‘Anyone who says sunshine brings happiness has never danced in the rain’ – Anon
Something as simple and overlooked as rain has the potential to open up new ideas and experiences. As we search for new principles of a critical regionalism we must not forget that ‘beauty is in the balance of the parts’. (i)
“Mae'n bwrw glaw eto”, it’s raining again, is a phrase I recall all too well, growing up in a small village in the Carmarthenshire Hills. It was as if half of childhood was spent waiting for the rain to give way. Rain, it seemed, could draw out time in a way I couldn’t have imagined... It created a boundary to our freedom in the forest. The sun on the other hand, was there all along... just higher up! Offered to us reluctantly, almost as a conditional gift, to the coal rich valley below.
Such freedoms momentarily withheld in childhood seem to have caught up with us later in life - when we are denied the simple pleasure of the outdoor world in our homes by the temporal boundary that rain creates. Walls and glass are built up in response and gradually our connection to the outside world is lost.
As a practice metaphor it is important to our work in generating ideas and connections not otherwise seen, but it is the concrete reality of cantilevers and canopies overhangs and projections, skins and seams - that create a sensuous ‘interstitial’ zone where new social activities are sought and perhaps ultimately our search for solitude can be found.
‘This is surely the primary purpose for pursuing themes of region and place to allow people to feel at home, connected with everyday life’. (ii)
In writing this I confess to having watched endless raindrops run down panes of glass. I have also learned that there is never such a thing as bad weather, just the wrong type of clothing. This we have found through research and experience - also applies to the logic of building in Wales. There are simply too many buildings being constructed that seem to have the wrong clothing. If clothing can be taken as the analogy of skin or façade then it seems we are dressing our buildings incorrectly. The idea that they become formal platonic objects or simply shapes - displaces any notion or possibility of shelter. To layer or to create depth and shadow - intrigue is denied.
To allow us to fully integrate with our environment we must develop an architecture which harnesses, adapts and flexes to the realities of our environment. Rain, both in terms of its physical reality and its poetic and metaphysical charge opens up endless architectural possibilities to reinforce our predominantly rural reality.
The subtlety of rain may not seem an immediate candidate for the poetic generator of type or tectonic for an authentic ‘Welsh architecture’.
Architectural history nevertheless is laden with many successful paradigms of similar possible relationships that connect buildings to place. Take for example the Aboriginal proverb - 'touch the earth lightly' – which is said to play a central role in the work of Australian Architect Glenn Murcutt, fostering as it does, an intimate relationship between built and natural environment, simultaneously nodding to the indigenous heritage of a vast continent.
Let us also not forget the radical and impressive extending roof forms of Frank Lloyd Wright’s early work, with dominating horizontal lines, responsive to a native prairie landscape.
Here in Wales the ever-changing environment plays an apparently silent yet wholly significant role in the background of our daily lives. To ignore it is to deny its true potential.
We are of course blessed to live within such a beautiful landscape, constantly renewed by rain. The contrasting Atlantic weather fronts that confront us each day, create a unique quality that is special to the Celtic fringe. It’s easy to overlook, as we drive along familiar arteries and concrete motorways that we are surrounded on three sides by a sea, a channel and an ocean. Water is above and all around us.
Our landscape has been literally, metaphorically and visually quarried. The great poets such as R S Thomas, Dylan Thomas and artists such as Kyffin Williams have blessed us with beautiful grey skies. They have interpreted the ‘real’ and raw landscape in a way that reveals the ‘hardcore of beauty’, always managing to avoid romantic or false notions of the picturesque. Perhaps we too should confront the condition of our environment. Variable, often wet and damp - and claim this for our own.
Rain therefore can be seen as a positive attribute of our environment and we are motivated to bring it into play within our buildings in joyful ways that can be celebrated by the people that dwell in them.
My grandfather used to say “we need the rain to make the sunny days even better”. I never really understood this, but having now walked through some of our forests, beaches and mountains, a little older, I understand what he meant. The phenomenological explosion the day after rain is simply delicious and seemingly endless. While these ‘blue sky’ days are rare, they are worth the wait, more than making up for the ‘grey scale’.
I was once fooled that it was all about the sun, but returning to Wales from living for a short time in California has given us a renewed appreciation for the dynamism and charge of our weather systems as they push over us daily. Powered by the warmth of the sun and created afresh each day by the engine that is the Atlantic. This creates a global connection between something that intrinsically feels regional.
In our practice we like to identify this hydrological cycle as a vital phenomena, claiming it for each building we create. We are striving always for a whole; avoiding the ‘after thought’. Our buildings attempt to speak of this Welsh landscape in a celebration of the necessary duality of exposure and shelter.
As our young practice continues to develop research and embrace broad themes of local culture, sustainability and territory, we are mindful of the risk of overlooking the finer details around us and the memories that reside within us.
I believe in rain as phenomena to which our architecture will without doubt respond. Likewise I believe that to neglect such belief, will dampen our days and limit our freedom to dwell.
(i) Sculpting in time, University of Texas, Andrei Tarkovsky (47)
(ii) Critical Regionalism. Prestel 2003 Critical Regionalism, A Facet of Modern Architecture since 1945, Alexander Tzonis. (20)