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Eco-Machines provide a structure for the organization and manipulation of local flows of information, matter and energy. Processes of catalytic co-action are triggered among single components and with local ecosystems, defining the potential emergence of larger infrastructures, or artificial ecologies.[1] This can be interpreted as a tool for dynamic pavilions, new ecologically sensitive market stalls or new park landscapes tapping directly into the environmental context. The latter is where my project resides[2]. The wider context of this new brief at the AA is what has drawn me into assessing the debate around architecture and nature and to the extent to which this brief contributes to this ongoing topic of discussion. Putting aside the idea of natural as environmental process, to what extent can these prototypes contribute to the development of what has been a widely discussed topic among architectural discourse: Nature and its relationship with architecture?

What is Nature for Inter 10 is it related to what it was for Adrian Forty, Kate Soper, the Environmentalists, Ebenezer Howard and the discipline of Landscape Urbanism? Nature has undergone a series of transformations when correlated to architecture but nowadays it is valued as an inevitable consideration, greatly contrasting from the Modernist indifference to its context. From Vitruvius, Samper, Corbusier, Green Politics and Landscape Urbanism, nature’s position in architecture is always in conflict and friction with each other even though it has been extensively theorized and now we can see examples of buildings attempting in bridging the gap. The Eco-Machines is another chapter of this attempt in reconciling the two parts. It is this gap where the debate exists.

The scale and degree of intervention of the Eco-Machine is determined by the designer and the initial number of processes is also tailored. The word initial is deliberate since the prototype acknowledges that situating itself under a given environmental context more than one process will in fact be triggered, beneficial or not to the planned outcome. The prototype becomes a platform required for a series of reactions to emerge. During the Unit Trip at La Paz[3], we built a market stall using local material that is built for artisan boatbuilding and included an adaptable built system that could respond to the sun positions during the day. The sun light and the market function defined the form, yet the sensitivity of the material to the rain, the heat radiation capacity the zinc panels had triggered more reactions that the initial design premise. The machine updates when tested for a second iteration until the materials and environmental responses are finely tuned to deliver the typology. The idea of evolution of the design, tapping the environmental context and using ecological materials are taken as the “natural” elements, yet, within architectural and non-architectural discourse the concept goes beyond.

Contemporary understanding of Nature, outside an architectural context, comes as one bordering romantic nostalgia and conscious guilt as being responsible to its endangerment. The plastic bag ban campaign[4] is the latest instalment in what has become a mediatised way of addressing the relationship between us and Nature by trying to save it from our consumerist appetite. The idea that using alternative resources other than those portrayed as contributors to the global debacle, one is participant to the betterment of the “Natural” crisis that we are responsible as consumers.

One other aspect of Nature which has been pervasive recently is that of a force to be reckoned. The destructive power of nature has numerous examples of what happens when man coexists with what is an untameable energy. The eruption of Vesuvius[5] and Hurricane Katrina are just two examples of nature overcoming the built environment and yet human settlements continue to renew themselves catastrophe after catastrophe. With the warning of ever more unstable climatic conditions and rise in extreme environmental disasters, this trend is set to be on the rise. The responds to this will be of course one of conflict and friction. The preservation or coexistence becomes one of a trend of overcoming after being overcome oneself.

Whether it Nature is seen as endangered by our consumerist appetite or as an untameable one it is inextricably embedded in our context, hence, the unanimity in taking Nature as a resource to be preserved. The various attitudes to this has been categorised by Kate Soper in her chapter “Ecology, Nature and Responsibility”[6]: aesthetic, intrinsic, preservation and conservation. Nature should be preserved for much the same reasons we would want to presser a work of art: because of the delight and inspiration it provides.[7] due to aesthetic. Intrinsic reason: Nature should be preserved not as a means to any human end, whether aesthetic or utilitarian, but because it is inherently valuable as nature.[8] Preservation (for the maintenance of wilderness, wildlife and unspoilt countryside)[9] differs from the utilitarian focus of conservation (for the maintenance of the resources)[10] but both are linked in schemes like nature reserves, where conservation leads to scientific research becoming utilitarian. These definitions overlap in certain occasions, but Nature operates inherently in relation to the urbanite were we seem to have more of an effect on it rather than the other way round. Nature is seen as a fragile resource. In architecture, “Nature” was seen as a highly adaptable concept when it came to legitimizing the epistemology of design and has nowadays eventually become a design requirement. Our current understanding of Nature is the progression of the original debate linking man made artifice and natural context.

Initially, however, the gap between both concepts was unbridgeable as it was the general viewpoint of one replacing the other or becoming a continuation, an improvement of another. Leon Battista Alberti in “De Re Aedeficatoria” states that rarely is it granted, even to Nature herself, to produce anything that is entirely complete and perfect in every respect.[11] Human development would seek to bridge the gap between our ideal of beauty and our surrounding “Nature”. Aristotle in “Physics” considers generally art competes what nature cannot bring to a finish, and partly imitates her[12] giving way to what would become the gear of definition of architecture through art, at a time where architecture was seen under the veil of art and the liberal arts. During the late seventeenth century, the tradition of mimesis was encouraged among the liberal arts, where nature is seen as the inspirational source: it became conventional to construct arguments for the present or ideal condition of all human creations out of hypothetical origins in natural conditions in which the first humans found themselves.[13] At this stage, the comparison of Nature, architecture and art was an intellectual relation, unrelated to the physical daily interactions. Filaretes treatise (1460 – 1464) makes the direct connection of natural objects like trees and the origin of the column. This determines the starting point for the theory of the development of architecture as imitation of nature. Within this premise, the discourse develops with people like Quatremiere de Quincy and D’Almbert: Nature includes the domain of physical beings, and the realm of moral or intellectual things… To imitate does not necessarily mean to make a resemblance of a thing, for one could, without imitating the work. Imitate nature thus, in making not what she makes, but as she makes it, that is, one can imitate nature in her action.[14] Deane and Woodward’s Oxford Museum is an example of taking this premise, combining it with industrial novelties and creating hybrids of mimesis and technological innovation: Ruskinian principles at their best: A step, but not a final step, has been made towards an harmonious union of the ironwork of the 19th century with refined architecture of the Middle Ages.[15]

The link of nature and architecture went a drastic change with Semper: For him, the whole art of architecture rested in the ability to translate idea or themes from one material to another; whereas for Quatremere, transmutations had been a way to maintain the old proposition that architecture was an art of natural imitation, Semper with his German background, saw it as the main cause of architecture meaning, a meaning from it being the work of man, and in no way dependent upon references to nature.[16] It is at this point where the gap becomes all too apparent: where one has detached from another yet recognises its inevitable coexistence. The further development of the rationalization of nature an architecture lead eventually to the perceived idea of architecture overtaking nature and replacing it.

The Futurists stated: Just as the ancients drew the inspiration for their art from the elements of nature, so we… must finds this inspiration in the elements of the immensely new mechanical world which we have created[17] Frank Lloyd Wright, however, was influenced by the American philosophers Ralph Waldo Emerson and maintained nature as co-protagonist in much of his most famous work. Today’s perspective is one of resourcefulness, where the advantage of nature’s environmental dynamics is used in enhancing the architecture. Beyond the effect of the ornate, the effect of the sustainable ornament is currently the practice of “Nature” and architecture. Nottingham’s Jubilee Campus and the Commerzbank[18] are one of the many examples that fall within this new category. This however, is one relationship based on interest and functions, whereas the Vitruvian discourse was one of sense of origin and being in relation to our natural context. It is at this exact moment where the discourse should gain new momentum, especially with the contemporary generalised view of Environmental crisis and Climate Change.

At this point I would like to come back to Soper and her essay “Ecology, Nature and Responsibility” where the melange of conservationist and green politics ideals are highlighted as an impractical mix. This in light of what Green Architecture promotes: conservation of resources and sustainability leading to preservation of our natural environment. By assessing Green Politics, it quickly becomes the case that the zeal of future projection for conservation neglects the necessities of the present users that are not in any way participants of the current resources excess that leads to its rationing when it is perceived as endangered.

Soper points out: We should still note the extensive difference of moral bias between all those arguments that stress the “intrinsic” and non-instrumental value of nature, and all upon us to preserve it as an end in itself and those that emphasized the value of nature as an essential means of the preservation and enhancement of human life, and thus the duty we have to conserve its resources for future generations. Neither theoretically nor practically are these two positions easy to reconcile, and we should not suppose that they are. Nor should we make the anthropocentric mistake of simply assuming that the argument from utility is more obviously coherent and morally compelling than the arguments from intrinsic merit of nature.[19] This sets the context in which the view of Green Architecture as a pre-emptive response to environmental crisis or as a missionary zeal to safeguard the future is easily questioned within a more meaningful context in relation to the present, hence, debating the existing architectural response to the subject.

The assumption of preserving Nature for the future ignores the present generation’s non-realization of the privileges which are meant to be safely kept. The existing preservationist attitude to green architecture is one of maintaining of resources, whereas the actual crisis is one of lack of availability of nature for the majority currently living. The green architecture should be one of dissemination rather than Ivory towers of preservation. In short, there can be no justifiable grounds for arguing that there is a commonly shared “species” responsibility to ensure ecological sustainability, which does not also at the present time provide grounds for insisting that this is a responsibility that has to fall essentially on those sectors of the global community that have hitherto been most selfishly irresponsible and profligate in their use of global resources.[20]

Soper concludes that the religious attitude to Green politics is one that neglects the potential development of cultural awareness: At any rate one can certainly argue that the calls for a new religion of nature are confused and quixotic if they are based on the assumption that by re-inspiring a certain “awe” of nature we shall protect it against its further exploitation.[21] The sensation we are left with our attitudes to Nature could be one of frustration due to the complexity and scale of what initially started as an epistemological problem and has evolved into a global issue. The answer to existing mechanisms to counter the impasse of Nature and Architecture can be found in the existing practice and in developments in the field of architecture that directly engages Nature and Man-made within our own perimeters: landscape and urbanism.

The Dutch landscape is a prime example of historical rivalry between natural context and the will to overcome it and adapt. The gardens at Versailles[22] are examples of the tradition of landscape architecture in reorganizing Nature in relation to aesthetic values at the time. Both are examples of landscape as utility for the goal to survive and the goal to beautify. The premise is now to disseminate examples of landscape for the awareness of its value as means to actively encourage its preservation and conservation. The inclusion of landscape into our daily attitude, beyond the guilt when throwing away a plastic carrying bag, would be the next step in ensuring the closing of the gap between the two concepts.

A first attempt at this inclusion of Nature and architecture in the daily routine was made by Ebenenzer Howard’s Garden City in the nineteenth century. By strategically deploying satellite towns, London’s overpopulation would be curbed, as well as providing the new citizens an environment both urban and extensively landscaped. Even though the conservationist position was not one of safeguarding for the resources, it was made with the sensitivity of the benefits that Nature added to every day life.

Ebenezer Howard’s “Garden City” is an attempt in bringing a definition of nature as a solution to urban development at the time. The passive approach of nature as requisite for a new suburbia idyll understates the potential relationship of nature and urban setting. Howard’s acknowledgement of nature outside the layout of the plan was one more of intercalated green spaces, trimmed with geometric precision, with concrete corridors. This direction in planning was geared towards the conception of a new prototype city and living and it paved the way to an understanding of planning as a tool to bridge urban and landscape, man-made and nature into a coexistent context.

By the beginning of the twenty first century, urbanism and landscape had undergone a transformation of homogeneity and stripped from a sense of locality. The dissemination of a global culture and the Modernist experiments lead to a point where landscape and the urban fabric where indistinguishable. Kelly Shannon’s essay “From Theory to Resistance: Landscape Urbanism in Europe” describes how the globalization phenomenon has stripped parts of the world of a sense of identity and, known as critical regionalism[23].

Peter Rowe’s picks up where Soper left but relates it to an alternative practice, not so much an open question: Priority should now be accorded to landscape, rather than to freestanding built form, and second, that there is a pressing need to transform certain megalopolitan types such as shopping malls, parking lots and office parks into landscape built forms…. The dystopia of the megalopolis is already an irreversible historical fact: it has long since installed a new way of life, not to say a new nature…. I would submit that instead we need to conceive of a remedial landscape that is capable of playing a critical and compensatory role in relation to the ongoing, destructive commodification of our man-made world.[24] The crisis at the urban level and the increasing protagonism of relations with Nature at the prospect of dramatic changes in her impact on us has lead to a new point where once again the discourse of Nature and architecture can gain new momentum.

Landscape Urbanism can be considered as another chapter in the development of the discourse of architecture and nature that tackles contemporary issue of identity displacement. Paradoxically, the modernist attempt in replacing nature by our own artificial environmental construct lead to an identity crisis that now has become apparent. A tabula rasa perception of architecture is no longer advocated, but a tabula rasa of culture is quickly assimilated by Western cultural export replacing the host culture and leaving little trace for identification: To “(…) challenge the internationally imposed generic models of modernization and urbanization and to resist the homogenizing effects of late capitalism.”[25] [26]

The practical nature of Landscape Urbanism in generating infrastructural landscapes such as Dutch polder landscape or even tracing back to potato terracing in the Andes Mountains devised by the Incas is an example of negotiating both concepts more akin to the “utilitarian” idea of Soper, but, with a wider appeal in promoting the advantages of Nature and Man-made balance. Contemporarily, this practice has considerable potential as James Corner points out in “Terra Fluxus”: the ability to shift scales, to locate urban fabrics in their regional and biotic contexts, and to design relationships between dynamic environmental processes and urban form.[27]

The challenge I perceive is one of redefinition of modus praxis where nature is engaged as resource in the present and not as resource to preserve for the future. The benefits of it are widely acknowledged but also the benefits of it becoming co-protagonist in design should be widely promoted: (…) The obligation to future generations will be the most universally and compellingly felt, the more justice comes to prevail in the distribution of global resources in the present.[28] The early examples of such an attempt could be traced back to the Versailles gardens and early landscape architects, but the current practise of landscape architecture actively engages the developers of a project into a sensitive solution to a land crisis. Whether a regeneration brief or one in an undeveloped area, this discipline gives hints of how to tackle the relationship of architecture and nature in the present through active negotiation leading to a public appreciation of the landscape, but also highly sensitive to its preservation responsibility by maintaining the sense of continuity which is essential for long-term sustenance. The promotion of landscape as the new urbanism is one that bridges the real gap between nature and architecture since it brings the issues of the Nature/Architecture debate into a design condition subject to the managing of these two concepts into a proposal that affects both parts.

At this point I would like to return to the Eco-Machines. The context in which this brief operates is one where the idea of Nature cannot be underestimated into what could initially be seen as an architectural showcase of environmental processes under the controlled format of a prototype. The capacity of this brief to insert itself into this greater discourse lies in the ability to relate to what in my opinion is greater environmental dynamics where the real impact can be assessed. Perhaps this can be through a Landscape Urbanistic approach like my project, the Marsh Condenser, purports to do so, but it should be essential regardless of any scope of actualization and scale that as soon as Nature is brought into the design equation, there is a baggage of meaning and debate that situates the project into a problematic position that has to be solved In order for the legitimacy of the project to quickly become apparent. Is the eco-Machine interested in preservation, conservation, bridging the gap of Nature and Architecture, aesthetic commodity or is it an innate object tapping on environmental processes? Surely as any brief the issue can be missed out altogether, but the premise lies there in the core: Nature and Architecture regardless is a subject matter that is still under a great need of treatment and definition and redefinition. Contributions to the discourse only help to contribute to the settlement of Nature and Architecture and the position of the architect in relation to these two conditions.


BUDER, Stanley “Visionaries & Planners: The Garden City Movement and the Modern Community”, Oxford University Press, New York, 1990

CORNER, James, “Recovering Landscape: Essays in Contemporary Landscape Architecture”, Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 1999

FORTY, Adrian, “Words and Buildings: A Vocabulary of Modern Architecture”, Thames and Hudson, London, 2000

GARNHAM, Trevor, “Oxford Museum: Deane and Woodward”, Phaidon, London, UK, 1992

MOSTAFAVI, Mohsen, NAJLE, Ciro, “Landscape Urbanism: A Manual for the Machinic Landscape”, Architectural Association Publications, London, 2003

PARSONS C. Kermit, SCHUYLER, David, “From Garden City to Green City: The Legacy of Ebenezer Howard”, The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2002

SOPLER, KATE “What is Nature? Culture, Politics and the non-Human”, Blackwell, Oxford, UK, 1995

WALDHEIM, Charles, “The Landscape Urbanism Reader”, Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 2006


Intermediate Unit 10 Brief

Marsh Condenser Eco-Machine

[3] See Figure A.

[4] See Figure B.

[5] See Figure C.

[6] SOPER, Kate, “What is Nature? Culture, Politics and the non-Human”, Blackwell, Oxford, UK, 1995,

p.249 – 282.

[7] Ibid., p. 252.

[8] Loc. Cit.

[9] Ibid., p. 253.

[10] Loc. Cit.

[11] FORTY, Adrian, “Words and Building: A Vocabulary of Modern Architecture”, Thames and Hudson, London,

UK, 200.

[12] Ibid. 221.

[13] Loc. Cit.

[14] Ibid., p. 224.

[15] GARNHAM, Trevor, “Oxford Museum: Deane and Woodward”, Phaidon, London, UK, 1992, p. 29.

[16] FORTY, Adrian, Op. Cit., p. 233.

[17] Ibid., p. 237.

[18] See Figure D.

[19] SOPER, Kate, Op. Cit., p. 259.

[20] Ibid., p. 262.

[21] Ibid., p. 273.

[22] See Figure E.

[23] See figure F.

[24] SHANNON, Kelly, “From Theory to Resistance: Landscape Urbanism in Europe” in WALDHEIM, Charles, “The

Landscape Urbanism Reader”, Princeton Architectural Press, New York, USA, 2006, p. 114.

[25] SOPER, Kate, Op. Cit., p. 259.

[26] See Figure F

[27] CORNER, James, “Terra Fluxus”, in WALDHEIM, Charles, Op. Cit., p. 24.

[28] Ibid., p. 262 – 264.

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