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To do less by Benjamin Strak

The AJ Writing Prize 2013: Shortlisted

Just outside the city of Yazd in Iran, there are two steep hills that rise up from the desert. At the summit of each there is a low circular wall. Seen from the desert floor the stone walls shimmer in the heat. There is no apparent way in.

You must set off on trust. It takes until half-way up to see the small hole in the wall that is your destination. As you spiral around the hill, you catch glimpses of it that you can’t quite make out. The stone is the same burnt colour of the mountain and the entrance blinks at you, going in and out of sight.

When you are finally in front of the hole, you realise just how small it is. You are sweating. The journey you have just taken was exhausting and up here you are not even allowed to drink. The last thing you want to do is haul yourself on your belly through this narrow gap. But you have come this far now.

So you climb up grudgingly; the stones are painfully hot to the touch. After some scrambling, with thick dust on your chest and face, you enter the summit. The ground, rising up before you, is ringed by the wall you could see from the city. From here, all that is visible is rock and the great circular disc of the sky with it’s fierce sun. Alone under the bright white sky, for a moment the world ceases to exist, perhaps you do also. You have no shadow here.

It is only when you climb up to the wall that you can be sure it is, that you are still here. The desert stretches out on one side beyond the other hill, and the turreted city to the other. Now it is they that shimmer under the heat and seem impossibly remote. You have come back. Imperceptibly, you feel changed.

Architecture takes very little. For Mies it was just two bricks. In Yazd, at the Towers of Silence, where the Zoroastrian families came to take their dead to be picked clean by the birds, the architecture consists of a low wall with a hole. It did not take any time nor much skill to build. But when matched with that mountain and that heat, and the journey one must take in the presence of both, the architecture takes on spiritual power. Under the white sky, you come face to face with your own existence, and all it took was some carefully arranged stones.

This economy is the special gift of architecture. In a time when artists must pickle ever more exotic animals to provoke a sentiment in the onlooker, and it takes ever more elaborate computer trickery to make our hearts race during a film, architecture shows the power of being restrained. A writer like this one must prattle on for paragraph after paragraph to begin to convey the awe of those simple, rough-cut stones.

So I am always sceptical of buildings that seek to be spectacular. Glittering and gymnastic, they have squandered architecture’s gift. A building that pretends to be a great glass egg or a river frozen in motion has gone crazy with technical possibility. They are trying to compete with the pickled sharks. Exhausted from the cacophony, we simply withdraw from them. Like a Russian serf in the presence of an icon, all we can feel is cowed.

I admit that climbing a hot mountain in a distant country is not the usual context for a piece of architecture. Life happens on an everyday level, on
the plain. When we enter our homes or offices we do not want to be confronted necessarily with our existence. We cannot transport the lessons of Yazd wholesale to our lives as architects. There is such a thing as a time and a place.

But we can learn something from that low wall and its small hole. To let ourselves do less. Build enough wall to cut off the world and the right-sized gap to force you to your knees. Sometimes there is no need to build a roof.

Luis Barragan knew how sensitive our nervous systems are. He kept his architecture quiet. At his house in Mexico City (pictured) the walls are made of adobe. There is always somewhere cool to sit whether you are in a group or on your own. The light at the windows encourages you to slow your breathing down and rest. The house doesn’t require you to get over-excited. In the kitchen there is coffee for when you want that.
I believe architecture has to do with sentiment.

It is felt. A building should make us feel comfortable and feel safe. It should point us in the right direction. Occasionally - like at Yazd - it can amaze us. I don’t believe it takes very much for it to do this. We just have to try and not lose our heads.

Jørn Utzon lovingly describes geisha shuffling across the polished wooden floors of tea-houses. The floor is slippery and they must be graceful and sure footed or else they will fall.

I think that buildings draw things out of us in this way even if we are not geishas. We lean on them. They form a part of us. Doing less is a way of being careful about what they draw out.

I am about half-way through my training to become an architect. This is about as much as I have learned so far.

I am trying very hard to do less.

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