Earth Water Air Fire Architect

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.

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Elements in the extreme

On August 30th, 2005 the focus of the world was on New Orleans in Louisiana, USA after a category 4-5 Hurricane called Katrina unleashed its elemental power. Combined with a levy system that could not cope with the intensity and aftermath of the hurricane, Katrina was the most destructive storm to strike the United States and the costliest in U.S. history, causing over $100 billion in property damage. The human cost of the storm, which is not something that you can put a dollar figure on, is still playing itself out. Lessons on how to plan for and respond to extreme elements can be learnt from the experience of cities like New Orleans and other parts of the planet.
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Elemental Places

Each of us has a special place, or places, that we have a strong connection to. This “sense of place” is developed through personal and cultural experiences and knowledge of a particular area. The “elemental” landscape is an important part of these experiences, one that expresses itself on many scales – from the sun on your face, to the changing of the seasons or the impact of earthquakes or storms on a region.

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Celebrating our sense of wonder

We are born with a sense of wonder. Taking delight in the warmth of the sun, the colours of the rainbow, the leaves dancing in the wind. Mesmerised by the beauty of fireflies and dragonflies. Amazement in the smallest of things.  It is a sense to celebrate and recapture if it has been buried under day to day distractions.

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The way of the drum

Drums have been used by virtually all cultures. They are an instrument of the elements, being connected to earth, air, fire and water and spirit. Their beat is likened to a throbbing heart, evoking many powerful forms of energy. Their round shape felt to represent nature, Mother Earth, the Universe and the divine. They are commonly reported by Indigenous people to influence weather conditions through the vibrations sent into the atmosphere. Drumming is known to be good for our physical and mental health. Some say it is in our DNA. My sister and I have certainly developed a passion for it.

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Architectural elements

Architecture and the elements are intimately interconnected. It is estimated that around 50% of the world’s population lives or works in earth buildings, constructed mainly of dirt (clay, gravel, sand, silt, soil, loam and mud). Stone, also of the earth, has been used to great effect by civilisations like the Tiahuanacu and Inka, as well as in buildings in Europe and their colonies. Iconic buildings like the Flame Towers in Baku, Azerbaijan pay homage to the elements. And ancient practices such as Feng Shui from China and Vastu Shastra from India use the elements to assist with the placement of buildings in a landscape, on a site and their internal design.

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Humans, the fifth planetary force

How Earth Made Us’ is a ground-breaking BBC series that tells ‘the incredible story of the natural forces that have shaped our history’. Now available on YouTube, it is well worth watching, offering fantastic imagery and though-provoking commentary. Presented by Professor Iain Stewart, the series examines the influence of four fundamental elements – Water, Deep Earth, Wind and Fire – on human history. The fifth and final episode, called the Human Planet, presents humans as a natural force in their own right.

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In awe of the Amazon: air, water and earth

When flying over the Amazon in a six seater plane, the clouds have right of way. Weaving a way between and around them takes an experienced pilot. Such a guide delivered us safely to Noel Kempff Mercado National Park on the border of Bolivia and Brazil, only accessible by plane or boat. One of the largest and most intact Parks in the Amazon Basin, it is worth the effort.

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Praying with the elements

Saint Francis of Assisi is amongst the best known of the Christian mystics who celebrated God through images of the elements. On this Easter Sunday I leave you with ‘The Canticle of the Sun’, also known as ‘The Canticle of the Creatures‘. The prayer was originally composed in 1224 in an Umbrian dialect of Italian. While oft repeated, it is worth sharing the song again. It is a powerful demonstration of the importance of the sun, moon, stars and the elements to Saint Francis – the founder of the Franciscan Orders, protector of animals and Patron Saint of Ecology.  At another time I will delve into greater detail about the works and legacy of Saint Francis and other Christian mystics such as Hildegard of Bingen. Today the focus is on praising and acknowledging the wonders of the elemental world and the cycle of life, whatever your religious leanings.

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Rain, hail or shine

There are many quotes and sayings that relate to the elements. One that recently came foremost to my mind was the expression ‘come rain, hail or shine’, which means that you will do something whatever happens. I would like to dedicate this post to images and quotes that refer to the elements – in recognition and appreciation of their ever present presence in our lives.

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