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Monday, March 03, 2008

Book Review: Two Books on Nature

Natural Architecture by Alessandro Rocca
Natural Metaphor: Architectural Papers III edited by Josep LluĂ­s Mateo & Florian Sauter

The idea of nature is typically something understood but not explicated, a remnant of well-established notions that split people from their surroundings and see the latter to be dominated by and for the former. The words nature and natural are thrown about without a consideration of the implications of this split and the importance of acknowledging and remedying the actual lack of a separation in reality. We sense a separation from the hills, the trees, and the creatures around us; in many cases this sensation comes from the buildings we inhabit, via the materials of which they are made, the forms they take, and the processes they allow and inhibit. These two books address these two aspects of the natural and the manmade: the conceptual split and the relationship of architecture to its surroundings.
Natural Metaphor is the third in the series of "architectural papers" coming out of the ETH Zurich. Calling itself an "anthology of essays on architecture and nature," the book groups the pieces into essays, voices, and found papers, with a quality roster that includes Manuel Castells, Olafur Eliasson, Paulo Mendes da Rocha, and Renzo Piano. The variety of positions presented is to be expected from the nearly 25 voices contributing. The best essays don't directly address the theme but approach it from a unique perspective, presenting the reader another way of thinking of things. For example, editor Florian Sauter's interview with artist Olafur Eliasson accompanies illustrations of his environmental works that definitely must be experienced to be fully appreciated; the interview illuminates the thinking behind the artworks that grounds them in larger thinking about the environment and our relationship to it.
One criticism of this book may be in the projects presented, such as Frederic Schwartz's Shotgun LoftHouse, a design that contributes little towards the questioning of the historical idea of nature, or even towards the relationship of New Orleans to the natural events that affected it recently. The apparent antithesis of this criticism can be found in Alessandro Rocca's collection of primarily artworks in the nevertheless intentionally-titled Natural Architecture. Here architecture is not about the functions typically ascribed to buildings; it is about the act of building. It is about building from nature and returning the objects of that building back to nature. In a way it is about blurring that line between building and nature.
The projects presented by Rocca can be as simple as demarcating a path in a forest or stacking straw bales, or as complex as the training or manipulation of trees or bamboo; the resiliency of these living things is exploited to literally become canopies for shelters. Patrick Dougherty's amazing "stick work" that graces the cover of the book attempts to straddle these two domains of natural and architecture, recalling the latter in form via the manipulation of the former; window and door openings are present, even though an interior space does not require them. Rather than present answers, these and other artworks pose questions, geared towards our preconceptions and our attitudes towards that which surrounds us and from which we are a part.

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