October 24, 2010
windmill barbican
Windmill by a River, Jan van Goyen, 1642 (source)


In their 1696 Caractères des Passions, Charles Le Brun and Sebastian Le Clerc engraved a human atlas: a guide to the emotional qualities accompanying each facial make-up. As they analyzed the distance between eyes and nose, the width of a mouth, the length of a forehead, these illustrators-cum-scientists claimed the face was a key to the soul and that through close observation one might understand the internal through the specifically superficial.


Physiognomy, ‘the art of judging human character from facial features’, the interpretation of a face with the aim to reveal some internal quality, supposes that the superficial indicates a deeper truth. An equivalent phenomenon might exist on the level of geography, with the peaks and valleys of a landscape determining the nature of its residents. Analyzing the slope of a hill much the way one might a nose, the geographer could measure and extrapolate, making connections between things external and internal. In Holland, much is made of the sea, the dikes, and the flat land rolling on, one kilometer after another. Is flatness somehow indicative of national character, does it reflect the level-headedness of the Dutch, and do a people take on the qualities of their natural world, of their inclines and their flora? If so, the flat lands make for a quiet desperation, for monotony, repetition and tedium, as the Alps make for a dramatic inner life and the forest for a dense one.


Physiognomy taken as truth, gone wrong, becomes fascistic. Landscape, internalized, is similarly dangerous. The romantic sublime is accompanied in painting and literature by the mountainous landscape. Emotional turmoil is equated with crags and peaks. Goethe’s Werther writes of his dramatic mood swings, ‘Must it ever be thus—that the source of our happiness must also be the fountain of our misery?’, his volatile state accompanied by the landscape he observes, its ups and downs. ‘Stupendous mountains encompassed me, abysses yawned at my feet,’ he writes. What then of flat Holland, she wondered, as she lay on the sofa and closed her eyes.


Rachel Engler


The Barbican Estate, The City of London (source)


The Barbican Estate is a large scale residential complex in The City of London, which was originally built as public housing, with 2,014 flats, executed in the late modernist style of Brutalism.


The residents of the Barbican have found a way to soften and compliment the grand, but at times, overwhelming effect of their architecture by growing individual gardens which cascade over their balconies weeping into the courtyards below. Encouraged by the Estate’s long established Barbican Horticultural Society, green and blue tinged plants climb and hang, often in the form of gazanias, solanums, hydrangeas, loniceras, jasminums and lampranthus. These are accented with pots, which may be filled with abutilons, zantedeschias, begonias, sunflowers, dahlias, gaillardias and a variety of herbs. The abundant flora attract fauna such as wrens, blackbirds, ladybirds, butterflies, spiders and bats.


Through the act of gardening, this beautifully blunt architecture is transformed. The inner life of each individual flat is revealed through a simple gesture that expresses the individuality of each owner. This effect breaks up what could be read as a nearly monolithic façade into individualized modules that communicate as a community.


Erandi de Silva



Edited by Erandi de Silva


One Response to “FLAT”

  • Kari Rittenbach says:

    A geographical double entendre of another sort…

    Antipholus of Syracuse: Then she bears some breadth?
    Dromio of Syracuse: No longer from head to foot then from hip
    to hip: she is spherical, like a globe; I could find out countries in her.
    A: In what part of her body stands Ireland?
    D: Marry, sir, in her buttocks; I found it out by the bogs.
    A: Where Scotland?
    D: I found it out by the barrenness, hard in the
    palm of the hand.
    A: Where France?
    D: In her forehead, arm’d and reverted, making
    war against her heir.
    A: Where England?
    D: I look’d for the chalky cliffs, but I could find no
    whiteness in them; but I guess it stood in her chin, by the salt
    rheum that ran between France and it.
    A: Where Spain?
    D: Faith, I saw it not, but I felt it hot in her breath.
    A: Where America, the Indies?
    D: O, sir, upon her nose, all o’er embellished
    with rubies, carbuncles, sapphires, declining their rich aspect to the
    hot breath of Spain; who sent whole armadoes of caracks to be ballast
    at her nose.
    A: Where stood Belgia, the Netherlands?
    D: O, sir, I did not look so low.

    (The Comedy of Errors, III.2)



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