Please do not let the absurd title fool you; there is a certain truth to it. In a recent guest lecture given by Lincoln Johnson in the Developmental Neurobiology course at the University of California, Santa Barbara, as he was describing Age-Related Macular Degeneration, he referred to the eye as possessing distinct “retinal architecture.” While it might feel slightly awkward to associate the eye with present-day skyscrapers and buildings that seem to mar the landscape, the two ultimately exhibit the same basic, functional qualities. If you observe a floor plan one minute, then a structural example of, say, the visual system, the similarities will begin to grow clearer. Architecture is the organization of space, which includes both vast superstructures and the currently un-replicable complexity of the human eye. The relationship between architecture and nature is one that is not easily defined, but a few papers written by two architects have helped to elucidate the issue. The first author was a Chinese architect by the name of Ji Cheng, who wrote The Craft of Gardens, between 1631 and 1634, and discussed the proper form and style of landscape gardening within the realm of Chinese tradition. The second excerpt is In the Nature of Materials: A Philosophy, written in 1954 by the famous American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. I thereby postulate that architecture acts both as nature itself via Wright’s philosophical interpretation of organic design and progress and as an attempt at immortality in Cheng’s traditional form and structure of a garden landscape.
The first step in understanding how architecture and nature interact is by analyzing the conceptual framework of nature set out by the two architects. Frank Lloyd Wright approaches nature and describes this architectural apex as “reality”. He goes on to describe the duality of the “inside” and “outside” of ancient and medieval design, and how the future of natural, or “organic” design, recognizes the newly indistinguishable concept of the two. Describing this idea, Wright puts it best himself, writing, “Form and function thus become one in design and execution if the nature of materials and method and purpose are all in unison”. This natural expression is achieved through the use of form and materials in an integral system, which shall be explained shortly. Ji Cheng appears to echo the sentiments of Wright, describing someone who possesses skills in natural architecture to, “‘follow’ and ‘borrow from’ the existing scenery and lie of the land, and artistry is shown in the feeling of suitability created”. Although he describes it as much more challenging to create a garden on untouched land, he stresses the use of already occurring contours and scenery, in an attempt to blend in with the landscape. If the lines do not permit a certain style or size of building, Cheng’s philosophy is to either adjust yourself or find land that is more suitable to your mentality. Nature in this sense is the benchmark for architecture to reach in its quest for immortality, which will also be examined shortly. Both Wright and Cheng agree that architecture and nature can be the same entity, although their reasons why greatly differ.
As the name of Frank Lloyd Wright’s paper implies, the nature of materials has a profound impact on architecture. Within his first paragraph, he grabs the throat of his argument and explains that modern structures lack integrity. What he is describing is the confusion of modern architects that, despite the new, relevant technologies of the time, are still practicing what he refers to as “classic” building. By using new materials yet old form, the structure is lacking integrity, or lying about its own “truth.” Wright described the first step in understanding integrity by realizing that, “it is in the nature of any organic building to grow from its site, come out of the ground into the light-the ground itself held always as a component basic part of the building itself”. By understanding the organic progression of buildings throughout history, Wright hopes that the next logical step will be reached, and that new materials will finally be utilized to their fullest potentials. Following this logic, the Egyptian pyramids at Giza represented natural architecture. The buildings were constructed using the most advanced technology of its time, masonry, and the best form for its time, compressive stacking.
Then, as technology progressed, the Romans created the arch, and that became the natural style for its time. What Wright seems to be conveying is that although a building like the Pantheon may not appear natural in terms of present-day, untouched landscapes, it is a cultural manifestation of architecture trying to imitate nature in its integrity of form and materials. This ascension towards progress is echoed in the philosophy of Wright, who writes, “You may see that walls are vanishing. The cave for human dwelling purposes is at last disappearing”. Glass and steel represented the future to Wright, with the opening of floor plans acting as a philosophical opening up of the mind and the spirit of creativity. Thus, the relationship of architecture and nature is one in which architecture is nature, although it is dependent upon the integrity of the structure.
Ji Cheng’s title of his paper also hints as his own methodology for “crafting” nature. Cheng constructs natural architecture, or garden landscapes, by trying to create an immortal paradise based upon what appears natural, and thus ultimately is natural. He initially seems to contradict himself at times, explaining the desire to leave the land untouched, yet, “Wherever the view within your sight is vulgar, block it off, but where it is beautiful, take advantage of it”. It begins to make sense when he describes, in doing so, that, “Lofty summits should be heaped up from rocks cut to look as if they were painted with slash strokes”. The poetry of the craft begins to take shape when Cheng mentions the historical relevance of the natural designs, “Weave a wattle fence and grow chrysanthemums, like Warden Tao in days of yore; hoe the hillside and plant plum trees, following in the ancient footsteps of Lord Yu”. Cheng seems to be harkening back to ancient times, with these architectural styles attempting to emulate the natural history, and much like a landscape painting, attempting to grasp something innocent and eternal. Thus, Cheng seems to have applied architectural design to capture the eternal essence of nature.
When I began tending my first bonsai tree four years ago, I had no idea that I was actually an architect and a philosopher. My reasons for initially growing the tiny tree may not have been as complex as the reasons previously mentioned, although progress and immortality are certainly admirable goals to reach when marrying architecture and nature together. I simply did it because it was fun.
Photos courtesy of radiology.wisc.edu, diatheke.org, chinahighlights.com, delawareonline.com, intranet.arc.miami.edu, and photoshd.wordpress.com. Thanks.