Winter Garden. Animated Architecture /Inanimated nature

Ever since Nikolaus Pevsner turned him into the main character of Pioneers of Modern Design in 1936, William Morris (1834-1896) has been considered the founding figure of Modern design and Modern architecture, both at a doctrinarian and a practical level. Morris based his ideas on the conviction that art had stopped having real roots to it and that the idea of art understood as art for everybody had disappeared. The call for art for everybody was not his only demand, he also demanded a return to traditional crafts and an art which was able to express Mans’ pleasure when working. As Pevsner points out, in William Morris’ thinking aesthetics and sociology cannot be disassociated, neither can art be apart from moral issues, politics or religion, as had happened before in his masters’ ideas, Pugin and Ruskin who were strong supporters of Gothic art forms, honesty and truthfulness in any kind of design. Even though, William Morris’ apprenticeship was simultaneously in architecture and painting, he devoted himself to the practice of applied arts, and for this purpose he founded his own workshop. He also ventured into the world of literature, more specifically, the world of poetry. The three volumes which make up his poem entitled The Earthly Paradise, published between 1868 and 1870, bring together a piece of writing which presents a distinct social vision that can be inscribed within the so-called Pastoral tradition whose distinctive marks would be making reference to the past, the relation between man and nature and social homogeneity. The so-called Pastoral tradition also known as Arcadian tradition, which has its origin in Ancient Times, was a predominant tendency within English poetry during the XVI and XVII centuries. It received a new impulse with the Romantic and Victorian poets during the XIX century, since they broadened and enriched their topics, their ways of expression and their points of view. This new Pastoralism establishes a certain connection with architecture, both in terms of how it understands society and in terms of the stylistic treatment of landscape. It refers to the society of shepherds as the means to preserve rural lifestyle. The landscapes which are repeatedly brought forward by William Morris will have particular features, real ones, linked to a particular place and so the imagery he uses will be those of the countryside closest to London and the existing farms located on the banks of the River Thames

In Pevsner’s opinion, even though Morris’ defence of manual labour and honesty in the production of objects of any kind was at first understood construction/building-wise, it would end up becoming most definitely destructive due to his total unwillingness to accept whatever advance of civilization, means of production and, above all, whatever use of machinery. For this reason, Pevsner will then argue that the real pioneers of Modern architecture and Modern design were those who from the beginning positioned themselves on the side of the machine. This would only happen in England with the next generation after William Morris’ death. Due to the fact that all Modern thinking, from the beginning of the XX century onwards, will distance from nature to claim the autonomy of the aesthetic object itself, the Pastoral vision held in The Earthly Paradise will remain aloof from the new path followed by Modern design and Modern architecture; but not so much for representing a unified, harmonious and egalitarian society without any kind of hierarchy, but because the scenario where this society would be set ought to be a natural scenario, a physical framework built from a reference to the past in an onyric atmosphere, in total contrast to the radical renovation ideas concerning the ways of inhabiting that were starting to be proposed for mankind.

For Morris, nature is, above all, an object of contemplation. He associates Pastoralism with an attitude of indolence, idleness and meditation in contrast to the energetic attitude clearly shown by means of physical activity and the exaltation regarding energy coming from machinery as the new way of understanding life. On the other hand, we find the garden, a natural enclosure, limited extension-wise and taken care of, associated with all which is organized and tidy, with meditation and resting. It will become a place where one could leave the world and its conflicts behind, without this implying that it is an inaccessible place, a place which, due to its location both in time and space, becomes this intermediate place between that which is real and that which is only a dream. John Ruskin had already shown his clear preference for a human approach to nature, because of its being useful. This way, there could be a balance between the pleasure of contemplation and the use which man makes of his work with the earth. William Morris shared with Ruskin his preference for this human intervention on nature, where man´s actions give landscape a certain kind of character which will not depend on objective parameters such as extension, abundance or the rustic nature, but on the result of the human interest set on it. The harmony of the Pastoral scenario would also depend on the variety and vitality of the life developed within its limits, harmony associated both with nature’s own development as to that linked to mankind and his everyday activities developed on it. It is then that the shepherd becomes emblematic within the pastoral lifestyle, which is somewhere between primitive barbarity and civilized complexity, since he doesn’t need to farm the lands as do farmers nor master wildlife like hunters do, but satisfy his essential needs with that which nature naturally provides him with or that which the animals he feeds produce.

In the Pastoral scenario we come across two antitheses: first that of a productive nature opposed to an unproductive one, and secondly, an active attitude opposed to an indolent and idle attitude of man when facing nature. And there is still one more antithesis worth mentioning; that relating to time progression, which linearly leads man from the moment of birth till the moment of death in contrast to the cyclic movement that can be observed if we focus on how time moves throughout the day or throughout the different seasons. The possibility of these antitheses coexisting has no problems whatsoever in literary Pastoralism. However, we find some problems when concerning architecture in contrast to nature or even when architecture is considered as the main object to which nature has to be subordinated. This is the case of those country houses, built during the XVIII and XIX centuries, surrounded by grounds of great extension where no economic exploitation was developed in favour of a careful design of landscape which made it possible to emphasize the vision of the house itself from far away. In these cases, nature is devoid of its productive function and it experiments important transformations by means of new plantations, topographical alterations, river diversions and, above all, the layout of paths to allow connection with the different natural atmospheres artificially and the adequate contemplation of the built elements. The vast plots of land in which these country houses are located, where other accessory buildings will be built, will contrast with a smaller enclosure, the garden, designed exclusively with ornamental criteria, where different kinds of flowers will give colour and texture to it whilst also giving proof of the passing of the seasons and which will experiment those changes which artificially can be done to its design throughout time.

Apart from its clear size difference, the natural landscape and the garden in these country houses can be distinguished because a large scale human intervention tends to be long lasting and the changes in seasons have an impact, if so, on large green plots of land. However, when dealing with the garden, which can be considered a miniature of nature, it is the ornamental approach and the changes the different species experiment which give proof of the constant transformation that this much more artificial and intentionally-designed scenario suffers. Therefore, when architecture is involved as the main element, the possibilities of transforming the surrounding nature, whether landscape understood in its vast scale or the garden in its smaller scale, will be the means used to give the static and inert building the vitality and life that could be conveyed through a dramatic breakthrough or by contrast through a subtle improvement of its distinctive characteristics. Thus, nature understood as landscape or garden, adopts a subrogated or secondary role in relation to architecture. Being so, natural elements are the ones responsible for responding to the building’s needs for change; changes regarding new social demands or just the demand for something new. The building acquires its distinct character as a result of the design of the surrounding landscape. Therefore, an architectural element which would remain unchanged over the years could suddenly see itself renovated by the transformations which occur in the context of its adjacent landscape or gardens without the need to physically take action on the building itself.

However, even though in some cases the owners of large country houses had given up the possibility of exploiting their lands, leaving them totally to the act of contemplation of nature and landscape and the creation of gardens with the aim of enjoying a pleasant outdoor life, the most common of situations wouldn’t be this one. Most frequently a series of economic activities would be developed within the plot of land to ensure economic sustainability. Farmers would pay the lords by giving them part of their harvests and would make sure they received products resulting from their farming activities. In exchange, the farm-workers and shepherds would be provided with housing within the plot of land they worked, somehow configuring a sort of small society, very often invisible to the eye of the people belonging to that other society which lived in the main building mansion. What William Morris does consequently, is to claim the need not only to make visible that rural society of farmers and shepherds who occupy a subordinated position within the social hierarchical structure of the country houses but he also claims that they ought to be autonomous and that they could potentially have the possibility of configuring a new, more developed and civilized way of life. A way of life which could definitely be more advanced than the one which societies anchored in the past would show with its traditional social inequality, and even more advanced than urban societies of the time. Traditional country houses implied above all the dominance of authority and social hierarchy, authority based on the family’s economic excellence and the fertility of the land surrounding the house which would be worked. Morris reacts against this state of things proposing something more radical and more profound than a mere architectural and social renovation of the country house. He suggests destroying the concept of life in the countryside as represented by the country house from the inside. He proposes an alternative model which involves moral, religious, political, economic and social aspects, not specifically mentioning architecture as an active part or as an object of such a new alternative model of life which represented the most perfect possible way of living.

Particularly, the gardens within the country houses had become not only the most direct way of taking on the changes or improvements the house itself needed but the actual design and caring of the gardens implied a new individual attitude as a whole. Therefore, the English naturalist gardens could claim by means of their irregular layouts, a certain level of freedom opposed to the more rigid gardens, more formal and dominated by geometry. Moreover, the fact that the owners of the house themselves took part in the design or, by contrast, the active intervention of landscape experts who would impose certain kinds of vegetation selecting the most adequate species in each case, meant alternatively taking personal responsibility for the design or by contrast, delegating responsibility to the one who would consider himself capable of using the adequate means to allow the change in character of the whole property. The word cultivate here has several meanings: on the one hand, it refers to the cultivating of the land in terms of economic exploitation carried out by a society of farm workers and shepherds. On the other hand, the word cultivate has to do with the breeding of certain decorative species which would provide a certain shape, texture and colour to the gardens. Finally, the word cultivate also refers to the improvement of man´s character, even to the extent of improving attitudes and behaviour in society making it more refined. These three meanings related to the word cultivate are intimately linked to the context of life in the country houses.

The architecture of the country house represents the immobility and the existing structural hierarchy in contrast to the rural periphery characterized by permanent activity, but apparently invisible, which will occupy a subordinate position although clearly essential for the economic maintenance of the property. There will be a clear contrast between stability and change, between idleness and activity, between the immobile and the mobile, all of which will be represented by the lords’ society living in the main house and the rural society working in the surroundings which depends upon the first. Whilst, a crucial difference will be made clear between work developed by man for his own personal development and the subordinate work or that developed by the mere servants. The economist Thornstein Veblen, in his work entitled Theory of the Leisure Class, dating from 1899, considers that any kind of work which has its aim in improving man´s conditions, using for that purpose means which are not based on human resources, can be considered as industrial activity. Bearing this in mind, consequently, work developed concerning nature would be the first example of industrial activity, which would include the exploitation of living things such as animals and materials and forces of nature. Veblen points out an important difference which is not the existing difference between what is human and what is not human, or even between the living and non-living things, but between what is animate or inanimate. According to this terminology, animate is not a synonym of living, since this word would include natural phenomena as amazing as thunderstorms, an illness or waterfalls, whilst certain fruit and herbs, as well as certain animals and insects, larvae, small rodents or even bees and sheep when they are not considered collectively, should be, for Veblen, inanimate. What would characterize the animate, even within the kingdom of the inert or non-living would then be linked to its ability to trigger action, with inner energy capable of starting off movement.

In his Pastoral vision, William Morris suggested a certain level of compromise between two opposing concepts: on the one hand, activity, working the land and its link to how the seasons change. On the other hand, the preponderance of an idle and indolent attitude linked to the contemplation of natural landscape. The pastoral society is egalitarian and subordinate to the cyclic rhythms of nature, without the brusque characteristic and energy of natural phenomena such as thunderstorms and floods or an imposing human activity, destructive for nature´s balance. Architecture becomes practically invisible to the eye within a Pastoral society, being substituted by a conscious design of landscapes or gardens in the areas where man’s life takes place. Therefore, William Morris’ pastoral vision could not establish a link between the architectural proposals designed by the Modern avant-garde movement of the XX century, which defended that architecture and nature should be radically independent one from the other, leaving the architectural object with its own aesthetic autonomy.

On the opposite side of William Morris’ Pastoral Utopia, we can find the Expressionist utopia arisen during the first years of the XX century. The landscape evoked won’t be that of the rolling hills of the English countryside, but the impressive and breathtaking landscape of the Alpine mountains, colossal in dimensions and impassible against the changes in season, always immutable, even when it suffers the effects of certain natural forces such as landslides or blizzards. Architecture, which appears disperse and as totally integrated with its surrounding landscape within the pastoral vision, almost as if it didn’t have entity in itself, tries in this case to emulate the natural environment it is set in, rocks, cliffs or even caverns. Therefore, the Expressionist house will have great difficulties in giving shape to its creations due to its small dimensions and its needs for warmth and comfort, which, in any case, could be acquired on the inside of buildings, never on the outside. However, when glass architecture appeared, it became the main emblematic element of Expressionism. This would imply a real revolution in terms of how buildings were thought out and even how the whole surrounding landscape was thought out. The reason being that glass is at the same time both a hard, resistant material, incapable of preserving the footprint of man´s work behind it and a changing and unstable material because of the reflections it produces. Glass architecture, and, by extension, any kind of crystalline-material architecture, introduces some sort of vitality to it that has nothing to do with living things. Its life or vitality has its origin in the activation of the inert matter through means of its visual instability.

The glass building does not aim to oppose its artificial nature to nature itself but the building itself is nature and through the effects of its materials it tries to evoke a changing reality which is capable of coexisting with the immutable, as, for example, the continually evolving nature of the caves which coexist with the stability of mountains. The Expressionist house will search by means of its broken lines and shapes and its irregular geometry to confer a certain level of dynamism to architecture which will enhance the importance of its inside rather than the inhospitable outdoor life. An outdoor life which will be used by another trend of Modern architecture, Rationalist Functionalism, as its main claim to banish intervention in natural landscape, even more greatly when it comes to gardens, from man´s habitat. Courtyards and terraces will substitute gardens and housing buildings will use their own means to give the image which suits its objectives of simplicity and bareness. If nature, gardens and decoration were a reference to a different world than the one concerning architecture itself, the new housing designs would choose not to belong to any of them since, there is no room for textures and colours in the new man´s life, nothing that goes against the neutrality and the plainness of the new industrial materials.

Beyond particular interventions in the field of domestic architecture developed by the Expressionist architects, the utopian proposals which can be found within the correspondence between members of the Die Gläserne Kette suggest that architecture aims to reproduce similar effects to those of great forces of nature, such as the scintillations of stars or volcanic eruptions, a dynamic and unstable architecture, not organic, which could be considered as animate. This is the case of some of the proposals which Wenzel Hablik describes, as for example, his house next to the sea. He describes it as having been created by the arrival of a series of elements which, full of energy, are distributed along the shore whilst flashing lights and experimenting a series of movements and rotations as well as changes in form and shape till completely disappearing into the air absorbed by one another as if they were soap bubbles. The contrast between the sea, with its slow and continuous movement, and this explosive discharge of energy, a so-called house, which is limited time-wise since it vanishes immediately after it is created, is a proof of the Expressionist architecture’s intention to do without nature, its aim to produce by itself effects similar to those natural phenomena which are so unpredictable and brusque. The buildings drawn by Hablik himself, represented as crystalline formations characterized by its triangular geometry which try to acquire the maximum possible height in the shape of towers or the maximum span in the shape of domes, are, in fact, likewise presented as the result of a sudden movement of the earth´s core which let a series of perfect shapes full of energy escape from its inside, shapes that do not seem to be the result of man´s work.

Continuity between nature and architecture does take place in Expressionism, taking advantage of the analogy between natural phenomena which produce brusque changes or alterations in shape and an architecture which possesses such an amount of inner energy that at any time it could make it change dramatically. It is definitely very different from the search of an expression which is similar to the one of living beings or to the organic architecture which aims to reproduce nature´s forms. In the first case, nature is inert but animate, whilst in the second case, it is living but inanimate, once again referring to these terms using Veblen’s terminology. In his first Prairie houses, Frank Lloyd Wright had sought for continuity between architecture and nature, absorbing the adjacent territory to the house by introducing intermediate built elements such as porches and terraces, even including vegetation within the building using special containers or greenhouses. In these houses there is no garden as such, but nevertheless it ends up configuring a series of open air spaces, similar to other rooms of the house, or by contrast, the original features of the natural landscape surrounding the building is kept intact. A garden understood as such will later appear in the so-called Usonian houses, where due to its smaller size, a new relation between the front and the back of the house is developed. The first is the area reserved for the access to the house, and the second, to the garden, which will not need to include specific vegetation but will work as a mere expansion of the living room. Nevertheless, Wright will also explore other possibilities within his domestic buildings, one of which will be literally placing them within nature, particularly, within a dynamic kind of environment such as a passing stream or even a waterfall. The Millard House for example, is a house built directly at the bottom of the valley, which will succumb to the floods caused by the stream which will disperse the remains of its walls till they become part of the surrounding vegetation. On the other hand, Fallingwater will incorporate the flow of water and the sound of the waterfall in the architecture of the house. But nature in neither one nor the other will be experimented throughout its slow and inexorable seasons. In one case, nature will be absorbed by an architecture which will be capable of paralyzing these rhythms, subordinating vegetation to an artificial existence, or by contrast, creating other movements, also of a natural type, which imply the existence of energy with the capacity of causing brusque changes or even catastrophes.

Modern architecture, even though it leaves to one side the concept of natural beauty and although it doesn’t have nature as an active agent of its productions, never goes as far as to totally remove every natural element within the buildings. Almost without exception, the houses built following Modern standards include an outdoor space which is still called garden, even though it is not so, and they point out the façades or views towards the garden in contrast to the ones that open towards the street or the access paths. On the other hand, on the inside of buildings, a set of miniature gardens appear, these are the so-called winter gardens. They are none other than small greenhouses with flowers which, as they are climate-controlled, are able to grow no matter what the weather is like outside, no matter how much the climate changes. The so-called gardens, which are part of the Modern European houses built during the first decades of the XX century, are frequently inhospitable plots of land which alternate paved areas with other sand areas with barely any vegetation. In any case, they are basically wastelands where no varied and colourful species are found; those which characterize all-year-round-cultivated gardens. As an example, in one of Mies van der Rohe’s brick buildings used for housing, we can find a terraced garden which uses stone walls and sand as its constructive materials, which descends from a paved terrace and has a rectangular-shaped area made of sand in which, in the middle, a few weak and feeble plants timidly grow a couple of centimetres above the ground. Mies himself includes in some other of his houses these above-mentioned winter gardens, a series of plants placed inside a glass urn. This represents the only element alluding to a paralyzed nature indifferent to those changes which are natural to that which is organic.

The renovation of Modern Architecture, which started during the sixties, had as its main basis a new social thought. This new way of thinking did not include reconsidering the role of nature in the creation of man´s habitat, but it was now more concerned about buildings destined for activities for certain kinds of groups rather than about the actual individual houses. In any case, natural elements, such as water or earth, more than vegetation, were now part of the building, occupying very precise places. Ponds or sandpits in children’s play areas had the mission of allowing a more intense connection between the user and the architecture in terms of the senses. And, even if there is no claim as such to do with the garden, there is room for plant motifs and for an artificial design of the immediately-surrounding landscape considered as the negative shape of the built shape. The architects who work during the sixties look back at primitive societies in search for a model for the new society to follow, a new society which, maintaining the non-hierarchical character demanded by modernity, tries to impulse greater social linkage even through the specific recognition of a particular time and space corresponding to each architectural project. Nature will occupy an unimportant place without taking into consideration neither its productive possibilities nor its purely ornamental role. It will be a domesticated nature which will not register even its own cyclic movement, not even brusque changes due to natural phenomena, more active and unpredictable. By leaving visible to the eye constructive materials without any kind of treatment, left bare, and the service networks which distribute water, gas or electricity, there is an intention of maintaining the image of this kind of new poverty which characterizes the modern man. At the same time, the constructive materials will also hold the role of alluding to nature which, although it does not exist literally, it can be evoked through the forms of architecture.

Consequently, it seems as if architectural modernity would have forever banished the natural thinking from its key interests, both form-wise and social-wise. In any case, nature would become present in the form of a frozen, manipulated and immobile nature. Simultaneously to this conversion of nature into something inanimate, without life, architecture would have progressively claimed its condition of being a material phenomenon filled with active energy and thus capable of generating movement and reacting to external stimuli of any kind. It won’t be enough to experiment the changes that the sun and the shadow produce when reflected on its flat surfaces. It’s all about searching for an active response from the constructive materials which are potentially capable of generating and experimenting brusque transformations in response to changes from external conditions such as temperature, humidity, light, air pollution or even high population densities in its surroundings. An increasingly active and more sensitive architecture will consequently have a more inactive and immobile nature which will remain purely as the background element in that close relationship established between them.

Deleting nature from the domains of architecture would have reached an even more noticeable place in the city, since the city imposes its own rhythms of functioning on any natural element, which will in any case remain in the city as a limited and separated area within metropolitan life. Nevertheless, surprisingly, some of the most radical proposals concerning the city have suggested the coexistence of nature and architecture, even between agriculture and architecture, as a possible alternative to the existing city. Through these proposals, there would be a comeback of the ideas relating to a productive nature and also the possibility of reconsidering the almost disappearance of architecture within natural landscape. It will be precisely in the context of these proposals concerning the city where rural life based on agriculture, that nature evoked by William Morris in his pastoral utopia, will more explicitly appear. In Frank Lloyd Wright’s city, Broadacre, or in those of Constant and Branzi, New Babylon and Agronica respectively, different nuances to a new way of living within the urban fabric will be proposed. It will be a place which physically is configured by an unlimited extension of agricultural land that is developed completely independent but at the same time guaranteeing the existence of urban life.

Only on very rare occasions more limited proposals have arisen, more specific proposals, which can be directly linked to William Morris’ Pastoralism, that present the idea of nature and society perfectly intertwined one with another, with an architecture that responds at the same time to both the needs of rural life whilst possessing the highest possible level of well-being and civilization. This will be the case of the set of houses designed by the Danish architect Jorn Utzon in Fredensborg, destined for a completely homogeneous population in terms of age and social background, and in which a communal meadow coexists with individual gardens. Both kinds of nature are directly related to one another, having architecture as their common background, contributing to strengthening, with their variations, individualism in their properties which the residents of the houses reinforce via the different elements which are cultivated in each of their gardens. The exceptional case of Fredensborg, where in the end it wasn’t even possible to fulfill Utzon’s desire for herds of cows or sheep to graze freely within the meadow and that way to include the shepherds’ activity within community life, gives proof of up to what extent the path followed by architecture in search for progressively including a wider amount of energy and activity and therefore leaving nature to one side, giving it an inactive and subordinate role, was in fact, a secure, firm and no return path. The paroxysm with which changes in energy are shown, the impatience in terms of making buildings go through constant alterations in its forms as well as the permanent search for new external stimuli capable of altering the appearance of built elements, which will ask for a more intense experience sense-wise for its users or mere spectators, will try to take to its ultimate consequences an animate architecture which has nothing to do with that which is organic, but with the animate phenomena which take place in nature precisely as a result of high concentrations and brusque discharges of energy. Thus, it does not come as a surprise that the old terms of form and space in architecture have been substituted by field, a polysemic term, which would have stopped being a word related to agriculture to exclusively refer to fields of forces.

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