They strive for perfection. Without a motor, powered by the wind
Sometimes children ask us questions we cannot answer. For instance the question of which came first, the hen or the egg, will cause anyone to rack their brains, since it can never be answered to a child’s satisfaction. The question of whether or not mankind first saw the architect emerge on the horizon of its evolutionary development and the sailor only later will certainly not be of great interest to children, but for us perpetually inquisitive adults it sparked off an amazingly lively discussion, which extended far into the night. At its end, it left the seldom questioned phantom of the mother of all arts floating vaguely in mid-air. We had (once again) arrived at architecture as the source of all forms of culture on this planet earth. And since it is undisputed that the wonderful invention of sailing across the seas is part of our culture, it must also originate from architecture like all other activities, beyond providing the bare necessities of life.
Consequently the reverse, that sailing plays a significant part in the lives of so many famous architects and their ordinary colleagues indulging in late-night debates, is not surprising either. With some, the theme may be Schwertzugvogel yachting trips on a lake, with others, it may be a theoretical discussion about what yacht body plans have in common with facade design. For all other architects whose hearts simply beat faster at the sight of a hull emerging from the water and starting to glide, even to fly, sailing remains a never-ending love story, even though the oilskins have long since been stowed away underneath a row of dress jackets in the wardrobe.
Both the art of sailing and the art of building have a very ancient history, going back many thousands of years before the invention of the wheel with its four-wheeled aftereffect that is so omnipresent today. The Christian Old Testament places these arts at the beginning of the history of mankind: Noah builds a house for the living world. This house, filled from top to bottom, stands on a mountain top, waiting for the water level to rise. Finally the house, now turned into a boat, begins to float and sails to and fro for an indefinite period of time upon the Flood brought on by a wrathful God. When the water level drops, the nucleus of creation reaches once again firm ground and is saved.
From this time on, humans have continued to build floating houses. Here, just as in modern office buildings, the various levels are stacked according to hierarchy; the captain or shipowner looks out from lavishly adorned transoms at the wake of his boat far below, while the crew lies in hammocks amidships, often in two or more layers above each other, above batteries of cannons rhythm of the choppy sea. In the course of many centuries, shipbuilding technology has developed parallel to the technology of building more optically destabilized in their relationships of length to width, the hulls of full-rigged three-masor loads of bulk goods and swinging to the cathedrals. While gothic naves became more and ters and four-masters finally developed into elongated, hydrodynamic marvels.
Architecture and sailing are still inextricably tied to each other today. Many technical terms from the former area have their counterpart in the latter, many principles of design are 100 % transferable. Iconographic analogies can also be found, from the most famous example, Jørn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House, to the most recent office building by Frank Gehry, InterActiveCorp‘s headquarters in Chelsea, New York. These and many other architects have used the heroic images of ocean sailing, and almost invariably the motorless, wind-powered variety. The architects of one of the most renowned bureaus on an international level, Delugan Meissl Associated Architects in Vienna, coined the following motto right at the beginning of their career: “We welcome all kinds of orders, but especially those for: skyscrapers in Beijing or Kyoto, the new NASA headquarters, ocean yachts,…” Ocean yachts, those fast-running boats, on which Renzo Piano sails along the coast of his beloved Sardinia or Frank, whom we already mentioned above, rides across the Atlantic and then perhaps up the river Nervión, so that he can finally inspect the true content of his famous museum from the side facing the water.
However, what constitutes the affinity of architecture with sailing today – apart from an ancient tradition of cultural connection? One person who ought to be in the know is Matti Paschen, equally passionate as an architect and as a yachtsman, a true professional in both areas. Of course this man, born in Hamburg, has also designed a boathouse and a shipyard. The first time he sat in a sailing boat was with his father at the age of four. This year, he is one of the chosen few to stand on deck of the “Germany I”, a high-tech yacht worth a double-digit figure in millions of Euros with the registration number GER 89. This boat is to join 16 others as “United Internet Team Germany” in the quest for the world’s most prestigious yachting trophy, the America’s Cup.
The 34-year-old architect and new father of a second daughter suspects that what interests architects so much in sailing is the aesthetics, the smooth, pure forms of boats, the challenge to develop a complex static system, striving for perfection of the whole in proportions and material attributes, a perfection which perhaps has already been lost in architecture. The fact that the German team needs a base in Valencia, the venue for this year’s Cup contest, which like all other building projects had best be designed and supervised by an architect, was certainly one reason why this native of Hamburg has travelled south for what has already turned out to be a prolongued period. Here, at the base, Paschen evaluates his observations of the sails during training, here his computer calculates their optimal architecture. Paschen is the trimmer of the spinnaker, a balloon sail of more than 500 m2, which provides the necessary speed before the wind to a plastic missile weighing about 24 tonnes.
Matti Paschen shares his love for the sea and his passion for gliding over it with the greatest architects. Le Corbusier’s works, for example, seem to have been influenced, above all, by his love for the sea, which he saw as a “daughter of droplets and mother of spume”. When he – still considered today as the most influential architect of the Western world – was drowned at the age of 77 in a bathing accident in the sea close to Cap Martin in Southern France, he had
transformed the tragedy of such an accident into something perfectly natural only a few days before by writing in a poem: “Everything returns to the sea”. Thus the wonderful invention of sailing, the art of seemingly effortless gliding across all kinds of waters, can be described as a metaphor for every path of life. Perhaps architects are the ones most likely to succeed in incorporating this context into their daily occupation with building, by using such images as we all have in our minds and in our hearts, images of that place which we can only reach by sailing, in every moment.
Text: Benedikt Kraft
Architect and yachtsman Matti Paschen (here with his boat during training for the America’s Cup) was interviewed by POINTS of Contact about the connection between sailing and architecture.