Saturday, February 27, 2010

Protection and Connection Part 1: Architecture's Dual Relationship with Nature

Richard Neutra: Chuey House

Since the beginning, protection from the elements was the initial motivation for the invention of Architecture. In the past this has been accomplished rather well with walls and sloped roofs. The walls of pre-modern structures were almost always load-bearing. This required them to have a certain thickness. This thickness also allowed the walls to serve as great insulators from temperature fluxes. Small windows allowed a glancing connection to nature. This need for connection as well as protection has been a vital duality in architecture since it’s beginnings. The use of small windows and light-filled courtyards allowed the benefits of nature to inhabit the dwellings while leaving the discomforting elements out.

In the Modern Era it’s evident that the desire for a closer connection to nature took root. The increased use of glass combined with the separation of structure from facade (Le Corbusier’s Domino frame) allowed this development to occur. For mainly spiritual reasons, the modern movement sought to blur the lines between inside and out. They sought to allow buildings to breath from under the weight of gravity. Architecture must protect, but beyond that the Modern Architects devised a number of tricks to give the illusion of free exchange between inside and outside. In this world of connection the wall disappears and the roof stands out as the main symbol of protection.

Connection Devices:

- Horizontal Thrust: The horizontal line is the line that goes along with nature. The vertical line declares its independence from nature. The emphasis of the horizontal can most clearly be seen in the early development of the Prairie Style by Frank Lloyd Wright. These early houses seek a connection with nature by blending into the horizontal countryside they inhabit. The house becomes less intrusive, less about being clearly man made, and more a part of their environment. From inside the low horizontal lines seen in railings and overhangs compliment the distant line on the horizon and include it as part of the aesthetic experience of the house. Naturally this would work best in the actual countryside where the horizon is uninterrupted. Prairie Houses in urban areas tend to lose this effect.

Mies Van Der Rohe: Farnsworth House demonstrating floor to ceiling glass and homogenous materiality.

-Floor to ceiling glass: The use of floor to ceiling glass is the most obvious and effective way to establish a visual connection between inside and out by foiling any obstructions of view. The perfect example of this is at the Farnsworth House. The true effectiveness of the glass must be experienced in person to understand just how open and connected the house is with nature. The only cues that there is any disconnect from the outside is in the perception of wind. One can see the wind whipping the tree, but one can’t feel or hear it. Well-cleaned glass goes a long way in establishing a kinship with nature in domestic houses to a degree unimagined even a hundred years prior.

-Homogenous use of inside and outside materials: When using large expanses of glass, the use of the same materials on the same plane in the exterior and the interior is very effective at creating the illusion of connection to the outside. There are many examples of this. The Farnsworth house, once again, uses travertine on the outside porch as well as in the inside living space. The rustic stone floor in the living room at Fallingwater seamlessly pours out onto the terraces.

MVDR: Project for a brick country house. The extension of walls.

-The extension of walls: Where an opaque wall abuts a large amount of glass, the extension of the wall to the outside creates an illusion of continuation from outside to inside. No built project can convey this idea better than the floor plan Mies Van Der Rohe drew for the Brick Country House. The plan is intentionally abstract to read, and the inside is difficult to distinguish from the outside. This is accomplished because the walls do not enclose space, they envelop around it, creating incidental room-like areas. These walls extend beyond their necessary edges and reach out into the landscape. They leave the impression of continuation into infinity. This is similar to what happens in Mondrian’s paintings: the lines slide past each other and beyond the painting implying a snapshot of an infinite condition. This outreach into nature is an embrace that invites nature to connect with the interior spaces.

Neutra: Kaufmann House showing the overhang of roof and disappearing glass.

-The overhang of roof: Similar to the extension of walls, the extension of roof into the outside can blur the boundary between inside and out. This technique is only truly effective when the overhang is flush with the interior ceiling. Richard Neutra’s houses are really good with the connective overhang. His most famous example of this roof projection can be found in his residence for Edgar J. Kaufmann (yes the same guy that commissioned Fallingwater). The floor to ceiling glass in the living room reveals an overhang that extends far beyond the glass wall. This effectively confuses the in/out boundary. Neutra’s use of beams on the roof that extend from inside to outside is also very effective in helping this illusion. Sometimes the beams continue beyond the roof and rest on thin columns. The columns are usually the same as the ones on the inside. All of these elements collaborate to create an embracing connection with nature.

Shigeru Ban: Curtain Wall House: Disappearing glass.

-Disappearing glass: Glass walls that can be slid away on tracks or sunken or raised like garage doors also quite literally break the connection between inside and out. As I’ve mentioned in the previous post, the Tugendhat House by Mies Van Der Rohe had glass that could roll into the floor below and completely disappear. Neutra’s Kaufmann House has giant floor to ceiling glass planes that can slide away from the edges, completely opening them up. To dramatic effect the literally titled Curtain Wall House by Shigeru Ban is a completely open house that has large curtains on the perimeter. These curtains can be opened so that the house is a complete exterior space with railings around the edges. The desire by architects to destroy the barrier between inside and out cannot be accomplished more effectively than simply doing away with walls completely!

FLLW: Second Jacobs House. The pool is the circle on the left of the glass side.

-The pool: Many modern architects have used a wading pool that is half indoors and half outdoors to reinforce the idea of connection with nature. The Second Herbert Jacobs House of 1944 by Frank Lloyd Wright is one of the earlier examples I am aware of. Here, a circular pool is situated on the facade so that one half is indoors and the other is outdoors. Lily pads and swimming fish contribute to the effect of connecting pools. The Nesbitt House by Richard Neutra actually predates the Second Jacobs House by two years and also incorporates a half-in half-out wading pool in the entryway. The single large pane of glass above the pool is effective in blurring the exterior division of this pool.

These are just a few of the many aesthetic devices used to connect architecture with nature. The protective element will not be discussed in as much detail as the connective elements because the Modernists were trying to deemphasize this. Protection is found primarily in the roof, which became abstracted and flattened into its essential nature: the boundary between sky and house. Architecture will always need to protect its inhabitants from the rain and the wind and whatever else Mother Nature decides to throw at us. Because of this I do not believe that the spiritual desire for the connection will ever completely conquer the pragmatic need for protection. Next post, I will explore how all of these techniques are incorporated in the work of Albert Frey. Until then, faithful readers.....


  1. Thanks, that means a lot! I saw your post on Mies called Almost Nothing, very interesting. It's nice to know another Mies fanatic. Stay tuned for much more.


    1. Do you have any more information for pool , humidity , temputure , I am interested in building a house like this .
      thanking you