Thoughts on Beauty (2/3) | Biophillia


Biophillia suggests that humans possess an innate tendency to seek connections with nature and other forms of life.  Edward O. Wilson introduced the concept in his book, Biophilia (1984). He defines biophilia as

the urge to affiliate with other forms of life.

Wilson argues that this urge is fundamental to all people because of humankind's history evolving alongside the land.  Historically, people have always been sustained by nature.  Today, our society has a diminished relationship with nature compared to our relatives.  In an increasingly urbanized and outsourced world, many people lack basic understanding of natural processes.  However, the effects of biophilia can still be felt strongly, even if subconsciously.  Studies have shown that hospital patients who have visual access to something growing outside have better recovery times and workers who have access to nature are more productive.  

Natural Language

In ‘The Language of Landscape’, Ann Whiston Spirn suggests that landscape is a language that “makes thought tangible and imagination possible”. Landscape is its own language; in fact, Spirn begins by stating that landscape is our native language.  The sky, water, and elements on the earth speak to humans and inform us on where to find food, water, and shelter.  Spirn compares nature to verbal language by using examples of speech, story lines, metaphors, and dialogues.  Forms in the landscape inform human behavior and interaction.  They also act as a library of knowledge to look back on as a resource.  Natural landscapes suggest a rhythm that informs culture and human patterns of life.  Spirn calls for a fluency in landscape language to be cultivated and not lost.  Understanding the landscape holistically and the deep context imbedded in all facets of the nature are paramount for the success of design. 

Human Ecosystems

Human The Living Buildings Challenge introduces biophilia as a vital aspect of design.  Within the Health and happiness Petal, the LBC mandates a ‘biophilic environment.

Examples of biophilic design can be found here.

In ‘Design for Human Ecosystems’ John T. Lyle examines the theory of compartmentalized landscape tropes into a variety of categories subdivided into places for people and places for nature.  One category forms the spaces of compromise.  According to Lyle, this fragmented view of landscape is too narrow. The ‘compromise’ category acts as an inadequate and unhealthy representation of how to think about shared space.  In ‘The Granite Garden’, Ann Whiston Spirn agrees that with this rejection of separation.  According to Whiston Spirn, nature is a continuum with wilderness at one pole and city at the other.  However, the same ecological processes exist in both.  Rather than viewing shared spaces as compromise, Lyle suggests the design of human Ecosystems.

Lyle advocates for three organizational techniques used for shaping human ecosystems: scale, design process, and order.  Understanding appropriately scaled ecosystems is fundamental for  success.  Ecological consciousness as well as environmental values must exist before the creation of form.  Ecological processes must be made legible through a design orientation centered around biophillia.  The Living Buildings Challenge introduces biophilia as a vital aspect of design.  Within the Health and happiness Petal, the LBC mandates a ‘biophilic environment.

Examples of biophilic design can be found here.

A Larger Framework

An ecosystem can exist on any scale.  Ann Whiston Spirn calls the earth a “garden planate” and presents that a city is a garden made up of many tiny gardens.  All ecosystems exist as a part of a larger whole; this includes urban ecosystems.  From the larger forests and rivers that surround the city to the weeds growing up through cracks in the sidewalk, there exists a connection and a similarity.  These facets of nature are functioning identically apart from location and scale.  Whiston Spirn rejects the concept that the city exists in opposition to nature but rather as a piece of the larger framework.

A Deeper Need

Humans do not exist in isolation from the rest of the natural world.  We are, tethered to our environment. In ‘Design with Nature’ Ian Mcharg references his response to a “deeper need” to retreat into places of nature and calls people co-tenants of the earth.  With this in mind, people should seek to build biophilic order into their designs.  Order in design may be overlooked as a visual construction; however, this order references a much more complex relationship between fragile natural processes and the processes of people.  Lyle references structure, function, and location as rudiments of order.  Order reflects human kinds dependency on land ethic. 

Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language.
— Aldo Leopold - ‘A Sand County Almanac’

Nature is Beauty.  Our world is beautiful and fragile and we are a part of it.   Biophilia is that understanding that we are united with nature and an understanding that we are dependent on nature.  This is a vulnerable contract with our environment.  Ian Mcharg continually speaks to the critical role of nature for human existence not only as resources but for well-being; saying:

Our eyes do not divide us from the world but unite us with it.