Architecture imagined as ecological

(To coincide with the Ecological Urbanism Conference at the Harvard GSD)

Not so long ago I heard from a former student. She was anguished and deciding between applying to one out of two master’s programs offered by a famous architectural institution that only let her apply to one. Her choice was between a program specialized in housing and another one in sustainability. What a choice! How symbolic, I thought, of the quagmire we’ve gotten ourselves into: To dwell…Or to survive! Let’s have a look…

The all-encompassing discourse of sustainability is tangled up with global geopolitics at every turn, but that discourse hides its tail. What’s worse is that “sustainable architecture” can be the proverbial “greenwash,” as I think has become more than evident. We would only have to pass a roll-call of all the eco-resorts done in years of economic fluidity. Thinking about a sustainable practice is (still) supposed to arouse in us a moral instinct of how to satisfy our needs without “compromising the needs of future generations”. The small house movement serves as a good example of an architecture informed by notions of what is said to be ‘basic’.

Our “needs,” however, are a mirage. We know that they are essentially malleable. They’re subject to crass marketing manipulation. They evolve through the sieves of culture and desire. They’re hard to pin down and it’s no accident that capitalism pulls the rug from underneath us as soon as we try. Besides, unless the global economic crisis ends up destroying capitalism, we satisfy our so-called needs through an increasingly global economy, despite the localist and nationalist fantasies some may have. Even if we didn’t have capitalism, we’d still have trade, and subscribers to notions of Malthusian natural limits fail to adequately take this into account. Sometimes the sustainability talk sounds to me even xenophobic in its suggestions that a certain number of citizens will have a right to the city (blurring further the notion of what is natural: Numerical limits? Naturalization, as in citizenship?)

The ideologues of sustainability might deny that it is an issue of power and not morals, but it is. It has to do with who determines how much is a reasonable need for some and not others, both at a local and global level. By the way, I’m sorry for even using these terms like “local” and “global” because they pertain to imprecise scales, especially when ecological processes are involved. But none of this has slowed down the field of architecture. As often times is clear in the works of architects like Michael Sorkin and other adherents to the “ecological footprint,” design is an index of how much nature is judged to be fair and balanced according to some metric of consumption.

For one thing, this implicitly privileges the first-world consumer. Architecture seems to always want to rectify, say, energy consumption but is usually passive (or silent…) about the overabundant economic resources of its patrons, except to sometimes mildly chastise their bad taste. For another thing, the implicit focus on consumers (of energy, of resources, of food…) validates the continual restoration of a global project of resource and space distribution. Architecture and planning help with the order and design of this distribution but practitioners can’t face it. Sustainable architecture has circumscribed itself to an environmental crisis but not a geopolitical one, probably so as to not offend any clients. The economic crisis has hit architects very hard and it partially evinces how interlaced the bubble economy and ecological principles were. We can’t even look at now-historic images of green buildings in Dubai without a painful grimace. The mythical rupture with the past rears its head again. But, what is the global idea of self-proclaimed “green” architecture? How do we see nature and our uses of it through the representations made by these forms of architecture?

I think we can identify two general responses to the questions. Both treat the environmental crisis as a problem whose solution lies in addressing consumption. As David Gissen points out (pdf), both responses also treat the natural and the social as two separate spheres. To this we should also add that both responses reassert an age-old divorce between city and country (at the expense of the country and the gain of the city). By the way, let me stop here and address what might be a big protest in the mind of the reader. I suspect that even when flashing images of “production” in the form of vertical farms and windmills, the real anxiety beneath the image is about how we might sustain our first world consumption, not create, say, a more bearable life for the actual human laborers that will compose the new “rurban” peasant class in these future cities, let alone even think about what the future countryside will be like (hint: it’ll be more brutal, not less).

In addition, the mode of thinking of green or ecological urbanism ultimately defends a hazy abstract idea of cities at all costs as inherently good for the planet. (And defends a notion of the world in which first world cities do not yield their place as the governators of finance, power, truth, migrations, ideas…). But let’s continue…

The first of these responses in the architecture world is abstention. This architecture imagines a world without humans. Architecture therefore is our UFO for visiting a planet that we can only damage and we should not touch. No surprise either that architects are so obsessed with documenting the design of post-apocalyptic bunkers, temporary military structures, inflatables of all sorts, and polar research stations (no worry, I love ’em too).

The second trend, which seems to dominate architects’ imaginations nowadays even more, is a strategy that attempts a metabolic relation with the planet, supposing that idealized science (as if science wasn’t ideological) can reveal the correct balance. I admit my own enthusiastic participation in this trend too. As much as anyone, I still demand and expect a response to our modernity’s crass relation to the environment. Nevertheless, the current architectural operations proposing this kind of benevolent cycling base their idea of nature on a nice Eden. Have you ever seen any green architects show renderings of their green cities in the fall or winter, or on a cloudy day, or in any inclement weather for that matter? This is no mere coincidence.

These ideas of nature are so rooted in the historic first world domestication of the rudeness of nature that their authors confuse socialized nature with primeval nature itself. ‘If we only let nature work, it would give us everything we need to consume.’ Did everyone think that so much lushness and farming envisioned in the city aren’t going to open up new Pandora’s boxes of infectious diseases and sanitation problems as we come into contact with more manure, more bacteria, and more wild animals that we urbanites are not at all “naturalized” to? Of course, that’s all fine and dandy; our powerful scientific establishment will (hopefully) take care of it, but if you thought that inoculations would be fairly distributed to the urban world population, think again. (This message brought to you by Pfizer).

Both of these architectural trends idealize nature as divorced from the economy, society, and politics. Both think of nature as a self-regenerating realm. They distort history because they forget that nature has always been social, starting with how, as Donna Haraway among others has articulated, the body itself, inside and out, has evolved through survival mechanisms necessitated by a larger totality.

Worse of all, as Gissen also points out (see “Anxious Climate” pdf), architects in these camps seem to isolate in their minds the knowledge necessary for their design enterprise from what they know about the nature they conceptualize. We have to ask ourselves how do we even know about the environmental crisis in the first place if not through the tools (satellites, computers, genetic tests) that reveal it? These tools, of course, are part and parcel of the industrial revolution that brought on the crisis itself, while at the same time, strains of green architecture use them to measure flows of energy, quantify wastes, produce renderings, and wire buildings throughout with the high-tech communications that we demand. As Gissen says: “In attempting to maintain an imagined separate “natural world” we have proliferated a messy network of links between nature and society.” Or in other words, it’s harder to isolate society from nature than what we want to think, or shall we go on this voyage without navigation tools? (Of course, some architects still latch onto that sort of radical back-to-nature primitivism).

As countless theorists have revealed, we’re dealing with a natural world that for some might seem implausible because of how artificial it actually is. Another aside: we have to remind ourselves that most of the ideas of nature we transact with are the product of a highly urbanized and male realm of thought, written by many men that have constantly liberated themselves from many direct encounters with nature thanks to the unjust division of work and the sexes, starting with child-rearing itself. But let’s keep going.

What we need, then, is a more fine-tuned approach. In other words, if these architectural options simulate nature as something we can consume in balanced ways or in some sort of moderation–or, absurdly, not consume it at all–the alternative must be an awareness that the current crisis is not one of environmental destruction, but of environmental production. Where we have failed is at producing livable natures for oursleves.

Of course, you might protest that many landscape architects and theorists have been discussing the “production of nature” for some time now, especially following the work of James Corner (or his writings), but that’s not what I’m talking about. So far, discussions on the production of nature in architecture have seemed to remain stuck, implying an ideal “first nature” somewhere out there, beyond the “second nature” that we produce, as well as suggesting that second nature can be somehow shorn from its market relations. We have so far failed to understand and work into architectural production a key insight from Neil Smith, following Marx, i.e. that under capitalism, second nature produces and comes to substitute first nature. (Obviously this point opens up a much larger series of questions but in the interest of time, those won’t be addressed at this moment).

To finish, then let’s take a look at a few examples that seem to start to open a new fork in the road. Though there is much work to be done, let’s take a look at some work that seems to internalize the complexity of a world where the organic and the industrial have been mixed for a very long time or were never even separate things.

One example continues the line of provocative investigations coming from R&Sie(n). “Lost in Paris” is the name of it. (Maybe on purpose or by accident they evoke a short film by Julio Cortázar that has the same name, where Cortázar’s character plays hide and seek with Carole Dunlop. Maybe the metaphor of the film works well to understand in a very useful shorthand the very behavior of nature in the capitalist world).

This “Lost” house resembles, at first, the usual rotation of green houses with their planted walls. (There is a fantastic post, by the way, on “Living Facades” by Owen Hatherly). In this case, the living facade seems almost cartoonish. These architects do seem to revel in sticking their tongue out at the establishment once in a while. The living wall goes a bit extreme, hiding hard architecture with soft architecture. But nothing here is quite what it seems.

This natural-seeming fern wall relies on a hydroponic system that feeds off of stored rain water and a mixture of minerals that the inhabitants have to adjust during the course of the seasons according to a manual of instructions that came with the house. What I find interesting about this project is the hydrosocial relation between photovoltaic beings, architectural systems, and humans, all seen through a hallucinatory ensemble. The ferns find their nutrition within a series of hanging vases that are nothing short of amazing. (See also ArchDaily’s post of it).

The system itself is a hybrid made by natural processes mixed in with manual labor, which includes the stunning human labor that went into making the vases and the inhabitant’s operations themselves. I suspect, though I haven’t asked them, that the architects wanted the house to be both a visual delight and an organic fright.

There is something to it that’s also perverse–perhaps a sophisticated joke. How is it that these humans now find themselves sustaining a plant that produces just about nothing except for maybe some clean oxygen and not, say, some yummy tomatoes? But then again, isn’t that what’s peculiar about all sorts of bourgeois social creations like private conservation easements? Isn’t that what modern living within nature–without having to actually labor it–is all about?

Surely, it’s a refined work. Somehow it also alienates us from our accustomed relationships with second nature. From what I can tell, the interior yields the sensation that someone drew a curtain and showed us an organism that we didn’t even want to see–an odious “organic machine”, as Richard White has termed it–although our lives depend on it. Unfortunately, this system also has something nostalgic encoded into it, something like a reaffirmation of an old modernity in the vein of the Frankfurt School, as if there was no alternative but to socialize nature by domesticating it.

What is another avenue? I’m not sure I know what it looks like. I think we can see the contours of it in some of the work of artist duo Allora y Calzadilla or in the recent work of Natalie Jeremijenko. These two folks, Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, have been generating a series of works where they experiment with dialectical relations between an artifice and an organism without falling into preaching about imposing stability or balance. Along a somewhat parallel line, Jeremijenko has been using architectural devices to reveal how the city itself is not just a second nature to animals, but that these animals have already partaken in forming social networks with urban dwellers for a very long time. What architecture does is reveal them.

In Allora y Calzadilla’s work, their monstrous ensembles don’t presuppose some kind of Promethean control over the system, as perhaps we see in the work of R&Sie(n). Who governs whom in these projects is never clear. And if the work will satisfy long-term collectors is also bravely unclear. As Tyler Green wrote in his blog about their piece “Artificial Light”: “The work is both relentlessly smart (I couldn’t help but think that long-ago decayed plant matter was powering the Holzer that was nourishing the Allora & Calzadilla plant) and a twisting of post-industrial assumptions. Can artificially-lit structures save their own environment?” That, my friends, is what saving the earth is all about, because there’s nothing quite “natural” about stuff like carbon credits.


This article first appeared in Spanish and was translated to English, with new modifications, by the author, Javier Arbona. (Published in Dialogo, March 2009, pp. 20-21. The original editor was Manuel Clavell-Carrasquillo. Any errors or ommissions are my own).

This new iteration comes thanks to an instigation by Quilian Riano and the GSD Ecological Urbanism blog.Thanks, Quilian!

Selected Further Reading related to post:

  • Noel Castree (2000). “Marxism and the Production of Nature”. Capital & Class. Autumn. link
  • David Gissen, HTC Experiments. See especially: 2007. “Anxious Climate: Architecture at the Edge of Environment” [MICA].
  • Oven Hatherly (2009). “Living Façades: green urbanism and the politics of urban offsetting.” The Measures Taken.
  • Neil Smith (1984). Uneven Development: Nature, Capital, and the Production of Space. New York: Basil Blackwell. (New edition now available)
  • Richard White (1996). The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River. Macmillan.

See also:

  • Mark Jarzombek (2003). “Sustainability, Architecture, and “Nature” Between Fuzzy Systems and Wicked Problems” Thresholds 26: denatured. Spring: 54-56.  PDF

Updated with new citations and clarifications. 4 April, 2009 @ 21:55


5 thoughts on “Architecture imagined as ecological

  1. Intersting post! Thanks. I really loved too your link to Owen H’s article with the house of J. Fritzlś house equipped with a green roof! Pretty mean observation!

    Te dejo enlace a mi web.

    Saludos **

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