Close
search
Un-built
Imaginary
Essays
Thinking Like a Building
How will the current environmental emergency impact the practice of architecture? In "Climax Change"(2022), recently published by Actar Publishers, Pedro Gadanho suggests to start by rethinking the outdated dichotomy nature-built environment.

Abstract

How will the current environmental emergency impact the practice of architecture? How can we start a change in architecture that addresses the climate emergency and the social and political mechanisms at the basis of such change? Pedro Gadanho suggests to “think like a building” in order to challenge the outdated dichotomy of nature-built environment that until now has seen nature as something other, external, that could be integrated within architecture. Drawing from Stephen Vogel’s Thinking like a Mall, this essay brings forward an understanding of nature as part and parcel of architecture’s processes and outputs, to put it in different terms, it sees architecture itself as an integral part of nature. To this end, he sees passive or zero-net solutions are inadequate, as architecture must return to nature as much as possible, leading to interspecies designs, forest towers and many other architectural solutions that change the way we approach nature via eco-friendly designs.




I.

In a somewhat surrealist dialogue, an oversized fly amanita mushroom tries to convince an old stone wall that it is time to let go. The time has arrived for the centuries old fortification to accept the final stages of its decay, to let itself crumble apart, and to enter the stage of a more complex web of interconnected organisms. Although it recognises it has already changed, and it is already partially made of other things, the obsolete rampart resists to lose its identity. The wall refuses to abandon its symbolic representation of human permanence. It refuses to let go of its Vitruvian firmitas so as to embrace a bigger-than-life fluidity.

The unlikely interspecies conversation is the tour de force of a 2018 film work by Danish art collective Superflex. In a mix of magic realism, fake 1970s documentary footage, and Monty Python comic overtones, the video lays out a compelling worldview of cyclic forces determining the course of Nature. As the authors describe it, Western Rampart challenges “our perception of borders and boundaries, whether natural or human built, through time.”1

The film brings out two contrasting existential standpoints. In one, architecture stands for the desire for borders and immobility. In the other, the mushroom character “advocates for constant motion and circulation, as everything is meant to continuously transform to thrive.” Even if by way of irony, this opposition invites us to question how human architectural endeavours are taken for granted as inorganic, anti-natural structures.

Production of Western Rampart on location, 2018. Photo: SUPERFLEX

II.

What if we could think of the built environment in a different way? What if we could reimagine architecture and other built infrastructures as part of that organic web that we call the natural environment?

Actually, this is the essential proposition of Steven Vogel’s book Thinking Like a Mall. Within a broader discussion of environmental philosophy today, Vogel too points to a need to overcome obsolete distinctions between nature and man-made environments. “To be concerned with the protection of nature, under conditions of modern technological development,” Vogel starts, “is inevitably to worry it might be too late, that nature might already have ended.”2

What if we could think of the built environment in a different way? What if we could reimagine architecture and other built infrastructures as part of that organic web that we call the natural environment?

We may have to overcome traditional assertions of “protecting nature,” which forgo that we are now mostly enveloped by “the built environment of cities, or the technological infrastructure that modernity seems to require.” With the overarching effects of climate change, it would be hard to find a single patch of the planet that has not been made artificial by the impacts of human technologies. In the writings of environmentalist Bill McKibben3 or philosopher Eric Katz4 it emerges that nature is now man-made, and even operations of ecological restoration could now be labelled as just another human artefact.

Hence, in its “philosophy after the end of nature,” as the book’s subtitle goes, Vogel wonders if the time has not come for an environmentalism of the built environment. As this author warns, to persist in narrow notions such as those of wilderness protection might simply mean to “deemphasize, or even to ignore, the problem of determining a way for human beings to live in an environment in a sustainable and ecologically healthy manner.” And for this holistic necessity to become a common sense, everyday endeavour, we must then enquire on buildings and urban features as integral to one environmental reality. We must understand what is it to be “thinking like a mall” or, for that sake, what is it to be “thinking as an old rampart.”

To persist in narrow notions such as those of wilderness protection might simply mean to “deemphasize, or even to ignore, the problem of determining a way for human beings to live in an environment in a sustainable and ecologically healthy manner.”

In his quest for the environmental ethic of a “postnatural” world, Vogel insists in rejecting the distinction between nature and the human-made. This rejection could help push our current alienation from the environment to be substituted by new forms of responsibility in practices of the built environment. As Vogel takes from Karl Marx, “we are alienated from our environment when we fail to recognise it as the product of our own actions and thus fail to acknowledge our own responsibility for it.”When the life-cycle of buildings, or the consequences of urban sprawl due to market forces, are seen as naturalised, i.e. “as natural facts about which there is nothing we can do,” the very same environmental alienation occurs. This can be counteracted first by acknowledging alienation itself. But secondly, it can be made transformative by addressing the products of human intention as an environment for which we care.

When the life-cycle of buildings, or the consequences of urban sprawl due to market forces, are seen as naturalised, i.e. “as natural facts about which there is nothing we can do,” the very same environmental alienation occurs.

III.

Vogel’s idea of “thinking like a mall” is inspired by a passage from a 1949 book by American ecologist Aldo Leopold. In A Sand County Almanac, Leopold muses ona personal episode at a mountain range where he used to hunt. Years later, he gathers the unintended consequences of human prey upon the animals of that ecosystem, and concludes that humans must learn to “think as a mountain.” Only thenthey will start to grasp the delicate balance of ecosystems. Only then they will start “to see that there is more to the world than we understand, and to recognise the dark complexity and depth of the processes of nature that so exceed our limited ability to grasp and to control.”

In this light, “thinking like a mall” means to accept that also objects and structures produced by humans have their own independent processes, which we not always anticipate and control. Evoking the story of a failed mall in his hometown, Vogel reminds us that, from the very moment of its construction, “the mall began slowly to crumble - as all buildings do, as all living things do.” So, developing an empathy with its story might engage us with the similarities that the life of that mall bears with natural processes.

If we “think like a mall,” the lesson goes, we can better understand the place of human artefacts within a system that is larger-than-human.

If we “think like a mall,” the lesson goes, we can better understand the place of human artefacts within a system that is larger-than-human. By accepting the mall or the stone fortification as the “living buildings” mentioned in the previous chapter, we can start conceiving how they best fit and potentially enhance the overall environment. We can eventually discover the life cycles of buildings as contributing to ecological processes, as much as we can understand them as providers of so-called ecosystem services. And as a climate emergency economy starts to account for the money value of those ecosystem services, we can investigate and invest in the right options for buildings and cities to become actual ecological tools. As mentioned earlier, buildings may help decarbonise, but they can also contribute in other, unexpected manners.

We can interrogate cities, factories, the obsolete mall or the obsolete fortress so as to understand how they fit into a wider, enmeshed ecosystem. As Vogel adds, we have a choice regarding what we call “nature,” and we can address those same entities with the question we have once addressed at Nature: “Is this the sort of world we want to be environed by?” As that primal Nature was utterly transformed by human intention, so too the built environment can be managed to better respond to the needs of a more sustainable ecological system. That is to say, the built environment does not really have to be puppeteered by the invisible, nature-like hand of the market.

As that primal Nature was utterly transformed by human intention, so too the built environment can be managed to better respond to the needs of a more sustainable ecological system. That is to say, the built environment does not really have to be puppeteered by the invisible, nature-like hand of the market.

IV.

With “insights from fields such as city planning, urban aesthetics, architecture, and the psychology and sociology of place and space - but also,” Vogel continues, “from ecology, biology, and restoration ecology,” the built environment could become a more ambitious political project. Before it would be inadvertently returned to nature as a newly inhabited ruin - as author Alan Weisman has poetically depicted it in The World Without Us -5 the environment we build could start being designed as part of a larger set of problems and balances. It could start responding to the needs of not only humans, but also of other species with which we share our surroundings.

Notably, the concern with interspecies relationships within a broader understanding of the human-managed environment is one that, under the influence of contemporary art practices, finally started to make its way into the architectural field. The notion is now the topic for still vaguely incipient academic theses, but also for budding experiments on what future architecture could look like. But, more importantly it is starting to inform environmentally-concerned practices into a new potential avant-garde momentum.

The concern with interspecies relationships within a broader understanding of the human-managed environment is one that, under the influence of contemporary art practices, finally started to make its way into the architectural field.

An interesting example of such direction was included in the international exhibition project Eco-Visionaries. In the words of the project’s authors, the Island House project for Texas’ Laguna Grande, in Corpus Christi, is conceived as “a device that empowers the environmental diversity” of its location. As Andrés Jaque and the Office for Political Innovation describe it, the dwelling acts as “an environmental mediator:” it collects and stores rainwater throughout the year so it may be used to automatically counter high toxicity and salinity levels produced by nearby polluting oil industries. In this, the architecture caters not only for humans, but also for the basic living needs of existing flora and fauna. With its conceptual strategy, the design addresses the fundamental issue of “how a small-scale project can be related to processes and challenges in the bigger context of climate change.” Yet, more importantly, the concept also “provides evidence of the potential of a transition to new collective environmental and interspecies alliances.”6

Indeed, following on Vogel’s arguments, architects can stop considering buildings and urban structures as entities that are excluded and separated from a broader understanding of the environment. Architects and urbanists could find inspiration in the idea that, rather than continue to surgically separate architecture and urban structures from natural processes, we should eliminate such conceptual and physical boundaries and embrace a new hybridity. And as much as Vogel defends that we can embrace an environmentalism of the built environment, we too can start sketching a unified theory of practice where architecture is again seen as an organic part of a wider ecological system.

Architects and urbanists could find inspiration in the idea that, rather than continue to surgically separate architecture and urban structures from natural processes, we should eliminate such conceptual and physical boundaries and embrace a new hybridity.

Earthship Biotecture, Michael Reynolds. Source: https://www.earthshipglobal.com/home

V.

Trends of “organic architecture”, as well as more or less scientific takes on “bioarchitecture,” are still around today as a continuous mishmash of sustainability, contextual care and do-good intentions. Yet, most of these generally remain frustrating in both their lacking design quality and, more alarmingly, their feeble responses to a wider environmental crisis.

For bolder principles on this front, one would probably have to again revisit those margins of practice that have been evoked here as the environmental avant-gardes of the 1970s. As one this period’s protagonists told me, although marginal, those early environmental experiments were already pursuing more radical features than those we see today under the banner of sustainability. As Mike Reynolds put it, “it was unheard of that architecture would address the six basic needs of humanity to survive, as we had identified in analogy to a spaceship or a vessel.” This was precisely what his “biotecture” was pursuing: to be a vessel that provided for “water, power, food production, on-site sewage treatment, recycling of your own waste and comfortable shelter that did not require fossil fuels.” In the eye of these visionaries, it was already the case that in the future, more than a pretty box connected to the grid, “a building will be its own utilities.”

As Reynolds added, “now that we know how to do it, there is nothing stopping us, there is no excuse for us not to go in this direction now.” For this architect, after 50 years of pursuing technical solutions to his ecological quest, it was clear that we no longer have time “to play with rhetoric for a couple of decades, and then do something.” It is pretty clear that whatever has to be done, “we have to do it tomorrow.”

And indeed, lately, the pressing need to decarbonise has opened the way to go back to such perspectives. Together with emergent technologies, architecture can also accommodate those “biotecture” elements that will provide for some sort of tangible ecosystem service. The discussion on how architecture can collect rainwater, produce renewable energy, or recycle waste products is back on the table, together with many new options made viable by a more sophisticated technology. And, of course, these options also include the pamphletarian, if sometimes decorative, inclusion of generous amounts of “green” in many recent architectural projects. However, these may also turn to be serious case studies on how to newly achieve a multi-layered, biologically productive city.

The Vertical Forest exemplifies how ecological thinking can successfully fuse with architecture’s functional needs and aesthetic considerations.

In one much publicised and awarded high-rise finished in 2014, Italian architect Stefano Boeri proposed his Vertical Forest as a “prototype building for a new format of architectural biodiversity.”7 Filled with 800 trees, 15,000 perennial plants and 5,000 shrubs, this residential tower in central Milan is said to provide in only 3,000 sqm of urban surface the equivalent vegetation of 30,000 sqm of woodland. And this produces particular ecological benefits: less warming from solar reflection; the generation of a microclimate that regulates humidity, produces oxygen and absorbs CO2 and pollution; and, last but not least, an inviting habitat for bird species. After a three-year long collaboration with botanists and ethologists, these characteristics were notably honed into “the architectural language and its expressive qualities” and into the building’s primary conceptual strategy. With its balconies turned to protruding holding platforms, the dematerialised and iconic tower becomes, in the words of the architects, “a home for trees that also houses humans and birds.” The Vertical Forest exemplifies how ecological thinking can successfully fuse with architecture’s functional needs and aesthetic considerations. In a context of ecological pressure for decarbonization, it generates a meaningful paradigm prone to be emulated and reproduced in different contexts. It also illustrates how the expanded notion of “thinking like a building” can help us surpass a limited, non-productive understanding of architectural artefacts.

Boeri Studio, Vertical Forest. Source: https://www.stefanoboeriarchitetti.net/

Thus, the architects of the Vertical Forest present it not so much as “a simple architectural object,” but rather as “set of processes - partly natural, partly man-managed - that accompany the life and growth of the inhabited organism over time.” As it would be expected, attending to the needs of the plants, as well as to the “control of the anthropic-vegetal balance,” become central everyday tasks in the building’s maintenance. From the automated irrigation to greening operations, as seasons pass the architectural narrative continues beyond the completion and delivery of the built structure. In its daily functioning, the building provides for a gradual recolonisation of the city by natural organisms.

Building stocks will necessarily have to be replaced as cities, too, go over seasons. New needs are always on the horizon. Old buildings decay and give way to new constructions. In a context of climate emergency one would thus expect that, soon, it will be mandatory that any new buildings will offer a thorough palette of ecological services — as those that the Vertical Forest hints at. This would be a genuine regulatory revolution.


Excerpted and adapted from Pedro Gadanho, Climax Change! How architecture must transform in the age of ecological emergency (Actar Publishers, 2022).

Bio

Pedro Gadanho is an architect, curator, and writer. He is a Loeb Fellow from Harvard University. He led a recognized architecture renovation practice until 2012, when he became the curator of contemporary architecture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. There, he curated the Young Architects Program and exhibitions such as 9+1 Ways of Being Political, Uneven Growth, and A Japanese Constellation. He was the founding Director of MAAT, Lisbon’s Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology, where he initiated more than 50 projects, including publications such as Utopia / Dystopia, Tension & Conflict, and Eco-Visionaries. He has edited Beyond, Short-Stories on the Post-Contemporary, the ShrapnelContemporary blog, and contributes regularly to international publications. He wrote Arquitetura em Público, a recipient of the FAD Prize for Thought and Criticism in 2012.

Notes

1 See Superflex, Western Rampart, 2018. Accessed 12 May 2020. [link]
2 See Steven Vogel, Thinking Like a Mall, MIT Press, Cambridge, London: 2015
3 See Bill McKibben, The End of Nature, Random House, New York: 1989
4 See Eric Katz, Nature as Subject, Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham: 1997
5 See Alan Weisman, The World Without Us, St. Martin's Press, New York: 2007
6 See Barry Samaha, “The Royal Academy of Arts Continues the Conversation on Environmental Protection,” 22 August 2019. Surface Magazine, Accessed 25 Feb 2020. [link]
7 See Stefano Boeri, “Vertical Forest.” Stefano Boeri Architetti, Accessed 13 May 2020. [link]

Published
02 Nov 2022
Reading time
17 minutes
Share
Related Articles by topic Re-use, Repair, and Regenerate
Related Articles by topic Sustainability