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Future Nature

At least The Futurists were honest about it. Nature sucked for being too natural, too simple and too uncontrived. And, worst of all, because they hadn’t designed it – a situation they quickly remedied.

ballas flowers

Nature’s making a comeback – not in its abhors-a-vacuum sense but the more sinister sense of being an object of design once again. This time though, we’re approaching The Futurist position from the opposite direction, and by stealth. It’s a very noisy stealth as this year has already seen a rash of Nature-flaunting projects cross our screens and consciousnesses. They leave a telltale trail.

Future Nature will be everything Nature wasn’t. Think fat-free strawberry-flavoured milk with added calcium, vitamins and probiotics. Future Nature is not natural.

Future Nature will have more and better plants. There will be no sickness or disease. There will be no ugliness as plants will be chosen for looks rather than utility or biodiversity. There will be many flowering plants but no birds or insects. There will be no sex. As soon as they’re past their prime, plants will be replaced with new ones on the verge of it.

How man regards Nature is probably a good indicator of level of civilisation. A brief history.

STAGE 1: Working with Nature: In some long-lost agrarian past, people used local technologies and resources to build what they needed. Nature was what one had to work with and accumulate knowledge on how to do so using less labour, time and other resources.

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STAGE 2: Objectifying Architecture 1: Nature and building are juxtaposed in order to observe and appreciate each other.

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PHASE 3: Objectifying Architecture 2: This is the same as Objectifying Nature in that the more artificial the building and the more natural the landscape the better, but the viewpoint is shifted. We are now the strangers in the forest observing the building in Nature, not the Nature.

These views are the majority. The house, framed by trees, is iconified, made central, the main event.

window-at-falling-water-by-john-harrod

This is what the Kaufmanns saw. Pretty lame by comparison, isn’t it?

Phase 4: Objectification of Architecture as Nature

This is Nature as a new kind of architectural ornament. First there were green roofs. We used to think they were a good idea. We still do, but no longer care if they don’t really work. Or even if they do.

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We moved on. In cities, roof gardens and sky gardens can be pleasant places to be like this Foster & Partners’ one in Spitalfields. It’s not a public garden and there’s no real reason why it should be. It’s a bee-buzzing biodiverse place to have a sandwich.

secret garden

When they’re not value-adding private space [c.f. Architectural Myths #4: Gardens in the Sky], rooftop gardens can be value-adding pseudo-public space such as this next [c.f. Cherry Blossom Season].

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Future Nature will be privately owned and policed. Let’s not even start to talk about The Garden Bridge that, at the cost to the UK taxpayer of £60mil. will offer Londoners a “new view of London” according to its designer, Thomas Heatherwick. But maybe we should. It’s one of a recent run of plant-themed proposals from the Heatherwick stable.

Heatherwick’s thing for the Bombay Gin distillery is a classic example of the objectification of Nature, both Mediterranean and tropical, contained and on display as ornament

Bombay-Sapphire-by-Thomas-Heatherwick-Hufton-and-Crow_dezeen_784_17like a Victorian stuffed owl under a glass dome

in that something totally unnecessary is being done to objectify Nature and make some sort a statement of authenticity like the growing basil you see at Italian restaurants. This is another annoying aspect of Future Nature – we can’t be left untold about it.   

And not like this.

This one has been quiet recently. Those trees grown yet? [psst. The latitude of Cupertino is 37.3175° N and thus north of the Tropic of Cancer. Angling PVs north is not a great idea.]

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There’s a lot of green stuff happening and, to be sure, it looks like there is going to be if the following drawing is truthful. The primary purpose of the peripheral trees is for visual privacy (a.k.a. security). They’re not so close to the fence people can use them to climb over.

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Foster & Partners do have a history of using Nature to soften their tecchy-ness with a touch of environmental whimsy.

St. Mary Axe even seemed credible until we were suddenly asked to believe the same story without one of its main characters.

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F&P make no such grand claims about how Nature is being used at Apple Headquarters apart from saying lots of trees and grass outside your window is a good thing for natural ventilation. Pity us poor souls who dare open a window with less benign climates and/or less and/or lesser Nature outside! A barrier of trees is a logical and inexpensive choice to provide visually inoffensive privacy and security but it’s an expensive yet environmentally friendly way of providing the appearance of cleaner air. It’s difficult to visualise a more wholesome environment.

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By comparison, real Nature looks spooky and threatening.

As with St. Mary Axe, Foster & Partners have again created a building where the Nature bits can’t be taken away without destroying the stated premise of the exercise. The visualisers may have gotten overexcited with their primordial savanna vs. building-beyond-time conceit but that’s just visualisers doing what they do.

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Lady late for work.

What’s annoying is being made to feel these people are so fortunate despite none this Future Nature being public but, as with the London lavender garden, no compelling reason why it should be. It’s just being shoved in our faces as a symbol of some perfect future world Foster & Partners have designed but are unlikely to influence anyone to create for the rest of us.

It’s a little more real with Gehry’s Facebook. Online, there’s far too many images like these next three. When there’s a camera around we all like to show our best corner.

And why not?

Facebook must have banned employees from posting images of the rooftop garden. This one was put out by Gehry’s office and reposted by the New York Times

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along with this more informative aerial drone shot that reassures us we’re not missing out on much.  

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With two of our modern media overlords already accounted for, it’d be a shame to forget the third – Google. But how can we when Bjarke Ingels and Thomas Heatherwick are on the case? February 2015 treated us to the first media announcements such as this.

News: Google has released a movie detailing its plans for a new California headquarters designed by the studios of Bjarke Ingels and Thomas Heatherwick.

In the movie, you may have noticed David Radcliffe (Vice President, Real Estate and Workplace Services, Google) of Google saying “Tech really hasn’t adopted a particular language for buildings.” Oh yeah?

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Google Data Center, Mayes County

Google Data Center, The Dalles, Oregon

Google Data Center, The Dalles, Oregon

Google Data Center, Pryor, Oklahoma (note the Nature)

Google Data Center, Pryor, Oklahoma

In the movie, both designers emphasise the importance of nature in their proposal.

I’m not saying that because Ingels and Heatherwick say it it’s necessarily a lie, but I do smell a rat. Everybody likes Nature when it’s reduced to blue skies, grassy clearing, green trees and cherry-coloured blossoms. I can’t help thinking that evoking Nature in these three projects is nothing more than a smiley interface for the purposely opaque business end of these operations  carried out in real and imperfect nature made fit for purpose with knockdown prices, tax breaks and various business concessions. We might be forgiven for thinking all this talk of Nature is some sort of corporate penance but that would assume such a thing as corporate guilt exists. Since it doesn’t, we can only conclude that Future Nature is a red herring

Future Nature is not our friend. We may be currently infatuated with datascapes and city digital footprints but they’re a trivial sideshow. If Future Nature succeeds in making us dissatisfied with the imperfections of real Nature, then we’re well on the way back to believing air conditioning and artificial illumination are better than ventilation and lighting provided by Nature. Game over, basically.

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The main evil of Future Nature is that it’s Nature loaded with dubious meanings. It’s Post Modernism applied to plants. Once Nature is objectified, then an ironic Nature is not far away. Once that’s allowed, we can ponder the meaning of Nature deconstructed? Or what Parametric Nature might be. We’re somewhere about here now. Having to carry needless meanings never did buildings any good. These next images are of my special places. This Nature is not trying to be beautiful. I recommend you find some special places of your own and preserve them in your minds as reference points in a future world gone mad.

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4 thoughts on “Future Nature

  1. Jonathan

    Where does the water come from, particularly in the drought stricken, although not as much as southern, northern CA.
    What is interesting when driving across the USA is the lack of trees, a house with a tree plus lawn appears the norm. e.g. the data centre in Oklahoma

    Reply
    1. Anne

      Like everything, people have been careless in preparing for bad times. We all suffer from apathy. In Australia we have water but people won’t pay a pittance to water thirsty, dying trees. We are so disconnected from nature it’s ridiculous. We’re happy to simply sit and watch TV. In Australia people don’t want (deadly) snakes in their yards and so they won’t plant an ‘environment’. They have lawn and usually a few uninteresting trees. We kill all the pests. I’m afraid we deserve the environment in which we live. Sadly. I don’t have a front or back lawn and so far (15 or more years) have not been bitten by the brown snake although we see one every year at least. People don’t ‘think’ anymore. We just live and consume.

      Reply
  2. Graham McKay Post author

    Hello. As a gardener, you’ve probably already read Michael Pollan’s book “Second Nature” – in a garden I hope (unlike me who enjoyed it years ago on subways in Tokyo). In his final chapter, Pollan makes the point that gardening is a kind of ongoing maintenance of Nature. I seem to remember he used the word “stewardship” which has become rather popular since then to describe the management of forests and, with somewhat less meaning, the environment in general.

    I confess. If I have a square metre or three outside my window I will cultivate it. Nasty ecosystems quickly result in corners with poor light, drainage and plant choices. The architect in me wants things a bit tidy and pleasing to the eye as well but you’re right in that sometimes it seems to work better when we have a lighter touch and see more of Nature at work and less of ourselves.

    Reply
  3. Anne

    Hi Graham,

    As a keen gardener I really enjoyed your article. For years I have been guilty of trimming, taming and generally interfering with nature. However, as I age things are a bit more random and well, natural. I think planners are missing the whole biodiversity thing which leaves nature a little ineffective and lacking. This can be seen in country Australia where great swathes of one, two or three varieties of trees are planted without shrubs, etc. (It’s fabulous to see them planting just the same.)

    To be fair to the designers of these garden vistas, it has been proven that even looking at nature on a screen can be beneficial to ones health and wellbeing. As an artist I appreciate that we want things a bit tidy and pleasing to the eye but we could do better by letting nature take its course and perhaps using a gentle, guiding hand.

    Your article is timely and thought-provoking. I enjoyed it very much. Thank you!

    Reply

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