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.
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.
STAGE 2: Objectifying Architecture 1: Nature and building are juxtaposed in order to observe and appreciate each other.
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.
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.
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.
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
like 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.
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.]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
along with this more informative aerial drone shot that reassures us we’re not missing out on much.
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.
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?
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.
• • •
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.