Urban Nature, from Zurich to New York

“‘Nature’ is simply another 18th- – and 19th-century fiction.” – Robert Smithson

This is one of the quotations that AIANY Executive Director Rick Bell, FAIA, chose to introduce the 05.16.14 event, “Urban Nature: Between Human and Non-Human.” A collaboration between ETH Zurich and Columbia GSAPP, the conference featured eight speakers who approached the relationship between “urban” and “nature” from a variety of angles; yet, the construction of nature as a concept and the natural-built dichotomy were major themes running through the fascinating collection of topics explored.

Some presenters looked back at how our relationship to the natural world has changed over time. D. Graham Burnett, a professor of history and history of science at Princeton University, described how an 1818 trial to determine whether a whale should be classified as a fish (for tax purposes, naturally) exemplified the human desire to master and tame nature, along with the populist-expert tensions that played out at that moment of humans confronting a new understanding of the natural world, much like we are experiencing today.

Emily Scott, postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture at ETH Zurich, spoke about the 1969 work of Patricia Johanson, who was commissioned by House & Garden magazine to design a garden, and produced drawings of an urban vision which seamlessly integrated nature. At a time of fear and anxiety about the unhealthy city and growing concern about ecology and environmental health, Johanson’s ideas were radical rejections of the aforementioned dichotomy and, as Scott pointed out, of the binary gender roles associated with it.

Günther Vogt, a professor of landscape architecture at ETH Zürich Department of Architecture, traced how the Swiss relationship to, and conception of, nature has changed and is still malleable. Using paintings of the Swiss landscape, he showed how a viewer could read the shift in the perception of nature from threatening to sublime. Today in Switzerland, tourism inspires the need for a “productive landscape” that includes hiking and skiing areas. Vogt and others predict that within a few decades, there will be massive abandoned landscapes around Europe as people move from the countryside to the city.

Others looked to the future, and how we may take more direct inspiration from nature in designing and building our cities. David Benjamin of GSAPP discussed Hy-Fi, an installation designed by The Living Architecture that is constructed entirely of bricks made from mycelium. When the fungus is combined with agricultural waste, a solid material is produced in a number of days with essentially no human input or energy use. Benjamin held up the Hy-Fi project as an example of turning to the logic of nature, not just its form, in design and architecture.

In a similar vein, Kate Orff, ASLA, founding principal of SCAPE / Landscape Architecture and associate professor at GSAPP, discussed efforts to prepare New York City for a water-rich future (the nicest euphemism there ever was). Citing the city’s historic relationship with water and the need for social spaces and civic infrastructure along the waterfront, SCAPE and others have opposed the idea of building a sea wall in favor of tactics like reintroducing living breakwaters to the shoreline through marine habitats. Orff also stressed the importance of making protection a community development plan, engaging residents, and understanding the role natural spaces play in their lives to create a socially viable, attractive, and resilient environment. Given that many neighborhoods endangered by climate change and future conditions are disadvantaged, this was a welcome mention of environmentally and socially just design in the context of the conference theme.

With so much information about urban environments available, there are many ways to explore and understand it. Laura Kurgan of GSAPP is an expert in digital mapping, data visualization, and the politics of mapping. Kurgan showed examples of her work, impressive displays of how much information can be meaningfully conveyed through mapping and visualization. One project that addressed the theme of the day was a map of environmental refugees, a rapidly growing number of people displaced by natural disasters.

Christophe Girot, a professor of landscape architecture at ETH Zürich Department of Architecture, also showed the audience examples of new ways to see landscape digitally through three-dimensional point cloud software. He has used such software to visualize landscapes in Switzerland and Jakarta, where he has studied the challenges that will come with adapting a city’s landscape in an increasingly flood-prone environment, with data collected by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). His demonstration showed how this advancement is making it easier to capture data to understand how people interact with and build their environments. In a departure from many other speakers, Girot also reaffirmed his belief in the responsibility of the landscape architect to construct nature as it becomes increasingly apparent that our cities and people are in danger of environmental disaster.

Janette Kim, adjunct assistant professor at GSAPP and director of the Applied Research Practices in Architecture, has helped people experience their environments as a co-creator of Safari 7, a series of self-guided tours of urban wildlife along public transit lines. The tours allow users to explore the networked and sometimes symbiotic relationship between the built and the natural. One such example of an environmentally beneficial, happy accident is U Thant Island here in New York created by excess landfill from the construction of the Steinway Tunnel. The island’s elevated, isolated location in the East River is an ideal sanctuary for cormorants and their nests.

Opportunities for discussion and reflection were woven throughout the day. Between the morning and afternoon sessions, Elisabeth Bronfen, professor of English and American Studies at the University of Zurich and Global Distinguished Professor at New York University, provided a brief reflection on the talks given during the first half of the day. Bronfen drew on her teaching experience to highlight the difference in American and European conceptions of nature, and how the American idea of the frontier has shaped the country’s relationship to nature in a unique way. At the end of the day, a Q&A with the audience yielded discussions on topics such as the role of institutions in informing the public about the environment and climate change, and the state of human-centric vs. post-nature philosophies in design, particularly landscape architecture. With a well-chosen range of engaging speakers, the day clearly got all in attendance thinking about our role as humans in the intersection of built and natural – and how separate the two really are.

Cassie Hackel is a social research specialist at Plastarc Design Metrics and holds a Bachelor of Arts in Urban Studies.

Event: Urban Nature: Between Human and Non-Human
Location: Center for Architecture, 05.16.14
Speakers: Philip Ursprung, Mark Wigley, D. Graham Burnett, Laura Kurga, Emily E. Scott, Kate Orff, David Benjamin, Christophe Girot, Günther Vogt, Jannette Kim, Elisabeth Bronfen, and Laura Kurga
: ETH Zurich, in partnership with Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP), and the AIA New York Chapter | Center for Architecture