Detail Floor Plan Residence Steinwies-/Irisstrasse, Zurich-Hottingen
Deutscher Text: Modell und Bild


The present essay is a first attempt to reflect on our design process. It addresses the relationship of design and theory to architectural form. We operate from the conviction that architecture is always “form” and that this is always the result of compositional operations.[1] The goal of the text is to analyze the structure of these operations using the example of a selected design from our office and viewing it against the backdrop of our theoretical work.

Open Form and the Picturesque

From the theoretical bases for this essay we are selecting two works that have proven significant for the design, namely, our pamphlets Bomarzo: Beobachtungen anhand einer neuen Karte[2] and Picturesque: Synthese im Bildhaften.[3] Characteristically, neither work is directly concerned with architectural themes; rather, they begin with nature and landscape. They ask about the relationship of landscape and architecture, or more generally: about the relationship of natural and artistic forms. On the one hand, the studies explore the limits of the architectural by inquiring into the architectural potential of natural form and its temporal aspects. On the other hand, they depict methods that adapt methods from the design of landscape and images to the composition of architectural form.

Two overlapping terms are significant for both works. First, what we call open form. This refers to form that is has many layers and many parts and can be unclean, blurry, imprecise, anticlassical, antitypological, informal, noncausal, fragmented, weakly determined semantically or ambiguous and sometimes even ugly. These qualities make open form indeterminate and infinite. Like natural form, shaped by growth and decay, marked by constant changed, it is distinguished by an “unstable” state. It thematizes time and hence movement. Analogously to Baroque form, it questions traditional orders—such as the notion of a “correct” tectonics.[4] In Eco’s view, open form lacks significance but is nevertheless informative. It describes a “zone of uncertainty where the possible elbows the real … [The only thing that is certain is] that things could be quite different.”[5] The architecturally most emblematic example of open form is the ruin, although for us its structural properties are more important than its romantic associations.

Second, the picturesque. This refers both to the force and a method in which open form produces an order, albeit merely a “soft” one, in a synthetic way. This “softness” summarily suggests qualities that have already been described for open form. The picturesque was conceptualized in England in the eighteenth century, and it provided a third, neutral category between the sublime and the beautiful[6] for all phenomena that are perceived as beautiful but nevertheless could not be described as rational.[7] To put it simply, it was used to integrate the irrational into aesthetic theory and to call into question the classical ideal of totality, purity, harmony, and symmetry. Despite sharp disagreements between its early advocates, the concept of the picturesque cannot be understood as merely an alternative model to a classical idea of beauty.[8] Rather, it created a kind of “kit” that combined the contradictory, the unfinished, and the fragmentary with the pure and classical in a way that was matter-of-fact, dialectical, and open. This demonstrates the “synthetic” power of the picturesque. It is, moreover, an order that adapts to visual perception in the “picture” and thus is compositional in character in the original, true sense of the word. It earliest theorists debated whether the picturesque order is inherent in the object (painter’s eye) or first takes place in the recipient (poet’s feeling).[9]

Picturesque compositional methods have a certain relationship to techniques of montage and collage. Although in montage “individual parts of images or materials [are assembled] into a compositional whole,”[10] the boundaries between the elements are not eliminated but rather articulated as such. The elements of the montage take on a new meaning in the new whole that is formed, but at the same time they convey their original message—montage thus points to an open, multiple form. The result, moreover, is not a fusion that follows a hierarchical order but rather a “synthesis in the visual” that is not based solely “on the summation of components […] but rather on reciprocal penetration and influence.”[11] The compositional or precisely picturesque forces ensure a new context of meaning.

Imagination and Context

Mirroring and questioning one’s own design according to the theoretical principles outlined here has proven difficult, as was to be expected. The backdrop sketched makes it clear that this sort of juxtaposition cannot establish a mechanical or causal relationship between design and theory but only what Marcel Meili has described as a kind of “relationship of resonances.” This becomes evident from the fact that the architectural form and the form of thought—two entirely different categories—represent in relation to each other the premise and the vessel.

In our case, the form of thought is largely structural in character: When designing, we start out from the context and the program proposed and try to develop a thought model that we translate iteratively into architectural form. Described in terms of scientific theory, they are fictional models that do not reproduce the reality according to which something is realized (descriptive) but rather exist in the imaginative and only then—arguing by analogy, for example—generate knowledge that contributes to the design (prescriptive). Hence developing a model is above all a heuristic challenge.[12] What are the proper structures, analogies, and, if necessary, images given the program and the context? The connection to the context is rarely a typological or morphological one but should be understood more generally, comprehensively, and abstractly—as a field of suggestions, as it were. In most cases, the “context” is even imagined and idealized and hence itself becomes a determinant part of the model (It sometimes happens that we do not even look at the site for a given task but merely imagine it …).[13]

We have observed a similar process in projects by Alison Smithson and Peter Smithson , where the context offers the first points of reference, but no so much in terms of an immediate invention of forms for the urban surroundings and the architecture but as a model-like or visual idea about that context. Hence the real, “external” context becomes an imaginary, “internal context”; an idea is superimposed by the site. The real context only takes on its true—or at least less ambiguous—form via the architecture: “It would seem as if a building today is only interesting if it is more than itself; if it charges the space around it with connective possibilities.”[14] The imagination forms the real context.

In the case of our project for a residence in the Hottingen district of Zurich,[15] reading the urban surroundings show that the considerable homogeneity of the neighborhood is due less to a consistent architectural structure than to the quality of the open spaces. The neighborhood is characterized by streetscapes, gardens, and in some cases old trees. The buildings, by contrast, include single villas, freestanding apartment buildings, and large-scale public buildings. Anchoring the project in its context is achieved though volumes indebted to the specific requirements of a lot and to an atmospheric affinity with the place. The volume neither follows the line of the street facades (which was not possible because of the trees that have to be preserved) nor the center of the park (as the typologically distinct villas do) but is spanned multidimensionally within the lot without resulting in imposing facades on any side. Instead, we sought to establish a closeness to the existing trees that flank the property and make them a determinant aspect of the architecture. The imagination was not so much oriented around built structures as unbuilt ones.

Model and Language

The character and makeup of the model differ from project to project. Sometimes a single idea determines; sometimes several themes come together and appear side by side as equals—another technique used in painting. In the case of the project in Hottingen, several themes are active already on the urban planning level. In addition to the planned residence, the task includes refurbishing a small villa. On the northeast corner of the lot on Pestalozzistrasse there is also the possibility to build a second new structure, albeit a much smaller one. In their difference, these themes describe a field of possibilities in the sense of a collagelike likeness of the urban structure: the villa facing the street is related to a small, “protomodern” studio building—that was how we interpreted the constricted site on Pestalozzistrasse—and to a larger apartment building inside the tree-encirceled property between Steinwiesstrasse and Irisstrasse.

As noted above, the large new building negates a formal relationship to the stereometrically simple, classically constructed building volumes of the neighborhood and seeks instead a closeness to the trees that dominated the site. Our interest in choosing forms thus focused first on natural forms and ruins—the architectural form that is closest to natural forms. Among other things, we consulted photographs of stone formations, especially of basalt, and examined their structural features. Basalt formations are vertically oriented structures of closely packed “stone columns” of varying length and a cross section of largely hexagonal geometry. Their geometric purity leaves an almost “architectural” impression, and the verticality of such structures seemed interesting in the context of the thick trunks of the trees. Moreover, such formations seemed promising with regard to the form of the penthouse floor (the building is based on standard building laws): it is tempting to distinguish this floor as a top floor but rather to integrate it into the volume of the building. We thus imagined the look of the penthouse as an erosive aspect of the overall form, which also speaks to the imagined proximity to a ruin. As the sketched rendering here tries to show, the model on which the design is based is something of a structural analogy: no one specific formal component is emphasized but rather structural features.

Once again, the crucial thing when forming the model is language. It functions, on the one hand, as an operator or catalyst but also, on the other hand, as an instrument of control. Grasping or identifying the model linguistically provides insight into its composition, its conclusiveness, its lack of definition, and its meaning, though the qualitative assessment initially remains independent of it and unimportant. The form of this linguistic version thus often has qualities of a cognitive metaphor, whereby the model and metaphor become virtually synonymous. That is because metaphors make the model clear in the first place: They derive their catalytic effect from an “implicit comparison between two entities which are not alike but can be compared in an imaginative way. The comparison is mostly done through a creative leap that ties different objects together, producing a new entity in which the characteristics of both take part.”[16] This intellectual process can in turn be described as picturesque.

Translation Process and Architectonic Form

The process of translating the model into an architectural form is, as noted above, diffuse and not causal. This diffuseness is the prerequisite for the iterative character of the process. During the design process, the model and form are in constant transformation, influencing each other. Ideally, the form is liberated from the model at a certain point, as early as possible, developing “its own life.” But the model can certainly be helpful for further testing. The autonomy of the form is significant for two reasons.

First, so that the formal result is not shaped by the model in the sense of a deduction. The autonomy of the form thus ensures its architectural “grammaticality” in that traditional formal laws immanent to the discipline begin to have an unconscious effect. Second, because the form—especially if it has the open character described above—only find its order, expressiveness, and shape in the visual and picturesque.

When designing the residence in Hottingen the intellectual model of “stone formations”—along with other associations, of course—was present down to the design of the floor plan and ensured a coherence between the urban scheme, the architectural expression, and the floor plan. Analogously to the design of the volumes, the floor plans of the apartments followed a gentle geometrical grammar determined by the situation. In terms of content, it is virtuously synonymous with the picturesque forces described above. They are what provide the inner cohesion and the spatial balance of the floor plans. They are delicately balanced forces in a slow, groping movement. In terms of technique, this movement finds its correspondence in the sketch. One big challenge is translating the sketches into computer renderings, since the plan is really antithetical to picturesque composition. Wölfflin wrote of the “painterly style” of the Baroque: “The most direct expression of an artist’s intention is the sketch. […] Where the linear style employs the pen or the silver-point, the painterly uses charcoal, red chalk or the broad water-colour brush. The earlier style is entirely linear: every object has a sharp unbroken outline and the main expressive element is the contour. The later style works with broad, vague masses, the contours barely indicated; the lines are tentative and repetitive strokes, or do not exist at all.”[17]

Many steps of redrawing were necessary to approach the final form, but it in turn describes just one possible condition, as the first revision of the project demonstrated. Typologically, the floor plans oscillate between “figure and chamber.” The open spatial figure with the living, dining, and kitchen areas can be understood as the dissolution of a cabinet structure, which stands out as a common living area from the cellular spatial chambers of the individual rooms. The flowing spatial figure of the living area establishes a theme of paths, describing a movement from inside out that terminates at the fireplaces on the end wall. The four apartments on each floor are slightly staggered in height, which was made possible thanks to vertical access via an elevator that accesses the apartments directly and reinforces the plasticity and verticality of the building volume.

Dream Language?

In our designs we often search for a narrative, succinct expressive power that we have called “quiet expressionism.” We try to avoid terms such as mood and atmosphere, though no doubt they are significant. It goes without saying that this is not a kind of so-called conceptual purity but rather an enrichment of content and theme that can get to a point that threatens to destroy the architectural coherence of a project. Thus the “foliage” of dark green ceramics on the Hottingen project may recall the moving leaves in the trees but at the same time this cladding is abstract, emphasizes the material, and establishes a counterpoint between the reflections and nuances of colors that change over the course of the day and the massiveness and gravity of the building’s volume.

In conclusion, it seems important to us to observe that neither narrative, expressive power, nor even shape is necessarily in contradiction with open form. As in English gardens or in a montage, the different elements of a picturesque composition can retain their independence and stand side by side as equals. Perhaps our tales are written in a kind of dream language,[18] and it is difficult to access it because it is expressed in an asynchronous, arrhythmic, and sometimes even confused way. “The complete form will inevitably emerge out of his [the viewer’s] memory or his imagination.”[19]

[1] We make no attempt here to defend the plausibility of this assertion. Ungers, for example, points out that “the ability to compose is one of the basic requirements of intellectual activity. […] Without composition, we cannot even make ourselves understood, since it also makes language possible.” Oswald Mathias Ungers, “Was ist Architektur?” Arch+, no. 179 (2006): pp. 13–19.

[2] Elli Mosayebi and Christian Mueller Inderbitzin, Bomarzo: Beobachtungen anhand einer neuen Karte (Zurich: ILA; gta, 2005).

[3] Elli Mosayebi and Christian Mueller Inderbitzin, Picturesque: Synthese im Bildhaften (Zurich: ILA; gta, 2008).

[4] See Heinrich Wölfflin, Renaissance and Baroque, trans. Kathrin Simon (London: Collins, 1964; orig. pub. in German in 1888).

[5] André Berne-Joffroy, quoted in Umberto Eco, The Open Work, trans. Anna Cancogni (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1989), p. 91.

[6] See Edmund Burke, Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful (London: R. and J. Dodsley, 1757).

[7] Uvedale Price, Essays on the Picturesque, 3 vols. (London: J. Mawman, 1810), p. 114.

[8] John Dixon Hunt, “Picturesque,” in Jane Turner, ed., The Dictionary of Art (London: Macmillan; New York: Grove, 1996), pp. 740ff.

[9] See Mavis Batey, “The Picturesque. An Overview,” Garden History, no. 22 (1994): pp. 121–32, esp. p. 123.

[10] Wolf Stadler, ed. Lexikon der Kunst: Malerei, Architektur, Bildhauerkunst (Freiburg am Breisgau: Herder, 1990), vol. 8, p. 222.

[11] Heinrich Schmidt, ed., Lexikon der Philosophie (Zurich: Buchclub Ex Libris, 1974) pp. 643–44.

[12] Petra Drewer, Die kognitive Metapher als Werkzeug des Denkens: Zur Rolle der Analogie bei der Gewinnung und Vermittlung wissenschaftlicher Erkenntnisse, Forum für Fachsprachen-Forschung, vol. 62 (Tübingen: Gunter Narr, 2003), p. 59.

[13] See “Die Rationalisierung des Bestehenden: Oswald Mathias Ungers im Gespräch mit Rem Koolhaas und Hans Ulrich Obrist,” Arch+, no. 179 (2006): pp. 6–11.

[14] Alison Smithson and Peter Smithson (1974, Without Rhetoric: An Architectural Aesthetic, 1955–1972 (Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 1974), p. 36.

[15] The project resulted from a competition among eight insurance offices in Switzerland in January 2011. Other participants: Loeliger Strub Architekten (2nd ranking), Meier Hug Architekten (3rd ranking), Fickert & Knapkiewicz Architekten (4th ranking), Luca Selva Architekt (5th ranking), Prof. Ueli Zbinden Architekt, Jessen + Vollenweider Architekten, Morger & Dettli Architekten (unranked).

[16] Oswald Mathias Ungers, Morphologie. City Metaphors (Cologne: Walther König, 2011), p. 10.

[17] Wölfflin, Renaissance and Baroque (see note 4), pp. 30–31.

[18] See  Francesco Colonna, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (Venice: Aldus Manutius, 1499).

[19] Eco, The Open Work (see note 5), p. 157.