Title: Architecture and Sensitivity: A Manifesto for Sustainable Design
This manifesto proposes an approach to sustainable design that I am interested in exploring during my time studying architecture. The idea of sustainability is a complex one, not without apparent contradictions. This makes it difficult to define in a wholly satisfactory manner. For the purposes of this manifesto I will advert to the definition proposed by Jason McLennan who asserts that sustainable design: “seeks to maximize the quality of the built environment, while minimizing or eliminating negative impact to the natural environment.” I find this definition particularly useful in the emphasis which it places on quality. By quality, in this context, I mean an approach to building which emphasises not only thoughtful design but also the careful use of materials; these considerations are crucial to achieve sustainable development. “Quality” as the architect Thomas Sandell says “is always sustainable”: this holds particularly true if we return to the most basic meaning of that adjective – “long lasting.” My manifesto would involve seven basic considerations: a structure should be layered, generous, contextual, connected to nature, innovative, stimulating and idealistic. I propose to examine each of these points in turn, aware that they can be generally grouped under the heading of sensitivity. As I see it, a sensitive approach to architecture is one that fundamentally responds to the issues of site, user and impact, while not excluding other concerns – and all this in a way that is considered, thoughtful and restrained. These, then, are the fundamentals of my approach to design.
According to T.S Eliot, “Genuine poetry communicates before it is understood”: I believe the same holds true for genuine architecture. It affects us at a pre-conscious level and its impact transcends the immediate, sensory, effects of the building. As I see it, architecture is not a matter of superficial effects. Its must transcend that which is little more than eye-catching gimmickry. A good example of what I would consider a layered design is Erik Gunnar Asplund’s Woodland Chapel built in 1922 (Fig. 1). Located on the grounds of the Woodland Crematorium in Enskede outside Stockholm, it was built to accommodate the funerals of children. At first, the chapel seems unremarkable in its elemental simplicity – as Simon Unwin puts it “without pretentions to being anything more than a rudimentary hut in the woods.” However, in quiet and richly suggestive ways, Asplund imbues this seemingly uncomplicated building with a poetic sense of an ancient and timeless place for burial. As J.R Curtis puts it, this apparently simple chapel was: “guided by underlying mythical themes to do with the transition from life to death, the procession of burial and redemption and the transubstantiation of natural elements such as water and light. There were echoes too of Nordic burial mounds and of Christ’s route to Calvary.”
Fig. 1 Erik Gunnar Asplund, Woodland Chapel, 1922
One striking aspect can be found in Asplund’s sensitive treatment of the theme of resurrection. The idea is usually made explicit through the use of iconography; Asplund, however, evokes the notion of rebirth through his use of subtle association. The Chapel, for example, has only one source of light, which comes from above. The eye is therefore drawn upwards, to the heavens. This effect is accentuated by the pervasive darkness of the building. Like Robert Venturi, Asplund opts for “richness of meaning rather than clarity of meaning.” As a result, his Woodland Chapel has an uplifting rather than a depressing effect. His Chapel becomes an affirmation of life rather than an acceptance of defeat, and this appeals to me very much. It is no surprise to discover that Asplund himself – in a 1940 article on his crematorium building in Byggmästaren – referred to the Woodland Cemetery, in which the...