Niche Tactics in Contextual Design: The Difference Between Being "In" and "On" the Surroundings

The question of context is among the most discussed issues in architecture theory, and has only become more complex and controversial as globalization has added yet another layer to the debate. In her new book "Niche Tactics: Generative Relationships Between Architecture and Site," Caroline O'Donnell takes a long look at the idea of context as it relates to a project's surroundings. In this excerpt from the book's introduction, O'Donnell looks at the history of theories related to context, from Vitruvius to Koolhaas, elaborating on the difference between working "in" the site, as opposed to merely "on" it.

The Architectural Soap-Bubble

Architecture’s unlikely yet persistent reluctance to engage fundamentally with issues of context can most notably be traced to Le Corbusier’s renowned comparison of architecture and the soap-bubble. “This bubble,” he famously postulated, “is perfect and harmonious if the breath has been evenly distributed and regulated from the inside.”[1] This primacy of the interior was, despite their many differences, shared by modern architects, amongst whom, as contextualist Thomas Schumacher has noted, “few... would have allowed that the outside surface ought to determine the interior distribution.”[2]

Courtesy of Caroline O'Donnell

Reiterated in language more appropriate for the 1990s, Rem Koolhaas’ provocation to “fuck context” reinvigorated this tendency to favor programmatic, and thus interior-dominated, concerns. Koolhaas’ study of architecture’s relationship to its urban environment in his oft-quoted essay on Bigness is in many ways a call to understand the building as an isolated object, uninterested in and unfettered by external conditions.[3] Koolhaas argues for an architecture that “through its independence from context... does not take its inspiration from givens too often squeezed for the last drop of meaning” but that is instead “its own raison d’être.”[4]

More recently, this situation has been defined as “absolute architecture,” by Pier Vittorio Aureli, who notes that “the very condition of architectural form is to separate and be separated.”[5] Aureli masterfully charts the struggle between the separated form and its other, yet the root of his definition lingers: Why is this separation a given, and why, consequently, has the relation between architecture and context been so antagonistic?

Bubble Before Bursting. Image © William Horton 2013. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

The bubble, in fact, has a short life-span. Even when floating in space, it is subject to several external deformative forces: gravity pulls the water molecules to the bottom of the orb, causing unevenness in the membrane; changes in air pressure cause surface deformation. Eventually, the bubble comes into contact with a surface or object and bursts. For the bubble, an encounter with and deformation by the context is inevitable.

Bursting Bubble. Image © William Horton 2013. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

The Ecological Bubble

In the same decade as Le Corbusier’s original bubble was born, Estonian biologist Jakob von Uexküll proposed a different kind of bubble. Standing in a flower-strewn meadow, von Uexküll imagined blowing a soap-bubble around each creature, representing the creature’s world and its own specific perceptions of that world:

“When we ourselves then step into one of these bubbles, the familiar meadow is transformed. Many of its colorful features disappear, others no longer belong together but appear in new relationships. A new world comes into being. Through the bubble we see the world of the burrowing worm, of the butterfly, or of the field mouse; the world as it appears to the animals themselves, not as it appears to us.”[6]

Von Uexküll named this phenomenal- or self-world "umwelt." The organism, having abstracted its particular version of the world, is “so wrapped up in its own umwelt that no other worlds are accessible to it…as though each one were floating in its own particular ‘bubble’ of reality.”[7]

Von Uexküll’s illustrator, Georg Kriszat , attempted to represent the umwelts of various animals: it was clearly a challenge to depict the bubble encompassing and drawing in (in both senses of the word) the select and salient elements of the organism’s environment. The bee’s world, for example, was shown as an abstraction or distillation of the entire (human) environment, but inevitably fell short of expressing the sensorially loaded and memory-rich abstract world of the bee.

Courtesy of Caroline O'Donnell

This bubble-making gives meaning to reality: a different reality for each animal. Von Uexküll described, for example, the very particular bubble of a tick which has a limited number of triggers and responses:

“Light affects it and it climbs on to the end of a branch. The smell of a mammal affects it and it drops down on to it. The hairs get in its way and it looks for a hairless place to burrow under the skin and drink the warm blood. Blind and deaf, the tick has only three affects in the vast forest, and for the rest of the time may sleep for years awaiting the encounter. What power, nevertheless!”[8]

No elements exist in the tick’s umwelt other than the three triggers and their responses: light-climbing, smell-dropping, and skin-burrowing. The drawing that the tick would make of the world—those elements that would be drawn into his bubble—would include only these three components. This representation of the world, then, is linked to action-possibilities and form of the organism. In turn, the form of the organism points backward to the actions and abstractions of the environment.

Von Uexküll’s bubble, considered as a model for architecture, could not be more opposed to its Corbusian cousin. While Le Corbusier’s bubble represents an architecture formed from internal forces, von Uexküll’s bubble points to an architectural organism[9] which "perceives" and thus responds to a select set of external forces. Moreover, Le Corbusier’s bubble is the object of architecture itself, floating in a void, whereas von Uexküll’s bubble reaches out, wraps around, and draws in many excerpts of its environment.[10]

Courtesy of Caroline O'Donnell

The Uexküllian bubble is conceived through the eyes of the organism “in” (and not isolated from) the earth. This significant difference between these two points of view is illustrated by anthropologist Tim Ingold in his essay “Earth, Sky, Wind and Weather.”[11] Ingold argues that there is no abstract, planar surface on which to dwell. Instead, the rain softens the ground, the winds erode the land, the forests extend to the sky, so that:

“…to inhabit the land is not, then, to be stranded on a closed surface but to be immersed in the incessant movements of wind and weather, in a zone wherein substances and medium are brought together in the construction of beings that, by way of their activity, participate in stitching the textures of the land.”[12]

Ingold’s diagrams show the opposite conditions of living "on" (diagram A) and "in" (diagram B). In the first, the human is a neutral generic stick figure. In the second, the "in," the human has acquired a few attributes. First, he has an orientation. He has turned his back to the wind and is facing the gentle lee zone. Second, the figure now has a stance, a gait, with which he is poised on the ground as if ready to act. Thirdly, the figure has acquired hair, perhaps a material necessity of being "in." Finally, nothing about Diagram B is fixed but rather appears in a general state of interrelated flux.

Take the representation of the environment away in Diagram A, and nothing is lacking. Do the same in Diagram B, and the figure continues to suggest something around him. His gait, orientation and material imply something about his context.

After Tim Ingold in “Earth, Sky, Wind and Weather.” And with enclosure added, CODA, 2012. Image Courtesy of Caroline O'Donnell

If we imagine, as architects may be wont to do, that the human is surrounded by an enclosure, in Diagram A, that enclosure might be a generic house. It addresses the sky and the earth but, like its enclosed figure, assumes the default symmetricality on the vertical axis. Consider now a house "in" the land. Presumably, it must also change its gait, orientation, and materiality. Extrapolated from the diagram into a real environment that includes many complexities besides earth, sky, and wind, one imagines the architecture responding accordingly complexly.

That is to say, whereas the Corbusian-become-Koolhaasian bubble model for architecture is analogous to living on the earth, the Uexküllian bubble model aligns better with the idea of living in the earth, a scenario in which the architectural organism is considered as part of a complex and idiosyncratic network.

Courtesy of Caroline O'Donnell

The architectural consequences of such an approach—which we will call “niche-thinking” (and the concept of the niche will be more fully developed in chapter 1, “Niche Tactics”)—could be profound. But despite various attempts to shift the discipline towards the ecological model, similar generic prototypes persist and proliferate today, irrespective of climate, culture, or material geography. Ironically, Rem Koolhaas, in his announcement of “Fundamentals,” the theme for the 2014 Venice Architectural Biennial, laments this sacrifice of national identity to modernity (a sacrifice that he himself propagated), and calls for an acknowledgement of the “process of the erasure of national characteristics in favor of the almost universal adoption of a single modern language in a single repertoire of typologies.”[13] The exhibitions, he proposes, will demonstrate the evolution towards the global, but at the same time celebrate, “the survival of unique national features and mentalities that continue to exist and flourish even as international collaboration and exchange intensify...”[14]

This global problem can only have worsened since Paul Ricoeur wrote, in 1961, that everywhere in the world one finds, “the same bad movie, the same slot machines, the same plastic or aluminum atrocities, the same twisting of language by propaganda...”[15] Koolhaas, it seems, has come full-circle, realizing, at last that, unlike movies and slot machines, architecture has a site. Site is, in fact, alongside inhabitation, one of architecture’s defining characteristics. Movies and slot machines, plastic and aluminum products, paintings, poems, or music: these can be considered in isolation. Architecture cannot. However, although architecture usually has a site, it is not always in generative dialogue with it. In Ingold’s terms, it may be on, without being in.

Courtesy of Caroline O'Donnell

Instances of architecture’s productive engagement with its surroundings —that is, of architecture being in—date back to the commonly accepted origins of Western architecture.[16] In “On Climate as Determining the Style of the House,” Vitruvius opens an early discussion of context by comparing climatic variation in the human body to architectural variation. The segment begins with the commonsense statement that, “as the position of the heaven with regard to a given tract on the earth leads naturally to different characteristics, owing to the inclination of the circle of the zodiac and the course of the sun, it is obvious that designs for houses ought similarly to conform to the nature of the country and to the diversities of climate.” Vitruvius notes that the effects of climate are “not only discernible in nature, but they also are observable in the limbs and bodies of entire races.”[17] He proceeds to draw an analogy between buildings and body size, complexion, hair color, and vocal pitch at different latitudes.

However, the hierarchies present in Vitruvius’ treatise are revealed when, in the chapter that follows, he writes that “symmetry and order are primary, and only after these considerations have been made, should one consider the nature of the site (as well as use and beauty).”[18] This is an important moment to pause, and acknowledge the coup won by symmetry and order over responsiveness at this moment, (and, consequently, perhaps, over ugliness.) Vitruvius’ hierarchy would prove difficult to challenge. Even today, the dominance of order and symmetry remains pervasive in architecture and has been a trap that has routinely befallen architects. It is still precisely this issue (and the preconceived notions of form with which they are associated) that limits architecture’s ability to respond adequately to its environment.

Courtesy of Caroline O'Donnell

Renaissance translations of these ideas, found in the many architectural treatises that proliferated around 1500 years after Vitruvius, tend to be much more pragmatic. Alberti, for instance, in his first book of The Art of Building in Ten Books, devotes parts three through ten to careful consideration of the details—both in nature and in human cultural life—that constitute the site, which he refers to more precisely as locality and area.[19] In so doing, Alberti advises the architect to make both calculations and observations before determining the building’s design and orientation. He suggests that elements of the existing context can and perhaps should determine early decisions in the process of architectural production. This predetermined object, however, is a far cry from Vitruvius’ unexplored allusion to site-motivated variation in morphology, materiality, and temperament, but understandably so, since such an exploration had been made impossible by the predominance of formal rules over morphological responsiveness.

Beginning again then from this well-grounded but secondary emphasis in Vitruvius, this collection of essays examines moments of being not on but in, in a variety of ways. The opposition between the two bubble models—Le Corbusier’s isolated bubble and Von Uexküll’s selectively encompassing bubble—sets up an oscillation back and forth between the pole of contextual engagement and its various inverses. This sinusoidal line through time follows the trajectory of contextual thinking and production through all of these realms, even those seemingly opposed to it.

Niche Tactics: Generative Relationships Between Architecture and Site

References and Notes:

  1. Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture, trans. John Goodman (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2007), 216.
  2. Thomas L. Schumacher, "The Outside Is the Result of an Inside: Some Sources of One of Modernism's Most Persistent Doctrines," Journal of Architectural Education, 56, 1 (2002): 22-33.
  3. Rem Koolhaas, "Bigness or the Problem of Large" S,M,L,XL (New York: The Monacelli Press, 1995), 502.
  4. Ibid. 502-515.
  5. Pier Vittorio Aureli, The Possibility of an Absolute Architecture (Cambridge: MIT Press 2011) 201, ix.
  6. Jakob von Uexküll. “A Stroll Through the Worlds of Animals and Men: A Picture Book of Invisible Worlds” Instinctive Behavior: The Development of a Modern Concept, ed. trans. Claire H. Schiller (New York: International Universities Press), 5.
  7. Tim Ingold, “Point, Line and Counterpoint,” Being Alive, Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description (New York: Routledge, 2011), 80. In reference to J. von Uexküll, “A Stroll Through The Worlds of Animals and Men: A Picture Book of Invisible Worlds” Semiotica 89, 4 (1992): 319-391.
  8. Jakob von Uexküll, “A Stroll Through the Worlds of Animals and Men: A Picture Book of Invisible Worlds” Instinctive Behavior: The Development of a Modern Concept, ed. trans. Claire H. Schiller (New York: International Universities Press), 5.
  9. One pertinent example is to be found in Le Corbusier’s Towards a New Architecture, in which he considers the architect a “creator of organisms.” Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture, 1927, Trans. Frederick Etchells, (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1986), 103.
  10. This description aligns to some extent with the biological definition of the “niche” —a concept that will be elaborated in Chapter 1: “Niche Tactics.”
  11. Tim Ingold, Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description (New York: Routledge, 2011).
  12. Ibid.,121.
  13. Rem Koolhaas Revisits Fundamentals for the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale,” DesignBoom. January 25, 2013. Accessed April 17, 2013.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Paul Ricoeur, “Universal Civilization and National Cultures” History and Truth, trans. Chas. A. Kelbley Evanston (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1965), 276-7. This piece was quoted at the beginning of Kenneth Frampton, "Towards A Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance," Anti-Aesthetic, Essays on Postmodern Culture (Seattle: Bay Press, 1983), 16.
  16. This collection limits itself (mainly) to Western architecture and assigns Vitruvius as the first true architect. Of course, many instances of the productive engagement between site and architecture are to be found in non-Western traditions, as well as pre-Vitruvian western vernacular architecture, and both deserve more attention.
  17. Vitruvius, The Ten Books on Architecture, Transl. Morris Hicky Morgan, (New York: Dover 1960), 170.
  18. Ibid., 174.
  19. Leon Battista Alberti, On the Art of Building in Ten Books, trans. Joseph Rykwert, Neil Leach, Robert Tavernor, (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1988), 6.

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Cite: Caroline O'Donnell. "Niche Tactics in Contextual Design: The Difference Between Being "In" and "On" the Surroundings" 22 Nov 2015. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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