Nature, the state of the environment, the crisis of the natural landscape: are there more profound sources for meaningfulness — for questions as well as answers — in architecture today? You can hardly swing an extinct species without hitting an example. The prophylactic interior of Future Systems’ extraordinary house in Wales — severed by its great window — elevates the naturalness of the outside world by contrast. At another extreme, every component of Glenn Murcutt’s Simpson Lee House is tuned to the environmental particulars of its site, compromising easy distinctions between inside and out. The pitch and line of the roof are set to promote desired airflow, while the configuration of the exterior walls allows the sun to track across the floor during the day and over the year. The height that this un-air-conditioned (it’s un-what?) volume is set off the ground allows for native Mallee fowl to pass through the site to a spring at a boulder just below the house. In this spirit of minimizing site disruption, the structural frame was prefabricated: once set in place, workers rarely touched the ground. The pool in the foreground is filled with rainwater collected for fighting fire in the tinderbox Eucalyptus forest surrounding the house, and the roof is sized to this need. Missing from the photograph is a massive Eucalypt that fell shortly after construction, an eventuality for which Murcutt had pre-planned.
These constructions represent extremes: an object making a natural landscape, and a natural landscape making an object 1. The world of buildings is replete with every sort of strategy in between. The skeletal wings of the sunshade at Calatrava’s Milwaukee Art Museum actually flap, albeit very slowly. People seem to love this, even though the uncertain consequence to the experience of artwork — that is, to the direct purpose of the building — is, frankly, silly. That Calatrava could justify the extraordinary cost points to the depth of its subject’s unquestioned meaningfulness. At the Greater London Authority Building, Norman Foster achieves equally sculptural results by fundamentally different means. Here the traced environmental factors — sun angles in particular — and the need to minimize the surface area of the cooled and heated volume (it’s like both an igloo and a barrel cactus) generates a form that allows for a re-invention of its use. Inside, a great spiraling ramp takes advantage of the curving exterior. This public walkway overlooks the governance chambers — the Authority is essentially London’s city hall — making visible what had heretofore been hidden. The building’s singular form arises from aligning functional, environmental and political factors. If, in London, it is nicknamed the Testicle, surprisingly few call it that maliciously.
The apt nickname of the Beijing Olympic Stadium — the Bird’s Nest — did not come from its architects, Herzog & de Meuron. Rather, it was given by its clients, who were likely only too aware of how this symbolic metaphor — powerfully resonant in Chinese mythology — would also find ready acceptance with the rest of the world. The architects claim not to have focused on the similarity. Still, Herzog & de Meuron have long been interested in how the ambiguous presence of certain un-authored natural objects — in particular the philosophers stones of China — can induce multiple private interpretations 2. A bird’s nest would likely have been only one of many possible readings within the office. But they were quick, and wise, to adopt the moniker.
Adjacent to the Bird’s Nest is the Olympic Aquatic Center, the Water Cube. Though, like the Bird’s Nest, this title refers to the natural, its designers pursued an alternative strategy of presence with regard to generating natural landscape. The pattern of bubbles that covers the surface of the building is generated by stacking simple polyhedrons in the most efficient manner possible (this coincidentally generates a rational structural system) tilting this matrix off the orthogonal at odd angles, and then slicing from this tilted field a once again orthogonal box. The surface configuration of bubble-like shapes so generated is fascinating, and just more complex than the eye can perceive. Still, critically, we sense something systematic at work, which you can just figure out if you study it long enough. The composition isn’t random, but, unlike many attempts to engage the natural, it is also not picturesque. It instead appears to be a configuration that is formed by systems of nature — like ripples formed by wind — rather than by the willful authorship of humans. This is a crucial distinction. The Water Cube’s surface geometry stands to the picturesque as a pattern made by trees growing naturally — almost impossible to mimic — stands to one made by a landscape architect trying to imitate such a pattern. Here one can see the underlying basis of a pervasive issue in design today: the possibility that a sense of the natural can arise in systematic entities not authored with evident human willfulness.
Most of these examples appear to engage questions of nature and the natural primarily by the consequence of their exterior presence. Obviously the issue of meaningfulness extends to how buildings frame experience across the environments they create, and here too one finds extremes. The interior configuration of Murcutt’s Simpson Lee house is such that on midday of the shortest day of the year — likely a cold day — the sun penetrates into the deepest recess of the house to precisely touch the joint of the floor and wall; on the longest day of the year — likely a hot day — the sun at midday penetrates only far enough to touch the joint of outside wall and porch. The house is set up both to utilize the environment and to map its presence in the rhythm of inhabitation. On the same topic, but using a fundamentally different strategy, Philippe Rahm’s Hormonorium, at the Swiss Pavilion for the 2002 Venice Biennale, generates another sort of natural altogether. Nitrogen was pumped into its sealed environment to lower the amount of oxygen present from sea level concentrations — this was in Venice — to the densities found in the high Alps. This Alpen-lust is also the reason for the presence of the high intensity lights, which generate UV-A and UV-B at skin-cancer-causing intensities commensurate with Alpine altitude. You had to sign a waiver to enter, and were only allowed in for a limited period of time. It was a smashing success.
That the Swiss Pavilion — like Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s Blur Building at another exposition in 2002 — has had a longer life as a cultural phenomenon than as a construction underscores the point that nature, the state of the environment, and the crisis of the natural landscape are obviously sources for meaningfulness in architecture. But these serve similarly across other modes of cultural production. Consider examples from art. Visitors lay on the floor beneath the artificial sun of Olafur Eliasson’s Weather Project in London’s Tate Modern for hours (you see their reflections, and one half of the hot circle of light, in the mirrored ceiling, part of the piece). I would have too, even if it were sunny outside — or perhaps especially if it were sunny outside, sunlight having evolved, over the course of my lifetime, from friendly to evil. On the same topic, but in a different vein, is Mel Chin’s The Revival Field, a garden planted in an un-visitable brownfield site (the photograph shows technicians at work in the sculpture). The plants take up toxins in the soil in the sculpture’s effort to cleanse the site. As with the difference between the Future Systems and Murcutt houses, these artworks represent extremes in the strange business of making more nature. The Weather Project is a primary object generating an environmental experience. Oddly, it requires a bank of incandescent light bulbs to do so. The Revival Field is an environmental process that generates an object — oddly, one you cannot experience 3. Between these poles there is — as with architecture — a full range of exploration. You can sense its depth in something like Falling Bough, in which Walton Ford revives a type of stilted figurative wildlife painting considered at the edge of illustration rather than art already in Audubon’s day.
Unlike many earlier evolutions in cultural production, the extent to which — and the rapidity and ease by which — these investigations have become status quo is astonishing. Consider poor Andy Goldsworthy. Once his work seemed radical — here a shocking early piece formed by his laying on the sidewalk through a rainstorm. Now he’s our Norman Rockwell. Really, would you object to Rain Shadow on a condolence card? This isn’t Goldsworthy’s fault. It’s an indication of his success — and his topic’s cultural resonance. And it isn’t just him. Must every new high-end house in Los Angeles have a James Turrell sky room? Clearly the natural environment has morphed into a source of profundity acceptable to the mainstream. How else to explain Olafur Eliasson’s commission for a site-specific artwork at the new Dallas Cowboys Football Stadium? Or here, in this morning’s paper: the artist Dorothea Rockburne is producing a painting for the United States embassy in Jamaica 4. What’s its subject? The constellations in the sky the night Colin Powell was born. There’s a way to confront a contentious topic — remember that vial of “anthrax” he held up at the U.N.? — so that we can all agree!
And agree we do. Aside from other forms of cultural production — from An Inconvenient Truth to Environmental Overlay Zoning — you’re already fully aware of this from advertising, since advertisers know to connect the dubious to the virtuous, as in the Colombian coffee advertisement above. So today we see nature as a pitchman for fast food, sleep-aids, beer, anti-depressants and, especially, sports utility vehicles. There is, arguably, no irony here at all. Does anyone still believe there are natural environments free of the consequence of human presence, even if — like a hole in the ozone layer — at a distance? It’s a sort of martyrdom by default. Nature, when we had it, just was. Now that we don’t have it, nature is very good. All of this production — artworks, buildings, consumer goods, advertisements — has about it an odd sense, as if we were visiting grandpa on his deathbed, trying to wring out some last few truths (or dollars) before he passes on.
It has not, as I sought to explain with those seascapes in the first essay in this series, always been this way. Look at Wolfgang Laib — he’s a canary in a coalmine — spreading out one of his extraordinary pollen pieces, each particle collected by hand from countless individual flowers in the valley where he lives. As tempting as it may be to think such an artwork would always be beautiful, we know better. Imagine if Michelangelo had suggested to Julius II that the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel be a solid dusting of flower pollen? Or better yet, imagine if he had proposed a cloud on a lake for Julius’ tomb. Alternatively, imagine if Diller Scofidio + Renfro had proposed a vast pile of writhing figures for that lake in Switzerland. To be certain, regarding the Last Judgment, there was not a more fitting manner to express “I and the Universe” in Michelangelo’s day, as Laib’s un-crossable pollen carpet or the Blur Building are correct today.
A benchmark I have several times heard used to explain how this cycle has evolved from the Modern to after-Modern is the difference in the sensibilities of the two Adams — the great American landscape photographers Ansel Adams and Robert Adams, working at either ends of the 20th century. Photographing Yosemite Falls, Ansel Adams typically found a viewpoint that hid the scar tissue where the falls meet the valley floor. Though we think of this as a record of pristine nature, the visual and material impact of the many buildings, roads, parking lots and cars of Yosemite Village, and of course the many visitors, were in many ways worse at the time of the photograph than now! If that Adams found a way to recover for landscape an innocent wild purity by repressing the built consequence of our habitation, at the other end of the 20th century Robert Adams’s photographs of the natural always include the mark of humans, sometimes subtly, sometimes, as in this photograph of a timbered mountainside, less so. In the photograph’s perverse beauty one immediately recognizes a resonance with the Blur Building’s landscape of loss.
A similar conclusion can be drawn by comparing the Blur Building and Mies van der Rohe’s German Pavilion in Barcelona, which also approximately bookend the 20th century. At the Barcelona Pavilion, the sense of a natural landscape arises subtly, yet stunningly. The building appears to lack any overt relationship with its urban site beyond bracketing one end of the long main plaza used for the exhibition. Once inside, one’s views of the city vanish entirely, and these are replaced by surprisingly open vistas of the various interior and courtyard walls, which are either translucent, or notoriously clad in book and butterfly matched cut stone. The difficult precision of this stonework has been held up to argue that Mies’ primary intention was to represent German technological ability. A visitor might arrive at this highly symbolic two-dimensional interpretation, but there is, more fundamentally, an experiential consequence to this patterning that serves the intended inhabitation of the space. From the chairs set out for this purpose, the stone patterning evokes distant mountain-scapes, as this sort of pattern does in Chinese landscape painting or, famously, in the construction of the enclosing wall at the Ryoan-ji Zen garden in Kyoto, in a vision of perfect and removed calm 5.
If Ansel Adams sought to crop a natural landscape from the actual world of human incursion, as he does in this photograph of Banner Peak, Mies similarly repressed the constructed landscape to suggest an ideal vision of a natural that actually exists only in desire. It is an extraordinary example of how such desire drives construction to conspire with site in the making of a landscape! At the Blur, views to the outside are also erased, and a new nature also arises, but it presses in on you as a problematic material fact, stunning and nightmarish and exciting. Here is a vision of the natural landscape of the future, one as dripping and damp as the urban vision in Bladerunner, with its life support system exposed. As noted: nature — the natural landscape — is a cyclical interest, and every time it comes around — and it will again — it provides evidence of a new and pressing understanding.
So, you are likely aware of the obvious contradiction in all of this. These examples of recent buildings and artworks — all redolent of an awakened environmental consciousness — are still downright relaxed about their consumption of resources. They are, in this regard, not so different from a Hummer ad. That Future Systems House in Wales: don’t you have to destroy the meadow to build it, in order for it to not seem to upset the meadow? Its big window makes the landscape read profoundly untouched; isn’t its consequence, those inadequate vents notwithstanding, massive heat load? The Bird’s Nest tied up steel production around the world. Isn’t its carbon footprint outrageous? The Water Cube may evoke a sense of wetness, but its skin is apparently being destroyed by acid rain 6. And the energy required to sustain the Blur Building’s dark (and temporary) vision: isn’t that just a self-fulfilling prophecy?
The answer to all of these questions is: of course. The contradiction here points to something useful. New buildings are extraordinarily expensive affordances. In this they differ from most other expensive things. Admittedly, an F-16 is pound for pound more costly than most buildings, but its expense is a mere fraction of the overall budget from which it’s being financed. As a percentage of what is available, new buildings are more expensive than most people (or businesses or organizations or institutions) can afford ever, and they are consequently a kind of affordance that relatively few risk in their lifetime (unlike, say, a car). When new buildings do happen, they tend to be justified entities. Almost all aspects of their expense are questioned or reasoned (though not always well reasoned), and, because of their expense, this questioning tends towards depth. New buildings rarely solve problems that were not consciously set out for them to solve — as a corollary, they tend to only be as good as these problems. This is something new buildings have consistently in common only with Hollywood movies and Broadway productions.
If the examples given point to the crisis of nature without yet addressing basic considerations of sustainable consequence, then that is a fairly safe indicator that environmental footprint was not the problem they set out to solve. It is tempting to think the reason for the intense focus on the natural landscape in these examples is the rise of concern for the status of the natural environment. But that is only partly true. The contradictions noted earlier arise because the technical fact of environmental impact is, broadly speaking, a relatively new consideration problematically layered over a pre-existing landscape concern already present in cultural production: the ascendance of site — which is not exactly nature — as a primary source for meaningfulness.