Movement and Geometry

Jim Eyre

Buildings, by their very nature, tend to be static, a condition hitherto reinforced by their architecture. The built environment is dominated by ordered rectilinear forms, in clear contrast to the array of diverse shapes that occur in nature. In a sense, the rigour of the orthogonal is alien in the world and subverts the natural order. A strand of contemporary architecture is gradually emerging from this tyranny of form. Based on geometry that goes beyond that of rectilinear relationships, it exploits the visual dynamism of forms that evoke movement. Nothing excites me more in architecture than this unleashing of a potential that engages the mind in the experience of built form on terms that react to consciousness and the very sensations that prove we are alive. Next in line to a sense of consciousness is the sense of movement.

Order comes from geometry but we can be liberated from that of the box by those geometries that arise everywhere in nature – related to curves, angles and patterns. Neither does rectilinear architecture need to be devoid of movement; rather, the transition from point to line to plane to volume must be more informed than to lead one every time to a box-like form. Visual movement in buildings is shaped by geometry, and whether it is through a sequence of interrelated planes defining spaces, or via the line of a curve, the architect has available the vocabulary to express it. While I enjoy the contrasts in form arising from mankind's imprint on nature, I think there is something extra to be found in an architecture that concerns itself with movement. We live in an age of high mobility – brought about principally by the development of transport and communications. Beside the static condition of buildings the rest of the built environment revolves around a proliferation of various means of enabling movement. In this sense we are, compared to previous eras, hyper-mobile and, as constant movement has become increasingly possible, so the appetite for change has enlarged.

Technology has facilitated physical movement but I am more concerned here with how apparent movement is experienced in the mind; after all, buildings do not really move very much at all. The links with capturing a sense of movement are most obvious in infrastructure design – an area in which WilkinsonEyre is very much involved.

It is possible to see, by looking at the art of the period, that even at the beginning of the era of powered movement perceptions of space were beginning to change. In his famous Rain Steam and Speed J.M.W. Turner captured the blur of movement that characterizes high-speed transportation. The new technology of movement emerges in an instant, and heads off towards the modern landscape of embankments, cuttings, bridges and tunnels that support the ultralinearity of high-speed travel over land.

The agitations of the Futurists during the early 1900s drew attention to issues of speed, mechanization, violence and movement in the new world of triumphant technology. Attempts were made to represent physical movement within the confines of the two-dimensional picture plane at a time when not even film – let alone television – had been invented. In architecture, as opposed to infrastructure design, one struggles to identify movement as the powerful guiding force or influence, except, perhaps, for limited periods and as isolated incidents. In the work of Borromini and other Baroque architects, for example, there is an almost riotous sense of movement and Gothic ecclesiastical architecture possesses a strong sense of (upward) movement.

The battle between the Classical and Gothic traditions is almost a thousand years old, but in the context of a discussion about movement and geometry, it is still a conflict worth a moment's reflection. The spirit of Classical architecture evokes a rather static view of the world. A set-piece view of a building in a landscape symbolizes the idyllic existence of a measured art, which transcends and even improves on nature. The language of Gothic in architecture offers an equally potent but different spirit; yet it is, in fact, just as measured and rooted in a carefully calculated geometrical system of proportions.

The Classical and Gothic traditions seem, then, to be fundamentally at odds with each other not only on an obvious level in terms of image, but also in the way they connect with their surroundings. The Classical somehow engages horizontally with the land or townscape whereas the predominant sense of movement in the Gothic is one of verticality. There is a further distinction between the two: on the one hand, the development of Classicism is very arts-based, whereas, on the other hand, it is possible to argue that the achievements of the Gothic were technologically enabled.

I think of the architecture created by WilkinsonEyre as straddling this divide: inspired by a strong sense of movement, our buildings are shaped through the deployment of geometry. Like so much of twentieth-century modernist architecture, our work is often characterized by essentially Classical preoccupations about how space works and how a structure inhabits a setting. At the same time we are keen to push technology to its limits, achieving lighter, longer-spanning structures for a given amount of material. This interest in progressing technology is essentially derived from a desire to be inventive about ways of doing things; the urge to be creative, following in the footsteps of Le Corbusier and his 'L'Esprit Nouveau', is both powerful and inevitable. For us it is imperative to innovate.

In WilkinsonEyre's buildings the manifestation of both movement and geometry is the result of many considerations, but it is interesting to consider first the cognitive process of design. Forming ideas follows – at least in part – a structured pattern which is evolved through training and experience; the other part is intuitive, a function of how the mind works, and in this regard I can speak only for myself. Firstly, then, considering the structured pattern: it starts with an analysis of the brief and the formulation in the mind of what is being asked. On an objective level, this involves the accumulation from all the various sources of all the hard information about the project – through site visits and conversations with, or briefings by, the client. From this it is possible rigorously to define the main options for laying out the principal spaces. Already a sequence of simplistic diagrams can be constructed that, though simplistic, contain coded information not only about the basic geometry of the spaces that would arise but also about how people will move through them. Immediately, directional issues come into play: the vistas or the 'lines of force', or just basic patterns of anticipated movement. At WilkinsonEyre this is known as 'establishing the diagram'. In order for the project to be successful the essence of a clear diagram must be safeguarded.

The intuitive part of the process involves reading between the lines. As you are looking at how to join up or arrange sequences of spaces, the story about the building or structure is unfolding in your mind. Intuition comes into play many times as possibilities emerge about how to arrange things. This can be a fast or painfully slow process depending on the complexity of the proposition. It is possible to see in the mind's eye the character and shape of a series of three-dimensional spaces and this may include a mental image of (amongst other things) light and dark surfaces, texture, mass and voids. These curious and seemingly haphazard workings of the mind involve journeys of the imagination through architectural space. And as ideas form in the mind, more and more aspects are worked at in order to inform the notional concept, and these can be surprisingly detailed. Order comes out of this apparent chaos, however, as the various elements are organized by the sense of movement. This may literally be a vision of how people will move around the building or may take account of more psychological aspects – the visualization of the lines of force, the axiality of some particular arrangement, or the mere feeling of being pulled along or guided by the spaces or the structure.

In attempting to describe process and expose the designer's vision, I am assuming a leap of faith; I have to believe that the way others experience built form can connect with the same ideas and sensations. The objective is that everyone can sense this movement and relate to its governing geometry.

In nature there are very few materials that are fully inert; all materials are gradually trying to return to their natural state. A building, therefore, is inevitably trying to fight this erosion; thus, like a person, it has a life and ages with time. The inevitable linear geometry of time is at work. The economics of design life and the selection of materials will influence how long this battle against time will last. Inextricably linked to both movement and geometry, however, is another aspect of life: the growth of living forms – both flora and fauna – exhibits patterns and structural arrangements evolved over time which enable growth and provide the strength to defy the forces acting on them. While man-made structures and growth patterns often share a governing geometry, in nature – conversely – growth merely provides one form of movement, and there are also myriad patterns of growth for us to wonder over. Many of the more interesting to enjoy analogous representation in built forms comprise elements that repeat over and over again – the spiral growth of a shell, for instance. Here a familiar geometry becomes symbolic for us of our growth in knowledge and the passage of time, and can be inspirational in terms of the built form.

Spirals can hold a considerable fascination. They have been extensively explored in architecture and the arts over the years, from the capital scroll of the Ionic column, to Dürer's spiral, made up of a series of arcs. This latter is really only an approximation of a spiral, but nevertheless can work as prescribing the form of the Golden Section or following the golden ratio. An early two-dimensional spiral is that of Archimedes, which represents an object moving out from the centre of a disc in a single direction at a uniform speed while the disc rotates at a constant speed. More sophisticated is the equiangular spiral, studied in the seventeenth century by Descartes, Torricelli and Bernoulli. Here, any tangent on the spiral always subtends the same angle to a line back to the origin, wherever one looks at the spiral. Moving around the spiral through any given angle of rotation about the origin, the same proportions are always maintained, a property which can be seen in cross section through the Nautilus shell, where clearly the programmed growth is repetitive. Bernoulli was fascinated by the extraordinary properties of this spiral; his tombstone was even inscribed with the relevant curve and the words 'Eadem mutata resurgo' ('Though changed I rise unchanged'). Spirals do have a certain mystical quality. Perhaps there is an appeal for us in the orbitting movement drawing ever closer to the centre.

I believe that the pleasing visual quality of these special curves or proportions is derived from their innate order. The fluidity of curves is important and this sense of movement is enhanced by a seamless transition in the geometry that sets them out. When a profile is printed out on paper in the WilkinsonEyre office I encourage people to look along the curves, for only when you look from one end and get a foreshortened view does the subtlety of the geometry reveal itself. The purer forms tend to work best.

As a firm, we make extensive use of the parabola – and particularly in bridge design – for it possesses some neat geometrical properties that make it easier to use than a circle. Not only is the parabola used to establish the vertical alignment of bridge decks; our arches tend to be parabolic curves, too, though why an arch looks better when it follows such a profile rather than a semi-circle is an interesting question. The competition for the Hulme Bridge project provided WilkinsonEyre with real hands-on proof; our design started life as a semi-circular form but was latterly changed to a parabola. (In retrospect, this was probably due to inexperience, for this was the firm's first design for an arched structure and I am sure that the comparison was a familiar one among bridge engineers.) The reason why the parabola works better is partly because it resembles much more closely the path of natural forces – with minimum bending in the arch member. In short, the parabola resembles more closely the purest structural shape. It also has a sense of direction, whereas a circular form is directionless, and it has a specific central axis. The question becomes, then, one about perception and the legibility of a structure, and again this involves movement – both the flow of force and the projection of the form in a particular direction.

WilkinsonEyre makes use of curved forms; such forms imply a sense of visual movement. The eye is drawn to move around curves, and it, in turn, can draw the mind to want to follow the curve. South Quay footbridge is a good example: the visitor is visually drawn along the bridge by the combined forces of the S-shaped plan, the varying-width deck – which gives an exaggerated perspective – and the perforated metal screen. Moreover, the fact that the structure is leaning at an unusual angle and the arrays of cables radiate and splay both in plan and in three dimensions further reinforces this visual dynamism. The effect on the user suggests a kind of movement which could be described as 'psycho-kinetic'; directionality is important at South Quay and there is a feeling of being virtually drawn along by the form. Equally, South Quay is what could be described as a 'fast' space; it evokes a feeling of speed. Inherent in the whole structural form, alongside the literal movement of its function as an opening swing bridge, there is a feeling of an arrested movement (you can just feel those forces galloping around the structure and the masses counterbalancing each other).

In bridge design, it is generally the physical movement that is the most problematic. When a man-made structure mimics a life form by actually moving, it can get rather cumbersome. To capture the gracefulness of natural movement in an opening bridge is a serious challenge and I look forward to seeing the operation of the 'opening eye' at Gateshead, where the whole structure is mobilized. Designers of opening bridges seldom achieve the holy grail: the best example to date is the footbridge to the inner harbour at Duisburg, designed by Schlaich Bergermann – a suspension bridge made to deform itself in an almost elastic way to rise up and create an opening.

Sinuous curves are not the only inspiring and powerful forms. I will never forget a visit to Palladio's Villa Emo where the building is anchored into the landscape by the incredibly powerful interaction of two long vistas and a ramped change in level. Straight lines govern the composition here, and locate the portico entrance to the otherwise quite modest villa. This was a source of inspiration during the development of our design for the Four Seasons house, where there was a square walled garden with openings in the wall midway along each side giving onto the surrounding countryside. The axiality here depended on 'lines of force' inherent in the site or brought into the composition – very different from the reading of structure and the 'flow of forces'. Lines of force exist in the mind as well as in the spaces or landscape that we create, contributing to a sense of spirituality; they are the result of how spaces or objects in space relate to each other to create a greater power. Although these spaces or objects may be static, a movement is implied which prescribes a geometry. Moreover, the spaces and objects which possess the power to generate lines of force often have a strong presence themselves – usually traceable to their own geometry.

Despite a self-confessed interest in geometry – and that of movement – I would resist the application of proportion systems as a formulaic way of designing a building. It just does not work. What use is a Golden Section to an architect if he or she can neither recognize one nor draw one freehand without aid? Besides, there is another curious aspect of geometrical form that I find intriguing and that is the visual tension that can be achieved through the approximation of pure shapes. Thus, something which is just out of square can be very lively and will contribute, more than the dead-pan rigour of precision, to an overall feeling of movement.

An architect should not only look in the mind when considering perceptions of movement in the static reality of built forms because there are other factors that can bring buildings to life. The way spaces are inhabited by people, whether singly or in crowds, is obviously crucial, but architecture would be virtually nothing if it were not for light, ever changing. Here the notion of how mood can be affected by external conditions becomes an important consideration. Depending on the surfaces on which it lands, the sun can brighten up a space and can bring both the interior and exterior of any building to life, its constantly changing nature throughout the day prompting changing perceptions of the structure. The play of light on form is a powerful animating agent, brought about by orientation, careful modelling and the skilful disposition of the transparent or translucent elements of a building. Moreover, the transparency that during the day made the outside look bright, with light seeping or flooding into the building, at night is reversed, allowing buildings to radiate light.

Today it is difficult to stand still; uncertainties exist everywhere and technology is shrinking the world. Aware of this, architecture attempts to serve a demand for excitement and interest, and there is a confidence about an architecture which not only asserts itself by appealing to man's appreciation of movement but which also explores new geometries and forms made feasible only through computer technology. Architects can become masters – rather than servants – of this new technology, and can enjoy – on a conscious level – the strength of new forms specifically shaped to bring buildings to life. Buildings too are more liberated by what can be conceived, realized and manufactured economically while at the same time becoming ever more responsive to our senses.

Jim Eyre

This essay originally appeared in the practice monograph 'Bridging Art and Science' (Booth –Clibborn Editions, 2001).