Book Review: Subnature

Subnature: Architecture's Other Environments by David Gissen
Princeton Architectural Press, 2009
Paperback, 224 pages

The incorporation of sustainable principles into architectural production in the last decade or two appears to bode well for not only the profession but the world at large. But a close look at what these principles are -- in most cases geared around LEED credits -- and what they say about our relationship to nature points to an incomplete, and therefore unsubstantial, picture. Mainly I'm referring to the view of nature as a resource for our use, be it the sun, the wind, the soil, and the deposits within the earth. Other viewpoints and attitudes are necessary to provide a more solid foundation for sustainable principles (deterring "greenwashing" and other questionable practices) and a view that embraces the diversity of nature for what it is, not only for what it can do for us. David Gissen's latest book, after 2003's Big & Green, stakes out an area of investigation that pushes for the above alternatives, at the same time showing how our actions impact the natural world around us, creating and expanding surrounding subnatures.

Gissen defines subnatures as conditions within our cities that are often deemed filthy, fearsome, and uncontrollable. He defines 12 subnatures in three categories: Atmospheres include dankness, smoke, gas, and exhaust; Matter contains dust, puddles, mud, and debris; and Life includes weeds, insects, pigeons, and crowds. For each subnature Gissen traces the changing historical views, looks at the current attitudes towards it, and presents contemporary projects that question and consider alternatives for incorporating the subnature into architectural design. In some cases the views over time have done a complete 180, pointing to the way nature is defined socially, not objectively or scientifically. Not surprisingly the projects are today's avant-garde, mostly hypothetical, research-based, installations, or unrealized. They are examples of how Gissen's path of exploration is not unprecedented; it is tapping into more widespread reconsiderations of today's fairly uncritical acceptance of sustainability. The book's cover, a close-up of Jorge Otero-Pailos's 2008 installation that preserved dust from a factory in Balzano, Italy, is as good an example as any of how the contemporary projects look at and present nature in different ways, though, like the other projects, how such an example could be used towards realizing alternative forms of building in the future is not always clear.

Gissen also presents earlier projects incorporating what he calls subnatures, but a period of time missing from the book is the period between the waning of modernism and the last ten years. What at first appeared to be an omission in the overall argument of the book points to an ignorance of nature in the prioritization of architectural form and autonomy in that period, encompassing postmodernism, deconstructivism, hi-tech, etc. So today's reorientation of architecture towards its relationship with its natural surroundings lacks a strong foundation in recent history. The movement towards green design in the 1970s stayed on the margins, basically disappearing in the following decade's conservative politics. In this context, taking a step back to analyze and reconsider how we view nature is especially important. Gissen's book is a timely and important text in shifting our attitudes towards more holistic, interdependent, and pluralistic views of nature.