In pursuit of generosity – my journey begins

My trip to South Africa has begun, and I have been greeted by sunshine and smiling faces on arrival here in Cape Town, filling me with a sense of possibility and excitement. The trip is part an Art Connects Us grant from the British Council, that is aimed at developing connections between the UK and the creative sectors in Sub-Saharan Africa. To give myself what can only be a taste of the local architectural scene in this short period of time, I have arranged to see buildings and meet a few architects of different generations – from young students to the great masters. I will share as much as I can through this blog and on Instagram as I go (although I already a day behind!). These works and conversations will be approached in consideration of what it means to be generous – a quality that I believe should be central to architecture, especially at a time where social and economic inequality is rising across the world.

This ‘research’ is approached without a fixed outcome in mind, instead I wish to pursue ideas and conversations to see where they take me, letting the material I gather and encounters I have help define the product. I have intentionally not overfilled my schedule and am trying to allow time for reflection and absorption, accepting that this will not be a comprehensive survey, but will hopefully give rise to a few meaningful connections.

Where did I begin? Underlying almost everything I have done in recent years is a pursuit of a human architecture. This has often focused on a discussion about experience, because when lived, inhabited and occupied architecture becomes interwoven in our existence, having an impact on our emotions, psyches and bodies – or more generally to our well-being.

I sought a word that would encapsulate my interests. I tried empathy (which I think has both possibilities and problems), and care (which is loaded but interests me because of its ties to the etymology of curating) and landed on generosity, as is a quality I greatly admire in people and is about an attitude as well a quality in architecture. Generosity to me is about listening and acceptance, about give and take, about a relationship of reciprocity and about partaking. A generous building carries these qualities and allows us to be who we are, allows and supports difference, encourages humility and generosity in its occupants.

Generosity also raises questions about the relationship between a benefactor and recipient, of the role of the architect and of the client, of the individual and society. Does a generous attitude of creators of buildings result in a generous building? What are the forces at play that might prohibit a building from fulfilling its potential to be generous? I hope that by involving others in the discussion I can help give greater definition to what might constitute generosity in architecture and how it might be achieved.

Architecture impacts everyone. We need to inspire greater visual and spatial literacy for all (2017)

Published by the Royal Academy at the time of the RA250 programme launch and a renewed commitment to architecture. 

Debate has long raged as to whether architecture is an art or a science. For me, it’s the inter-relationship of these two fields and the resulting tensions that make architecture so interesting.Art can change how we look at the world; it can inspire, surprise, alarm, delight, and our relationship with it can change with time and familiarity. These are all possibilities that architecture can offer too. But unlike most art forms, architecture must also operate on both a functional and practical level, with technical demands such as weatherproofing, structural stability, and regulatory controls coming into play. Quality architecture is about meeting these practical demands while creating spaces that are poetic and human. The experience of being in buildings that successfully negotiate the tension between practicality and delight is memorable and enlightening.Architecture is a socially-engaged art form and consequentially has an impact on us all in some way or another. It doesn’t exist for its own good but instead must address political, social, environmental and economic imperatives. It must also engage with the world of ideas, of culture and imagination. The conversation about architecture must therefore be wide reaching – one to which we all contribute. That’s why the Royal Academy, an independent artist and architect-led institution, is a fitting place to forge such a debate and provide a broad and inclusive platform that questions, provokes, inspires, innovates and educates on all aspects of architecture in our lives. From Brexit to the recent tragedy of Grenfell Tower, the past year has made it dramatically evident that the conditions in which we live – and to which architecture must respond – are continually evolving. By understanding the past, and critically interrogating existing situations, we are better able to propose solutions for the future. At the RA, we want to create a platform, and incubator, for fresh ideas about architecture; not just presenting current thinking but also developing new ideas.

Architectural projects – in this case a refurbished campus by David Chipperfield Architects that opens in 2018 – provide a moment to refocus ambitions. Architecture has been an integral part of the RA since its beginnings, and for nearly 25 years we have had a dedicated programme that focused on architecture. This programme has grown in response to an increasing public interest and a necessity for critical debate on the subject.

Our announcement about a reinvigorated commitment to architecture at the RA, supported by the Dorfman Foundation, shows that architecture, far from being on the professional periphery is vital to our lives and culture. An international awards programme, a new Architecture Studio, annual temporary exhibitions and a beautiful new lecture theatre to host debates, will enable us to reach larger audiences and harness different spaces and mediums for engagement while addressing critical issues, locally and globally. An architect’s knowledge and agency reaches far wider than just creating buildings and needs to be understood and harnessed.

The best architecture is created through a shared vision between client, community and architect that is garnered through listening, evaluation and leadership. Heightening the spatial and visual literacy of us all can only assist in this process. We want to enliven the public discussion and equip architects with a broad frame of reference that assures aspirational architecture is created for everyone. We hope you’ll be a part of it.

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A journey to the Pacific edge with Pezo von Ellrichshausen (2013)

In preparation for the Sensing Spaces exhibition I visited Pezo Von Ellrichshausen, in Chile who took me to see Casa Poli, the house that gave them international renown. 

Despite using similar raw materials and geometric forms to Casa Cien (their home and studio), Pezo von Ellrichshausen’s Casa Poli feels quite different. Perched on a spectacular piece of land that sits astride a small peninsular in the Pacific Ocean, its placement is the result of very careful consideration.
It is positioned so the slope falls away gently enough to make it feel securely anchored to the ground, but also perched on the edge between land and the expanse of sea. When I first arrived, looking down on it from a distance it felt almost austere, and drew to mind concrete observation lookouts defending against invasion.However, the cubic form also feels eternal, particularly as you draw closer and discover the lichen growing on its concrete surface.

It feels almost heroic – man and nature, united in ambition. However, the greatest surprise came from spending time within it. To describe its interior as a perimeter space between two walls, containing stairs, service and storage belies its magic. Large windows penetrate the walls and the depth is used to really grab hold of the view and bring it inside. An interior is created that has an expansive character. The walls enclose a volume, not rooms. It thus evokes a feeling of a world neither inside nor out. Light moves through the house like another occupant, bringing warm colour to one corner, bright outlines to another, animating the house on a minute-by-minute basis.

We sat all afternoon in the house, discussing yet more ideas, which were able to flow and change just as did the light and mood of the space. As I walked away the next morning, looking back down on the house that I’d first seen only the day before, it looked entirely different.What had at first seemed a definitive object now appeared alive- both in its setting and what I knew it to contain. It reinforced more than ever how a building needs to be experienced, inhabited and spent time with to properly digest, consider and enjoy.

A snippet from our meandering afternoon conversation

KateHow can we bring to the fore the qualities of architecture: make it – and people – ‘present’ within a gallery space?
SofiaI think what we’re talking about here is about an interaction. We should generate some sort of interaction between the visitor and this inanimate ‘thing’ that is architecture, and not with a show made by other people, because then architecture just becomes a backdrop. It should be active, but what is the interaction about?
MauricioTo touch, to smell, to see some details, to walk in a special way… the way you walk around a staircase like here, you’re having a bodily connection with the building; you touch the building; you’re making an effort…
SYour heart beats faster.
MYour muscles are different… by forcing someone to have an effect on their body you’re dismissing the possibility of being in a place without doing anything which is what architecture normally does. I think it’s an important definition. Architecture is a structure that you cannot see directly; it’s peripheral to your view. That’s architecture. And the tendency today is to make it the central focus of your attention. When you go to a museum and you see a painting hanging on a wall… that’s the centre focus of my attention. Architecture is not trying to do that, except for maybe a church where you have the altar or specific monuments… but normal architecture is secondary, invisible… or lateral.
SGood architecture is somehow invisible, but allows for whatever is happening in that space to be the best experience possible. But it’s true that now as we’re sitting in this space, we’re not directly interacting with the architecture of the building, but it is what is allowing for the condition of the light, and a very nice breeze…

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“Dandelion: Making of the UK Pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo 2010” (2011)

The UK Pavilion – nicknamed ‘Dandelion’ by the Chinese people – was designed by Thomas Heatherwick. Over the 6 month period of the Expo it was visited by almost 8m people, winning the Expo’s Gold Medal for design and the RIBA’s Lubetkin Prize. Written by Kate Goodwin, Drue Heinz Curator of Architecture at the Royal Academy, the book shows the development from competition stage to finished pavilion, uncovering the roots of Thomas Heatherwick’s idea. The book is written in English and Mandarin.

The British Council Visual Arts Publications (2011)















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