Communicating the Natural World Through Architecture

Updated: February 12, 2021

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In drawings and photography, buildings and spaces that humans create would typically seem the antithesis of the natural world. Building materials that come from the earth – wood, stone, clay, and so forth. But buildings can be dissected into specific, manufactured building materials of a certain human-determined size. These materials are used to make flat planes of walls, floors, and ceilings. They hold water and air where they typically don’t go. And they create a shelter in the middle of (in spite of?) the outside world. Most illustrations of the built world are in a complete contrast to the visual qualities of the natural world. Architectural drawings provide information on how to build buildings, but they can also be more than that. They can provide even more subtle information about the style of architecture, the quality of the space of the building, or how different materials, colors, and textures work together. But what happens when architecture is trying to tell us something else that goes against its man-made nature? Nature has forever been an inspiration to humans in fine art and music. Architecture is no exception – and there are three instances where nature is directly involved in visualization of the built environment.


An example of the built environment that uses a somewhat superficial application of nature is the Plaza de Espana by Herzog + de Meuron in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Canary Islands. Around a man-made water basin, two pavilions in the plaza feature green roofs to pay homage to the rich environment of the islands themselves. We can see the incredible ecosystems of the Canaries by just visiting the islands themselves. Having these green roofs at the Plaza isn’t really necessary, but they provide an aesthetically pleasing element – by having nature literally applied to the surface of the structures. This application of actual “nature” – plants in this case – has a slight bit of symbolism to it, mirroring the environment around it. But the application is only surface deep.

A green roofed pavilion at the Plaza de Espana, by Herzog + de Meuron
The incorporation of nature and other natural elements can have utilitarian effects – such as cooling the surface of buildings or filtering rain water. There are many other incorporations that can provide a calm or peaceful ambiance, but many are really for an artistic wow factor – such as the work of landscape artist Patrick Blanc, who is responsible for modernizing the “vertical garden.”
a Vertical Garden on the Halles a Avignon (a shopping center in France) by Patrick Blanc


Better-known glimpses of the natural world into the built environment are seen in examples of figurative illustrations of nature in architecture. Some of the best examples of figurative or symbolic applications can be found the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. Taliesin West, Wright’s western home and studio – takes direct motifs from the layered cliff and low, rocky hills across the desert. The materials, textures and colors are also taken directly from the site.

Taliesin West and the desert horizon by Frank Lloyd Wright
Wright’s famous Fallingwater house follows the descent of the falls themselves. (Being in the midst of them doesn’t hurt to re-iterate the visualization of nature in this built form as well).
Fallingwater's form cascading with the falls - Frank Lloyd Wright
Fay Jones, who was a fellow of FLW’s at Taliesin, uses the majestic canopy of trees as inspiration for his Thorncrown Chapel. The soaring members of the chapel’s interior reflect the woods of the Ozark Mountains, bringing the majesty of the natural world into the interior of the intimate wooden building by imitating the site itself.
A built canopy of "trees" in Fay Jones' Thorncrown Chapel


A third approach seemingly takes the attention away from the built world entirely, While we are used to the ego of the architect and it illustrated by monumental building forms, these examples go against this idea by making the building’s impression in the natural environment as minimal as possible. This light touch on the earth is displayed in Philip Johnson’s Glass House from 1949. This house “floats” in nature as the floor is suspended 10 inches off of the ground. The glass exterior and open floor plan use the views of nature as the home’s walls.

A transparent box amidst the trees - Philip Johnson's Glass House
But even Johnson’s Glass House was not the first example of bringing the outside in. Mies van der Rohe used the same concept in the Farnsworth House two years before the Glass House. Van der Rohe’s mantra of uniting man, nature and the home is distinctly featured in the form and material choice of Farnsworth.
Multiple frames of the natural world with the Farnsworth House - Mies van der Rohe
Bringing nature into the built environment is so much more than site selection or window placement. It is more than material choices or throwing a ficus tree in the living room. These examples show the subtle and more flagrant ways of ordering the built environment to capture the visual and physical qualities of the natural environment.   Elizabeth Lamy has a passion for architectural history, sociology and construction. A researcher for the Associated General Contractors, she has a degree in Architecture and Spanish from UNCC.

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