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The Middle Ground

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Architects used to have us believe that better architecture made for better lives. They were rightly ignored as it would make more sense for us all first to agree on what a better life is before thinking about the means to achieve it. Of course some degree of spatial and physiological requirements need to be met as a precondition for not-so-miserable life but architecture hasn’t been about that for some time now. What has endured is the idea that Architecture provides nourishment beyond the spatial and physiological and that this is some kind of aesthetic experience peculiar to architecture and, worse, accessible only to those who can appreciate it and, worse still, afford it.

I’ve always believed this in one form or another albeit with varying emphases and my own notions of what counts as architectural nourishment. Over the past decade or so, I’ve leaned towards spatial geometries that satisfy spatial and social needs and that, for me at least, are aesthetically satisfying because of that. If they’re more achievable for more people then so much the better. I’ve never questioned or been asked to question if architecture and its embedded belief system was the only way of achieving the good life. Until last week.

I’ve just finished reading it. The test of any hypothesis is the amount of information it organizes. This book organizes a few thousand years of Chinese history around the simple hypothesis that the Chinese primarily saw the courtyard as a vertical link between the land and the sky or, if you like, Heaven and Earth. Although courtyards provided ventilation, illumination and internal views, their main purpose was to link Heaven and Earth. The Chinese notion of heaven is synonymous with sky, and the two are also written with the same character (tian, 天). The Chinese had no need for a heaven populated with deities. The sky provides sunlight, darkness, warmth, rain and snow and, together with the ground, is all one needs to grow rice and structure one’s existence.

This strive for a balance between earthly phenomena (over which one had influence) and heavenly ones (over which one did not) was in line with the teachings of Confucius (551–479 BCE) who advocated a “middle way” for people to make sense of their place in the world and live the good life. In summertime, a courtyard might be full of people conversing, singing, eating and drinking but in wintertime the sky would be the dominant presence. This middle way was about balance, not moderation. The most difficult thing to accept is that the courtyard wasn’t a representation of the good life but all that was needed to make it happen. And it did for 2,500 years or so. The Chinese didn’t see any reason to improve upon or change the courtyard as it was already sufficient. It was possible to live a good life with only a courtyard and an awareness of what it meant.

Last week I taught a history class on Romanesque and Gothic architecture. There’s a lot to be said for a personal, unmediated (and unspoken) relationship with both Earth and Heaven even if it doesn’t produce an architecture of flying buttresses, rose windows and gargoyles. The cloister in a monastery is close to the Chinese notion of a courtyard even if the open space is only circumnavigated by monks looking inward and not up.

Artist James Turrell’s 2001 Live Oak Friends [Quaker] Meeting House is closer with its emphasis on the vertical relationship between Heaven and Earth and also, let’s not forget, with its economy of means. However, there are three important differences.

  1. Live Oak Friends Meeting House is a place of worship. It’s a specific place people go to at specific times for the specific act of worship. In some sort of abstract way, it might (or should) structure the lives people lead during the rest of the day.
  2. The roof (or, rather, the soffit) is still very much a barrier between Heaven and Earth. People can see heaven but are still as physically far away from it as ever.
  3. Pretty as they are, Turrell’s skyscapes are also strange in that they make us see the sky with new eyes, as all good art should. Although the sky is real, we nevertheless appreciate it as a two-dimensional trompe l’oeil representation of the heavens above. [Next week’s history class is about Renaissance Architecture and, the week after, Baroque.]
Live Oak Friends Meeting House, Houston, Texas, 2000. Production still from the Art in the Twenty-First Century Season 1 episode, Spirituality, 2001. © Art21, Inc. 2001.

Judging by the length of time the Chinese courtyard survived, it’s reasonable to say it was fit for purpose as a way of structuring life as well as the physical environment. The Chinese courtyard would be a perfect example of architectural determinism if only it were more about buildings and less about the spaces surrounded by them. Anyway, all this was news to me. Possibly a revelation. Gothic cathedrals and Chinese courtyards are both associated with particular views of the world but, while Gothic cathedrals might advertise a blueprint for living, the Chinese courtyard encapsulates one and gives everyone a good chance at the good life in the here and now.

It’s not everyday I’m asked to disregard the basis for everything I thought I knew about architecture.

I had another look at some courtyards I’ve admired in the past, limiting my search to axially organized ones. My first was Philip Johnson’s Rockefeller Guest House even though the axial procession to the courtyard stops at the front door. It’s actually very Chinese in having a change of direction to compose oneself before entering the main room proper but this courtyard is a disappointment. It’s a light well and a horizontal view opportunity. Apart from the three stepping stones, there’s no place a person can be on the ground with open sky above. The small terrace outside the living room is covered by a canopy more to prevent overlooking by neighbors than protect from rain or shine. Still, it’s pleasant enough to Western eyes and, until now, I never found it lacking. This house is all about the entertaining space.

My next axial courtyard house was Craig Ellwood’s 1955 Hunt House in Malibu, CA. It’s symmetrical and processional, and a beautiful plan. The left and right courtyards are functional but the horizontal view of the ocean from the roofless terrace is the main event. I’d always thought the skylight around the chimney was a curious and unnecessary feature but it doesn’t seem so strange to me now.

Real estate pressure in China means the good life isn’t so readily available. More and more people can only aspire to a horizontal views from (and of) towers. It would be nice [and a hugely profitable architectural product for someone] if the courtyard as a vertical space to be traversed, used and appreciated could be combined with voids and stacked housing. Below is my first attempt at designing a symmetrical courtyard house. I was already thinking of stacking them but it was still to early to think about how this could be done or even if it is possible.

As soon as I finished, I realized I’d just designed Kazuo Shinohara’s 1967 Yamashiro House. All that was missing was the change of level.

The section appears to be taken downwards from the post in the middle of the living room yet upwards from the stairs in the car parking space. This space has a portion with a lowered soffit and probably creates a pleasing effect when moving from the lower courtyard into the upper one.

Shinohara bathrooms and kitchens are always utilitarian but I prefer my windows opening onto the courtyard rather than a front door off-axis to the right and kitchen door off-axis to the left in otherwise blank walls. In the plan above, the peripheral area with the dark shading is the full extent of the site. The living room has two tall windows in the corners where the desks are. I’m surprised at the amount of light that appears to be coming in through the one in this photo. Giving each of the bedrooms their own light well is probably a good idea. I’ve never seen an image of the courtyard as seen from the living room. It doesn’t seem like a place to be enjoyed. It’s all about the living room.

There’s a lot of traversing implied voids in Shinohara’s built work. There’s Uncompleted House [1970], Shino House [1970], Cubic Forest [1971], Repeating Crevice [1971] and House in Higashi-Tamagawa [1973] but traversing actual voids occurs not only in Yamashiro House but also in Sky Rectangle [1971], House in Karuizawa [1975] and House in Itoshima [1976]. Yamashiro House (above) and House in Itoshima (below) are the only two with axial movement through courtyard-like voids to the innermost and most important space and even then, the actual route in House in Itoshima is somewhat circuitous.

Shinohara’s House in Itoshima is like Craig Ellwood’s 1955 Hunt House in having the ocean as the void beyond. The axial space at the end of the procession is largely and strongly symbolic even if were don’t know of what. It’s not a space traversed in the course of a day.

If an infinite and horizontal view isn’t available, then having a courtyard on the other side of the innermost room is a good idea, but now my symmetrical courtyard house starts to be Geoffrey Bawa’s Alfred House Office which is entered on axis through a gate between the garage and rooms for the servants (who have a concealed corridor running the length of the house). The first courtyard is an entrance courtyard onto which the servants’ rooms look. The middle courtyard is the most photographed as it has a pool occupying the middle and which has to be walked around. I’m sure the last courtyard the other side of the living room is lovely but it’s more garden than courtyard.

Plan for the Alfred House Office (courtesy of the Geoffrey Bawa Trust)

The pool courtyard too is lovely but the parts open to the sky seem incidental to the pool in the same way that the side courtyards of Elwood’s Hunt House are secondary to the ocean view. In the image below, a bed of pebbles separates the part of the courtyard open to the sky from the route used by people going to the living room.

My last example of an on-axis courtyard is Tadao Ando’s 1976 Sumiyoshi House. It comes closest to the principle of the Chinese courtyard. The entrance door opening off the right side of the porch has, as I mentioned, its Chinese precedents but, once inside, the procession is axial. That’s all by the bye. One person’s photogenic courtyard is another person’s miserable light well but I’ll leave the implications and contradictions of stacked courtyards for another post.

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