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COLLABORATING WITH NATURE

Not long ago I was walking through a residential neighborhood in Milan, taking a roundabout route back to my hotel, when I chanced upon the via Vincenzo Monti, one of the most beautiful streets I have ever seen. It is not famous, and I do not think it is unique even in Milan. But it contains the most striking juxtaposition of architecture and nature I have ever encountered on an urban street, and it made my heart sing.

Unlike many Italian city streets, the via Vincenzo Monti is long and straight, and neither as wide as a boulevard nor as narrow as many local streets. It is lined with trees planted tightly together on each side, so that their trunks make an even rhythm of vertical lines. These birch trees are exceptionally tall and slender, and because the street is not wide, the parallel lines of trees come together in the center to create a canopy of astonishing monumentality and delicacy. It is like a vault of green tracery over the street. Normally in a city it is the buildings that soar. Here it is the trees.

Yet the trees on the via Vincenzo Monti do not overwhelm the buildings, most of which are medium-size apartment houses with that generic Beaux Arts grandeur that you would expect to see in a similar neighborhood in Paris. The buildings are strong enough to stand up to the trees and provide them with a foil. The facades are like the walls of the great Galleria in the center of Milan, and the trees are its iron-and-glass roof. We are accustomed to thinking of nature as a backdrop for architecture, but here I had seen architecture function as a backdrop for nature--and how pleasing that is.

We pay almost no attention to the complex and subtle ways in which buildings and nature can relate to each other. We have all but written nature out of urban design; we have turned it into an afterthought. And it isn't even an afterthought in most urban architecture. It just isn't there. We save nature for the country, where we indulge it to excess, and then we forget all about it in the city. The most glorious exception to this in recent years is Jean Nouvel's Fondation Cartier, in Paris, with its freestanding wall of glass on the Boulevard Raspail, behind which is a lush and slightly unkempt landscape. The architect has created an extraordinary sequence of experiences-- outer wall, landscape, then building--that loosely recalls the way in which many great urban houses were entered by passing through a masonry wall set out to the street, then through a garden. Nouvel has reinterpreted this idea with modern materials, but transparency makes it altogether different. The natural landscape plays off against the sleek, highly refined building of glass and metal. Nouvel has taken the notion of the machine in the garden and inverted it: he has put the garden in the machine.

Nouvel is emphatic in stating that "vegetation," as he calls it, "is not simple decoration but an intrinsic element of the architect's vocabulary." He speaks of nature as a "fleeting phenomenon," like light and weather, and he has said he considers it an element of "an architecture that continuously refuses to be unchanging." Nature cannot stay the same, in other words, and though it is true that buildings do not stay the same either, they change at a different rate and in different ways. The man-made parts of the via Vincenzo Monti and the Fondation Cartier look pretty much the same in June as they do in January, but the natural parts are altogether different--and that means that the experience of the architecture changes with the seasons too.

Nouvel has not made much of an attempt to justify the presence of nature on ecological grounds, which is probably just as well. The ecological movement, for all its virtues--for all its necessity--has rarely numbered aesthetics among its priorities, and I think Nouvel was trying to reclaim some aesthetic ground for the whole question of the connection between buildings and nature. For the last generation that connection has been largely the province of environmentalists, and there has been a kind of implied indifference to architectural aesthetics. Never mind whether this is fair or reasonable to pin on the environmentalists. There is still a feeling in the architecture world that if you pay too much attention to nature you couldn't possibly have serious architectural issues as your priority. I wonder if architects have not, perhaps unconsciously, avoided engagement with nature because the realm of architecture and nature has seemed to be "owned" by somebody else. That's why Nouvel's work is so important here: he refuses to buy into this fallacy.

The gap between cutting-edge architects and environmentalists is a revealing one. When architects say that the environmental movement has no aesthetic, what they're really saying is that its aesthetics are conventional, weak, and middle of the road. True enough. But I think the gap is narrowing, and as technological advances make it increasingly possible to produce a wider range of green building materials it will narrow further. But here I am thinking not so much about ecology as about the presence of nature--plants and trees and water--in buildings and cities, and the way in which we seem to have lost interest in the subtle and powerful ways in which these things can become elements in architectural experience.

I am not talking about buildings with trees in their atriums or about lobbies with cut flowers. Architecture containing nature is not the same as architecture being transformed by it. Before the Fondation Cartier, there were a few notable examples of buildings in which natural vegetation was something more than an object dropped in. Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo's 1967 Ford Foundation, in New York, would be on such a list; so would the unbuilt mid-1970s and '80s projects of the late architect Roger Ferri, who envisioned skyscrapers with trees and elaborate gardens at different levels. Ken Yeang actually built such a tower in Kuala Lumpur (1992), and though it was relatively small, its series of open "skycourts" containing vegetation were striking both as an aesthetic statement and as an ecological one. Mario Botta tried to put trees on the roof of his San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and had he succeeded, I suspect the building would have been vastly more successful as a visual object--surely more so than his 1985 Ransila Building, in Lugano, Switzerland, which has a single tree rising from the corner of the roof, a case of the ornamental tree not being dropped in but being dropped on.

It is a matter of balance. Any architect--or urban designer--who wants to engage nature has to be willing to give it something more than a token position. It is much like the relationship of architecture to art that is selected to decorate it versus its relationship to art that is commissioned to be a part of it. Architects have struggled with this for years. We all know how trivializing the Henry Moore placed in front of an office building is both to the building and to the sculpture, and how potentially rich the possibilities are when architects truly collaborate with artists to create works for the architecture. Why are there not more collaborations with landscape architects? Landscape, after all, is also the crafting of space and the making of form. But most of the time landscape architects arrive on the scene after all architectural decisions have been made, relegated to the tasks of either embellishing what is already there or working with pieces of land that are separate and distinct from the building and considered outside the realm of the architecture.

Whether it comes through collaboration with landscape architects or through more enlightenment on the part of architects, we need to think more about the possibilities inherent in seeing nature as an architectural element and not as a thing apart. The presence of nature in architecture places architecture in a larger universe. It allows for aesthetics while lifting aesthetics out of the hermetic world to which it is often consigned. And more subtly--but ultimately more profoundly--it vastly enriches the range of architectural experience by creating particular kinds of visual, sensual, and conceptual tensions that cannot be achieved in any other way. Where architecture is hard, nature is soft; where architecture is fixed, nature changes over time--and in these counterpoints is a lifetime of aesthetic possibility. I am also entranced by the paradox that even though a building is part of the man-made world--which is in every way more temporary than the natural world--when we see nature as an architectural element they symbolically change places, and architecture dominates.

But it is the contrast that is crucial, and from which the richness comes. Every now and then you will hear someone say, in the midst of praising Olmsted's design for Central Park, how unfortunate it is that tall buildings are visible along the park's edge, and how much better it must have been a century ago, when nothing on the park's periphery was tall enough to spoil the rustic illusion. But the park is a far richer experience now, without the illusion, because there is a power to the way in which the buildings enclose it and play off against Olmsted's rustic world. It is the whole urban idea interwoven with a natural idea, each affecting the other.

On another street in Milan, a few blocks away, I walked past a cherry tree that had left a pink carpet of petals on the ground. There must have been a million of them, and they had fallen in a random pattern contrary to the order of the man-made object. The softness and faded color of the petals set against paving stones created a richer experience than the tree in full bloom: time was made visible, and so were texture and color--and together, like the via Vincenzo Monti, they transformed the street into something transcendent.

Written by: Paul Goldberger


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