Friday, 10 October 2014

Architecture and Einstein

Riehen Natural Swimming Pool by Herzog & de Meuron

Teaching architecture for over 40 years, I have had endless opportunity to consider the elegance of architectural solutions, to a huge variety of problems.  And to try and explain to my students why that concept might be applicable to architectural criticism.

My point, of course, is that elegance is not a matter of fashion, style, or a subjective taste, but the most appropriate word to describe a key part of the western intellectual tradition. Because of my background, I tend to draw on science, rather than art historicists writings.

So I start with any of the definitions of Occam's Razor, but usually find myself quoting Einstein:  “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”  Of course, I know that this is a paraphrase.  But it is a very good paraphrase, because it captures not only the rigour of reduction, but the warning against the simplistic.
In a word, how much better does the idea of 'elegance' make a link between the dominant values of science, and the worthy aspirations of really good architecture – than the myriad of trite gymnastics that purport to be explorations of fractals, complexity theory, etc which are more usually posited as the architectural expressions of the zeitgeist?
And so I come to this piece of work by the usual culprits. You can't get more elegant.  A limited vocabulary of forms doing exactly what they need to do and no more, constructed in a spare and natural palette of materials just right for the sensual experience of the setting. The complexity is there alright, in subtle things like how do you insert a measured rectangular competition pool into a naturalistic bathing lake, or how do you obtain the area to establish the biological water filtration, without disrupting the compressed transitions of a recreational swimming facility?

I am tempted to say that it's only possible in Switzerland, but of course I know that there are at least another few European countries and Japan and Korea, where architects would dare to use these materials in the unsecured public domain – and confidently expect that in spite of their vulnerability and delicacy, they are likely to be cared for. Because it's not only the gloriously elegant aesthetics of the finished work, but the social contract about which it speaks that marks out a project like this.

There is a nice little spread of text and pictures in the DETAIL newsletter, and an oddly amateurish, but informative spread on Inhabitat here.  Even better is a generous full-screen preview of an Obra 
LANGUAGE, published-on-demand book on the project, with an essay and lavish photography by Leonardo Finotti, available at 'Blurb' here.

In the guerrilla campaign that is the aftermath of the lost culture wars in architectural education, when I explain to my students what is architecture I will add this project as a beautiful example.

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