Letter from the Editors

DIMITRI BRAND (M. Arch ’18), JAMES COLEMAN (M. Arch ’18) and JONATHAN MOLLOY (M. Arch’18)

 

The title of our fold, (De)Natured is a reference to Vincent Scully’s contribution to the publication Denatured Vision following the 1988 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art which opens “The way human beings see themselves in relation to nature is fundamental to all cultures; thus the first act of architecture is the natural world, the second is the relationship of human structures to the topography of the world, and the third is the relationship of all these structures to each other, comprising the human community as a whole.”[1] In this quote is a call for a radical reconsideration of the role of architecture, moving from the conception that architecture is primarily a social discipline that defines our relationship with each other to an architecture that is primarily dependent on our relationship with the landscape, and by extension nature.

Humanity, technology, and nature, once seen as progressing towards an inseparable future, are now overwhelmingly perceived as distinct from one another, even adversarial. Even the concept of the Anthropocene has an underlying dialogue of conflict which necessitates an “other” (note how the Holocene extinction is also referred to as the Anthropocene extinction). More recently, Slavoj Zizek[2] postulated that rather than being impotent in the face of nature, we are in fact omnipotent, to the point where nature can no longer be thought of as existing.

Technology is being tasked with expanding its role as the mediator between humanity and nature, protecting humanity from the hostile nature of our own construct, and the unspoiled “other” nature from humanity’s destructive presence. In post-Sandy New York City, there is a heightened sense of the city’s evolving relationship with its rising and volatile coastline. Recent resiliency legislation and rebuilding projects[3] have formed a preliminary methodology for addressing the city’s vulnerability, defining the condition and performance of the city’s developing perimeter.  These steps have struggled to define where exactly the line exists between the nature we must defend ourselves against and the nature we must defend ourselves with. Some proposals call for a separation and defense from a broken and hostile ecosystem (see: BIG’s “BIG U” for Rebuild by Design) while others have worked to actively blur the line through adaptive and performative landscapes that incorporate or disperse the rising waters (see: LTL’s proposal for MoMA’s Rising Currents exhibition).

In this vein, natural conditions and environments are increasingly used as generative devices. However, these responses tend to be superficial, often embodying a false image of simplistic formal means. Furthermore, technophilic solutions abound, promising efficiencies – spatial, performative, philosophical – that will “reduce” our impact on the environment. The Environmental Protection Agency has meekly stated on their website that “green building is gaining momentum,[4]” as LEED formulas and sustainable design consultants promise to institute a criteria for building that will mitigate the industry’s inherently harmful effects on the environment.

This is insufficient.

Architecture must bridge the supposed static and adversarial relationship between humanity and nature, acknowledging that the two exist in a metabolic continuum. Yet establishing this continuum calls into question previous notions of protection and preservation, making preconceived boundaries between humankind and nature increasingly undefinable. Without the benefit of existing standards, architecture must contend with the vaporous rhetoric of a new ecological agenda.

Without a deeper understanding of this ecology, we tend to construct in its absence simplified working definitions for its constituent parts. Rooted in an often necessary pragmatism, we loosely employ ideas of “nature as other” in order to keep rain out of buildings while necessarily ignoring that those building in fact affect that very rain through their presence within an ecological metabolism. We are at once intimately familiar with these working definitions – we all know what natural means – and confounded upon their investigation – what really is natural? Indeed, the term natural invokes both a technical and teleological argument without clarifying either.

Though it resists comprehension, humanity’s relationship with the natural is a primary architectural concern and must be continually investigated with conceptual, technological, and systematic rigor. We must ask: are current conceptions adequate or are they based on dubious ontological arguments and symptomatic of a fundamental misunderstanding of the issues? Are the physical and philosophical buffers we create between ourselves and nature necessary? Or are they problematic simulacra that present a controllable and definable nature that further separates humanity from physical realities? Or on an even more fundamental level, what is the legacy of these dichotomous forms of thinking and how do they affect our conceptions of preservation, stewardship, and production?

 To philosophically address these relationships is to make explicit the dialogue that is noticeably absent, yet crucial to the profession and our education. 

 

 

Signed,

Dimitri Brand

James Coleman

Jonathan Molloy

 

 

[1] Scully, Vincent. Architecture: The Natural and the Man Made from Denatured Visions: Landscape and Culture in the Twentieth Century. Edited by Stuart Wreke and William Howard. Adams. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1991.

[2] Slavoj Zizek. Ecology Without Nature, Lecture Athens 2006

[3] The New York State Assembly passed a bill judiciously titled “An act to amend the environmental conservation law, the agriculture and markets law and the public health law, in relation to the consideration of future climate risk including sea level rise projections and other weather-related data; and in relation to requiring the preparation of model local zoning laws relating to climate risk” that links funding of future projects to their consideration of environmental risks, most notabley sea level rise.

[4] http://www.usgbc.org/leed