Natural Architecture, According to Humans

Bat Tower. Ants of the Prairie. East Otto, NY, 2010 / Ants of the Prairie

Woven branches. Green bamboo, curved while young to harden in place. Hives, nests, and domes. These are just some of the natural materials — and forms — featured in the book Natural Architecture Now by Italian landscape architect and writer Francesca Tatarella. A follow up to 2006’s Natural Architecture, Tatarella’s new book delves further into the architecture of nature, as constructed by humans.

The works highlighted in this highly-perusable book are a collection of mostly temporary artistic installations. They are “pavilions, observatories, and shelters . . . site-specific installations that bring visitors into deeper contact with nature so that they can experience its sights, sounds, and smells. As works of art, they rely on a new concept of beauty, prizing the disordered and the wild over more traditional formality.” Most works are in natural areas, but a few are in urban environments. Some respond to ecological needs, while others focus on providing for social needs. Many are a critique of the existing human relationship with nature, a call for an evolution in an unsustainable relationship.

Just a few examples:

Bat Tower, by Ants of the Prairie (see image above), and Sanctuary, by Yolanda Gutierrez, provide shelter for bats and birds, respectively. To consider the needs of the intended occupants, these designers deconstructed the natural habitats one might typically find in a place less impacted by human activities and then constructed installations to provide for these species’ needs, even when they are in close proximity to the built environment.

Sanctuary. Yolanda Gutierrez. Cochimilco, Mexico, 1994 / Yolanda Gutierrez

Thicket and Creek Revetment Wall by Daniel McCormick blends the structural engineering of creekside stabilization practices with the aesthetic beauty and function of woven willow branches meant ultimately to be absorbed and reclaimed by nature.

Creek Revetment Wall. Daniel McCormick. San Anselmo, CA, 2005 / Mary O’Brien

These types of projects raise the question: who is design for? Is it only for humans, or should it be for the other crawling, creeping, flying, and lumbering inhabitants of our world as well? The answer is obvious: we should be designing with all creatures’ needs in mind.

Human shelters such as Scuola Nueva Esperanza in Ecuador and Bamboo Structure Project in Iran use inexpensive materials like thatch, bamboo, and reclaimed wood combined to create low-cost structures meant for easy re-creation by non-professional builders.

Scuola Nueva Esperanza. Al Borde Arquitectos. Manabí, Ecuador / Al Borde
Bamboo Structure Project. Architecture for Humanity Tehran (RAI Studio). Iran / Rai Studio via Wikimedia Commons

Other installations featured a highly efficient use of woven plant material to create a range of structures, like nests, pavilions, and social gathering spaces. According to nest builder/weaver Porky Hefer, “nature builds to shape, because shape is cheap and material is expensive. By studying the shapes of nature’s strategies and how they are built, biomimicry can help you minimize the amount you spend on materials while maximizing the effectiveness of patterns and forms to achieve desired functions.”

"Nettleton Road Nest." Porky Hefer. Cape Town, South Africa. Made with kubu cane / Porky Hefer Design
“Nettleton Road Nest.” Porky Hefer. Cape Town, South Africa. Made with kubu cane / Porky Hefer Design

Less explored is the question of how these designs can be scaled up to address the needs of seven billion humans. Two of the few projects meant to accommodate any sort of residential-scale structure – I am so sorry. Goodbye (Escape Vehicle number 4) and How to Survive the Coming Bad Years from Heather and Ivan Morison have a haunted feel: “…a fantasy of post-apocalyptic survivalism, with all the misanthropy and horror that implies,” writes William Shaw.

Ivan Morison describes their vision of the conjoined domes of I am so sorry. Goodbye as being “inhabited by a guardian whose task is to keep the stove lit, water boiled, and visitors supplied with hibiscus tea . . . I felt witness to something I didn’t fully understand, but felt that we had been given the task to pass on this cryptic message.”

“I am so sorry. Goodbye” / Matthew Benjamin Coleman

Perhaps the message of these installations is if we humans do not learn to better use the forms, materials, and processes of nature in our built environment, we will face systemic failure.

But all of natural architecture eventually returns to the earth, too. Tatarella writes: “Sooner or later, the branches and leaves that form their outer shells will rot and be absorbed back into the landscape, just as stones will fall from foundations and, over the ages, be worn away until they are just pebbles.”

Our built environment is destined to one day wear away into dust, but, hopefully, our most renewable designs will remain.

"Winnipeg Skating Shelters." Patkau Architects. Manitoba, Canida, 2010-11 / Patkau Architects
“Winnipeg Skating Shelters.” Patkau Architects. Manitoba, Canida, 2010-11 / Patkau Architects

Yoshi Silverstein is the ASLA 2014 communications intern. He is a Masters in Landscape Architecture candidate at the University of Maryland. He focuses on landscape experience and outdoor learning environments.

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