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Is architecture everywhere?

16 of February '24

Article taken from A&B issue 10|23

Urban wetlands, ponds in the city, lilies in Mies van der Rohe's pavilion, Alina Scholtz, water in a volatile state, discomfort as a privilege, weathering, non-blue architecture - that is, the latest fascinations of Warsaw's CENTRALA Design Group. Izabela Kutyla talks to Małgorzata Kuciewicz and Simon De Iacobis about new architectural definitions, a broader view of the city and what we don't notice, but is always around us.

donica na roślinność wodną przed Zachętą — Narodową Galerią Sztuki, którą CENTRALA prowadzi od lata 2018 roku

A water plant pot in front of Zachêta - National Gallery of Art, which CENTRALA has been running since the summer of 2018.

Photo: Weronika Wysocka © CENTRALA Design Group

Izabela Kutyla:I'm talkingto the co-editors of one of the issues of A&B - in 2019 you had the opportunity to edit the issue "Hydrozagadka". What have you been working on since then?

Malgorzata Kuciewicz:We have been active all the time, and there are several projects that we have been developing since that winter. We will make a small summary. In "Hydrozagadka," which was published in February 2019, we only announced our summer program, a series of wetland walks1. It was then that our adventure of exploring different habitats of soaking areas began. Throughout 2019, we collaborated with the Center for Wetland Conservation. This was the time when we were able to bring the topic of urban wetlands or soakaways into the debate about the city, and we consider it our big success. Since then, we have also been talking to the city of Warsaw about wetland parks. We have held various workshops raising this topic. More generally, blue-green infrastructure has become an important aspect of planning thinking.

Simone De Iacobis:Another initiative, on a slightly smaller scale, which we are continuing, is ponds in the city. We have been successful in spreading the idea of urban water gardening for several years now, and we see a growing commitment to the topic. This includes the introduction of aquatic plants into urban ponds that naturally clean the water, thereby creating microclimatic niches. This has been accomplished through cooperation with several public institutions that have taken an interest in the topic and submitted their ponds or ponds to us. Examples of such pots are already in several Polish cities. Two pots as ponds can be found in Warsaw: at the New Neighborhood Square on the Defilad Square, and also in front of Zachêta - the National Art Gallery. The pot at the Museum of the Earth, Pniewski's former villa, also in Warsaw, is also unique to us. There are others in Kielce in front of the Institute of Design and in Gdansk in front of NOMUS New Museum of Art.

Malgorzata: We also summarized the places where lilies and water plants should return. These are mainly icons of modernist architecture. Simone did a photo project on modernist ponds in Warsaw, through which he found more than thirty places. The results of this project will be shown at the "Warsaw under Construction" festival. Less locally, together with Aleksandra Kędzorek, we managed to restore the lilies in the Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich pavilion in Barcelona2.

pierwsza broszura o niebnej architekturze (celestial architecture) kolportowana od maja 2023, projekt graficzny Zofka Kofta

The first brochure on celestial architecture (celestial architecture) distributed from May 2023, graphic design by Zofka Kofta

Photo: Simone De Iacobis

Isabella:This is a world-famous object. What was the backstory behind this transformation?

Simone:The project with the Mies van der Rohe Foundation was very interesting for many reasons. One of them was to work on changing the perception of the object as an architectural monument, which is static and stable over time, does not change, and is even supposed to maintain perfection as an architectural icon. Water with aquatic plants, which has no chlorine and thus takes on shades of green, becomes murky, full of microorganisms, does not fit this image. However, after time, this variability has set in, the pond is not perfectly clean, because it is not sterile, but it is full of ducks, frogs, dragonflies. There is an abundance of nature, and it's something special that we are happy about, and I hope the audience is too.

cień Ziemi nad Warszawą 10.05.2023

Earth's shadow over Warsaw 10.05.2023

Photo: Aleksandra Kędziorek © CENTRALA Design Group

Izabela:Why the change in approach?

Simone:The topic of discomfort in the city is very close to us, because first of all it brings us closer to nature.

Margaret: At the beginning of the year, we wrote about a major aesthetic turnaround. We noticed that if people are familiar with natural processes, they no longer pay attention to these imperfections, they become more natural. We observe this process of introducing aesthetic discomfort in the city and understand its necessity. It was the same with the pavilion. Last year the lilies looked lousy, but they were taken care of, the water was improved and they are starting to flourish.

Simone:In addition, collective care and concern for nature help us confront climate change and our fears. It's a very slow taming process, but we are already noticing changes.

narzędzia do obserwacji zjawisk mikroklimatycznych i zmierzchowych przeprowadzonych  w tym roku podczas publicznych spacerów w Sheffield (12.04), Gwanju (06.05), Krakowie (04.06), Sokołowsku (11.07) oraz Warszawie (20.08)

Tools for observing microclimatic and twilight phenomena conducted this year during public walks in Sheffield (12.04), Gwanju (06.05), Krakow (04.06), Sokolowsk (11.07) and Warsaw (20.08)

Photo: Simone De Iacobis

Isabella:Is the topic of water topical for you?

Malgorzata: In 2019, Simone initiated a research project on Alina Scholtz, which sparked our interest in the circulation of water3. Through our work on her body of work, we learned how to think about water as a component of the microclimate and how to create it in the city. As a result of these activities, we are now working with water in a volatile state.

We started working with meteorologists who explained to us that our questions were too static and that we had too object-oriented thinking as trained architects. We were asking too pointed questions for a slice of time that did not exist in their synoptic optics. We learned that in Poland we have two types of weather. In one we are causal as architects - in radiation weathering. It causes materials to heat up differently, and their thermal response is different afterwards. It turns out that through composition we can influence the movement of air and water in a city. The second type is advective weather, which is responsible for very violent phenomena. Where we have influence, we can emulate mid-century designers and start thinking about windbreaks, terrain forms that will create aerodynamic silences and, for example, from greenery, more attenuated places.

ilustracja z broszury o niebnej architekturze (celestial architecture), przedstawiająca obserwatorium cienia Ziemi, projekt graficzny Zofka Kofta

Illustration from a brochure on celestial architecture, showing the Earth's shadow observatory, graphic design by Zofka Kofta

drawing: Zofka Kofta © CENTRALA Design Group

Isabella:Does this mean that air and water in a volatile state are part of architecture?

Simone:Thanks to our recognitions about Alina Scholtz's work, we understood that water - all the thermodynamic interdependencies between architectural forms, green or terrain forms, elements in constant movement and constant states of transformation - is what is material for us as architects. We need to think of air as mass and soil as space. Then we begin to see our previously unconscious decisions to either enhance or suppress these phenomena as a task for architecture.

Isabella:The weather and its constant changes have been the beginning of further explorations for you.

Margaret: As with the Mies van der Rohe pavilion, we want to popularize giving nature control over the environment, so-called weathering, or weathering in English. A building isn't perfect when it's new, and the aging of an object is just a process of deterioration, a degradation that requires repair. We postulate walls that record atmospheric phenomena and, like traditional building blocks, by their naturalness, will decompose so that natural succession is set in motion over time. We are interested in textures that acquire roughness, cracking, opening up to accumulate detritus. Materials that host lichen blooms, bryophyte growths, algal infestations. We see the results as new ornamentation, not as undermining of the facade, something that needs repair.

Simone:We can design details that cause intentional streaks thanks to the water in the air, because these are the consequences of the actions of natural processes on the architectural material. An example of similar thinking is the work of architecture students in Barcelona, who are now working with the facades of the pavilion and feeding kefir to the bacteria, bryophytes and lichens that live in the pores of the travertine.

półksiężyc i blask Ziemi nad Obserwatorium ESO Paranal w Chile 27.10.2011

The crescent moon and the glow of the Earth over the ESO Paranal Observatory in Chile 27/10/2011.

Photo: ESO/B. Tafreshi/TWAN

Isabella:Since we're talking about the weather, presumably the microclimate as well?

Malgorzata: After we understood how we could shape microclimates, we did reconnaissance in Sokolowsk, a village where a health therapy was implemented - treatment of tuberculosis with microclimates. We were able to reconstruct the paths of patients. We have become close to the community there, we go there and organize microclimate walks. This allows us to recognize these relationships not only with reason, but also with bodily, skin experience. These are sometimes subtle events that are best experienced in person. We realized that by introducing more and more stimulating conditions, the patients' condition was improved. These microclimatic compositions are still there and can be experienced there.

Isabella:What are you currently working on? What is your latest topic of recognition?

Margaret: The topic that fascinates us the most lately is all the phenomena that we don't see, but are an everyday occurrence - related to the presence of water in a volatile state in the air. We call this celestial architecture or, in English, celestial architecture. These are phenomena such as the Earth's shadow, which can be seen opposite the sunrise and sunset, only everyone is looking the other way. The Earth's shadow is a fleeting moment in which the rotation of our planet is visible. Unfamiliarity with this phenomenon can lead to confusion with smog, but many people observing this phenomenon experience a viewing effect, a sense of oneness with the planet. Among other things, we recognize the non-circularity of the solar disk. The study of the Sun's distortion caused by thermal stratification of the air reveals various thermodynamic interdependencies. We did the first reconnaissance together with the Copernicus Science Center. We have improved our coordinates, as we have a better understanding of where the astronomical points are in our city, where the sun rises and sets and how they move. We are currently looking for more opportunities for cooperation. Right now we are looking into the light from the moon, Earthshine. Due to the fact that the Earth has an atmosphere filled with water, it reflects sunlight, which then comes back to us through reflection from the Moon. Earthshine can sometimes be seen on the darkened part of the Moon. Monitoring its changing brightness helps track our planet's albedo, an important indicator of global warming.

Simone:In summary, we are now most interested in the largest architectural object, which is our atmosphere.

Margaret: We can see all of this in the relationships of the water cycle in the atmosphere. Once again, we've hit upon a subject that used to be generally known, inculcated in people's imagination, and today has almost disappeared. We often work with ethnolinguistics. Just as with the rain pavilion, our previous project, we enjoyed the names of the types of Polish rains, with the wetlands we enjoyed every name and understand that these are ancient habitats that were not alien to us. The same is also true of optical, meteorological phenomena in the atmosphere, for example, the Earth's shadow used to have the name "pink seam". This is new to us, but it does not come from the fact that these phenomena have disappeared, but rather from the fact that astronomy has gone in a completely different direction, for example, the observation of interplanetary water. Everyday phenomena that tell us what is happening around us are not read by us. We know that in Warsaw, by the fact that there will be less and less water, our clouds will become more and more pink, by the so-called alpine glow.

 obserwatorium Stjärneborg w publikacji Tycho Brahe „Astronomiæ instauratæ mechanica”, 1598

Stjärneborg observatory in Tycho Brahe's publication "Astronomiæ instauratæ mechanica," 1598

© Public Domain

Isabella:You are in the process of research. What does this process look like?

Margaret: We are designing a social observatory for optical phenomena in the atmosphere. We design a small structure for each such phenomenon, and sometimes it is a field form, sometimes a pavilion, and sometimes a garden. We also collect old scientific aids. We have learned to read the hour from our own shadow. We use a cyanometer, a storm drop or an Icelandic spade to locate the sun. We know what the phase of the moon is on a given day and that Earthshine's light is best observed in the first or last quarter. This fascinates us, because we had to catch up on knowledge of, for example, Hevelius, his discoveries and the works of his contemporaries. We reached fascinating architectural forms, which were quite an inspiration for us. One example is the Stjerneborg observatory of Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe "who in turn had a great influence on Hevelius. He built a unique astronomical observatory on the island of Ven near Copenhanga. It was a field form consisting of five dug-in chambers and domes above them, from which astronomers would emerge to take measurements. The earthen chamber proved to be the best design, as their earlier observatories shook in the wind. Each astronomer collected data in his or her chamber, and later they were compared together in the central room. This is the first such structure for modern data aggregation and comparison. Among other things, Johannes Kepler formulated his three laws of planetary motion based on this data.

Simone:Our projects are always formed from the recognition of natural phenomena.

Isabella:All this is closely related to your postulate and definition of the amplification of nature. "Architecture is part of the processes occurring at the planetary scale. It is wrong to treat it as a "refuge from nature". The oscillation of light, the circulation of water, gravity and other natural phenomena are the building blocks of architecture. At the same time, they serve the reproduction of the planet. Flows are as important as buildings, and life processes are as important as forms of duration. The scale of architecture is not determined by the size of the object, but by the breadth of the phenomena into which it implicates us."

Margaret: Like a bench that connects us to the horizon. This is the scale at which we must think about architecture.

Isabella:How do you implement this in real life, in the physical world?

Margaret: We released a brochure with the design of a pavilion for observing the Earth's shadow. Now we are preparing another one about the Silver Garden for observing moonlight. We recognize plants with silver coloration, grow them and observe them, because we are designing a garden in the crater, which will be such an achromatic observation site. We want to be able to see the nuances of the night lights there. This is also related to light pollution. We want to raise this issue more widely in the architectural debate. We try to introduce people to the issues by showing interesting phenomena - affirmatively, not through the language of oppression. If we talk about atmospheric conditioning, we could start talking about the recent fires. However, we find it more effective to talk about the picturesque deformations of the solar disk. When we observe the setting Sun dividing into three parts, we see how the cold air displaces the warm air. With such observations, people naturally begin to understand these thermodynamic phenomena.

cień Ziemi pod Krakowem 03.06.2023

Earth's shadow near Krakow 03.06.2023

Photo: Malgorzata Kuciewicz

Isabella:What will be the effect of the work on the atmosphere?

Malgorzata: We want to popularize this knowledge. We want it to enter the common idea of the space we inhabit. It was the same with previous topics, whether it was water plants, urban water circulation or chronobiology. This is not scientific research, just our identification, exploring the potential of these topics in the context of being part of a reflection on architecture. We would very much like to see the understanding of flows as equally important as objects become commonplace. Not all projects end up with something physical. They may be crossings or constrictions of some body of water that change the architecture of the air, however, and thus affect optical phenomena. These are as important as buildings. The air is the architecture.

Isabella:You talk about redefining architecture. The old masters also defined it differently. Do you go back to these texts?

Margaret: We are rereading Vitruvius. We checked that in the old treatises on architecture there is more about meteorology than about proportions, for example. The classics understood it as a component of reality, of the space around. When people began to treat architecture as a refuge from nature, it began to seem to everyone that they had tamed the phenomena. However, it is obvious to us that architecture does not protect us from nature, because it is a part of it. When we feel safe, we stop noticing and understanding atmospheric phenomena, and these phenomena will, after all, become increasingly restless. Our definition of the amplification of nature begins with this. We must treat flows on an equal footing with objects. Living forms on a par with forms of duration. And the scale is not indicated by the size of the objects, but by the vastness of the phenomena that couples us to that space.

Simone:With our interest in historical materials, we are in line with contemporary trends of reading anew, looking from a different angle, through a different lens. All the classical texts on architecture are very much connected to the planetary imagination. It just needs to be discovered and deciphered.

Isabella:Finally. Can I ask you to name some events, initiatives, projects that are worth watching in the context of merging architecture with nature?

Simone:The Venice Biennale. There were themes that have already been in the architectural discussion for several years, but there they were repeated. For example, designing with fungus is a bioarchitectural issue, very much developed by the Belgian pavilion at the ongoing Biennale. The Finnish pavilion also has a talk on dry toilets touching on the topic of taking care of water consumption and conducting recycling of human waste.

Margaret: That is, topics related to metabolism in general, addressing the issue of what we also secrete in the context of architecture and what the environmental costs are. There's a very interesting paper addressing architecture's problematic fascination with gloss. In order to achieve the glossiness associated with modernity, or even white paint, titanium was mined, with negative consequences for the community of Xholobeni (South Africa).4 We don't realize these chains of environmental and social costs, we only see the final products. In addition to the Biennale, we also recommend the European architectural platform 550 proposals were submitted to it, a few of them are about buildings, but most of them are about spaces and planetary relationships beyond the scale of a single building. We have our top 10 among the submitted proposals.

Simone:And for reading, I recommend reading "Modern Architecture: a Planetary Warming History" by Hans Ibelings.

Isabella:Thank you for the interview.

donice obsadzone przez Aleksandrę Grzonkowską przed NOMUS Nowym Muzeum Sztuki w Gdańsku

Pots planted by Aleksandra Grzonkowska in front of NOMUS New Museum of Art in Gdansk.

Photo: Simone De Iacobis

interviewed: Izabela Kutyła

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