Natural Artifice

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As a creative director of this conference the following will not come as a surprise; I believe that we are nature; that you are nature, that I am nature, that a termite mound is nature and that this building is nature in that both of the latter are made by biological organisms albeit with varying levels of sophistication.

Having said that, I also believe that there is very little of nature that we have not affected in some way with those things which we have advertently or inadvertently made, here today we have defined them as an artifice. These things range from the obvious example of our great collective endeavours such as the city, to the more prosaic example of the cultivation of crops which have been altered over many years using the most elemental of technologies, that of human or artificial selection.

And so if all that we make is considered to be both nature and an artifice within nature, then it may be interesting to see what we can learn as architects from ecology, the scientific study of the relationship between the living and non living components of an environment.

In the next few minutes I am going to tell you about 2 animals and how they relate to their environment. Then I am going to tell you about some architectural propositions which develop an idea about iterative making.



The first animal is the Cane Toad (Bufo Marinus). In the early 1930’s the sugar cane farmers of Northern Australia had their crop repeatedly decimated by a small beetle. After much debate and research as to how this problem might be solved they imported 102 Toads from Hawaii which were bred in captivity for a number of years and then released into the wild. It was intended that the toad would eat the beetle and hence save the crop. What they found, however, was that the beetle’s normal habitat was at the top of the sugar cane, just that little bit higher than the reach of the toad.

Due to this most mundane logistic oversight the toad could not fulfil our intended purpose.

This in isolation would have been cause for alarm but it was another unforeseen trait which has resulted in devastating affect. In the Darwinian sense the toad turned out to be the fittest for the environments of Northern Australia and with their amazing breeding capacity, prodigious consumption of anything small enough to swallow and innate toxicity to predators, went on to kill untold native species. What’s more, despite many attempts we have still not managed to correct this imbalance and they are still up there now almost eighty years later, still spreading.



That was a cautionary tale, the next is exemplarily.  The Thorny Devil (Moloch horridus) is endemic to Central Australia and in its strange form and behaviour has adapted in very specific ways to its unique environment. Its tiny body is coloured in camouflaging shades of desert browns and tans which change from pale colours when it is warm to darker colours when cold. It is also entirely covered with conical spines and has a “false-head” on the back of its neck. When confronted the animal presents this to a potential predator by dipping its real head making it more difficult to swallow. It has also adapted to the lack of precipitation in it’s environment in an amazing way. Via a hygroscopic system of grooves in its skin water is collected which would fall on any part of its body and is directed along ridges to the corners of its mouth.

We can see in this remarkably strange creature an example of the beautifully balanced relationship between a living organism and its environment when it has evolved over a long period of time.



The first architectural proposal I want to show you is an intervention in the city of Istanbul prepared by Zaha Hadid Architects and I will not dwell on the proposal itself for long because for me it is only an example of a type of large structure in our cities which stretches back through recent architectural history perhaps to Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin for Paris.

Plans such as these are similar to the cane toad not only in that they are introduced for an overt economic imperative. There is an amazing seductiveness in the neatness of the solution, all the answers are resolutely packaged in an image and the utopian future it offers.

But the city is not ordered homogeneity, quite the opposite. As Richard Sennett says:

“Cities are places where learning to live with strangers can happen directly, bodily, physically, on the ground. The size, density, and diversity of urban populations makes this sensate contact possible – but not inevitable. One of the key issues in urban life, and in urban studies, is how to make the complexities a city contains actually interact.” (Capitalism and the City by Richard Senett)

The issue here is that the architects of these plans have not heeded that the design of the city requires an entirely different manner of making. As architects designing a small building, say a house, we aim to control every decision so that the outcome is exactly as we would have envisaged. With the series of large buildings and interstitial spaces which comprise a city we as individuals do not have the cognitive ability to understand the myriad of interconnected functions required to design in the same way. And when we pretend to do so we fail. In the past if we have failed in endeavours such as these we have simply abandoned our mistake, moved on and started again. But as the tonnage of human flesh becomes greater, to borrow a turn of phrase from Bruce Sterling, the ramifications of our decisions multiply and the waste of our mistakes can no longer be overlooked.

Historically the master planed instant city has been an anomaly, more typical has been the precursor to the city, the village. In Hill Town’s such as this in Abruzzo, Italy, there is a model for a more evolved manner of making. In this instance the form in the image came about only through iterative consideration and actions undertaken over a long period of time.



In a moment we have the privilege of hearing speak the architect Fumihiko Maki and again I will only touch briefly on the building to leave the poetic details for him. In 1967 Maki Associates began the preparation of a design for a 250m long parcel of land in Tokyo’s Daikanyama district, this was the beginning of a 25 year iterative design and construction process in which a small section of the city was gradually made and adapted over time and it has resulted in Hillside Terrace.

This is for me a very clear example of the making of a large building in the city which has at its core the diverse voices to which Richard Sennett refers. Here Maki-san has made an artefact which embodies notions of biological evolution as a design methodology. He has used time and iterative making to re-evaluate his considered study of human behaviour in space firstly and the study of material and form can be seen as a secondary endeavour.

And so we must thanks architects such as Maki-san who offer a way of making that is other that the image orientated, form based exuberance so in favour today. In his vast and diverse body of work I see consistency in the engagement of all of the senses, in materiality and gravity, but above all in the enjoyment of an individual’s experience in space.

It is a rare privilege to introduce you to the architect of a quiet manifesto and if he will forgive me for doing so I will now read from Nurturing Dreams his final thoughts with regard to Hillside Terrace.

What is the nature of an urban community today? How does human behaviour respond to space? Where do buildings first begin to show signs of age? Hillside Terrace has provided me with daily opportunities to learn the answers to such questions. As buildings become bigger and projects become more dispersed over the globe, architectural experiences such as those I have had in Daikanyama become ever more valuable. It is in such experiences that both love for architecture and fear for its future are born.


Please welcome Fumihiko Maki.




panovscott - Natural Artifice - Melbourne 2011. Via.

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