Tuesday, April 17, 2012

What if architecture were more like gardening?

VerdMX living wall in Mexico City restaurant

What if the goal of design were to support life? And what if the aesthetic pleasure of architecture was in watching life thrive: both human social life and the life of plants and animals?  William McDonough asks whether buildings could be more like trees in that they would contribute positively to the ecosystem.  Annie Dillard writes of the abundance and complexity of plants, which cast flowers and fruits wantonly about, each one an exquisite composition made to attract other species to look, to eat and to drink and, in exchange, to distribute pollen and seeds, which grow into more life.

Well, that’s a lot to ask of a building, but let’s think like a gardener (or landscape architect).  First, a gardener knows the regional conditions – climate and soil.  One who thinks ecologically also knows the biome and the local ecosystems – the plants and animals that depend on each other.  A gardener then studies the qualities of the immediate site (soils, slope, vegetation, buildings) and the microclimates they create, recognizing that any modification would change those conditions.  So the design game is to plant and cut strategically, so life can thrive.

So far, the analogy with architectural design is fairly direct.  Architects simply focus more on human social life, while gardeners think about a broader swath of life that includes plants and non-human animals.  Although for some designers, even this shift toward considering buildings as more than aesthetic objects or experiences is a leap.

Chasing this analogy further:  Gardens have always been places to breathe and to contemplate what and where we are, sometimes joyfully walking in a natural world presented as fruitful and generous, sometimes solemnly, pausing in remembrance of death; sometimes both at once.  Gardens release us from the stasis of architecture, so we can think, just as architecture shelters us from bad weather, so we can think.

A gardener builds with living plants: a structure of trees that will grow large to define the space and the light, then a succession of smaller trees, shrubs, and low-growing species.   Each is placed in relation to the others to create a living system that feeds birds and butterflies while making a lovely place for people.  Some gardens feed people also, with diverse plants that complement each other in a "food forest."  See: http://www.permaculture.org/nm/index.php

Louis Kahn described the process of architectural design similarly: a permanent pattern of structure to create the quality of light in a space, with an infill of elements that may be changed over time.  He almost always included gardens and courtyards as contemplative architectural spaces, for example the bosque of trees and reflecting pool at the entrance to the Kimball Art Museum.

What if architects added ecological thinking to the poetry, or found poetry through ecological order?  As a gardener, they would embrace existing conditions – including existing buildings, then add and subtract strategically.  Starting at the top they might consider how to capture sunlight as energy, as warmth, and as illumination, so it could support as much life as possible.  Sunlight would not go to waste.  Structure, whether large trees or columns and beams, would shade and direct or reflect the light to create sheltered spaces inside and out.  Gardens often create the conditions of the forest’s edge so open spaces mingle with shade and enclosure.   At the edge, two ecosystems overlap to create a third in the liminal space between, so the character of each space emerges as a niche or habitat that navigates both. 

Water is also precious to a gardener for poetic as well as horticultural reasons.  None is wasted.  Well designed gardens do not need irrigation for they capture rainfall and hold it in the soil so plants can drink.  A building likewise can put water to work twice or three times before letting it go into a sewer that is supposed to separate soil from water and return both to the land.

Soil is the third element of the garden that contains and supports life. Architects don’t think about it at all.   They don’t know how much soil is lost to erosion every year or how long it takes to build living soil.  If they did then paving contracts would cease.  A gardener’s building might lift up the soil to put rooms beneath with walls and windows along the shear lines. Soil can support plants at any level, although exposure to the sunlight and wind creates microclimates that would differ around a building and up into its heights.  The lower levels would be shady and cool, as would the north side, though dryer.  The east and west offer reciprocal environments for morning and afternoon, while the south side would be sunlit in winter, shaded in summer, and the topmost part windblown and rough.  The building could support many microsystems, like a tree with birds flitting in the canopy, or a cliff with rock doves, swallows, and falcons, or an island that offers safe harbor for birds at night.

A three-dimensional garden, the hanging gardens of Babylon, and the contemporary vision of green walls and green roofs, like those currently being built/planted in Mexico City, could change the mental picture of what buildings should be doing.  Perhaps they could support more species than just one.

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