Wednesday, August 14, 2019

The Natural/Artificial Distinction

Ophelia, Sir John Everett Millais
There's a lack of clarity surrounding the words natural and artificial in common, everyday speech. Perhaps natural carries this sense of everything that's not us, not human beings or human-made whereas artificial might refer more typically to things that are mechanical. Sometimes we'll describe the artificial as synthetic which just passes off the confusion since we're not clear what that means either.

A common argument against even considering this subject is that the natural/artificial distinction is meaningless for the simple reason that everything is natural. Nature is everything, humans are nature, ergo whatever we are or do must therefore be definition. Cars are natural, cities are natural, differential equations are natural, petroleum processing is natural, if we bring ourselves to extinction in a nuclear holocaust or environmental collapse well, that'll be natural definition. However, let's suspend just for a moment taking all the complexity of human existence and submerging it in the molecular acid of cold reason until meaning is reduced to one thing or perhaps nothing at all. Instead, we'll imagine for a moment that this distinction might exist and see what these terms could mean and where the boundary between nature and artifice might lie.

Watch your Language

A first step might be looking a bit closer and giving some definitions to the words under discussion. I appreciate etymology for that. Often the origin of words reveals their intended meaning even if that meaning tends to shift over time and place. Nature for instance originally referred to something born. We have the echo of this meaning in the words "nativity" and "natal" care. The Taoist of ancient China held a concept closely allied with this sense of nature called "wu-wei" (無爲), the "not doing" or "not making" yet implying growth as an internally generative cultivation. So perhaps we could come to a provisional agreement that "natural" indicates some thing or action unforced, not deliberate, that presents itself spontaneously, of its own accord.

So what about artificial? Artifice quite literally conjoins "art", which includes what we'd call today "craft", together with "making". As arts and crafts are already things that are made, this word really reinforces the notion that what is artificial is deliberate, intentional and purposeful, in some respects the polar opposite of how we previously defined natural. Yet as originally expressed, the artificial was also something quite human. Which brings us to the thorny question: What does it mean for a human being to behave naturally?

Well, no simple answers will be forthcoming; however, perhaps we'd benefit from looking at language itself as an human phenomenon. Language has been explained as a collection of symbols and signs that occasionally represent but more often serve as a token of or point towards some thing or action. A repeated and fascinating observation is that children instinctively sense which of the sounds around them have symbolic meaning and seem to learn the languages they're exposed to effortlessly. Furthermore, many children have been observed to spontaneously generate their own independent verbal and gesticular vocabulary shared in a subset of siblings and friends. I've vague memories of doing so myself and definitely observed this on a fairly sophisticated scale with my nephews when they were little just a few years ago. Language at some level does seem to be, dare we say, natural human behaviour.

Yet at another level language is confessedly unnatural. We subject our already verbal and often  literate youth to at least 12 years and up to as much as 20+ years of what linguists call codification: reading, writing, spelling, grammar, syntax, style and usage are just appetisers for specialised language of a given field. Essentially, years are invested in curbing the will of children to conform to a standardised system of convention. Then when every trace of spontaneity has been forcibly ground out of them, we make silly declarations such as "thought is impossible without language" and "literacy is the key to freedom". Well, that last one is particularly rich after two decades of stern obligation and six figures of inescapable student debt.

Language quite literally is based on ignorance; in adopting a language one ignores the vast cacophony of sound, rather privileging a select few of them for attention and meaning. It is widely acknowledged that there are two paths to knowledge. First it can be directly experienced, bodily and through the senses. However, knowledge can also be conceptualised and this is where language plays a major role. Therein also lies the danger, as we can expand our ignorance to the rich, often inexplicable embodied experience of life itself, instead privileging language with all its constraints as the primal reality we choose to acknowledge. Today we have constructed a highly sophisticated, intellectual, systematised, global society that essentially lives within its own codified projection of reality. My advice is: watch your language, living inside your head is dangerous.

Imitation and Imagination

Traditionally in the world of art, the tension between the natural and artificial was always present and self-aware. In a certain sense "art" is embedded into the word artificial; all art is artifice. Yet nature was revered as an object of study and likewise a subject of the most profound contemplation. How artists and craftsmen confronted artifice in their depiction of nature as you might suspect is a deep personal interest of mine. For the aspiring young apprentice becoming an artist involves a lot of copying, teaching the hand to render what the eye sees, be that the work of master artists or the ultimate wellspring of inspiration: nature herself. This continual act of copying we call imitation, the aspect of artifice that cleaves closest to nature.

Nevertheless, imitating nature is not that easy. Something as simple as a leaf contains a world of complexity. The more you look, the more you see. Also, the medium in which we're representing the the things we see provides further difficulty. Pencil and paper, paint and canvas can only represent in two dimensions what exists in three. Sculptural mediums such as stone, wood or clay are relatively clumsy materials that are incapable of conveying the delicacy, detail and nuance that exist in nature. All of these mediums can only capture a frame, a snapshot of what is most often a dynamic, living reality embedded in a particular time and place, full of smells, texture and temperature. This is where the simple, practical aspect of Imagination enters. The artist must first absorb the infinite complexity of the object under consideration in its context. Then in an analogy to language, the artist ignores all but a handful of qualities to privilege what he considers to be the essence of the thing, his representation is an act of human communication.

The lotus flower is one of the most prominently depicted motifs in both Eastern and Western art. The flower of the water lily has the unique characteristic of opening in the morning and closing in the evening. For the Egyptians the lotus was the ideal symbol of the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. It featured prominently on personal effects, furniture and great monuments of architecture. Although highly convetionalised, often in a regularised frieze pattern alternating blossom and bud, the lotus motif is unmistakably recognised as representative of the flower. The flower and other myriad features of the plant are not depicted verbatim. Rather, that which was felt best captured the essence of the flower was retained and given prominence, a deliberate series of decisions that we can appreciate even thousands of years later.

In Classical art there is no more recognisable ornament than the acanthus leaf. Furthermore, it is depicted in a dazzling variety of ways, most of which do not occur in nature. The structure of the leaf of the actual acanthus plant is unbelievably complex. There is no end to the detail. That it became the preferred inspiration for rendering in stone is therefore somewhat perplexing. Like the lotus the acanthus became a symbol of resurrection and rebirth. A hardy weed, it is in fact quite difficult to eradicate. Even when you think you've uprooted it completely, there it is again springing back to life the next season. Acanthus features prominently on the Roman Ara Pacis monument, both in the more literal leaf interpretation as well as the flowering stalk and conventionalised scrolling acanthus or rinceaux design. This is of course complete artifice as regards acanthus, adapted from other spiraling vines that are common in the Mediterranean. An artist both highly skilled in imitation of natural forms as well as having developed his imagination to adapt them to a highly stylised design thus created a composition that at once feels natural yet artistic, one could say perfectly human.

The great masters of the Renaissance are often regarded as humanists; nevertheless, they were certainly naturalists as well. It might well be said that their particular interest in humanity was a subset of their great interest in all of nature. Leonardo da Vinci is of course renown for his enigmatic capture of the human condition as displayed in his paintings such as The Mona Lisa or his fresco The Last Supper. However, what is less known about him was the intensity of  preparation invested in nature studies for his compositions. There are literally hundreds of his extant sketches of plants, leaves and flowers that have survived.

In one of Leonardo's most iconic paintings, The Virgin of the Rocks, the scene
depicts a great human drama with divine pretensions. The positioning and lighting of the subjects, the delicacy of the facial features, and the detail of the folding of veil and cloth indeed worthily capture our immediate attention. However, in a nod to nature, the more you look the more you see and we begin to appreciate how much work, experience and inherent skill is found in a painting like this. The foliage certainly was not a bit of filler, a mere afterthought. To the contrary we find the plants and flowers rendered both accurately and artistically. As such they would be immediately recognised by a botanist today. Here we see Imagination operating in its other, higher capacity. Unlike the reduction and conventionalisation typifying ornamentation, in this narrative scene Leonardo paints a picture ostensibly of what was yet in another sense a lofty depiction of what could be. It's an aspirational image that takes the very best of what is and pushes it to the foreground. In essence, we witness here a preeminent example of the distinctly human contribution to the natural.

botanical detail, The Virgin of the Rocks, Leonardo da Vinci

Entropy and Generation

"The entropy of the universe tends to a maximum" - The second law of thermodynamics, Rudolf Clausius

During the Industrial Revolution scientists and engineers quickly turned their attention to difficulties with the machines that they were constructing. First, in the conversion of fuel into mechanical energy and again in the simple operations of the machine much of that energy was converted and subsequently dissipated in the form of heat. Secondly, the machines themselves would break down over time. In the mid-19th century Rudolf Clausius coined the term "entropy", meaning an "inner transformation", to describe this tendency for things to devolve from highly ordered and complex states into cycles of decay and eventual chaos. As the Enlightenment vision of nature at the time was materialist, this discovered "law" of thermodynamics was projected onto the entire universe. In an unwieldy union with the pre-exisiting Judaeo-Christian conception of God as the great potter and man having been made in his image, there was a correlation made between divine artifice (nature) and man's: it was all going to break down eventually.

To a large extent I believe humanity is still saddled with this world view. For example, the best concept that we seem to have come up with thus far to protect the natural environment is "sustainability". It's not a very good one. The main focus seems to be on improved mechanical systems that are more efficient, produce less waste and utilise cleaner sources of energy. These are directed in turn by self-enclosed control systems be they digital automation primarily associated with industrial production but now increasingly integrated into the state and corporate bureaucracies that constrain and encode behaviour through policies, standards, laws and codification.A vision of life and nature as a machine with systems and code to look after her. In this way of thinking, an improved care of nature comes from advancement in our mechanical models and efficiencies of control systems.

So what's the alternative? A bit of humility; look to nature and learn. Everything we've come to understand about nature indicates that it is the very opposite of entropic. Our universe has cyclically grown and expanded from a raw state of chaos to higher states of successively ordered complexity. Yet we don't have to look far into the infinitude of space to understand this, it's an ongoing process right here on planet earth. Life on earth is generative, so much so that we can see in human timescales the patterns unfolding before us. Land areas devastated by natural disaster or human exploitation heal rapidly if left alone; restated in technical language we could say that life is negentropic, manifesting a tendency to move from disorderly states of chaos to enriched, complex environments. Here is the hopeful part, human beings too are fully capable of being generative. We can and have nurtured for millennia animals and plants bringing land into higher capacities for both cultivation and richer environments for life to thrive. A seeming paradox from a mechanistic perspective, the key to being generative appears to be doing less, at least consciously. Like "nature", "to generate" has the same original meaning "to beget" or "give birth". This can be illustrated with a very personal example. The development from an embryo to a fetus to a delivered child is an extraordinarily complex living process which we still don't fully comprehend. Yet at another level we totally understand, we do it successfully all of the time! We know it so well in fact that we hardly have to think about it.

So once again, what does it mean then for a human to be generative, to act naturally?
I'll leave you to contemplate an ancient Taoist analogy:
"When in doubt look at water, it always knows what to do." Stop trying to flow upstream.

Contributed by Patrick Webb

Saturday, August 10, 2019

The Red Dust

From the red dust, the stranger emerged
thoughts a dead husk, he sought to have purged
dust clouded his eyes, wormed into his brain
there'd be no demise, no end of the pain

the dust it now spoke, so seductively assured
salvation in smoke, a sacrifice of words:
"Come into me childe, why must you be?
Let go of the wild, strive to be free!"

The stranger fell grim, his soul overcome
yet earth did catch him, 'er a stream did run
for a moment's stay, sans push or force
the red borne away, to the watercourse...

Contributed by Patrick Webb

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Counter-Culture: Cities Don't Protect Nature

"Big lies have little lies upon their backs to bite 'em, And little lies have lesser lies, and so, ad infinitum." -  Pseudosiphonaptera

Modern Lisbon
This new "Counter-Culture" series endeavours to unpack a number of false premises, sweet little lies that humanity as led by Western society has been telling itself over the last couples of centuries, lies that are fully entrenched in our systems of education, law and media to the point they are accepted as truisms, how things are and ought to be.

Lie #1: Civilisation is Good (Finally)

Civilisation is quite literally the process of seizing the savage, brute, barbarian and converting him to be a citizen, a dweller of the city. Historically this had never been a voluntary process. Ancient cities that arose in the Mesopotamia, the Indus and Nile valleys were renown for founding and enlarging their cities on the backs of slaves. Most often conscription to the city was accomplished by standing armies at the point of a sword. On rare occasion of extreme famine i.e., surrounding peasants would "voluntarily" sell themselves into an extended period of indentured servitude.

This general pattern continued through the rise of various Asian and American empires, the Persians, Greeks and of particular note the Romans from whom we're indebted to all of the Latin vocabulary we use in reference to the city. They all operated more or less the same. Sometimes offering the carrot, more often brandishing the stick in obligating their own people, then outsiders through conquest to support their cities. Neither is this a matter of just ancient history. Indentured servitude of the country peasant population into the cities of Europe was the motive force behind the (ongoing) Industrial Revolution. Chattel slavery as excercised by the Islamic and Christian civilisations was widespread in colonial Africa and the Americas for hundreds of years. Two world wars followed by a long cold war were fought throughout the 20th century over who had the right to reconcile unto their  vision of a brave new world what remained of the savage third world still outside of civilisation.

Certainly that was the past, a necessary if painful stage in human development? Perhaps the millions of corpses and inconceivable suffering experienced in the transition towards further civilisation can be counted against the uncivilised: those tribes, villages and aesthetic communities resisting such assimilation. After all, how can one deny the rise and dominance of civilisation as being that which is responsible for the rapid advances in human progress? The civilised are beneficiaries of higher education, longer life expectancy, reduced child mortality all accompanied by a resulting population explosion not to mention the material comforts of air conditioning, conveniences of modern transport and access to the sum total of human knowledge at our fingertips through technology. Don't we believe that we're better, superior, approaching the very pinnacle of what is is to be human...finally, to be good?

The aforementioned does seem to paint a grim picture of the rise of civilisation. To be fair it's not as though life outside of the city was free of conflict, pain and suffering. In many respects the attraction of the city is it's subjugation of nature, the offer of shelter from many of life's uncertainties. A sacrifice of autonomy and self-determination for subjection to a system of imposed order also promises protection from the 'other', alien if not outright hostile groups of human beings.

Lie #2: Man is a Domesticable Animal

It is hard to deny that mankind in general can be effectively coerced and manipulated. For example, the institution of slavery depended upon the cooperation of those enslaved (an highly unpalatable statement). Yet, it is impossible to maintain a system of slavery if everyone refuses to cooperate. However, the threat of death and torture against a man himself or especially directed towards his family is enough to get most men to capitulate. Of course, there is always a minority that will refuse under any circumstances but we know what became of them...a warning example to the rest. Nevertheless, the coercion exerted by slave-holding societies, totalitarian regimes and such like systems of direct oppression reliant primarily upon physical force for the control of population, is resource intensive and too costly to maintain for any extended period of time.

So that brings up another prominent feature of civilisation: education. The religious and aristocratic elite of ancient cities were the educated class. As such they were stewards of literacy and numeracy but also the narratives that provided an identity and structure for the common people to adopt. For thousands of years it was generally held that is was best to restrict education, that the commoners would be easier to control if they were ignorant of arts and letters. A major shift took place in the 19th century, spurred on by the need for laborers in the factories of the Industrial Revolution. State funded and state determined education for everyone became absolutely mandatory. Why the dramatic shift? As it turned out sequestering children away from their parents and communities throughout their entire childhood proved a very effective means of conditioning them for a lifetime to serve the needs of industry and the state above all other considerations.

Children are the most vulnerable members of a society. They have few rights, none they can assert on their own behalf. Of course, instinctively we know there is nothing more confessedly unnatural for a child then to have it sit down, be quiet and take academic instruction for 8 hours a day. Yet this is the standard programme from a minimum of 12 to upwards of 20 years. The ostensible subject matter of reading, writing, arithmetic or history are just of incidental practical benefit to industry, the state and other bureaucracies. What it takes a dozen or more years of costly investment to achieve is a broken spirit forever compliant to authority.

And even so humans rebel despite the uncompromising and powerful systems, all of the social pressures to conform. We know what to do with adults who won't conform; however, for children these rebellious traits manifest in school have systematically been classified as a disease. Parents are called upon to understand that their child is defective (not the system); however, there is a remedy with drug therapy as provided by medical experts. As of this writing the move is towards gene therapy as a final solution. How many parents have been so successfully educated that they now act as leading participants in the crushing of their own children?

Lie #3: The Density of the City Protects Nature

In the year 1800 only about 3% of the world's population lived in cities. Two centuries later, it's over 50% and over 75% in the West. City after city in the Western world exhibit a repetitive pattern. The historic city centers are significantly occupied by investors, many of them leveraging the properties as short term rentals to tourists. In Europe these city centres are eclipsed by a fat ring of industrial tower blocks where most of the population now live. In the United States and Canada this ring is more likely to be composed of suburban sprawl. Urbanisation in the United Kingdom finds itself somewhere in between. Meanwhile the countryside has emptied out, just a fraction of the population it once was in most places. Asia, the Indian subcontinent, South America and even now Africa are rapidly industrialising and following these Western models of urbanisation.

Most folks probably look at that as a good thing. God help us if all those people were spread out all over the world, there'd be nothing left! So I propose the initiating axiom of such or similar reasoning goes something like this: "Humans are locusts, consumptive destruction ensues wherever they go. Best to keep them contained. The density of the modern city is our best bet."

Perhaps it is possible for humans to become something like locusts, hordes of irreflective consumers of resources. However, I don't believe for a moment that is anything like our natural state of being. When Europeans arrived to the Americas they found the indigenous people to be indolent, lazy not having brought the land up in their view to its productive capabilities or having established a proper civilisation. However, the native tribes knew their home territory well and what may have first appeared to an outsider as men living as animals in wild nature was in fact a cultivated garden under man's influence. Not only was the indigenous American way of life sustainable, it was generative of life and of an enhanced productive capacity of their environment.

European village life prior to industrialisation provides another instructive example. Building materials were produced locally. Stone, earth, wood, thatch, terra cotta are examples of materials available in many areas. Villages grew spatially in adaptation primarily to the terrain as well as human and animal needs. Arable land was sacrosanct. Building often took place on areas more difficult to build and not suitable for agriculture. Architecture was not viewed as a consumable (like food) rather an heritable investment and was built in a way to endure and be expanded upon. Villages were spatially arranged so as to provide privacy as well as communal meeting places. The farmers and craftsmen that inhabited these villages did not simply look at their flocks, fields and forests as detached raw material to be exploited and consumed rather as a responsibility of stewardship that had been entrusted to them to cultivate and pass on to their children.

Cities and civilisation on the other hand has been consistently shown to shift the psychological state of man towards one of consumption. There is the physical daily separation from nature, from one's sources of food, clothes, shelter and medicine. These necessities cease to be things cultivated within the context of a community and instead are resources to be purchased and consumed within a system. After two or three generations of living in a tower block i.e., any cultural memory of the former possible way of life and accompanying capacity for living outside a prescribed system of law and codification is lost. Instead of being hyper-conscious of nature as it is embedded into your daily life, nature is thought of as something "out there" completely detached. In practical terms the countryside has been abandoned to coroporations that lead an extraction economy that feeds the endless hunger of a consumer marketplace.

This is not to hold up tribal or village life is an utopian ideal. However, they do serve as proof positive that man can be something other than a consuming locust; we have the innate capacity for stewardship and further generation of life. Tribes are all but extinct as a means of human society; however, we can still walk the underpopulated villages and extract valuable lessons in addressing our present problems of energy consumption, pollution and environmental degradation. Cities don't protect nature rather their detached systems exploit her; however, engaged and responsible human beings can heal and steward nature. That's the lesson to be learned from our forefathers.

 Contributed by Patrick Webb

Friday, August 2, 2019

Traditional Urbanism, Architecture and the Building Crafts

I had opportunity this summer to participate for two weeks in a Traditional Architecture Summer School held in the municipality of Valderredible in the region of Cantabria, Spain. Rural and remote is a conservative description for Valderredible which maintains a population of less than a thousand people in approximately 120 square miles of land area. First of all I'd like to express that the programme was exceedingly well organised and clearly well funded. We were quite literally wined, dined and otherwise had our physical needs well cared for in comfortable accommodations which facilitated the getting down to the business of the programme itself...well, that may require a bit more explanation.

What was a craftsman doing at an architectural summer school?

Although there is an open enrollment, the programme makes a concerted effort to encourage applications from current students of architecture or recent graduates; it's essentially structured for this demographic. Furthermore, the summer school's primary focus is on traditional urbanism which you could alternatively describe as how traditional villages developed and were arranged spatially using architecture as a means of societal organisation. At first glance, this sounds a long way off from my typical daily activity as a traditional plasterer and stone carver. However, a closer look at the institutions taking the lead in organising the programme is revealing.

The International Network for Traditional Building, Architecture & Urbanism (INTBAU) has incorporated into its very name the notion that craftsmen, architects and urbanists need to be networked for a resulting traditional built environment to be even possible. In that spirit the INTBAU chapter serving Spain and Portugal has gone so far as to organise an online Network of Traditional Building Masters. Earlier in the year, a member of the faculty had strongly encouraged me to attend the summer programme. As it turned out, I was called upon on numerous occasions to comment on the materials, means and methods of the traditional buildings, largely consisting of stone masonry buildings with earthen and lime based mortars and renders. This did seem practically useful to the students' understanding of how the architecture of Valderredible was initially constructed, how it functioned, what constituted proper maintenance and avoiding using some modern materials and methods that could damage these otherwise enduring structures.

Image courtesy of Christopher Miller

Nevertheless, there was perhaps other less tangible benefits from including the perspective of a traditional craftsman in the programme. For example, I personally learned a lot about how these very successful villages were put together. This is something I'd never studied formally and I would say my experience is typical of most traditional craftsman. The faculty clearly held a lot of insight into why the individual buildings were oriented in the manner they were, why and how they adapted to the landscape, how as an ensemble they created places ideal for human gathering and social interaction. This type of knowledge contributed to my own urban literacy, my ability to speak the same language for possible future collaborations with architects working in an urban context. Additionally, I was in turn able to share my perspective on the redemptive power of traditional handcraft, the concentration of human attention to the smallest parts being essential to the function and the lovability of the greater whole.

Why were any of us there?

So I've made a case for why I was there but perhaps the larger question is why any of us were there. After all, only a small percentage of the population lives in the countryside (Spain has moved from an urban population of 11% in 1800 to 80% currently). This valley in particular was massively depopulated, currently at just a 20% capacity of its former peak population with many buildings and entire communities simply abandoned despite an overall population increase for the country. Furthermore, nothing has been built with traditional materials such as stone and adobe in this valley for decades. The few new buildings or additions follow those of the modern city, constructed of the typical glass, concrete and steel of industrial construction. Similarly, any new urbanism projects center around a suburban "carchitecture" model based on automobile needs such as parking and traffic flow.

From a certain perspective, as I suspect is held widely by industry and the academy, such a study as led by our summer programme is a nostalgic, romantic waste of time. We're modern, humanity lives almost exclusively in cities now. Our architecture resembles our food, clothes and medicine: efficient industrial production from which there is no going back, only progress as led by further technological development. Except I think many people are increasingly beginning to question that narrative. Perhaps the most compelling motivation against this view is a rapidly growing panic that our current bureaucratic and industrial systems finely attuned for the maximum exploitation of the earth's resources are going to at worst get us all killed or at the very least leave an extremely diminished quality of existence for our children.

In my opinion, INTBAU and this summer programme is part of a larger counter-cultural movement that questions the direction the built environment has taken over the past century and dares to consider that there may be some wisdom in addressing our current ecological and social challenges by studying the lessons physically embedded in the traditional architecture of just a few generations ago, particularly in areas where it can still be seen operating in the somewhat preserved context as exists in Valderredible. Not that the traditional way of life there remains perfectly undisturbed. Far from it, all of the industrial ways of building and food production have caught up to the valley and the spiritual and social conditions that nurtured the former sustainable and human villages into being initially no longer exist. So our task there as architect, craftsman and urbanist might also have been akin to the archaeologist and anthropologist attempting to decipher from the physical vestiges that remain why folks built the way they did and how they were able to use the local resources at their disposal to create an almost entirely self sufficient culture, one that went beyond mere sustainability rather was generative of life. Not too long ago we could say the Valderredible fared better because human beings were there. That's a model worth paying attention to.

What did we accomplish?

Image courtesy of Christopher Miller
After a week of observation of the existing building details, architecture and urbanism of the municipality we were set about to put the lessons we were learning to use on an challenging proposal: How might the capital of the municipality, Polientes be expanded to accommodate a larger population? The implication was that the work on Polientes could serve as a model for a responsible expansion of the villages throughout the valley. The goal was obviously not to recreate or reinstate the past, rather to take it into account, adapting lessons of value from the past in the present whilst incorporating a few things of value that mankind has learned along the way. As it turns out this is not so simple, largely because I think what our forefathers accomplished there was exceedingly well done and sensible.

A number of questions arose that did not achieve complete consensus or conclusion. This I think is entirely understandable and to be expected when treating with a deeply complex environment. One ought approach such a place as Valderredible with a good amount of humility. One of those questions was whether or not we should build anything new at all? After all Polientes has a current population of about 200, probably about a quarter of its capacity of about 800 were all the existing buildings to be occupied. However, it was generally felt important for the students to incorporate the lesson of planning for additional building that respected an existing context so a large expansion of the village was decided upon.

Another question was where to build? An observation I and several others had made was that for the most part traditional buildings had been placed upon rocky, challenging land. Any arable land, either by the river or the sloping hills, had been reserved for husbandry or agriculture.

Then there was the question of what to build, more housing i.e.? A thriving, self-sufficient community has infrastructure needs beyond housing. My group in particular focused on buildings for craft workshops, bodegas for wine, storage for municipality equipment. Every village needs a good closet nearby to place the junk we need but don't always want to look at every day! Others focused on public, cultural institutions such as schools and museums.

Image courtesy of Christopher Miller
Many productive conversations revolved around how to build? As previously mentioned, the traditional architecture of Valderredible is exterior stone masonry utilising the local limstone and sandstone with adobe interior partitions, all of which receive earthen and lime mortars and renders. Doors windows and roof framing were all made from the plentiful oaks of the surrounding forests. The majority of roofing was terra cotta; however, there was some indication that thatch had been used previously. all of these materials had been previously sourced and produced locally. Unfortunately, from my inquiries it appeared that no traditional craftsmen or manufacturers of traditional materials remain in the valley. Nevertheless, perhaps that could be viewed as a future opportunity for a meaningful, contributing sector of the population to renew itself.

All in all I'd say that you can't look as carefully as we all did for those intense couple of weeks at this little chunk of paradise, nature under mankind's beneficent influence, without being profoundly affected. Architecture has the potential to be a very noble profession that carries with it aesthetic and moral responsibility. The way we build today affects peoples lives in very direct ways and often across multiple generations. At the conclusion of the programme the students presented some worthwhile ideas through lovely drawings at a well attended public event of the local population. However, I think all of us were most moved internally, more sensible to an inner narrative of truth that we can contribute in a positive way to society and create places worth caring about, places we would be happy to call home.

 Contributed by Patrick Webb