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What a beautiful view!

28 of September '21

"What a beautiful view! Nature in its full glory!" says the architect (in this vision it must be a man, not a woman, and at least middle-aged), adding immediately, because after all he is an architect: "Let's build an iconic house right in the middle of it! The true crowning glory of this beauty!". The demiurge, wearing a neckerchief (or scarf, as demiurgeurs must have something under their necks that isn't simply a banal office worker's tie), wriggles his hands a moment and makes frames framing the landscape from his folded fingers, like a director from a 1960s comedy.

While doing so, he jumps up and down with gusto, and the accompanying client, obviously cultured and affluent, stands slightly back, as if observing with devotion the creative act of the architect, who twirls and twirls and twangs like a modern dance choreographer. The client (not likely a woman, unless she has the charisma of Imelda Marcos or at least the innate delicacy of Magda Gessler) is a true patron able to appreciate that good architecture costs money, and the frisky guy is a true visionary, so he must be lavishly paid. And so the minds of architects since, I believe, the days of Palladio have been weaving magnificent sculptural and geometric displays of human genius and status. Beautiful as a starry banner stuck into the surface of the Silver Globe, which directly cries out to leave a human mark on it. Some kind of comprehensible content for us, because neither lunar emptiness nor beautiful terrestrial vistas seem to be appreciated, nor do we see valuable content in them, unless they become a background and at the same time a foreground for our, what to say, ennobling, architectural colonization. This imprinting would not be possible without the consent and active participation of the ordering parties, and often without their initiative, as is the case with the skyscrapers rising straight from the beach in Miedzyzdroje or the fairy-tale castle in Notecka Forest, not to mention a series of magnificent hotels (completing the incomplete panorama of the Tatra Mountains without them). And so, hand in hand, the Architect and the Orderer (I consciously write with a capital letter!) adorn the Earth of the Anthropocene era: the thoughts of one and the dutifulness of the other fly towards the landscape, assembling themselves into the mansion of their dreams, as in a Pixar animated film.

Of course, not all Architects are lucky with Orderers with a capital Z. Most architects end up as just another industry and providers of "architecture services" because "the client knows better." On top of that, the orderers are often either unwilling to pay for anything (and especially for some damn "creative act") or simply have pockets that are too shallow. The modernist vision from the first sentences of this column is thus the wet dream of the majority and shared by a mere handful of the country's architects or increasingly, female architects, who nevertheless have to put in extra effort in fulfilling the demiurgic dream. Mainly because they are not middle-aged guys (wearing scarves and with a set of signs of masculine maturity - from rounding belly starting to thinning hair) and prancing around in creative excitement would render them terribly demiurgic. By the way, someday someone should address the subject of dancing representatives and representatives of our profession and the connections of various Labans, Mart Grahams or Merce Cunninghams with Buckminster Fuller and Lin Bo Bardi....

Meanwhile, there are more and more female architects to whom the Palladian-colonial logic of marking the world with a building visible from very far away somehow does not appeal. Probably the logic of hunters ("What a beautiful animal, we absolutely must hunt it!") or five-year-olds walking along the roadside ("Such a beautiful flower, I must pick it!") does not appeal to them either. Because natural beauty does not get more beautiful or complete under the influence of putting up a villa straight out of a Hollywood set, or hyper-realistic renderings from Designboom. For this group, contemplating the explosive scene of a mansion nestled among the California cliffs in Antonioni's "Zabriskie Point" is pure pleasure, as is attending straw-bale building courses or exploring the Hobbit's "cottages" hidden in the ground. What's more, this group is increasingly being joined by orderers of all ages who want energy-efficient homes hidden in the bush, rather than gleaming pristine white games of cuboidal buildings topped with "heroic cantilevered" canopies and hanging pools devoid of railings in the air.

My first client with such needs was Todd. And although his "mountain cabin" has not been realized so far, just choosing a location for it on top of a mountain that is the foreground of the Appalachian Mountains was an interesting experience. Todd is the brooding son of a Tennessee megafarmer. He has an open-mouthed, breakfasty Brazilian trophy husband and, unlike a significant portion of his family, he loves to learn, reading whatever he can and milking his tongue in the five languages he knows. His attraction to learning helped him break out of his native village and into high school in nearby Nashville, then to college in New York, and finally to start life as an art curator in São Paulo. We knew each other from my first residency in the Big Apple, and our shared interests pushed us to collaborate on community projects in Brazil.

One day he called me, urging me to take a trip "into the bush," as he put it. Thinking little, I took advantage, and a few months later I found myself in a jeep, which we used to climb an overgrown trail to the top of a mountain that Todd had freshly inherited from his grandmother. Grandma's mountain was covered with a tall mixed forest and an incredible amount of bushes, so that finding potential places to put up a house required a lot of machete-swinging. Finally, cradling an absurdly red aluminum ladder, we made our way to a clearing at the top, which offered a view of the Beskydy-like landscape. Todd wanted a cabin where he could stay whenever he visited his hometown, without having to live in his parents' house and argue at the kitchen table with his father, owner of a sizable collection of long and short guns, about the role of Jesus and Donald Trump in saving America. "I want the cabin to be unobtrusive, to barely stick my nose out from between the trees, but to give me a view that allows me to breathe." Todd stated, gramming up the nearly five-meter ladder. The ladder was attached to the trees or placed in the spaces between them. Its upper level was meant to mark roughly the viewpoint of a person standing on the raised first floor of the house.

Eventually we found the best spot and not very far from the road. The heat was pouring from the sky and the humid air was taking your breath away. "You understand, I want to see and not be overly visible!" he stated from the top of the ladder, while I stabilized its base, contemplating a plum-sized tick slowly climbing up my leg. After all, everything is big in America. As if to defy the American scale, Todd added from above: "Oh, and make it small and modest in its own way!" and I began to wonder how we would actually account for this project and, in general, how to put a house on its feet in these bushes, and on top of that, how to enter it without falling down the long stairs. I designed Todd's hut, my first steel prefabrication project providing for the assembly of the whole thing by helicopter. Indeed, the small, cuboidal block was to be heavily glazed with anti-reflective glass on the view side and painted olive drab military green.

As I mentioned, the house has not been built so far, but it has opened the way for the realization of more discreet "cottages in the bush," which, although they benefit from the view of the landscape, do not themselves pretend to be its crowning glory. Visits to the plots of land where they are to be built do not resemble the visionary choreography of the demiurge and its patron. Usually, both I and my clients, men and women, crawl in wellies between the trees, like mushroom pickers or gardeners wondering what else to plant, where to thin and where to cut back. The emerging houses are probably less photogenic than the pristine white cuboid reigning in the middle of the frame of the bald hill, but that's not the point. They are supposed to be well "grafted" into their place, small enough and of proportions that allow them to partially "disappear" in the greenery and shadow cast by the trees.

Architects who think in a similar way are not few, and there is no shortage of ordering parties, often not only cultured, but also wealthy. We find patterns not only in traditional architecture and the designs of our parents' generation, but also in the immediate environment of the places where we are to build. And if during the initial visit to the plot of land we come to wiggle in an ecstatic dance, it is unlikely to be because a great architectural vision has come upon us, but because of the ants that have entered our pants.

Jakub Szczęsny

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