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The Language of Architecture by Val Warke, Andrea Simitch

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A work never exists in isolation. There is always a
context in which it is situated, and in which a relation-
ship to that context is established. And while that
relationship can be platonic, casual, symbiotic, or
detrimental, it is the specifics of that context and the
ways in which it is interpreted that establish the terms
While a context can be measurable, it is also always malleable.
5
context
of dialogue. For one project, it might be the
physical context that emerges as the most
pressing voice to engage, for another it might
be the infrastructural, for yet another it might
be the ephemeral or the environmental. The
dialogue can be one of friendship or of foe,
one of accomplice or of exploitation, one of
exaggeration or of disregard, one of exposure
or of obfuscation. Yet, ultimately, a work has
the ability to give meaning to a context, to
encompass all that already exists within that
context and the opportunity to inflect
previously unknown contexts.
Physical Context
Within any site there are the physical ‘givens’
that bring unique identity to the context in
which a work is to be situated. They can also
be strong factors in motivating the concept of
that work. Existing structures have specific
dimensional and spatial characteristics (heights,
widths, openings, volumes), and material and
construction methodologies. Natural and
artificial topographies (flat or sloped, soft or
hard) can be powerful determinants in
establishing a building’s relationship to its site,
and views from and to the site bring an
expanded identity to a specific context. Yet,
while these ‘givens’ are measurable, they are
often malleable, as a work can either emphasize
or deemphasize their significance through what
it chooses to call attention to.
Material
Material can establish a context for a work.
If one is to build a house in a town of wooden
houses, perhaps one might build it out of
wood. Or perhaps the material context might
be a particular species of wood in a local
forest, or the granite of a nearby quarry.
Or, inversely it might be thought of as an
extension of the ground on which it is
constructed—as in a stone house situated on
a rocky outcropping. Or perhaps it will be
made out of brick to refer to an abandoned
brick factory whose very existence created
the town. In other words, a material context
is an expansive one.
Scale
Within a context there are two aspects of
scale that need to be addressed. One is the
scale of the site: a building in the middle of
the city will be aected by the scale of the
neighborhood—whether it is embedded in a
block or surround by skyscrapers—or by the
scale of the landscape in which it is situated (a
vast plain or a dense forest). Then there is the
scale of perception—the distant views from
which one will perceive the building and the
views that will be perceived from the building.
A composite building that
evolved and expanded over
600 years, the Vienna
Hofburg had an extended
conversation with its
surrounding context. It not
only alternates between
forming streets and squares
as it sidles up to existing
linear edges and as it
completes fragmented urban
spaces, but creates a
previously illegible axis as it
constructs backdrops that
terminate them. It fuses
itself with its context, it is an
architectural chameleon that
appropriates, blurs, and
produces its urban
boundaries.
At the Center for the
Advancement of Public
Action completed in 2011 for
Bennington College in
Bennington, Vermont, Tod
Williams and Billie Tsien used
reclaimed marble from now
extinct local quarries to
develop a material dialogue
with many of the civic
structures that populate
the villages and towns of
Vermont.
Through its single columned
portico the Einar Jonsson
House (Reykjavík, Iceland,
1916) establishes a
monumental presence when
viewed from the city below.
However, its opposite side
addresses what was planned
to be an intimately scaled
public space embedded
within a residential
neighborhood. The design of
the house thus inspired the
scales and proportions of the
city as it developed around it.
THE LANGUAGE OF ARCHITECTURE
(continued on page 53)

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