In the introduction to his seminal book Consensus Design (Architectural Press 2003) architect Christopher Day describes his working relationship with Dr. Margaret Colquhoun: “Her process was one of science: getting to understand a place - effectively to understand the past that has formed it. Through this we could learn what the place is - its ‘character’ (genus loci). My half was concerned with what will be there in the future; the creative realm of art. How the new - usually a building - can best fit into a place. Working with her, I learnt how science and art, understanding and creation, past and future, place and project need each other.”

The result of this collaboration has over the past 15 years resulted in a series of remarkable buildings at the Life Science Trust, Pishwanton, in East Lothian, UK. Not all the proposals in the master plan have been constructed but the latest, the Goethean Science Building, is an exemplar for the philosophy described above and provides a methodology for designing on any site regardless of its location and characteristics. This building, and its predecessors, stand in stark contrast to the results of most contemporary architectural practice: it was built almost entirely without the use of power tools, it contains virtually no cement or plastic, it has no power or mains water, and it took nearly 5 years to construct using a high percentage of volunteer labour with no main contractor involved. The process by which it came about was through a consensus of all involved, with the architect taking the role of enabler rather than controller of the outcome.

The name of the new building refers to the person whose work originally inspired this radical way of observing the environment, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 -1832). Although he is primarily remembered as the author of the play Faust, Goethe was also a scientist, and in his later years devoted himself to the study of nature and the creation a garden at his home in Weimar. On a two year journey to Italy (1786-1788) Goethe began to develop a way of looking at plants that resulted in his discovery of the 'archetype' from which all plant forms are generated and he published the results in 1790 in a small book called The Metamorphosis of Plants. Later, the Austrian philosopher, scientist and writer Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) was as a young man entrusted with the task of organising Goethe’s archives and then went on to name after him the centre that he built for the continuation of this work. The Goetheanum, located in Dornach, Switzerland, the second version of which survives today - the first having been destroyed by fire in 1922 - was the world's first use of sculptural insitu cast concrete and is now a Swiss National Monument.

Although not trained as an architect, Steiner was involved in the design of over 20 buildings between 1908 and his death. Many teachers at the Bauhaus were well aware of his ideas, particularly Wassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian. Hannes Meyer was for a time a committed supporter and Walter Gropius was connected through his brief marriage to Alma Mahler, who had an interest in the associated philosophy of Theosophy. Later in the 20th century, the German artist Joseph Beuys openly acknowledged Steiner’s influence, as did the Russian film maker Andre Tarkovsky.

More recently the Hungarian architect Imre Makovecz and the Dane Erik Asmussen, largely working in Sweden, developed a specifically regional interpretation of the same ideas.

Both Christopher Day and Margaret Colquhoun work out of these sensibilities and are very much influenced by both Goethe’s and Steiner’s insights. The ultimate aim of this methodology is to objectify our subjective reactions in order to better understand what needs to happen when we make any intervention in the environment. The way in which we train ourselves to do this is by carefully observing nature and developing ways of seeing the formative forces that lie behind its endless manifestations.

This summer, at Emerson College in Sussex, there is a conference to develop these ideas further. The main contributors will include Christopher Day and Margaret Colquhoun plus Sunand Prasad ( past president of the RIBA), Peter Clegg of Feilden Clegg Bradley, and Sarah Wigglesworth, who has recently completed the master plan of the Emerson College Campus. The conference will take place 11-14 July 2013 and details can be found at

Architect: Christopher Day
Executive Architect: Richard Shorter
Structural Engineer: David Tasker
Project Initiator: Dr. Margaret Colquhoun

Nic Pople

Nic Pople is a senior lecturer at London Southbank University and an architect in private practice in Sussex specializing in conservation and sustainable design. He will also be a conference contributor along with Espen Tharaldsen, Luigi Fiumara, Pieter van der Ree and Ian Trousdell.

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