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The Story: Natural Patterns, Spirit and Beliefs
Natural Patterns, Spirit and Beliefs
Despite the many criticisms of modernism, there are many important facets in thinking to come out of it, which is relevant to our time and circumstance. Perhaps, the secret of applying it in the so-called "Third World" lies in our finding a synergy between some of the positive aspects in the modernist thinking with what can be learned from natural architecture.
An interesting approach in this direction is Biomimetics, which is the study of biological structures and function. It is gaining ground in material sciences, particularly in the development of materials or components for construction. Scientist Stephen Wainwright predicts "Biomimetics will engulf molecular biology and replace it as the most challenging and important biological science of the 21st Century." Professor Mehmet Sarikaya claims: "We are on the brink of a materials revolution that will be on a par with the Iron Age and the Industrial Revolution. We are leaping forward into a new era of materials. Within the next century, I think Biomimetics will significantly alter the way in which we live." [Sarikaya, 1995]
There are many lessons that can be learnt from natural architecture in design and construction. But perhaps its most significant metaphors come from the theories associated with belief systems. Natural architecture is also used to define a recent movement in architecture and design and is also referred to as evolutionary and green architecture. The emphasis is on organic designs that blend into the natural surrounds or incorporates nature in living spaces.
Echoing the early view of the natural world, David Pearson writes that the revival of natural architecture "puts us in touch again with the primeval forces of life-sun, wind, earth, water - and celebrates the cycles of seasons". Its aim is to support life and health and to bring regeneration to body and soul [Pearson, 1994, p.12].
Amongst the common beliefs of early natural architecture was the belief that there should be spaces provided for the living and the dead. Dwelling places were built in harmony with the perceived surroundings including those of the spiritual world. The Pueblo Indians of New Mexico in the United States believed that the link between earth and spirit was fundamental. They viewed the world as layers of "planes" and believed that their ancestors lived just below the surface of the earth and that they traveled through the second and third planes to reach the fourth where humans existed. They built houses with chambers or “kivas” that have levels or planes. The entrance was a ladder at the top, just above the surface of the earth representing the fourth level where humans lived.
The link to the past is also about survival. Many natural architects believe that lessons can and must be derived from the way early civilizations survived by preserving their environment and culture. There is a sense of urgency which comes from the "post-rape of the environment", as the earth is being stripped of its resources, polluted and destroyed. Natural architecture is also seen as a way to preserve cultures. Natural architects argue that our link with the past has been broken and needs to be restored in order to move forward into the future. Communities need a sense of identity.
Cultural identity and environmental concerns drive the emphasis that Filipino architect Francisco "Bobby" Mañosa places on designs based on the traditional "Nipa Hut" made of bamboos. Faced with the sense that western values are eroding traditional culture in the Philippines, Mañosa's buildings are based on traditional designs. He also makes use of bamboos, which are plentiful but considered to be technically and socially "poor" in quality.
Pearson also highlights the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, who is traditionally associated with the Arts and Crafts Movement of the premodern period. But Wright's buildings stand out because of his use of organic decoration.
"With Wright organic design was not just decoration or style, it became the underlying inspiration. He wanted his buildings to be intimate with nature and literally to love the ground on which they stood. He felt the ground to be more important than the building, for the ground would endure the longer, and was very much in sympathy with Thoreau's view that we are, 'but a sojourner in nature'. Because nature is not symmetrical, Wright felt the same should be true of a building if it was to reflect the organic and the living." [Pearson, 1994, p.50]
A contemporary, well-known and influential architect is Christopher Alexander - Theorist, Professor of Architecture at the University of California, Berkeley. He is an author of an influential series of books from Oxford University Press, which explore in practical detail what it is that makes buildings and communities humane over time.
"'A design professional of depth - his 1964 Notes on the Synthesis of Form - is still in print - Alexander is inspired by how design occurs in the natural world. "Things that are good have a certain kind of structure,' he told me. 'You can't get that structure except dynamically. Period. In nature you've got continuous very-small-feedback-loop adaptation going on, which is why things get to be harmonious. That's why they have the qualities that we value. If it weren't for the time dimension, it wouldn't happen. Yet here we are playing the major role in creating the world, and we haven't figured this out. That is a very serious matter'".
Applying this approach to buildings, Alexander frames the design question so: "What does it take to build something so that it's really easy to make comfortable little modifications in a way that once you've made them, they feel integral with the nature and structure of what is already there? You want to be able to mess around with it and progressively change it to bring it into an adapted state with yourself, your family, the climate, whatever." [Brand, 1994, p.21]
Christopher Alexander has inspired the Patterns Movement which involves the discovery of design patterns – particularly in the way it relates to human living spaces and nature. He has authored 4 volumes on his theories relating to design. His 4th volume is likely to be the most controversial as it deals with his theory regarding what he refers to as the inner “i”. He believes that there is a “life force” in nature which defines good design. This “life force” is a process that exists in both natural and man-made structures.
The work of Christopher Alexander is significant because it raises the level of abstraction to a spiritual level. In a scientific world, it would be acceptable to use the term “Natural Architecture” but it would not be appropriate to use a religious term such as “Creation”. In the emerging architecture-intensive disciplines, there is a need to acknowledge this movement that the human experience is important. It includes belief systems and cultures. We should not perceive belief systems as irrational, dismiss them as superstition or reject them as out-dated rituals. Belief systems not only help architects to create structures that are meaningful to people but enable them to understand the essence and purpose of their work.
Ancient practices associated with natural architecture can provide modern architects with powerful tools. Consider the practice of story-telling which is acknowledged by knowledge workers as a technique for discovering tacit knowledge. Just as nature provided patterns for structures, it also provided metaphors for stories. Story-telling combined with visual modelling are powerful tools in discovering and communicating architectural concepts and designs.
The purpose of story-telling from one generation to another was not to record facts or statistics. It’s primary purpose in most cultures was to help preserve a way of life. The power of the story was its openness to interpretation. A story was a tool, to be adapted in use for the specific time and generation, to convey the essence that leads to an understanding and design of values, principles and practices. In this context, the story-telling technique has proven to be effective as many cultures and belief systems today owe their preservation to it. In contrast, technological advances have done little to sustain many western cultures and values which are now preserved only through life-less exhibitions in museums and art.
As our ancient ancestors discovered, the story of nature provides infinite lessons for mankind. For architects and thinkers who see themselves as learners and teachers, our greatest achievement is in being able to re-tell a story. Not only are we able to demonstrate our understanding but more importantly we can participate in the time-less act of sharing knowledge from generation to generation.
An appreciation for natural architecture brings us back to the beginning of our story. The debate between "art" and "science" (and perhaps all other philosophical debates) begins and ends in nature, because in nature these are embodied as one. The terms "art" and "science" are man-made. When seen as a whole, they both represent perspectives or views of the same thing - nature. In natural architecture we find not only design patterns, but that the whole of nature itself exists as the epitomy of structure, function and aesthetics.
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