Severe weather warning
Climate change is bringing more rain, more wind, more chaos. So why are architects planning for a future in which we bask in eternal sunshine?
Monday August 21, 2006
It is nearly always a lovely day in Architecture World. Happy, shiny, gym-fit young people, living today's latte-fuelled, urban 24-hour lifestyle, stride through sparkling, quango-approved "regeneration" utopias. In these illustrations, it never rains. The wind never blows. Snow is an alien concept. Personally, I would sooner trudge through Magnitogorsk in the depths of a Siberian winter, or paddle through the backwaters of Dhaka during the monsoon, than even begin to imagine myself as part of this evenly lit, rictus-grin world.
In Britain this summer, the weather could hardly have been more restlessly alive; a parched and blazing July has been followed by a brooding and tempestuous August. Most of us believe our climate is likely to take even more ominous turns in the future. Why, then, the increasing architectural pretence that weather is all but irrelevant, and, by implication, undesirable?
One answer is that all too many architectural drawings are churned out through standard-issue software programs, so that every scheme looks much of a muchness. (As, often, do the finished products.) Another is that architects and developers are optimists through commercial necessity. They have something to sell, and just as we wouldn't shell out good money for brand new cars spattered with mud, so we expect new buildings to be Daz-clean. Buildings, though, often look and feel their best when put to the test by nature.
Traditionally, architects made a virtue of even the most extreme weather. On more than one visit to one of my favourite buildings, the gently restored Convento de Santa Clara in old Havana, the heavens have opened in the most almighty fashion. I have gawped at terrific rains cascading into the building's courtyard, while architects, with the louvred doors to their deep-eaved offices kept wide open, have continued to work in a setting made even more beautiful by the tropical storms.
In Britain, although we certainly like to talk about the weather, we expect our buildings to shelter us from the slightest breeze. Perhaps we really do want the business-park, shopping mall-style designs shown in all those drawings. But what worries me about the weather-free illustrations is that they suggest, at a time when more people than ever are concerned about climate change, that new buildings are unashamedly unresponsive to changes of weather. Weather is simply dismissed.
It comes as a surprise, then, to see young architect Gillian Lambert's dreamlike drawings for a "studio house for a weather-obsessed architect". Lambert is one of eight "exceptional graduates" chosen from hundreds of young architects last month by Building Design magazine for its Class of 2006. The idea for her imaginary house, she says, came from looking at Turner's sensational painting Snow Storm - Steam-Boat Off a Harbour's Mouth Making Signals in Shallow Water, and Going By the Lead of 1842. This wild vortex of oils depicts a ship called Ariel leaving Harwich in the teeth of a tempest. No such ship existed, but Turner claimed to have been lashed to its mast for four hours in order to record the scene in all its swirling drama.
Lambert points out that, ideally, her house should be set by the Thames: "The spaces within the house are blurred as rain falls from the ceiling into a well below; the breeze in the air is filtered through the walls, through pockets of bright daylight and areas hidden within dark shadows. The interiors reflect the unpredictable and dynamic nature of external conditions."
Modern buildings do not have to be hermetic machines for keeping the elements at bay. Instead of the energy-gobbling skyscrapers popping up all over the UK, we might yet consider building the local and modern equivalent of the Convento de Santa Clara - offices in the form of courtyard buildings, where we could work pretty much all year, if we wanted to, on deep balconies, alive with birdsong and the sound of falling rain.
Thoughtful architects can design buildings open to the elements without their users being frozen, drenched or blasted by wind. They certainly knew how to do this in the past. At the Pantheon in Rome, rain would have fallen through the oculus in the centre of the temple's dome, down into a great decorative gutter set into the floor. No one got wet.
Islamic architecture, in particular, has made a virtue of screens, wind funnels and other devices to bring air and light into houses, palaces, madrassas and mosques. Rooms leading off courtyards in the sublime Alhambra in Granada boast channels of water to keep them cool, and to create ripples of light across the undersides of elaborate domes.
Of the architects of the past century, Frank Lloyd Wright had perhaps the best understanding of how to marry the ministrations of nature and weather to modern buildings: his Fallingwater (1936-39), built over a waterfall in Pennsylvania, is a quietly thrilling sequence of spaces that move inside and outside almost seamlessly. This is such a lovely thing to do, and yet is it rarely done today.
There are a few contemporary architects who know how to play the Pantheon card. Last year, while working in Colombo, I met C Anjalendran, a one-time assistant of Sri Lanka's most famous architect, Geoffrey Bawa, in his studio home. "Unlike all other arts, which may portray the contradictions of daily life, architecture must celebrate life," says Anjalendran. "I am weary of an architecture that is merely serious or even just a facade, devoid of wit and humour." So he designs homes, like his own, that are a fusion of traditional and modern styles, materials and planning.
What struck me most, though, was the fact that the monsoon rain was welcomed, coming into the house through carefully designed slits and chutes. On one side of the courtyard, the rain formed an unexpected, sinuous and beautiful curtain. On the other, there was a smart modern bathroom with a monsoon shower: when it pours, you can wash in the water that cascades through the open roof.
Four years ago, the New York architects Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio took this idea of weather-into-architecture to much further extremes with their Blur Building, a cat's-cradle of a pavilion designed for the 2002 Swiss Expo. Jutting into Lake Neuchâtel at Yverdon-les-Bains, the pavilion's lightweight steel structure was perforated by some 30,000 nozzles that sprayed filtered lake water, in tiny droplets, into the surrounding air. These droplets created artificial clouds that, enveloping visitors, slowly lifted above the pavilion and drifted away over the lake. This was an utterly compelling experience - even if a number of visitors complained, despite clearly marked warnings, of getting wet. For those who enjoyed it, the architects offered an Angel Bar from which people could gaze at the fleets of clouds setting sail from the structure below, while sipping distilled clouds in the guise of bottled water.
Diller described this experimental structure as "an alternative to the new orthodoxy of high definition"; she was thinking of those same images of Shinyville that land on my desk every day and that are - in their own nature-denying, environmentally unsound way - far more wilful than the Blur Building.
It is easy to understand why developers and public authorities might be scared of investing in buildings that embrace the climate. But this was not always the case. When Charles Holden, the great Arts and Crafts architect, was working on the design of Senate House for London University, he commissioned the brilliant architectural draughtsman and graphic designer Raymond Myerscough-Walker to draw the planned buildings as they might be by night, and in the rain, and in the future. Holden intended his muscular stone buildings to last at least 500 years, and so he wanted to see them in all lights and weathers.
Such drawings as Myerscough-Walker's, though, could be off-putting to clients lacking the will to build so very far into the future, or unable to invest the money necessary to construct buildings that might stand up to the forces of nature. In their designs for the proposed Turner Contemporary Art Gallery by Margate Pier, Snohetta and Spence depicted a building lashed by the sea. Their illustrations were brave conceits. Sadly, though, projected costs rose from £7m to £50m - the building would have had to be as strong as a battleship - and the scheme has been replaced by a more modest, land-based design by David Chipperfield.
In the best possible way, though, these weather-based projects bring storm clouds, rain, wind and snow into the slick world of architectural graphics and that of the banal buildings we insist on commissioning. Now, more than ever, as we "regenerate" our cities to an unprecedented degree, we need a little rain to fall in those perfect illustrations.