New Ecological Signifiers for Old Semiotic Scaffolding: Translating Urban Ecology for the Primate Brain

Here in the Northern Hemisphere, springtime is in full swing. Toads are trilling in the marsh, rambunctious blooms are signaling their juiciness to pollinators, beehives are abuzz with workers doing elaborate wiggles to relay the location of the sweetest nectar, and baby gulls will soon be pecking at the red spots on their parents’ beaks. These are just a few examples of information being shared and actions being effected in nature through the medium of signs. Even if human forms of communication have some unique characteristics, the ability to read and interpret the world through signs is clearly much more universal–indeed, as semiotician Wendy Wheeler writes, there is a growing recognition that the inextricable “ecological intertwining of flesh, sign, and world” is in fact the fundamental basis of all life (Wheeler 4). According to Wheeler, the laws of thermodynamics apply equally to energy and information because any living thing is the result of the coordination of the two phenomena. Life is enabled by the “complex flows of sign relations within and across bodies” and species (Wheeler 11). Any species’ ability to interpret and act on signs in its environment is key to its long-term success and survival.

Signs of spring in nature: the spectrogram of a Prairie Warbler call and apple blossoms, illustration by Misha Semenov

This post asks how the design of the human environment in the 21st century can build on the biosemiotic scaffolding of both human and nonhuman species. Recognizing that our bodies are born to interface with nature, how can we use what we know about that process now to embed new, ecologically relevant sign systems into the environments we create? What kind of ecological information should these signs convey? How can we build on existing signifiers to create a universally applicable language, including one potentially legible to nonhumans? Ultimately, how can biosemiotics inform urban design for a more ecologically conscious society? These are just a few of the questions we will pose and discuss in what follows.

The +POOL Light in New York City’s East River
Continue reading “New Ecological Signifiers for Old Semiotic Scaffolding: Translating Urban Ecology for the Primate Brain”

Happy World Water Day!

As you may have heard, it’s World Water Day, and today we’d like to remind you how incredible water is! Too often, we take water for granted, but freshwater is a scarce resource.

To emphasize how large a role water has played in human societies throughout history, below are some of the many water deities venerated across the world at one time or other. Water, at once quotidian sustenance and ritual object, is both mundane and sacred. (And by the way, that last sentence was a hint for the topic of our upcoming post on water… stay tuned!)

Abzu- Mesopotamian god of freshwater, father of all the gods.

Continue reading “Happy World Water Day!”

Merging Environments: Defining “Nature” in an Age of Urbanization

With the goal of building the foundation for a culture of greater ecological literacy among urban dwellers, this post tries to unpack the construct of “urban nature,” asking what it is exactly that Ecoempathic design should be connecting people to. We will discover that design’s power lies in its ability to bring us closer–even, at times, uncomfortably so–to the nonhuman cohabitants of our cities, exposing the deep web of interspecies connections that permeates what we tend to think of as an exclusively “manmade” environment.

The Ecoempathy Project’s work explores how the design of cities can create emotional connections between people and the natural world. While this is a catchy elevator pitch, it is also an inherently problematic statement. For one thing, it implies a clean distinction of “people” from the “natural world.” It also suggests that the “natural world” is an easily definable thing. The reality, as any urban ecologist would know, is far messier. Even in the densest of concrete jungles, we live in a constant state of entanglement with other creatures and natural systems. Are these creatures visitors from an untarnished “nature” or are they already inexorably fused with us? How can the design of our cities respond productively to this condition?

With the goal of building the foundation for a culture of greater ecological literacy among urban dwellers, this post tries to unpack the construct of “urban nature,” asking what it is exactly that Ecoempathic design should be connecting people to. Along the way, we explore fascinating discoveries and insights from the field of urban ecology, theories of the environment, and the sensory worlds of urban animals. Ultimately, we will discover that design’s power lies in its ability to bring us closer–even, at times, uncomfortably so–to the nonhuman cohabitants of our cities, exposing the deep web of interspecies connections that permeates what we tend to think of as an exclusively “manmade” environment. Our buildings are humans’ interface with rapid urban evolution, and should be legible as such.

London designer Gitta Gschwendtner built this wall that incorporates 1,000 nest boxes in Cardiff Bay, UK. It includes four types of boxes to accommodate different species of birds and bats. Source: savagecities.blogspot.com
Continue reading “Merging Environments: Defining “Nature” in an Age of Urbanization”

Ecoempathy Featured on USGBC’s Built for Health Podcast!

We’re excited to announce that the Ecoempathy Project was featured today on the latest episode of the US Green Building Council’s Built for Health Podcast. Co-founder Misha Semenov had a great conversation with Cornell University Prof. Gary Evans and Stanford University Schneider Fellow Flavia Grey. We discussed how buildings influence our mental health and strategies for connecting architecture to nature.

Have a listen, and stay tuned for more Ecoempathy Project updates soon!

bit.ly/32WczAU.

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The Ecoempathy Pattern Book: A Sneak Peek

Screen Shot 2019-10-13 at 22.29.12Here at the Ecoempathy Project, it’s been a busy year! We’ve been hard at work on collecting our research into a book project. The project is only in its infancy, but we’re excited to share a sneak peek at a first draft with you.

Check out The Ecoempathy Pattern Book draft at this link.

Below are just a couple of illustrations from the draft book. The goal is ultimately to create a catalog of architectural and urban interventions that help to create an empathic connection between people and the natural world, one that architects and planners can use as a toolkit for making more natureful human habitats.

Stay tuned for upcoming posts on biophilia, phenomenology, and neuroscience, and leave a comment to let us know what you think.

Rethinking Functionalism: What plant flowers and roots can teach us about the importance of perception in the natural and built environments

Like other semiotic signals in nature, buildings can be part of the instruction manual for human existence in a complex and fragile web of ecological relationships.

db_softhouse_01This post, a preview of a talk Misha is giving at Greenbuild Chicago in November 2018 with Ann Sussman entitled “The Missing E in LEED,” explores what “functionalism ” entails in architecture and in ecology, proposing a new definition for ecologically and socially “functional” architecture of the future. We begin with an examination of the origins of functionalism in Chicago and Europe, take a tour through perception in ecology, and end with some examples that suggest a new way forward that embraces ecological expression as a true function for 21st-century architecture.

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Sullivan’s Guaranty Building

In his seminal 1896 essay on the design of tall office buildings, architect and brilliant ornament designer Louis Sullivan first introduced into architectural discourse the phrase “form follows function.” For Sullivan, this dictum, applied to the design of an office building, was a far cry from the later misinterpretation that every single element has to have a structural or mechanical “function.” Instead, Sullivan was interested in applying to his architecture a law that he found in the natural world: “All things in nature have a shape, that is to say, a form, an outward semblance, that tells us what they are.” Continue reading “Rethinking Functionalism: What plant flowers and roots can teach us about the importance of perception in the natural and built environments”

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.

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”