This is my Architecture + Philosophy look. Dark, Melburnian and serious enough for you kids?

It’s time to get all Heidegger on yo’ collective asses – as you get educated with Ruby Assembly in today’s Blog.  We answered the Facebook invitation lure of Architecture + Philosophy – an ongoing project supported by Helene Frichot and Esther Anatolitis and hosted at RMIT. It was time to indulge my a) love of architecture and b) love of theoretical philosophy. Venturing out into a misty Wednesday Melbourne night, seeing the lights of the Library and Melbourne Central vaporise slowly into recognition I  realised – I’m going back to a university. I haven’t been to one of those since I graduated in 2003. Am I still cool, or do I look like a corporate sellout? I must admit, my Monte Carlo-come-St Petersburg get-up probably wasn’t normal fare for the scholars who attended tonight’s session – there were lots of undercuts and American Apparel androgyny fash in the lecture theatre. But it’s cool baby. Each tribe has their own uniform – and this tribe happily welcomed me in to hear David Gissen’s short lecture called ‘New Groundworks’ with a cup of  vino in hand – presented by Kerb Journal, the annual publication of RMIT’s landscape architecture course.

Professor David Gissen hails from the California College of Arts, and specialises in the philosophy of the ‘post natural’ or ‘neo naturalist’. With a lovely, engaging tone and lots of slides to illustrate his lecture – he really reminded me that it’s important to keep one’s inquiring mind alive and well – particularly with subject matter you’ve become familiarly numb to. He began the lecture with a slide of a faceless man overlooking the pollution hovering above Los Angeles. Gissen chose this image as it’s one we can all relate to – not simply an image of ecological destruction, but more importantly an image of a human observing the destruction.

This ‘watching us, watching pollution’ is a modern commentary – a discussion which  began in earnest with the advent of the industrial era. Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s 1837 image of ‘Pegasus Above The City’ (sorry, I could find an image to post online) was discussed briefly as representative of Schinkel’s observation of an industrialized British midlands. He proposed that industrialisation had risks which included destroying and overwhelming the natural landscape – suggesting that to design architecture around new technology was a dangerous idea. Pugin (another architect from the 1840’s) thought that the panacea to towns disfigured by industrial architecture was simply to revert the city to its natural state (in his mind’s eye, that being gothic/medieval). So – concerns over aligning our cities and culture to mechanized design aren’t new concepts.

David then showed us different approaches from contemporary architects to resolve naturalizing (or returning to nature) industrial sites. The image of the William McDonough & Partners’ Ford River Rouge Factory complex was the primary example of architecture entirely focussed around industry. McDonough & Parners had tried to reconfigure and ‘green’ the facory (although Gissen suggests that this is cosmetic rather than green in any real way) to return it to a more natural state. David’s main focus for the lecture was to discuss the post natural, and suggests that the architectural  ‘return to nature’ is a void concept . Instead, as urbanised populations we need to embrace pollution, embrace our very urbanity and understand ourselves in a post-natural environment – as informed by our own use and mis-use of the environment as by nature. Pollution is now part of the environment, effectively – and to deny its existence is unrealistic. A positive example of post-industrial architecture was given in the form of Cero9’s ‘The Magic Mountain’ Power Plant in Ames, Iowa.

Cero9‘s concept was not to hide the large power plant stack that loomed over Ames – but instead to naturalize it by growing weedlike rose bushes all over it, which would release petals constantly. In that regard, the building would still be creating pollution (particularly if you had seasonal allergies!) but it would also be ‘natural’. Another group who designed a similar concept (pollution as part of natural design, or highlighting pollution as part of our environment) were R&Sie with their piece ‘Dusty Relief’ at the B-MU Tower in Bangkok.

R&Sie’s Dusty Relief – looks kind of like an anarchic Furby, non?

The key concept behind the project was for the building to be electrically charged with wire that would attract dust and detritus to the structure – simultaneously filtering the environment and growing an organic, fuzzy building. David showed us an interior image (which I couldn’t source, apologies) of a westerner inside the Dusty Relief building, looking out from a highly rarified internal space onto nature (which was becoming increasingly inhospitable and polluted). This image highlights the environment within an environment that humans are needing to create – it is clean and safe, but it is certainly not what we’d typify as natural.

One of my favorite examples of ‘environment within environment’ that David showed us was Philippe Rahm architect’s ‘Deterritorialized Territory’. Building upon the return to nature suggested by Pugin (but in a post-natural context), Rahm fashioned a  room where he re-created Paris circa 1832, just before coal began being burnt and polluting the environment en masse. A stark, Clockwork Orange-ish work with the fragrance of wood and other elements he researched and re-created represented a modern return to nature and the past.

Image of ‘Terroirs Deterritorialisés’

The last part of David’s lecture focussed on his book ‘Subnature: Architecture’s Other Environments’. The subnatural is something that David defines as threatening to architecture – primitive, dangerous to inhabitants. It was a phrase originally used to describe the stage design of Samuel Beckett plays – heaps of yucky, random and muddy detritus which confused and impacted negatively upon the protagonist’s behaviours. David’s deal is that resistance to the subnatural is futile – and in fact that embracing the subnatural is the modern’s world version of nature as we know (or more rightly, knew) it. De Paor Architect’s Irish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale was another image that David showed us of a subnatural structure – it is essentially a stack of  irish peat mud which played upon the ‘peat men’ moniker that the British had given their northern neighbours. In a lovely  gesture, the peat  mud was broken down and donated from Ireland to Venice, shoring up their own borders (literally).

De Paor hiding inside his Irish Pavilion, made of irish peat mud.

Other examples of architects who work in the subnatural space include the previously mentioned Philippe Rahm – we saw another of his works called Underground Houses which works in direct opposition to Le Corbusier’s house on five points. Instead of elevating inhabitants away from nature as Le Corbusier intended, Rahm’s work encourages the sense of ‘terroir’ through a smell of dank earth inside the house which is partially submerged and exposed to raw soil.

It appears to me that David feels this kind of engagement with nature is not simpering or nostalgic. It embraces the post-natural, the subnatural – it isn’t sentimental and it accepts and revels in a modern version of nature. Thankyou to Architecture + Philosophy and David Gissen for his enlightening and entertaining lecture – I feel that I have a much better understanding of the concept of the subnatural which will inform my writing on property and architecture in the future. It’s a whole new way of describing nature in a world which we’ve utterly affected, without falling back on old ideas of returning to the unobtainable past.

I don’t regret going out into that stormy autumn night to RMIT in the least, and can’t wait to see what I’ll learn next time I attend a similar lecture. Come with?