Design Action Studio for Research, Architecture, and Urbanism

Beyond Nature

Beyond Nature: Architecture and Environmental Aesthetics for the Anthropocene

by Gabriel Fuentes

As an empty signifier, Nature is often used synonymously with “the environment” as a singular, all-encompassing concept of a world outside of society and, by extension, the built environment. By maintaining “the environment” at a distance, this Nature/Culture opposition—the lingering effects of various strands of Modernity—does architecture ecological injustice by “othering” its formal, technological, and aesthetic qualities as artificial or otherwise unnatural. This article argues that the first step toward a truly environmental architecture, especially during the Anthropocene, is to think the environment itself as an aesthetic object beyond ideological conceptions of Nature.


If spirits are experienced in absence (we sense them as essence but never see them as substance), ghosts are terrifyingly present. To be haunted by a ghost is to be tormented by an entity that, while eerily other-worldly, occupies worldly space. Having lived previously, ghosts are simultaneously in the present and an afterlife, both over there and right here. They are both real and imagined, dead and alive, intimately present yet strangely withdrawn. Isn’t “nature”—that empty signifier that stands as a placeholder for a long metonymic list of “natural things,” i.e the sun, heat, trees, wood, birds, wings, ozone, radiation, your body, your thoughts, your DNA, etc.—a ghost par excellence? If so, why can’t we see right through it?

A powerful entity in limbo, Nature—from here on capitalized, italicized, and exposed as an ideology of the singular and all-encompassing—gives environmental and architectural discourse the slip, haunting them to the point of ecological paralysis. Sliding magically between essence and substance, Nature is both immanent and transcendent, universal and emergent, system and process. It can be defended against the social or dissolved into it through endless linguistic play. While terrifyingly present (global climate change is overwhelmingly real) it is also strangely detached (but those polar ice caps are thousands of miles away). In its worldly other-worldliness, Nature damns the artificial—and by extension, the architectural—even as it embodies it (machines for living in). Politically motivated, Nature can justify both groovy feel-good environmentalism (e.g. acid droppers and tree-huggers) and authoritative force-good progressivism (e.g. experimental biodynamic farms placed next to concentration camps in Nazi Germany). In Cartesian fashion, Nature handicaps a properly ecological view of the world by maintaining “the environment” at a distance, as something out there.

Yet the problem is not environmentalism per se but rather that Nature is not environmental enough—it does architecture (which is all about environment production) ecological injustice. By demonizing artificiality, technology, and representation as “unnatural,” Nature—under the guise of various naturalisms (e.g. deep ecology, postmodernism, or worse, sustainability)—distances architecture from the environment by limiting its ability to produce new subjectivities, which as N. Katherine Hayles and Todd Gannon remind us in Virtual Architecture, Actual Media, is not about expressing interiority through language but “about manipulating information (read: an artificial environment) so that it forms a pervasive real-time experience with everyday life (read: a natural environment).”[1] Productively ecological architectures, on the other hand, have the capacity not only to reach out and make connections but also, and more significantly, to close in and disrupt distance (between Nature and society, Nature and body, Nature and language, etc.), to make new environments by revealing repressed ones, to produce new subjectivities through environmental aesthetics.

In what follows, I argue that the relationship between architecture and environment—the extent to which they produce, reveal, and disrupt each other—is stronger without Nature, especially during the Anthropocene, an age where Nature and Culture permeate each other in unpredictable and often subversive ways. During the Anthropocene, any truly environmental architecture must drop Nature and seek ecology without naturalism.[2] Without Nature—and its less potent counterpart “sustainability”—architecture can refocus its ecological ambitions from “holistic” techno-optimization as an end in itself (LEED certification as the ultimate endgame) to aesthetic performance as a means to produce new environments and subjectivities. In other words, rather than flex its technological muscles for fun, a truly environmental architecture uses technology to enable a fuller engagement with multiple environments, natural and/or otherwise. Always an intervention, such architecture asks not how it can be least environmentally disruptive but rather how it can use its performative capacities as a formal, aesthetic, and technological object to disrupt environments more productively.

That said, it should be made clear that to drop Nature is not to deny that architecture engages a presocial and prediscursive biophysical reality but rather to challenge the ideological conception of that reality as the pristine zero-sum total of what we have come to understand as “the environment” itself. In this sense, rather than subsume a singular and all-encompassing environment into Nature, I see the natural as being one of many possible environments, environments that are both inhabited and produced, given and constructed, human and non-human. What is at stake for architecture then, is a third way out of the old environment/autonomy divide—a productively ecological architecture that is formed neither exclusively by its environment nor against it but rather as both object and environment simultaneously. This article discusses ways in which Nature has been, and continues to be, used as a legitimizing force for architectural theory and practice, a force that, in its mediatory capacity, is always aesthetically and politically motivated. It then analyzes various strands of Nature discourse—the ways in which Nature itself is theorized and produced—before turning to ideas for an environmental architecture that looks beyond Nature as a legitimizing force, critically discussing contemporary architectural projects along the way.      


“Any current discussion of architectural theory invariably returns to the Ecology Question.” [3]_Richard Ingersoll

Figure 1. Leonardo da Vinci, The Vitruvian Man (1490).

Figure 1. Leonardo da Vinci, The Vitruvian Man (1490).

One could easily replace “invariably returns to the Ecology Question” with “is invariably haunted by Nature” in Ingersoll’s statement. For canonical architectural theory has been haunted by Nature since at least Vitruvius, who in his De architectura (written in 1BC and published in English as Ten Books on Architecture) held that architectural practice used theory to “demonstrate and explain the production of dexterity on the principles of proportion.”[4] Proportion, of course, was the Ouija board between the worldly human body and Nature—that other-worldly world of perfect Platonic forms. Architecture, in turn, reified proportion and, as such, revealed and grounded Nature in Man’s image (and vice versa). For when Nature, viewed as a series of cosmo-mathematical relationships inscribed on our bodies, was projected onto architecture through the Greek Orders, it was simultaneously grounded in flesh while elevated in spirit. Hence while claiming that proportions naturalized architecture, the “ideal” Vitruvian Man also humanized Nature; The Greek column was but ideal man in stone. Nature guided architecture from above.

Contra Vitruvius, Leon Battista Alberti theorized architecture not as possessed by Nature but as intrinsically Natural; that is, as something that contained the Nature of Nature in its very being (and not just projected onto its columns). Whereas Vitruvius failed to articulate the criteria for Venustas—one-third of his triad that distinguishes Architecture from building—Alberti, in De Re Aedificatoria (1472), locates beauty directly in Nature as Concinnitas: the harmonious conjunction of number, proportion, and distribution, the governing principle of creation. Concinnitas, then, is Nature’s transcendent beautiful soul, transferred and reincarnated in architecture through lineaments: those regulating lines that organize matter such that they “determine a suitable place, a definite number, a suitable scale, and a careful that the (total) form and figure of a building rests on the very lines that define its shape.”[5] While Alberti essentialized Natureinto architecture, he did so paradoxically by distancing and artificializing it, abstracting Nature from embodied form, and then (re)reifying it conceptually in architecture through drawing.

Figure 2:Claude Perrault, Plate from Ordonnance for the Five Kinds of Columns After the Methods of the Ancients, The Orders based on averaged and arbitrary ratios, (1755).

Figure 2:Claude Perrault, Plate from Ordonnance for the Five Kinds of Columns After the Methods of the Ancients, The Orders based on averaged and arbitrary ratios, (1755).

Almost two centuries later, in Ordonnance for the Five Kinds of Columns After the Methods of the Ancients (1663), Claude Perrault challenged architecture’s ability to reify Nature through (the aesthetic experience of) proportions. In architecture, he argued, there are two kinds of beauty: positive and arbitrary.[6] Whereas architectural theory since Vitruvius legitimized architecture in Nature through absolute and universal proportions, Perrault relegated such proportions to the zeitgeist (as a relative and arbitrary expression of the times). In fact, for Perrault Nature had eluded ancient architects, for while they could agree on the need for the Orders, they could never agree on their “correct” proportions. Beauty based on proportions, then, was not universally natural but culturally contingentjust as two faces with different proportions can be equally beautiful (or not), so too can different building facades.

Seen this way, Perrault reconceptualized architecture from absolute to relative, from ideal to material, from ancient to modern. But it was the Abbe Marc-Antoine Laugier that, in many ways contra Perrault, imagined architecture as a direct extension of raw Nature as it appeared, one freed from historical and culturally bound ideas expressed through abstract cosmo-mathematical proportions. For Laugier, architecture was closest to Nature not through proportional beauty (a cultural construct) but through its primitive origins in use, shelter, and structure. Dislodging architecture’s essential beauty from cultural interpretations of Nature, he writes: “It is the same in architecture as in all the other arts: its principles are founded on simple nature. Let us look at man in his primitive state without any aid or guidance other than his natural instincts.”[7]

Figure 3:Marc-Antoine Laugier, The Primitive Hut, Frontpiece of Essai sur l'architecture (1755).

Figure 3:Marc-Antoine Laugier, The Primitive Hut, Frontpiece of Essai sur l'architecture (1755).

Significantly, in Laugier, we see two sides of Nature in conflict: one cultured, the other raw. By releasing architecture from cultural Nature, into raw Nature, Laugier also repositioned architecture from a dominating position to a contingent one. In other words, rather than reifying (read: conditioning) Nature,Laugier theorized architecture as a smaller part of a larger environment. In this sense, architecture’s aesthetic relationship to Nature began to shift from Kantian notions of conceptual and disinterested beauty (The Greek Orders, The Vitruvian Triad, Concinnitas, etc.) to Burkean notions of the affective and immeasurable sublime (the infinite environment). The Primitive Hut placed architecture outside of history yet inside of time, outside of Nature yet inside of environment.

Among the first to operate in that gap would be the proto-functionalist Jean-Louis Nicolas Durand—a student of revolutionary architect Etienne-Louis Boullee. In his Precis des Lecons d’Architecture (1809), Durand reduced architecture to a self-referential system of distributed parts, a process of rational and procedural differentiation.[8] Contra Boullee, Durand was not concerned with architecture parlante (how buildings “spoke” architectural meaning) nor with the relationships between building, body, and the cosmos. Rather, he legitimized architecture purely in the rational disposition and arrangement of the plan—exorcising Alberti’s formal lineaments and replacing them with Descartes’ coordinate, organizational grid. In the Cartesian grid, we see an open, self-referential, and geometrical environment for architecture, one that flattens the closed and universal ratios of transcendental proportions. In other words, we see a cleansed environment distanced from Nature as an abstract and organizational matrix space for architecture.

By the early twentieth century, Durand’s scientific rationalism would fuel an aesthetic and political ideology centered on Ford’s assembly line, which in many ways transcended the factory to inform the political, economic, and cultural structures of modern society. For the historic avant-garde, the machine—its biological mimicry and rational obedience to the laws of physics—was universal Nature reincarnated as technology for and by humans. By the 1920s, Le Corbusier was zealously championing the superiority of art-as-technology as a disciplining and purifying agent operating on both sides of the Nature/Culture divide. In “Purism” (1920) he writes, “The work of art is an artificial object which permits the creator to place the spectator in the state he wishes; later he will study the means the creator has at his disposal to attain this result.”[9] As an artificial and environmental object, art—and by extension, architecture—separates Culture from Nature only to recalibrate their proximity to one another.

By the mid-1960s, architectural discourse would be caught in an object/environment schism between those theorizing architecture as autonomous versus those theorizing it as environmentally contingent. The key protagonists of this debate were architectural historians Manfredo Tafuri and Reyner Banham, the former arguing that architecture’s complete withdrawal was its only form of critical resistance to the totalizing and exploitational forces of capitalism, the latter arguing that architecture’s enclosure was shaped by the very techno-natural environment it produced, i.e. flows of heat, air, electricity, water, etc. But despite their differences, both conceptions of architecture—like others before them—relied on, or perhaps participated in the production of, Nature as a legitimizing force, for if to withdraw from the environment (in Tafuri’s case, already differentiated and represented as singular and all-encompassing) is to reveal and distinguish that environment in kind, to be formed by the environment is to evolve from it by degree.          


“It is not language that has a hole in its ozone layer; and the ‘real’ thing continues to be polluted and degraded even as we refine our deconstructive insights at the level of the signifier.”[10]_Kate Soper

Nature is in a catch-22. On the one hand, it is seen as eternal and transcendent, a substance outside of culture. On the other, it is the immanent essence of humanity; humans are indeed natural beings. Whereas the former differentiates humanity from Nature in kind (as cultured human beings), the latter differentiates it by degrees (as biologically evolved homo-sapiens). And whereas the former sees Nature as a thing to be processed (or in Marxian terms, produced), the latter sees such productions as natural extensions of human culture. In short, Nature is simultaneously inside and outside of us, subject and object, cultural and natural.

This Nature/Culture dialectic can be traced back to the Enlightenment philosophy of Rene Descartes, who in his Discourse on Method (1637) proposed that the mind and body were separate, that we can only prove our existence through our ability to think.[11] Seeking absolute knowledge, Descartes reasoned that because he can doubt everything except that he was thinking (doing so, of course, would be thinking about his inability to think), the true measure of reality must be subjectivity; anything outside of the thinking subject might be, for all we know, illusions performed by powerful and supernatural demons. Yet, as Timothy Morton reminds us in Ecology without Nature, even when Descartes said “I think, therefore I am,” he said it within an environment, within a particular cultural and philosophical space.[12] In other words, Descartes paradoxically demonized the outside world from within that very world. The environment, then, is not only a moral, ethical, and scientific problem, but also a profoundly philosophical one with deep formal, spatial, and aesthetic implications that are worth theorizing.

Yet it seems that theory is counterproductive in a world plagued by environmental crises. Soper’s statement above, for example, captures the sentiments of many environmentalists today: less talk, more action; less thinking, more doing. In an age of science, theorizing the environment only precludes calculated action; to debate global climate change, pollution, natural resource depletion, and fossil fuel consumption is to spin our linguistic wheels self-servingly while the planet spins to ecological destruction. Theory, critics argue, is too slow, too distant, too alienating to have any real effect the environmental crisis. After all, what good does environmental discourse do when confined to the white walls of the academy?  

It does a lot. Theory helps us think slowly through (and not just about) an issue, to engage it reflexively, and to speculate its long-term consequences and implications in a world dominated by short-term and market-driven interests. To be sure, environmental degradation is real, radically and urgently REAL. But just as real is the fact that the so-called “green” or “sustainability” movement is failing miserably to affect any meaningful change in our perception of the environment, much less our desire to “sustain” it. Simply put, current sustainability discourse—and with it, so-called sustainable architecture—is doubly compromised: first, by the market, and second, by ideology. In other words, in its quest (explicitly or implicitly) for capital and/or political gain, it flickers back and forth at will between “scientific” and “romantic” conceptions of Nature, conceptions that are either religiously defended as intrinsic and fundamental truth (from the Right) or relentlessly dismantled through radical critique (from the Left). If architecture is to have a stake in a truly ecological future, it must not only navigate this aesthetic-political web but must also use its disciplinary and theoretical tools to question its very terms of engagement. We’ll begin with the most basic, yet most complex question of all: What is nature?  

In “After Nature: Steps to an Antiessentialist Political Ecology,” Colombian-American anthropologist and University of North Carolina Professor Arturo Escobar argues that the “crisis of nature” is but a crisis ofnature’s identity, an identity constructed and bound by human ideas about nature.[13] For the very idea, he claims, that nature is separate from, subordinate to, and/or produced by humans (through labor, commodification, and indeed through architecture and urbanism) is a fundamentally humanist product of capitalism and modernity. Naturalism—that is, the belief in a pristine nature outside of historical and socio-cultural contexts and influences—does not hold up in the wake of unprecedented intervention into nature across scales—ranging from the molecular via nanotechnology to the biological sciences to the global via digitization and urbanization.

Yet, while Escobar denies “nature as an essential principle and foundational category, a ground for both being and society, (nature) as ‘an independent domain of intrinsic value, truth, or authenticity’,” he acknowledges that such an assertion does not deny the existence of a prediscursive and presocial biophysical reality.[14] Rather, he argues that while such a reality exists, our perception of it is always, at some level, socio-cultural; a Latourian nature-culture hybrid that is “simultaneously real, collective, and discursive—fact, power, and discourse.”[15] There is no singular undisturbed Nature out there but rather a plurality of natures undergoing constant (re)naturalization, (re)socialization, and (re)artificialization.

Similarly, in Denaturalizing Ecological Politics, Andrew Biro—Professor of Environmental Politics at Acadia University—argues for an ecological ethic that sheds the politically impotent concept of Nature as the sum total of natural processes that excludes humans and compels them to affect it as little as possible.[16] For him, the problem is that Nature is predominantly conceptualized from either ecocentrist or postmodernist positions and is hence, albeit paradoxically, rendered either external to social processes or dissolved into them; that is, Nature is often either elevated to an autonomous environment or “constructed” as pure linguistic play in the realm of social subjectivity. Hence whereas ecocentrism maintains that the world might be more Natural without human intervention, postmodernism (or, perhaps more properly, poststructuralism) nihilistically conflates the Nature/Culture divide to the point of unrecognition. By maintaining a strict object/environment dualism, however, both positions overlook possible pluralities of nature as bothprediscursive and socially produced.

The (idea of the) production of Nature, of course, is not new. A fundamentally Marxist position, social theorist and geographer Neil Smith sees production - that is, the process by which the form of nature is altered - as the most basic material relationship between humans and nature, particularly in a capitalist society where use-value is often transformed into exchange-value. Like Escobar, Smith argues that despite immediate appearances, Nature is produced and differentiated along biological, material, and historical axes. He writes,

Nature is generally seen as precisely that which cannot be produced; it is an antithesis of human productive activity. It its most immediate appearance, the natural landscape presents itself to us as the material substratum of daily life, the realm of use-values [usefulness of something] rather than exchange-values [the value derived from the market sale of something]. As such it is highly differentiated along any number of axes. But with the progress of capital accumulation and the expansion of economic development, this material substratum is more and more the product of social production, and the dominant axes of differentiation are increasingly societal in origin. In short, when this immediate appearance of nature is placed in historical context, the development of the material landscape presents itself as a process of the production of nature.[17]

There are two points here worth inferring: 1) as a product, Nature—like architecture—is always filtered, processed, and artificialized through an environment only to reproduce that environment, it always appears to us disrupted and transformed and never in its pure state, and 2) capitalist production processes relegate Nature to the realms of either use-value or exchange-value, suppressing the potential value of the “useless” (the aesthetic) and/or the “non-commodified” (critical politics). As both a product and a production process, then, a truly environmental architecture is as political as it gets. For such an architecture would produce and reproduce multiple natures and environments through its formal, aesthetic, and technological apparatuses; and in doing so, it would confront and cultivate non-use and non-exchange value as equal design opportunities.        

 Supernature / Nature / Subnature

In “Urban Intrusions: A Reflection on Subnature,” David Gissen claims that architectural and urban theory has historically evoked at least three iterations of nature: the supernatural, the natural, and the subnatural.[18] He traces these iterations in writings ranging from surviving medieval texts through Renaissance architectural theories, 18th century Romanticist and Picturesque writings and paintings, and Modern/Late-Modern architectural theories, manifestoes, and photographs (In other words, in authors ranging from Vitruvius and Leon Battista Alberti to Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright). While both the supernatural—“the superhuman world of miracles; a world that we cannot know or see…”—and the natural—“an external ideal that represented geometric perfection and the perfection of god”—have historically legitimized architecture through various reification strategies, the subnatural remains, for Gissen, the most underrepresented and potentially most potent possibility for an architecture concerned with the production of environments.[19]  

First used to describe the “dirty” nature—the abject sense of natural collapse, heaps of mud, barren trees, etc.—of Samuel Beckett’s plays and sets, Gissen describes the subnatural as that part of the environment that traditional environmentalism shuns as filthy, fearsome, primitive, and uncontrollable (smoke, dust, exhaust, sewage, excrement, disease, gas, debris, mud, darkness, humidity, weeds, insects, pigeons, etc.) in favor of clean and more desirable natures (wind, natural light, air, clouds, grass, butterflies, flowers, trees, light blue, etc.). These latter forms of non-disruptive nature are the ones sought out by so-called sustainable architecture. And yet, it is architecture’s engagement with the subnatural that provides the most significant opportunities for environmental innovation. Gissen writes,

Ultimately, a concept of subnature promotes a concept of nature within architecture that lacks the passivity and asocial qualities often attributed to architecture’s “natural” environment; it might challenge the reductive and naturalistic aspects of contemporary environmentalist spatial aesthetics; such aesthetics imagine buildings as sites of natural flux—simple conduits of air, sun, and water; finally, a concept of subnature might help us understand any concept of nature as historically driven, especially how certain ideas about nature appear to be produced through the history of architecture. Ultimately, subnature is not about what is natural to architecture, but about the natures that we produce through our most radical concepts of architecture.[20] 

It is important to note that understanding Nature as “historically driven” and “produced through the history of architecture” does little to dismantle its slippery status in between the ideal and the material (architecture, or course, has historically produced and has been the product of different concepts of Nature). Yet the power of Gissen’s statement is in his recognition of aesthetics as a means to produce new environments by foregrounding repressed ones. Because subnatureunderstood literally as that which is “beneath” or “subordinate” to Nature—does not sustain nor provide any material benefits to society, any architectural engagement with it that seeks to use it productively or elevate it to consciousness operates at the level of excess and hence is always an aesthetic act.  

An example can be seen in The Ethics of Dust—an experimental preservation project by architect, theorist, and historic preservationist Jorge Otero-Pailos.[21] Rather than “cleanse” the environment, The Ethics of Dust is part of a series of projects that elevate, preserve, and archive the world’s pollution, a material that Otero-Pailos sees as “emblematic of modernity, but which we know only obliquely through its effects on other objects.” Using Mussolini's famous 1937 Almunix Factory, Otero-Pailos painted its interior surfaces with latex in order to extract and isolate layers of industrial pollution. The pollution-infused latex is then dried, delaminated, and (re)layered as a physically thin yet conceptually/historically thick secondary skin—a new architectural surface that simultaneously conceals and reveals microscopic layers of (“useless” and “non-commodified”) political and industrial histories. A critique of the indiscriminate cleansing of so-called “eco-friendly” building culture, Otero-Pailos not only acknowledges pollution as natural but engages it aesthetically in order to reveal repressed social, cultural, and industrial histories, histories that are blatantly erased when pollution is “cleansed” in the name of sustainability.  

Figure 5: Jorge Otero-Pailos, “The Ethics of Dust: Alumix,” Exhibited at the Manifesta 7 European Contemporary Art Bienal (2008).   

Figure 5: Jorge Otero-Pailos, “The Ethics of Dust: Alumix,” Exhibited at the Manifesta 7 European Contemporary Art Bienal (2008).   

Figure 6: Jorge Otero-Pailos peeling the latex. (Photograph by Michele Nastasi).

Figure 6: Jorge Otero-Pailos peeling the latex. (Photograph by Michele Nastasi).

A second example can be seen in the integration of the virtual and the physical in Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s (DS+R) Blur Building at Yverdon-les-Bains, Switzerland (2002), a project which—as its name implies—blurs the boundaries between the natural and artificial in order to provoke new, hybrid environmental experiences. While it is well known that DS+R used digitally controlled weather sensors to create and regulate an artificial mist-cloud “skin,” it is the unrealized technologies of the project (which unfortunately did not meet “exchange-value” criteria and were “value engineered” away) that most intensely fuse virtual and material environments. For how does one navigate a public space when all depth cues and visual sensibilities are disrupted by a moist ubiquitous mist? To compensate for their environmental disruptions, DS+R proposed a series of protocols and prosthetic media components that would not only curate an experience but would also extend the body’s “natural” perceptual abilities, ranging from automated “braincoats” that use its wearer’s responses to a questionnaire to trigger media effects aimed at provoking unexpected spatial/social interactions to scrolling LED text that serve as wayfinding devices.

While sitting comfortably outside of mainstream sustainability discourse, these projects challenge conventional conceptions of Nature and “the environment.” But in the process they also provoke us to critically rethink ecology as profoundly architectural.   

Figure 7:Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Blur Building, Yverdon-les-Bains, Switzerland (2002).

Figure 7:Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Blur Building, Yverdon-les-Bains, Switzerland (2002).

Figure 8:  Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Blur Building Braincoats.

Figure 8:  Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Blur Building Braincoats.


“To talk about ecology in architecture is not to bring ecological thinking to architecture. Ecology is, from the beginning, a certain kind of thinking about architecture.”[22]_Mark Wigley

“Nature is not natural and can never be naturalized.”[23]_Graham Harman

As we have seen, Nature becomes denaturalized the moment it comes into contact with—or is processed by—architecture (and never the other way around). This denaturalization is profoundly ecological. Coined in 1866 by German zoologist Ernst Haeckel, ecology has its etymological roots in the Greek oikos (house or household economy) and logos (knowledge). To think ecologically, then, is to seek a deep knowledge of (the economy of) the house. Hence while Haecke claims that everything in Nature is interrelated holistically (to the delight of deep ecologists), his very definition of ecology binds Nature inextricably to economy—a system of exchange dependent on politics and fluctuating definitions of value—and architecture—a medium that denatures through separation, domestication, and technology. Seen this way, ecology becomes increasingly unstable, formal, and artificial.

Of course, form and ecology are often opposed. Whereas the former is seen as possessing qualities of closure, articulation, and self-referentiality, the latter is often seen as possessing qualities of connectivity, extension, and open-endedness. Yet what connects them is a will toward systemization, resiliency, and internalization (to externalize or “waste,” of course, is seen as bad for the environment). Note, for example, how K. Michael Hays describes formalism in architecture,

The comparative absence of historical concerns in favor of attention to the autonomous architectural objects and its formal operations—how its parts have been put together, how it is a wholly integrated and equilibrated system that can be understood without external references, and as important, how it may be reused, how its constituent parts and processes may be recombined…architectural operations are imagined to be spontaneous, internalized…[24]

Seen this way, formalism is inherently ecological in its systematic integration of parts, ecology is inherently formalist in its desire for autonomy and equilibrium, and architecture is inherently both formalist and ecological in its relentless desire for internal organization.     

Yet, contra much parametric discourse today, there are significant differences between biological and architectural ecologies. For one, living biological systems strive for homeostasis, they resist and/or neutralize external disruptions. Productive architectural ecologies, on the other hand, produce external disruptions only to internalize and reorganize (produce and reproduce) them as built environments. Despite Patrik Schumacher’s claim of a new world (architectural) order, then, architecture can never be autopoietic because it can never be a pure and resilient (or a purely resilient) living system; it is not biological nor is it exhausted by its parametricism. Rather, one of architecture’s most ecologically productive capacities is to be an affective object-environment, one that, as Jeffrey Kipnis might say, twists the separatrix between the object/environment dialectic, one that aesthetically disrupts distance. For when architecture disrupts distance it makes the environment an aesthetic object, and vice versa.


“This date might be more precisely located in 1789, the year that witnessed the invention of the steam engine by James Watt—the technology that enabled human forces to exceed the modest limits of muscle—(whether human or animal), wind, and water-power—as well as the publication of Immanuel Kant’s essay, “What is Enlightenment?” This date is thus especially peculiar, since, for Crutzen, the moment at which human and natural history become inseparable coincides with the most decisive event of their (philosophical) separation, Kant’s alleged “Copernican Revolution.”[25]

The Anthropocene—an age in which no aspect of Nature (fictional, biological, earthly, cultural, and/or otherwise) has been left untouched by the effects of humans—forces architecture to reckon with the idea that “the environment” is not a singular space located outside of humanity but rather a plurality of spaces that are lived, constructed, revealed, distributed and/or enclosed by human intervention. Seen this way, haven’t we almost always been Modern?

In We Have Never Been Modern, Bruno Latour argues that “Moderns” engage the world in at least two ways simultaneously: 1) by projecting themselves onto (and into) it, and 2) by purifying it from within.[26] Whereas the former involves translation, transcription, and enclosure, the latter relies on reason to think away (i.e to “other”) aspects of the world that are not in line with our image of it. For Latour, then, to be “Modern” is to live in a world bound by the idea that Nature and Culture exist as separate ontological planes, planes that are only made to cross paths in order to disrupt and transform each other. Yet if Modernity held these planes in dialectical tension, focusing on their imagined synthesis on either side of the separatrix (as Nature-Culture or Culture-Nature), a productively ecological architecture—as a formal, aesthetic, and technological object—might operate on (or, in a sense, take the form of) the separatrix itself as device that calibrates the proximities between these dialectical opposites. In other words, architecture as separatrix simultaneously distinguishes (keeps apart) and disrupts (pulls together) the object/environment divide.

This distinction-cum-disruption constitutes an object/environment glitch, a flickering that simultaneously maintains and disrupts (or, as already implied, maintains in order to disrupt) any clear distinction between representation and reality. For if the Anthropocene is the product of a Nature/Culture crisis, such crisis is itself a product of an increasingly flat eco-ontological plane that is both core and surface, inside and outside, figure and ground.  

In Realist Magic: Objects, Ontology, Causality, Timothy Morton flattens the distinction between aesthetics as the surface realm of appearance and effect, and causality as the foundational realm of reason and action.[27] If the aesthetic realm operates over objects as an external laminate of meaning, and the causal realm operates under objects as an internal (and often mechanical) churning of action, Morton argues that both realms float in front of objects; that is, they both occupy the same ontological plane as they flicker in and out of view. This glitch, in turn, means that objects are always the difference between what they are and how they appear.

But where is this causal-aesthetic realm “in front” of objects located? If Morton claims that the inside of one thing is always the outside of something inside of some hypermesh of interconnectedness, wouldn’t the causal-aesthetic dimension that floats in front of one object always stand behind another inside of interconnected space?[28] Wouldn’t these object/environment glitches in the flattened ontological plane—the utter chaos triggered by flickering and reversibility—simultaneously maintain and erase a distinction between objects and environments?

I am reminded here of Bernard Tschumi’s essay “The Architectural Paradox.”[29] Here, Tschumi argues that architecture is always double-bound to Reason and Experience. This paradoxical condition—the double-truth, and hence zero-truth, of self-contradiction—becomes, for Tschumi, the ultimate form of aesthetic pleasure, a pleasure that escapes the use/exchange-value dialectic. The aesthetic, in other words, is the most useless yet potent quality of architecture. It is also, at least potentially, the most political.  


Nature—as a slippery ideology of the singular and all-encompassing—does architecture ecological injustice, handicapping its environmental and aesthetic (indeed, its environmental-aesthetic) capacity to disrupt the distance between the Nature/Culture, and by extension, the object/environment divide. Hence the relationship between architecture and environment is stronger without Nature as something out there, particularly during the Anthropocene where the boundary (or separatrix) between the environmental outside and the human/social inside is becoming increasingly thin. A truly environmental architecture, then, would drop Nature altogether and seek an ecology without naturalism—a productive ecology that reaches out and makes connections even as it closes in and disrupts distance, one that reveals repressed environments as it makes new ones, using its formal, technological, and aesthetic capacities to produce new subjectivities.  

* This paper was presented at the 103rd ACSA Annual Meeting, The Expanding Periphery and the Migrating Center (2015).


[1] N. Katherine Hayles and Todd Gannon, “Virtual Architecture, Actual Media,” in The SAGE Handbook of Architectural Theory (London: SAGE Publications, 2012), 484-501.  

[2] See Timothy Morton, Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007).

[3] Richard Ingersoll, “The Ecology Question and Architecture,” in The SAGE Handbook of Architectural Theory (London: SAGE Publications, 2012), 573-589.  

[4] Ingrid D. Rowland and Thomas Noble Howe, eds., Vitruvius: 'Ten Books on Architecture' (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

[5] Leon Battista Alberti and Joseph Rykwert, On the Art of Building in Ten Books (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1988).

[6] Claude Perrault, Ordonnance for the Five Kinds of Columns after the Method of the Ancients, translated by Indra Kagis McEwen (Santa Monica: Getty Publication Programs, 1993).

[7] Marc-Antoine Laugier, An Essay on Architecture, translated by Wolfgang and Anni Hermann (Los Angeles: Hennessey & Ingalls, 1977).

[8] Jean-Nicolas Louis Durand, Précis des leÇons d’Architecture donnés à l’École polytechnique, 2 vols. (Paris: 1809).

[9] FIND (Corb, Purism)

[10] Kate Soper, What is Nature? Culture, Politics, and the Nonhuman (Oxford, 1995).

[11] René Descartes, Discourse on the Method: And, Meditations on First Philosophy, Edited by David Weissman and William Theodore Bluhm (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996).

[12] Timothy Morton, Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007).

[13] Arturo Escobar, “After Nature: Steps to an Antiessentialist Political Ecology,” Current anthropology 40, no. 1 (1999): 1-30.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Andrew Biro, Denaturalizing Ecological Politics: Alienation from Nature from Rousseau to the Frankfurt School and Beyond (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005).

[17] Neil Smith, Uneven Development: Nature, Capital, and the Production of Space (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2008).

[18] David Gissen, “Urban Intrusions: A Reflection on Subnature,” Urban Constellations (Jovis, 2011): 35-39.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] For more on this project see: David Gissen, Subnature: Architecture’s Other Environments (Chronicle Books, 2005).

[22] Mark Wigley, “Recycling Recycling,” in ECO-TEC: Architecture of the In-Between (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1999): 39-49.

[23] Graham Harman, The Quadruple Object (John Hunt Publishing, 2011).

[24] Sandra Kaji-O Grady, “Formalism and Forms of Practice,” in The SAGE Handbook of Architectural Theory(London: SAGE Publications, 2012), 152-165.  

[25] Davis, Heather, and Etienne Turpin, Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies (Open Humanities Press, 2015).

[26] Bruno Latour, We Have Never been Modern (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012).

[27] Timothy Morton, Realist Magic: Objects, Ontology, Causality (Open Humanities Press, 2013).

[28] See Timothy Morton, The Ecological Thought (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010).

[29] Bernard Tschumi, "The Architectural Paradox" in Architecture Theory since 1968 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998).