Temporal and technical ecology


Ophelia Mantz and Rafael Beneytez Duran from the Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture and Design at the University of Houston present nature as a source of inspiration for architecture in contribution to a new book about urban resilience.


They argue that humanity has forgotten its origins and its dependence on nature, and that what we need is a new contract with nature and a new paradigm – contingency.


Read more about their work : https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-85847-6_26


Image source: Olga Kashubin / Shutterstock.com



Hello and welcome to Research Pod. Thank you for listening and joining us today.

In this episode we look at the work of Ophelia Mantz and Rafael Beneytez Duran from the Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture and Design at the University of Houston in America. Mantz and Duran have written about nature as a source of inspiration for architecture in contribution to a new book about urban resilience. They argue that humanity has forgotten its origins and its dependence on nature.

Since the Industrial Revolution we have consumed natural resources like coal, gas, and oil, forgetting that they are the products of ecosystems that flourished hundreds of millions of years ago. This amnesia stops us from thinking more than a few years ahead, and prevents us from using nature to help us find new ways of thinking.

Instead of regarding vegetation as merely decorative greenery that softens urban development, architects need to understand it as a natural life form that can inspire new ways of thinking and modify urban environments. Mantz and Duran argue that what we need is a new contract with nature and a new paradigm – contingency.

The theoretical background to Mantz and Duran’s argument lies in biology, beginning with the concept of autopoiesis. In the 1970s, Chilean biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela defined autopoiesis as ‘the tendency of life to create favourable conditions for its survival’. Three-quarters of a century earlier, French physicist Georges Sharpy had proposed the theory of resilience as a system’s capacity to absorb threats and continue functioning. The concept of autopoiesis helps us understand that living organisms deal with states of emergency and become more resilient by mutating and adapting in a variety of ways. How they adapt is contingent on seemingly inconsequential events that vary across time and space. Contingency is therefore vital for resilience, and survival.

Mantz and Duran believe that this kind of ecological thinking can help us to reconsider our relationship with the environments and landscapes we inhabit. They cite examples from the work of French horticulturalist and landscape architect Gilles Clément, and the architects Dominique Perrault and Jean Nouvel. From the 1980s onwards, Clément, Perrault, and Nouvel have been involved in projects which have redefined landscape by using nature as an element within architecture.

For example, as part of a largescale urban development in Lille, Clément designed the Henri Matisse Park to include a small forest on top of a seven-metre tall island made of waste materials. Isolated and inaccessible, the island was one of the first ‘urban forests’. Clément described it as ‘a fragment of nature left to itself in the heart of the city’ and a ‘laboratory for autopoiesis’. For Clément, the island is a symbol of neglected spaces that are neither built nor landscaped, but are still refuges for diversity – refuges that develop, spontaneously, in their own way, without human intervention.

These ‘wild’ spaces are termed ‘tiers paysage’ or ‘third landscapes’, and they are the wastelands we find on roadsides, in hedges, or on the edge of developments and urban areas. Gene banks for the planet, they represent, as Clément states, ‘the sum of all spaces where man leaves the evolution of landscape to nature itself’.

Clément’s argument is that, rather than being isolated, urban forests can be fully integrated into urban design. For example, Perrault’s design for the new National Library of France was highly influenced by Clément’s ideas. Commissioned in the 1980s by President François Mitterand’s Socialist government, the Library was one of the centrepiece architectural projects intended to promote culture and transform the Paris skyline in commemoration of the 200th anniversary in 1989 of the French Revolution.

In the center of the city, four glittering towers surround a vast central courtyard filled with an artificial forest of 120 pine trees that were already 40-years old when planted. The whole building is designed around this verdant space. Symbolic of nature and a statement in its own right, it’s also intended to influence the thinking of those who work in the library.

Again in Paris, the Fondation Cartier gallery of modern art was influenced by Clément’s argument that we need a new way of thinking about our relationship with nature. Designed by Nouvel, the gardens were imagined by the artist Lothar Baumgarten who works with living space,  the interplay of constructed and natural environments, and a long-view of time over seasons and years. Half-hidden by foliage, more than 15,000 plants grow up the gallery’s walls. Vegetation also helps to regulate the interior environment, for example by providing shade from the sun.

As Mantz and Duran explain, Clement’s concepts transformed the perception of Parisian architects regarding the inclusion of vegetation in architectural projects. Rather than seeing nature as a decorative or recreational adjunct to architecture, architects started using vegetation as a material symbolising time and, therefore change, transformation, mutation, and evolution. Informed by Clement’s thinking that we need a new alliance between architecture and nature, time and contingency become part of the project idea.

This new understanding of the multi-layered relationship between nature and architecture is a vital part of the debate about resilient communities, because it demonstrates how nature can help to restore equilibrium to urban spaces.

Mantz and Duran explain that knowledge built on the observation and conceptualisation of the forest environment constitutes a field called ‘agroforestry’. One lesson we can learn from agroforestry is that buildings can be thought of as open systems that don’t just exist in the present, but also extend into future generations. Therefore, we need to anticipate future mutations and adaptations. The rapid advancement of technologies over the last 50 years has left us with an accelerated view of global time.

Compare, for example, the thousands of years it took Neolithic man to domesticate nature and develop agriculture by studying the rhythms of life and the cycles of the seasons. For Mantz and Duran this illustrates why we need to think differently if we are to ‘live with greater contingency in domestic and urban space’. They argue that we need to ‘reevaluate the temporal cycles that mold our present’ and understand temporal ecology – how, when and where time shapes ecological systems.

Not only does this understanding of time help us to identify the additional benefits that nature can bring to urban contexts, it also prompts us to think about the downsides that can arise. Nature is unbounded and does not respect our ‘artificial’ limits.

Mantz and Duran cite the work of French biogeographer Paul Arnould, who warns, for example, that over time we might see that introducing vegetation into domestic and urban spaces can also attract cockroaches, rats, and mosquitoes. Arnould regards these less desirable aspects of nature as systematic complexities which result from mismatched equilibrium. In this way the parameter of time – temporal ecology – helps us to gain a more complete understanding of the development of nature within urban spaces.

Another take-away from agroforestry is the importance of technique. Mantz and Duran refer to Russian-born quantum physicist Ilya Prigogine’s work to frame their argument. Prigogine’s work on thermodynamics and complex systems led him to discover that there is a turning point in which open systems like nature ‘can evolve into a chaotic mode, or self-organise around a new complex equilibrium’.

Mantz and Duran argue that technique can be regarded as the means by which disorder in open systems is slowed down, as measured by entropy – the degree of transformation. There are other ways of thinking about technique though. For example, Mantz and Duran also cite the work of the French philosopher Gilbert Simondon, who regards technique as a way of being in the world – a phase of culture – rather than a set of tools.

Mantz and Duran, find that in terms of agroforestry, technique is about bringing together all our knowledge on the management of forests and using that knowledge to slow down the degradation of energy within the forest system. Technique is about transmitting this knowledge to the rest of society and incorporating it into culture in different ways. For example, the forest gardener has a tangible, concrete relationship with nature, while the agronomist will have a more detached, abstract relationship. Both roles have a social dimension and help to transfer knowledge about the forest, and both roles use technique to mediate between man and nature.

Mantz and Duran maintain that new paradigms inspired by nature can only be articulated through consideration of technique or technical ecology, in addition to temporal ecology. Nature, Mantz and Duran conclude, can provide architecture with new ways of thinking about, and designing, urban environments.

The observation of nature and its temporal and technical ecologies provides new directions and sources of inspiration for the development of society and the spaces we inhabit. Most importantly, through the paradigm of contingency, nature also reminds us of the need to adapt and change if we are truly to build resilience into our urban spaces.

That’s all for this episode – thanks for listening, and stay subscribed to Research Pod for more of the latest science and ideas. See you again soon.

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