Friday, 7 December 2012

Slow architecture

Not so much purposefully, but neither aimlessly surfing for solar and shading software, I came across Gnarly Architecture, a blog by Brian Lockyear of Slate Shingle Studio in Oregon, USA.  Brian describes himself as "a digital voyager with an artistic temperament and an eye for both the sublime and the quirky", and I'm happy to agree with his self-assessment.  For anyone who wants to turn a general fascination with the sometimes dangerous world of parametric architecture into something useful, Brian's blog is compulsory reading.

But the entry that stopped me in my tracks, made me smile inanely, and which I have immediately linked to my First Year coursework site for architecture students at UNSW, is Passive Aggressive Solar Design.  Brian describes it as:

Passive Aggressive Solar is about creating magical spaces by actively considering solar movement in the design. It’s about a window seat and a book at sunrise. It’s about a shady spot at noon. It’s about framing the perfect sunset. At its best, Passive Aggressive Solar is about moments no longer than the time it takes a rainbow to appear and disappear.

He argues convincingly for a healthy synergy between computational analysis now possible to predict exactly the complex geometries of sun movements, and the traditional craft sensibilities of a masterful architect.

Finally, he proposes "a “slow light” approach to solar design, in which we take the time to think about each opening in a space and how it contributes to the magic. Why not use the sun to incorporate movement into the design but on an architectural scale – somewhere between the speed of a waterfall and the stealth of a glacier."

How can you argue with that?  Read the full posting here, and savour the last paragraph.


Islander Ridley said...

Steve King Post COmment1

Modern architecture has been so bonded with light that this intangible material has been used in millions of ways without being named in architectural drawings. The article illustrates the concept of "Passive Aggressive Solar Design" as if it is arguing against the passiveness of architecture designed merely for solar gain."Slow light" is a poetic chant to musk the angularity of the technology based design method and the computer generated sunlight analysis. From my own experience of design, this softness of angularity is important for contemporary architecture, because inevitably the arguement "architecture is technology" is becoming predominate in our age.

The unforgettable moment for me about "passive aggressive solar" was when I saw the sunset image captured in Herzog and De Meuron's Tate Modern Art Gallery in London (link: The surprise was how the glow of the setting sun had turned the industrial looking building (exposed steel frame and concrete) into an elegant image that perfectly match with the displayed sculptures. I believe the reason why the changing natural light will have such a strong impact on observers is that human beings have a common sensation of tragedic beauty (the sense of pleasure from negative emotions). The changing sunlight creates a contagious emotion on us because it reminds of the 'time running out', while we are probably the only specie on earth that realizes one's mortality. For us, light is not only a scientific phenomena, but also a emotional matter.

Therefore, there could be reasons not to stick always with lighting engineering when designing architecture, although analysis generated is objective and reliable. We do not want to produce buildings in deficiency of details and magic. I was inspired by the book "Le Corbusier in Details". Especially the quote "Light and Shadow Reveals Form". It suggests that light is an architectural material and should be considered as part of the 'form'. With the slow motion of the sun, this material protrudes and softens every structure that is built. In my point of view, this topic of "how to open up the solidness and introduce light" could almost be a comprehensive definition of architecture. Let me take the example 'Notre Dame de Ronchamp' as a summary for my writing, its punctured windows, its high-above skylight, and even its overflow and door handles, those details designed with consideration of the sun, light and shadows. I will argue that quality architecture shall reveal its presence in details, not in a fragmented image, but an unified one within the slow motion of sunlight.

Yuming Wei said...

Surely when considering passive sloar design, sun path and position of the sun are primary climate elements to consider to ensure amenity in hot summer and cool winter. Suddenly and also this is the first time that I heard the term “aggressive ” working with solar design, a poem by a chinese poet GuCheng came up my mind. It could be translated into English as the meaning “Light tints my dark eyes, with them I seek for light.”

The term “aggressive” really catch my eyes as it emphasizes the activeness of embracing nature. It is not only about a cool room in summer and a warm room in winter anymore, but the characteristic of space and materials are pursued. Kahn wrote: “A great American poet once asked architect, ‘What slice of the sun does your building have. What light enters your room,’ as if to say the sun won’t know how great it is until it struck the side of the building.” Nothing would be seen without light, even the textures of stones or wood are not being revealed without light. For Kahn light is not for the aesthetics of interior but as crafted part of nature to characterize space. In Kahn’s Kimbell Art Museum, the difused even daylight provide a bright gallery space which would be enjoyed and remembered. As far as I am concerned, the way Kahn considering solar is just same as what Brain talked about in Passive Aggressive Solar Design “It’s about a window seat and a book at sunrise”. It is about the quality of life benefiting from nature.

On the other hand the term passive aggressive solar design implies the combination of passive approach of using computational software and active approach of craftsmanship and drawing. Sun path and positions are understood with computational help but the quality of a particular light and space is understood by experiments. A good example is the Museum of the city in Cassino by Steven Holl, the watercolour drawings, study drawings and the light laboratory model really help to understood the characteristic of gallery space and light, either peaceful or dynamic.

In general I agree with the slow approach proposed by Brian. I believe the subtle sensibilities and craftsmanship take an architect a lot of time to master and accumulate in order to translate into a comfortable space where you can even feel the warmth of crafts.

Tim Elliott said...

I feel that Brian Lockyear has drawn a relationship between built form and light that the Scandinavian architects have always tried to capture. He talks about the movement and magic of sunlight in architecture, and I feel his suggestion of a “slow” design approach synergising computational simulation and traditional technique parallels the move from Scandinavian tradition to Nordic modernism.
This is the introduction to one of my favourite books, Nordic Light by Henry Plummer.
“Extreme variations of climate and sun have produced unique conditions of light throughout Scandinavia. The seasons present astonishing swings of illumination. The long, cold winter is dark and gloomy, with the sun barely appearing at all, and when it does, rising and setting for the briefest of times. Night-time permeates into the day to cloak the land in perpetual shade. And during the ecstatic yet fleeting summer nights are pervaded by midnight sun, producing almost too much light and concentrating the annual light-fall in several months.”
I argue that far northern people faced with such a variable and unforgiving climate, once introduced to the opportunities of modern construction and technology, intuitively established their built environment on passive solar design - they weren’t taught or told, but organically evolved through necessity and surpassed the stylistic/aesthetic aims of the International Style. I think that there are aspects of Lockyear’s passive-aggressive solar design in traditional Scandinavian architecture, and that these aspects became foundational in Nordic modernism facilitated by technological advances in construction.
Traditional Scandinavian construction methods allowed only small apertures as any hole in a load bearing wall weakened the entire structure. This meant that the placement of a window had to be carefully considered to bring the maximal amount of daylight and heat into the most useful location. Early Nordic architecture relied on skylights to achieve daylighting and structural stability like this farmhouse preserved in Copenhagen (, while later vernacular half-timber construction allowed longer openings to run along the south wall to a garden of deciduous trees for midnight sun shading, and winter solar access. Lockyear’s magic element can be seen in these romantic designs – the skylight providing a cool light to contrast with the warmth of the interior, while the southern view into the garden tames the Scandinavian wilds into shadows.
With the advent of modernism, Nordic architects could harness the new technology and construction to capitalise on the thermal and lighting properties of the sun. Many of these architects had trained in the era of Nordic romanticism, and the cultural and climactic affiliation with nature shaped a design sensibility disconnected from the clean line aesthetic of Continental modernism.
Perhaps the most renowned and magical of spaces is that of the living area of Alvar Aalto’s Villa Mairea (, which draws in the forest light through frameworks of wood, filtering, dispersing and directing the light through the space. The grand openings on the ground floor capture the most light possible during the day, but use a cover of deciduous ivy to shade during the nightless summers. The vertical elements emphasise the diurnal and seasonal movement of light and realises in shadow the continuity of time. Aalto did what Lockyear impels us to do – to use the technology of the day, with the traditional sensibilities of architects. The internal forest, and deciduous garden are not new ideas, but they are reimagined and developed in the Villa Mairea.
The new frontier is computation and parametric design. If we can harness this technology, and like the Nordic modernists, look to tradition and vernacular architecture compelled by climate to incorporated “passive-aggressive” solar design, we can create spaces that are not only comfortable, but magical.