Constructing the world

Constructing the World I

John Soane - 1925

The Atlas and the Collection

“The ruin is a site not of melancholy or mourning but of radical potential – its fragmentary, unfinished nature is an invitation to fulfil the as yet unexplored temporality it contains. Ruins are freighted with possibility, even with utopian promise.”
Brian Dillon on Ruins

It has been said that we live in times of ruination. The recent collapse in global economics combined with ecological peril gives us lots to be fearful about and architectural ruins of our age are not Romantic follies in constructed picturesque settings but what remains from our declining industrial age. However, perhaps we can draw more optimism from the condition of decay and decline and find in our contemporary ruins spaces for an alternative future where growth and decay are restored to a natural balance or as George Simmel proposed, to an accommodation between nature and culture.


The ruin transcends programme whether real of simply imagined. Use has been suspended placing the architecture in a state of exalted liberation. People and life is replaced with the pathos of decay. Former users have moved on and their memory fades with the architectural details eroded by weather, by recolonisation of nature which waits for no one or by simply becoming quarry through neglect. Both states open potential but more importantly conflate production and decay, usefulness and erasure leaving a future free from predetermined expectations. Liberal capitalism doesn’t allow for ruins which is what makes them so essential. But they may still be invented. All meaning can be projected on the ruin as an allegory for global and regional political forces.


Architecturally, the ruin is reminder of the passage of time, a remnant of the past yet, however paradoxical, it is also a fragment of the future. The collection is a representation of the world in fragments. The ruin and the collection are born of the same Romantic imagination to remake the work from what is around us. The structure of the city may be described by its plan, aerial view, institutions or moments however its meaning also emerges in time through encounter and experience. We shall look at the interiority of the collector’s world and the promise of the ruin to offer an alternative future to master-planning and the tabula rasa, an alternative which is more accommodating of difference, more caring of nature and traces of life which already form our landscape. We will examine what is already there and create a vision premised on a future urban landscape assembling old and new structures just as the collection comes to represent the world in disconnected fragments. The ideas will grow from the singular towards the plural, from the individual to the collective. Like the collector, we will work from the interior towards the city rather than from the city to the interior.

We will carry these themes throughout the semester, starting with a full-scale construction followed by a comprehensive and detailed design project to re-use a large distribution complex in Zurich Altstetten.


Together, we will build a tower housing an elevated room like a cave released from it enclosing mountain. The Monk’s Parlour buried at the rear of John Soane’s extraordinary house-museum in London, fuses objects, space and light into a layered universe of its own; one of memory, ancient and ruined but also one of abstraction and multiple horizons layered in deep labyrinthine top lit voids. We will reinterpret Soane’s inner world as a free standing pavilion reinvented for our contemporary world. Made from reclaimed timber, fabric and plaster, the structure will open the semester’s tectonic heart. Collective construction will lead to designing the room and the city – or more precisely, a room as a city.


The construction of the Monk’s Parlour will be followed by the design of another greater urban interior with the re-use the Schnellgutbahnhof in Altstetten, an interior at the scale of a landscape.


Like the ruins of the Colosseum, which for centuries were re-imagined to house a new Baroque Rome or Diocletian’s Palace, which was turned inside out and transformed from declining imperial residence to vibrant medieval city inside its walls. The seemingly endless structure of the Schnellgutbahnhof, now beyond use, has only potential. Its scale and texture are reminiscent of the Schrebergarten across the tracks. Can its future match the richness of life of the gardens?


Built in 1967 as a distribution warehouse for Zurich, it has gone from technological perfection to obsolescence in half a century. But while the use may be over, its great top lit halls (reminiscent of John Soane’s sublime zenithal spaces) and epic concrete structure remain. We will propose new uses and spaces, from the perspective of an imagined ruin. We will create an ideal, through the survey, from which to propose a precise intervention. Using the skills developed in making the pavilion, we will use large-scale models to focus on character, light, construction and materials.

Please sign up for following courses;

051-1115-12L - Architectural Design V-IX

063-1315-12L - Integrated Discipline Focal Work

063-1415-12L - Integrated Discipline Planning

Student Work

Witt Basil, Wezel Carlo

Keller Dominik, Leu Jan
Deborah Suter, Marie Lutz
Patricia Chia back to top