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In Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Italo Calvino writes that, "Lightness for me goes with precision and determination, not vagueness and the haphazard." Calvino adds, "I look to science to nourish my visions in which all heaviness disappears." Calvino's writing suggests an appropriate frame through which to view the work of Richard Horden. The following is an excerpt of Horden's 1996 John Dinkeloo Memorial Lecture at the U-M College of Architecture and Urban Planning. The full lecture is available in book form from the College.
To Eero Saarinen, "Architecture consists largely of placing something between earth and sky." Saarinen addresses two key issues — first, the priority in the location and relation of architecture to nature, and second, the "integration of the sky" into architectural thinking. Architecture is lifted from its traditional earthen ties to a condition being between earth and sky.
Saarinen most brilliantly achieved these aims at Washington's Dulles Airport, and in St. Louis, Missouri with the Jefferson Memorial Arch. The St. Louis Arch, where John Dinkeloo was project director, seems like "building" the Apollo 11 flight to the moon, before it actually happened. For me, it is one of the rare examples where architecture was in front of history — usually it is far behind. The Arch symbolizes an approach to a light future.
The recent history of western society could be seen as a development towards lightness. With the mass production of cars, bicycles, and aircraft, space becomes lighter and more open, since we can more easily move through it. The "lightening" of remote communication by dematerializing information into electrical impulses started with the telephone and proceeds with the Internet. People become closer together and are exposed to different cultural concepts. This "being close together" necessitates both light borders, as in the European Community, and a lightness of thinking — tolerance and open-mindedness.
Architecture has been struggling towards lightness since the beginning of this century. New building technologies went hand in hand with new social concepts. New materials like steel, glass, and concrete, and new construction methods like frame and skin construction, allowed architects like Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Eero Saarinen and others to create light and open buildings, which are still admired today and offer parallels to a vision of a light and open society.
Since technology has become associated with the destruction of our environment, I would like to clarify why I strive to make buildings that look modern and "technological." A Greek temple or gothic cathedral is very beautiful, but I believe that our modern society offers enough beauty to create a modern architecture, self- confidently referring to the context we live in today. If you look at a modern sailboat or aircraft, you see an object of extreme beauty, undeniably shaped by current technology and engineering. A sailboat is in perfect harmony with its environment — the water, the wind, the light, and the open space of the sea. We try to incorporate this harmony in our architecture.
Light — illumination — is the first dimension of architecture. Without light there would be no space or the concept of space would be very different. Light is connected to seeing and viewing, light informs atmosphere and the meaning of spaces. I refer to light architecture as an architecture which is allowing the light in, out of, and around the building. An open and light architecture allows generous views in daytime and gives an elegant "nightlife" to the buildings.
A perfect example is the baby buggy. With the baby buggy, the traditional pram opened up and allowed the baby more light and air. The child sits in a completely upright position with full views of the surrounding environment and maximum exposure for learning and awareness. In the same way, it liberates the parents from pushing around a heavy object. Such inventions help open social contacts.
Similarly, architectural expression is leading away from self-contained glass box architecture to an architecture with a high degree of interaction with its environment. Instead of an enclosing box, the "design of views" approach leads to a "look out" architecture in a permanent state of communication with its urban or natural context.
The modern concept of mobility finds expression in the car. The car — like the baby buggy — is a perfect example of what we call "micro architecture." The car is just a minimum shelter, a second skin. With our micro architecture projects we try to explore this relationship of the inhabitant or driver with the environment. Given the growing dissatisfaction over the exploitation and destruction of nature we have considered a light approach to nature based on mobility. We try to touch nature with our architecture and not conquer it.
The Skihaus was conceived on a starlit night while skiing high above the lights of Lech in the Austrian Tyrol. I could imagine nothing more beautiful than climbing up the mountains overlooking Switzerland and Italy, enjoying the sunset, the clear starlit night, then getting up in the morning, and skiing downhill. The purity of nature and the quality of light in the mountains are breathtaking.
The Skihaus is an all-aluminum construction which weighs 700 lbs., light enough to be lifted by helicopter. It sleeps four people and has two seats in the front. Heating and ventilation are solar-powered. Currently the Skihaus is located on the Swiss-Italian ridge behind the Kleine Matterhorn near Zermatt. The Skihaus is supported on three legs. This allows light underneath and makes its appearance lighter. The view from underneath, the sixth elevation, is a new issue in architecture, made possible by moving in all three dimensions by aircraft or especially by helicopter, allowing us a broader experience of space than ever possible before.
The potential for a "micro architecture" is also found in cities, where micro structures can be fixed to heavy host buildings, enlivening the face of serious, gray urban architecture and providing quality small-scale space for short stays. Unused spaces above streets or building sites can be temporarily employed by spanning a cabin between two existing buildings. Micro architecture can also provide solutions for emergency and relief structures.
Building with light and transportable units leads our architecture to the concept of understanding a building as a cluster of micro architectonic units. The advantage of light prefabricated buildings is most apparent in an urban context.
For example, in Singapore land costs comprise up to 90 percent of the whole investment for a new building. Contractors keep downtown construction sites open 24 hours a day. Still, the site is rendered unproductive for one to two years, resulting in costs that must be amortized by higher rents. At a typical construction site, thousands of building parts are delivered from all over the country — adding to traffic and pollution in already congested city centers — then assembled in very confined spaces. While other industries have increased productivity through automation and the use of robots, the construction industry thinks it can still afford to be highly unproductive and redundant.
If we look at the car industry we see a totally different picture. All parts are highly prefabricated and delivered on-time to the main factory where they are assembled in a clean and controlled environment. The factory environment allows much higher precision, better use of materials, a high degree of recycling and a clean and healthy working environment.
A typical three or four-story domestic building may lend itself to assembly in a few prefabricated units rather than thousands of different parts. If rooms are conceived as independent yet connectable 10 to 20 square meter units, they could be fabricated in the same process as cars. Property owners then have the freedom of a light, adaptable building, starting with a low investment and using the site immediately, then expanding the building over time.
One of our current prefabricated projects is a scheme for a new "social" bridge across the Thames River, containing shops, restaurants, and apartments, and linking St. Paul's Cathedral and the new Tate Gallery Museum of Modern Art in London. The bridge community is actually a very old idea. The old London Bridge had houses on it like the Ponte Vecchio in Florence. However these ideas have been forgotten in modern architecture.
This project unifies three advantages. First, it uses the space over the river and thus has minimal land costs. Second, the flats have a wonderful view and an open space with no traffic noise. Third, the central arcade with shops provides a pedestrian crossing protected from the wind and rain. The living units would be built in the factory, then delivered by barge on the river and lifted into position.
The construction industry will have to change in the future to be able to build under tighter economic constraints. It is crucial that the architect is prepared for this change and has experience in working closely with industry. The underlying principle of lightness reflects the need for the world community to achieve more with less material.
The development of western architecture can be traced from heavy solid stone buildings like the Egyptian pyramids or the Greek temples to lighter stone construction like the gothic cathedrals, full steel structures, and eventually to super lightweight shell, dome, and tent constructions. In the 1960s architecture actually broke a structural "sound barrier" — the weight of the building in relation to its surface became lighter than the force of a moderate storm. For lightweight buildings wind has structurally the same importance as gravity.
Gravity was always a generator of western architectural expression, from the tapering forms of the pyramids, the capitals of Ionic columns, the flying buttresses of gothic cathedrals or the horizontal tripartition of a renaissance palazzo. All are architecturally expressing weight coming down to earth. Whereas I. M. Pei, with his wonderful Louvre Pyramids, transposed the formerly heavy form of the pyramid into a light architectural expression, our Wing Tower project seeks to define architectural form directly from principles of aerodynamics.
As a yachtsman, I am fully aware of the effects of wind. Our fascination with the elegance of sailing and the beauty and technology of the modern aircraft led us to propose an entirely new approach to architecture for the recent European Millennium Tower Competition in Glasgow. The project was awarded first prize.
The Glasgow design brief asked for a 100-meter high tower with a viewing platform on top and a restaurant and exhibition space at the base. With the help of the aeronautical engineer Peter Heppel, we designed the Wing Tower as a vertical wing turning into the wind to reduce its drag. Once built in 1998, it will be the first tower of its kind to rotate to reduce the forces on the structure. The concept of a turning structure has only been possible by "thinking light."
Whereas the Glasgow competition entry was designed to reduce the aerodynamic forces, for a more recent exhibition piece we proposed to actually use the wind to stabilize another wing tower in Lake Zurich. Sailors are familiar with balancing sails against the wind, but this is a relatively new thought in architecture and structural engineering. The Zurich Wing Tower would add extra horizontal wings to the top viewing cabin. The front wing creates a down force, while the back wing acts in the opposite direction, introducing a turning moment which balances the turning moment created by the tower's drag. The effect is that the tower actually leans into the wind, reducing the moment on the turning mechanism in the base.
I believe that this change of thinking — where buildings use the forces of nature like sun and wind to assist, rather than trying to resist them — will lead to a much lighter architecture and a lighter social environment.
Richard Horden is chief architect at Richard Horden Associates in London. His work reflects a search for ways to create an architecture of lightness, efficiency, and elegance. His is an architecture of tiny cabins in remote places, inhabited bridges, and aerodynamic towers. Unlike in French or German, the one word "light" in English refers not only to the condition of illumination, but also to that of weight. Richard Horden's design revels in that ambiguity and rigorously responds to both qualities.