Sunday, May 29, 2011

Oliver Ranch - Part 1

The sundial at the Oliver Ranch is a beautiful example of a sundial that tells a succinct story.  This sundial, by artist Roger Berry, is made up of two truncated cones.  The plate steel was shaped in Los Angeles at a place capable of rolling some of the largest conic shapes in the country.  These two conic planes trace the path of the sun at the winter and summer solstice.  The slot in the center aligns with the earth's equator and tracks the sun's path at the spring and fall equinox.  Even the carpet of grass around the sculptures seems to respond to this geometry

There is a lot to say about making an esthetic out of the sun in California and even a brief study of sundials reveals all kinds of possibilities.  The word "geometry" does literally mean "earth measurement" in Greek and sundials remind of this primordial fact.  The biggest challenge can often be legibility.  There are lots of sundial desings out there but the challenge always seems the same: How do you make a sundial that is something simple enough that a passerby can comprehend  and appreciate it with, at the most, a short narrative?  I have seen lots of sundials I have not taken the time to decipher in passing by.

When I first started making inquiry into this subject I wanted to make something rigorously accurate.  This kind of precision is elusive with sundials for a number of reasons.  It begs the question:  What is time?

If time is "the accurate representation of the increments of the solar day" you can forget about any clock precisely representing that.  The elliptical orbit of the earth insures that true noon never occurs at the same time from day to day.  The effect of the earth's elliptical orbit on the sun's position in the sky is largely responsible for this and the deviations are depicted by the analemma curve.  If one can weather the mind-boggling detail of what goes into making our civilization tick, the Equation of Time is an intriguing study.

But in many respects we, as a civilization, are only marginally interested in the sun's position in the sky with respect to time.  In today's day and age, a regular abstract division of time is probably more important to us than a representation of what is literally going on with the sun.  Like our food or our information, things are becoming more processed and removed from their causal roots.

If there is one criticism of the green building movement today, it is this question of legibility.  Who among us can recite the definition of green building?  I know for a fact there aren't many.  The definition is simply too complicated and multifaceted.  Too often buildings that are rated LEED platinum often feel like sterile engineering exercises that do very little to inspire appreciation for the natural beauty of our world.  This is where the environmental movement should be more focused.  As designers it is incumbent upon us to inspire a visceral appreciation of our surroundings in a way that is at once inspiring and practical.  Winning the hearts, in addition to the minds, of citizens is truly the most significant architectural battle we culturally have to face.   There is great beauty in responding to nature but unfortunately the LEED point system does not appear to capture or express this fact.  This sundial captures this beauty wonderfully and provokes the immediate thought this world is worth protecting.

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