Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Opening up to the Courtyards: An Essential Part of a House

Have you noticed how many functions these days are hosted in spaces that are enclosed on almost all sides but open to the sky? From Bollywood scenes of Haveli Weddings, to book space the courtyard is one architectural space that is certainly in fashion.
The Sharjah Biennial, one of the region's premiere cultural events (being held this year from March 13), is also using the courtyard as its theme. According to the curator, Yuko Hasegawa, the courtyard is where public and private life come together and new ideas can be discussed and pondered over; the choice of the courtyard as the theme for the event established the idea that the Biennial is the place were eastern and western ideas of art, culture, architecture and society can come together to initial a dialogue on learning.
The view reflects how the courtyard has spanned all cultures for as long as people have lived in constructed buildings. In ancient Rome  they were called 'atriums', although the term is now used exclusively to refer  to courtyards with glass ceilings; in the Subcontinent, most houses were (and many still are) built with a Sehan in the center where family members , especially women, could gather in peace and privacy away from the outside world ; in China the 'siheyuan' refers to a similar space, surrounded by a conglomerate of houses, often featuring gardens or fountains to inspire thoughts of peace and tranquility. And across the Islamic world, the courtyard is an essential component of almost every mosque - the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore features the largest courtyard of any mosque in the world.
These days, courtyards are used in many other ways as well; in 'Marina' style houses across California where a community of households share a private outdoor space; in college dorms as recreational areas where temporary residents can meet; or as a place where experience and experimentation can converge, like at the Sharjah Biennial

Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Remarkable Traditionalist: World's Pioneer in Skyscraper Architecture

A few years ago after it was completed, Cass Gilbert wrote to a friend about how he wished he had never built the Woolworth building. In his words, "Whatever it may be in dimension and in certain lines, it is after all, only a skyscraper."
Born on November 29, 1859, Cass is now considered a pioneer in Skyscraper architecture and was one of the world's first celebrity architects, counting among his peers Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies Van Der Rohe and Robert Venturi.
Unlike his peers, however, Gilbert stayed away from the modernist and post-modernist debate that would grip architecture in the mid 20th century. Instead, Gilbert believed that architecture's purpose was grander than the intended use of a structure; that a structure must bestow on its occupants, surroundings and even the city it resided in, a purposeful dignity and identity.
Thus when Gilbert envisioned the US Supreme Court Building, he imagined a place which would resoundingly echo the importance of the American Constitution, a document that claims inspiration from Plato's The Republic.
Built in an imposing beaux-arts meets neo-classical style, the pantheon shaped building with its tall columns echoes the tone of the inspiration on its pediment, 'Justice The Guardian of Liberty'. In effect, the building embodies the American sentiment that their republic is the ideological heir of Greek democracy and Roman organization.
The Supreme Court building was Gilbert's last major project, completed a year after his death in 1934. However, the intentions and style of the man who saw "early Romanesque cathedrals" in Beethoven's symphonies and "old Gothic windows" in Mozart's works, is evident in all his buildings.
Unfortunately, by the mid 20th century, modernism had gripped the world; Gilbert's designs were described as simply "classically competent" and his name disappeared into obscurity for a half century. But as a new generation of architects in training is looking back at how cultural identity has evolved in architecture, the words of The Times of London on his death continue to ring true, that Cass Gilbert was "the most remarkable architect of his generation in America."

England's Greatest Gardener

To Lancelot Brown, the value of an estate rested in its 'capability' for landscape improvement, hence why today he is better known as 'Capability' Brown. He was also probably England's greatest Gardner and is credited with fashioning over 170 of the 18th century's most remarkable gardens. In doing so he demonstrated how far landscape architecture could boost the appeal and value of a traditional estate.
Brown initially trained under William Kent who pioneered the English Landscape Garden as distinct from the French Formal Garden which was in fashion at the time. Where the French Gardens exhibited order over nature thanks to stairways that led to carefully sculpted hedges surrounding a central fountain, Kent's gardens were inspired by nature and featured lawns surrounded by droves of trees usually in front of a pond or lake.
Brown took the idea further by removing all unnatural structures that preceded the gardens and replacing them will rolling lawns punctuated by clumps of trees opening up carefully to reveal gazebos, temples or bridges, before spreading out towards invisibly dammed streams and lakes.
Brown envisioned the layout of his gardens to echo the sprawling English countryside and in many ways, considered dotting a landscape to be similar to using grammar in language.
As he said, "Now there I make a comma, and where a more decided turn is proper, I make a colon; at another part, where an interruption is desirable to break the view, a parenthesis; now a full stop, and then I begin another subject."
One of the Brown's most famous works includes Longleat, an estate that is currently home to the Marquesses of Bath. Originally planned in grids featuring foliage and mazes fashioned out of the hedges, Brown replaced the majority of the plan with vast undulating spreads of grass and roads that weaved through the landscape, making the estate appear much larger than it actually is.
The same technique was employed in the redesign of the grounds of Higher Castle, the venue of the critically acclaimed TV show Downtown Abbey. Those grounds, dotted with beech, oak and cedar trees were once complimented by British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli who said, "How scenical, how scenical"