Framing the Sublime: Architecture as (Pedagogical) Parergon to “Nature” in America’s National Parks

the role of national park architecture is, far beyond its purely functional aspects, to articulate a relationship between humans and nature particular to its historical moment. Park architecture, as a sliver of human habitat in the wild, acts as a mediator between the sublime landscapes of parks and their human visitors, helping the park rangers and docents with their mission of interpretation.

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CraigThomasSkyThe majestic Ahwahnee Hotel, with its framed views of Yosemite Valley. The dramatic portal of the Norris Museum, providing a curated entry sequence into the Geyser Basin at Yellowstone. The graceful shed of the Quarry Visitor Center at Dinosaur National Monument, enclosing a paleontologist’s paradise within its steel frame. The half-sumberged Elieson Visitor center, with its picture windows strategically aimed at Denali. At first glance, these structures, some extravagant, some subdued, none original to a pre-tourist landscape, do not seem entirely consistent with the United States National Park Service’s obligation, defined in the 1916 Organic Act, “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life [in parks] and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”[1] They are undoubtedly intrusions into the “pristine” wilderness of the National Parks, both visually and ecologically. One could argue that these structures are necessary for the purely functional reasons of providing services and accommodations to growing numbers of park visitors coming for “enjoyment,” but that is an unsatisfying argument for why buildings, and specifically architecturally significant buildings, belong in national parks. In this post, I argue that the role of national park architecture is, far beyond its purely functional aspects, to articulate a relationship between humans and nature particular to its historical moment. Park architecture, as a sliver of human habitat in the wild, acts as a mediator between the sublime landscapes of parks and their human visitors, helping the park rangers and docents with their mission of interpretation. At its best, national park architecture, strategically deployed as a parergon to the scenery itself, amplifies the affective qualities of natural landscapes, reinforcing an emotional and intellectual connection between people and the park. Continue reading “Framing the Sublime: Architecture as (Pedagogical) Parergon to “Nature” in America’s National Parks”

A Sense of Scale: Using the Language of Ornament as a tool for Increasing Environmental Literacy

While ecological processes scale up and down completely unconstrained by human limits of perception and in a dynamic fashion, ornament is inherently linked to the scale of the seat of haptic sensation: the body of Homo sapiens.

IMG_3098In today’s post, we explore how the unique power of ornament to condense spatial and temporal phenomena into a single geometric expression can be harnessed to bring environmental information down to a human scale, thereby increasing the legibility and relevance of otherwise invisible phenomena. In addition to proposing a use of ornament as ecological representation, we also delve deeper into the importance of the concept of scale, and what exactly the “take-home message” from such a pedagogical approach ought to be.

This is the second in a series of posts conceived in conjunction with Aaron Ellison, Alex Felson, and Kent Bloomer as part of a series of sessions on Ornament and Ecology.

Continue reading “A Sense of Scale: Using the Language of Ornament as a tool for Increasing Environmental Literacy”

Rhythm in Ornament and Ecology

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Ecology and Ornament share fundamental properties.

With this post, we are excited to welcome Ecoempathy Project readers to a new six-part series that dives into the linkages between architectural ornament and ecological science. 

These posts are part of a research initiative on ornament and ecology that includes ornament designer Kent Bloomer, landscape designer and ecologist Alex Felson, and Harvard Forest ecologist Aaron Ellison.

Our work represents a reaction against the deployment of green infrastructure and experimental “mesocosms,” or ecological experimental setups, in urban settings without regard for legibility, education and engagement in mind. We believe we are in need of a new role for constructed urban ecosystems as communication tools for urbanites, helping them to understand the underlying ecological processes, scientific importance, and associated maintenance challenges, all factors that too often remain invisible, as previous Ecoempathy Project posts have begun to explore.

This is where ornament comes in: our discussion takes as its starting point the realization that the underlying structural similarities between ecosystems and the systems of ornament developed in all traditional cultures’ objects and buildings are no coincidence, as the origin of the practice of ornament lies in an attempt at interpretation of the same principles of nature that govern objects of ecological study.

Some of these properties common both to traditional ornament and ecological phenomena, to be elaborated in future posts, are:

  • cyclical behavior and repetition
  • interweaving and overlap
  • metamorphosis and state change
  • thresholds and boundary conditions
  • fractal networks with nodes and multiple scales
  • accumulation/aggregation, positive feedbacks, death/collapse, and rebirth

Continue reading “Rhythm in Ornament and Ecology”

Ecoempathy and the Brain: Exploring the Way We Sense the World, Beyond Biophilia

This post explores the “empathy” component of Ecoempathy, taking a whirlwind tour through 19th-century German aesthetic theory and modern-day neuroscience investigations to understand how designers of the built environment can create work that is more tuned to our brains’ underlying need for emotional connections.

 

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“heat maps” of eye tracking results from test subjects reveal the perceived “face” in Palladio’s Villa Rotonda. Courtesy of Genetics of Design.

What is it that we feel when we look at another person? At an animal? At a plant? At a building? How do these reactions differ, and in what ways do they employ the same neurological mechanisms? How do we perceive our own relationship to the natural and built environments with the animal brains and sensory centers that are the result of our species’ long evolution? And how can we actually tap into the human mode of sensory perception and cognition to alter our relationship with the environment and foster empathy for nature and other living things?
In today’s post, we will dig deeper into the “empathy” component of Ecoempathy, taking a whirlwind tour through 19th-century German aesthetic theory and modern-day neuroscience investigations to understand how designers of the built environment can create work that is more tuned to our brains’ underlying need for emotional connections. Continue reading “Ecoempathy and the Brain: Exploring the Way We Sense the World, Beyond Biophilia”

Pedagogical Hydrology: Towards a more Empathic (and Emphatic) Green Infrastructure

How can we create pedagogical landscapes to teach citizens about hydrology through narrative framing of stormwater treatment? How can we make these interventions attractive and invite people to contemplate, study, and linger?

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In previous posts, we have explored how green infrastructure, urban water systems, tidal cycles, and building performance visualizations can be made more engaging, interactive, and sensuous, using ideas from Joan Nassauer, David Orr, Giancarlo Magnone, and others. Designers like Studio Dreiseitl and Stacy Levy have shown us how the physical form of water infrastructure can be inflected to tell urban residents a story about where their water comes from and where it is going, engaging all five of their senses. This month, one of the authors had an opportunity to put these lessons into practice in a brief exercise done in collaboration with a team of stormwater engineering students on a project for the US EPA’s Rainworks Challenge. Continue reading “Pedagogical Hydrology: Towards a more Empathic (and Emphatic) Green Infrastructure”

Framing the View to Nature: Windows as Empathic Mediators between Indoor and Outdoor Ecology

How can the design of the windows of a building change our relationship with what is on the other side?

 

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in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Dana house, windows based on Sumac branching patterns serve as a bridge between the geometry of the interior and the plant life outdoors.

In previous posts, we have already discussed the importance of the threshold condition, proposed new designs for resource flow interfaces, and presented ways architects have charged the nature-architecture interface with meaning. American Prairie School masters provide stunning examples of this, as in Louis Sullivan’s ornament at the Carson Pirie Scott building, which injects natural rhythms and forms into the liminal space of the window reveal, or Frank Lloyd Wright’s Sumac window in the Dana house, which frames a view of vegetation through panes based on a geometric interpretation of that same vegetation. Today’s post takes a deeper dive into windows as mediators and framing devices. How can the design of the windows of a building change our empathic relationship with what is on the other side? How do the shape, material quality, and sensory aspects of a window affect how we perceive nature in relationship to our own bodies? Are there ways that windows can communicate more information than immediately meets the eye, becoming translation devices between natural and built environments? To answer these questions, this post takes a ramble through architectural history, from medieval stained-glass window sundials to high-tech responsive glazing.
Continue reading “Framing the View to Nature: Windows as Empathic Mediators between Indoor and Outdoor Ecology”

The Kroon Hall Metabolic Ornament Project: An Ecoempathic Approach to Expressing a Building’s Resource Consumption

This post explores the ways in which architecture, the language of ornament, and the flow analyses of industrial ecology can fuse into a new kind of device for rendering legible the metabolism of a building

indicatorlightsCan a building be designed in a way that allows its inhabitants to understand its metabolism and their role within it? As we try to make buildings more dynamic and responsive while abating their resource needs, the communicative aspect of green building, especially when it comes to guiding building users’ decisions, becomes increasingly crucial.  This post explores the ways in which architecture, the language of ornament, and the flow analyses of industrial ecology can fuse into a new kind of device for rendering legible the metabolism of a building through an applied case study for Kroon Hall at Yale University in New Haven, CT.

This is the first in a series of write-ups about this project for the Yale Office of Sustainability; look out for a more developed version of this design in an upcoming post!

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Kroon Hall at Yale University

Kroon Hall, the Yale School of Forestry’s home, was built with the intention of creating a real-world demonstration of the latest green building technologies and biophilic principles. The design by Hopkins and Centerbrook Architects features natural ventilation, solar electricity and hot water, and beautiful glue-laminated timber arches. The building accommodates an unexpected degree of occupant-directed flexibility; most rooms feature operable windows, modifiable lights, and adjustable thermostats, and indicator lights in public areas announce when outdoor temperatures are favorable for natural ventilation. Despite the inclusion of a numerically-focused building dashboard at the entrance, however, there is no real way in which occupants of the building are made aware of the resource flows needed to sustain Kroon Hall’s operations, or made to see the consequences of their decisions within the building. Besides a distributed electronic “user guide” and periodic green building tours, there are no permanent reminders within the building of the kinds of systems that sustain it.  Continue reading “The Kroon Hall Metabolic Ornament Project: An Ecoempathic Approach to Expressing a Building’s Resource Consumption”