Since university I’ve been interested in how modern architecture can make a meaningful contribution to a place and its historical context. In particular the thoughts of John Ruskin, Martin Heidegger and those who show affinity with their work have had a profound effect on me as a young architect.
John Ruskin wrote several influential essays on art and architecture throughout the Victorian and Edwardian eras including ‘The Seven Lamps of Architecture’ in 1849. The Sixth Chapter is called ‘The Lamp of Memory’ in which he says “We cannot remember without architecture”.
The Chapter is filled with words like memory, history and tradition – all of which encourage us to understand that architecture, like literature or art, is part of an ongoing dialogue which we must incorporate into our present experience. To me, Ruskin’s thoughts raises a question about architecture today; is there a relationship between the language of modernism and the history of a place?
German philosopher Martin Heidegger also discusses the importance of history in his essay ‘Being and Time’ (1927). He too suggested that anything significant from the past should form an integral part of our future, so that an object and its meaning can be relevant in the present. Heidegger’s thoughts on the past and present were deep and complex and it would be untrue to say I understood every sentence he wrote, but what is clear to me is that he was critical of the claim that a historical object was merely something from the past that exists in the present. He believed that objects and indeed buildings embodied memories and associations of the past which should be woven into our future.
Similar to the philosophy of Heidegger and Ruskin, the work of Swiss architect Peter Zumthor continually demonstrates that modern architecture can be part of an ongoing dialogue that forms a relationship between new buildings and their historical context. For example, consider Zumthor’s Gugalun House in Graubünden, an extension of an 18th Century timber cabin set remotely in the Swiss Alps. In this case two locally sourced timber constructions, almost 300 years apart, sit together harmoniously while eloquently articulating the passing of time. The materiality, form and language of the new appear reminiscent of the old yet it displays its own structural expression. For me, Zumthor is demonstrating what Heidegger and Ruskin advocated – an architecture that is informed but not held captive by its historical context.
When I look at these photographs I also think about the evocative relationship between old and new wood – they have grown from the same soil, breathed the same air, captured the same light and absorbed the same rainfall. They are of the same forest and are from the same family. It seems almost inconceivable to me that any other material could be used in this instance.
In his book ‘Atmospheres’ (2006), Zumthor talks of creating buildings that, in time, grow naturally into being part of the history of a place – buildings that seem to be so deeply rooted into their context, it is almost impossible to imagine that place without them. I believe Gugalun House demonstrates this philosophy perfectly and helps to reveal the subtle poetry of Graubünden and its history.
Unfortunately, it could be said that today’s architecture is becoming increasingly disassociated with our past. Our towns and cities used to represent distinct identities influenced by culture and tradition – now they often appear to be chaotic and devoid of any real meaning. They are losing their coherence to the point where it is almost impossible to understand them holistically.
Surely architecture should be just as Ruskin described, like literature and art – a cumulative text that conveys the history of a place? Perhaps the greatest challenge for modern architecture, particularly in a historic context, is how we respond to our culture, history and traditions so that they can become vibrant and relevant today.