Here in Sequoia, after the first snow, my most pressing problem is not shelter, bears, or cougars, but how to write about architecture while being awed by natural wonder.
What architecture there is in these mountains could be considered basic: it protects from the elements, you can build a fire, and it has wi-fi. I am perfectly happy with the minimal design the US Park Service has provided: there is a lodge with a massive stone fireplace and the immediate forest (active bear country) is unobtrusively dotted with tiny clapboard cabins for park personnel.
More after the break.
Anything but the “log cabin” or woodsy look would be too jarring to the senses. These simple structures blend in; they do not overwhelm. Of course, in comparison to majestic sequoias and redwoods it’s doubtful any sort of architecture could compete.
The naturalist, Richard Louv, would say that immersion in nature makes us better humans. In his book, Last Child in the Woods, he describes how, “A growing body of research links our mental, physical, and spiritual health directly to our association with nature—in positive ways.”
“Nature”, a construct of modernity, consists of a set of ideas and boundaries. However, once we cross over these geographic and intellectual boundaries we are simply within nature as space and force. This is what Mr. Louv is talking about—the experience we accumulate over a lifetime.
Mr. Louv, winner of the 2008 Audubon Medal, draws attention to the importance of continually thinking about and imagining our relationship with nature. He argues that pervasive computing coupled with the ever-expanding built environment produce conditions that make it more difficult for people to directly experience nature. While this may seem like a no-brainer, his point is that it is easy to lose sight of the natural world while insulated and removed by contemporary life.
What is the role of nature for architecture and architects? Is it important to ground oneself in a reverence for the natural world to generate meaningful artificial space? And does the perspective offered by immersion in the natural realm make us better architects?
These are the sorts of issues going through my head while sitting amongst these giant trees. Because while design that intentionally asserts difference is suitable and true to the nature of cites, up in the mountains, being respectful and humble is equally important. Plus, it is more difficult to design for these conditions than for the mere shock of the new.
In fact, what often passes for “new” in the fabricated spaces of the urban grid is repetitious and riffs off what has already been done, though somewhat differently. Looking at the city, what one sees is the replication of a few themes. Nature embodies its own sort of repetition, but with infinitely greater variations and subtleties.
Perhaps I am experiencing architectural overload—a good reason to be up here—which leads to a pervasive numbness to the built environment. But the truth is I never tire of experiencing outstanding architecture. The problem is that there is so little of it. One becomes exhausted and clinically depressed constantly being inundated by so much indifferent architecture and apathetic urban planning.
Richard Louv does not draw a distinction between good and bad architecture. According to him, the issue is that we simply spend too much time surrounded by it in all its forms. Green or not, the fact remains that we spend far too much of our lives, more than previous generations, in or around buildings.
Most architects remedy this by embracing “green” design, sustainability, or the 2030 Challenge. But there is more at stake than merely using design strategies that attempt to incorporate nature into architecture. “Greening” architecture requires transcending it as people, venturing out into spaces where it does not exist and should not exist. Outstanding architecture can be produced by experiencing its total absence.