copyright: Ralph L. Knowles, 2009
Aesthetic III: A Natural Architectural Language
Ralph L. Knowles
Professor Emeritus, USC School of Architecture
Key Words: aesthetic, architecture, ritual, solar access, solar envelope, solar zoning, symbol, syntax.
This paper, written in three parts, considers the aesthetic potential of an architectural “dialogue with nature”. Part I, Rhythm & Ritual, shows traditional sheltering rituals as precedents for an increasingly important and undervalued role of individuals to maintain comfort in their dwellings by adjusting private living patterns to natural rhythms. Part II, The Solar Envelope, shows studies of enhanced design possibilities resulting from a presumed public policy of solar access for energy and life quality. Part III, The Interstitium, combines these two different levels of involvement, private and public, to form a natural architectural language.
Not since Modernism has there been an architectural aesthetic with any staying power. Though exact dates are hard to pin down, and in important respects it has never gone away entirely, Modernism is generally reputed to have begun somewhere in the last decade of the 19th century with critical attacks on the eclectic and theatrical architecture of the time, and to have “died” at the beginning of the 1970’s with the first oil crisis. Since then, as Professor James Steele has pointed out, “…the half-lives of subsequent movements seem to have diminished radically.” 1
The problem, since Modernism, is the lack of an ethical underpinning in subsequent movements. Modernism was initially driven by a perceived moral obligation to rid the world of wasteful decoration and a real sense of duty to follow the stripped-down example of industrialization to house an expanding world population. Since Modernism however, Post-Modernism, followed by Deconstructivism, have been driven by extreme subjectivity. In the meantime, we have generally recognized the dangerous circumstance of worldwide climate change and the real need architecturally to follow a new ethic of sustainability.
Up to now, architecture has not found an aesthetic expression of sustainability. Surely there have been important steps taken by some design pioneers who have used the elements of building with skill and imagination to conserve energy while enhancing the quality of life. But more usually, the building industry has settled for add-ons to rooftops like photovoltaic arrays while the buildings themselves remain conventionally stylistic. Architecture has also developed energy-related standards for measuring outcomes with numbers, but these steps have not been sufficient to evolve a language of natural symbols essential to an aesthetic expression of form. To advance a suitable language, architecture must join in what Edward Mazria has called “a dialogue with nature.” 2
I. Rhythm & Ritual
Sheltering rituals supply syntax for a natural language of architecture. As we occupy dwellings, we make certain adjustments for comfort in response to changes in the natural environment. We repeat these adjustments in concert with the unique rhythms of weather and climate in our particular setting. Through repetition, simple adaptive actions like moving to a shady porch or adjusting a sunscreen, rhythmically connect and reconnect our experience of architectural elements in a dwelling.
Ritual acts of sheltering do not permanently altar the formal order of a building. Instead, they constitute a second and less explicit order of architecture, what Prof. Leonard Bachman has called “performal”. 3 Over time, the development of this implicit order can free our individual thoughts, our creative imaginations in a celebration of our life in a particular place. The following examples are classed under three headings: Rituals of migration, transformation and metabolism.
Rituals of migration supply syntax for a natural language by rhythmically ordering our experiences of different parts of a dwelling.
01.Troy Chattariyangkul, an art student, describes ritual migrations that seasonally order his experience of different rooms of his one-story family house in Monterey Park, California.
In the cold winter season I usually move around from the living room to the kitchen a lot. My family and I usually stay close together for warmth. I enjoy this as well because we would usually watch a movie together while eating popcorn.
During summer I usually move from the family room to my bedroom, back and forth all day because it is nice and cool in my room as well as the family room. The feeling I get from these two rooms is pleasant because I can keep cool while watching TV or even reading a book.
Special holidays are a different story. When all my relatives come over for Thanksgiving, I usually move around the whole entire house, even to the den where I usually don’t want to go because it is really cold in there all year round. Usually I really hate it when I have to go in there to get something but I’m forced to.
02. Ritual migrations follow the sun to rhythmically connect different levels in this traditional courtyard house of northwestern India. There is a tall central courtyard and two upper-level flanking courtyards on either side. The high summer sun enters all three courtyards at midday, but it does not enter the adjacent living spaces because of effective overhangs and sunscreens. 4 (Click on image to enlarge.)
03. By contrast, the midday winter sun is much lower in the sky and cannot enter the courtyards. It does, however, enter the upper spaces of the house, all the way to their back walls, lighting and heating them and keeping them comfortable in the cold, dry air. (Click on image to enlarge.)
The spatial organization of the house, in concert with the sun’s relative movements, supports vertical migrations. In summer, the family occupies mainly the lower spaces of the house during the hot daytime hours but in the evening, everybody moves to the roof and upper courtyards. Here, the women of the house wet the hot surfaces to cool them and the children beg to be sprinkled. When the water games are over and the surfaces quickly dried, the family settles down for the evening to chat, to share the day's events, to tell stories and finally to sleep under the starry desert sky.
While there is a daily migration in summer, there is as well a more general migration over seasons. The lowest spaces of the house are mainly occupied in summer and the highest spaces in winter, but in between is where the greatest seasonal change occurs. While the ground level is mostly dark and the upper levels mostly light year-round, the second level experiences rapid changes as the sunlight passes quickly up and down inside the central courtyard during the fall and spring equinoxes. In a yearlong search for thermal comfort, the second level acts as what Labelle Prussin might call a “territorial passage,” a spatial counterpart to a pattern of social behavior –– a ritual. 5
Rituals of transformation supply syntax by rhythmically ordering our experiences of different phases of a dwelling.
04. As well as migration, people have ritually transformed a dwelling for comfort, temporarily changing its spatial order. The Berber family adjusts tent walls, removing them to admit summer breezes and securing them in winter to resist cold blasts of air. These seasonal adjustments rhythmically connect and disconnect inside and outside life. In summer, with the tent walls removed, the family inside can look out and passing neighbors can look in. Their children can run in one side and out the other, into the next tent and out the other side of that one. But in winter, with tent walls in place, people can no longer look in or look out. The confinement is probably most difficult for children who still want to run around, jump and play, generating chaos by stepping in the dinner being prepared on the tent floor. It’s at this point that grandmothers step in for a round of stories, telling of their own childhood, of the history of the group.
05. The traditional Japanese house or Minka is probably one of the most complete examples of ritual transformation, expanding and contracting space with the seasons. With a post and beam system, the walls are free to come and go because they don’t carry gravitational loads. In winter, walls divide the space of the house into relatively small compartments, rooms that are more easily heated, where people share body heat or the warmth of a brazier. Close social gathering characterizes wintertime life. 6
06. Rituals of human habitation match rhythmic changes in the formal order of the dwelling. In summer, the walls are removed and the space opens, becoming lighter and better ventilated. Space expands, even out into the garden, and the patterns of life change. The family is freer to move about. They can still see each other across the open space, but they are no longer restricted in their movements, which become more private, and more individual. While these alterations are taking place in the qualities of space and behavior there is, at the same time, a symbolic change in the hanging scroll in the tokonamo or decorative alcove of the house, a change that ritually celebrates the passing seasons.
Rituals of metabolism supply syntax by rhythmically connecting all our experiences to one special place in a dwelling.
07. The third mode of ritual adaptation is metabolism, the chemical and mechanical conversion of energy. Traditionally, this long-established sheltering ritual connects life to a central hearth. In winter, the family customarily gathers around the warmth of an open fire where they perform small household tasks, talk of the day’s events, plan for the next day, tell stories, and sing songs. By contrast, in summer, the hearth looses its hold. The family’s movements extend outward to other parts of the house, to the outside world. As with migration and transformation, changes in the rituals of habitation match natural rhythms. But today we have mostly lost this ordering link with nature.
Recent metabolic means have freed us from nature’s rhythms, but have left us with no matching syntactic rituals that once connected our lives directly to a dwelling.
Centralized heating and cooling mean that we no longer have to move around or sit by a fire for comfort. Our closed dwellings require no regular changes in their formal order to maintain a steady state. We no longer live by the rhythms of nature.
08. We now convert energy in remote power plants, distributing energy as electricity through vast, centralized systems of connecting wires. Yet these systems are highly vulnerable. They fail because machines break down and because nature destroys them. They are vulnerable to the manipulation of price and supply by unscrupulous corporations. They invite terrorist attack. Finally, such systems are inefficient because long-distance transmission wastes energy as heat in the wires.
09. It must be said, however, that while such systems have problems of vulnerability, they have freed architecture to explore design ideas other than basic protection from the elements. Hans Hollein, the architect for Haas Haus in the heart of Vienna, obviously had something in mind besides basic shelter. Glass cylinders of different diameters, while thermally harmful, dramatically reflect the surrounding city, especially the great cathedral across the plaza. And the slender cantilever on its top, while unable to ward off snow, rain and wind, marks the crown of the building. Yet occupants are continuously and automatically protected in spite of stylistic indifference to nature.
Still, we must ask, is this freed architecture worth it?
10. We might justify the total energy reliance of such important buildings as Haas Haus but what about the countless unnamed other buildings in that region and around the world that are energy dependent? Consider, for example, the typical housing blocks of Eastern Europe. Centralized energy use has not only produced a ritual disconnect with nature, it has allowed the development of countless buildings with representational indifference to the environment. Every building looks pretty much like every other building. No building is oriented, juxtaposed, or otherwise related to its surroundings as an adaptation to weather and climate. Worldwide, the symbolic relationship to nature is irrational, chaotic and arbitrary.
11.The result of this universal arbitrariness is not only an unprecedented and unsustainable energy cost but also aesthetic confusion about what we see. Buildings that are indifferent to their surroundings offer no clues to orientation, left from right or up from down. We may have difficulty distinguishing places, buildings, and even our special place in the building. Two buildings, one perfectly situated and another rotated 90 degrees wrong, can “look” alike, thus reducing the basis for aesthetic appreciation to a reading of the pure object, without context.
The problems of arbitrariness, of architectural randomness resulting from an over reliance on machines, can be answered by intentionally connecting architecture more directly to the sun, the ultimate source of our vision, our warmth, our energy, and the rhythms of our lives. This means implementing a rational zoning policy to guarantee direct access to sunshine for buildings.
II. The Solar Envelope
While private sheltering rituals offer an implicit architectural order, publicly guaranteed solar access supports an explicit order of natural symbols. The designer, without fear of future overshadowing, can purposely differentiate building and urban form in graphic response to the sun’s movement. One side of a building will not look like another and one side of a street will not look like another. Streets, buildings and spaces take on directional character where orientation and cues to natural time and phenomena are clear.
Symbolic elements that especially emerge with solar access are not like columns that represent the trunks of sheltering trees or arches instead of the protecting cave. Rather they are sun and wind screens, courtyards and terraced roof gardens, clerestories, porches and atria, elements and spaces that adaptively reflect the rhythmic interplay of nature and human habitation as a basis for aesthetic appreciation.
The Solar Envelope offers one effective way of publicly guaranteeing solar access.
12. Most existing U.S. solar-access laws use some version of a solar plane to guarantee sunshine to adjacent properties. Sloping from high on the south to low on the north, the solar plane intersects the top of an imaginary reference, a shadow fence that represents the height to which overshadowing to the north might be allowed without unduly restricting that neighbor’s chance to use the sun.
13. But if sunshine is to be guaranteed to neighbors on sides other than the north, the result is a solar envelope, an imaginary construction representing the largest volume that can be put on that site without casting unwanted shadows on surrounding properties above the shadow fence.
14. The heights of shadow fences and the period of guaranteed solar access are variable and can differ with land use and community values. Generally, lower shadow fences and longer periods of assured access are more desirable for housing than for either commercial or industrial uses. Higher land values with greater building density might justify higher shadow fences and shorter periods of assured access, which increase building volume under the envelope
The solar envelope supports the design of natural symbols by shaping development to land form.
15. Terracing naturally results when the solar envelope is applied on a hillside. The example site is a steep slope resulting in a density range of only 7 – 18 dwelling units per acre (du/ac), (17-44 du/ha). Houses closely follow the solar envelope as it slopes to protect existing structures further downhill. (Click on image to enlarge.)
The solar envelope supports the design of natural symbols by shaping development to land values and uses.
16. Higher land values require greater density, in this case a range of 38 – 72 du/ac; 94 – 178 du/ha). Solar envelope rules are adapted for higher density by shortening the period of winter solar access from six hours as in the hillside project to only four hours, the minimum generally required for passive design. And shadow fences are raised from 8 feet (2.4 m) to 10 feet (3 m) on adjacent housing and 20 feet (6 m) on commercial properties. In this study, solar envelopes are purposely dropped at side property lines to provide channels for the free flow of Pacific breezes to cool and to ventilate the city downwind. (Click on image to enlarge.)
The solar envelope supports the design of natural symbols by complementing what is directly next-door.
17. A third study employs solar envelopes that run continuously across side property lines to gain volume and achieve higher densities of 76 – 128 du/ac (188 – 316 du/ha). The continuous solar envelope matches the size and shape of adjacent projects. Neighboring designs tend to contain a similar range of explicit, symbolic features: A consistent use of clerestories and the layering of space for summer sun-control on east and west elevations; roof terraces that seasonally extend urban living for recreation, for growing small trees, fruits and vegetables and flowers that attract birds, bees and butterflies; courtyards, that can serve a collective function and provide private gardens. (Click on image to enlarge.)
18. The symbolic relationship to nature is rationally ordered by context. Two adjacent designs, one taller than the other, share an envelope that continues across a side property line. The difference of size and shape between the two results from what is adjacent to each separate parcel. Over one site the envelope is quite low because the shadow throw is only 20-ft across an alley. Over the other site, the envelope slopes sharply upward because shadows can be cast downward into a large space occupied only by light-rail train tracks. While the two projects have different designers, the solar envelope supports a continuity of form, a consistency of narrative flow. (Click on image to enlarge.)
III. The Interstitium
19. The architect Eduardo Catalano has said, “Works that are dynamic in this time of dynamism and systems … invite our participation in their lives.” 7 His reference was to a great mechanical flower that he designed for the Plaza Naciones Unidas in Buenos Aires. By opening and closing daily with the sun, the flower suggests a different version of solar-access zoning called the “interstitium”, a term borrowed from the interstitial layer of the human lung that expands and contracts as we breathe.
When applied to zoning, the interstitium makes possible the design of major architectural elements that are dynamic and that can change in major ways our aesthetic appreciation of a building. Instead of understanding a building as a fixed part of the landscape, we become aware of rhythmic changes in its formal order, its silhouette, the number and relation of its parts. The difference can provoke and intensify our awareness of the moment between what we saw and what we see.
The interstitium supports the design of dynamic architectural elements that symbolize a direct link to rhythmic nature.
20. An application of this dynamic concept shows two solar envelopes over a typical urban site, a low one for winter and a higher one for summer, both generated for 6 hours of solar access to surrounding properties. The space between them is the interstitium that pulses rhythmically, expanding and contracting, growing and decaying with the seasons.
21. The formal order of a building is not necessarily fixed under the interstitium. In an example of program change, the dark, blue shape diagrammatically represents a basic building configuration that follows the shape of the winter envelope. But within the interstitial space, a rooftop theater and a corner marquee temporarily extend upward under the summer sky without denying year-round solar access to surrounding properties.
22. There are, as well, possibilities for adjustable climate control within the interstitium. The basic shape of a courtyard building follows the winter envelope. But in summer, wind scoops reach upward to capture the westerly winds coming off the Pacific Ocean. Or a sunscreen rises to offer summer shade in the courtyard.
The interstitium increases the likelihood of merging syntactic rituals with dynamic architectural symbols, an implicit with an explicit order, in a natural language.
23. A more detailed example of how climate control might happen is shown on a typical corner site in Los Angeles. Following the orthogonal geometry of the US Land Ordinance of 1785, the site is bounded on the north and west by streets, and on the east and south by residential properties.
24. A winter envelope for this site is high on the north and west, lower on the east and south. It rises where shadows can extend across streets to 20 feet (6 m) shadow fences at commercial properties and drops toward the tops of 10 feet (3 m) shadow fences on adjacent residential properties.
25. The basic shape of an office building that fills the winter envelope is shown with its courtyard open to the winter sun. We might imagine places for chatting and coffee breaks surrounded by small trees, shrubbery, flowers and water features, a place where office workers can sit in the sun or in the shade depending on preference and time of day. To expand choice for comfort, they can follow rhythmic shadow boundaries, migrating east and west by day, north and south by season. This ritual extension of choice allows at least some work regularly to be done in a garden.
26. The higher summer envelope is separated from the basic building mass by the interstitial space where it is possible to design a dynamic system for climate control.
27. A movable shield transforms the courtyard with the seasons. As the shield expands and contracts, people feel and act differently in a sunlit and open space from a shady, sheltered one. The open courtyard in winter admits the warming sun, extends view to the sky, and shrinks pupils to pinpoints. Leaves of a tree or vine appear in dark outline, their shadows spread across a patio floor. In comparison, the raised shield of summer captures west winds off the Pacific Ocean, cooling and ventilating the courtyard and protecting from hot sunshine. It darkens and quiets the space. Sharp contrasts give way to suffuse light, sharp shadows to cool shade. A rhythmically changing architectural order invites our ritual celebration of the place.
The interstitium extends to the urban landscape our awareness of the moment between what we saw and what we see.
28. If districts of a city are zoned using the interstitium, we can visualize a kind of landscape with a low, undulating profile in winter.
29. A higher profile follows spring and fall with an additional layer of architectural space.
30. Summer results in a still higher profile with a third layer of space. So we can imagine an urban landscape that rises and falls, rises and falls with the seasons, like breathing.
31. Finally, to avoid the arbitrariness and chaos of most urban development, and to complete the aesthetic promise of a genuine dialogue with nature, architecture must ask certain basic questions. Does this place look as though people occupy it? Where is it? What is its rhythm? What is its life? If we cannot answer these questions, we must think again about our strategies for policy and for design.
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Professor Leonard Bachman, after graciously reading an early draft, made many truly helpful suggestions that have found their way into this final paper.
Professor Karen Kensek generated the computer images that add to the Interstitium section of the paper.
Students in the USC School of Architecture produced the many design studies that have tested the Solar Envelope concept.
1. James Steele, Sustainable Architecture: Principles, Paradigms, and Case Studies. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1997), 229.
2. Edward Mazria, “It’s the Architecture, Stupid!” Solar Today, May/June 2003, 48ff.3.
3. Leonard R. Bachman, “Thoughts Toward a Clinical Database of Architecture: Evidence, Complexity, and Impact.” Proceedings for The 2009 Annual ARCC Spring Research Conference: Leadership In Architectural Research Between Academia and the Profession, April 15 – 18, 2009, University of Texas at San Antonio, San Antonio, TX
4. (Computer generation by Kavita Rodrigues based on a section view of a house in Paradigms of Indian Architecture by G. H. R. Tillotson 1998: 166.)
5. Labelle Prussin, African Nomadic Architecture: Space, Place and Gender (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995), 23 – 24.
6. Yukio Futagawa and Teiji Itoh. The Essential Japanese House: Craftsmanship, Function, and Style in Town and Country. (Jointly published by New York: Harper & Row and Tokyo: John Weatherhill, 1967), 13 – 15.
7. Eduardo Catalano, Floralis Generica (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge Architectural Press, 2002), 2.