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Simon Rickards

University of Bath
BSc Architecture
History & Theory 4

HUMAN
NATURE

As human beings we have a


responsibility to cherish the Earth
but given the environmental
concern experienced today, it
seems we have lost touch with our
Mother. How can we champion a
renewed unity between nature and
the man-made?
In Ancient cultures, hopes, fears
and fantasises were projected onto
nature, personifying the awesome
power it possessed. The reverence
for gods, goddesses and spirits
and the shamans who mediated
with them gave these people
an inherent desire to preserve
harmony with the environment
around them.
The effects of the Protestant
Revolution from 1517 had a
far reaching impact by the
seventeenth century, the natural
world had been desacralised;
a Machine engineered by the

all-powerful God. Ironically,


this began to render Him
superfluous. When nature
functions autonomously there
is little need to revere a higher
being who no longer controls the
powerful systems that surround
us. This catalysed the Scientific
Revolution; Copernicus proposal
of a heliocentric solar system,
Galileos identification of the first
of Jupiters moons, and Huygens
observations of the surface detail
of Mars and the rings of Saturn.
Constant developments led to
paradigm shifts through Historic
and into Modern Architecture,
with man in an ever growing
dominion over nature. In recent
years the need for technology to
become green became apparent;
the advent of films like An
Inconvenient Truth and The 11th
Hour brought climate chaos and
other global phenomena into

public consciousness. With this,


a culture of environmentalism
has become mainstream and it is
generally understood that we must
change the way we interact with
the world to preserve it.
Modern buildings are great
achievements but are harming the
environment, challenging future
habitability of the planet. In the
last 100 years, carbon dioxide in
the air has risen by 27%, of which
a quarter is from the combustion
of fossil fuels for building.2 The
changes to our planet will be
dramatic and no matter how
well built, in an environmental
catastrophe very little will be
able to completely protect the
inhabitants. How did architecture
of the past respond to nature,
and how might we restore this
relationship in an attempt to
preserve the world we live in?

Like human mothers, nature has always


evoked ambivalent emotions. She is beautiful
fertile, nurturing, benevolent and generous.
But she is also wild, destructive, disorderly,
chaotic, smothering and
death-dealing1

The remains
of a Pueblo
pit house. The
sipapu is visible
in the center of
the floor, near
the fire pit

Pueblo

Navajo

The Pueblo Indians are a Native Indian population


from the Southwest America3. They believe that they
are descended from the Anasazi (Ancient Ones), who
emerged into the world from the depths of the Grand
Canyon itself.4 Because of this, they felt that they
were an integral part of the landscape in which they
lived and their early buildings bear resemblances
to the terrain. The pit houses of their Basketmaker
period5 are dug into the ground and have a circular
indentation in the floor called a sipapu,6 serving
as a constant reminder of the emergence of their
ancestors from the primordial underworld. The flat,
low roofs of these primitive shelters echo the shapes
of the mesas that surrounded them.

Over time new settlers arrived in the area, most


notably the Navajo in around 1500.7 They built hogans
domed houses of wooden poles, tree bark and mud.
These dwellings formed small mounds, which again
resonate with the larger shapes on the horizons. All
the doorways face east, towards the rising sun, and
so they are locked into the patterns of the sky as
well as the shapes of the earth.8 On the death of a
family member a portal is cut into the Western side
to release the soul, and the hogan is abandoned for a
new one.
These buildings are similar in their primitive
imitation of natural forms as a way of fitting into
natures order. Their dwellings offer a respectfully
simple understanding of a powerful, dominant force
which promotes an elegant harmony with their
environment.

As a neo-Platonic celestial Jerusalem, the cathedral


sought to reveal the invisible nature of the universe
with symbolism. Unlike our understanding of
symbolism today, it avoided mimicry. It used colour,
proportion, light and form to convey a moral reality11

Gothic (12th 16th Century)


Around the time the Navajo were
settling in the Southwest, the
Gothic style was at the height
of popularity in Europe. The
churches and cathedrals were
to master light, make the mass
seem impossibly delicate, and to
turn the building into an illusory
and magical image of heaven on
earth;9 the driving force behind the
style was symbolism. The vertical
columns appear to be composed of
groups of colonnettes, eventually
spreading out to form the
spandrels of the vaulted ceilings.

External buttresses and pointed


arches allow the walls between
these columns to be punctuated
with large expanses of glass,
dissolving the mass into brightly
coloured light. The effect on
entering the spaces inside the
exemplary Gothic cathedrals at
Laon, Ntre Dame and Chartres
is an immediate sense of awe; the
strong emphasis on the vertical,
enhanced further by the use of
the pointed arch, suggests an
aspiration towards Heaven.

For the Medieval population,


faith and reason were not
mutually exclusive; the physical,
metaphysical and symbolic existed
together in scholarship. These
Gothic cathedrals of the twelfth
and thirteenth centuries show the
beginnings of a change in the way
the Europeans understood their
relationship with the world,10 it
was becoming something rational
and comprehendible.

Cathedral
of our Lady
of Chartres,
France

Diagram
of Nicolaus
Copernicus
proposed
heliocentric
model

Scientific Revolution
In 1517, Martin Luther sparked
the Protestant Revolution with
the publication of The Ninety-Five
Theses. As the Protestant beliefs
became prevalent, cults like that of
the Holy Mother were suppressed
and the supremacy of the Father
became enforced. The world
became a machine set in motion
by God, obedient to his eternal
laws12 and nature was therefore
no longer considered alive.
This paved the way for the
beginning of the Scientific
revolution; potentially attributable
to the publication of Nicolaus
Copernicus On The Revolutions
of Heavenly Spheres and Andreas
Vesalius On The Fabric of the
Human Body, both in 1543.13
Copernicus proposed his
heliocentric model of the solar
system, evidence of a desire to
understand the mechanics of the
universe previously the domain
of God himself.

Renaissance (15th 17th Century)

Neoclassical + Industrial Revolution

Where Gothic architecture was born from a feudalist


society in which the Catholic church was dominant,
the architecture of the Renaissance represents the
paradigm shift into a new materialistic society; one
with a burgeoning middle class.14 Materialism took
hold; bank loans and an ingenuity in business allowed
ascension to power through wealth, superseding the
eternal posthumous glory offered by the church. This
new demographic were intellectual, in studying the
Ancient literary texts they believed the civilisation
that produced them should serve as a model for
their new cultural era.15 Combined with a belief that
humans could rival God in applying a rational order
to the natural world (and the rediscovery of Vitruvius
Ten Books on Architecture in the fifteenth Century16),
the Renaissance instantly had its architectural
identity.

By the seventeenth century, Renaissance style had


developed into two strands: Baroque and Rococo.
The prosperity created as a result of the social
changes meant the architecture was becoming ever
more opulent, fuelled by competing entrepreneurs
and similarly ambitious architects. Early eighteenth
century progressions in archaeology specifically
Bernard de Montfaucons LAntiquit explique
(1719), a 10 volume publication of Greco-Roman
artefacts and institutions and a reaction in taste
against the decorative styles17 sparked a renewed
interest in the search for the origins of architecture.
The return of the primitive hut showed how far from
nature architecture had strayed, and it was Newtons
revolutionary understanding of the natural world
that was conveyed in the work of the Neoclassical
visionaries.
Industrial Revolution in Britain began in around
1760 and the heavy industry which grew out of this
brought new materials to architects; glass, cast iron
and steel. The rapid development of technological
processes meant new building types like railway
stations, warehouses and exhibition centres were
required, and with no precedents architects looked
back primarily to Classical and Gothic.

St. Peters
Basilica,
Vatican
City. Late
renaissance
architecture

Arts and Crafts (19th Century)


By the time industrial progress
had established Britain as one
of the most advanced, dominant
economies in Europe it seemed
like a connection with nature
had been all but forgotten. The
application of historic styles to
new materials lacked integrity, a
sentiment which was shared by
several eminent creatives of the
time. John Ruskin led the field,
producing several publications
which implored people to look
for truthfulness in architecture.
His critique of the situation in
late ninteenth century England
did much to create the climate in
which Arts and Crafts architecture
developed. 18
Houses by Phillip Webb, C.F.A.
Voysey, Edwin Lutyens and
Raymond Unwin all exemplify
use of building traditions from
the English countryside to get
a closeness with nature. Folk
influences encouraged the use

of local materials pragmatic


because they have been tried and
tested in houses for centuries,
and economical because of the
reduced transport costs and
the accompanying craftsmanship.
Though it gave rise to low-density
garden suburbs, it was primarily
realised in the countryside, on
houses of a grand scale with
sufficient funding to cover the
intensive labour costs. Eventually
in England it deteriorated to a
style, applied to the neo-Tudor
homes which have since littered
the outskirts of cities.

The background of the opposite


page is an early example of
William Morris hand printed
wallpaper

The idea of self denial for the sake


of posterity, of practicing present
economy for the sake of debtors yet
unborn, of planting forests that
our descendants may live under
their shade, or of raising cities for
future nations to inhabit, never,
I suppose, efficiently takes place
among publicly recognised motives
of exertion. Yet these are not the
less of our duties; nor is our part
fitly sustained upon the earth,
unless the range of our intended
and deliberate usefulness include,
not only the companions but the
successors of our pilgrimage. God
has lent us the earth for our life;
it is a great entail. It belongs as
much to those who are to come
after us, and whose names are
written in the book of creation, as
to us; and we have no right, by
any thing that we do or neglect,

to involve them in unnecessary


penalties, or deprive them of
benefits which it was in our power
to bequeath. And this the more,
because it is one of the appointed
conditions of the labour of men
that, in proportion to the time
between the seed-sowing and the
harvest, is the fullness of the fruit;
and that generally, therefore, the
farther off we place our aim, and
the less we desire to be ourselves the
witness of what we have laboured
for, the more wide and rich will be
the measure of our success. Men
cannot benefit those that are with
them as they can benefit those who
come after them; and of all the
pulpits from which human voice is
ever sent forth, there is none from
which it reaches so far as from the
grave.

John Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of


Architecture: Memory Aphorism 29
(1849)

Modernism (20th Century)


The twentieth century signalled
the dissolution of massive walls
and solidly rooted buildings into
geometric volumes apparently
made of glass; with slender
roof profiles and thin walls they
blurred the boundaries between
inside and out. A pioneer of
Modernism, Le Corbusier worked
extensively to design buildings
and urban environments with
inherently strong connections to
nature. Where the Arts and Crafts
movement had rejected the use of
the machine, he sensibly accepted
it given the prominence that
automation and engineering had
reached.
His Villa at Garches (1923-27)
illustrates perfectly machine,
mass production and nature in
harmony. On the outskirts of
Paris, it suggested that thanks to
the machine (in the form of the
car), the modern man could escape
the working world of the city
and return home to the country.
At this point he could enter into

his home and survey the gardens


surrounding him from a space like
the deck of a ship.
The symbiotic relationship
between man and nature is
exemplified in his housing
schemes. Forty houses in St
Nicholas dAliermont show
the dominating influences on
his thinking about groups of
buildings to be Raymond Unwin
and the garden city, garden
suburb movement.19 From this
early example it is hard to see the
process behind his progression to
the Ville Contemporaine a vision
where 60 storey cruciform plan
buildings were scattered around a
central hub, raised off the ground
on pilotis and surrounded by green
space though nature remains an
underlying ground in his radical
proposals for the human habitat.20
From this the International
Style took inspiration; focusing
on his style of rationality and
structures it lost sight completely

of the concerns for nature that


underpinned them. With little
proper founding, the style
multiplied up in scale to mimic his
urban planning, resulting in the
(now mostly condemned) high rise
housing estates, like Ronan Point,
Newham.

Ville
Contemporaine
imagined by Le
Corbusier

Any developer who claims that a structure


meets every code may actually be making
a confession: If it were built any worse, it
would be against the law.
Randolph Croxton, Speech at E-Source Forum (1993)

Revolution: Embodying the new


unity between Man and Nature
A defining feature of the machineage twentieth century is how
separated and sealed off from the
environment we have become.
About half the energy consumed
by buildings (construction
and use) is used producing an
artificial indoor climate heating,
cooling, ventilation and lighting.
Technology has been used to
construct a world that removes us
from nature, though this was far
from the initial intention. Antoine
de Saint-Exupry, a pilot at the
turn of the century said:
in the machine of today we
forget that motors are whirring:
the motor, finally, has come to
fulfil its function, which is to
whir as a heart beats and we
give no thought to the beating
of our heart. Thus, precisely
because it is perfect the machine
dissembles itself instead of forcing
itself upon our notice and
thus, also, the realities of nature
resume their pride of place. It is
not with metal that the pilot is in
contact. Contrary to the vulgar
illusion, it is thanks to the metal,
and by virtue of it, that the pilot
rediscovers nature. Machine does
not isolate man from the great
problems of nature but plunges
him more deeply into them.21
He was a contemporary of Le
Corbusier and this echoes the
sentiments of the machine for
living. As our technology has

become more dominant, users


have become increasingly reliant
on complex systems to control
them, removing the relationship
previously enjoyed. Electronic and
mechanical systems can be used
to help wherever we need, but
to bring them back in line they
should be made as simple and
user-friendly as possible.
In the same way, builders can
now use materials that distance
them from the environmental
consequences of their use; steel,
concrete, copper and aluminium
all damaging but freely available
in processed form. They should be
used as a jeweller uses precious
metals sparingly.22 These
materials have manufacturing
history and therefore a high
embodied energy, we should
be using those with as little
transportation and processing as
possible local natural materials.
Earthen materials are a universal
example of this, and may seem
primitive but are still appropriate.
In Yemen they are able to
reach five stories with unfired
compressed earth blocks, which
are also naturally fire and rot
resistant. The ecological impact of
blocks made this way (measured
by energy use) is 0.02% of a fired
brick.23
Traditional architectures took
their form from the limits of these
local materials, as well as the
climate and having to use them
against one another. Contemporary
construction has become divorced

from simple ecological principles


like this, and the integrity has
suffered. As a result, modern
buildings rarely respond to their
immediate context limiting the
sense of place for inhabitants.
The future will involve learning
from the ancient vernaculars to
re-imbue our buildings with this
lost virtue, as well as the modern
amenities.
Our relationship with the
natural world has been in public
consciousness since the late 1980s
by both the anticipation and
the experience of environmental
damage and disaster. There have
been a wide range of architectural
responses to these changes; some
visionary, some more traditional
approaches and those which
evolve standard practices. The
more extraordinary, and those
which garner the attention of
the press, are usually visionary
covering the range from Utopian to
Dystopian and from technological
to survivalist.
We cannot ignore or reject
technology as we strive for a
husbandry with nature. From
Neolithic man digging with sticks
we have been using technology
to exploit natural resources, so
it is not the technological change
which has brought us into crisis
but the attitude which we bring
with it. The earth is not merely
a source of materials for our
exploitation, we must see it as a
complicated system in a critical
state of balance. Architecture as

a language, allows us to express


these issues, but as a cultural
activity it cannot stand apart
from the concerns and aspirations
of the society that produces it.
25 Moving forward will require
a revolutionary understanding
of natural processes as part of
the whole environmental system;
and profound developments in
this area indicate that we are
already on the threshold of a new
understanding of nature.
Simon Rickards

The Nest
Thermostat:
a simple,
user friendly
interface for
controlling
heating. It
provides a
responsive link
between us and
the mechanical
system

Glenn Murcutt exemplifies a shift in attitude towards


the machine in a sympathetic manner by expressing
it in his architecture. The Museum of Local History
and Tourist Office in Kempsey, New South Wales
primarily uses steel and glass, but the building
appears to breathe through prominent ventilation
fans. Glass louvres are used instead of sheet glass
to allow simple control of cooling when needed. The
roof, which connects the whole building physically,
also connects culturally; the use of corrugated metal
is an acknowledgement of the cheap colonial material
which dominates the historic buildings of rural
Australia. Overall it appears as a building assembled
by hand, a machine that could be used and interacted
with rather than an impersonal and unforgiving box
dropped into its location.

The David Mellor Cutlery


Factory by Hopkins is another
building sympathetic to a rural
vernacular context. The elegant
steel roof structure springs from
the textured walls like Ruskins
Oxford Museum where, similarly,
technology is given bounds
through a setting in natural
material with its own prominent
character. The roof is structurally
rigid, applying no lateral force to
the simple local stone wall, and
has a traditionally detailed lead
covering.24

Opposite: The
plans for Jon
Broomes second
self build home,
showing the
column grid
and the offset
accomodation
Far left: A
workman
preparing a
tree trunk for
use as a roof
support
Left: Interior
showing column
and stair

Jon Broome worked with the


Walter Segal self-build housing
scheme, giving him the ideal
background for producing a self
build house. The scheme enabled
people who would otherwise have
been homeless to build their own
homes, so it allows construction
by unskilled labour with very little
mechanised assistance. Also like
the Arts and Crafts movement, it
champions the reintegration of the
designer and builder; this becomes
a social agenda within the project.
The overall footprint of the house
is defined by the trees, with
accommodation shifted off grid to
capture sun, views or to protect
an external space. Structurally,

the columns are tree trunks which


have been stripped of branches
and had the bark removed but
no other processing, reducing
the embodied energy. These rise
through the first floor to support
the roof, utilising the strength
given by the large size of timber.
Even the internal finishes are
sustainable; the floorboards are
oak from vats in an old vinegar
factory. The Broome House
depends on manual labour in
place of mechanised industrial
production, and use of local
and reused materials keep the
environmental and economic costs
down making this a particularly
accessible project.

The work of Imre Makowecz forms


part of the nature that surrounds
the buildings. They exemplify
mans ability to reach new heights
of creation through working
with nature rather than trying to
dominate it.

1. Rupert Sheldrake, 1994. The Rebirth of Nature:


The Greening of Science and God. 2nd Edition. Park
Street Press. Page 6.
2. Constructing Excellence. 2008. Construction and
Sustainable Development - Plain English. [ONLINE]
Available at: http://constructingexcellence.org.uk/
zones/sustainabilityzone/downloads/Section3_Who_
is_responsible.pdf [Accessed 12th December 2012].
3. Britannica Online Encyclopedia. 2013. Pueblo
Indians (people) -- Britannica Online Encyclopedia.
[ONLINE] Available at: http://www.britannica.com/
EBchecked/topic/482769/Pueblo-Indians. [Accessed
17 January 2013].
4. Vincent Scully, 1991. Architecture: The Natural
and the Manmade. 1st Edition. St. Martins Press.
Page 4.
5. Britannica Online Encyclopedia. 2013. Ancestral
Pueblo culture (North American Indian culture)
-- Britannica Online Encyclopedia. [ONLINE]
Available at: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/
topic/22804/Ancestral-Pueblo-culture. [Accessed 17
January 2013].
6. Merriam-Webster Dictionary. 2013. Sipapu Definition and More from the Free Merriam-Webster
Dictionary. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.
merriam-webster.com/dictionary/sipapu. [Accessed 17
January 2013].
7. Vincent Scully, 1991. Architecture: The Natural
and the Manmade. 1st Edition. St. Martins Press.
Page 4.
8.

Ibid. Page 5.

9.

Ibid. Page 123.

10. Philip Ball, 2009. Universe of Stone: Chartres


Cathedral and the Triumph of the Medieval Mind. 1st
Edition. Vintage Books USA.

11. Benjamin Blankenbehler. 2011. Gothic


Innovation Of St. Denis Cathedral. [ONLINE]
Available at: http://architecturerevived.blogspot.
co.uk/2011/01/gothic-innovation-of-st-denis-cathedral.
html. [Accessed 17 January 2013].
12.

Rupert Sheldrake, 1994. Page 12.

13. David Banach. 2006. Timeline of the Scientific


Revolution. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.
anselm.edu/homepage/dbanach/timel.htm. [Accessed
17 January 2013].
14. Shannon Kyles. 2013. High Renaissance.
[ONLINE] Available at: http://lookuparchitecture.
com/historyhighren.htm. [Accessed 17 January 2013].
15. David Watkin, 2011. A History of Western
Architecture. 5th Edition. Laurence King Publishers.
Page 211.
16. John Farmer, 1999. Green Shift: Changing
Attitudes in Architecture to the Natural World. 2nd
Edition. Architectural Press. Page 21.
17. University of Pittsburgh. 2013. 18th Century
Architecture. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.pitt.
edu/~tokerism/0040/syl/src1120.html. [Accessed 17
January 2013].
18.

Farmer, 1999. Page 49.

19.

Ibid. Page 124.

20.

Ibid. Page 124.

21. Antoine De Saint-Exupery, 2000. Wind, Sand


and Stars (Penguin Modern Classics). Modern
Edition. Penguin Books. [Originally 1939]
22. David Malin Roodman and Nicholas Lenssen,
1995. A Building Revolution: How Ecology and
Health Concerns are Transforming Construction. 1st
Edition. Worldwatch Institute. Page 27.

23.

Ibid. Page 29.

24. Hopkins Architects. 2013. David Mellor Cutlery


Factory | Hopkins. [ONLINE] Available at: http://
www.hopkins.co.uk/s/projects/1/12. [Accessed 17
January 2013].
25.

Farmer, 1999. Page 218.

Works Consulted

Patrick Nuttgens, 2006. The Complete Handbook


of Architecture: From the First Civilizations to the
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Stewart Brand, 1995. How Buildings Learn: What
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Various, 1971. The Last Whole Earth Catalog: Access
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