A Fractal Tectonic In the Work of Sigurd Lewerentz


October 2015


 A Fractal Tectonic In the Work of Sigurd Lewerentz

By Matthew Turner

The archipelago from above

Stockholm is fractal. Those who live there inhabit smaller and smaller islands, with an increasingly ambiguous relationship to water, before they scatter out, like the pollen resting on the waters surface into the fractal dust that is the archipelago. The boat I’m sitting in pushes through these particles, replacing them with its wake as it moves further away from the harbour. Sunlight reflects off the north facing dappled texture of the water, which is dulled and cut through in harsh striations and circles by other smaller boats.

Photographs of much smoother wakes taken on the same archipelago litter the archive of the Swedish architect Sigurd Lewerentz, slowly forming from the hull of Ewa, the boat he designed himself. They are fractal just the same as the shoreline that they merge, overlap, radiate and multiply out towards. It is therefore natural that from this truly fractal landscape inhabited fluidly by boats and houses, which barely escape the water and the slippery geology which folds from its surface, that a fractal architecture should emerge. It is also perhaps no coincidence that a Swedish mathematician created the first fractal constructions. A Fractal Tectonic, however, considers experience more so than mathematics, interpreting the architecture Lewerentz created as fractal maps of his environment and solid constructions that consequently question their own stability and limits.

The ripples radiating out from the boat are compressed and attenuated as it pushes them closer towards one of the small islands. Despite their different time signatures of movement, geology, water, clouds and the bark of trees are all self-similar reflections of each other. Lewerenz took great interest in these fractal conditions, in particular the deterioration of the coastline as it interacts with water, observing it for hours while his family waited impatiently at home. This intense observation is crucial, as it evokes what mapping never can when such a coastline is reduced to an inert thick black line on a map. Walking along it, it is only possible to touch a fraction of its distance, as endless coves woven within themselves wait below our feet for a much finer step. To magnify this into infinite resolution would force each proceeding scale to tell us a story about the last; an architectural Mise en Abyme.

Onto this shore break momentary wind blown fabric interiors, which exhibit a similar randomness before falling into logic. Smaller waves thread into larger ones at different velocities and textures throughout its lifecycle. For a few moments the barrel of the wave sculpts an all-encompassing interior of rough lacelike ornamentation. A fluid wickerwork surface from which emerges the essence of a wall and the beginning of architecture.

Still water builds to a crest then drops down to a dark trough where its energy is compressed back into the current at rest. A wall, with large rough mortar joints and widely spaced bricks curves round an entrance into tightly spaced headers which reach into increasing shadow with every receding layer; behind that runs a more tightly stacked wall than the first.

Such an orchestration of bound types creates fluidity from its exact opposite, and a cartography of waveforms, which is mimicked again in the surrounding birch trees. Not only does their pale bark mirror the light mortar used but also the gradations of slits in the bark itself are similar to the varying gradations and scale of brick used in the facades and roof vaults. As the core of the tree expands from within, like the texture of water as a wave is created, the rhythmic cuts in the bark become denser and more elongated over time, before disappearing completely.

From a distance the building does not seem to possess such movement. But by magnifying one brick to the point where it becomes caverns endlessly contained within other caverns, similar to the buildings itself. We can begin to see such fluidity as the erosion from water dripping down its surface. This is a fractal roughness the same as the minute rhythmic cracks which branch out through this interior triggered by unseen forces, tensions and vapor pushing through the brick at varying densities. Gradually these gather to form larger fault lines one can see when standing in front of the wall itself. These too look similar to the magnified caverns, but with there voids filled with mortar. Smeared and blended abstractions of the grid, these mortar joints between bricks are not regular, making whole bricks within the wall look identical to small piece of aggregate within the mix of an individual brick. Stepping back again from a distance above, the buildings themselves look like a collection of roughly hewn bricks placed around the site. A final step takes us to the geology on which the building stands and its place name, Klippan, which means cliff or rock. The geology here is perhaps not typically organic in shape but a grid of rectangles like yet another much larger wall pushed into the earth’s surface. An imperceptible shift in the building is initiated by these faults over time, which links it to the archipelago and other dim interiors. Like those now forming in the boats deep oily wake as it travels back to Stockholm.

Water by night seems to have a greater mass and density than by day and walking into the interior of the building you are struck by a similar multiplication. The extremely deep window openings act as filters through which the incoming light passes, giving it an added weight. Accumulating in a fractal expansion of the buildings environment and an expression of the complexity of the space between the binary opposites of the inner and outer walls. It could be in this way, by making small phenomena bigger, that architecture is fundamentally fractal. This also has something in common with how a dark room expands while your eyes

Masonry and birch tree

are struggling to adapt to the darkness. How childhood memories often don’t have a scale, manipulating a garden into a forest. The expansion of time when under anesthetic, and its compression again when you’re under emotional stress. In many ways fractals are an archive of past and future potential forms, attenuated maps waiting to be released, echoed and reechoed. They almost allow us to see further. Like how in the writing of Celine and Ballard their medical trainings and intimate knowledge of anatomy maps human flesh in so much detail that our mind can only be directed deeper inwards. This is a sensation similar to that created by the architect’s obsession with details.

Walking further into the hollow, monumental walls appear lined with water as the waveforms appear again in the varying depths of the roof vaults and concave cavities in the wall. These flicker between their convex negatives due to the play of light across their surface. Fractals question the reality and limits of objects in this way; they are a hidden logic within a substance, a secret geometry within geometry. Concluding in a similar questioning of reality as when an actor faints on stage, a drama within a drama, resulting in a blur between the acted and the real. Which is the case in fractals, where a surface reality expands as we keep looking. Perhaps in this way a Fractal Tectonic not only allows us to see space in a greater depth but also the body in a different aspect.

The Adult human lung is about 12 inches long and 5 inches wide, but because of their branching, fractal structure they have an enormous surface area of about 100 square yards. The circulatory system requires a similar intricate branching fractal network, comprising of blood vessels with a total length of around 60,000 miles.

All the tensions in the building are compressed in this way, a geometry waiting to be released, which is perhaps the basis for its spatial intensity. It can be seen in the polarity of a monolithic shard made from heavy concrete laced with a grid of fragile formwork seams, which appear to have floated towards the surface and have chipped over time. The energy of complex classical orders attenuated into the decreasing size of stone courses and their ghostly shallow reliefs, which are hard to differentiate from the hairline cracks in the surface. Nature redirects the energy outward again; marks left by the fractal branching of ivy trace and merge along these man-made incisions lending the architects hand an ambiguity.

Branching and an expansion of nature can be seen in a Tudor manor house built five hundred years ago. At this time moving a tree without canals would be extremely difficult, so throughout the construction process they would remain largely present in a fractal expansion of their original geometry. Therefore it is possible, through careful observation, to pick out the anatomy of the tree in the finished building. The carpenter who

Geology and man-made walls - Aran Islands

built it, Richard Dale, inscribed his name in the main spinal beam. This is made from the trunk and supports the main hall. Main branches provide the spaces that stem off from this, right down to the smallest branches, which supply material for the window frames. Going further, the radius of a log can be traced in the increasingly finer details of the frames, with material being taken from slimmer and slimmer tangential cuts as its outer edge is finally approached. Thus the final architectural composition mimics the proportions of the original tree, down to its smallest detail.

Due to difficulty of obtaining large pieces of timber, small oak frames make up the walls, the proportions of which are self-similar to the whole. The frames contain various types of cross bracing that run down the façade like veins on a leaf. Their proliferation make it hard to clearly read the load paths, so the structure becomes a cloud of relationships, defying its own weight against expectation. The building is dematerialised like the skyline of Stockholm by night, which is reduced to pockets of tiny lights as the boat approaches the harbour again.

The more we look at this architecture the further it goes, oscillating from the land mass on which it sits to the fractal dust it is made up of. It is a map of its environment, a fractal self-similar territory that assimilates itself with the surrounding landscape.

Particularly in his church architecture Lewerenz removes the stability of the vessel, typical in religious spaces, subjecting the inhabitant directly to the flux of the immediate environment. This forces us to question the stability of the construction and also the perception of our bodies in relation to this. It is in this sense that a Fractal Tectonic could provide a way to realign the perception of the body with advances in medicine and quantum mechanics, allowing us to experience the new interactions with reality that they present.

Masonry, water, cloud