Striking a balance between nature and culture

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From Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater in the forest landscape of Bear Run to Peter Zumthor’s Alllmannajuvet Zinc Mine Museum in the rugged terrain along the Norwegian County Road. Architecture built within natural environments embodies both an ideal of a connectedness between culture and nature as well as a juxtaposition between human intervention and nature preservation. The discussion on the relationship between nature and culture is a constant ideological battleground of conservatism, dystopia, and hope.  Right now, we are in the middle of an ecological crisis and constantly faced with the consequences of our own interference in the natural environment – a new geological epoch often referred to as the Anthropocene, defined by the significant human impact on the earth’s ecosystems. Every year, millions of humans and non-humans are forced to find new habitable places because of increasingly extreme climate conditions and weather phenomena. How does this radically changing context inform our relation to nature? Do we dwell in a believe that nature per definition is being spoiled by human presence and needs to be left alone? Or do we consider a balance – a state of synergy between culture and nature?

Sometime ago, I read an interview with French artist Pierre Huyghe done prior to the opening of his exhibition ‘Offspring’ at Kunsten Museum in Aalborg, Denmark. He spoke about a current state of perpetual crisis and the need to get to know the world in a completely new way, giving heed to vulnerability and challenging our fear of the unknown. He said: “I dream of neither a romantic nor a raw state of nature. The world is no longer ‘pure’ in the biological sense. We have polluted it and filled it with all things and systems that our troubled, anxious, and separated minds have enabled us to create and depend on (…) It is the automatic and unconscious reactivity that is destructive because it is impulsive and blind. It prevents us from discovering how we can be here in a more present, responsive, and gentle way”. Within the Anthropocene it is exactly this vulnerability and need to point in a direction of increased connectedness that seems important. I can feel emotionally captivated by nature, overwhelmed and sometimes even insignificant to it. But I never feel detached from it. To me, the natural is no longer secluded from human endeavours. We cannot simply step out of nature. Instead of asking if nature and culture can exist together, maybe we should rather ask how they can interact with each other in a meaningful and less harmful way.

Within the last eight years, we have designed building for four sites deemed UNESCO world Heritage for their extraordinary natural beauty and value. With each project, the questions of striking a balance between the natural and the constructed becomes ever more pressing. Is it better not to interfere? Or can architecture bring about a new relevance and awareness? In his essay ‘The Trouble with Wilderness’ American historian William Cronon writes: “If we allow ourselves to believe nature, to be true, must also be wild, then our very presence in nature represents its fall. The place where we are is the place where nature is not”. This conveys a strange predicament. If we perceive nature and culture to be entirely disconnected and humans to be natures demise, then nature cannot endure if humankind survives. And without any major catastrophe this is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future. Humankind will remain a major geological force for many thousand years and as Cronon points out, placing humanity and nature at polar opposites leaves “little hope of discovering what an ethical, sustainable, honourable human place in nature might actually look like”.  To get to know the world in a new and more responsible way, might exactly mean that we need to rescind the ubiquitous separation between nature and culture. And if done in a sensible and informed way, I believe that architecture can play a significant role in creating a new paradigm for how we live and interact with our surroundings.

Read the full article in The Plan

Storm in the mountains of Iterlak by ©Henrik Saxgren
Hiking at the edge of Ilulissat Icefjord by ©Adam Mørk
Ilulissat Icefjord Centre by ©Adam Mørk
The marshes of the Wadden Sea by ©Wadden Sea Centre
The Wadden Sea Centre by ©Adam Mørk