At Large September 2019

At large

Jonathan Glancey, 17 September 2019

Twenty-two years ago, Tadao Ando was in London to receive the Royal Gold Medal for Architecture. We met an hour before he was due to give his acceptance speech so I could interview him for the Independent newspaper. Mrs Ando, his translator, was held up on the way to the Royal Institute of British Architects.

Neither of us speaking the other’s language, I was wondering what best I should do when, reaching inside my jacket for a pen, I dropped my wallet on the table and a photograph I carried of William, my curly-haired mongrel, landed between Ando and me.

Ando picked it up, smiled and, as if by sleight of hand, produced a photograph of a smiling Akita. ‘Corbusier’, he said. He then sketched a window, in what proved to be his studio, with Corbusier looking out. Ando made it clear that the window was specially designed for his dog, of which he and Mrs Ando were inordinately fond. This led to a correspondence in which news of our dogs was relayed including, sadly, both their deaths not so very long after our unusual meeting in London.

There are architects who love dogs, architects who have designed special buildings for them – like the grand Kennels (1797) by James Wyatt at Goodwood House in Sussex, a clubhouse for humans today – architects who enter playful competitions run by magazines to design entertaining dog houses in parodies of various styles, and those who appear to detest not just dogs but animals as a whole.

At a time when the cause of animal extinction has become inescapable, it does seem curious to turn pages of architectural magazines and find pristine house after aesthetically hygienic house, apparently either innocent of (or wholly indifferent to) nature. It is easy to imagine these as having been designed for contemporary personifications of the reclusive aesthete Jean des Esseintes, narrator of J-K Huysman’s curious novel À Rebours – published in 1884 and translated into English as Against Nature – who chooses real flowers to decorate his rooms only if they imitate artificial ones.

And yet these textbook rectilinear Modern houses, a type produced for very nearly a century now, take their cue historically as much from Cubism and Machine Age aesthetics as they do from the ideal and chaste elemental forms of architecture promoted by, among other 18th Century theorists, Marc-Antoine Laugier, whose Essai sur L’Architecture (1753) made a strong case for a rational architecture that was, nevertheless, rooted in Nature.

Indeed, the second edition of his essay, published in 1755, includes the famous engraving by Charles-Dominique Eisen of the Vitruvian Primitive Hut, an allegory that shows this elemental structure formed by living trees. The most famous exponent of Vitruvian principles in ‘modern’ times – since the Renaissance that is – was Andrea Palladio; it seems somehow significant that many of his best and most cherished buildings were not urban palazzi attended by armies of cleaners to keep dirt and nature at bay, but rural, Virgilian farmhouses.

There has, of course, been a long tradition of house-barns, in Europe as elsewhere, in which animals live on ground floors and humans above. This arrangement, anathema to most home owners today, has allowed residents to keep a close eye on the health and safety of their animals while benefitting from the underfloor heating cows, sheep, herd dogs and other slumbering creatures offer free of charge. As late as 1839, J C Loudon’s influential An Encyclopaedia of Cottage, Farm and Villa Architecture included designs for combined living spaces, for farm families and their animals.

One of the reasons that so many animal species are under threat today is the experiential gap between their lives and our own. Nature and all its creeping and fluttering things are for the most part ideally viewed through the picture windows of modern houses, in art, safari or on-screen. Seagulls, those most gloriously Gothic birds, are not to be fed in seaside towns today on pain of substantial fines. Sparrows are denied crumbs from the tables of fashionable pavement cafés, while the sight of a tiny mouse scurrying across a kitchen floor prompts calls to vermin control specialists. When I Googled ‘birds in roofs’ moments ago, what popped up on my computer screen were adverts for how to get rid of them, along with images of vicious metal spikes designed to ensure that not so much as a Jenny Wren will threaten our disinfected world.

Dogs aside – legions of whom are resident in loving homes of whatever style or philosophical stance -- might there ever be a true meeting between modern architecture and nature? There are the Vietnamese houses of Vo Trong Nhgia, of course, where trees are an integral part of the structure providing shade, greenery, blossom and birdsong in parts of cities brutally dissociated from Nature for many decades. And, there are the extraordinary tree-lined residential towers of Milan’s Porto Nuova district designed by Studio Boeri.

But there is a long way to go before the worlds of Le Corbusier – Ando’s beloved Akita – and ‘machines for publishing’ in architectural magazines are properly reconciled.

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