Beneath the site

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Beneath the site

ARC6989 Refection on Architectural Design

Yutong Liu


School of Architecture

University of Sheffield

Site analysis has been known as one of the primary steps when architects began to encounter architecture design. And it affects the diverse forms of architectural style. Invisible reasons such as activities of people, history of city, behind stories have equal influence between visible ones or even more.

This essay will discuss examples of hidden aspect in site and how they influence the process of architecture design. Great architects such as Alvar Aalto and Daniel Libeskind, they all use their own words to integrate site’s cultural and historical elements into their theory and works. This paper will also introduce writer’s personal experience of design impressed by invisible factors.

Key Words: Invisible, Site, Activities, History

List of contents

1. Introduction ………………………………………………………………………………… 1

2. Beneath the site…………………………………………………………………………… 1

2.1 Human activities ……………………………………………………2

2.2 Historical and cultural factors ………………………………………2

3. Relationship with author’s work ………………………………………………………… 3

4. Conclusion…………………………………………………………………………………3
5. Bibliography………………………………………………………………………………… 4
6. List of figures……………………………………………………………………………… 5

For most part of architects, site analysis may be the first thing to be done since it provides a comprehensive investigation of environment and surroundings and also offers entry points of architecture and landscape design. Therefore, a general and elaborate analysis is necessary to one particular architect‘s understand of site. In my opinion, there are two approaches to interpret into site, visible and invisible.

Karen A. Franck once said in his article Inside, outside, and inside out , architects and designers should learn to listen to the site with respectfully, should identify what is concealed and let them discover their own forms. In this essay what I am going to focus on is the hidden aspects of site such as city history and human activities and how these influence the process of architecture design. Great architects such as Alvar Aalto and Daniel Libeskind, they all use their own words to integrate site’s cultural and historical elements into their theory and works. At last, I will combine my present studio work with how I analyze the hidden part of site.

2.Beneath the site
Sometimes I feel doing one architecture design can be compared with solving math equations. On one side maybe is what site is like, how architects and clients feel what background is this and what functions will be etc. On the other side is the answer to those questions, is the design. Like answering math questions, there might be various processes to design a building. However there is only one exact right answer to one math equation, there are multiple possibilities to one architectural design. One of the numerous reasons why every building is different is how architects understand their site.

Site analysis has been known as one of the primary steps when architects began to encounter architecture design. Modern architecture education pays more attention to the environmental and regional factors where the building is being, emphasizes that architecture should reflect the characteristics of site from every directions. On the methodology course we have discussed what site is, how site is found and how site can be understood. Site generally refers to the material and cultural circumstances and conditions surrounded building. Moreover, site covers all the environmental factors around the architecture as well as the psychological and cultural factors. In addition, site can be considered from two aspects: visible and invisible.

Consistently, similar results of architecture design will be studied by most of qualified architects. For instance, the property and characteristic of site effect the architecture’s function area and the range of services; the traffic flow of people and vehicles influence the location of entrance and parking deck as well as their amount; current landscape has large impact on the view of architecture and so on. On the contrary, while there are history custom or human activities involve, every designer tend to comprehend different emphasis points and analysis angles.

From my point of view, the reason that architecture can be designed in different forms is mainly because what can not be seen. In my opinion whether architecture or others what is already there and what is hidden behind existence are of equal importance. Current buildings and plants, streets, topography etc. have great affect on architecture design while other obscured factors are also essential. For example the personal experience of architects and users, activity rules and phenomena or things hidden in the site. These invisible elements have subtle effect on design process and results.What is obscured in the site may lie within the history and culture; it may be within the activities which happened; or it may be within the story behind this place.

2.1 Human activities
Activities is one invisible factor hidden in site. Human activities and architecture design organize and support each other and their relationships are like chicken and eggs. For example , if there is a human activity, then there needs a kind of place that can support that activity. This activity gathers architectural functions which comprised space for users.  A positive building also attects other following activities and use for human.In other words, as said byFranck, K.A ,patterns of human actions and experience helped to inspire the creation of form and space. Likewise,  Alvar Aalto who believed that the essence of architecture is to create comfortable environment, satisfy the demands of life and serve people.

In the design of Paimio Tuberculosis Sanatorium in Finland, Alvar Aalto fully thought through the request and interest from patients, absorbed and heard from doctors and psychologists’ advices and research results, combined with his own experience of being a patient, carefully elavorated to the last detail.

Thinking about today’s Chinese architecture, from my point of view, how to overcome the influence of utilitarianism, get rid of the idea of “function”, are one essential concept in current process of architecture design. Instead, put the idea  “human activities” first, not only from the overall environment design, architecture or landscape design but also from details like furniture and interior decoration.  Studied from the development of modern western architectural theory,it is clear that the significance process and value of a person's existing are of special attention. So for us Chinese architects and architecture students, how to focus on human development has already be answered by Aalto in 50 years. Compared with today’s Chinese hospitals which is always grey and serious,Aalto’s work relaxes patients spirits. He even put a mirror in the balcony to celebrate their recovery.What kind of architecture is eternal may not have an exact answer. However I believe that only the constructions that put users’demand on the first place is with the most powerful vitality.
2.2 Historical and cultural factors
The historical factor is another invisible factor of the hidden aspect of site. The memory of history and old custom are the foundation of architectural developing and facilitate a dialogue between the past and the future transcendence of space. Architecture is the carrier of culture, and historical towns existing buildings in site carry abundant regional culture and long architecture history.  Moreover, the memory of people and city consist mostly of the world, without memory there are no stories worth to be told.

The Jewish Museum Berlin is one of the most represented architecture designed from the historical point of view. The works of Daniel Libeskind all show a return to regional, cultural, group and even personal history and memory. He uses his design to express the thoughts and emotions of his people as well as to exhibit the spirit of traditional culture.

One of the reason why this museum is so different may be the space design is not based on function or flows of people. This building itself is a story of Jewish history.The twisted zigzag symbolizes the broken history cut by wars; criss-crossing linear elements become indelible scars in Jewish’s hearts. The three narrow tunnels and also called “axes”, represent the connection between the Jewish life in Germany.
3. Relationship with author’s work

I am in studio 14 which is urban intensification. Using architectural ways to deal with uncertainty or unproductive space lack of activities and use is the main approach of our studio. Sheffield industrial zone is where we mainly focus on. I can also interpret this area from visible and invisible sides.

Material is one of the visible factors of site. First of all walking is my main methodology to understand the site. It is really interested to me that the age of one building can be easily told by

Fig.1. The growth of Sheffield Industrial Buildings.

looking at the structure and material. For example old workshops are usually made of brick while modern factories are steel and truss structure. The material boundaries between old and new show how industrial zone sprawled along the two rivers. From this point the history of Sheffield and industry which are also factors can not be seen are surfaced.

Fig.2. History maps of Sheffield

Secondly,I started to analyze history maps and buildings of Sheffield. There are five old maps of 1850,1900,1950,1980 and 2010.In the map 1850, industrial revolution started. Important buildings were centered in the heart of city. Public and open space located near important buildings like church and railway station. A small area of industry developed between river and canal, especially at the beginning of the canal. The map of 1900 shows industrial revolution explosion and the proportion of industrial area grew almost 10 times than 1850.The railway station developed rapidly while residential zone grow along the north side of river and south side of canal. In 1950 industrial revolution peaked. This was the golden year. Industry area continued developing with residential zone decreasing along the river. When 1980 came, industrial Revolution stopped. With the depression of steel industry, a lot of workshop went out of business and been demolished. The proportion of manufactory area along with the proportion of residential zone both declined. New houses emerged on the edge of city such as the hillside in the north and south east of Sheffield. Nowadays, former industrial area decreased while new blocks of technology buildings were constructed in the north east of Sheffield. Residential zone almost disappeared in Attercliff. Other important buildings appeared along the river and canal like Don Vally Stadium and Meadowhall shopping mall. Today, Sheffield is not only an industrial city but also an educational city, a sports city, an economic city. As can be seen that houses and modern factories are in good condition while these old small workshops are not because of the depression of steel industry nowadays.

Through the above study of Sheffield history such as the sprawl and evolution of industrial zone, we can draw a conclusion that the area between two waters was in most harmonious and healthy urban form around 1900. Because at this moment factories green fields houses schools were mixed together. While after that period the functions of this area begun to decrease and reduced all the way down to only industrial. From this model, we can see that houses and modern factories are in good condition while these old small workshops are not because of the depression of steel industry. Many of them are begging for use. In my opinion, this abandon area is lack of activity and energy, existing in the interstice of urban can also be called vague territory.

Thirdly, I call this urban skin “scar building”. This skin is found in the middle of old workshop area and shows the relationship between old and new perfectly. I can not only see the specific character of this place but also a story behind it. When one building is dead and demolished, is it disappeared? What did it leave behind? This print or stamp of tells the shape of removed building which maybe a house. As we can see from the 1900 old map, a lot of resident lived near workshops and factories. I design a market in this plant building. And the shape of scar is the shape of stalls. This market will be full of people and movable stores on weekends. While from Monday to Friday this can be used for out door café.

Fig.3. Scar building

4. Conclusion

To sum up, architects should thinking from different aspects. A good architect must have a fertile mind and also a good story teller. The stories and invisible part involve people to feel the immersive scene that an architect creates.


Franck, K. A ,&R Bianca L.(2007). Architecture from the inside out: from the body, the senses, the site, and the community. Chichester: Wiley-Academy.

Libeskind, D. (2000)DanielLibeskind: the space of encounter. New York: Universe.
Menin, S., & Flora S. (2003).Nature and Space: Aalto and Le Corbusier. London: Routledge.
Pallasmaa, J.(2012). The eyes of the skin: architecture and the senses. Chichester: Wiley.
Zumthor, P.(2006). Thinking architecture. Basel: Birkhäuser.

6.List of figures

Fig.1. The growth of Sheffield Industrial Buildings.

Fig.2. History maps of Sheffield

Fig.3. Scar building

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