Context has always been vital to the discussion or critique of architecture and urbanism; whether this context is cultural, historical, or typological, no architecture has been constructed in a vacuum. It must always be considered versus its antecedents.
Rarely, however, do the discussions of context escape from the limitations of man. Rarely has our self-reflection (as all architectural criticism is, to some degree) engendered a criticism of mankind from the perspective of systems outside of our ability to control. Thus, my thesis research has begun to reconsider the typified components of the built environment from the perspective not of man, but of the sun.
It is within this framework that I divided my research into four categories: the _Historical_, the _Theoretical_, the _Cultural_, and the _Practical_. Most of my research thus far has fit within the _Historical_ and _Theoretical_ categories, but I have discovered that none of the ideas unearthed are truly encapsulated within one category, instead having been influenced by or interpreted within the others.
Historically, I began investigating urban case studies from the early years of civilization, searching for precedents as far back as Mohenjo-Daro, in the Indus Valley, or Teotihuacan, in Central America. What I found were intricate cultural and calendric systems that profoundly impacted the organization of urban space, with grids purposefully oriented such that their architectures tightly corresponded to or against the movement of the sun. While some of the architecture therein was of _religious_ typologies, and therefore _designed_, my true interest lies somewhere within the scope of _vernacular_ and _high vernacular_, particularly in locations less central to nation-states and thus less influenced by the economy of development both then, and now. An important stepping stone in my early research was, naturally, Rudofsky’s _Architecture Without Architects_, in which the author described the “quasi-sacral” nature of the vernacular.
The _architectural regionalism_ movement had a great influence on my own research. In particular, Timothy Cassidy’s assertion that a ”building becomes regional through its engagement with the region,” and does so “over time.” Regionalism cannot be _practiced_ as implied by Frampton; architecture but must inherit this quality through its long and practiced engagement with engagement with context.1
The search for proper case studies led me to Rob Shields’ _Places on the Margin_, wherein Shields opines that we “build our concepts and theories from within our material, forever prisoners of our geographical and historical context.”2 He argues that “the spatial…is part and parcel of our notions of reality, truth, and causality” and that a “_discourse of space_ composed of perceptions of places and regions [and of] the world as a ‘space’” is “central to [our] everyday conceptions of ourselves and or reality."3 In other words, it is the nature of our _spatialized_ contexts that determines our own self-perception, whether these be entirely explicit within the geological environment into which we are situated, or implicitly within, as coined by Vittorio Gregotti, the _anthropogeographical landscape_.4 The result of this framework is a friction between the “spatial present” (Gregotti’s anthropogeographical landscape) and the contextual past (the “natural” environment). This friction, normally resulting in a symbiotic relationship between our constructed space and our contexts, is strained by the contemporary disassociation of city from its landscape ecology.
It is clear to me that our cities could benefit from a close reading of _vernacular_ urban developments, and that the give and take between sun and geology at multiple scales has a profound impact upon our self-conception and the spatial interpretation of sociocultural values.
My research has resulted in the development of a new _system_ or _process of interpretation_ that reads the built environment as a machine whose actuation is entirely dependent upon the characteristics of daylight. Implicit within this reading is the use of the hand as a tool for the manipulation of context and its transformation into anthropogeographical landscape. Thus, I chose to use only directly hand-driven mediums for the representation techniques associated with each component of the constructed environment.
The result of this exercise is firstly a complex rubric of each component (read, translated, or invented) associated with a particular medium and the implications of reading that component _through_ the chosen medium. Through several iterations, the final mediums were eventually chosen for these implications, rather than for purely aesthetic reasons. However, you can see from the rubric that there is a closely ordered methodology that places each component in a foreground, middle ground, or background position, such that no medium unintentionally interferes with the one beneath.
You are looking at a territorial view of the city of Chur, Switzerland, nestled in a narrow mountain pass adjacent to a long valley running roughly East to West. The diagram is oriented with East in the upward position, prioritizing the sun’s movement instead of our polar-oriented maps with North upwards. The sun tracks from the top of the diagram, around the right side to the bottom. Observe the second semi-circle, smaller than that of the sun, opening to the west. This describes my own interpretation of the city’s overall orientation and breadth.
The positions of the sun notated on its travel arc are derived not from their position in _time_, but from their relationship with the mountains to the southeast and southwest of the city. A section (shown in bold red), is cut through the town and mountains, whose abstracted profile can be seen, dashed, and marked at key intervals. At each of these intervals, a line has been drawn to note the exact position at which the sun is perpendicular to the point, and a study of the shadow cast by the sun in each of these positions was then conducted. These can be seen noted as A-H.
All of these diagrams are drawn in relation to the red cross, which marks the planimetric center of one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, chosen for further analysis in the second panel.
The areas marked in patches of green denote agricultural fields. While not initially important to my research, one can directly relate the position and scale of these fields with the shadow cast by the mountains, a discovery made directly form the sun position studies previously conducted.
In this large-scale view, the entire mountain region acts as a singular geological machine producing lighting conditions to impact the city below. In the next panel, I start to investigate just what kind of impact this has at an architectural scale, and how more intimate daylighting machines interact with the body.
This is a closer view of the area marked by four corners on the previous panel. The buildings drawn are consolidated and slightly simplified plans of the city’s current organization. A few buildings have been left out so that the diagram more closely matches older plans of the city from the mid-19th century, when the oldest plan of the city was more closely adhered to.
The brown ground is painted in varying shades to denote change in slope - lighter shades are steeper, while the bluish-brown areas are nearly flat. You can clearly see the foothills of two mountains in the upper left corner and right edges of the panel. Once again, East is oriented upwards.
The outlines in varying shades of yellow, red, and purple denote cumulative yearly radiation, drawn from an analysis conducted in DIVA for Rhino using the the site’s topography. We can clearly see a channel of consistent exposure from the upper right, southeast, towards the northwest, where a small pass opens through the mountains. This is section D in the first panel.
I chose this specific instance in the daylighting schemes described in the first panel to diagram its influence upon the built environment. To conduct this study, I chose to negate the impact of building height so that the study is driven completely by plan, as a study of orientation over form. Vectors drawn from the sun’s azimuth impact each of the buildings vertical surfaces in sequence from the southeast. Areas of these exposed to direct sunlighting are drawn in white. From this we can ascertain whether or not buildings are oriented to take advantage of or avoid this position of the sun, and which surfaces will have an outsized emphasis upon adjacent spaces.