Unit 9: Sweetness and light

Unit brief

Sweetness and light

In his book Culture and Anarchy, the nineteenth-century English poet and cultural critic Matthew Arnold spoke of the pursuit of "sweetness and light" as the vital ingredient of a living culture. Arnold understood beauty as "sweetness" and intelligence as "light", and saw culture as the multitude of “the best of that which has been thought and said”. He suggested that in the pursuit of "sweetness and light", the capacity for critical thinking of any artistic undertaking is refined. In the process, what is familiar is reset only to transform everyday life into a fictional but captivating reality. In Arnold's account, this reality would be a result of a combination of artistic styles, rather than the consequence of an ambition to create something new.

It is in this context that the principles of craftsmanship of the late gothic revival met with the pre-Raphaelite interest in passion, mystery and atmosphere and converted architectural endeavour into an artistic sensibility open to the senses and to all architectures of the past.

The period that ensued saw radical invention through the reinvention of "things known". Many architects from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century worked freely with form, language and technique, sampling architecture from earlier times, and juxtaposing styles into lyrical compositions. In so doing, this architecture, rich in complexity would become free of style and have the capacity to evoke emotion, recollection and association. As WR Lethaby says, "An architecture that stands on the limits of the known and tries to reach what is beyond."

This year, Unit 9 will undertake two urban projects in London that look at conditions of density, proximity, intimacy and conviviality. These projects will explore architectural ideas on the scale of the room and its relationship to the wider city and landscape beyond. Edges, thresholds, windows and walls will likely be components of these projects that make connections and mediate the interior and exterior, the public and private, the short view and the long view.

With these concerns in mind, each semester we will address sites that demand buildings of different scales – semester one "low", and semester two "high".

In semester one, we will begin with the design of a small residential complex in east London, a "low" building or group of buildings, we will call this "Citè within city". The French word Citè describes an arrangement of buildings that are at once placed in relationship to each other whilst at the same time connected to, and are part of the wider urban fabric. We will look at such examples as the "hôtel particulier" of Paris and the residential "beguinage" complexes of Belgium.

Throughout semester one, Unit 9 will run jointly with Unit 12, programming an alternating three-weekly cycle of pin-ups and joint project reviews.

During the second semester, we will design a mansion block in west London that may include other complementary programs. Vertical densification of this kind will place emphasis on shared spaces and their part in the overall composition of building form. Such diverse range of references from Lasdun’s, Keeling house to Scottish tall houses may help us find form for this kind of project. We call this an "Urban Conglomerate".

We will begin the year with a series of sketching walks that will focus on the elements of architecture, walls, roofs, windows and doors, squares, streets, courts and colonnade. These observations are intended to become a catalogue of ideas, elements of "beauty and intelligence" – starting points as Lethaby says “to try and reach what may be beyond”.

In our projects this year we will reflect on Arnold's understanding of culture and critical embrace of history and see if we can also make buildings that possess the qualities of "sweetness and light".

During November we will visit Ghent, Bruges and Paris. The Unit will emphasise the use of sketching and model making throughout the year.

Canonbury Tower, London © Julian Walker


Course Professional Diploma in Architecture
Tutor Stephen Taylor
Theodoros Thysiades
Sam Holden
Where Central House, fourth floor studios
When Monday and Thursday

Professional Diploma in Architecture (RIBA part II)