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.
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.
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.
At the start of a new year, many people’s thoughts turn to how they can improve their wellbeing over the coming months. Certainly mine do. In addition to being inspired by beautiful views, enjoying the calming effect of water or warming ourselves with fire there are many other ways the elements can help us to be well.
In Australia we welcome in the New Year on January 1st with fireworks, parties and new year resolutions. The most spectacular pyrotechnic display is on Sydney Harbor, where a combination of fire and water holds people in awe and wonder. In many other cultures the New Year is celebrated at a different time of year. While I’d like to wish everyone a Happy New Year based on the Gregorian calendar, of particular interest in this post are the Tibetan astrological and astronomical systems that are intimately connected to the elements.
Every so often I discover books that use the elements to frame their stories. Having just returned from a trip to the USA, I was drawn to a book titled ‘The Men Who United the States’. The author, Simon Winchester, uses wood, earth, water, fire and metal as the basis of the five ‘Parts’ in the book. This framework is loosely based on Wu Xing, the fivefold conceptual scheme that is found throughout traditional Chinese thought.
The Rivered Earth contains four libretti written by Vikram Seth, a celebrated Indian novelist and poet, designed to be set to music by Alec Roth. The final libretti is called ‘Seven Elements’. It is a song cycle that includes seven poems – Earth, Air, Wood, Fire, Metal, Water and Space.
Nearly 50 years ago, Professor Bill Jackson published the paper ‘Fire, air, water, earth – An elemental ecology of Tasmania’. With a title like that, one could say he was ahead of his time.
‘Fire Up Water Down: An exploration of the elements’ was launched on the first day of autumn in the southern hemisphere, five months ago to this day. Now well into winter, we have been experiencing very elemental weather with wild winds, torrential rain, thunder, lightning and pounding seas. Something to be appreciated with awe and wonder.