Weather Architecture acknowledges the creative stimulus of inclement weather in the emblematic Rousham Garden by architect William Kent (1685-1748), whereby Jonathan Hill portrays the sense of the picturesque and rural idyll that pervades it.
Here the English empirical garden transcended the ancien régime by mixing allegory from ancient Rome with gothic and Arcadian symbols referring to England’s pastoral past.
It repeats a pattern of cultural independence, established in the 15th century by Henry VIII’s Act of Supremacy and separation from Papal Rome and in the 16th century when Sir Edward Coke argued that the unwritten law of England went back to the Druids.
Rousham Garden (1741) was planned as a place to heighten the viewer’s awareness of nature, never as a sequence of separated spaces but always as a series of oblique, picturesque views with multiple perspectives and allegorical readings in all directions. The opportunities for surveillance offered by the garden and which encouraged participation was made possible by use of two distinctive military features, the ridge and the ha-ha, both familiar and most likely encouraged by the client, General James Dormer.
Following Sir John Soane’s interest in the work of William Kent, later picturesque theories and the fascination in climate’s influence, Hill examines the national interest in the subtle variations and poetic effects of weather.
Soane’s concern over climate, tested by instruments to measure time and atmosphere, drove him to make and inhabit a complex interior as a garden and expand picturesque narratives through his phased alterations to 12-14 Lincoln Inn Fields. For Hill, today’s architects deal with climate rather than weather – weather is what you experience at a specific time. In Greek, the world for ‘the moment’ is same as for ‘weather’.
Weather challenges the common perception of architectural authorship, how, as Hill says, ‘others understand architects but also how architects understood their own work’. The best architecture has always embraced context and must inherently be harmonious with the weather.
Though few celebrate the stained concrete of the Haywood Gallery, it was surely intended that way in which the seasons are made visible, recorded and remembered. If one accepts the intentional nature of architecture to ‘weather’ then, as Hill suggests, one also recognises the contribution weather makes as a co-author.
Hill examines the art of weathering in the 18th-century trend for ruination due to empiricism’s attention to subjective experience, the heightened historical awareness in the Enlightenment’s concerns for origins and archaeology, and the value given to imagination, time and metaphor. Whether found or fabricated, the ruin related the present to the past, imagined or real.
It could evoke a lost idyll that would never be repeated, transfer gravitas and authority from one era to another, or suggest that the successes of the present will surpass those of the past. As Hill says: ‘Whether classical or gothic, ruins developed the 18th-century discourse on nationhood and nature… the visionary ruins of Piranesi and Soane were appropriate to an era that valued self-expression, temporal awareness and multiple meanings and the potential for language reinvention.’
The recurring attitudes to the environment are picked up in the mid-20th century where, ‘as before creative architects looked to the past to imagine the future, using the weather as their principal means to recognise and represent time’. Using Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, Hill questions whether the architect intended the house to flood and when one should recognise the weather’s role in affirming the Northern romantic tradition.
Farnsworth continues romantic investigations earlier established by van der Rohe’s interest in Karl Friedrich Schinkel. Van der Rohe stated: ‘If you view nature through the glass walls of the Farnsworth House, it gains a more profound significance than if viewed from the outside.’ Hill argues: ‘Within its vulnerable interior the full effects of weather and weathering are amplified and experienced, from the pleasant beauty of sunlight to the painful beauty of cold and condensation, from the majesty of thunder and lightning to the fearful flood when immediate danger overcomes the sublime.’ Either way, within the Farnsworth House ambiguity is a hesitant margin between its architect and the weather. For Hill, Farnsworth House is a hinge between the early modernist control of nature and the later modernist accommodation of nature.
Twentieth-century weathering is a quality imbued in material. Van der Rohe while designing the Barcelona Pavilion, found ‘my experiments with a glass model helped me on my way and I soon recognised that, by employing glass, it is not an effect of light and shadow one wants to achieve but a rich interplay of light reflections’.
Nature is seen in the pavilion’s polished surfaces, not in the transparency of the pavilion’s many reflective surfaces: water, chrome, red onyx, green marble, yellow travertine when wet, and glass, which is either clear, white, grey or green.
Hill credits the weather and a ‘sense of north’ in allowing modernism to connect with national romanticism and flourish in Scandinavia and Germany. The Nordic climate does not encourage submission to the seasons and gentle weathering. The dialogue with nature remains, but rather than the benign encounter of the picturesque it is confrontational as well as celebratory and closer to the romanticism expressed in 19th-century landscape paintings.
For Hill, architect Sverre Fehn is an author of weather, successfully exporting the northern romantic mist to a milder Italian climate – in 1962 Fehn blurred architecture and nature to the extent that Nordic light is the Nordic Pavilion’s principal material.
Hill’s treatise, both charts the cultural history of environmental discourse and paves the way for future areas of special architectural interest. There exists a tipping point in teaching sustainable design, and Weather Architecture encourages critical re-evaluations of contemporary responses to climate change.
by Jonathan Hill, Published by Routedge, £34.99