Albert Einstein is the most famous Alumni of ETH Zurich, which is consistently ranked amongst the top Universities in the world. It is encouraging therefore that this illustrious institution ran a four semester course between Autumn 2012 and Spring 2014 on architecture and the elements – Earth, Water, Air and Fire. The Chair of the Department of Architecture, Professor Dr Josep Lluis Mateo, used this framework to examine how the elements connect the conceptual and physical in architecture. In doing so he wanted his students to think from the start about the structure and materials of the buildings they were designing.
Fortunately for the broader community, the lectures and related material on the elements form the basis of a book co-edited by Professor Dr Mateo and the Austrian architect Florian Sauter. The book ‘The Four Elements and Architecture’ (published in 2014) addresses how nature and life are connected to Earth, Water, Air and Fire and how the natural elements can inspire architectural action. I discovered the book after writing ‘Architectural Elements’. This post explored how the elements are directly used for buildings (e.g. mud and ice), inspire the design of buildings or are used to orient buildings in systems like Feng Shui (China) and Vastu Shastra (India). This book adds an exciting new dimension about how architects view and utilize the elements in their designs.
The book has seven main sections: ‘Architecture and the Elements’; ‘Earth’; ‘Water’; ‘Air’; ‘Fire’; ‘Identity and Modernity’ and ‘On Teaching’. Each section has short entries by well known architects or interviews with them. While most entries are by European authors, perspectives from architects like Richard Buckminster Fuller from the USA, Li Xiadong from China and Tadao Ando from Japan are also included. The stated sentiment that “this is a book produced in the warmth of the teaching experience” gives it a special quality.
The subjects covered in the book are wide in scope, ranging from the influence of Chinese ideologies of balance and harmony on architectural design to an entry on ‘Thermodynamic Materialism’ that discusses the exterior and interior atmospheric conditions of buildings. In addressing the issue of sustainability, the latter entry raises the issue that buildings in warm climates usually achieve “excellence” in modern rating systems by emitting unacceptable levels of radiation to public spaces – either through reflective mirror glass or reflective materials in ventilation chambers. The author, Professor Inaki Abalos from Harvard University, has developed a ‘thermodynamic idea’ that uses the natural elements to improve the interactions between public and private space. The importance of understanding and working with energy is a constant theme in the book. Fascinating!
As intimated, the authors in the book do not shy away from the pressing issues of our time. The first entry titled ‘Limits to Architecture’ sets the scene by asking whether the cultural trend in architecture towards the essentials and the basics “is compensating for the centripetal forces at work in the economy and politics.” The entry titled ‘Water and Landscape’, based on an interview with Gunther Volt, proposes that water had usurped fire as the most dangerous element in cities because of floods and rising seas. These are man-made problems, especially with the many surfaces covered with asphalt and concrete that lead to increased run-off. To address these issues Gunther recommends that landscape architects should focus on how to deal with water ecologically. In another entry, landscape architecture is described as earth art. In another, fire is viewed as a synonym for the flow of life, which architecture serves. The multi-faceted nature of the elements shines through strongly.
With the richness of content, and the connections between the theoretical and practical, I believe that Einstein would have given his seal of approval to this book. As he said “Logic will get you from A to Z, imagination will get you everywhere.” This book is full of imaginative ideas.