• Saturday , 7 December 2019

The courtyard

‘So, what do you think?’

The simple question cut through the incessant small-talk and pleasantries. Years of study, several study trips and countless hours in messy studios had surely granted her a special insight into the architectural nuances of this newly constructed home.

In truth, her contemplative pause masked a mind frantically searching for an ‘appropriate’ answer. The social angst she had been experiencing since her arrival to this housewarming was simply a symptom of a much older anxiety that had been germinating throughout her education, an angst of indifference. A shameful indifference to almost all architecture being constructed around her. Despite her best efforts, architecture, for the most part, seemed incapable of engaging her, to the point where she had completely ignored this modern home.

The house refused to defy any expectations of a contemporary piece of architecture. The foyer’s double-height space greeted guests with a large, blank in-situ concrete wall, a wall that reappeared in all of the major spaces, its minimalist aesthetic a product of twentieth-century modernist thinking while its roughness a facet of the architect’s deep appreciation for texture and material truth. Clean geometric lines ran through all elements, creating spaces perfectly orthogonal, while the palette of materials was refined to just concrete and glass with timber accents, establishing a consistency throughout, but also keeping surprises to a minimum. None of this excited her. It seemed that the assuredness about this architecture was unreflective of the messiness of human experience that surrounded her.

But there were moments, moments where architecture had indeed grabbed her attention completely, where a building possessed the potential for unending layers of engagement. Walking through the sequence of spaces altered by Scarpa in Castelvecchio, where every inch of built fabric became a vessel for thought, or listening to how the music contrasted the tempo of rain falling onto the roof overhead from the top floor of a Maltese opera house; she clung onto the hope these moments afforded and wished deeply to talk about them now instead of this house, but she couldn’t and replied with non-descript approval so as not to offend the host and protect her shameful secret.

The open plan employed for its democratic and transparent analogies now oppressed the graduate’s ability to find a space away from the disappointed group. She retreated further into the house and into her thoughts, trying to tease out the commonalities of the hopeful moments of critical engagement. Her issue wasn’t wholly unique to architecture. Through ‘Epic Theatre’ the influential German playwright Bertolt Brecht found ways to wake the audience’s capability for critical thinking by alienating them from the performance. This was achieved through various means; third person narration, speaking the stage directions, and using placards. All shared a similar characteristic, that of breaking the established patterns and rules of western theatre and bringing the audience into a state of contemplation. Only by accepting, understanding, and employing the rules and patterns can a disruption to them have significant influence.

Indeed, architecture as a medium has a unique ability in creating these disruptive moments. Consider a painting in a museum, hung on a stationary wall. The observer views the object from a distance and does not physically engage with it. Museums often use a rope to physically manifest this separation. However, in the picture room of the Soane Museum, Sir John Soane uses these expectations to surprise the viewer. Many of the seemingly stationary walls, full of paintings, can be opened on a hinge, to reveal more paintings or indeed a view into another space. This example demonstrates the way in which architecture can uniquely engage. Patterns and disruptions can be hidden and revealed through physical interaction with architectural elements. The act of opening has enormous potential in revealing content in unique ways. It is when this mental process of understanding is matched with a physical process that architecture utilises its uniqueness as a medium.

As she considered the potential of architecture, she turned a corner and was met with an unusual copper door on one of the large in-situ concrete walls. Its floral engravings and rusted aesthetic seemed out of place, an aberration of context. Intrigued, she entered through and found a perfectly square courtyard that the concrete walls had hidden brilliantly. At its centre, a lone timber chair floating on a sea of gravel, where she sat and observed. Finally, here was a space that acted as a physical and analogical representation of the idea she so wanted to express; the power in disrupting patterns, in creating moments of critical engagement. The curated promenade through Castelvecchio now could be seen as a beautiful flow of establishing and disrupting patterns of material, structure, and history, while the unforeseen noise of rain brought into focus the reality of the architecture of the opera house by breaking the patterns of acoustic performance. This courtyard, meanwhile, recontextualised the initial experience of the house. Sitting there, she realised, most importantly, that the courtyard required the house as the disruption requires the pattern. As vertically board marked walls gestured towards the night sky, she pondered the square section of airspace above her, isolated from the rest; a part of the whole, yet apart from it.

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