Sunday, September 7, 2008

Geo-Mimicry 2A :: Beginners / Begetters

Part 2A
To begin showing the projects of Geo-Mimicry I thought I would start by showing some of the historical precedents of geologically inspired architecture of the past. Now this could go waaaaay back in time because geology is something that has continually inspired architects through the ages. Indigenous peoples of almost every continent developed a form of architecture related to the geology of their region, as the following images from Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon, and Tibet demonstrate.

But the point of this post is not really to create a historical trajectory tracing geo-mimetic architecture from the annals of history to present time--for geo-mimicry is kind of like what Frank Gehry famously remarked about his use of fish for inspiration: it references something beyond the history of architecture in an attempt to create something new (it is therefore extra-disciplinary)--it is merely to demonstrate that geo-mimicry is really nothing new at all. The difference now is that it appears to have reached a central point in our disciplinary discussions, whereas in the 20th century it might said to have occupied a more peripheral role architectural discourse.
In the early 20th Century Geo-Mimicry developed a small but devout following as part of the larger Expressionist movement, particularly in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. This sets up one of our modern trajectories of geo-mimicry, which tend to operate more geographically than chronologically. I'm going totally out on a limb here, but I would venture to guess that geology was put into the minds of architects by the growing number of expeditions and explorations of virgin geographies in the 19th Century, which were glorified and put into the popular zeitgeist by artists like Caspar David Friedrich, and his painting Das Eismeer (The Sea of Ice), from 1823 – 1824.
In expressionist architecture, it was Bruno Taut that would make the greatest argument for geo-mimicry with his book Alpine Architecture: A Utopia, and the amazing drawings and etchings published as part of the book. Taut's alpine architecture was faceted, crystalline, and resembled the Alps. The amazing Taut appears to have come back from the grave to create a MySpace account from which he shares a few tidbits about his ideas:
My plans for an Alpine Architecture really took off—it was basically this utopian vision of a world where the natural landscape would be beautified by buildings/sculptures of illuminated colored glass, and these structures would bring people together despite class or national differences and be a means of spiritual renewal. Soon a new society could form, a non-hierarchical and integrative collective.

Unfortunately Taut only realized a couple of works that resemble some of the fantasies of his Utopian Alpine vision. The most famous of which is the Glass Pavilion constructed as part of the Cologne Werkbund exhibition. Again, from his MySpace page, Taut continues:
All you architect scholars out there won’t chill out about my Glashaus (glass pavilion) at the Cologne Werkbund exhibition in May…but it was pretty cool…I made a kind of prismatic dome with colored glass (it even had a waterfall in it!) as a tribute to a new architecture that combines monumental function and fantasy.

Taut Glass Pavilion, Cologne
Skipping ahead a few years we come to Gunther Domenig, and Austrian architect who spent years working on his personal utopia--his very own house called Stein Haus. Steinhaus--Stonehouse is a book published by the AA to commemurate the home, which "tells the story of the conception and construction of a home cum studio cum intellectual haven for the architect in a landscape which has been part of his personal memory bank of images since childhood." This landscape is the remote mountain landscape of rural Austria. You can see another amazing photo of this house here on Flickr.

Domenig, Stein Haus
Another recent example of the Austrian trajectory is Hans Hollein's project for the Vulcania museum in Auvergne, France. This project represents a low point for the geo-mimicry project, for it is an example of the simplest form of easy-to-consume Disneyfied geo-iconography--you mine as well put some fake lava and smoke plumes in there to finish it off. Although I have to admit it did result in an interesting space within the sheared conical structure--I just wish it wasn't meant to actually represent a volcano. It's a little 1:1 and closes off other interpretations. But that opens up another can of worms that I am not very well qualified to speak about.
Hollein, Vulcania
And now we move from the European front to the New World to look at the other geographical trajectory--the American Southwest, best exemplified by Antoine Predock.
In my previous post on Geo-Mimicry I stated that Vicente Galluart might be the best example of a geological architecture. I might be eating those words today. Predock has been honing his special blend of geological architecture for some time now, and rarely strays from this path, despite an increased global production from his previously regional practice in New Mexico. This is one of the great things about geo-mimicry--since you are claiming the Earth as your primary context and source code, you can apply it anywhwere (see images below--projects from New Mexico, Minnesota, and China). Predock describes this when he says
New Mexico has formed my experience in an all-pervasive sense. I don't think of New Mexico as a region. I think of it as a force that has entered my system, a force that is composed of many things. Here, one is aimed toward the sky and at the same time remains rooted in the earth with a geological and cultural past. The lessons I've learned here about responding to the forces of a place can be implemented anywhere. I don't have to invent a new methodology for new contexts. It is as if New Mexico has already prepared me. (emphasis mine)
Predock's writings on architecture to me are probably the best example of what Geo-Mimicry in architecture could be. He discusses a lot of the topics I put forth in the previous Geo-Mimicry post. I still feel like his work is more about a formal resonance with geology, rather than what a process based approach would be, but it is still compelling. He speaks about the aspect of geological time when he writes
When I am working on projects with my team ...we remind ourselves that we are involved in a timeless encounter with another place, not just a little piece of land. All of the readings that have accumulated and been assimilated there, that are imagined there, that may happen there in the future — all of these collapse in time and become the raw material with which we interact. We are not merely trying to record or express a particular epoch.
And he describes the 'deep structure' of geology that I wrote about when discussing highway road cuts. Road cuts are also the space of exploration of John McPhee in his series of books on North American geology. Predock relates them to architecture when he writes
Critical to the spirit in my work is the enigmatic quality of the desert. You think you've got it, you think you understand; then you turn over a rock or crawl under a larger rock and you discover other worlds, other realms within. In a highway roadcut, for example, a sectional diagram of the earth is revealed through man's intervention. At the bottom of a roadcut in the southwest is pre-cambrian granite, overlaid by limestone…The roadcut is a poetic diagram of an investigative process for the making of architecture.

To close, and to bring the discussion to the present day (although Hollein and Predock are both still active, I don't think they occupy a central role in the contemporary discussion on geo-mimicry) I close with two projects that, because of their mass appeal and wide publication, made it safe to talk about rocks again in contemporary architecture. Although I'm sure this was not their intention, for neither of them are really about rocks and geology at all, they just look like rocks, and they are both often referred to as rocks. So here goes...
OMA's Casa de Musica and Aranda/Lasch's Grotto project. One paved the way for building's that are strangely contextual despite the fact that they look nothing at all like their surroundings and one made it safe for the digital exploration of rock-like forms.


Richard Stafursky said...


What? This is utopia for people not for nature.

"My plans for an Alpine Architecture really took off—it was basically this utopian vision of a world where the natural landscape would be beautified by buildings/sculptures of illuminated colored glass, and these structures would bring people together despite class or national differences and be a means of spiritual renewal. Soon a new society could form, a non-hierarchical and integrative collective."

Key elements here is "My plans..." to dominate nature.

And, "the natural landscape would be beautified by buildings" What? No such thing. Buildings always harm the natural landscape!

Frank Lloyd Wright made this mistake by building on top of nature.

Dick Stafursky

Dave Brown said...

Hi Richard,

Unfortunately you are right--any act of building on virgin soil is a destructive act of nature--there is not getting around that fact. No matter how sustainable we make our buildings, when we build we are still adding to the problems of pollution and destruction of natural habitat and landscape.

At the same time we have to build--ever increasing populations and their requirements for shelter and services (and i am implying all services of a material, spiritual, and social nature) demand it. The question is how can we do it to minimize our impact while maximizing our freedom and choice.

After looking at your blog i understand where you are coming from--I too am fearful of the type of unchecked sprawl and construction that is destroying the forests around where you live in MA (i would also remind you, since you are a vegeterian, that bad agricultural practices can also have a destructive impact on natural landscapes, the dust bowl and increasing desertification in wester China are good examples).

These thoughts on geo-mimicry, and other things currently studied by the design professions - bio-mimicry, landscape, geography, sustainability, etc, are looking at ways to better integrate these necessary structures into existing contexts, be they natural or man-made, and to do less harm. hopefully at some point we will learn how to do richard sennett has called for- for urban designers to "do no harm."