Subnature: Architecture’s Other Environments by David Gissen, Princeton Architectural Press, 224 pages
Did you know that a social history of dust has been published? This is just one of the fascinating nuggets of information that can be gleaned from David Gissen’s imaginative book, which studies and contextualizes contemporary architecture’s “other environments.” If you’re like me, you’ll come away from this close examination of ubiquitous, though often overlooked, elements of our world with a profound new way of thinking about how the built environment is shaped by social interaction and vice versa.
Gissen takes as his subject the forgotten, hidden ignored, or feared elements of our everyday lives. Breaking the topics into sections titled “Atmospheres” (in which he discusses dankness, smoke, gas, and exhaust), “Matter” (where he offers reflections on the impact of dust, puddles, mud, and debris), and “Life” (an account of our interaction with weeds, insects, pigeons, and crowds), Gissen argues that “subnature” is produced when architecture and nature meet by design. “Subnatures enable us to better understand our environment as a product of social and historical processes,” he writes, “as something tied to social history, as much as natural history.”
Arguing against the simplified dynamic between architecture and nature that prevails in much design practice (Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie-style homes are a major reflection of this ideal), Gissen attempts to open up new ways of seeing both nature and architecture. “By actively reflecting on the alienating material of the socionatural environment, we might as a profession arrive at a truly radical alternative concept of the environment for the contemporary architect.” This isn’t to say that Gissen’s book is jargon-filled or meant only for those in the business of designing buildings. I found it to be clearly written and full of creative ideas and information that inspired me to pay attention to elements of the world around me that had formerly gone unnoticed.
Gissen’s book points the way toward a more exciting future that would include architecture that looks at so-called problems — puddles on the roof or weeds growing along a path, for example — as rich fodder for new ideas and aesthetics in our built environment. In 1999, for example, NL Architects wrapped a utilitarian building in Utrecht with a rubberized material, providing the structure with a “skin” that collected, reflected, and highlighted the water that fell on and near it. “The architects intentionally designed the building’s skin to enhance the wet climate of the Netherlands,” Gissen says. Another example is the Mosquito Bottleneck (2003), a theoretical home designed for the tropical climate of Trinidad by R&Sie(n) Architects. This structure has not been built, but it is a concept that would essentially transform an entire house into a mosquito trap, thus enlivening the space and making it function to rid the area of insect-borne diseases.
Some of the examples Gissen includes and discusses make an abject material into a beautiful thing. In New Mexico, the concept of building with mud is not a new thing, though not many of us would welcome the idea of having mud floors. Yet Tom dePaor Architects recently designed the first Irish Pavilion for the International Architecture Biennale in Venice built out of mud imported from Irish bogs. The small structure was simultaneously inviting and repulsive: the bricks were moist and constantly emitted a sulfurous odor, yet they also created a cool interior space.
Each of the short chapters in Subnature follows the same concise formula: Gissen presents a brief history of the topic, discusses the theory connected to it, and provides a discussion about and images of contemporary architects and artists working with the topic. Many of the architects and quoted sources will be familiar to the reader. Architects from Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Buckminster Fuller, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Rem Koolhaas figure into Gissen’s study alongside authors and thinkers from Vitruvius to Georges Bataille to Donna Haraway.
I appreciated the flexible structure of the book, which can be read quickly from cover to cover but can also be approached cafeteria style, allowing the reader to range freely among the unusual images and topics in any order. Delving into any chapter will open up new ideas about the history and future of our built environment.
Exterior view of Mosquito Bottleneck by R&Sie(n) Architects, Trinidad, 2003; top, detail of an architectural design for a skyscraper incorporating puddles, by Jason Johnson/Nataly Gattegno, New York City, 2005