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Published by: Jacob Mathis on Jun 26, 2012
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1. Kate Soper’s book What is Nature? (1995) is a generous and rigorous account of the
contemporary debate.

define what we mean by nature. It is two things: a material reality and a
cultural construct. The two exist in parallel, but they are not, and never
can be, the same thing. As material reality, nature exists as both that
which is outside us and that which contains us. It was here before we
emerged, and it will be here when we submerge. It is the given, both
stable and unstable – trees, uranium, the weather, tectonic plates, DNA,
the carbon-based universe, etc. This definition of nature-as-given comes
down clearly on the side of those who argue that there is an objective
phenomenon outside our various views of it. A phenomenon that measur-
ably suffers when we inflict too much damage on it, that gives up some
of its secrets to those who rigorously search for them, and that is indepen-
dent of our views of it, whether scientific or religious.
It is the view of nature as measurable and quantifiable that is referred
to in the term ‘environment’, material surroundings that include not just
the ‘natural’ environment – bees, trees, sky, etc. – but the built environ-
ment as well, with its own measurable physical properties, its own
atmospheres, its own micro-climates. It is these two domains that the
non-vitalist version of ecology2

seeks to understand, as they affect our
activities and we affect theirs. Like all science, environmental science
aspires to a position of objectivity. Nature as cultural construct –
religious, artistic, historical – is not of interest to it, although the measur-
able relationship between us and the material world is also a construct,
and contributes to the mutation of cultural constructs. The connection
between temperatures inside and outside a building may not stir
anyone’s passions, but that between the ozone layer and our industrial
processes certainly does. Vast vested interests are at stake, industrial
and political, and a change in practice is expensive in many ways. Any
weight the environmental argument carries derives, not from ethics, but
from science: the environmental debate is predicated on our ability to
quantify what ‘we’ are doing to ‘it’. Its relevance for those vested
interests lies solely in the economic implications of what ‘we’ are doing
to ‘it’.

In this ‘realist’ view, nature is that ‘to whose laws we are always
subject, even as we harness them to human purposes, and whose
processes we can neither escape nor destroy’ (Soper, 1995: 155–56). It
is not possible for even the most committed ‘idealist’, for whom nature
is an entirely cultural construct, to ignore a dimension of reality to nature
independent of his or her linguistic overlays:

[I]t is not language that has a hole in its ozone layer; and the ‘real’ thing
continues to be polluted and degraded even as we refine our decon-
structive insights on the level of the signifier (Soper, 1995: 151).

On the other hand, only the cultural constructs of nature are truly
knowable, because we make them. Historically, we have always

The ‘new’ nature and a new architecture 17

2.The word ‘ecology’ was coined by the German biologist Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919)
from the ancient Greek ‘oikos’, meaning household. Haeckel himself held to the vitalist
view of nature as alive, a view most recently elaborated by certain interpreters of James
Lovelock’s ‘Gaia theory’. Other ecologists view this vitalism as unjustified, and pursue
ecology as an empirical science. For an appraisal of Haeckel’s vitalism and its links to
nationalism and Nazism, see Pepper (1999: 184–88).

projected different interpretative models onto nature: it was made by
God in six days; it is the product of the Big Bang; it is a dangerous harpy;
it is a bountiful mother; it works like clockwork; it is permanently on the
edge of chaos; it is what we should return to; it is what we have evolved
away from; it is full of gods and goddesses; it is an inanimate source
of raw materials. Kate Soper, however, in her book What is Nature?,
warns realists against being as exclusive as idealists. The latter’s refusal
to accept the autonomy of the unknowable (unknowable as a thing-in-
itself), should not provoke a refusal in the former to ignore nature-as-
construct, a marked tendency in much environmental analysis. Both
realist and idealist views of nature are essential to a fully developed
environmentalism, as it is our cultural constructs of nature that encour-
age or inhibit various behaviours towards it.
Both views are also essential to an architecture that is intent upon
establishing a new relationship with nature. As our powers of observa-
tion have improved through improvements in the instruments used to
do the observing – the telescope, the microscope, the computer – so
we have seen more and differently, and our view of nature has changed
accordingly. This has caused us to review our position within that nature,
and, eventually, the architecture that expresses that position. In, for
example, Vitruvius in the first century BC, Alberti in the fifteenth century,
Laugier in the eighteenth century, Ruskin in the nineteenth century,
Aalto in the early twentieth century and Calatrava in the late twentieth
century, the urge is the same: to ground architecture in a particular view
of nature. However, their views were, and are, often radically different
from each other. There is, first and foremost, the difference between
the religious ‘top-down’ model of nature, and the Darwinian ‘bottom-up’
model. In the first, order flows from the mind of God down through the
Great Chain of Being to the lowliest one-celled organisms. There is a
unity in creation because it flows from a single source. In Darwin’s
model, order arises from one-celled organisms. They evolve into more
complex life forms in a state of mutual dependence. The unity lies in
the interconnectedness of this bottom-up proliferation. A dynamic, non-
teleological model thus replaces the fixed all-at-once-for-all-time model
of the Bible. The very idea of an ‘ecosystem’ is one of parts forming an
interactive whole. What links the religious and Darwinian apprehensions
of this whole is the idea of pattern, form, and an aesthetic dimension
to the empirical.

Today we have our own projections. These take two main forms: the
unreconstructed modernist version, in which nature is viewed as a
source of raw materials and instrumental knowledge, and the increas-
ingly influential environmental model, in which nature is viewed as a
number of almost ungraspably complex interrelated systems in which
we are included, and upon which we are, and will always be, depen-
dent. These opposing views are, since the development of complexity
theory in the 1960s, united in one new and fundamental way: in neither
case can the historically clear distinction between ‘nature’ and ‘culture’
any longer be made with conviction, as the two are increasingly
perceived as folded into each other. Such is the scale of transformation
of nature by culture that the division between nature as that which is
given, and culture as the sum total of that which we make, is becom-

18Taking Shape

ing obsolete at the very moment when environmentalists are demand-
ing we recognize and protect that given. Both are true, and neither is
the whole truth.

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