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Book Review: "Natural Architecture"
Emily Gertz, 26 Sep 07
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A fun thing about the fall (it's now autumn in my hemisphere) is that it always ushers in a new crop of art and design exhibits, programs, and publications, just in time to engage the brain as it emerges from the stupor brought on by summer heat.

This year, it seems like the sharp rise in interest toward "green" concerns is spilling over into an abundance of new works that are focused on exploring solutions to sustainability questions in their many guises. One of these is "Natural Architecture" by Alessandro Rocca, due out in early November from the Princeton Architectural Press, featuring ample and accomplished photography of over 60 site-specific installations that push "designing with nature in mind" to the limits of architectural design, and maybe past them.

Happily this is not yet another half-baked book about greening your kitchen or eco-friendly interiors, hustled onto the shelves to capitalize on the green-is-the-new-black moment. "Natural Architecture" features unique structures built using artisan skills, using natural materials in the most minimally processed forms possible, and incorporating designs that have been pared down to their most basic, eloquent expressions of the interactions between form, material and setting.

Many works move far beyond the confines of fuctional architecture and into the realm of expressive "biosculpture." (Think Andy Goldsworthy.) Some of the structures I found most intriguing, though, were the ones that crossed a dreamy naturalism with functionality and history, such as the "willow cathedral" created in 2003 by the German firm Sanfte Strukturen under the guidance of architect Marcel Kalberer. Living willows are supported by a light steel framework to form the bones of a Gothic cathedral whose soaring design references historical religious architecture, as well as perhaps this wonderful 1792 watercolor by Alexander Carse. As the willows take root, "their growth completes the architectural design of the building." The overall effect is one of calm, and connection to the land as well as to the sky -- as poignant for being realized in the cacophony and upheaval of the early 21st century as Carse's sketch might have seemed at the dawn of the Industrial Age.

The High Post-Modernist Academic writing style of the brief introduction makes for somewhat tough reading. (This may also be a result what I suspect was a rather literal translation of the text from Italian to English). Rocca's ideas seem to boil down to rejection of the modern mechanized/digitized, high velocity pace of contemporary culture, the huge scale of mass production that now accompanies it, and "naturalism...dominated by the effects of scientific progress," in favor of evoking a material culture based on utopian ideals of "the ancient naturalistic idyll, pursued by filtering the beauty and authenticity of natural elements and landscapes through the culture and sensibility of our time...belonging, alliance, complicity with the natural world..."

However valid (and poetic), it's not an incredibly original set of ideas -- but fortunately it doesn't take anything away from the eloquence and beauty of the works that follow it -- an inspiring collection by a really diverse selection of architects and designers. And since "Natural Architecture" is priced at a refreshingly affordable US $35.00 -- much less than the typical photo-rich architectural tome -- it won't be hard to add it to your bookshelf.

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