Architecture, Naturally

Mason White

Excerpt from MCHAP The Americas 2. Co-published by Actar Publishers, Lots of Architecture –publishers & IITAC Press.

Architecture has maintained an oddly consistent relationship to notions of nature throughout history. Nature is assumed to be muse and metaphor to architecture. Fast-forwarding through history, consider Vitruvius’s 1st century treatise De Architectura that celebrated “the truth of nature” as inspiration to architecture.[1] Or, consider Laugier’s 1755 allegory Essai sur L’Architecture on the primitive hut composed from nature as an origin story of architecture embodying simplicity and purity.[2] And more recently, consider mathematical biologist D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s 1917 On Growth and Form, which served as an inspiration to early generative and computational architecture in the 1990s.[3] These are only a few examples that illustrate the envy by which architecture emulates, references, or adopts aspects of nature. However, as notions of nature have expanded to become increasingly complex and multivalent, architecture’s previously singular understanding of its relationship to nature has shifted. In what way have social attitudes toward nature marked and informed architecture’s complex relationship with nature today?

While notions of nature have historically provided a powerful and symbolic conceptual partner to design, recent assessments of nature consider it a threat to the stability of architecture. In fact, much of the celebrated technical progress in architecture’s materials and detailing since 20th-century modernism relates to developments in environmental control protecting an arguably stable interior from an unpredictable exterior. Advancements in glazing, sealing, insulation, membranes, and material durability are among the celebrated triumphs of architecture over nature. This position articulates a perception of architecture as defending itself from nature and its environment. Be it atmospheric or biological matter, nature is a risk to building performance, destabilizing architecture’s desire for environmental control. Architecture environmental success is often measured by the efficacy with which it controls separation from the exterior. Only in limited, managed ways is nature permitted to comingle with the building—through operable windows (with bug screens), air intakes (with filters), rainwater management (with filtration system), and indoor plants (in pots), among them. As this agenda unfolded within late modernity, the role of nature in architecture became charged in a complex balance between serving as metaphor, as perpetuated historically, and offering managed climatic collaboration, as introduced in modernism. How is this relationship negotiated today, and what might new understandings of nature offer to the discipline and practice? A current stocktaking of its relationship with nature reveals these complex pairings:

1. Architecture is increasingly technologically guided; Architecture mimics nature as a muse.
2. Architecture contributes to climate change; Architecture is regulated with sustainability policies.
3. Architecture creates interior climates; Architecture hopes to resist exterior ruin.
4. Architecture hosts nature in its interior; Architecture displaces nature on its exterior.

From these dichotomies, there is little evidence that the field is destined for a stable relationship with nature. It is likely to remain fluctuating, with ever-shifting positions in response to disciplinary interests and societal “matters of concern.”[4] However, could a broader understanding of nature as an architectural element offer a more relevant model for contemporary design thinking? Could nature be repositioned as a design matter in architecture?

Blur Building. Courtesy of Diller Scofidio + Renfro.
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Excerpt from

[1] Vitruvius Pollio, Ten Books on Architecture, trans by M. H. Morgan (New York: Dover Publications, 1960).
[2] Marc-Antoine Laugier, Essai sur L'Architecture, 2nd ed. (Paris, 1755), frontispiece.
[3] D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson, On Growth and Form (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1917).
[4] Bruno Latour, “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” Critical Inquiry, Winter 2004, p. 231.
[5] Cary Wolfe, What Is Posthumanism? (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), 6.
[6] Ibid., 203.
[7] Ibid., 224.
[8] Julia Czerniak, ed., CASE—Downsview Park Toronto (Munich: Prestel, 2001), 74.
[9] Sean Lally, ed., Architectural Design: Energies, May/June 2009, vol. 79, no. 3, 77.
[10] Ibid., 56.
[11] R&SIE: Corrupted Biotopes, Design Documents, vol 5, 2004.
[12] Jakob von Uexküll, A Foray Into the Worlds of Animals and Humans: With a Theory of Meaning, trans by Joseph D. O'Neil (Minneapolis/London: University of Minnesota Press, 2010).
[13] Norberg-Schulz, Genius Loci: Towards a Phenomenology of Architecture (New York: Rizzoli, 1979).
[14] Reyner Banham, The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1969).
[15] Ibid., 234.
[16] Ibid., 239.
[17] David Gissen, Subnature: Architecture’s Other Environments (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2009) 21.
[18] Ibid., 26.
[19] Buckminster Fuller, Buckminster Fuller to Children of Earth (Garden City: Doubleday & Company, 1972).
[20] Victor Olgyay, Design with Climate: Bioclimatic Approach to Architectural Regionalism (Princeton University Press, 1963).
[21] Ibid.
[22] See the excellent Daniel Barber, A House in the Sun (Oxford University Press, 2016) for more on solar energy experiments in architecture during the Cold War-era.
[23] The Living website. Accessed 12 Feb 2019.
[24] David Gissen, “A Theory of Pollution for Architecture,” in Imperfect Health: The Medicalization of Architecture, ed. by Giovanna Borasi and Mirko Zardini (CCA and Lars Muller Publishers, 2012), 122.
[25] Ibid., 123.
[26] Leatherbarrow and Mostafavi, On Weathering: The Life of Buildings in Time (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1993), 5.
[27] 1931, Two Lectures on Architecture by Frank Lloyd Wright, To the Young Man in Architecture, (Start Lecture page 33), page 62, The Art institute of Chicago, The Lakeside Press, R.R. Donnelley & Sons Company, Chicago. (HathiTrust).
[28] Patrick Blanc, The Vertical Garden: From Nature to the City (New York: WW Norton & Co., 2008).
[29] Several publications would be of note on this topic, the following serve to illustrate the range of ways in which landscapes have become associated with architecture include: Rob Aben and Saskia de Wit, The Enclosed Garden: History and Development of the Hortus Conclusus and Its Reintroduction Into the Present-day Urban Landscape (Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, 1999). Georges Teyssot, The American Lawn (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1999). John Dixon Hunt, Cultural History of Gardens in the Modern Age (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016).
[30] Carrie Smith, “A Few Notes on Plants Indoors,”, accessed 28 December 2018.
[31] Ibid.
[32] Banham, 9.