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The Relationship Between Nature and Architecture

What has landscape architecture and industrialized society to learn from indigenous cultures and their symbiotic relationships with nature? ‘Despite nature’s many earlier warnings, the pollution and destruction of the natural environment has gone on, intensively and extensively, without awakening a sufficient reaction; it is only during the last century that any systematic effort has been made to determine what constitutes a balanced and self-renewing environment, containing all the ingredient’s necessary for man’s biological prosperity, social cooperation and spiritual stimulation.’ (Ian McHarg, Design With Nature)
At the dawn of the twenty-first century it becomes clearer and clearer daily to scientists, environmentalists, and landscape architects alike, what massive climatic and ecological devastation has been caused by one-hundred-and-fifty years of human industrial activity. Mankind can no longer avert its eyes from environmental catastrophe by pretending that the science behind such doom-full asseverations is unsound, that the results are ambiguous, that the evidence is dubious. As these delusions are blown away by ever more certain evidence, there appear in their place the horrific spectre of rivers and oceans sated with pollution and filth, rainforests ravaged by deforestation, deserts extending at unnatural speeds, and the atmosphere a toxic and noxious fog filled by the vast emissions of our industrial societies. In less than two centuries, man’s industrial and technological acceleration has brought him to the brink of environmental collapse. It is now evident to all but the most blinkered or obstinate governments that comprehensive action is needed urgently to prevent our follies from going past the environmental ‘tipping-point’ that we have neared and whereafter we risk permanent and irreparable devastation. There have been myriad suggestions from environmentalists as to which solutions must be implemented to reverse this damage of the past two centuries; there have likewise been many summits, conferences and treaties convened to discuss these issues – the most recent major one being the Kyoto Agreement ratified by all countries except the United States. This essay however examines what landscape architects and conservationists may learn from the relationship with nature and the environment known by indigenous peoples for tens of thousands of years.
It looks, in particular, at what may be understood from the ‘ways of life’ of the Bushmen of the Kalahari in Botswana and Namibia in particular, and also the aborigine peoples of Australia, the indigenous Indians of the Brazilian rainforest and the nomads of the Mongolian steppes. These peoples have lived in many instances, in a near perfectly harmonious and undisturbed relationship with nature for thousands of years — in the case of the Kalahari Bushmen for over ten thousand years! The philosophies and mythologies of these peoples reveal how they understand and rejoice in the benevolence and fecundity of nature and the profound generosity of the gifts that she has continually bestowed upon them. Universally amongst these peoples there is an intense respect and gratefulness for nature and for what, in McHarg’s phrase, is the ‘glorious bounty’ that she provides. It seems almost too simple and too obvious to say that modern man, who has wreaked enormous damage in fifteen decades, might have a great deal to learn from peoples who lived without any such damage for more than one thousand decades!
In this essay’s analysis the term ‘symbiotic’ will be a key criteria of investigation; the notion of two organisms (man and nature) feeding from each other and using each other for mutual benefit. After a section of historical reflection where it glances at the seminal and pioneering ideas of Ian McHarg and J.B. Jackson, this essay goes on to explore how the knowledge of indigenous cultures about the environment might be fused with modern technology to create an ideal, sustainable and environmentally-friendly form of landscape design and city-planning. Moreover, the essay studies the notion of ‘collective consciousness’ amongst society as to the planet we inhabit and our collective responsibilities towards it. Throughout these last sections references are made to modern examples of the themes under discussion, as well as contemporary designers such as James Corner, Mark Treib and Sebastian Marot.
It is vital for students of landscape architecture to know something of the genesis of the theory and practice of landscape architecture; this historical orientation informs the student as to how landscape architecture can be a medium through which the understanding of nature by indigenous peoples may be fused with the technological advances of our own societies to form and develop environmentally friendly and sustainable sites for the future. Within this history, perhaps no one’s ideas are more seminal than those of the father of the discipline: Ian McHarg.
Before the 1970’s mankind did not possess a comprehensive or total understanding of his relationship with nature and his environment; his knowledge was splinted and fragmented and so unification of environmental theories and ideas was a very rare event. Moreover, no detailed and systematic philosophy of environmental design had yet been conceived. The creation of this philosophy fell, above all, to Ian McHarg. Lewis Mumford’s eloquently tells us of the significance of McHarg’s, the ‘inspired ecologist’, for environmental studies and landscape architecture. Mumford says: ‘. . . his is a mind that not only looks at all nature and human activity from the external vantage point of ecology, but likewise sees the world from within, and a participant and as an actor, bringing to the cold dry colourless world of science the special contribution that differentiates the higher mammals, above all human beings, from all other animate things: vivid colour and passion, insatiable curiosity, and a genius for creativity’. McHarg’s work was vital because he showed that man must conceive of his environment as a totality and respond to that totality with a dedication and awakened consciousness yet unparalleled in human history. McHarg opened man’s eyes to the destructive capabilities and tendencies of man with respect to his environment; he showed ‘. . . the way in which modern technology, through its hasty and unthinking application of scientific knowledge or technical facility, has been defacing the environment and lowering its habitability.’ McHarg nurtured a nascent consciousness amongst environmentalists and academics as to the threat of pesticides, herbicides, green-house gases etc; and his epoch-making book Design With Nature established the fundamental principles of a philosophy of landscape architecture and city-design that is harmonious with nature and seeks to benefit from nature’s generous fruits without consuming them exhaustively. McHarg’s philosophy had and has a practical aspect and a tremendous efficacy upon environmental renewal if people are willing to implement its advice. This knowledge must ‘. . . be applied to actual environments, to caring for natural areas, like swamps, lakes and rivers, to choosing sites for further urban settlements, to re-establishing human norms and life-furthering in metropolitan conurbations’. McHarg imbued landscape design and city-planning with a distinctive and previously all-together lacking moral and ethical dimension, and swung round the aesthetic sensibilities of these disciplines to exalt and revere the principle of harmonious inter-action and inter-dependence with the environment. In Mumford’s words, again: ‘McHarg’s emphasis is not on either design or nature herself, but upon the preposition with, which implies human cooperation and biological partnership’. By this philosophy a design is not imposed upon nature and does not therefore run the risk of being unsuccessful due to its incompatibility with the environment; but instead a design emerges out of the natural features of the landscape. By this approach, the meeting of design upon environment will be a natural and harmonious fit. To use a medical metaphor: the landscape will not reject the organ that is transplanted within it: the two are intimately joined. Perhaps, at bottom, there emerges out of the work and philosophy of McHarg, Jackson, Rachel Carson and all who have come after them, the conviction, that if done in the correct way and with the correct attitude, man can even ‘improve or ‘perfect’ nature by adding the element of himself to it.
For more than ten thousand years the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert, a vast 500,000 kilometre square area of southern Africa, have lived a lifestyle that has changed nearly nothing for this entire period. The Kalahari Desert appears to the softened Western observer as a barren, inhospitable and intolerably difficult place to survive – yet alone live continually! But the Bushmen have not only lived here amongst the dunes, plains and brush for countless millennia, but they have prospered also. At the heart of this ancient way of living is the harmonious and balanced relationship that the tribes of the Kalahari share with the environment that supports them. This is a ‘symbiotic’ relationship where man takes what he needs from nature, but only enough, so that nature in return profits by being treated respectfully. A useful analogy is the one Courtlander makes between the shark and the little fish that clean it: the shark is cleaned by these fish as they remove its parasites and in return the fish are fed by the parasites of the shark. The relationship between the Bushmen and nature is similar: the Bushmen feed from nature’s bounty and then nature benefits also to the extent that she is treated respectfully. This relationship is symbolised in the abodes and dwelling places of the Bushmen: their huts are made of materials taken from the immediate environment: grass, wood, animal skin, earth. These products are all used with maximum efficiency so that nothing is wasted and nothing in nature is harmed; these features are elaborated in the sacred places of worship of the Bushmen (mounds, mountains, watering-holes) where these materials are used more extensively. Klaus has shown in his three-volume work The Sacred Rituals and Magical Practices of the Bushmen of the Kalahari the Bushmen’s celebration of nature by way of numerous religious rituals and magical practices. Other cultures that share an such an intimate and delicate relationship, and such a direct reflection of this the style of their dwelling places, include the aborigine peoples of Australia who live a very similar lifestyle to the bushmen and venerate Ayres rock as the acme of nature’s munificence – as has been well documented by Kama’eleiwiha in Native Land and Foreign Desires; also, the myriad indigenous tribes of the Amazon basin in South America as recorded by Davies in his Indigenous Tribes of Brazil; and the nomadic peoples of the Mongolian steppes.
What then has the modern landscape architect to learn from the symbiotic relationship of indigenous peoples with nature? Landscape architects of 2005, often working on sites at the derelict fringes of society, on industrial waste-grounds, the edges of motorways, close to airports and so on are often forced to work with sites that are sated with pollution, toxins, scrap materials and waste products. The rejuvenation of sites as these by landscape architects must be in accordance with principles of sustainability and environmental balance. The Bushmen of the Kalahari, the aborigines of Australia and so on have, above all, a certain ‘control’ about the way they occupy and use their environment. The Bushmen will only kill as many animals as suffice to satisfy their hunger; by not hunting to excess the Bushmen ensure the stability of the livestock populations and the other species that depend upon them. The aborigines of Australia and the nomads of Mongolia are intimately aware of the maximum amount that they can take from nature without forcing deprivation upon her; there is a ‘collective consciousness amongst these peoples as to their responsibility towards nature and as to what the relationship is between nature and society. For an aborigine or South American Indian to do damage to or pollute his environment is tantamount to an act of self-harm and self-destruction; and as such acts of mass pollution are undocumented amongst such peoples. Landscape architects must adopt a similar collective consciousness and try to emit this through their designs so that their audiences and users come to take up a similar consciousness. Landscape architects must also learn something of the ‘control’ exhibited by indigenous peoples towards the environments, and do this by building their landscape creations with the same centrality of control. This has been shown particularly by the work of Martha Schwartz in the United State and the Schouwburgplein in Rotterdam. Instead of vast landfill sites that forever plant more toxins and pollutants in the soil, designs must embrace the technologies of recycling, bioengineering and so on. Notable examples of attempts as such design include the, the Evergreen Estate in Chicago, USA, the BMW building in Berlin, and, less well-known but perhaps most persuasively of all, in the Plaza de Paz in Bogota, Colombia. In each of these designs the materials used for construction are environmentally friendly and were produced in an environmentally friendly manner; the energy used by these places is clean and comes from renewable sources. Every aspect of these designs is intended to foster harmony and equilibrium between man and his environment, and to promote amongst users of these sites a deeper environmental consciousness that they might then extend to their families and colleagues and thus, eventually, force the governments who represent them to take up similar attitudes also. It is almost needless to say, that future opportunities for such design are endless.
In the final analysis, landscape architects of the twenty-first find that they have an immense amount to learn about their discipline from the ways of life and symbiotic relationship with nature that have been known and practised by indigenous and nomadic peoples for several millennia. A landscape architect might indeed conclude that buried within this intimate and intricate relationship with nature are the ideal principles with which to compensate the rapacious appetite for and consumption of the environment by modern industrial society. At the heart of the indigenous and nomadic attitude to nature are the concepts of ‘balance’ and ‘equilibrium’: it is by these principles that mankind may continue to enjoy the bountiful fruits of nature without exhausting her ability to produce them. It is this exhaustive, relentless and apparently inexorable ‘taking from nature’ by our economies and cultures without returning anything to nature that has disturbed the delicate balance cherished by indigenous and nomadic peoples. Nonetheless, it is impossible for our age to dispense with the sophisticated technologies and industries that we have developed and to return to a state of indigenous lifestyle; what is needed is to create an architectural philosophy of design that fuses the simplicity and balance of the indigenous relationship with nature, with the technological advances of our own age. The duty and responsibility of the twenty-first century landscape architect is to produce designs and structures that bring these two philosophies together. It is therefore essential that landscape architects work intimately with scientists, ecologists, botanists, businessmen and others so as to bring the greatest amount of environmental consideration and reflection to the development of a particular site or project. By convening all of the particular parties interested in a site in this way, a dialogue may be opened between them and therefore the greatest hope arises that action will be implemented to guarantee the environmental health of a site. It must always be in his mind that as the world races towards the environmental ‘tipping-point’ of no return, that this responsibility upon the landscape architect is a heavy one. The realization of such ambitious landscape architecture has begun with the works of James Corner, Sebastian Marot and Mark Treib.
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Life and Work of Frank Gehry

Many of Frank Gehry’s early works reflect a refined manipulation of shapes and structures, whereby many of his buildings present distorted shapes or apparent structures. From the Guggenheim museum to the Walt Disney concert hall, Frank Gehry’s architecture is close to none. He cleverly plays with shapes and geometries. In this essay, I shall start with a brief analysis of Gehry’s house and the influences in the design of the house. I shall then analyze the extent to which Frank Lloyd Wright has inspired and influenced Gehry in the design of his house through a comparison with Frank Lloyd Wright’s Jacob’s house.
Gehry draws his inspiration from famous paintings such as the Madonna and Child which he qualifies as a “strategy for architecture” (Friedman M., 2003, p. 42) and which he used as an inspiration for a project in Mexico. Through his interpretation of the paintings and artwork, Gehry looked for a new kind of architecture. His search for a new type of architecture culminated in 1978 with his own house in Santa Monica. What was once a traditional Californian house would be redesigned to become one of the most important and revolutionary designs of the 20th century, giving Gehry international prestige and fame. Frank Gehry’s “Own House” uses a mixture of corrugated metal, plywood, chain link and asphalt to construct a new envelope for an existing typical Californian house. This house has been inspired by Joseph Cornell, Ed Moses and Bob Rauschenberg. Gehry comments on his house by saying that there was something “magical” (Friedman M., 2003, p. 54) about it. He admits having “followed the end of his [my] nose” (Friedman M., 2003, p. 54) when it came to constructing the “new” house, which led Arthur Drexler, former Director from the Department of Architecture and Design at the museum of Modern Art in New York, to actually describe the house as a joke. (Friedman M., 2003, p. 54) Through his work, Frank Gehry can be considered as an artist rather than an architect. His own house is one of the best works of art he has ever produced. In many of Gehry’s early works such as the Danziger building, we learn about his worry of “the translation of ideas through the many people involved in the process of making a bulding” (Friedman M., 2003, p. 44), which according to him “drain the strength and power out of an idea” (Friedman M., 2003, p. 44); but in his “Own House” however, he proves us that his worry only makes his ideas and designs more powerful. He makes use of large openings, peculiar wall cladding or large lighted rooms as well as visible structure frames to reflect the postmodern style of the house as well as to convey his wish to bring architecture to its roots, to its bare beauty.
What Gehry loves about architecture and what is reflected in the style of his Own House is “the humanity of it” (Friedman M., 2003, p. 42). The barricading of the old house reminds us of artists such as Christo and Jeanne Claude with the Rheimstag wrapping while the angled protrusions and “cuts” through the old house shows Gordon Matta Clark’s influence in the style of the “Own House”. Gehry says in an interview that his desire to use metal as a primary construction material came with Donna O’Neill’s hay barn, for which he used metal because he could now “make a very tough sculptural shape” (Friedman M., 2003, p. 45), making the building fit the site hence creating “a sculptural identity” (Friedman M., 2003, p. 45).
Just like for the titanium-clad façade of the Guggenheim museum, Gehry makes use of metal cladding for his “Own House”. He builds walls around the old house using corrugated sheets of metal and chain link. Gehry justifies his use of chain link by saying: “The chain link for me was about denial. There was so much denial about it. I couldn’t believe it.” (Friedman M., 2003, p. 47) He explains how modern domestic design for him is all about challenging the culture, using cheap, recycled materials and transforming them into a work of art. (Friedman, 2003) The use of metal to create new shapes for buildings, such as for the California Aerospace Museum, Los Angeles, 1984 or the University of Toledo Center for the Visual Arts, 1992 prove how Gehry’s vision was beyond that of architects of his time. He admits that “A number of artist friends have influenced” (Friedman M., 2003, p. 43) his work and that architecture is reflected in a painting: the materials used, the texture applied or the theme of the painting but he also expresses a great admiration for the works of his modern predecessors such as Frank Lloyd Wright or Le Corbusier.
As mentioned before, Gehry was inspired by many modern architects, namely Frank Lloyd Wright. Gehry is referred to as a postmodern architect, applying modernism of the 20th century to his buildings all while challenging the conventions of that time. Frank Lloyd Wright is certainly a pioneer of modernism. To him we owe the idea of organic architecture, buildings on L, X, or T shaped grounds. Wright once said: “To thus make of a human dwelling-place a complete work of art…this is the tall modern American opportunity in Architecture.” (Humphries, 1970, p. 25) We notice how his vision of architecture resembles that of Gehry, with the reference to art. Nevertheless, the planning of Wright’s houses with his idea of form following function contrasts with Gehry’s idea of free plan. Still, the idea of using cheap materials for the Gehry house is a “déjà vu” of Wright’s wish “to cure this defect with houses that were simpler and more economical to build, that combined living and dining areas into one and separated them from a bedroom zone, and that finally turned the blocky walls into windows on nature” (Maddex, 2000, p. 80) basically, Wright’s Usonian project. Wright wanted to build small, single storey, flat-roofed affordable houses which would make the garden as a main part of the house and create a new type of dwelling and lifestyle for the Americans. He wanted to make housing more affordable and energy efficient. The Usonian project is a development that started with Wright’s transformation of the “symmetrical, cruciform and pinwheel Prairie House plan into the courtyard plan.” (Carter, 2001, p. 250)Hence, Wright saw the Usonian Houses as “asymmetrical quadrants of the bigger symmetrical Prairie Houses.” (Carter, 2001, p. 249)

Perhaps one of the most famous Usonian houses by Wright is the Jacobs house, presenting an L shape plan as well as the idea of pleasant geometry, hence the very rectangular and strict edges of the house. Wright’s plans of the first Jacob’s house reveal adequately his vision of the Usonian houses. Hence, from his plans, we see how the garden is the “geometric centre” of the plan and the focus of the spatial arrangement. The idea behind the layout of the spaces in Gehry’s house reflects that of Wright in Jacob’s house. Hence, in the Jacob’s house, the two wings of the house are well planned so as to differentiate between the public and private areas of the house. There are two entrances into the house; one leading to the private quarters, the bedrooms, and the other one to the living room and dining area on which the kitchen opens. The dining area is used as a transition between the private and public areas of the Jacob’s house. To further differentiate between the nature of the different spaces, Wright uses brick wall cladding within the living room and the entrance to indicate the public nature of these spaces. We can also ask ourselves whether Wright has not influenced Gehry in the addition of the many windows and openings in his “Own house”. Wright’s idea of architectural purism and organic architecture preach a relationship between agriculture and architecture: “The American landscape was for Wright unique and in need of integration into American daily domestic life” (Carter, 2001) We note how Wright makes the garden the most important space in the house. When we look at the Jacob’s house from the street, the view is not inspiring; we do not feel the warmth of the house. The street view offers a dull empty front yard with no indication of how to enter the house except from the carport. If we compare this to the garden view, we immediately feel as if we are in the house. The garden view provides floor to ceiling windows, Jacob’s house street view p.254 (Carter, 2001)
which enable us to see the on goings of the inhabitants inside the house. Similarly, the house becomes a mere object in the landscape. We instantly understand that Wright wants to pull our focus towards the most important member of the house, the garden. We observe how by adding “new” walls to the existing building, Gehry incorporates the surroundings into the house, creating a new space to contain the public/service areas of the house.
Other than the relationship between the house and its surroundings, Gehry has also applied Wright’s Beaux arts planning with the idea of the raised floor level as well as the hierarchy of the spaces. Hence, in the Jacobs house, Wright has created a certain hierarchy of spaces with “a geometric module governing horizontal and vertical spaces” (Maddex, 2000, p. 82). A large open area is dedicated to the living room and the kitchen. As we enter the Jacob’s house, we are oriented towards the garden by the glass doors. Similarly, the dining room is “projected” (Carter, 2001, p. 254) into the garden by horizontal wood walls with high windows which allow people standing in the kitchen to see into the garden. The public areas are all oriented towards the garden, creating an open space as we walk into the house. The master bedroom is clearly set apart by the bending corridor which leads to the private areas of the house. In Gehry’s Own house, he uses the same principle, with the entrance leading directly onto the living area which is raised above ground level. The public areas namely the kitchen, dining room and living room are all located on the right while the bedrooms are on the left, well secluded by walls. We highlight how the dining room and the kitchen are both located on the lower level, again creating this idea of hierarchy planning of spaces. We also point out Frank Lloyd Wright’s idea of interlocking forms and symmetry that is reflected in Gehry house design. The Jacob’s house presents itself in an “L” shape, which if we think of it, is barely the interlocking of two rectangles at 90°. All the spaces in the Jacobs house are also connected at right angles. This same scheme of interlocking forms is clearly visible in the Gehry house with the notable glass cube that hangs on top of the kitchen acting as a strong source of natural light which again puts a lot of emphasis on Wright’s notion of organic Gehry’s Own house, kitchen view, design, using the maximum amount of natural resources from the surroundings for use in the house.
As mentioned above, Gehry states that his choice of materials only results from their workability (for metal) or their personal significance (for chain link) but we can question that and ask ourselves how far was the choice of materials for his own house influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright’s idea that “from standardized materials, economy” (Maddex, 2000, p. 82). Wright once said: “The sense of interior space as a reality in organic architecture co-ordinates with the enlarged means of modern materials” (Humphries, 1970, p. 124). For Wright, the materials used had a connection to earth. In the Jacob’s house, Wright made use of a lot of wood and glass to create a comfy and warm atmosphere as well as a connection with the surroundings. He used modern materials which he believed could evoke the idea of empathy through his buildings. The low proportions of the Jacob’s house oriented the house horizontally rather than vertically and Wright saw the horizontal line as “the true earth line of human life, indicative of freedom”. (Carter, 2001, p. 255). To him, the horizontal planes of the house helped convey the idea of empathy. Hence “the planes parallel to the earth in buildings identify themselves with the ground, do most to make the buildings belong to the ground” and represent the “true foundation for life within” the house. (Carter, 2001, p. 255)
Wright’s notion of modernism has with no doubt pushed Gehry towards creating a new kind of architecture. When we compare how both architects interpret modern architecture, we understand fairly easily how much of an influence Frank Lloyd Wright has had on Gehry. Wright said: “In organic architecture the hard straight line breaks to the dotted line where stark necessity ends and thus allows appropriate rhythm to enter in order to leave suggestion its proper values. This is modern.” (Humphries, 1970, p. 125) When we read this quote, we find that it fairly relates to Gehry’s idea of deconstructivism in his own house, whereby there is a fragmentation in the design of the house. Frank Gehry has a different approach to modern domestic design. Wright wanted modern human dwellings to have earth ” as a great human good” and make the “garden be the building as much as the building will be the garden” Both Wright and Gehry have been influenced by the Japanese culture. The construction of the Jacob’s house is said to be related to the traditional Japanese house and “the four primal elements” that Gottfried Semper identified in 1852: earthwork, hearth, framework and roof and a screen-like infill wall. Wright combined the first two elements (earthwork and hearth) by passing pipes into the concrete flooring that would carry steam or hot water so that the floor would become a source of heat. The heating of the Jacob’s house coincided with Wright’s wish to use natural lighting; hence the south facing glass doors provided the house with heat during winter. This made the Usonian houses “extremely energy efficient long before this was an issue for other architects” (Carter, 2001, p. 255)
Having compared Wright’s Jacob’s house to Gehry’s own house, we can justly say that Gehry was influenced by art. So much that we can refer to him as an artist rather than an architect. His interest in paintings and sculptures has given him the opportunity to design buildings that would change the course of architecture for the future years to come. Gehry has also applied some of Frank Lloyd Wright’s principles to his designs. The extent to which this influence can be measured is unsure but a parallel comparison between the Jacob’s house and Gehry’s own house has allowed us to conclude that Wright’s principals of Beaux arts planning, interlocking forms, organic architecture and symmetry can be found in Gehry’s own house. Frank Gehry has taken the principles of modern architecture from his predecessors and applied it to his designs with his own twist of magic. He uses Wright’s concepts and ideas to create new design conventions for himself. Through his designs, Gehry wishes to challenge the ordinary. He is said to have founded the new wave of Californian architects. Frank Lloyd Wright, on the other hand is considered as one of the founders of modern architecture but what is certain is that they have both had a tremendous influence on the world of architecture today.