What is Environmental Architecture?

Problem: What is environmental architecture?

Answer: Let’s start by stripping the term down to the basics: Buildings provide us shelter and they do this by controlling the environment. All architecture is necessarily environmental.

Problem: But, isn’t there a set of values implied in the term? Should we be controlling nature to begin with? If so, how?

Answer: A classical view

We’ve got two old-school approaches to handling this issue (also mentioned in my previous post):

Hands off: Arcadia is a place you stumble upon. It’s a green paradise in which dwellings are subsumed by the greater forces of nature.

Hands on: Utopian dwellings master nature through technology.

Another answer: A more modern view

When we parse the word “ecology,” we find that “eco” comes from the Greek word Oikos meaning house or dwelling. This is a convenient idea that hitches those older senses of place and home to a scientific view of nature as ecology. Ecology connects the natural environment to the built environment through flows of energy. It also helps us get from where we live to how we live. (But, more on that in a moment.)

Conference attendee examines Olivo Barbieri’s image of the Flatiron Building, New York City, part of the Altered Landscape exhibition at the Nevada Museum of Art. Photo by Chris Holloman.

Problem: Ecology is like a house? Huh? What is ecology?

Answer: Changing minds

Older Science–Ecology is the stable-state system behind the wheel of nature, tending toward climax, everything in balance, humming with all parts in harmony.

Newer Science–Well . . . it’s hard to answer the question, “what is ecology?”  You see, ecosystems, the subject of the science, can be described in relation to different scales. Inside the body we’ve got an ecosystem. A watershed is one. So too does a mountain range function as an ecosystem. It’s like the zoom function on Google Earth. Some folks talk about agro-ecosystems. Is a farm an ecosystem, then? How do humans fit in? That’s the big question. Okay, so today we know maybe ecology isn’t a stable-state system—we’ve got a geologic record of extinctions to think about—maybe it’s not even a stable idea. Let’s just call it a study of complex systems.

Science meets politics: the 1970s onward–Ecology has been associated with a political movement to regulate industry, agriculture, fisheries, water, etc., for purposes of preservation, conservation, health, biodiversity, etc.  The system is complex and busted! Be ecological! Move into that dream yurt!

Problem: So, are all architectural projects environmental? Or is environmental architecture scientifically informed and/or ethically motivated?

Image _2_CHollomanInside the conference.  Photo: Jamie Kingham

The Art + Environment Conference in Reno, Nevada raised just this question. A diverse range of  presenters fell under the big umbrella of architecture and environment. Light sculptor Leo Villareal talked about the mathematics and processes behind his architectural installations, including his plans to illuminate the Bay Bridge in California. Expressing that architecture is gestural,  Jorge Pardo showed images of his homes and buildings—like his security guard hut that looks like a cylinder of condensed tomato soup—which are collected as art objects.

Image_3_Pardo_JKingham_129 Jorge Pardo.  Photo: Jamie Kingham

Other talks were more informed by environmental science.  Richard Black’s maps and designs for sustainable architecture along the Murray River in Australia illustrate how ecosystems are dynamic landscapes that physically change; architecture can respond to this mobility, Black said.

Image 4_Black_JKingham_076Richard Black outlines his approach to mobile architectures for extreme drought and flood conditions in Australia.  Photo: Jamie Kingham

Still, other presentations seemed more ethically driven. Patricia Johanson’s projects from across the United States suggest models for how architecture can rehabilitate places and people. Similarly, Fritz Haeg’s community innervations in gardens, with animals, and with the public, demonstrate that, among other things, the ground beneath our feet likely fed someone, long ago—and this soil can still nourish us today.

Image_5_Johanson_JKingham_025Patricia Johanson and other presenters pointed out that humans aren’t the only inhabitants of built environments.  Photo: Jamie Kingham

Here’s a tapas menu of some compelling ideas that may help us come to a new environmental architecture:

  • A deeper sense of time radically alters how we design a space or an object. [Alexander Rose]
  • Ecology isn’t always predictable. The ground beneath our feet isn’t always stable, dry, or healthy. Perhaps we need a more mobile architecture for a mobile landscape. [Richard Black]
  • The places where we live haven’t always meant home in the same way, to the same people, and to the same animals. [Subhankar Banerjee, Fritz Haeg, and others]
  • Our conventional ideas about the home’s relation to the yard may be toxic and can be radically changed. [Fritz Haeg]
  • Architecture can help us heal and recuperate environmental degradation. [Patricia Johanson]

How else can we define environmental architecture? What should it do? What do you think? We’d like to hear from you.

Image_6_Haeg_JKingham_134Fritz Haeg talks about cultivating the city.  Photo: Jamie Kingham

David Stentiford teaches composition at the University of Nevada, Reno where he recently earned an MA in Literature and Environment.

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