Saturday, 15 November 2014

Detail - Designed or Found?


If there is one lesson we are learning in the early twenty first century it is that we cannot go on like this.  We cannot afford to, nor do we have space to spend, consume and produce at the pace we have become habituated.  Our resources are becoming stretched and we are poisoning our environment through our habits of global industrialised production and consumption.  We now know that in this century we will face significant challenges as population grows within a finite resource envelope. To the designers and shapers of our environment that is both scary and exciting. It will require us to develop new methods and more importantly, require us to put more value on what we already have. On one hand we will continue to benefit from increasing functionality through technology and on the other we will need to be more efficient, where possible re-using our existing fabric, and find qualities in the environment around us and in nature to support us without unnecessary waste.

The materials we use and the details of how they are put together shape the quality and sustainability of our buildings. There will always be a place for sophisticated high tech solutions, especially when made affordable through multiple large scale production such as the manufacture of PVs and other energy transfer technologies. But increasingly there is also a place for simplicity; of economy of means, and of making use of materials as simply as possible. This does not necessarily mean a sentimental return to a hand-crafted world; rather to one which draws on our latest and best scientific innovations as much as on old habits to arrive at appropriate and affordable solutions. There is another aspect to the need for simplicity; that of our own psychological and cultural make up. As life gets more complex, urbanised and interconnected we need simplicity around us to cope, to see the world clearly and to see ourselves in context; the need for reflection, space and light in everyday life.  

These imperatives have a direct effect on how buildings and places are put together – in their details. Some of the most satisfying and meaningful places are made substantially of one material or are arranged in one pervading geometry. The extraordinary group of stone dwellings on the remote island of Skellig Micheal, County Kerry, Ireland is perhaps an extreme example. The use of poured and pick hammered concrete on the Barbican Estate a more recent example of a single material uniting and resolving a host of three dimensional constructional configurations.

Architecture has been described as cultural interpretation of the basic function of shelter, of building. Within that description lies a broad spectrum of sophistication, effort and effectiveness. ‘Vernacular’ methods of design and construction across the globe have emerged through expediency and necessity in local conditions to produce some exquisite results.  Some is highly ‘designed’ but nearly always vernacular methods and habits of construction display absolute economy of means using materials to maximum effect and with minimum effort to convert them from one form to another. Methods spring from need and the capacity of materials, and occasionally from the cultural identity that evolves with it. There are old and venerable examples of fine vernacular architecture and newer equally satisfying ones. In each there is a pervading simplicity.

We design through a fruitful dialogue between imagination and our understanding of what we see around us; continually learning from observation, inventing and finding the solution. The idea of working with what we ‘find’ is particularly important at the level of detail. For example, the corner detail of log cabin construction where the inherent nature of the material allows each log to be simply notched to receive the next and create a firm connection.

That is not to do down more sophisticated technical invention.  The high points of architectural development have tended to be high points of technical progress too. The great inventor/observers, Christopher Wren, et al, did not see a distinction between the designer and the scientist. They were applying what they learnt in science directly to their practice in art and architecture.  Design was feeding off new knowledge. Design was also feeding off cultural preoccupation and one abiding preoccupation has been our observation and reverence of ‘nature’. The concept (and cult) of nature has of course evolved from the view of nature as a static or absolute backdrop to our activities in a vast and ever resource rich world to a fragile condition which we have the power to change radically and, if we choose, to destroy. However, as James Lovelock clearly puts it in Revenge of Gaia, in the end nature will out and humanity will be the losers; the interacting and interdependent system that is our earth being a far bigger ‘project’ than humanity’s short sojourn upon it. Whatever we do with or to nature we are nourished by it physically spiritually and sentimentally.  Architecture and detail have drawn on nature to wonderful effect. These range from literal copies of natural forms, for instance in the incredibly rich and inventive details of Victor Horta and Art Nouveau contemporaries, to the physical and structural lessons we learn from nature and apply more indirectly to other materials and patterns. Either way nature is a powerful influence on design and even the most decorative interpretations of nature carry some learning.  Nature has its own details and its own often beautiful ways of doing some of the things we design buildings to do: One gets considerably wetter standing under some species of trees in a rain storm than others depending on which has larger outward and downward tilting leaves. The wind will erode stone and build structures in sand with exquisite delicacy.  

Time itself is a ruthless judge, sorting the wheat from the chaff of architectural detail. Some technologies grow and mature with time while others wither and fail for good reasons. The effect of time on materials can itself be beautiful; Witness the deep staining of concrete over time or the layers of lichen on terracotta roof tiles. Neither does the material much harm but both have a significant influence on what the material and the detail look like. Whether the impact of time is truly anticipated by the designer is another matter. Some architecture weathers more gracefully than others. Crisp minimal modern detailing can show little tolerance for staining and wear, carved stone detailing may be more forgiving. This may not be so much about the inherent limitations of the material, good long term building performance is in the hands of the designer. Traditional details that shed the water with drip details where needed and that anticipate absorption where it does not matter have been developed over many generations of trial and error. There aren’t many glass and steel buildings over one hundred years old yet and there is still much to learn about how best to design them. Walter Segal’s excellent self build timber framed interpretations of Miesian detailing are rather less crisp 30 years on as the timbers twist and shake – not in itself a problem but probably not an expected aesthetic outcome.

Arguably much of the detailing of the last 50 years or so has not been designed to last, whatever we promise our clients. A culture of swift obsolescence and replacement is hardly an encouraging backdrop to the design of lasting buildings. That coupled with a fascination with manufacture; designers likening buildings to cars with painted metal finishes and gasket joints of a design life of 10-15 years, does not make for a long life for buildings. The tendency to design supposedly low maintenance buildings using one off finishes on the grounds that they will not need attention in the immediately foreseeable future is all too dependent on who’s perception of that foreseeable future is. Ironically unmaintainable buildings are as prevalent now in poorer economies worse equipped to replace components, as they are in the wealthy countries. But there is an up side to this; our situation now demands that in future buildings must last longer, must be more adaptable and must perform better.  That means our details must get better.

So what are the details of lasting grace and beauty and which are the details that really matter? Certainly these include skilfully designed  details that spring from the very nature of the materials they are made of or the place they are formed. Carlo Scarpa’s delicate transformation of the Castelvecchio Museum is an example; subtle and relatively small interventions in this noble and aged structure, each intervention learning from and enhancing the existing.  Peter Zumthor’s Brother Claus Field Chapel is a more contemporary example – inventive, simple, resonant. The concrete block of 24 rammed concrete pours surround a timber formwork of stacked trunks later burnt away to reveal the concrete interior, is both strange in form and at the same time strangely inevitable in detail.  These examples are both as unrepeatable as they are intensely individual works by their architects, and none the worse for that. Designed and wrought through a process of creative invention they are not the outcome of long established technique. But they are the work of designers who are in touch with the essential quality of the materials and places they are working with.  They are the result of study and response and are direct in their execution. The detail is both found and designed.