Subnature: Architecture’s Other Environments

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Nature is a governing feature of postindustrial architecture and planning. Few would contradict the notion that living in harmony with nature—with greenbelts, sunshine and beautifully-landscaped parks enhances our lives. In prioritising this mode of living we adopt an exclusionary definition of nature, one which favours certain elements of the natural and vilifies others. David Gissen explores Subnature, those forms of nature deemed undesirable.

Subnatures are those forms of nature deemed primitive (mud and dankness), filthy (smoke, dust and exhaust), fearsome (gas or debris), or uncontrollable (weeds, insects, and pigeons). We can contrast these subnatures to those seemingly central and desirable forms of nature—e.g., the sun, clouds, trees and wind. These latter forces are generally worked into the forms, practices and ideas that constitute the primary realisation of nature within architecture.

What follows is an investigation into the ways contemporary architects and planners have tried to work various types of Subnature into their work. Gissen looks into dankness, smoke, gas, exhaust, dust, puddles, mud, debris, weeds, insects, pigeons and crowds—furnishing his expositions with examples and historicising each element to show the process by which it shifted from natural to subnatural.

Pigeons—to take one of the most interesting pieces in the book—were not always considered vermin which had to be forcibly kept out. They were once encouraged to breed inside of buildings and elements of their natural form were incorporated into the mouldings of ancient and modern classical architecture. This embrace of pigeons was typified by the rise in construction of dovecots for feudal lords and later by the admiration of their ability to adapt to the new industrialised cities in Europe in literature and popular culture.

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