Architectural Poetry

By Nick Fawell

For the past 40 years, University Architecture Professor James Warfield has traveled the world and photographed some of his favorite architectural sites. Monday night, he unveiled his collection of photographs to the public at the Architecture Building.

The theme of Warfield’s “Stone Poems: Architecture and the Land” exhibit, which will be running through April 8, is how architecture over the ages has related to the natural world around it. Warfield said one of the most important aspects of architecture is the harmony between a building and the land surrounding it.

The exhibit, now just over a year old since its premiere at the I-Space Gallery in Chicago, is open to the general public and is intended for anyone interested in architecture, travel or thought-provoking visuals. It features structures such as Machu Picchu in Peru, hillside villages of Greece’s Santorini Island and the pyramids of Egypt. These are examples of “vernacular architecture,” another theme of the “Stone Poems” exhibit.

Warfield explained vernacular architecture as “architecture of the people.” It is where the designer, the builder and the user are all the same person. They are self-created structures, allowing people to design and build based on their own specific needs.

“A person designs his or her own house so it’s naturally going to be functional,” Warfield said. “They may not be professionals, but there’s a natural design that takes place.”

Whereas many of these buildings may not be the most ornate structures in the world, for Warfield and many others they carry a great deal of geographic, cultural and architectural significance in their designs and purposes.

Another interesting aspect of vernacular architecture is that each structure is created based on the material available in the region it is located, Warfield said. Using local materials tends to make the building and the land more harmonious because they come from the same place the structure is built. For example, on Santorini Island, there was no wood at all. The villages had to be carved into the sides of cliffs for habitation to be possible.

“The vernacular makes you aware that the common user is a very important aspect of design,” Warfield said.

San Francisco architect Steven House, along with his wife, Cathi, gave a lecture concurrently with Warfield’s exhibit premiere and discussed their current book, Mediterranean Villages, which showcases the vernacular architecture of many different villages around the Mediterranean.

For House, whose extensive travels in the Mediterranean inspired him to write the book, the primitive motivation for many of these structures is the most fascinating aspect of the buildings.

“It comes from the basic essence and the heart of the inhabitants,” House said. “It doesn’t come from academic training. It comes from primitive needs like sunlight, air and circulation.”

House said these principles have been passed down throughout the ages and serve as the base for architecture today.

One problem with today’s architecture for Warfield, however, is today’s industrial, high-tech structures often get away from vernacular principles. The designer, builder and user are three different people. Moreover, the materials often are not local; they come from all over the world.

“It doesn’t make much sense to grow a tree in Washington and then ship it to Japan to make plywood then ship it to South America where they have their own trees,” Warfield said.

Warfield’s former student, Chicago architect Chris Groesbeck, said part of what he likes about vernacular architecture is the way it expresses identity.

“The beauty of vernacular architecture is how it expresses different cultures and different belief systems in a collective way,” Groesbeck said. “There is a great detachment of the architect (today). The challenge of the architect today is to push away their personal agenda and get to the heart of what the people are looking for.”

For Warfield, it’s all about making the land and structure work together. He explained that it is impossible to erect a building on land without completely changing the ecology of the area. But it is important to find ways for the structure to complement the nature around it.

“The whole idea is, how do these buildings address the land but how are they sensitive to the land, as well,” Warfield said. “That’s what these examples look at – how the buildings and nature seem to work in harmony.”