Building Nature

Nature has been synonymous with Beauty for some time now. Despite what it’s about to do to us, we continue to have an image of Nature as something beautiful beyond bounds and an endless source of inspiration and PR blather for architects. That inspiration is without end because, try as one may, it’s simply not possible for a building to ever be a natural object. Attempts to make a building appear as if it were a natural object are a different matter. They fall within architecture’s traditional remit of showing how much money and resources one can waste throwing at an insoluble problem. Natural-looking buildings are just that – natural-looking. If we’re hearing “natural” and understanding it as natural then it’s just another example of the PostModern disease where the representation of something is more important than the thing itself. Buildings may be “natural” and not natural at the same time and for many they’re the same thing.

The fact Architecture hasn’t managed to define itself vis-à-vis Nature makes me suspect something more deep-seated is amiss. It’s an ongoing and troubled relationship with identity issues at its core. It’s as if Architecture is in denial, as if its very existence – or at least its self-image – is threatened by acknowledging and accepting the reality that buildings are not natural. This denial extends to language and cognitive frameworks when building –the noun –  is said to be the opposite of Architecture, and build-ing – the verb – is claimed to be the opposite of creating.

Lovely as St. Petersburg is for the casual summer tourist, I’m not sorry to be living in a place where public spaces aren’t dominated by self-important monuments and buildings aren’t graced by caryatids and atlantides. I’m untroubled by the Islamic prohibition on reproductions of the human form. If God indeed holds the copyright I only wish He’d extend its scope to include rocks and assorted landforms, trees, plants, leaves, animals, birds, fish and insects.

Architecture as metaphor for Nature

Organic architecture is a metaphor because buildings are, by and large, made of inorganic material. They have more in common with each other than they ever will with Nature.

“Organic architecture” was and still is unquestionably thought to be a good thing. The concept entered architectural lore via Thoreau’s 1854 book Walden that was wildly popular by the time Frank Lloyd Wright was old enough to read. The term is still in use and used to justify all manner of crimes against not only Nature but Architecture as well.

Architecture as substitute for Nature

Green roofs seemed like a good idea to begin with. They had the potential to act as rainwater runoff buffers and add a much-needed biodiversity to urban areas. These important roles were sidelined as architects and clients discovered green roofs were a relatively inexpensive, attractive and popular means of projecting an apparent environmental wokeness. There’s no lack of examples. Here’s one I would expect and hope is a biofuel plant. [c.f. The Demise of the Green Roof]

A variant substitute for Nature is the green wall or “living wall”. These first entered architectural consciousness with Jean Nouvel’s 2006 Musée du Quai Branly.

Despite being more high maintenance than actual Nature ever was, the concept of living walls shot around the world as a space-saving representation of environmental wokeness. Now, every city has at least one dead living wall adorning either an IBIS hotel or a sustainability awareness centre.

Stefano Boeri’s 2014 Bosco Verticale in Milan was doing very well last time I saw it. I put this down to the residents taking responsibility for the care of the plants outside their windows, something I think the Milanese like to do anyway.

Architecture as container for Nature

Another problem with green roofs was that they provided a pleasant place for office lunch and cigarette breaks. This was no good. Bringing the plants inside means people can admire them without leaving their desks. Architecture’s brightest and best can easily persuade Architecture’s wealthiest clients to put some plants in, on or around a building. In principle it’s an okay idea as it’s better to have plants than no plants but these are now privatised plants in gated communities. Some benefits of photosynthesis may reach the atmosphere outside but the primary purpose of these plants is to increase employee wellbeing – our new word for productivity. [c.f. Future Nature

Architecture as value-added Nature

The above project was presented as a serious proposal but, frankly, who can tell anymore? “The New Sincerity” is a post I have yet to write. The proposal below left looks a bit studenty to me. although I suppose tree-shaped wind turbines will work on some level. The proposal below right looks like it came from a vizualiser’s portfolio. [Apparently, the trees grow horizontally to the ground because the pots rotate.] If only our capacity to be inspired by Nature knew some bounds. I’m pretty sure such things as photosynthesis and the growing thing are better done by trees and plants.

If this is the level of technological investigation into Nature replacement, then it’s not ikely we’ll have any reliable and effective technologies to replace trees should there come a time when the planet has no more.

Greendix are doing their best.

170.52 x 83.5 mm eh? How’s this going to work? Are they going to be arranged in grids on rooftop solar panels aligned at 22.5° to the horizontal or are they going to adorn fake trees? Real leaves do much that is good. They provide shade and go some way to ridding the atmosphere of pollutants and also do the photosynthesis thing. It’s not as if leaves don’t have enough to do. Leaves are not imperfect because they don’t generate electricity. All the good things that happen with leaves happen because sunlight falls upon them and plants contrive their growth patterns to ensure the right amount falls upon them. Most of the time though, leaves shade other leaves. Greedix may manage to make a reasonable facsimile of a leaf but will find they have insufficient insolation if ever they make thousands of them into a reasonable facsimile of a tree. What would such a tree look like?

Architecture as an improvement on Nature

This isn’t going anywhere. Even our landscrapers have gotten lazy and aren’t what they used to be. This does remind me of the next, however.

Architecture as an extension of Nature

It works. I’ve uploaded these next images before. It was a study I did circa 1995 in order to test whether something that “appeared as if it was growing out of the very ground” would automatically be beautiful or not. It is.   In this case, Nature is represented as gravity acting in opposition to some sort of geological force over time in a way not dissimilar to the Futurist notion of lines of force. As it grows out of the ground the materials change from amorphous, solid, raw and heavy into light, refined, geometric and so on. It’s a neat trick, but it’s an inauthentic beauty that denies the facticity of building. [c.f. Existential Architecture: Being There]

For what it’s worth, here’s the full study/presentation from circa 1995.

• • •

After that quick survey, I return to the village of Tiébélé in Burkina Faso. There’s something calming about it. I like the obvious care and pride being shown, unencumbered by pretence and the desperate baggage of architecture. The people who planned, built and decorated these houses were untroubled by the relationship their buildings had with Nature. The result doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is. These buildings are very obviously built objects and don’t attempt to appropriate, represent, mimic, extend, contain, or improve upon Nature. The people who made them don’t have a dysfunctional relationship with Nature.

All well and good you may say but the villagers of Tiébélé lead a pre-industrial life. It’s easy to conclude that Architecture’s dysfunctional relationship with Nature began with the Industrial Revolution and a desire to return to a supposed paradise lost. This may be so but, a century and a half on, Architecture refuses to let go of memories of a relationship that never existed to begin with.


5 thoughts on “Building Nature

  1. Paul

    Great post!
    If you already put Brad Pitt in there, you might as well mention Neri Oxman and her lab. If you look at the staff, it seems architects are not so useful when it comes to actually engineering biology for construction and design.
    Best regards,

    1. Graham McKay Post author

      I must be living under a rock! I never knew about Neri Oxman – or even the Brad Pitt connection. I should have made it clearer that I like Nature because everything always gets sorted out in the end. For anyone unwilling to buy into that, it’s an endless source of “inspiration” for how to appear to game the system. Cheers Paul.

  2. Jonathan muller

    Entertaining read, Graham. I still find FLW ‘architecture as passive complement to nature’ via usonian homes a convincing approach. Or maybe more so with Rudolph Schindler’s spatial equivalence in the kings road house.

  3. Colin Bisset

    You always provoke interesting things to ponder… The point about architecture growing out of the land – something so much C20th architecture rejected with piloti, podiums, etc. I wonder if we’ve returned to that sense of grounding, even as a starting point for the more extreme shapes of work by Hadid, etc, and even Paul Andreu’s ‘egg’ hall in Beijing, etc.

    1. Graham McKay Post author

      I wouldn’t mind a return to buildings being built and looking like they were built from the bottom up. Buildings don’t levitate or float, but vast amounts of money can be made to make them appear as if they do. I see the whole anti-gravity thing as a representation of modernity, as if buildings could be made to defy the forces of nature. They can’t, and there are even limits to making them appear to do so. I don’t want to sound too clever but buildings aren’t rocket science. =) The opposite of course, is buildings that appear as if they are a result of forces of nature and those that appear to morph from horizontal planes into vertical ones or curved ones are just as false in suggesting they are composed of one and the same substance. I think you’re right in that there is a return to a sense of grounding but it’s just because our current taste in fantasies is for them to appear more grounded. I don’t think it’s just the capriciousness of fashion. It still takes a lot of land to evoke a sense of “groundedness” and the notion that architectural exhibitionism is for those with land to spare remains unchanged. I’m not quite sure yet where Andreu’s egg fits. =)

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