Architecture + Nature

Responses to questions asked at the colloquium Territory: Architecture Beyond Environment that took place at CCA on October 12th 2010

How can nature be remade with ideas, forms, and processes from the history and theory of architecture? How can nature be remade through urban design?
Respondents: Ila Berman, Javier Arbona, Nicholas de Monchaux, Elizabeth Ranieri

Ila Berman [Director of Architecture, CCA]:
One of the definitions of “nature” is that it encompasses all things and processes specifically not made by, or dependent on, human artifice. Despite our own embodiment of nature, it is precisely our very self-extraction from the unmediated domain of real natural matter, upon which the definition of nature depends. And yet, we have been continuously remaking “nature”—transforming the geological, the fluvial, and the biotic, according to the dominant ideologies through which we have mediated the real at every moment in cultural history. We have reversed and altered the flows and morphologies of major fluid arteries, converted valleys into lakes, industrialized agriculture and constructed artificial terrain from marshland as a re-instantiation of the supremacy of 20th century technocratic utilitarian control—where nature was conceived as simply matter to be instrumentalized as a resource in the making of urban culture. What perhaps distinguishes our present from this history are two things: (1) we have transformed the natural world to such an extent that we now fear its irreversible depletion and apocalyptic destruction while recognizing our own biotic fragility and dependence on its very existence; and (2) this realization has enabled not only the repositioning of nature within our ideological hierarchy, but has also intensified our cultural obsession with it. As we suspend our own self-imposed alienation, we now want to understand nature’s life-sustaining principles and potential for regeneration to ensure both its, and our own survival. Nature has provided a new territory for architectural and urban thought and practice that exceeds previous models, if only because the new mixtures that are emerging between nature and culture, the biotic and the mechanistic, are specific to this moment in cultural history—its sciences, technologies, geographies and theoretical milieus. We should not be asking how nature can be remade, but instead questioning the ideas, forms, processes and intentions embodied in the acculturated natures and artificial ecologies that we are generating within current architecture and urbanism.

A dominant model within contemporary practice, for example, is the re-conception of “nature” as a biotic machine for the regeneration (rather than simply production), of water, energy, oxygen, and food as well as the recycling of cultural waste as new secondary matter. This new nature, redefined by the stratified parameters of contemporary urban density, is evident in projects such as MVRDV’s pixelated urban gardens and the vertically stacked forest— the CO2 recycler—of Datatown, as well as in the Growing Water project designed for Chicago in the 2007 City of the Future competition. In the latter, wastewater, infrastructure and space are recycled through an integrated urban matrix of “Eco-Boulevards” that link local bio-spheres to larger regional and global ecologies using “living machines” that incorporate microbes, plants, algae, fish, and snails into cultural reprocessing systems. Real nature is systemically integrated into the urban domain and is used to augment processes that invert the modern emphasis on capitalist production, by using natural organisms to contribute to cultural digestion and regeneration. This is repeated in Field Operation’s Lifescape, proposal for Fresh Kills, one of the largest landfills in existence, where 150 million tons of human waste have literally become the cultural sedimentary strata for a new landscape ecology. The Fresh Kills Reserve proposes a regenerative strategy to intensify natural wildlife by exploiting the biotic potential of its estuarine geomorphology while reconnecting it to its newly colonized post-natural alien ecology with diverse programming for human inhabitation. As the nature-culture trajectory is inverted, the recycling of the landfill as lifescape, and the direct amplification of strategies intended to augment living systems through architectural networks—threads, surface mats, and clusters—that redistribute flows of water, energy and matter across the site and ensure its requisite porosity and protection, are indicative of a design trajectory modeled on principles of natural regeneration and yet whose formal, spatial, and material strategies are specifically architectural. Perhaps it will be only when we begin to comprehend the full evolution of our own forms of cultural production in terms of the complexity of nature’s ecologies, that will we initiate the inversion required for our own regenerative return.

Javier Arbona [Faculty of Architecture, CCA; PhD Candidate, UCBerkeley]:
This is a house referred to as “I’m Lost In Paris”. Name chosen by the architects. Themselves a crew, led by Francois Roche, that often change name–sometimes into unpronounceable words–as if to elude any protagonist role in the production process.

I could talk to you today about this house as a piece of what I would term “geoengineering,” a popular notion in architecture as well as capitalist economics today. If I told you a story about how the architects “grew” a house—in other words, they only seeded the conditions for nature to take over—you might believe me. I could talk about the nutrient mixture and the systems that generate form as if guided by the invisible hand of capital-N Nature. That’s emblematic of many ideologies in design: to somehow script nature so that nature supposedly does what it can do without human participation. …To put something in place that then works on its own.

But on the other hand, I could tell you a long story that reveals the hand of not only the architects, but the clients, the builders, the glassblowers, the neighbors, city codes, animals, plants, and many other things that went into the production of this object. That could be a better story: full of intrigue and conflicts. And you may very well purchase that story as much as, if not more than the first, although it’s diametrically opposed to it. But in fact, this second version might also be a lot closer to how these architects approach this idea of how to “design nature” that we want to talk about.

The palpable and visible result is just about the same in both stories. The form of the building, inside or outside, is largely opaque and mute as to its production.

This forces Roche and R&Sie(n) (the architects) into the condition of being storytellers, and that is a role they have embraced through various media. I think that, what I want to just mention tonight is that the role of storytelling and of narrating is so much more important when it comes to the problem of designing nature. In fact, what I think is a crude fictionalization is geoengineering itself; that first idea. But telling the stories of our social roles in the production process, though always narrated, and thus to some degree fictionalized, are a form, paradoxically, of not falling into a lie and of not falling for the capital-T truth either.

So, the answer to tonight’s question that “I’m Lost in Paris” provides is that architects can choose to not answer that question, if it involves, that is, telling a white lie. I much prefer what Francois Roche said to me while interviewing him “We evaluate in our work how it is interesting to be dominated by a situation.”

Nicholas de Monchaux [Assistant Professor of Architecture, UCBerkeley]:
written response pending

Elizabeth Ranieri [Principal Kuth/Ranieri Architects]:
written response pending

What visions of ecology, technology and performance have emerged? What is the future of architecture in relation to this evolution of nature?
Respondents: Ila Berman, Jason Kelly Johnson, Mitchell Schwarzer, Craig Scott, Peter Anderson

Ila Berman [Director of Architecture, CCA]:
As parametric practices emulate living models, responsive systems and animate patterns of biological growth, and as green ecologies are called upon to recycle cultural waste and cloak the surfaces of the future urban agropolis, smooth mixtures are emerging everywhere that render ambiguous the traditional opposition of nature and technology. This newly acculturated nature is the product of highly technological practices, yet is directly linked to the biotic by its affinities with the dynamic complexity of living systems, and the continuities of matter. Even our current processes of design, often modeled on incremental evolutionary operations that emulate forms of artificial life and animate patterns of biological growth through genetic coding while simultaneously digitally recycling existing contexts by generating new continuities from the pixelated “bits” of disparate cultural systems seem to be cultural analogues to natural modes of organic recycling, as if we are fulfilling some strange ecological or evolutionary imperative. Synthetic nature emerges as an after-effect of the now digitized compost pile of culture. Yet within this context, we must ask: “is genetic coding and its simulation that which influences our understanding of architectural and urban morphological generation, or is it the opposite—the influence of the cultural evolution of information technologies, now a paradigmatic 21st century model, that has enabled the re-conceptualization of nature according to the principles of a coded (rather than mechanical) system?”

Our strange fascination with these new artificial “natures” in their many distinct forms—seemingly symbolic compensatory acts that repeat our return to the discovery and exploitation of new “virgin” territories, exponentially expand the terrain of spatial, experiential and technological architectural innovation yet often remain impotent when examined according to their true performance in relation to actual living systems. We are acutely aware of the fact that the architectural emulation of growing, animate, or atmospheric environments as an investigation of new modes of architectural form generation or the material amplification of its ambient affects, do not, despite their bio-mimetic appeal or communicative engagement, contribute to the enhancement of real nature (larger than our own that is) or the mitigation of its cultural instrumentalization. Conversely, those on the other side of the nature-culture continuum, who have been developing systemic technological explorations into energy-generating, bio-remediating, and recyclable materials and systems (the so called environmentally “responsible,” rather than environmentally “affected”), although certainly not influenced by geometries that emulate natural formation or its primordial sensual affects, are overtly concerned with natural material, biological and chemical processes, yet where the material functions of these processes have often had little effect on the actual form generation, spatial disposition or symbolic intentions—that is, the design—of the biodegradable artifacts produced. The widening gap between those focused on creative formal, morphological, experiential, and interactive processes and those whose emphasis is on material technologies and their ecological functioning, exposes the lamentable segregations still evident in our design thinking—demanding a more synthetic (and perhaps “natural” approach). Despite the pervasiveness of our symbolic return to nature, the seemingly endless appropriation and instrumentalization of the natural world for the surplus products of culture, still reigns within the post-industrial and post-capitalist regimes within which we are operating. The questionable demand for the physical durability of our everyday cultural artifacts remains, for example, if the speed of design fashion (dependent on uniqueness and high-velocity turnover), capitalist over-production (dependent on quantity), and technological innovation, are not equally re-tooled according to parameters that redirect their energies in support of the living, lest we transform the earth and all of the life forms it supports into one enormous sacrificial landscape. The dependence of our new technologies on nature is certainly evident, but the question is, is nature (beyond human nature, that is) dependent on technology?

Jason Kelly Johnson[Assistant Professor of Architecture, CCA; Principal Future Cities Lab]:
written response pending

Mitchell Schwarzer [Professor of Visual Studies, CCA]:
The contemporary convergence of mobile phone, camera, wireless Internet and satellite communication — the key ingredients of the digital handheld — accelerates the reconstitution of nature from real, occupied space to a collage of here and there, past and present. But digital technology’s effects do not only blast us out of place; they also bore us into the environment right in front of us — those in our viewfinder. Our understanding of nature is augmented by information wired from the Internet. Part of the information comes from media conglomerates. Much of it streams at us from our social networks and online acquaintances. The information allows us to peruse unseen depths of nature.

Through Augmented Reality, we approach, apprehend and adjust to nature by carrying another world with us. We stroll with a docent at our side, answering our every query. Farmland, wilderness, gardens are curated like museum space, the most banal row of crops brought to comparative life by earlier photographic iterations. Augmented, any reality takes on the trappings of a documentary film, a college lecture, or a police investigation. Augmented, overlooked stretches of a forest, meadow or countryside field the kind of engagement that has long been the privilege of famous attractions. Augmented, all places become events.

Instead of moving through blank space between bright landmarks, Augmented Reality allows us to fill in the blanks. It makes palpable local environments that were largely shorn, during the modern era, of their utility and hence need for visual legibility and attentiveness. Yet what will augmented places be like? Sure, we’ll gain rapidly a version of the embedded knowledge of place local people gleaned over a lifetime, but we’ll also apprehend that knowledge as a spectator or temporary user, a tourist gliding through. Ideas and images will pile up on the screen, and the pile up might contribute to our impatience, might feed our hunger for other fleeting engagements, our lack of commitment — the click, skip and scroll of contemporary perception.

Information will come at us from a variety of far-flung and out-of-control sources. Because of our growing networks of friends on social networking sites, some of it will be personalized. We’ll be walking through places where our friends have walked (or digitally trolled through) and their messages, like leaves in the wind, will blow into our path. It will be comforting to journey with an individualized/community perspective. Yet when we’re in a remote part of the world, will we want our “friend’s version” to resound? Is escape from our online community possible? And how will we discover things ourselves with so much assistance and familiarization?

Names, categories and figures will predominate among the kind of data through which we apprehend place. Zooming into a named site on our screens, we’ll probably zoom past most of that which lies astride and around it, and as likely zoom away to other distant sites before coming back to where we are — if we ever do return. Just as many teenagers today prefer watching highlight reels from sports contests instead of the entire game, why should we think people using Augmented Reality will have the patience to wait for nature to reveal itself over a long time span? Won’t they too hang on the highlights?

Craig Scott [Associate Professor of Architecture, CCA; Principal IwamottoScott]:
As a practice committed to pursuing architecture as a form of applied design research, IwamotoScott proceeds from the belief that each project can achieve a unique design synthesis. Our design stems from a desire to heighten architecture’s experiential and performance based nature — instigating architectural innovation through pushing the work’s formal, spatial, structural and material potential to adapt and transform. We’re interested in the idea of “adaptation” — a process whereby initial forms or conditions are adapted to particulars of environment so as to produce a transformative result. This exploration is pursued alongside continual testing of the fluid potentials of computation and material technologies. Ultimately, we aim for the physical material to act as both medium and media – purposefully non-essentialized, nor necessarily resulting in a one-to-one correspondence between a given material and its reception.

Peter Anderson [Associate Professor of Architecture, CCA; Principal AndersonAnderson]:

I want to begin with questioning your choice of the word “interdependencies” in framing the discussion of the relationship between nature and technology, as it implies a shared acknowledgment of a clear distinction between the two. In reality, I think that this could be considered a false dichotomy, and we would be much better off in this world if we could quit perpetuating the antiquated notion that human beings, and their technologies, are not a part of nature.

If one imagines, instead, that all life on earth participates in and defines nature, then it is possible to use the word technology as a descriptor of the processes by which our environment is altered, for better or worse. Let’s consider a few examples to see how far we can extend the definition.

Are humans unique in their ability to use tools? No, there are many examples of other animals that learn to use such tools as sticks for digging and sharp stone for crushing, and some that have the ability to organize their knowledge and pass it on to their offspring.

Are humans unique in their ability to design and build complex physical structures? Certainly the existence of bee hives, ant hills, and beaver dams show that that isn’t true. Or just look at coral reefs, sea shells or radiolarian skeletal structures, and we find plenty of evidence that humans aren’t the only species using construction technology.

If we can accept that humans are a part of nature, and that technologies we create are among the many influences and processes that alter our environment, then we can begin to place humans at the most powerful end of an environmental alteration spectrum that includes all other living organisms. From the point of view of environmental ethics, I would say that the increasingly sophisticated human-initiated technologies carry with them an ever-increasing level of responsibility for the use of these tools.

As architects, we direct and oversee the implementation of powerful technologies through the design work we do. Every design decision we make is part of the process of altering the environment in which we live, and should be viewed and valued as such. I would like to throw out the distinction between built environment and natural environment. Perhaps this is where the term “Territory” provides a more useful alternative when we engage in discussions about context.

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