What are we to make of a building that wants to be a mountain? Rolling hilltops and lush green countryside: the elements of nature incorporated in contemporary architectural schemes are at once curious and complaisant. A verdurous forest is transplanted atop a mixed-use complex designed to link a city’s economic sectors. A private vacation home plays peek-a-boo burrowed deep in the emerald slope of a cultivated valley. A commercially refurbished housing development adopts the silhouette of mountain peaks and icebergs in a post-industrial dockland. The headquarters for a technology company forms the stratigraphy for gardens and fields planted with strawberries, gooseberries and sage.
A few architecture firms spearheading this eco-capitalist drive, known in academic circles as “Landform Building”, include Heatherwick Studios in London and Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) in Denmark. Both offices have practiced forms of ecological copying in their ambitions to rebuild the world through buildings that aspire to simulate a “second nature.” Their respective projects include tree-covered shopping malls and condominiums; a nuclear power plant dressed as a ski-sloped mountain with hiking trails; and a “culture and entertainment island” supposedly engineered as a cluster of ecosystems. More recently, the two award-winning offices decided to collaboratively design a material manifestation of Google Earth in another dene, Silicon Valley. Google’s Mountain View campus—a cluster of offices underneath a canopy designed to mimic a mountain range—was such a success that the tech giant commissioned them to design a new headquarters in King’s Cross, London. The eleven-storey, 92,000-square meter campus swathed in green terrains simulating “a plateau, gardens, fields, and headland” was dubbed a “landscraper” by The Guardian and received immediate approval from the Camden Council.
Architecture has long cultivated a tamed version of nature as a decorative extension of itself. Popularized by the discipline’s fascination with the modernist rhetoric of providing technologically-mediated access to fresh air, sunlight and rooftop gardens; mathematical patterns of organic form; notions of the peripatetic picturesque; or quasi-functionalist biological performance, nature has often been slotted by architects into the domains of metaphor, ornament, or atmospheric “special effects.” At first glance, Landform Building’s depictions of nature may seem to operate within this paradigm, or perhaps through the hazy ethos of “sustainability”: the unimaginative codes of environmental recompense that tend to mask the architecture profession’s general disavowal. The more enterprising among us might even make a claim for nature’s “functionality” and “environmental performance” in these schemes. But as we dig deeper, it becomes clear that it would be an oversight to categorize these projects as merely “green” interventions to solve a problem of organization or density. Consider that the use of “urban greenery” as an outfit to appear characteristic of an ecological agenda is typically a cover to minimize the visual impact of commercial developments and urban growth funded by corporations and real estate developers. Consider, too, the troubling reality that the design of these humanmade “ecosystems” in service of marketable images of “sustainable development”—and thus architects’ participation in these neoliberal enterprises—is a global phenomenon.
If, as Bruno Latour suggests, it is from representations of nature that we derive our ideas of nature, exploring the particular approach to nature here, in all its strangeness, may help us to understand the motivations behind nature’s disappearance and reappearance in the architectural profession within the last decade. For the hybridity of these buildings with landscapes, to the extent that architecture appears to mimic and eventually become a landscape, begs further inquiry. This approach to landscape is akin to neither the vertiginous majesty of Burke’s sublime, nor the pastoral kinship of Emerson. Instead, the concept of nature conveyed in these architectural projects is, in the words of Raymond Williams, “a nature that includes ourselves.” This nature falls short of and exceeds, in equal measure, what we have imagined as wild “Nature” proper. It is, instead, synthetic, duteous, co-dependent. It is an idealized facsimile of an idea of “the environment” now long extinct. Despite its enduring narratives, the idea of nature has adopted myriad forms in tandem with historical changes and social developments; in so doing, it acts as a mirror for humankind’s image of itself and its relationship to the world. By addressing the design of “nature” as architecture, and vice versa, as symptoms dressed as material configurations and affects, we might arrive at a diagnostic of some of the causes and consequences of our current ecological plight—both inside and outside the bounds of architecture proper.
The discourse of Landform Building surfaced in architecture as an offshoot of Landscape Urbanism, just as geological and ecological debates about “the Anthropocene” began to preoccupy the scientific community. Nobel Prize–winning chemist Paul Crutzen and biologist Eugene Stoermer assigned this appellation in 2002 to refer to a geological epoch characterized by the saturation of widespread human intervention in the environment. What began as a technical discussion concerning the impact of planetary shifts in the earth’s stratigraphy has since grown into an inflammatory prophecy—often with apocalyptic and defeatist overtones—about the “great acceleration” caused by the “Age of Man.” Indeed, one needn’t look too far to see the catastrophic effects that our biogeophysical meddling has had on the earth’s oceans, organisms and atmosphere. From cracking ice sheets, acidic oceans, soil depletion and biological infertility, to global warming worsened by exhaust emissions and specimens which continue to become phantasmagoria—it has become a simple truth that, in Crutzen’s words, we are “treading on terra incognita.”
Yet while the effects of melting glaciers were being widely reported, architecture slipped inside the shamanic skin of geological massing and earthly ur-forms, appearing as mountains, ocean waves and topography. Despite ongoing public debates about the Earth’s changed ground—a central concern for the fields of architecture and landscape architecture alike—the concurrent shapeshifting between buildings and their environments was never adequately unpacked. The discourse of Landform Building retreated into formal alibis, maintaining a somewhat glib denial of architecture’s role in this planetary mess. The lavishly illustrated Landform Building: Architecture’s New Terrain (2011), based on an academic conference that took place at Princeton School of Architecture, attempted to proffer an explanation for the profession’s eco-masquerading. But it elected, instead, to foreground a set of aesthetic and compositional problems: “formal continuity”, “programmatic and organizational configurations”, “ambient effects”, “immersion”, and “surface or ground manipulations.” Marvels of “megaform” resource-infrastructure were heralded by historians and architects in its pages, while the troubling fact that half the world’s rivers are dammed was ignored. It positioned Landform Building as a technical endeavor oblivious to its surrounding context, rather than an opportunity for a self-reflexive questioning of architecture’s world-making habits.
Nature continues to perform a predominantly metaphorical and rhetorical role for Landform Building; or, it is treated as a malleable material for human manipulation. Rarely are the socio-ecological conditions of architectural and infrastructural production, and their long-term consequences, discussed in relation to the discipline’s appropriation of elements and processes in the web of life. “Landscape” is frequently used as a moniker to symbolize process, change and growth—an easy, urban corrective to soften the effects of violent architectural or infrastructural acts. Likewise, ecology is often regarded superficially as a conceptual model or analogy for constructing particular urban conditions, rather than a requisite toolkit and philosophical mindset for studying the relations and processes in the web of life that are under continual negotiation. These examples attest to a long tradition in which nature has been abstracted, personified and objectified to adopt what Lorraine Daston describes as a “mille-feuille of meanings” to refer “to everything in the universe … depending on epoch and context.” Yet the errors of this attitude are manifold: The premise relies on a fallacious division between ecological and social processes (and by extension nature and culture) as self-evident and separate ontological categories and concerns. And through their reluctance to address nature as an historical, representational and political construct, such approaches refuse to acknowledge its weighty legacy of cultural signification and crucial role in the transmission of values.
Landform Building’s tactics for sustainability, and its uncritical reception by city officials and the profession at large, may, in some measure, be due to our collective acclimation to “green-screens” of another sort. Here I am referring here to the digital imaging technique of chromakey compositing: the layering of two images into a seamless whole by masking an object’s existing context and replacing it with another background. Landform Building’s attempt to assume the appearance of a landscape produces a phenomenon akin to this kind of composite reality, wherein a synthesis of assembled parts is often confused as a “natural”, seamless whole. Indeed, our post-Internet aesthetic sensibilities have become numbly acclimated to the visual idiom of digital composition, due to our habits of viewing, understanding and building the world through the lens of data processing and computer software. Architectural practice is itself now shaped primarily by digital interfaces used for sketching, modeling and rendering. (This dematerialization of the design process is further perpetuated in architecture schools, where most students aren’t even required to know how to draw with a pencil.)
The Brazilian architectural theorist Pedro Fiori Arantes suggests in the recently translated edition of his book, The Rent of Form: Architecture and Labor in the Digital Age (2012/ 2019), that architecture’s “digital turn” in the early aughts primed architects to become faithful servants to the neoliberal cause, such that architecture could operate as symbolic capital in service of global finance. He views this phenomenon as a result of the abstraction of the architect’s own labor—the absence of the architect’s hand—in the drafting process, now mediated by screens and software. Since the architectural drawing acts as a set of directives that connect to political economy (by way of orchestrating materials, energy, industry and labor) while implicating the architect’s authorship, the use of digital tools and logics in the design process requires the human imagination and the drawing to operate within this self-inclusive system.
Certainly, Arantes is right to be critical of the “decorporealization” of the design process. In the realms of imaging software and computer-aided design—the architect’s toolkits for shaping the world—gravitational forces are mere variables, and decisions can be erased with a few clicks and undo’s. With three-dimensional modeling, it’s easy to scale the design of a building or a city upwards from zero to infinity like the supposed freedom of global capital. Software directs designers to create with an additive mindset, mirroring the ever-expanding surface of capitalism. One never has to answer responsibly to pre-existing conditions, communities, limited material resources, socio-ecologically damaging construction materials and methods, or the growing need for common things. Practicing worldmaking in an imaginal space with zero consequence is an invitation to perpetuate a capitalist and colonial legacy which treats nature and society as pure abstractions. Reliance on this design method encourages architects to bypass the inequalities of labor, colonialism, resource extraction and expropriation—processes which capitalism necessitates—that are embedded in the act of architectural construction, and to relinquish accountability for their designs beyond a project’s ability to generate revenue.
Often, this architecture’s constructed fantasies exist through visual representation, not real estate, a distinction that Arantes argues seldom matters anymore. Whereas the late nineties and early aughts were a time of “starchitecture”, in which architects achieved the status of cultural icons, we must now contend with “logotecture.” Logotecture is an approach to architecture concerned with the accrual of what Arantes refers to as “the rent of form”: the profit or value culled from the extractive exercise of designing buildings and city plans as symbolic capital. The circulation of idyllic renderings and attractive architectural photography in print and online magazines, branding campaigns to advertise cities, and lectures to young audiences at architecture schools, all of which are further disseminated via social media, act as a conduit for the expression of power and perceived value. In Arantes’s words, this architecture of visuality “receives more dividends though its circulation than through its production, or rather its production is driven by the gains from media distribution and its ability to attract wealth (through investors, tourists, public funds, etc.).”
Following the austerity of the financial crisis, “green architecture” emerged as a lucrative market, which leveraged the innovation, brand equity and moral impunity associated with sustainability’s symbolic capital. What Arantes could not have anticipated at the time of his book’s initial release is that Landform Building would take the early commercial aspirations of green architecture one step further by attempting to effectively greenscreen itself by geo-engineering its own nature. Consider that in their design rationale for a zoo in Denmark, Bjarke Ingels Group boldly claimed: “Architects’ greatest and most important task is to design man-made ecosystems—to ensure that our cities and buildings suit the way we want to live.” Geo-engineering is, perhaps, too generous a term to describe this horticultural dilettantism though: most of these projects treat the concrete surfaces of buildings as elaborate plant pots, despite these architects’ hyperbolic claims for producing “forests.” (Take, for instance, projects like Heatherwick Studios’s 1000 Trees in Shanghai, or Milles Arbres in Paris by OXO Architectes and Sou Fujimoto Architects.) These architects are generally choosy about how they wish to remake the Earth, subordinating elements in the web of life which don’t easily align with the desires of global capital, while cherry-picking others with visual appeal that meet their own aesthetic demands. The result is a discretionary approach to engineering an ecology—or at least an image of one—based on a curated selection of elements, rather than considering an ecosystem as a dynamic whole.
In his sobering take on the Anthropocene, Jason W. Moore has suggested that this current ecological epoch—characterized by his neologism, “the Capitalocene”—cannot be extracted from an eco-Marxist reading of capitalism’s law of Cheap Nature. Capital accumulation is framed as an explicitly ecological process: like the drive for cheap labor, “unpaid nature” is exploited for food, raw materials, energy, recreation and labor power in unsustainable terms. This “great acceleration” of capital, along with Cheap Nature’s unwitting role in it, have direct spatial consequences which often arrive in unassuming packages and situations beyond the construction of buildings and infrastructure. As Benjamin Kunkel points out, “property relations drive and steer societies as agents of natural history”; it is, of course, also no coincidence that the poor are often the least responsible for ecological destruction and the most likely to suffer from its effects. Of course, Cheap Nature can generate revenue through cultural forms, too: the seduction attached to sustainability’s “socially conscious” agenda is often leveraged for its soft power. Companies frequently use images of nature to sell products based on false allusions to environmental responsibility. Architecture firms are no different.
As it turns out, generating cashflow is a central theme in the discursive history of sustainability as well. In his account of sustainability’s emergence in European thought, from the early modern period to the late eighteenth century, historian Paul Warde demonstrates that the definition of sustainability itself was historically contingent and ever shifting. It was European states’ concern for the regulation of markets, increased revenues and population control (amidst the geopolitical pressures of war and religion) that made the topic of managing resources like grain and wood inextricable from political economy and social control. Such discussions were informed by scientific debates about how to metricize, represent and engineer nature’s output and its uses. The focus of these enterprises was the project of “improvement”: the managed and augmented growth of natural resources to generate a larger yield and monetary return, and to expand European empires, rather than the rhetoric of limits and offenses that we associate with sustainability today.
Nowadays, the discourse of sustainability in architecture is often associated with eco-capitalism: the theory and practice of a free-market economy in which natural resources are regarded as capital. Since profits are partially dependent on environmental protection, nature is treated as a commodity that needs to be restored after it is exploited for economic growth. This results in a looped accounting cycle of checks and balances. (Arantes notes that not only is environmental preservation monetized in this scheme, but “(de)contamination markets” and other measures of “correction”, such as pollution credits, are opportunities for financial gain as well.) But have we not descended too far into the depths of our ecological plight to justify such an ambivalent attitude? To pride ourselves on LEED and BREEAM certifications as civic and ecological achievements is like patting ourselves on the back for using lead-free paint to renovate a house on the verge of collapse. Likewise, the economic incentives for using “green technology” to create new markets rarely consider how these competitive, profit-driven scenarios will necessitate (new) forms of social mistreatment in order to flourish. Herein lies the crux of the problem not only with “green architecture”, but the cognitive dissonance of architecture’s sustainability discourse as a whole: sustainability is interested, by definition, in maintaining the status quo. Its ineffectuality as a discourse and ethics is due to its commitment to continuing an economic paradigm that must exploit in order to function well.
Like sustainability’s conflicting values, Landform Building seeks to support a neoliberal economic program without having to negotiate architecture’s fraught relationship to labor, industry and resource extraction, or forfeit its allegiance to particular construction methods and their damaging effects. This architecture adopts the rhetoric and image of ecology as shallow gestures of reparation for the destructive consequences of its architectural acts. Rather than acknowledge this fact, contemporary architects have veiled their intents behind architectural neologisms and adroit explanations to describe their design maneuvers, which are ultimately the product of an imagination that is, in reality, at odds with an ecological imagination. Although I have mentioned specific actors guilty of such offenses, this is a collective problem. It requires a profession-wide dearth of creativity and intellect to regard planting one thousand trees in a field of concrete as a reasoned and adequate response to ongoing planetary ecological mutations.
The danger of Landform Building—and sustainability’s image problem, as a whole—is that in our present state of imitation and simulation, these enterprises are taken at face value as a solution to our ecological and climatic impasse. A building that attempts to retreat to the recesses of the earth, or hide behind a concrete forest of planted trees, to the extent that its own figural legibility is obscured, is a gesture of reclusion that attempts to recuse itself of its problematic relationship to history and capital. For when the roof of a house or a multinational corporation asserts itself as an extension of a valley, how are we to discuss the ethics of property ownership, labor and exploitation? By cloaking, submerging and camouflaging its own presence, the building seems to revoke its own status. Instead, it summons us to read it as something both timeless and natural, as old as the earth’s geology. It seeks to naturalize capitalism as a primitive, primordial and embryonic construct, akin to the origins of civilization itself.
Surely, architects are at the mercy of these commissions, you might proclaim. As Raj Patel put it, it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Finance is often the architect’s first line of self-defense for their ethical abdication. Architects see themselves as being at the mercy of commissions from investors who are interested in profitable investments and whose motivations drift far from ecological and civic mandates. Although most architects concerned with the artistry of their craft wince at the thought of producing “developer architecture”, their fear of becoming obsolete keeps them loyal to the aegis of the market. The systems in which architecture is taught and practiced entertain few alternatives; the design profession has long been chained to models of patronage, now replaced with commissions from real-estate developers. But these arguments, which position ecology and the economy as a false dichotomy, are merely symptoms of what Pierre Bourdieu refers to as “economic fatalism”: a belief that “the world cannot be any different from the way it is.”
In this moment when irrefutable climatic and ecological crises have been set aside for the sake of profit-legitimized architectural commissions, it is all too tempting to fall prey to the cynicism and despair that have characterized the impasse that the Anthropocene has come to represent. For how are we to reverse the damage created by the very mechanisms of technology and capital which have simultaneously formed the growth of the architectural profession while systematically deforming the planet? Yet, that architecture would manufacture its appearance as an entity outside the bounds of its own normative recognition—adorning itself with nature as a kind of apologetic, phantom limb—is a sign of the demise of both architecture and nature as we have known them. We are slowly awakening from the delusional fantasy of unquestioned modernization, a ruthless paradigm that has reached its end. The world’s wounds cannot simply be repaired as a series of half-hearted compensations to even out the ills of human creation.
If, in Paul Crutzen’s words, “it is no longer us against ‘Nature,’ it’s we who decide what Nature will be,” the question of how we wish to envision and organize life becomes a question of how we wish to reimagine pre-existing socioecological processes and catalyze new, collective outcomes. As Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri argue, globalization has brought awareness of “the creation of common world, a world that, for better or worse, we all share, a world that has no ‘outside.’ Along with nihilists, we have to recognize that, regardless of how brilliantly and trenchantly we critique it, we are destined to live in this world.” Of course, capital, as Hardt and Negri also point out, is not an abstract or inevitable force but a social relation that uses the processes of globalization to order, invest, exploit and engineer life according to the hierarchies of economic value. Capital requires our participation in it. At the heart of capitalism’s biopolitical project is not merely the creation of more goods, or more buildings, or more objects as commodity production, but the production of the neoliberal subject itself.
The point is not to merely reject the current state of what is or apologize for what has been done. There is creative potential in this time of reckoning. As Jedediah Purdy notes in After Nature (2015), the imagination can be “intensely practical.” Since an image is a cosmology that expresses a system of logic rendered through a common syntax, the representations of nature that we, as cultural producers, generate and disseminate possess enormous power to challenge longstanding conventions and give shape to new philosophies of worldmaking. Yet the task of re-imagining new natures—and, by extension, new human natures—through a more liquid toolkit of embodied methodologies and vocabularies is not merely about touting environmental awareness through expertly branded seduction; it requires deeply questioning the very tools and logics that have fed an abstract and divisible understanding of our contemporary world. To dream of more equitable socio-ecologies we must imagine, with curiosity, substance and rigor, what a political ecology and a corresponding material culture committed to the stewardship and distribution of the commons would look and feel like. How would they behave, what questions would they ask, how would they be made, by whom, for whom, and at what price? For as Landform Building demonstrates, it is through our conscious visioning of our innermost desires that a path can be carved for their powerful materialization.