“Nature” is not natural but social and cultural. The first meaning of nature is Cartesian; it contrasts all there is in the world in opposition to humankind and that which is human-produced; i.e. the built environment. Underlying such dichotomy is the legitimization of humans’ power and authority over the rest of the world—a world reduced to “resource.” “Nature” also refers to human qualities, as in woman’s “nature,” to legitimize gender, racial, and imperial hierarchies.
Humans are part of the living world. The city is part of nature (Spirn, 1985). Yet, many commentators will remark somewhat nostalgically that “we” have lost our connection to nature. Accordingly, museums of nature and urban parks support humans’ connection with nature. Some experts even argue for “integrating nature into urban design and planning” (Beatley, 2011); e.g., Eduard Francois’ Flower Power (2004) with giant pots covering the façade of a social housing project in Paris. In practice, many of such approaches do not allow for biodiversity; they are highly managed and artificial.
The emergence of the appreciation of nature is historically specific (E.P. Thompson, Making of the English Working Class, 1963; Raymond Williams, The Country and the City, 1973; John Berger, Ways of Seeing, 1972). It was in the eighteenth century that the landed gentry justified the expansion of its property rights through the artistic practices of shaping the property into picturesque landscapes, hiding the working poor from out of sight through design features such as ha-ha—a recessed wall that creates a vertical barrier for unwanted working elements of the landscape while preserving views of the estate for the property owner. F. L. Olmstead’s Central Park design sought to provide an elevated socialization space for working classes, one that was diametrically opposed to the rowdy pleasure gardens. Appreciation of nature still has class connotations to this day (Davis, 1997).
Nature has been reduced to flora. The design of urban parks—and the concomitant rise of the profession of landscape architecture—has led to the introduction of this reduced version of “nature” (sculpted land with grass, artificial ponds and trees) into cities. While these elements are highly appreciated and dramatically improve the value of a place, they are still human-produced and not “natural” per se.
Another approach is ethical and calls for the extension of rights to species and landforms. A post-humanist understanding of the environment would not put at its center solely humans’ priorities. The studio aspires to promote a post-humanist built environment and design practice.
In the history of architecture, nature’s role has run the gamut from being seen as the point of departure in a renewed and more truthful expression of architectural principles from Marc-Antoine Laugier’s “primitive hut” to Modernism’s heroic naturalism; e.g., the roof garden, the garden city, and Mies van der Rohe’s transparency. And presently, more obvious ecological objectives create buildings that appear to look and/or perform as nature.