A thousand visions escape

For a building to be motionless is the exception: our pleasure comes from moving about so as to make the building move in turn, while we enjoy all these combinations of its parts. As they vary, they column turns, depths recede, galleries glide: a thousand visions escape.” Paul Valery, quoted by Steven Holl.

Sou Fujimoto

Earlier in the summer I saw Sou Fujimoto‘s Serpentine Pavilion. On the Serpentine Gallery website, Sou Fujimoto describes the pavilion as “A really fundamental question how architecture is different from nature, or how architecture could be part of nature, or how they could be merged…what are the boundaries between nature and artificial things.” The accompanying press talked about the cloud-like form, the way the structure blended with the landscape and so on.

Whilst thinking about blurred boundaries and enmeshed experience is cat nip for Spinozists and Landscape Architects, I was more excited for another reason: it was simply fun to be in, and reminded me immediately of the best climbing frame I ever knew. Growing up, my sister and I went to church every weekend, and the Sundays I looked forward to most were at Little Yeldham because afterwards we could play in the park. At the park was a brutal version of what Sou Fujimoto built: a 5x15x15m cube, with larger spacings in the grid and composed of 40mm scaffold tube, set in a massive concrete bed. It was lethal, but so much fun: you could climb, chase, jump, twist and hang in every way you could think of. A simple structure, cheap and easy to build, and perfect for Sundays (which are all about your imagination). Sadly, you can’t really climb Sou Fujimoto’s pavilion, except where directed, and the centre has been left open to make space for coffees and sitting around, but the joy of passing through it is just the same. Every movement around the piece changes your understanding of the whole, lining up different sightlines, watching people appear and disappear.

Sou Fujimoto 3

Seeing the building move reminded me of a line quoted in Parallax, leant to me seven years ago by Jeff Logsdon, our tutor at Writtle, and remembered since: “a thousand visions escape.” The book that Holl took that quotation from was the Introduction to the Method of Leonardo, and for the last seven years I’ve looked for a copy of it in every bookshop I’ve visited to learn what philosophy this beautiful turn of phrase fitted into. Finding out more about the book was difficult, and the few references to it online all quote the same couple of lines as Holl. Very few were published, making the book all the more enigmatic, and the more I thought about it and looked for it, the more I wanted to track it down.

By chance the same weekend that I saw the pavilion I found a copy in Collinge and Clark– in the frontispiece it says that fewer than 900 were translated into English (hence the seven year search). Expecting a massive tome, I was surprised to hold it in the hand: it’s so thin.

Writing in 1894, Paul Valery investigated the process of invention: how do we create, why is it that some are better at it than others, and above all, why was Leonardo so great at it? What processes did he go through, and how can lesser minds understand one that seems to operate on a different plane? During the course of his inquiry, Valery considers Leonardo’s obstinate rigour and his polymathy, but ends with an investigation into Leonardo’s psyche. Searching for the best way to understand the “intercommunications between the different activities of the mind“, he considers Leonardo’s different talents and exercises, but concludes that “it is through the building… that we can best realise the clarity of a Leonardesque intelligence.” For Valery, Leonardo’s genius was made possible by his rigour and his polymathy, but at its root was the ability to move quickly between the concrete and the abstract. Deep considerations into the nature of matter and energy led to insights into philosophy and back to construction; thinking about Leonardo’s designs for a cathedral were the best way to understand this.

Valery noted that buildings and cities are often designed and generally used in a state of abstraction (or distraction): most users only consider a part of an entity if at all. We might consider the decoration of a public building, the view from a window or the shade under a tree, but rarely is the whole considered. Valery saw that new sightlines are revealed in turn and that to consider the whole one needed to move. There is a profound symmetry between the creative process and the use of space. In the same way that the user moves through a space, sees new lines and makes a place, the architect first considers the problem of construction, then properties of materials and future uses, and passes to profound questions of mechanics and physics in general: in each process there is movement between observation, consideration and discovery.

concept sketch Fujimoto press page

Being aware of our position and our movement through a space reminds us of our context. Sou Fujimoto’s pavilion encourages us to consider the whole; at every point in the building we see a different building and a different landscape behind it. In a similar way, Willem van Weegel’s art is all about reconciliation, the bringing together of volatility and stasis:

Whilst Paul Valery was writing about the studies of buildings, I think his observation is more powerful when applied to landscape: landscape design is art on the greatest scale. The energisers of our work are what other professions consider the mess of life: shed leaves, meltwater, the launch of a canoe, bat roosts and so on. Our palette of materials releases glimpses of a whole that evolves through months and seasons. Constantly changing, our work often makes sense only at scales we can’t ordinarily comprehend, and demands from the designer a balance of delicate understandings, of the abstract and concrete.

Post script. Reading The Method of Leonardo did not take long (it’s only 69 pages) but it took a long time to find the paragraph that contained the quotation I’d read in Parallax. When I did find it, I found that Holl had changed the line to something more succinct but different to the original. Perhaps it reads better, but interestingly all the places that I’ve found that quote Valery’s Introduction to the Method of Leonardo use the quotation as Holl used it, rather than as it is in the original translation. Perhaps all those academics and journalists have been a bit quick with the Ctrl+C / Ctrl+V. Either way, it points to the danger of quoting sources you haven’t read and the potential for quoting someone out of context. There are so many interesting and provocative thoughts in this short book, and I really recommend tracking it down if you can (if not, get in touch and I’ll lend it to you).