Sunday, November 22, 2009

Reading List: Subnature

Another book that engaged me on my hiatus from blogging is one I picked up on somewhat of a whim as it looked like a fascinating read. I wasn't disappointed, as 'Subnature: Architecture's Other Environments" by David Gissen, quickly became impossible to put down. The reason? It really tackles some interesting terrain that is definitely at the fringes of architecture and landscape, which typically addresses the realms purity and order, whether in terms of materials or the messy nature in cities.

To quickly summarize the main components of subnatures, these include: dankness, smoke, gas, exhaust, dust, puddles, mud, debris, weeds, insects, pigeons, and crowds.

The idea of subnature comes from a hierarchy between the supernatural (above nature) and the natural (our current world view), to include this subset of nature in which existence seems difficult if not impossible. Definitely not the standard fare of typical books on architecture, particularly in our current fascination with new space-age materials and technologies to solve problems, while only a minor
ity instead looking at context, natural materiality and process. Gissen's main thesis is we can capture the essence of these subnatures, we may, "...arrive at a truly radical and alternative concept of what environment means."

:: grotto - image via symphonies naturelles

This is specifically engaging, as the evolution of the book, as explained by Gissen in the introduction, is that this information collected here was the residual ephemera from a more focused study an architecture and nature, including a range of historical and contemporary source material from a wide range of sources. While the main academic pursuit of 'natural architecture' is perfe
ctly relevant, (his dissertation included an 'exploration of nature in modern NYC buildings in the 70s) - the leftovers make for a much more interested concept.

So why is the subnature so interesting, specifically in the context of architecture and urbanism? Gissen mentions some of this context: "I draw on architectural and urban design theorists' key texts and contemporary practicioners' recent design to examine how both grou
ps envision peripheral and often denigrated forms of nature..." In essence, it's not just a historical look at unconsidered materials, but a way of looking at the natural processes in a new way. This is perhaps more authentic than many of the explorations and misuse of the word 'ecologies' (or landscape for that matter) in modern parlance, which takes a much broader (and cleaner) cultural view of interactions between organisms and environments.

:: mud - image via ridgeway

There is some precedence for this realm of inquiry, including a few mentioned in the book. These include Antoine Picon's ideas of anxious landscapes, Gilles Clement's writing on the third landscape, and Francois Roche's (from R&Sie(n))
term corrupted biotopes - all of which explore postindustrial landscapes, debris, polluted ecologies, damaged nature. This coincides with some of our recent fascination with the dirty - including a focus on brownfields, post-industrial landscapes, vacant lands, air/water pollution, and other non traditional sites.

This is also why it is interesting to landscape architecture, as it is a clear refutation of the hermetic condition of pure architecture (i.e. a finished product offering refuge from 'outside'), and the desire to apply this condition to that of landscape, which is constantly in flux and infused with these subnatures. Is our desire to fight against these subnatural forces to create order in the garden, or is a more nuanced ecological approach to understand not just the base forces (geological, hydrological, meteorological) and understand the influence and opportunity of the subnatural forces at work.

Gissen frames this in practical terms as a means to achieving true 'sustainability'. The book "...offers an alternative vision to those contemporary municipalities, developers, and architects who seek to remake cities and buildings through the parameters of a more natural framework based on sustainable principles. Subnature also offers an alternative to the emerging vitalist discourse on 'flow' as the dominant effect of nature in architecture." Juxtaposed between the functionalism of the green building movement which "... advance a seemingly neo-Victorian and neo-Haussmannite vision of urbanism in many global cities... [which] often entails the utilization of nature as an instrument that cleans the world, increased productivity and efficiency, and transforms our existing natural relationship, while advancing the social sphere that exists." (p.23)

While not a specific critique of the green movement, it's more a re-engagement in some of the messiness that ensues from our working in nature and specifically subnature either directly or metaphorically. As mentioned, "Subnatures will not save us from our inequities, but its inherently alienating character enables us to consider how more comforting forms and dynamic images of nature are often used to reproduce existing forms of power in society." This is reflected in equity disparities of the rich being able to afford 'green' and the poor still being marginalized and left to reside with the leftover subnatures.

The final distinction is also made between the concept of reconnecting with nature, included in books like Earth Architecture, and one of my favorites The Granite Garden, and pretty much the crux of many of the projects that venture in new forms of habitat creation (such as PHREE Urba
nism), Animal Architecture, or much of the Veg.itectural featured on a regular basis. The photoshopped vegetated visuals versus the messy reality is sometimes difficult to reconcile, perhaps due to the subnatural forces at work. Similarly, Gissen distances the concept from the new theories in architecture that embrace material weathering from Mostafavi & Leatherbarrow, showing that "...evironments appear as fixed and stable systems relative to a dramatically changing architecture object." Weathering and veg.itecture have similarities in expression to date, as it is difficult to choose one or the other - wild process here but not here.

The book itself is visually rich, and is very readable - making it a good book for a range of audiences. While potentially veering into either the overly historicist or the overly theoretical, Gissen toes the line with a certain grace that shows adequate historical background but also modern applicability. The historical is the common jumping off point and ranges within the confines of a coherent thought process (say versus the content schizophrenia of BLDG BLOG)... but is no less interesting.

For instance a 1568 image (in the chapter on dankness) by Philibert de l'Orme showing the idea of a 'builder emerging from a dark cave to become an architect', a metaphor from the transformation from the subnatural realm to the natural.

:: image via Freemason Collection

Additional interesting ideas include the necessity of tobacco smoke in the authenitic experience of Philip Johnson's Glass House, Peter and Alison Smithson's work with rubble at the Robin Hood Gardens, the British Beehive, and countless examples both verbal and visual. Many of these are architectural in nature, but many transcend to include urban spaces or particularly landscape context, making (or blurring) the connection between the three and their various influences due to subnatural forces is a key aspect - beyond just the exploration of the forces themselves.

From the epilogue: "...perhaps this hypothetical architect considers these strange forms of nature as a material endemic to architecture and cities, as opposed to an aberration that must be consolidated, removed or dismissed. He or she is not only engaged with the realities of the modern world but with the social processes that surround architecture, urbanism, and history. To rid cities of subnature negates aspects of urbanity while advancing a narrow concept of architecture's proper environment. By seeing only these things that are useful to a building's program, an architect dismisses key aspects of contemporary urban life."

For me the conceptual and contextual framework of the argument is the most interesting component of the book. It is necessary to include modern interpretations of the application or
engagement of these subnatures, but for the most part these seemed somewhat less relevant, taking away from the overall impact of the argument. Perhaps this had to do with an amount of technological intervention sometimes required to achieve a balance with subnatures, more of forcing versus working with these processes. The examples are interesting, and definitely worth exploring (and many of them have appeared on the blogs throughout the recent couple of years). A typical example, for instance, is found in the category of exhaust. The B_mu tower by R&Sie(n) incorporates the exhaust of Bangkok into the form of the project, adding an element to the skin of the building that is responsive to the immediate context.

:: images via new territories

Read and see a full overview here.

"Bangkok is a very dusty gray and luminous city.The pollution cloud, CO2 residue, filters and standardizes the light with only gray spectral frequencies.Over 50 different words could be used to describe the tones and the touching aspects of the absence of color: “luminous, vaporous, pheromonal, hideous, shaded, transpiring, cottony, rugged, dirty, hazy, suffocating, hairy…” The dust dresses the city and her biotope, even going so far as to modify the climate. Within this fog of specs and particles, Bangkok becomes the melting pot of hypertrophic human activity with convulsing with exchanges of energy, where visibility becomes its greatest charm. At the antipodes of the canons of modern urbanism and its panoply of instruments lies, the city of Bangkok, ectoplasmic, super fluid to quote Kipnis. "

"She is conceived in between aleatory rhizomes where the arborescent growth is at the same time a factor of her transformation and her operational mode.The project for the future museum B-mu feeds off of the climatic opposition between the urban environment’s protuberant energy and the indoor subdued and subject to the museum conditioning procedures (white cube). We are talking here of two distinct geometric structures: one is Euclidian, globalization incased, where cultural merchandises are circulated in an aseptic and deteritorialized universe, and the other typology, plunged in a intoxicating urban chaos."

:: images via new territories

This look at old/new in tandem is really interesting, and illustrated the books simple beauty. To focus on one or the other exclusively would have made for a focused but somewhat less vibrant read. The beauty is also that it is so topical and necessary within the framework of our modern discussions of green building: "When we talk of architecture engaging with the environment, very often we mean to say that architecture is harmonizing with, or open to, some aspect of an uncorrupted nature. An architecture that engages with the environment usually incorporates or mimics the mechanics of trees, sunlight, water, and wind; whether developing a country house or a skyscraper, the architect attempts to work the form, program, and system of the building into a mutually beneficial relationship with the environment... But as this book has demonstrated, the environment is much more than the nature we often image to be in some prehuman and pristine form; it is composed of subnatures produced by social, political, and architectural processes and concepts. Unlike the natural environment, we cannot possibly imagine a subnatural environment generated by, nor found within, a nonhuman world. Subnatures force us to confront the implicit nonsocial character of nature, as it is invoked in discussions of architecture and the environment." (p.211)

While virtually impossible to adequately cover all of the content of this book in a short post, I'm hoping to expand some of the notions of these subnatures, so look forward to some additional posting around these concepts, weaving in some of Gissen's information and project examples and some other writings.

Stay tuned, and definitely get a copy of this book for reading and re-browsing. Fascinating stuff.


  1. Cool Jason, I haven't seen this one. On the wish list.

  2. I did a small research on this topic of green architecture which tries to mimic "nature"in order to be more balanced and contextual and related to the environment. what nature? "when" did that nature exist? thanks for the book reference!

  3. "She is conceived in between aleatory rhizomes where the arborescent growth is at the same time a factor of her transformation and her operational mode.The project for the future museum B-mu feeds off of the climatic opposition between the urban environment's protuberant energy and the indoor subdued and subject to the museum conditioning procedures (white cube). We are talking here of two distinct geometric structures: one is Euclidian, globalization incased, where cultural merchandises are circulated in an aseptic and deteritorialized universe, and the other typology, plunged in a intoxicating urban chaos."

    ...and I thought clear communication was an integral part of design.

  4. Ha. Good point Jake.
    I don't foresee a downturn in pseudo-intellectual rhetoric about design projects any time soon. I've always held that there's the idea of a great project simply stated and explained. No need for hyperbolic explication. And perhaps the opposite idea of a bad project veiled in bullshit - hiding something maybe? I'm not saying that is the case here as it is a cool project, but that it doesn't need the long-winded description, unless it is truly necessary for understanding the complexity of the project.

    But it's funny to see the persistence of this type of language in the design world.

  5. Putting my flippant comments aside for one moment, my copy arrived from a certain online bookstore yesterday and I have to say it's one of the most thought provoking design books I've read in a long while. Thanks for making me aware if it Jason.

  6. glad to know jake... i'd say it's my favorite of 2009 for sure. enjoy.


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