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Making Nature Visible

February 28, 2012

All design can, and should, be active engagements with the living processes that surround them. Andy Goldsworthy, who has dramatized natural processes and brought them to the public eye, embraced engaging with nature and celebrating its beauty. He once said this,

Andy Goldsworthy, Iris blades on pond, 1987.

“Movement, change, light, growth and decay are the lifeblood of nature, the energies that I try to tap when I work… When I work with a leaf, rock, stick, it is not just that material in itself, it is an opening into the processes of life within and around it. When I leave, these processes continue.”

In a similar way, ecological design brings forth the natural processes that they are designed within. Conversely, conventional designers have made it their mission to hide natural processes, so we lose that awareness of our interconnectedness with nature.  While within the confines of current structures, people can not sense the wind direction, feel the climate change seasonally, they lose orientation within their environment. Building technologies are also removed from sight, including the pipes and wires that bring in electricity, food, fuel, and water.

This invisibility of nature has worked itself into a nasty cycle, where these systems (waste, energy, food, water, sewage) become increasingly hidden, and so our ability to understand them decreases. Thus, we lack the general creativity to question their functionality. Sim Van Der Ryn says, “As nature has receded from our daily lives, it has receded from our ethics.”

But incorporating natural processes into the aesthetics of a design is quite powerful, since our awareness and imagination is restored within nature. The built environment is a powerful silent force in daily life, and those designs that articulate, visually, a connection with nature can imply that we has humans must do the same. Design, after-all, transforms awareness.

It is also about bringing nature back into our daily contexts. The dichotomy of “Nature” and “Humans” is a destructive one, since it allows us to conveniently assume that our actions have no affect on the elusive and wild “Nature” that we cannot see. But nature is just as subtle as it is grand, and by weaving it back into our daily interactions, it becomes less of an abstraction. It gives us our sense of place.

The landscape architect Robert Thayer has theorized a new kind of building aesthetic, which informs people about the symbiotic relationships between culture, nature and design. It is called visual ecology, an it promotes design that:

  • demystify complex natural processes
  • expose natural systems that are often hidden
  • emphasize our connections to nature
  • increase awareness of the abstractions we impose on the landscape

Showing the food and energy systems for the homes at Berea Eco-village.

Berea College in eastern Kentucky is the first university to host an eco-village, designed for student housing, campus childcare, and low-income family housing. It’s design, like so many other ecological designs, exposes natural processes in such a way so that the entire community can continue to learn and interact with the ecology around them. Their systems include an Ecological Machine and constructed wetland for processing greywater, rainwater collection for irrigation of the community gardens, and permaculture food forests. The energy systems are also on-site, with PV arrays, ground source heat pumps, wind turbines, and passive solar design.

And the overall design for this community incorporates the visual acknowledgement of the system components. Residents see the source of the inputs of food, water, and energy. Thus, they can understand the natural processes that drive and create them. Likewise, they understand the impacts of their outputs, like sewage and greywater, (in fact, they put the greywater treatement ponds alongside the childcare facilities!) They then design so that these resources are brought back into the whole system, and thus engage in participatory ecology.

Making nature visible in design reflects a new paradigm, where humans and nature are finally united. Nature and culture, or the natural and built environments, can each be celebrated in the expression of the other.

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