural Centre at Nouméa in New Caledonia, sits between a lagoon and the open sea towards which the main spaces turn their backs, inspired by the traditional Kanak hut in the foreground

Some argue the surrounding ambulatory with its slim steel columns echoes the porches of adjacent bungalows and verandas of southern plantation houses. And these are only some of the resonances and relationships established with local context and culture so that the building is arguably the most thoroughly American of its period.

Demonstrating Piano’s responses to a very different context, climate and culture is the JM Tjibaou Cultural Centre outside Nouméa, New Caledonia (AR December 1998), built to preserve and foster the continuing development of the culture of the indigenous Kanak people. Strikingly contemporary, yet strongly rooted in and evocative of Kanak culture, the building has enchanted the imaginations of people everywhere.

Its most distinctive and conspicuous elements are cages of wood ribs surrounding and rising above its main spaces. Shaped to entrain air movement − stack effect ventilation on still days − they more usually temper the force of prevailing trade winds sighing audibly through the wood slat outer cladding. The ribbed cages derive from the traditional Kanak hut and the visual vibration of the variably spaced slats harmonises with the surrounding Norfolk Island pines, one of the plants revered by and symbolically significant to the traditional pre-literate culture of the Kanaks.

The Menil Collection, detail of the surrounding veranda by Renzo Piano

The Menil Collection, detail of the surrounding veranda

A landscaped pathway, designed with anthropologist Alban Bensa, leads to and around the building passing various natural features and plants in a sequence that retells Kanak myths and histories. Bensa also helped architects, engineers and clients ensure that components and joints conveyed legible and appropriate narratives. So, for instance, the vertical ribs of the cages represent the men of the village or tribe, minus the central pole of the chief (an omission deemed appropriate), while the horizontal structural members represent the outstretched arms and interlocked fingers of the women who hold the tribe together − with details that had to be revised until this narrative was clear to the Kanak clients.

As a result, the Kanaks and other Melanesians, to their initial surprise, readily identify with the building, recognising its resonances with their traditions. It might flirt with the folkloric, but the references to local culture are abstracted and intrinsic to the building, transformed and grounded by being crafted in a contemporary idiom. But it is also undeniably irrational, not least in surrounding small spaces with ribs reaching as high as a Gothic cathedral nave. This association with sacred buildings clarifies the building’s deep appeal: it speaks to spiritual yearning to overcome the alienations of the modern age and reconnect with, and revere, nature and some of the values of traditional cultures that retain this reverence.

Aurora Place in Sydney (AR February 2001) may not engage with local culture as do these two buildings, but still relates to and consolidates its urban setting. It is thus something rare, a contextual icon, proving such an oxymoron to be possible. A tall office tower and a lower residential building overlooking the Royal Botanical Gardens both have sail-like curving, creamy glass curtain walls extending above and beyond the volumes they enclose as if to catch wind and light.

These signal a visual affinity with the Opera House whose roofs resemble the billowing spinnakers of yachts in the harbour. The diaphanous, sky-striving facades also contrast with terracotta clad portions that bring the blocks to ground and relate them to their neighbours, while plants in the apartment block winter gardens suggest a relationship with the botanical gardens, another Sydney landmark. The scheme thus extends inland the influence of the Opera House while drawing together the cluster of towers and connecting them to the park, then adds to these horizontal relationships a vertical connection between earth and sky, so bringing a new coherence and unity to Sydney and its skyline.

‘Although initially a narrow technocrat, Piano’s work has progressively broadened to cement sensitive relationships with context and culture, and empathic relationships with users’

The Parco della Musica concert hall complex in Rome (AR May 2003) is again clearly contemporary, yet also seems to have been there for millennia. It is built of the traditional materials of the Eternal City: shallow brick, travertine and lead for the curving carapaces enclosing the halls. These hover over a podium extending Rome’s hilly topography, with its typical pines and olives. Yet the podium also resembles a semi-subterranean archaeological remnant, an association enhanced by the presence of a genuine ruin of an ancient Roman villa.

Around the focal entrance piazza from which the complex is entered is enfolded an amphitheatre, achieving a very Roman mix of theatricality and public space as is found at the Fontana di Trevi or Spanish Steps. Used for nocturnal open-air concerts, with naked candle flames guttering along the travertine copings, it provides a magically timeless experience now intrinsic to Rome’s cultural life.

In contrast to the public open space in many modern and contemporary schemes, this piazza is no mere residual space, left over once the building is placed on its site. Instead, as with some other Piano schemes such as the extensions to the High Museum in Atlanta (AR October 2006), the piazza is the very heart of the scheme, orienting visitors before entering the building, and conveying and expanding the very spirit of the complex.

There are many further dimensions to Piano’s architecture than those discussed here, even when limiting discussion to relationships in and with architecture. Some are well demonstrated by the Kansai International Airport terminal (AR November 1994), on a manmade island off Osaka, Japan, which made early use of the computer to develop a building enclosed in two directional curves.


Tokyo’s Maison Hermès by Renzo Piano, although self-contained and inscrutable, it again draws upon and is redolent with allusions to context and local culture.

The design is the product of great synthesis and discipline, the double-curved forms providing structural efficiency, guiding conditioned air blown along the ceiling (eliminating suspended ductwork), allowing all aircraft to be visible from the control tower and helping passengers to orient themselves inside. Space, skin, structure and services find an exact fit with each other, every form and element shaped to fulfil several purposes simultaneously.

The intimacy of accommodation (relationship) of these systems to each other, and the precise aptness of each to purpose replicates that found in organisms where honed through the long process of evolution, as made possible by the computer. Yet this also makes the Kansai terminal very different to now fashionable parametricist buildings, with their arbitrary computer-generated forms, so that it is the only ‘blob’ so far certain to be judged as convincing architecture in the future.

Unlike other parametricist blobs, and despite its vast size, the terminal elicits a surprisingly intimate relationship with people passing through it. Besides the discipline and lack of arbitrariness of the forms that allows you to read and understand the design rationale, and so intellectually engage with the building, the structure helps you to relate to the building more directly: intermediary in scale between you and the vast spaces it welcomes you into the building and then guides and accompanies you through it.

The asymmetric curves of the main trusses over the departures hall both orient you and seem to tug you forward to where the ribs of the boarding wing guide you down to the floor of that 1.7 kilometre long space. There you then seem passed from one rib to the next as the tapering form clearly communicates whether you are moving away from or towards the centre. The contextual dimensions of the design are of a differing order to other RPBW buildings.


Kansai International Airport Terminal, aerial view of the long boarding wing in front of a central terminal

Arriving on the island, the glistening curving carapace evokes waves on the sea or low clouds rolling off it. Arriving by air, the elongated, tapering boarding wings and strongly directional curves resemble a giant glider or mother craft, against which its airliner/progeny nestle. Then the gradual elimination and exposure of components under the landside eaves evokes something very similar on Japanese temples in which layers of construction are gradually peeled away so that you can better understand and relate to the building.

A constant quest for Piano is the pursuit of lightness and transparency, major themes of modern architecture and consistent with the zeitgeist, modern technology and emancipation from the dead weight of tradition as well as opening up buildings to views, nature and sun. Today the lightness and strength of contemporary materials allow a poetic of pared precision so that the taut sprung forms of structural elements and other components elicit an empathic response in the observer.

This paring to the structurally necessary and active contributes to transparency both in elements being less visually obstructive and in revealing the immediately apprehended ‘truth’ about how such elements perform. Also for Piano, lightness seems correlated with the liveliness, or aliveness, associated with the ‘vibration’ or optical flicker he seeks from carefully proportioned and spaced elements that create a weightless, shimmering dance that lends a vivacity to some of his facades.

Only a few of the many ways Piano’s architecture elicits relationships have been evoked, some of which are now summarised. Unlike most other starchitects, some of whom claim to relate their works to context through such fatuous measures as aligning with grids or distant features, Piano at his best not only relates to local context and culture but draws elements in the surroundings into a new unity. He seeks to bring things into relationship, including with us, and also to bring them into balance, such as architecture with nature, and technology with history.

Zoom_In_Picture_CS4airport3_01Kansai Internatinal Airport Terminal: the asymmetrical section entrains air and orients passengers


Particularly significant and instructive is his quest to seek the appropriate balance between local, traditional materials and technology and imported leading edge ones, appreciating that for each place and kind of building this will be different and that today that balance will be different from yesterday or tomorrow. So although Piano is associated with pushing the boundaries of contemporary technology, he employs a broad palette of materials, including those referred to as ‘warm’ and ‘natural’ that weather and mellow with time.

This is because the quality of relationship with context, culture and users is as important as innovation. Hence Piano’s dictum: ‘For me, technology is like a bus: I only get on if it is going in the direction I want.’ This is a wonderful putdown of those blindly committed to what used to be called the ‘technological imperative’, of using the latest technology merely because it is available, as well as the over-assertiveness of some of the resultant architecture.

Guided by instinct and intuition and free from the constraints of theory and fashion, Piano likes to think of his architecture as the sort of thing that might be created by an intelligent craftsman making the best use of all that is available, including personal skill. His quest is for a ‘natural’ architecture, that feels right, that is at home in its setting and in which you feel at home. In this sense, and because of the already described balances he seeks, it could be said that his sensibility is ecological and evolutionary, the judicious embrace of the latest technology merely making use of what human and technological evolution make available.

Emilio Ambasz

Among the most inventive and successful product designers of our time, Emilio Ambasz has also designed a wide range of architectural projects. Until recently he executed only a few buildings and interiors, but in the last few years he has built a number of works in Italy and remains busy on others. Although his work has clearly influenced some other architects, he pursues a distinctly independent approach, unlike that of any other architect, not least in sometimes completely blurring the distinctions between architecture and landscaping, which typically swarms up and over his buildings.

Yet to many his work remains baffling and they cannot grasp why others are entranced by it. That is probably because they look at the forms and analyse the functions in a detached and rational manner; instead they should imagine what the projects would be like to experience, and the thrill of their irrationally poetic aspects, which nevertheless often prove highly pragmatic.

Ambasz’s designs employ an abstractly modern language, yet are not at all modern in their intent, and make liberal use of such primordial natural elements as vegetation, water (as pools and fine sprayed mists), sun and wind. All exploit extended, almost ritualised, processional approaches to potently affective ends, slowing time and bringing you into a state of quiet alertness, aware of and drawn out of yourself into your setting, while also turned inward to experience an inner serenity. Obviously the potent poetry of such designs does not begin with functional analysis but, says Ambasz, begins with images that float up from his unconscious.


Similar in vein, with a more protracted processional route, is the Long Island house for Leo Castelli, a shyly recessive scheme despite its graphically potent geometric composition and the grandeur of the entrance portal: massive earth berms framing the beginning of the processional approach, like pylons before Egyptian temples

Only later does he elaborate and interpret these images as he develops their functionality. In this latter process he makes use of and is guided by narratives he develops about what the design would be like to experience and what that might mean. His goal is to hone that narrative until so evocative that if related to several independent artists, each would draw exactly the same thing, and if conveyed to a competition jury, it would award the prize without seeing a design. This use of narrative is an immensely effective design tool, which others might adopt, to bring experiential intensity and coherence to a scheme.

Ambasz’s architecture first came to attention with the project for the House near Cordoba, which he later built for himself as Casa de Retiro Espiritual (AR March 2006) in a stupendous setting outside Seville. This is a startling, surreal work quite unlike anything else. Glimpsed from a distance, it disappears from view to suddenly appear close up, offering two tall blank walls with an ornate doorway set in the corner below a traditional screened Andalusian balcony. Once through the door, the walls are revealed to enclose nothing.

Instead they offer an open-armed gesture to a spectacular view of lake and mountains. The walls extend up from two sides of a sunken patio into which diagonally-set steps descend, widening until the bottom riser bisects the patio and its central pool. On the two far sides of the patio is a shady ambulatory, beyond which is the cavernous interior of the house. Cantilevered from the tall walls on the closest sides are treads of steep stairs rising to the balcony-belvedere over the front door. Filling the whole space, and adding to its contemplative calm, is the murmur of tumbling water in runnels that form the recessed handrails to the steps.

Casa de Retiro Espiritual, Seville, by Emilio Ambasz, plan of bermed-over main inhabited level of house

Casa de Retiro Espiritual, Seville, by Emilio Ambasz, plan of bermed-over main inhabited level of house

Descending into the patio is to participate in a carefully choreographed ritual as the widening steps and circumvention of the pool slow your movement and sense of time until you reach the still centre of the house, and that in yourself. According to the seasons you can move to stay in shade or sun and at night you can enjoy the warmth radiating from the walls that reach up to connect you with the starry sky. And when so inclined you can climb to the balcony to enjoy the breeze and views of lake and mountain, or watch as the sunset tints the walls.

The Houston Center Plaza is designed to suggest a centre within the city’s centreless urban grid and provide cool, shady relief from the relentless sun and humid heat. From the pavement edge, the plaza floor dishes downwards to a pool raised again up to pavement level, from which water cascades around its perimeter as well as inwards to some hidden centre from which rise swirling mists on which dance coloured laser beams. Between pavement and pool is a grid, a microcosm of the larger urban grid, of fragrant, flowering vines supported on steel frames and mesh, their tops always level with pavement and pool.

Those tall enough have openings into bowers, scaled to intimate trysts, quiet reading, chess games and so on. Pedestrians passing are drawn inexorably inwards by the sloping floor, the cooling mists emanating from the top of each plant-swathed frame and the mirage-like vision of the central pool and its mist-generating cascades.  By contrast, the proposal for the Plaza Mayor in Salamanca, Spain, is to transform an existing historic plaza, also to accommodate subterranean cultural facilities.


Casa de Retiro Espiritual, Seville, by Emilio Ambasz, on approach you are greeted by two tall walls, which frame a corner door and screened balcony

Here too the plaza dishes inwards, with rows of steps and landings rather than a steadily ramping floor, the whole shaded by the spreading canopy of trees rising through the plaza floor from planters all at the same level. At the floor level of the existing surrounding arcades would now be a sea of soft green foliage. Into this you’d enter and descend as if a swimmer into surf to discover below a quiet and enchanting, shady semi-underworld suited to all sorts of solitary and communal activities – below which is a real underworld of cultural facilities. It is a wonderfully appealing vision, and would be a beautiful place, but is quite unsuited to Latin culture. The present plaza works perfectly for the evening passeggiata and sitting at café tables around the edge.

Ambasz’s proposal for the Museum of American Folk Art in New York in the 1980s comprised an office tower, resembling a gigantic tallboy with floors spanning between the deep sidewalls containing vertical circulation and services, with the museum on its lower and basement floors. A proscenium framed the entrance stairs to the museum, focusing attention on a gigantic vitrine containing highlights of the museum’s collection, and up to which visitors climbed before descending into the museum with its display levels. This is another potently ritualistic processional approach, much too compelling for daily use, and so the offices are entered off a pavement level slot in the centre of the grand stair.

A similar criticism could be made of other Ambasz projects, particularly the Leo Castelli House. It is precisely the power of these processionals that is problematic: they verge on being too compelling for everyday encounter, and are more suited to the approach to a sacred precinct. But they usefully remind us of an architectural potential, a dimension too often absent today. Yet they are also most vividly imagined as experienced alone, or perhaps in a couple, rather than collectively.

Section of Houston Center Plaza with its central pool surrounded by a sensuous grid of creeper swathed frames

Section of Houston Center Plaza with its central pool surrounded by a sensuous grid of creeper swathed frames

This is not only true of the houses − although the Castelli House itself (the approach to which would still be most effectively experienced alone) can be imagined with a family in residence − but also of the plazas. Ambasz thus designs intensely poetic, multi-sensorial refuges from the business and noisy distractions of the contemporary world, semi-sacred places in which to recharge. Missing is a sense of community and the communal. Nevertheless, Ambasz shows one way, using only abstract forms and nature, to bring an awe-inspiring magic into a disenchanted world in a manner that will help us to reconnect with our inner selves as well as with a sense of the cosmos − the latter especially in his house near Seville.

Peter Zumthor

Like Ambasz, and yet in an utterly different manner, Zumthor pursues a multi-sensorial architecture of high emotional impact. But by contrast, Zumthor foregrounds the materiality of his buildings, so that this and his wonderful feeling of materials is what probably strikes you first, and then perhaps the beautiful, understated ‘rightness’ of his details – all of these the products of a master craftsman who studied to be a cabinet maker and then learned about materials and construction from the restoration of historic buildings. Piano is a craftsman too, who also uses a wide range of materials.

But he does so mostly in a peculiarly Piano way, breaking down into multiple spaced-apart elements to achieve a sense of lightness and an enlivening visual vibration. By contrast, Zumthor remains faithful to the essential nature of the particular material and lets that dictate how it should be handled. This gives his work a timelessness Piano’s lacks. Zumthor is also much more concerned than Piano is with the depth of relationship the materials and his craftsman approach to them elicit in us, by stirring emotions, associations and memories.

Indeed, Zumthor says he starts design by pondering the atmosphere and associations he wishes to conjure. These are intended to convey the essential spirit of the building and its programme, which together comprise the total work, both triggering memories that deepen and add meaning to the work and the experience of it, and lingering in the memory. The buildings thus exist in, and connect you with, a much larger temporal period than do almost all other contemporary works − a reason why they are so highly esteemed.

A possibly apocryphal story of part of how this is achieved is of many full-size mock-ups of the timber floor for an old age home, and much tramping on the boards and polishing with different waxes, to get the requisite sound and smell that Zumthor remembered from his aunt’s house, and which conveyed for him the essence of reassuring domesticity. Thus through the sensory and phenomenological aspects of architecture, and without recourse to signs of symbols of any sort, Zumthor returns to architecture the experiential and emotional depths, and the meanings, missing from most contemporary architecture.

Perspectival section of Plaza Major, Salamanca, a proposal to rework an existing plaza

Perspectival section of Plaza Major, Salamanca, a proposal to rework an existing plaza

This grounding in craft, phenomenology and what these evoke in the psyche is also what makes his work so instructively different from that of his compatriots, Herzog & de Meuron. Their work is inspired by art and so, for all their virtuosity in the handling of materials, it is essentially frivolous by comparison with Zumthor’s. Besides, they aspire to create art works, and just as a city cannot be made up of individual art works, nor can the larger world. This object fixation is part of the modern paradigm, to be transcended by engaging a larger and deeper vision of the purposes of architecture. So they are a sunset effect while Zumthor points to aspects of the future. Like that great, elusive poet of contemporary architecture, Álvaro Siza, the qualities of Zumthor’s works are probably better experienced than discussed, so what follows is minimal comment on only a few works.

Among Zumthor’s earliest works are the timber shelters he made for Roman ruins in Chur (AR January 1991), seemingly simple, almost prosaic structures, that are nevertheless intensely poetic thanks to a craftsman’s precision of judgement and straightforward detail. Much more ambitious is the work that brought international fame, the Thermal Baths at Vals (AR August 1997), built of locally quarried stone, but using shadow and light, changes of temperature of water and air, as well as the perceived temperature and tactility of stone, metal and leather, to create a multi-sensorial and highly evocative sequence of spaces.

Kolumba Museum, Cologne, by Peter Zumthor

Kolumba Museum, Cologne, by Peter Zumthor

At the Kolumba Museum in Cologne (AR November 2007), Zumthor had to build over and incorporate the ruins of a Gothic church. Perhaps drawing on his experience with the layered stonework at Vals, he had special long pale grey bricks made. These were then laid rather roughly in thick mortar beds of the same colour to resemble strata of ‘living’ earth or stone rather than the mechanical multiplication of the identical, precisely laid units of most brickwork.

A tree-shaded court, a contemporary take on the Zen gravel garden, is then filled with a mounded surface of stone chippings that seem as if leftovers from the dressing of the stone-like bricks. And then upstairs is a room lined in wood panels whose coloration recalls the pelts of antelopes, and furnished with high-back easy chairs of pale leather. And rather than perfect light conditions, the galleries offer shadow as well as light, to create a whole that is as seductively mysterious as it is beautiful.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • These articles set a big challenge, to reconcile modernism with urbanism. Consequently , there is a polarity between the themes of the articles. 'Place and Aliveness' strongly identifies the core of the problem with modernism, its anti-urban character. The only examples of coherent urbanism available for discussion here are those that are pre-modern, a period when the building was regarded as a building block of urban form, to be composed of human scaled elements, and drawing from a rich tradition of composition and detail.

    The pre-modern traditional and vernacular design languages are integrated with a complementary and equal rich language of urbanism, including spatial hierarchies comprised of elements such as streets, squares, parks and points of focus. In these urban structures, not all buildings need to be masterpieces. Simple buildings appropriately framing and defining urban space provide focus for other buildings (which in the pre-modern periods were typically civic/cultural and religious structures, or marketplaces) that become urban fulcrums and are permitted to be seen 'in the round' rather than simply as thoughtfully composed facades forming the urban walls.

    Memorable urban environments are those that are in some way coherent (but not necessarily orderly). In most cases they are comprised of buildings that are, individually, quite unremarkable. It is just that these buildings have been designed with the decency to understand that the urban form is more important than individual expression. In so doing they express the owners' and designers' intent to be part of that community and build on its strength, not to stand outside it or oppose it.

    Good urban form is therefore a metaphor for human cooperation. Not every person in a society is a genius, but we can work together to create great things. Modernism encourages architects to believe that each of their building projects can be a statement of individuality, even genius. However most architectural output is by definition mediocre. Modernist mediocrity tends to be boorish, the loud man at the party. Traditionalist mediocrity can at least provide the building blocks to build memorable urban environments.

    Where the polarity kicks in, is in those articles such as 'Transcend and Include: Lessons from Living Masters' considering the legacy of modernism. I suggest an acid test: would an urban environment comprised of Herman Hertzberger buildings be preferable to say a traditional London urban environment, Notting Hill for example? On one hand, a master of modernism working with well meaning diligence in trying to make this modernism receptive to human habitation. On the other hand, a collection of mediocre pre-modern buildings built with consensus about composition and the place of architecture in creating urban form, then adjusted and adapted over time to create a very 'alive' environment. For all Hertzberger's diligence, there is in the cited early examples the modernist adherence to the 'honest expression of materials' (which in so many of his early buildings is a rather oppressive expression of masonry), and a certain meanness of scale and detail which is typical of even the best modernist mass housing. This means that these buildings lack the dignity of even the ordinary traditional buildings of the Notting Hill streetscapes. Imagine replacing those Notting Hill houses with Hertzberger's prescription. Setting aside the visual degradation, would such an environment be as resilient to the layers of use, amendment and adaptation that is apparent there today? You don't actually need to go as far as Notting Hill to see this contrast, just a few doors away from the Haarlemmer Houttuinen housing, Haarlemmerdijk is a vibrant traditional Amsterdam streetscape that, in terms of urban contribution, makes Hertzberger's housing look very ordinary indeed, but not in a good way. Sure, Hertzberger's interior arrangements may in some senses be more liveable than the shop houses of Haarlemmerdijk. But do these things need to be mutually exclusive?

    Your praise of the living modern masters is admittedly heavily qualified. But I think you can be bolder, and deliver on the promise of your first essay, to just let go of the modernist legacy. The core of this issue is urban form. The city is the ultimate AQAL diagram. The buildings are its constituent elements. If the design philosophy that underpins those elements is toxic to urban form, it should be subject to a Big Rethink, even if it means putting a lot of the design professions' sacred cows out to pasture.

    Reassessing selected modernist object buildings and trawling through the oeuvre for the exceptions that prove the rule, won't address the problem. A revitalization of the pro-urban design traditions that were terminated by modernism during the interwar period will yield results. For some, this may mean faithful adherence to earlier design traditions (which may be no bad thing: it will at least yield a well mannered ordinariness). However there surely remains enough creativity in the design professions to relearn and revitalize the elements of urban form making, pick up the thread dropped in the interwar period, and carry it on for a few more millennia. Or perhaps creativity is the wrong word, encouraging the idea of individual expression that got us into this mess in the first place. Perhaps we should be seeking pathways for architects to be more fully engaged with the communities concerns and objectives, to build a receptive urban environment without so many 'design statements' but with more generosity of spirit.

    Architecture isn't that complicated. You can build a perfectly decent, healthy and very energy efficient house, office, hospital or whatever to a thoughtful, even innovative program and with attention to detail in a very simple envelope. The problem is one of urban aggregation and arrangement, and thinking about how the arrangement of buildings can reflect, support and give some joy to relationships, from the personal to the civic, throughout their lifecycles. It is this attention to urban aggregation that will deliver 'aliveness', and a sense of consensus within environments built of elements that of themselves may be visually quite routine.

    Unfortunately, the architectural and design culture and media is founded on the exceptional, the one off statement that provides striking photographs and publishes well. There are few forums for urban form building, where a dialogue might exist about how good ordinary architecture can be created to enhance and enrich urban form. This might provide the prism for really analysing objectively the value of contemporary architecture. I often admire a striking architectural work, invariably in some way contrasting with its context, but within a few minutes, after the initial wow factor has worn off, I visualize the building replaced with a form that respects and enters into a constructive dialogue with the urban environment, and can't help but feel a deep disappointment. This is the irreconcilable dilemma of modernism, and ultimately the dilemma at the heart of this series of articles.

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