An Existential Tension

07_CC License CD Friedrich_Eldena Monastery

On the conflicted relationship between architects and nature

By Christoph Malan, Senior Director at Co-Arc International Architects.

With degrees in architecture and environmental management, Christoph Malan – director of Co-Arc International Architects – has produced a body of work which entails the redevelopment of urban precincts, brownfield sites, or buildings in need of repurposing for a more sustainable future. He has made contributions to architecture and urban design in projects across the African continent, and is an occasional writer on matters architectural. Taking the time to lead us through a thoughtful walk down Art Mile, Christoph reflects on the struggle for true co-existence between nature and constructions, and the role of the architect therein.

01 Chris Malan Art Mile Street View

As a significant hub in the cultural life of Johannesburg, the Art Mile in Rosebank offers a glimpse on modes of contemporary cultural expression in our society. Among the jumble of architectural and artistic devices shaping the precinct, one element has, by design, gradually transformed the environment: the slow but intentional encroachment of vegetation onto the building fabric.

Cultural activation of the street corner started with the opening of the new Everard Read Gallery in 1982, a postmodern landmark by Meyer Pienaar Architects. As a feature of the design, the street façade was defined by a curvilinear, painted wall, set behind a line of external columns which demarcated an entrance pathway along a planter, some palm trees, and a pond. In the ensuing years the gallerist repainted the exterior a few times, always in a different palette, inspired, he claimed, by the colours of surrounding nature.

Then the gallery underwent a subtle remake. Stacked slate added rustic accents, new, indigenous vegetation was planted and, at the base of the curved wall, a Tickey Creeper. Today the pavement planters are a small forest, the façade is covered edge to edge in the creeper’s green foliage, giant strelitzias rise above the rooflines from the interior sculpture courts, and aloes on the parapets suggest landscaped roofs. References to nature in decorating the gallery have become nature itself.

02 Meyer Pienaar Everard Read Facade 1983

Across the street stands the Circa Gallery by studioMAS, a compact, elliptical landmark wrapped in a slatted aluminium screen, which was completed in 2009. The neighbouring commercial Trumpet Building, a predominantly black backdrop to Circa, followed soon thereafter. Both buildings are served by external fire escape staircases, detailed as free-standing steel structures enveloped in a wire mesh for climbing plants. Today the stairwells are completely concealed by dense foliage, and it is puzzling to see pedestrians emerge through an overgrown door from an apparently impenetrable wall of greenery.

A third vegetated façade followed opposite the Trumpet Building, when GLH Architects were commissioned to add a new classroom block to the heritage buildings of St Theresa’s Convent School. Here the face brick façade, fronting onto the street, was lined with stackable ‘living wall’ plant boxes as a base to house a vertical landscape of grasses and succulents.

The interplay of buildings with nature has occupied architects through the ages, as pastoral landscapes or garden settings to contain buildings, and as decorative or metaphoric references within the architecture. However, integrating living nature into the building fabric itself is a more daring endeavour. Nature has always yielded both the organic materials from which we built our shelters, and the forces of erosion and decay that caused their eventual erasure. Inviting these at once generative and destructive forces into a building sets up both a technical challenge and, at a philosophical level, an existential tension that goes to the heart of our lived experience.

08 CC License Hundertwasserhaus Vienna

In the 18th Century, the architect and artist Piranesi, disillusioned with the Italy of his day, yearned to see Rome rebuilt to its former grandeur as the eternal city, and ambitiously promoted his ideas in etchings of exceptional draughtsmanship. Among his vedute are views of archaeological ruins, meticulously detailed to show former grandeur encroached on by nature, thus depicting at once a destructive force claiming the ruins, and a setting of pastoral beauty seemingly offering back the remnants as a gentle reminder of greatness lost. Nature is foe and friend alike.

A century later the Enlightenment and associated scientific demystification and industrialisation of the world caused the Northern European Romantics to despair. They turned to the Gothic cathedral as a microcosm that offered itself as a vehicle to contemplate nature, creative freedom in shaping their environments, even at the risk of the collapse of buildings, the city of Vienna gave him an opportunity to and sought solace in nature itself. Their sentiments are expressed express his ideas in a social housing project of his own creation.

04 Chris Malan Circa Fire Stair by studioMAS

A century later the Enlightenment and associated scientific demystification and industrialisation of the world caused the Northern European Romantics to despair. They turned to the Gothic cathedral as a microcosm that offered itself as a vehicle to contemplate nature, and sought solace in nature itself. Their sentiments are expressed most pointedly by the German artist Caspar David Friedrich, in paintings of persons contemplating a landscape, the moon at night, or Gothic ruins entangled by the encroaching forest that had, in the first instance, informed the building’s genesis.

During the 20th Century, the Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser ranted against the ‘chaos of straight lines’ modernist architects had created. Following his ‘Mouldiness Manifesto Against Rationalism in Architecture’, in which he advocated citizens’ right to creative freedom in shaping their environments, even at the risk of the collapse of buildings, the city of Vienna gave him an opportunity to express his ideas in a social housing project of his own creation. Supported by architect Joseph Krawina, he expressed his artistic freedom primarily on the façades, which he decorated like giant canvases. Notably, however, he also liberally incorporated natural vegetation in a manner that evokes the depictions of ruins by Piranesi and Friedrich: roof gardens, ivy-covered walls, and trees growing from within buildings, leaning out of façade penetrations in search of light.

09 Chris Malan Caixa Forum by Herzog de Meuron

Heritage, contemporary architecture, and landscape once more clash in present-day Madrid, at the Caixa Forum by Herzog & de Meuron Architects. On the gallery façade above a public square, the brick walls of an industrial heritage building saw the base surgically removed, the windows bricked up to leave only traces of the original, and the gables crowned with a superstructure clad in corroded metal. The façade hovers seemingly disconnected from the square, with the gallery entrance hidden in the centre of the building footprint. To access it one needs to enter the horizontal slit between the building and the ground, like crawling under a rock. The second façade fronting on the square is a multi-storey living mural, planting turned vertical, overlooking hard-paved ground below. The overall impression is one of disentanglement and distillation through a well-controlled composition. Yet the very juxtaposition of the components illustrates the tensions between generative and reductive forces of nature, and our manipulation thereof.

05 Chris Malan St Theresas School by GLH 1

Back in Johannesburg, at the Art Mile, the ever-changing views of pockets of vegetation enveloping buildings, fragmented and reflected in the glazing, and punctuated by artists’ sculptural insertions are at once calming and unsettling, and one wonders what to make of this literal and most intimate greening of individual buildings.

The planters and roof gardens make eminent sense, giving back some of the green fields we have claimed for building our cities. Vertical landscapes, though, bend nature to our creative will, and imply our ongoing control to keep its forces at bay. The Tickey Creeper is a climbing fig, and needs to be shaved regularly, to keep it from eventually strangling and cracking up the building. The climbers around the fire stairs need to be trimmed back, curiously, on the interior of the dense bush, to maintain free passage along the fire route. The planted living walls, an array of pigeonholed plants forced to grow sideways to form a vertical, drip-fed meadow, impose a maintenance task not only of holding nature back, but also of sustaining it with life-support systems.

In a small manner green walls do contribute to the greening of our cities. But used as a wilfully manipulated compositional component of the actual building itself, as in the Caixa Forum, the planting starts to take on meaning as an artistic response to our unease. It becomes a mannerist stylistic device that expresses the tensions which mark the spirit of our time.

That Zeitgeist is today expressed by a despondent young generation who couch their activism under the despairing banners of ‘Fridays for Future’, ‘Extinction Rebellion’ or ‘Last Generation’, all driven by the fear that we may have already destroyed the global ecosystem to a level where it may no longer be able to sustain us. As we claim ever more land in the rampant sprawl of our cities and the monocultures that feed us, and subjugate nature’s cycles and genetic coding to our mechanistic controls, we are transforming the world beyond reasonable integration into the living systems, aspiring to absolute command.

10 Chris Malan Art Mile Fragmented Views

We even describe our manipulation of nature as a new planetary epoch, the Anthropocene. Some may bear the badge with pride at our assumed competence to take charge and make the world purportedly a better place, at least for the human species. Others wear it with shame at the destruction we have wrought, the perils we have brought upon ourselves, and despair at the loss of our connection with nature.

While the young generation, like the artists, should shout out to press for urgent action to mend our relationship with the planet, it falls, among others, on us as designers and manipulators of the environment, to do so. Deepening our understanding of the ecosystem holds the key. An awareness and appreciation of the interconnectedness of all life within complex living systems should guide us also to see the built environment as being embedded in a global ecology. Beyond our bent for artistic expression, we have at our disposal the tools to act, be it as designers of components, of buildings, or entire cities. We can work with the cycle of water to sustain this treasured resource. We can mitigate energy consumption by design to help stabilise the carbon cycle. We can protect the pockets of pristine nature we have left, expand them to viable ecological corridors, regenerate, and re-wild habitats for wildlife to re-enter our living environments and thrive. And yes, work with plants, shape parks and gardens as vibrant biomes, and take joy therein. And as our awareness of ecological complexity grows, we may find ourselves increasingly humbled. As Hundertwasser said: ‘You are a guest of nature – behave.’

11 Chris Malan Everard Read Gallery Detail 1

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