Land Driven Architecture

I had an assumption that land was the main driver around all architecture, in built form and the designed landscape. That the place, the physical plain that I was working with, would be the first place that we would find inspiration and define how the design, for whatever was placed upon it, would develop. In my experience this is far from the case.

I want to make a case for a “return” to land. A return to a place where the very fabric of the land, makes its own case for what is placed upon it and how that and the land beneath, support each other. It is what we see in all of nature and the living and dead world. It’s a closed circle, each feeds from each other and what feeds on each, supports the other. Nothing falls outside the circle or is taken out of the place in which it has placed itself. The very nature of what is there is because of this marriage and a collaboration between the land and what lives on, over and in the land. To add into this idea is also what moves through it both physically in terms of the water for example and spiritually, the energy flows. 

Each of these mean that every place, is an individual and that individuality can inspire us if we choose to listen.

The first question we need to ask ourselves is simple. “What is land to architecture?” I have asked myself this question and of others. Some see it as the material itself, the mud or the clay. Others see it as a framework within which we must work and another the blank canvas upon which, what we place upon it, “decorates” or is a layer place upon it.

I was interested in all three but was drawn to thinking about the final canvas idea. Not for what we actually currently do with this canvas now but how, what we do, could be an expression of what that place actually is.

That is, that the architecture brings out its qualities, into a form that brings together, all that is individual in what is on, over, in and flows through that actual place. Bringing it all together in one visual expression that, including the idea of the closed circle, also needs to give back to the land and support it. How would that form of architecture look?

In my experience land, to most, is something that has to be worked around. It is a physical existing presence that can be manipulated but is inconvenient. This inconvenience means that, whilst it has to be a factor in the design, can be considered as a landing place, with limited interest other than how it might impact on the design we want to create. This covers both the built and the landscape design process. Though the landscape may research into soil type for planting and the built, in terms of foundations, our connection to this continuum is passing.

It is certainly not part of the design inspiration process, in the way of understanding it and what it supports and requires in support. This has not always been the case. There was a time when architecture was defined by the very material that existed beneath our feet. The mud or the very earth, defined what could be built with it. What grew on it defined how that could be built. 

The pattern of the architecture that was formed was created, not in terms of aesthetic design but on what would fulfil the task required by its creation and therefore how the mud dried, its structural integrity and how it formed itself was what defined, how it was used and therefore the visual look and feel of the structure. This extended as well to the landscape with what could be grown, where and how. It was all influenced by understanding the “plot” that you were working on and that your lives were inextricably linked with all the element that made up that plot.

I am not discussing going back to those methods of building per say or the architectural visuals that came from this but I am wondering what the structures we create now would be like and how they would feel, if that level of inspiration from the place, we are choosing to build, was the same. The material that we used, what we knew grew on that and how what flowed through it the water, the animals and the energy were accommodated and must be accommodated. What flows is given the same level or importance, support and respect; that the land defines the flow, not the structure altering it to suit.

I have no specific answers to these questions and maybe that’s the most important part of this article. To suggest how we create a closed circle with the land and to honour it in the same way, that all that uses the medium for its own survival do and how they all play a part in supporting the land and by that all that exist with, on and over it. 

Our belief systems are constantly being challenged and how this circle works is being given ever more intricate and delicate understanding of the balance that needs to exist. Think of our understanding about how trees communicate. We now know that they support each other in communities and that using the land and what lives in it, as well as what flows though it and above it, creates this web that supports the whole rather than the single. In supporting the whole all are supported. This is not a static position and this need changes, as the land changes and that which inhabits it also alters. It can adapt and therefore in that adaptation – over  time – comes the possibility of it adapting to whatever we build but only if how we build it and what we build is also inextricably linked into the very place that it exists in.

To work to give back, in as much as we take and to see each place as requiring, from our intervention, a desire to leave it in a better place than how we found it. Is this possible? Well trees do this. The silver birch for example, prepares the soil for other trees that will follow it. It is a preparation species, knows this is what it does best and also in so doing allows other trees to follow it once the soil allows it to do so. The way it grows, how long it survives as a tree, have all been honed to fulfil this role. In large areas of silver birch trees one can see how they change depending on what is happening with the land. The size, shape and leaf all reflect the exact location that they grew within and as the support this tree offers that place changes, then so does its growth pattern.

Imagine creating structures that will do the same for the land upon which we build and that we could also design in this shift and change. That buildings and landscape that we design, must improve and support for everything in its immediacy as well as the transitory.

What then would the answer to the initial question of “what is land to architecture” be?

Written in response to a lecture given at the LOCDI summer residency programme. For more information see. The Low Carbon Design Institute.