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.
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.
We are almost half way through the Oriental Year of the Sheep, or Year of the Goat, or Year of the Ram. The Chinese character yang (羊), which represents this year in the Zodiac cycle, can be translated as all of these animals. In Japan the yang character represents only one animal, the sheep. In Australia we also refer to 2015 as the Year of the Sheep. Not because we have studied the astrological intricacies of this year, in the main. It’s due to the long association of the post-colonial Australian psyche and economy with domestic sheep. Who would have thought the animal zodiac could be so culturally influenced? And what has it to do with the elements? It’s a fascinating story……
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.
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.
‘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.
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.
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.
Wood, as an element, is only explicitly found in Wu Xing – what, in the west, we imprecisely call the five element theory of Chinese philosophy. Yet wood, and trees, have been worshipped for as long as humans have called planet earth home. This is not surprising considering our evolution from forested landscapes and our use of wood and trees for shelter, transport, protection, food, fire and to nourish the soul. In other elemental frameworks this intimate link to trees and their products is most likely encapsulated within the Earth element.