The Da Vinci – The Genius exhibition, which recently opened its doors in Gauteng (previously displayed at the Chavonne's Battery Museum in Cape Town), may leave you puzzling over his extraordinary drawings and sketch books, awed by his inventive creations (many of which form the basis of some of our modern technology), and left feeling perhaps a little trivial in light of the ingenuity and volume of his achievements through his life. I think instead though, that we should be inspired by the greatness that the human mind can achieve. I for one am going to pull out my sketch book a little more often.
Leonardo Da Vinci was a 15th Century Italian Renaissance “polymath” (i.e. someone who does and can do just about everything). He was not only an artist (for which he is more famously known) but a prolific visionary, inventor, engineer, architect, scientist, mathematician, musician, instrument maker, singer and stage set designer. He expressed his ideas in over 6000 tiny pages of notes and sketches and some experts believe that his curious use of mirror writing and an unusual alphabet embed his own unique patent within the work. Despite this inherent challenge, the curators of the exhibition spent over ten years decoding his notes in order to create scale models of over 120 of his designs. It’s an overwhelming exhibition which unlocks the inner workings of this man’s mind.
From an illegitimate birth in 1452, Da Vinci had overshadowed the work of his master Verrocchio with his brilliance by 1469. He attained one of his most famous commissions, Virgin of the Rocks, in 1483 when he was only 31! His work represents and embodies Renaissance philosophy and also represents what was happening in war-torn Europe at the time – art is always a reflection of society. Renaissance thinkers hungered for knowledge, freshness, newness, adventure and exploration. Although he was apparently a pacifist, his “horrible” war machines were inspired by the violence and death of war. He must have had a strong stomach as his anatomical sketches involved illegally stealing and dissecting bodies from graves (and they would not have had formaldehyde in those days)! Perhaps this shows that his hunger for newness and invention would make him go against even his own principles in order to push through boundaries. Yet in contrast, his paintings inspire beauty and reflection. And his “flight” inventions, which include the forefathers of the parachute and the helicopter, represent a kind of innate desire to defy gravity and escape earth. Perhaps this again was about pushing boundaries.
He always studied long before he made. He spent months observing objects, people and animals - there is so much to be learnt from what already exists around us. He believed that nature forms the foundation of the makings of the machine – machines replicate nature. The Renaissance ethos placed man at the centre. Man gains power and strength by imitating nature’s forces in machines. There is the simplicity of the transfer of horizontal to vertical motion in a lever that assists in making heavy weights defy gravity. Mathematical principles when applied to the shape of an object affect its trajectory. Simple things like ball bearings reduce friction in machine parts. The golden ratio (displayed in his depiction of the Vitruvian man) shows a striving for perfection that is found in nature, and interestingly, the human body also has ball bearings and levers. Hi flying machines represent man’s striving towards mastering the forces of nature. He even invented the first principles of a robot by placing mechanisms that could control a knight’s suit of armour (man makes a machine of a man). Much much later some of his robotic studies were used by NASA in developing satellites. He also studied water and wind. He experimented with sound and sight (the camera). He imagined an ideal three-dimensional city. The beautiful curves of the human body are represented in his art, softly moulded forms. Unlike the brutality of the war machines there is sensitivity and delicacy in the brush strokes of the Mona Lisa. Realism was softened by emotion and feeling. He was also able to sketch and paint the human body accurately because he understood how the human body actually works. This was revolutionary in the art world at the time.
It’s obvious that he was a key thinker of his time, which has had a long lasting legacy for us today but we must remember that he lived within the "right time" and the "right place" and there he had the freedom to explore. He was funded by wealthy patrons and benefactors, and lived within that Renaissance mindset that didn’t limit people to only one discipline. However I think we need to learn from this. We may not have similar lives and similar privileges but we all have great minds and we all have freedom to discover and explore if we step beyond the boundaries. Perhaps his invention of the mirror room “reflects” this notion above everything else. Like the scariest change room you’ve ever seen, this is a hexagonal shaped room with mirrors on each inside face. Due to its shape you are able to see every part of yourself endless times. For me, this reflects the endless creative possibilities that lie within me (and each one of us). It shows me who I really am (every single part) and the question is, does that instil fear or excitement? Either way, I hope that I’ll not forget that boundaries are an illusion and Da Vinci proves that they shouldn’t limit us.
[First published on www.ecobuildonline.co.za]
Architects and designers use the term “people-centred” design rather loosely. It has become a rather superficially applied term that gives the impression of a type of design that considers people first, or at least cares about their well-being. But what does it really mean and how can we apply it meaningfully in design so that it’s more than just a word, but a reality?
With the rise in an emphasis on “sustainable” architecture, there is a lot of focus on green building technologies and creating sophisticated systems that save energy and water. Green buildings create better environments for the building’s users which is a drastic shift from the modernist buildings of the 50's and 60's that were built to be functional only, and little was known about how inhabitants might be affected by lack of natural light and poor ventilation. It was about cost and financial return first and people last.
This fundamental shift has affected the way that we design the interiors of our buildings; spatially, functionally, and materially, as well as changing the way we create the envelope around the interior spaces (to incorporate more openings for natural light and ventilation for example). Green buildings are but a small part of our built environment. We have the ability to influence social connections between people by designing spaces that consider people first – to make reference to that which is outside ourselves (and outside our object building).
Andre Spies of Twothink Architecture, says that people-centred design should emphasise the “spaces in-between buildings rather than the buildings themselves”. He refers to examples of vernacular architecture where traditional mud buildings, by their physical layouts around a centralised space, created safe spaces for the community to gather and herd cattle. In Cape Town, the steps and alleyways of District Six consider how pedestrians move and pause between buildings. These spaces become connective fibres that create patterns and weave delicate connections between people and places. These are community spaces where “life” happens. Spies calls this “democratic space”, where cultural difference is respected, where equality happens, and where safety is created by a feeling of belonging.
Indian architect, Rahul Mehrotra, presented a body of his work at the Architecture ZA conference in Cape Town in 2012, and received a standing ovation from an audience that related to the need to cross the social divides in our own country. Mehrotra’s work demonstrates that there are ways of encouraging different communities to interact with each other by arranging spaces in different and unexpected ways. He calls these "collective thresholds”.
A beautiful example is a house designed for a young filmmaker which includes an outside portico that is used by the middle class inhabitants on weekends and by the locals in the village during the week as a public space. Because the locals feel that they have been recognised, there is a mutual respect between the two parities, although they are of such opposite classes.
Another example is a block of public toilets in an informal settlement which was conceptualised as a “community centre” where children can come to study at night. The caretaker has the “penthouse” on top and is able to watch over the block to make it a place of safety. Mehrotra said that architecture consists of a lot of privileged authorship and prefers an approach where the stamp of an architect is not obvious. Even his larger, more commercial buildings are more like “places” than objects – containers for people in which they can express themselves. Here, people come first.
Designer, Stephen Lamb of Touching the Earth Lightly redefines “people-centred design” as “human-hearted” design. His passion is creating design that seeks to address social issues of dignity and safety (food and shelter) first and foremost. He expresses the need for architects and designers to move away from a self-referential approach and to “listen and respond to the simple, everyday needs of people in tangible, logical, and meaningful ways”.
Lamb’s “Green Shack”, which he worked on in association with artist Andrew Lord, illustrates how simple (yet innovative) design can be used as a tool to deal with physical and social problems. Some of the main concerns it deals with are fire, flooding and food security. The green vertical veggie gardens which grow on its north and west walls are its namesake. Lamb emphasises that the Green Shack is a representation of a set of ideas that are meant to instigate a “conversation’”. Design should be an iterative process that changes to incorporate a society’s needs. He also challenges the notion of what is “beautiful”. Is it a perfect geometric form, or the latest item of fashion, or is it something that responds to people’s real needs?
For me, as an architect, “people-centred” design is about broadening our perception of what architecture actually is and what role architects should play in society. “People-centred” design is about allowing people to “own” their buildings, whether it be new community centres or their own homes. These should be places where people feel that they belong and are recognised. It’s about allowing each person to hold their own concept of “home” within themselves whatever that may be and whatever form that may take.
Design is powerful because we have the ability to create connection in tangible ways. We can affect change in the now by applying our knowledge of space. It’s not necessarily an easy task, and Spies says that “we will probably never master this slightly ‘utopian’ idea of people-centred architecture entirely”, but through an iterative process that challenges and questions conventions, we can make a start.
It is never too late to ruminate on a conversation about architecture. And so I found myself a few weeks ago, at a day long conference called Conversations on Architecture (affiliated to Decorex South Africa).
Conversations, especially amongst architects, can be rather long drawn out affairs (this is not because they are boring but because it takes a long time for a room full of creative minds to discuss how to change the world). Not so on this particular Monday as presentations from six speakers, both local and international, were packed into only one day of bigger than bite sized nuggets. It is not possible to write about everything that is discussed in such conversations and some of the other writeups I have read, show how people perceive these things so differently. We reflect on what others have said so uniquely. So here is mine...
I have often been fascinated by the paper art of origami. In fact I am fascinated by anything small that I can create with my hands. There is something about paper art that alludes to a creative kind of ambiguous form that is not bound by the principles of nature such as gravity for example. You can build a house of cards but it will eventually topple. Origami forms are bound together by connections, which are the folds. Each deliberate fold in the paper must be so specifically and beautifully crafted so as to build a form that relies on iterative actions.
Solano Benitez from Paraguay makes paper architecture. And by this I mean a kind of form that is crafted by the oneness of the material and the intricacy of its connecting folds. He builds predominantly with clay bricks which are ample in Paraguay and are a very economical material. And so it sets a precedent for building in poorer communities yet in creative and experimental ways. The experimentation is played out in the development of a structural system that allows the brick walls to mould into different shapes and forms that defy conventional building principles. Bricks also have very basic structural properties that are quite beautiful when exploited, such as the arch - the bricks essentially support themselves. A project for the Telethon Foundation which is for the rehabilitation of people with limited mobility, uses the "building within a building" concept. The internal "room" is a brick mesh steel reinforced arch that makes an arched cavelike form inside. I am reminded of Gaudi's structural stone arches at Park Guell in Barcelona, yet Benitez's structures are pristinely elegant. Outside the main building a skeletal arched brick structure bends a similar form from the edge of the building over the outside space adjacent thus bringing part of the building structure outside.
For another house project, a structural system was engineered to allow brick walls that are only 4cm thick to be created. To create structural stability, the walls fold like an accordian, thus expressing a "paper-like" facade. Perhaps one of the most striking of his projects is the tomb for his father. Four concrete walls cantilever to form the four sides of a square in the middle of a forest. On the inside are clad mirrors, like translucent paper. Thus not only do the walls seem to disappear, but you are constantly aware of yourself as you see your fragmented reflections in the mirrors.
Heinrich Wolff urged, "don't accept convention without questioning but don't abandon it without gain". There must be sense, though beauty can often defy logic. Benitez shows that beauty and innovation can be the result of a strictly logical and systematic process.
Timber is not what it seems
British architect, Alex de Rijke says that "timber is the new concrete" and like Benitez has been experimenting with creating a new kind of architecture that derives its aesthetics from its structural characteristics and capabilities. The materials used are engineered cross-laminated timber and ETFE which is a durable teflon coated plastic. This timber can be used structurally in place of concrete which, if it is to be more frequently used, will require a mindshift in the building industry. This material is so strong that "it's like being able to make a ship out of matchsticks," he says.
Kingsdale School in London, is one such project where de Rijke experimented with these material systems. The main rectangular block shape of the existing school was retained and the existing central space transformed into a temperate "inside outside" courtyard covered by a large ETFE moulded roof. On one side of the courtyard is a timber "blimp" like structure which forms a large auditorium. Such a structure was only possible to build with the aid of a computer controlled cutting machine. Is this truth to materials or a new form of post modernism? The amount of engineering required in producing the material means that it is generally the same price, if not more than the price of a concrete equivalent. It could be argued that timber is more sustainable than concrete due to its renewable properties but in this form, a lot of other energy consuming factors also come into play. Perhaps a slightly self indulgent form, this kind of creative design does not take itself too seriously.
De Rijke's architecture is innovative and unexpected. His designs range from a glass house with sliding walls, a slightly "kitsch" wedding venue in Blackpool to many other projects that experiment with the cross laminated timber capabilities. It is playful architecture. A project he calls "Floatopolis" is an imaginary "anti masterplan" consisting of floating terraces on the Thames in London. It's a marina but also a part of the city, only this has a floating infrastructure! It is also self sufficient. The practice envisages its future studio to be a floating studio that is part of this "village". This notion is inspired by Dutch ways of living which are often on water canals and has been proposed as a solution to London's housing crisis. Living on water has many benefits and challenges. It is a mobile type of construction which does not require foundations and therefore easy to build wherever there is water. Houses can also be prefabricated to save costs. Though an unusual concept, perhaps this idea is not too far out for the future. When we live on water we never really "own" it, it is always changing and moving. Perhaps we need to learn to live more fluidly with nature instead of staking claim over a piece of landscape that was never really ours to own in the first place.
The end of the conversation (or the beginning)
Local Johan Slee's architecture also has echoes of inventiveness but mainly with simple design that fulfils more than the requirements. There is much colour, formal and material experimentation. The walls of Stone House are made entirely from stone found on the site. Thus the house grows out of its landscape - a union of materials. It echos the vernacular built forms with its simplicity and functionality. Red House similarly is blended into the landscape with the use of red soil (found on site) and cement coating on the walls.
Every now and then we must be reminded that architecture is not just about shopping malls and office blocks and making "pretty" things. It is about pushing the old towards the new and inspiring society. It is has always been the arts that have lead culture and society through the centuries. So to those who need to hear it, architecture is not what it seems.
In September 2012 following the Architecture ZA conference in Cape Town, I attended a Master class that was linked to the conference called “A piece of the city”. Having never attended a “master class” before I was not sure what to expect and found myself thrown into a crazy world where I had no idea what I was doing – much like university. This was a place where all the knowledge I had previously gained needed to be put aside. There were new things to be learnt and experienced.
It was an intense two days which required a tremendous amount of self reflection and a delving into the psyche of the place and people of the area we were exploring, the edge of District Six latterly known as the “Fringe District”. As the name would suggest, this area is a pivotal connection, a “fringe” between the vacant land that once was filled with the buildings and the life of District Six, and the built up area along Buitenkant Street, mainly consisting of public administrative buildings such as the Magistrate’s Court and the Police Station. In between these are churches, apartment blocks, convenience stores, coffee shops, and even the Mavericks “gentlemen’s” nightclub which lies on the corner nearest Truth Coffee where the master class was held. In between these buildings exists the life of the area - the intangible connective fibres that create life within this space and community. We discovered over the course of the two days that the area functions somewhat like an eco system in which balance is created by each person, activity and space and to take one of these away or to change it dramatically would in fact swing this delicate eco system out of kilter and contribute negatively. To formulate an appropriate architectural intervention was the task proposed to us, but during the course of the workshop it became clearer that we needed to lay down the idea of “concept” and self and move into the realm of other, where in fact we were the other. This is the place in which you can face rejection but it also the place in which you can find acceptance. We struggled to move past our architectural obsessions with form and object, to the very start of what should inform design. That is, space. And more importantly, people that live within a space and the activities that take place should be recognised and protected. Though the question that remains is, how can one interject in space in order to change negative social patterns and to reinforce good ones without breaking the connections in the existing eco system that cause it function effectively?
We tentatively began to engage with the area by walking the streets, and as architects habitually do, taking notes of building typologies, forms, heights, photographs, etc. Others extended themselves into the social realm by engaging with the people who spend each day (and some each night) in this place they call home. And slowly a layered community was discovered, movement patterns uncovered, and a gently woven inner city fabric began to emerge. Each person a strand that by existing contributed to this tapestry they call life. Various types of people work here. Notably car guards hover on the street payments in their orange bibs, beckoning those that emerge from cars to feed their (always) hungry parking meters. An interesting occupation that would not exist in a city that is not controlled by the motor car. And this occupation leads to a host of activities that take place intangibly on the pavements, on door thresholds and on the streets. These are the social meeting spaces where the car guards have their lunch, or where they meet to have a break and interact with each other. These are the places where they are human beings and not “just a hassle”. Another fascinating occupation is the pushing of the recycling trolleys through the neighbourhood along indefinable pathways. These trolleys are collected from a central depot in the city each morning early, from which they are driven along their various routes till the end of the day where they return to their home at the depot. This is a constantly moving and changing activity as the trolleys do not seek out a destination, but exist for the journey along which they travel (perhaps a metaphor for the way we should intentionally live our lives). People interact with them as they pass by. Similarly, the car guards move to and fro till they too take their leave at the end of each day and leave no trace behind them.
I struggled to connect myself with the area. I am so used to arriving and leaving by car and taking little cognisance of place, usually focusing on my task at hand and looking for a destination. However this time I was traversing it by foot, and noticing things as if for the first time, like the beauty of the old buildings, and the smelliness of the streets and car exhausts. I noted an intense struggle of opposites, of things trying to connect with each yet remaining for ever only minutely out of reach, like Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” that adorns the ceiling of Rome’s Sistine Chapel. The point being that, there is no thing to be found, as if a prized treasure. No thing to be changed or intervened with. There is architecture in the existing buildings that live on the street, but here space and people become architecture too. So being asked to express my findings in some sort of visual format, I was at a loss, because my mind had only just begun to open up.
A “classmate” (many of whom felt just as perplexed as I) urged me to find my own way of expression. “Do a dance, if you like,” she said. And so I realised that I was going to have to step out of the way of my own preconceptions and start letting this place mould me instead of me trying to mould it. And I realised that this exercise would not be about me finding something else that needed to be changed, but about changing myself. I sat for a moment thinking of the thing that I best could do and thought, “I can write!” So armed with my pen, I walked out into the street and decided to look and listen. And so my pen became my secret weapon – my contribution to this world that I did not quite belong to. Perhaps I could add something intangible too; perhaps I too could find a way of belonging.
Firstly I was looking for a place to sit. The Police building was most unwelcoming – as it had spikes on the plinth in front – for pigeons perhaps or for people?
It's strange how it really makes me sad when people don't greet each other. It's as if connection between members of the human race has been lost. The worst is when you greet someone that either ignores you, or mumbles a startled "hello" under their breath. The best is when their eyes light up and a smile emerges from their lips. And sometimes it's not only a "hello" but a "how are you?" Although the answer may be short (and perhaps pointless) that moment of connection is lasting. "Today I met someone real," we'll say, "our human hearts connected and not just our paths".
The view from my "office" window
I live in the shadow of Devil's peak in the southern suburb of Newlands. It's tucked in the folds of mountain mother and known as the rainiest part of Cape Town. Although I have a view of its peak from my home office window, I often forget that this incredible piece of nature's architecture is real and not just a stage backdrop!
A couple of weeks ago, I climbed Lion's Head, on the north west side of Table Mountain with a few friends. Climbing up that conical shaped mountain seems to always cause me to contemplate life and nature - it's something to do with having a massive rock on one side of you and on the other a steep drop and glorious views over an expansive city. And so shaped by nature this city is. It's also something to do with the expending of intense energy that clears the mind of the everyday clutter of thoughts and brings the mind's focus towards one place - the top. It was a busy morning and I was struck by the desire of so many to reach the top of this peak - for what? Perhaps a nice breakfast and a well deserved rest; but something else. An innate desire to find the top; to be bigger and higher; to be humbled by the vastness of the earth and the sea; to be engulfed by nature, drawn upwards to meet our own maker, and Architect.
A tree "nave" and a Gothic Cathedral nave reaching towards heaven (tree image: margotaparis.wordpress.com)
Looking back through architectural history this desire has always been the catalyst of innovation, invention and advancement in technology. From the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, to the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Interestingly, another driving factor has been a spiritual pursuit. Think of the grand arched volts, of the Gothic Cathedrals reaching heavenwards, like trees, to bring in light and inspire the congregation to seek God.
The Burj (difficult to fit into a camera frame!)
Yet from the Twentieth century onwards, spurred by the Industrial Age a different force has driven man to reach skywards. The desire to be God. I visited Dubai in January 2012. There you can visit the world's currently tallest building, the Burj Khalifa which towers at a height of 829.8m (taller than Lion's Head). It is slender like a needle and the sun bounces off it in sharp blinding bursts. It is magnificent and surreal. It is a representation of man's defiance of nature's elements - it is man's cathedral to himself. My, how clever we have become. And Dubai is enjoying its glory for or now, until the next world's tallest building is completed in neighbouring city Abu Dhabi.
For now though I am relfecting on what defies the work of my hands, and my mind. I'm closer to heaven than the Burj Khalifa.
I wrote this poem a few years ago after a mountain climb.
Newlands Forest in the folds of the mountain (Photograph by Jeffrey Barbee www.jeffreybarbee.blogspot.com)
I've always been one to take the high road. Sometimes the steps are perilous and the incline steep, yet I've been driven towards the heights by a promise of hope. I've been afraid that on the simple path I might forsake something big and beautiful that I would never have known existed if I hadn't fought to find it.
This morning I found myself on a lone walk in Newlands forest. At every turn the steepest path would draw me towards it. The mountain's cavernous eye somehow beckoned me closer. So close and yet so far.
Nature's Cathedral (Photograph by Jeffrey Barbee www.jeffreybarbee.blogspot.com)
At the point where I had thought I might stop for a moment, I met a person sitting next to the path, earphones plugged in, fiddling with something on his iphone. Perhaps he was changing the tune of his morning. How unfortunate to be missing out on the silence, I thought. I had been so bombarded by my own thoughts when I arrived that I was relieved to at last be hearing the melodies of nature - the stream, the crickets, the birds, the wind rushing.
A sharp turn drew me towards a steeper incline. I took it hopefully but soon found it to be bringing me downwards into a sea of purple and yellow flowers. Orange and white speckled butterflies flickered above the ferns. And I was lost in it for a moment - in nature's cathedral.
Architectural philosopher, Marc-Antoine Laugier described nature's "primitive hut" as the ideal principle for architecture and structure.
Why must we always enclose ourselves with man made things when God made a canopy over our heads and strong tree columns to hold it up? Architecture is not just about buildings; about things. It is all around us. There is much to learn from what already exists; from what somehow seems hidden until we start to look for it. There is much to be discovered along the high road.
This blog is about...
My thoughts as I go about visiting interesting places, attending exhibitions and conferences, and the architectural world we live in.