A.D. 'The New Pastoralists'; Leading Article
Dualism is Dead; Long Live the Pastoral
We live in an age of environmental doom-saying, informational
overload, greater lifestyle choices, shifting family structures and increasingly sedentary living patterns. Also we live in a time of more competing ideas, conflicting offers that confuse our desires, oppositional agendas and dichotomies that dilute our intentions. It is thus easy to perceive ourselves to be in between the close of an old era and on the brink of a new one. We are split and living in a time of dualities.
In his film Dead Man (1995), director Jim Jarmusch placed his half-dying character William Blake in a forest wilderness, where he walks through the midst of life and death, encountering a looseness of mind and human morals that forces him to confront his own true experience of life’s hardships and wonders. This journey could just as easily have happened in the city or in an office, but neither he nor the audience can easily escape the forest’s timeless continuum. Yet the audience can connect more profoundly with the forest than with the cities Jarmusch used in Night On Earth (1991). The very looseness of the forest, hills and shoreline give no restrictive cultural programme or practical agenda to react to, as the city does. The lack of human context forces the main character, ironically named William Blake, to look inwards, terrified by lack of meaning, to search for something – only to finally be at peace before he dies.
This ancient wilderness of the mind and landscape has, over the millennia, attracted the attention of artists and writers as we have become urbanised and sense a lack of something within us in city life. Our sense of that loss of looseness, play and risk can be found in films like Claude Faraldo’s Themroc (1973), Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) and John Boorman’s The Emerald Forest (1985), and books such as JG Ballard’s High-Rise (1975)1 and Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973),2 which all present reactions to the constrictions of urbanisation, and offer wilderness as an escape.
The escape we really tend to take, however, is not walks through the landscape, but the distraction of mental travels into alcohol, drugs and cyberspace in search of challenges we seem unable to find in our everyday lives. The environment, and possibly architecture, can help us embark on an alternative inward journey.
To journey in the context of landscape is to reconnect to a deeper part of ourselves, to not be connected with others and their ideas, but share a deeper sense of ‘quale’ that architecture negates in its need to secure, commodify and make accessible. The landscape, desert and forest somehow enhance, magnify and distort the human condition, its very complexity echoing our inner life. John Fowles, in The Tree (1979), likens the forest to our brains, a sort of extended mind where we can hide from the linear thinking of cities and reconnect to our Green Man within: he suggests cities should be more like forests.3 I suggest that architects rediscover the psychological and spiritual benefits of forests, mountains, caves, lagoons, beaches and dells in our attempts at urban planning and architecture.
Louis Kahn called such essential places the conceptual ‘laws’, upon which the architect could then set about ‘designing’, without which, he argued, the rules of design were wasted.4 How often have you seen ‘designed’ architecture and not made any connection with the space? Yet the urge to comprehend and connect with the landscape or use it as a backdrop has possessed Western culture for centuries. Our architecture, from the classical piano rustico and Frank Lloyd Wright’s ‘land-huggers’, to the ‘sky hooks’ of the Constructivists and skyscrapers of New York, all have elemental references. Perhaps now such natural references could be more intimate and subtle.
Spiritual Sustainability Versus Green Monoculture
The pastoral is just such an elemental type. It allows a connection of opposites, it is a harmony of dualities, is gentle and forgiving, and a comfortable and joyous way to engage the city dweller with the delights of natural landscape. In this issue of AD, it is shown as a mediator of polarites, including: city;country, hi-tech;low-tech, body;machine, rational:romantic, micro:macro, inside:outside. The pastoral can balance seemingly conflicting opposites whose traditional division and disunion now require balance and reunion. It is set in the context of mythic harmony in reaction to the purely utilitarian approach green architects often adopt and have promoted since the 1960s when environmentalism became popular. Then, Austrian painter and self-confessed dirt artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser noted that many environmentalists were losing a sense of beauty and complexity, and the ability to respond to earth, giving way to mechanical sustainability devoid of human engagement.5 Here, Geoff Ward continues this theme of the benefits of dirt with a biological look at environmentalism (pp xx–xx), while Nic Clear demonstrates the pastoral role in his research into modern myths and sci-fi backdrops to contemporary narratives.
This distinction between the mechanical and the organic highlights the contrast between concern and care. While much green architecture, though concerned, is driven by ecological fear and consumer guilt, a pastoral architecture cares, in that it is gentle, generous, and yet able to incorporate much energy-saving high-tech. Being open-ended and not solely mechanically directed, it can encompass a variety of conflicting elements.
In 1992, while consulting the European Space Agency on efficient ways of making space stations habitable, I studied payloads, volumetrics, ergonomics, train, car and aircraft interiors, but quickly found, when a particular group of astronauts threatened to strike, that space stations should be, more importantly, hospitable. At this point we stopped pure scientific research of access, storage and facilities planning diagrams and began to consider the space station as a potential place of ease, familiarity and comfort. Barbarella, holiday resorts and the old country cottage became considerations for keeping the valuable astronauts happy: even an inglenook fireplace became feasible. Most interestingly, the artificial growth of plants became important not only for food, oxygen and biochemical experiments, but for the pleasure of the inhabitants, the efficiency of 1960s high-tech becoming linked with the simple low-tech delights of yore. Examples of this can be seen in Kathryn Findlay’s thatched high-tech pool houses and John Puttick’s communal garden designs in Land of Scattered Seeds.
Vitruvius’ three fundamental precepts of firmness, commodity and delight6 can now all be linked, suggesting that architecture need not neglect pleasure. In particular the human love of nature is back in the equation: it is architecturally efficient to create delight. But inevitably it is an increasingly artificial sort of nature, now that every tree in England exists on a map, and the farmer knows where to fertilise his fields via satellite. The efficiency of high-tech monitoring of processes in farming and animal welfare are explored in this issue in Alastair Parvin’s meticulous analysed and responsive ‘Server’ project and in Matthew Cannon and Mascia Gianvanni’s inclusion of a menagerie in London’s Canary Wharf.
Myth and Delight
In today’s increasingly virtual environments, Vitruvius’ delight seems to have become less physically relevant, yet we need physical delight and natural engagement more than ever to help balance body and mind. The facade in architecture has become too important; the slick surface detailing of Renzo Piano’s glass ‘Shard’ (2012) and Foster + Partners’ slippery smooth ‘Gherkin’ (2004) in London reveal a mechanical animosity. In ancient times we would have been able to delve, move, touch and pass through surfaces, but these seem to reflect and reject us. Originally it was our physically interactive interface with our landscapes that inspired us to make spaces and evolve tools and minds; simply put, our physical capacity to play with environments led to our brain development. Today this interface is becoming invisible, reducing our capacity to interact with physical spaces or objects, and thus to think and evolve through immersive play.
Putting landscape back into architecture in a pastoral way would allow us to do this, as touched upon in Dominic Shepherd’s social understanding of Lucas Cranach the Elder’s painting The Golden Age (c 1530), and more directly in MVRDV’s creation of a planted coastal hotel development in Galije, Montenegro. Contrasting narratives, contexts and characters can be unified in the dialectics of the pastoral. Designing with dialectics, dual interpretations and multiple narratives that can coexist ambiguously offers a richer, more multilayered architecture. Elements of landscape and building, city and country, practical and poetic, Classical and Gothic, West and East, high- and low-tech, biomech, spiritual-material, left- right, can be combined under a single umbrella. Today architecture’s objectives are increasingly complex, but the pastoral offers an enjoyable way to combine and intuitively interpret or ignore opposing aspects of urban living and contemporary systems.
Since we began moving to cities, we have compensated for our loss of connection with nature by engaging in vicarious leisure substitutes. This desire still exists, as demonstrated by its frequent use in the propaganda of green politics, conservation and lifestyle advertising, and increasingly in films such as those cited in Mike Aling’s ‘Digital Cottage Industries’ article. Yet in the past it was the context for most poetry, literature and art, in all cultures: Claude Lévi-Strauss points out that this ongoing longing is hard- wired into us, making us happy to accept the artificial substitutes of culture.7 So if the social imperative is to create buildings that are both physically engaging and emotionally uplifting and sociable, what form could they take? As the modern urbanite becomes increasingly isolated, immersed in data and remote from nature, could an element of wilderness prevent him from becoming characterless? Can the literary notions of negation, contradiction and narrative, used by the pastoralists Virgil, John Milton, William Blake, Edmund Spenser and William Shakespeare be used to engage an urban audience in physical space? The pastoral wilderness, a place of endless copulation, growth and death, both fearsome and invigorating, intrigues and engages us, yet at the same time negates us. It can bring us back into the now by being risky, by allegorising, and attracting us all into the dialogue by inverting the urban narrative. The devices used in Spenser’s The Fairie Queene (1590–6) and Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) can be made architectural.
The subliminal influences of natural environments on the individual define the setting of the personal experience, and are highly influenced by an active living element. Look at the Samuel Palmer imagery of the sublime that Colin Harrison presents in this issue. Consider experiences such as reading on a park bench under a tree with a bird singing in it, sitting on a window seat in the kitchen in winter stroking a cat, smoking in a summer courtyard with a water feature and swimming carp at your side. The human, animal or natural elements used to create such multilayered spaces are buildable, yet alive and not entirely controlled. They are messy because they incorporate human experience, other life forms and empathy. How can all this otherness be distilled into a building?
Plants and creatures were humanity’s first connection with ‘other’ life, allowing displaced understandings of human relationships and activities to be played out. Most of our deep cultural memories, dreams and archetypal stories include mythic battles, loves, deaths, betrayals, alliances and so on, with creatures interacting with each other or humans. Heraldry, totems, mascots, mythical creatures and logos stem from these interactions. What if companies and households were to seek to express themselves through their architecture more emotively and engagingly using animals (living or abstract) and living nature? What if architects inspired communities to reveal the strengths of today’s tribes, such as those of a hungry lion, sleeping gazelle or a snapping crocodile? A lion space would empower a neighbourhood, revitalise a street, energise a square, and once again bring individuals face to face to articulate desire, courage and hope in real time and space – not simply via a Facebook photo or Tweet. A personal and tribal expression would be shared and emotional; to give an expressive and empowering architecture that both suits a specific group of urban dwellers and tells them: ‘This is not neutral reflective surface; this is a live space.’
Proverb: “Out of strength comes forth sweetness.”
The characters, legends and powerful dynamics of a chosen creature have offered tribes, clans, armies, nations and teams inspiration and security, an expression of their social identity and focus for their rituals. The forms of buildings today are often abstract, lacking not only meaning, but also any coherent visual composition or articulation. Consider Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry and the parametric architects. Now consider how animals could help form an architecture of some significance and social dynamic.
Proverb: “All creatures say their names.”
In the Pig Restaurant, or Grasshopper Yoghurt Bar, the biology of the creature offers coded meaning and biomimetic design opportunities; the fat body, the springy legs. Michael Sorkin has developed projects such as his Animal Houses, Herd Houses, Turtle Portable Theatre and Starfish Revolving Restaurant over the past two decades. The adaptive behaviours that natural creatures display provide critical knowledge for the design of ecologically responsive and sustainable systems, as well as suggesting new forms of engaging architecture. Consider: a firefly’s synchronous light-pulse dances, whale song, the bioluminescent angler fish – our understanding of their behaviour can inspire intelligent eco-environments and buildings that communicate and interact with each other and the world around them. Can architecture do this? This is explored by François Roche in R&Sie(n)/New Territories’ An Architecture of Humors project.
But where can we look to place such buildings? What of the urban planning scale? The dells, hills, desert, seashore and the forests mentioned earlier are humanity’s deep landscapes of the psyche, places both understood and yet mysterious. The best myths and fables are located in a version of these pastoral archetypes, which are also embedded in us and in the village, city and nation. The current UK government is starting to place value on this, by comparing various scenic landscapes and giving them corresponding notional monetary indicators that are linked to the GNH elements of tourism, community, health and leisure metrics.8 But how does one put value in monetary and accountable ways on such spiritual, living and emotive aspects of a New Jerusalem?
To give conclusive urban value to animals (living or abstract) and planting in our cities would require an index by which each building footprint has a metric ‘life rating’ of species originally present on the site, to indicate what equivalent species or abstraction should inhabit the completed building by way of replacement. Planning strategies and laws could enforce the inclusion of new species to replace the displaced; to ensure that developments do not ultimately detract from the biosphere, but actually enhance it. This index would allow spaces of nature to become commodities that the economic and mechanical aspects of society would have to respect and learn to appreciate, rather than simply wipe out. After all, isn’t saving the planet a lot about saving the life of the earth – or better still, improving it?
Towards a New Jerusalem
Now that the zero-carbon house and energy-efficient architecture of the 1990s have been achieved, green architecture can aspire to more. Pastoralism allows architects to explore human-centred green issues that interpret and commodify nature for the higher aim of urbanites’ delight, self- and spiritual realisation. In the future, each time we build we could use the abovementioned index to convert from being designers to being the playful custodians; to enhance the liveliness of a building and city. The emerging Jerusalem requires architects to re-evaluate themselves, and to see sustainability as a means of heightening spiritual, mental and social wellbeing as well as our physical needs.
The cultural meme of a pastoral Eden or Arcadia is ancient, yet has an ongoing reality reinforced by each generation due to its timeless universal nature. Ironically, the romantic allure of the pastoral is used today to sell predominantly inorganic and technological environments as architects, politicians and planners offer city dwellers visions of utopian spaces by enhancing the products’ ‘green appeal’, thus gaining our acceptance of cold architecture and invisible communications. But the dream of the pastoral cannot be so easily satisfied. Its dramatic yet practical and optimistic fantasy, which single-minded Modernism and its clean, empty heart has ignored, is much needed today to counteract our increasing isolation and powerlessness in a doom-laden and cynical world.
We all know country life had, and has, its hardships, which is why so many of us live in cities, but the pastoral myth remains, to gratify urban nostalgia and give us hope and a connection to something missing. Such ancient pastoral hints, and those more contemporary ones you will find in this issue, give architects a structure and optimism that need not make sense, but is self- evident, joyful and helpful in our times of massive change and insecurity – an opportunity to build the Jerusalem we all think we remember.
Text © 2013 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Images: © 2012
1. JG Ballard, High-Rise, Jonathon Cape, London, 1975.
2. Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow, Penguin Books, 1973.
3. John Fowles, The Tree, Little, Brown, London, 1979.
4. Robert Charles Twombly, Louis Kahn: Essential Texts, WW Norton and Co, New York, 2003.
5. Harry Rand, Hundertwasser, Taschen, Cologne,1991.
6. Morris Hicky Morgan, Vitruvius, Ten Books Of Architecture, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, London: Humphrey Milford, Oxford University Press, 1914
7. Claude Lévi-Strauss, Myth and Meaning: Cracking the Code of Culture, University of Toronto Press, Toronto,1978.
8. GNH; The assessment of gross national happiness (Wylie: rgyal-yongs dga’a-skyid dpal-‘dzoms) was designed in an attempt to define an indicator that measures quality of life or social progress in more holistic and psychological terms than only the economic indicator of gross domestic product (GDP)
Mark Titman, Albert Memorial and Emperor Butterfly, digital collage, 2011 The vibrant wings elevate the gravitas of death through metaphor and association.
Derek Draper, Book Shop, Oxford Street, London, rendered CAD drawing and digital collage, 2009
Rendered section. A sequence of browsing spaces lead the book seeker in, through and around various reading nooks and interior greenery to slow the busy shopper.
Suzanne Moxhay, Eventide, digital collage, 2012 The city rests in timeless inhabitation and distant buzz.
Mark Titman, Robin Monotti and James Furzer, Watering Holes, Green Park, London, 3- D render and digital collage, 2010
A drinking fountain with holes for adults, children, wheelchair users and dogs offers a timeless reconnection to drinking, the earth and sky.
Stefano Boeri, Bosco Verticale, rendered CAD drawing and digital collage, Milan, 2011 The dense acres of forest that once graced the countryside have been pulled vertically and sit regally illuminating a small footprint in the grey city.
Mark Titman, Snake Bridge, oil on card, 2000
A flexing bridge that offers wildlife a safe crossing adapts to tidal levels and raises itself using water ballast to bend like a fishing rod.
Michael Krinou, Aviary and Dovecote, Deptford High Street, London, rendered cad drawing, 2010
Zoomorphic forms are given strength when the millennia-evolved camouflage is applied to a dovecote.