History of Ecological Design (2024)

  • Lydia KallipolitiLydia KallipolitiAssistant Professor, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute


The term ecological design was coined in a 1996 book by Sim van der Ryn and Stewart Cowan, in which the authors argued for a seamless integration of human activities with natural processes to minimize destructive environmental impact. Following their cautionary statements, William McDonough and Michael Braungart published in 2002 their manifesto book From Cradle to Cradle, which proposed a circular political economy to replace the linear logic of “cradle to grave.” These books have been foundational in architecture and design discussions on sustainability and establishing the technical dimension, as well as the logic, of efficiency, optimization, and evolutionary competition in environmental debates. From Cradle to Cradle evolved into a production model implemented by a number of companies, organizations, and governments around the world, and it also has become a registered trademark and a product certification.

Popularized recently, these developments imply a very short history for the growing field of ecological design. However, their accounts hark as far back as Ernst Haeckel’s definition of the field of ecology in 1866 as an integral link between living organisms and their surroundings (Generelle Morphologie der Organismen, 1866); and Henry David Thoreau’s famous 1854 manual for self-reliance and living in proximity with natural surroundings, in the cabin that he built at Walden Pond, Massachusetts (Walden; or, Life in the Woods, 1854).

Since World War II, contrary to the position of ecological design as a call to fit harmoniously within the natural world, there has been a growing interest in a form of synthetic naturalism, (Closed Worlds; The Rise and Fall of Dirty Physiology, 2015), where the laws of nature and metabolism are displaced from the domain of wilderness to the domain of cities, buildings, and objects. With the rising awareness of what John McHale called disturbances in the planetary reservoir (The Future of the Future, 1969), the field of ecological design has signified not only the integration of the designed object or space in the natural world, but also the reproduction of the natural world in design principles and tools through technological mediation. This idea of architecture and design producing nature paralleled what Buckminster Fuller, John McHale, and Ian McHarg, among others, referred to as world planning; that is, to understand ecological design as the design of the planet itself as much as the design of an object, building, or territory. Unlike van der Ryn and Cowan’s argumentation, which focused on a deep appreciation for nature’s equilibrium, ecological design might commence with the synthetic replication of natural systems.

These conflicting positions reflect only a small fraction of the ubiquitous terms used to describe the field of ecological design, including green, sustain, alternative, resilient, self-sufficient, organic, and biotechnical. In the context of this study, this paper will argue that ecological design starts with the reconceptualization of the world as a complex system of flows rather than a discrete compilation of objects, which visual artist and theorist György Kepes has described as one of the fundamental reorientations of the 20th century (Art and Ecological Consciousness, 1972).


  • ecological design
  • ecology
  • sustainability
  • synthetic naturalism
  • radical ecology
  • world planning
  • living machines


  • Ecology
  • Policy, Governance, and Law
  • Environmental History
  • Sustainability and Solutions


In their 1996 book Ecological Design, pioneers of sustainable design Sim van der Ryn and Stewart Cowan argued for a seamless integration of human activities with natural processes in fields including architecture, industrial ecology, sustainable agriculture, and water treatment, pointing out the inherent flaws in design and production methods, which are normatively out of synch with the rhythms and cycles of the natural world. In their own words, ecological design is “any form of design that minimizes environmentally destructive impacts by integrating itself with living processes” (p. 18). The realization that any designed product, space, or environment has an expansive presence in the world, beyond its status as an object in materialized form, is significant; it projects and extends the presence of all things relative to larger environmental forces and the nexus of global flows.

The neologism of the term ecological design emerged in the fields of design, architecture, and planning in the late 1960s, when the widely publicized image of the whole Earth rose to cultural prominence. Several publications at the time portrayed the planet as a finite system with confined resources, projecting the effects of microactions to have an effect on the macrodynamics of the planet. Thus, in many respects, ecological design marks the rise of modern environmentalism in the post–World War II period, manifest in a sense of social activism, and with design as a remedial tool, to the prognosis of a dire future. The active mobilization of design as a tool to an end has been decidedly absent from the first environmental era at the turn of the 20th century, which promoted the fresh spirit of wilderness and the preservation of unindustrialized lands.

The turn of the 21st century has marked a new era in environmental debates. This era is ostensibly discernible in the eradication of the natural and the upsurge of the naturalized, transposing Jacques Derrida’s argumentation for language and culture to the realm of materials and cycles in the natural world (Derrida & Kamuf, 1994). In this light, French architecture critic and curator Frédéric Migayrou argues that the very term ecological design infers the loss of all things natural. Specifically, he writes, “ecology as a science is based on the negation of all things natural . . . This marks the end of nature as an indeterminate field of its own” (Migayrou, 2003, p. 22).

But even beyond literary circles, the turn of the century has coincided with the rise of the term Anthropocene, which was popularized by atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen after being coined in the 1980s by biologist Eugene Stoermer. In the Anthropocene, the planet admittedly has passed through a new geological time, whereby there are no more square inches of untouched environment; that is, humans have reshaped the Earth in its entirety. In this new material and existential condition, ecological design is not solely directed toward the ethics of the world’s salvation and the rhetoric of confinement; rather, it upraises in a variety of positions, decentralized from the human race as the protagonist in the ecosystemic equation.

Overall, the invasion of ecological anxieties into the fields of design and architecture takes many faces: from the restitution of moral values in design thinking and in the revival of an archaic humanist discourse; through the substitution of “performance” for “function,” in the restoration of a lost modernist and positivist ethos; to the poststructuralist denunciation of environmental improvement and the critical recognition of waste and pollution as having a generative potential for design.

As a circular, causal form of reasoning, ecology surfaces as an inevitable mechanism of reason in design debates and in the advocacy of unity and the common good. Yet, it has been argued that following the extensive dissemination of the term sustainability—most broadly quoted in a report by the Brundtland Commission of the United Nations in 1987—the development of sustainability criteria and the institutionalization of policies promoting principles of sustainable design since the 1990s have most commonly served mainstream corporate values. Most prominently, the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification program has been critiqued consistently in various design publications as a technical classification tool that empowers capitalist production, creating a new revenue source veiled by the ethics of environmentalism.

To survey the formation of this field, three main eras will be examined in detail in this article—namely, naturalism, synthetic naturalism, and dark naturalism—each rendering the evolving perception of nature, relation to culture, and human occupation of the natural world as subjects. Here, the history of ecological design will be studied in the many faces that it has assumed since the inception of the term ecology by Ernst Haeckel. Three periods will be examined relative to evolving perceptions of nature, culture, and human occupation of the natural world: (a) naturalism (c.1866–World War II); (b) synthetic naturalism (World War II–c.1996); and (c) dark naturalism (c.1996–2017). Postenlightenment, the environmental debate focused on the assiduous observation and documentation of organisms, analytically classifying (and thus speculating on) the roots of the world’s living stock. In the postwar period, environmental issues were addressed through diagrams of feedback cycles; global resources were examined as interconnected systems that could be redistributed. In the 21st century, while the environmental discourse is much more diverse than in the past, it shares an investment in local data classification of living systems, similar to information clouds of data constellations online (Figure 1).

History of Ecological Design (1)

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Figure 1. A Diagrammatic History of Ecological Design, created by Lydia Kallipoliti and Emily Klein.

Naturalism (c. 1866–World War II)

Searching for Roots

Origin Point: Coinage of the Term Ecology by Ernst Haeckel in 1866

The first period, unfolding approximately from the mid-19th century until the end of World War II is tentatively characterized as “searching for roots.” This search is visual, as witnessed in the assiduous documentation of plants, trees, and their usage as genealogical systems; but it is also experiential, as seen in the long journeys of natural scientists to unearth the roots of the world’s living stock. The sustenance of wilderness has key significance during this period, as the natural setting was considered at this time a distinct “other,” outside the practice of everyday life. Naturalism is also manifest in the spirit of exploration of the open field, as well as in the intensification of ideas for interconnectedness and immersion with nature, either expressed in material terms, as in the case of Ernst Haeckel, or existential terms, as in the case of Henry David Thoreau.

The starting point for this period is the coinage of the term ecology by German zoologist Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919), who first used the word oekologie to refer to the “relation of the animal both to its organic as well as its inorganic environment” in his 1866 book The General Morphology of Organisms. Oekologie is derived from the Greek word oikos, meaning “household,” “home,” or “place of dwelling.” Thus, Haeckel’s definition of ecology amounted to the study of the relationships among living organisms and the biotic and abiotic environments that they inhabit. Various definitions and reinterpretations of Haeckel’s take on ecology have since emerged (notably Herbert Andrewartha and Louis Charles Birch’s 1954 definition, which considers the distribution and abundance of organisms as an important addendum), although all of them recognize ecology as the study of interrelationships between organisms and the environment (Andrewartha & Birch, 1986).

This period, which may be characterized as the prehistory of ecological design, is manifest in visual maps that illustrate and speculate on the order and roots of the natural world, such as Ernst Haeckel’s famous genealogical tree and Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s Urpflanze, the Archetypal Plant (Figures 2 and 3). At the time, nature still held a sublime quality, signifying a terrain distant from language. The natural world was seen primarily as wilderness, which was to be observed, conserved, and imagined as separate from the artificial. Goethe’s and Haeckel’s persistence in drawing trees and roots and conjecturing them as visual analogs for the classifications of organisms is largely settled in the tradition of German Romanticism, whereby the eminence of the soil, the landscape, and the ideology of nationalism provides the basis of ecological thinking. In the search for roots, the notion of ecology was associated with a longing for rootedness, a type of hermeneutics of phenomenology, before phenomenology was founded as a philosophical movement by Edmund Husserl.

History of Ecological Design (2)

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Figure 2. In 1837, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe illustrated in The Urpflanze his notion of an ancestral and archetypal mother plant that takes on different forms in response to varying climactic conditions.

History of Ecological Design (3)

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Figure 3. Ernst Haeckel’s presentation of a three-kingdom system in the 1866 Generelle Morphologie der organismen (Geneological Tree).

During this period, naturalists and architects did not attempt to represent and draw visually natural processes and cycles, but rather mostly to design spaces and environments that could be integrated within natural forces in an abstract empirical way. Integration, moreover, was expressed in the very idea of rootedness, both organizationally and iconographically, with plants and organisms serving as inspirational models for artificial structures.

It is important to note here that the origin of the history of ecological design is obfuscating at best. The small fraction of protagonists and theories included in the first part of this study is focused on the origins of transference of various ideas from ecology, biology, physiology, and natural history to design, rather than the distinctive rise of a new field. In fact, as the ecologist and historian of ecology Robert P. McIntosh (1985) argues in his book The Background of Ecology, the proliferation of various terms in the 19th century evidences an epistemological conflation of the field of ecology with biology, physiology, and natural history. As he points out, even Haeckel, who introduced the word ecology, felt it necessary to specify that “the terms biology and ecology are not interchangeable” (Haeckel, 1891). In this light, “naturalism” and “the search for roots” focus on “protoecological design ideas,” borrowing the term protoecologist (Voorhees, 1983), to describe ecological insights before a formal science of ecology was formulated.

The conflation of terms is testament to the conflation of philosophical and effectually existential positions as to the boundaries and accountabilities of ecological design as an emerging field. Questions of whether ecological design is mechanical or organic, active or passive, holistic or fragmented, conscious or unconscious are narrated by McIntosh to pronounce the origins of the field of ecology, and they still preoccupy contemporary debates of ecological design agency. If ecology has been critiqued, nevertheless, for its adherence to observation, description, and an inductive approach to science (McIntosh, 1985), as has natural science, ecological design marks the passage from the observation of natural systems to the intentional instrumentation of new systems as active agents. William Coleman, a historian of science, argues that in the 19th century, biologists switched from historical examination to experimental investigation with physiology; likewise, design has introduced to ecology intentionality, purposiveness, and meddling with natural systems, either by imitation, replication, regulation, or speculative representation (Coleman, 1978).


In many respects, the history of ecology is rooted as much in the history of classification of the world’s living stock as in the recognition of feedback, evidenced in Ernst Haeckel’s annunciation that organisms live in cohort with larger environmental forces. The ubiquity of ecological concerns such as these that have unfolded since the 19th century illustrate a persistent taxonomical thinking as a type of design endeavor, where the observation and analysis of plants and organisms are given form and value. Therefore, it is significant to witness that even before the application of language in the representation of ecosystems and the feedback cycles of their respective subsystems, the permeation of taxonomical organizational tools in the field of ecology has not been a neutral documentation of the world’s living stock. Classification is not merely about facilitating and managing knowledge; it also transforms the nature and the constitution of the systems at play and is in fact a type of design activity. The classification of ecosystems has not simply illustrated analytically what the world is made of, but also illustrated what the world should be, according to the worldview of each author. As Peter Stevens (1994) argues, classifications came to be treated as conventions; systematic practice was not linked to clearly articulated theory; there was general confusion over the shape of nature; botany, elements of natural history, and systematics were conflated; and systematics took a position near the bottom of the hierarchy of sciences.

This line of inquiry is rooted in the work of 18th-century Swedish botanist, physician, and zoologist Carl Linnaeus, known as the “father of modern taxonomy,” and later in the influential taxonomical systems of the French botanist Antoine-Laurent de Jussieu and the Swiss botanist Augustin Pyramus de Candolle in the 19th century. Parallel to these classification drawings, the geovisualization mountain drawings of German naturalist and intrepid explorer Alexander von Humboldt inspired the young Charles Darwin. Von Humboldt sought to unveil a mapping of the complex interrelationships and interdependences of plants and organisms and to render nuanced spatial distributions that underlie the natural world. Arguably, his drawings were not simply demonstrative of such distributions, but also inventive and formative, as a means to advance how certain connections might be identified (Wulf, 2016).

Finally, it is in the work of Ernst Haeckel that one might detect visual form in the concept of evolution. In these parallel lines of investigation, it is discernible that Linnaeus represents the old episteme of classifying the natural world, with classes primarily based on formal resemblances and organizations primarily based on a bottom-down hierarchy. Humboldt and Haeckel, on the other hand, represent new positions in classifying the natural world (at the time), as an interlinked network of relationships between organisms. Moreover, these two authors use inventively and formatively the medium of drawing, thus allowing the medium to develop a relationship with itself.

In particular, Linnaeus’s exhaustive catalog of work in Systema Naturae in 1735 classified 4,400 species of animals and 7,700 species of plants and introduced the conventional binomial nomenclature that is still used to classify species. His outlines of the animal, plant, and mineral kingdoms were the only visual expressions that he produced to explain these taxonomic relationships. Artists during his time produced illustration plates of the species and orders that he established, but Linnaeus produced only outlines, names, and textual descriptions. In The Order of Things, Michel Foucault (1966) argues that “by identifying plant objects through plainly expressed written codification than through illustration, ‘emptied [them] of all resemblances, cleansed even of their colors.’”

It is important to emphasize that Linnaeus believed he was chosen by God to classify a fixed number of species on Earth and to document God’s static and perfect natural order. Linnaeus’s grid was reflective of classical systems of organizing and dictating space with column orders, which were themselves static objects and whose species could be classified by their shared physical characteristics. This grid of codification was simple and direct, giving equal privilege to each part, and could essentially be used by anyone anywhere and result in the same observations. The abundance of plant species studied during the time of the naturalists was due not to a greater interest in plant life over animal life, but the fact that the taxonomic hierarchy privileged organs that were visible as such (Ayub, 2011). Linnaeus asserted a stronger sense of hierarchy in his taxonomy of what he considered the three kingdoms of the natural world: animal, plant, and mineral. While the latter two have been mostly dismissed, his ordering system for animals and the binomial nomenclature for naming organisms remain the standardized format in modern biology, even as Linnaeus denied any belief in evolution. The clarity and stability of his system were such that Charles Darwin used it as direct evidence of his theory of descent from a common ancestor through natural selection.

On the other hand, Humboldt expanded representational taxonomical formats to become ecological in Haeckel’s sense of the term, relating organism and environment through imagery in such a way that had not been seen before. He depicted scenes and phenomena from his expeditions through the Americas in novel ways, taking cross sections of volcanoes and mapping isothermal regions. He visually tied the distribution of life to varying physical and environmental conditions, and popularized the notion of an ecologically interconnected world. Humboldt’s “Essay on the Geography of Plants” in 1805 includes many of his most famous drawings, including the Chimborazo Map—an image of a volcano in section, with annotative information on the surrounding plant geography. His isothermal map suggests a global ecology bound not by political delineations, but by a world of patterns and processes of environmental flows. In his final years, Humboldt painted his portrait of nature in the massive treatise Cosmos (1845–1862), a romantic perspective on the harmony of the universe, which has since revived the term cosmos in popular discourse.

Haeckel is possibly the most controversial and pivotal figure of this period, having coined, along with ecology, the terms anthropogeny (the study of human origins), phylum (the taxonomic rank between kingdom and class), and phylogeny (the study of evolutionary relatedness among organisms via morphological data). In addition, he gave astounding form to thousands of organisms in his milestone work Kunstformen der Natur (Art Forms in Nature), which he published in 10 installments between 1899 and 1904 (Figure 4). Prior to this vast body of work crossbreeding science and art, Haeckel’s genealogical tree marked a substantial paradigm shift in visual mapping from the Hippodamian gridded classification tables of his predecessor, Carl Linnaeus, in Systema Naturae. Whereas Linnaeus established the normative method of naming and numbering the world’s living wealth in boxes, Haeckel’s genealogical tree graphically depicted the relationships among organisms, introducing shape and scale as decisive parameters for his classification system.

Haeckel’s fervent disapproval of religion and church extended to his condemnation of Linnaeus’s popularity. Before Darwin and Haeckel, the predominant orientation of belief was that all things were fixed and timeless in their existence. Haeckel’s conception of ecology and classification transformed the collective conception of time, and also allowed more than one type of organizational system to be overlaid upon his phylogenic tree. While taxonomy and phylogeny belong to completely different systems of logic, they have remained in relatively mutual coexistence until today, as modern biology uses a combination of both approaches to differentiate and classify (Ayub, 2011).

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Figure 4. German zoologist and artist Ernst Haeckel published an image-laden monograph of radiolarians, detailing their intricate skeletons, in Kunstformen der Natur (1904).


Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution (Darwin, 1859) has been enormously influential to the development of environmental theories at the turn of the 20th century, not only for naturalists and biologists, but also for architects, designers, and planners who transplanted biological evolution directly to formal principles as well as social structures. In particular, D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s On Growth and Form (Thompson, 1917), published the result of his studies of morphology, arguing that the forms of plants and animals could be analyzed with inordinate precision via geometry (Figure 5). Thompson’s visual documentation of growth and physical processes as studies of an evolving morphological character has been of considerable relevance to designers near the end of the 21st century, particularly in reference to the question of “variation,” which emerged at the time when digital media were introduced in the design process in the early 1990s.

Most notably, Thompson has been cited by Greg Lynn in his studies on the Embryological House in the late 1990s (Lynn, 1999), with Lynn’s survey of housing variations being derivative from a system of dynamic forces shaped by flows of energy and stages of growth from a digital seed. Arguably, Louis Sullivan, American architect, at the turn of the 20th century, had similar concerns about the inherent transformation power of geometrical entities that, to Sullivan, were only containers of energy upon which a liberating will is imposed by the free choice, intelligence, and skill of human beings. Although his writings mostly have been associated with the history of ornamentation (Sullivan, 1924), his drawings on the “Awakening of the Pentagon” are testament to his obsessive search for the inner force of the seed-germ that would allow the designer to animate otherwise-inert geometrical forms. Although these authors have not by any account been referenced as ecological designers, their contribution to expanding the design process and comprehending larger environmental forces has been seminal.

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Figure 5. Transformation of Argyropelecus olfersi into Sternoptyx diaphana. Scottish biologist D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson analyzed the shapes, forms, and scales of animals and plants in On Growth and Form (1917), bringing mathematical measure and grids to the study of biology.

Unlike D’Arcy Thompson, who applied evolutionary theory directly to geometry and morphology, other so-called evolutionists cast a wider net in transposing evolution onto social structures, environments, and the complex networks of interrelationships between the material constitution of environmental forces, civic life, and built forms. Two of the most eminent members of this group were Patrick Geddes, a Scottish biologist turned pioneer town planner, and Frederick John Kiesler, an Austrian-American architect, theater designer, and sculptor. Although Geddes and Kiesler did not cognitively position themselves as ecological designers, their work has been profoundly influential on expanding the process of design beyond the making of determinate products. Both men were invested in engaging with larger environmental forces inherent in the design process of any object, space, or city and, most important, in integrating civic life and culture as part of a larger ecosystem of forces accountable for design.

Geddes claimed a hom*ology between nature and the city in his seminal book Cities in Evolution: An Introduction to the Town Planning Movement and to the Study of Civics in 1915. He thought of both cities and natural settings as ecosystems involving the flow of energy, matter, and human and nonhuman organisms. Largely influenced by Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, Geddes studied the city as an ecology and transposed the method of biological taxonomy toward the classification of all elements comprising the collective living stock of the city, including not only environmental forces, but also humans and activities of civic life. His dynamic classification studies are evident in his compelling diagrams of the city, which he described as “thinking machines.” Most notably, in the “Notation of Life,” he visualized dialectic relationships between the individual, the collective, and the natural, with the ambition of facilitating a reflective model for urban organization fit for humanity as a dynamic species (Figure 6).

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Figure 6. Patrick Geddes, “The Notation of Life,” as published in 1927.

In Geddes’s work, the city can be seen as both a long-term structure and a dynamically volatile environment. In this light, the relationship between the biological and the urban does not mark an opposition between human artifices and nature, but rather the organization of a system through dynamic flux where no optimal future form could be presumed. Geddes’s city in evolution is not striving for equilibrium or marching toward a predetermined ideal state, but he acknowledged an unstable and changing environment, thus questioning a concept of teleology similar to Darwin’s evolutionary biology. However, unlike Darwin, who emphasized natural selection and the struggle for existence, Geddes believed that humans, with their ideals, ethics, perceptions, and activities, supersede their evolutionary nature by virtue of reason, and that this feedback loop pushes societies to evolve further. He thus argued for a type of coevolution based on synergy and cooperation independent of natural selection, evident in his triad “Work-Place-Folk,” which underlines the evolution of the city over time.

Geddes’s concept of coevolution can be related to Frederick Kiesler’s theories on correalism, which he defined as “the dynamics of continual interaction between man and his natural and technical environments” (Kiesler, 1939, p. 61). Kiesler believed that life was composed of interacting forces among three environments: the human, the natural, and the technological, all of which are constantly in flux; thus, Kiesler thought that correality was the manifestation of their interrelationships. However, as the natural environment constantly changed, so did the needs of humans, affecting the output tools of technological environment like a domino.

To translate Kiesler’s theoretical speculations of correalism into design principles, he paralleled it with the terms biotechnique and continuous construction, which he defined as design and construction methods that deny the notion of assembly and joinery in an attempt to imitate the continuous properties of nature, making for “higher resistance, higher rigidity, easier maintenance, and lower costs” (Kiesler, 1939, p. 67). Throughout his career, Kiesler turned to biotechnique and continuous construction as his “repeated answer to the architectural crisis of authenticity” (Kiesler, 1934). Projects such as his Space House, Endless House, and Mobile-Home-Library are direct experiments to translate his theories into practice.


American transcendentalist writers and philosophers, including Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and John Muir, began to articulate a national identity through their writings on the natural landscapes of the country, bolstered by tales of the untainted wilderness from people visiting, documenting, and settling westward. Transcendentalist thought linked divine spirituality to the awe-inspiring, scenic views and wonders of nature that drifted eastward as tales on the tongues of traveling Americans. In addition to inspiring a reverence for the sanctity of nature, the transcendentalists alerted the American conscience to the ongoing harm to the natural world caused by human activity. Thoreau in particular asserted that greater meaning could be found through experience alongside nature, and that humans live their best lives as individuals and societies when cognizant of the values of the wilderness. Their works gave birth to the preservation movement and sowed the seeds for a modern environmentalism to emerge in the 20th century.

For many critics, Thoreau’s book Walden, published in 1854 as a report of his stay at Walden Pond for nearly a decade as an experiment in transcendental pastoralism, signals the commencement of ecological awareness. According to historian Leo Marx, Thoreau took seriously what Emerson has called the “method of nature” and adopted in his writing the tone of a hard-headed empiricist (Marx, 1964, p. 243), describing life as it actually occurred. His reports not only of idyllic landscapes, but also of negative experiences, allegedly brought him as a subject closer to nature, which according to Marx has become the psychic root of all American pastoralism—genuine and spurious. The spirit of this raw intensity and investment in the natural sublime setting has identified American culture. In Marx’s words: “The soft veil of nostalgia that hangs over our urbanized landscape is largely a vestige of the once dominant image of an undefiled, green republic, a quiet land of forests, villages and farms dedicated to the pursuit of happiness” (Marx, 1964, p. 6).

The heir of this belief, that nature withholds divine qualities, is the celebrated American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright identified nature with a capital N, to replace God (Wright, 1957), and thought of architecture as subservient to its magnitude. His holistic ideas and his conception of form determined “by way of the nature of materials, the nature of purpose” are exemplified in his famous Fallingwater Residence built in 1935 in Mill Run, Pennsylvania (Wright, 1939, p. 3). Fallingwater, one of the most significant buildings of American architecture, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1966.

In 1939, Wright visited London and gave four lectures at the Royal Institute of British Architects, where he didactically summarized the ideas manifest in his built work over the years under the rubric of “organic architecture.” Organicism was for Wright not only a design approach, but also a distinctively American worldview and an approach to a democratic political regime, projecting a mythical dimension to society. The same year, his lectures were published verbatim in a treatise entitled An Organic Architecture: The Architecture of Democracy, where this characteristic quote appears: “So here I stand before you preaching organic architecture: declaring organic architecture to be the modern ideal and the teaching so much needed if we are to see the whole of life, and to now serve the whole of life, holding no ‘traditions’ essential to the great TRADITION. Nor cherishing any preconceived form fixing upon us either past, present or future, but—instead—exalting the simple laws of common sense—or of super-sense if you prefer—determining form by way of the nature of materials” (Wright, 1939, p. 3) Wright’s ideas on human relationships, institutions, and the harmonization of modern space with nature were evident prior to his annunciation of organic architecture in his most visionary project, Broadacre City, which he worked on throughout most of his professional lifetime. Broadacre City projected for Wright Thomas Jefferson’s dream of a nation of farmers, proposing to give an acre of land to each citizen to form an idyllic farm community.

The continuation of American transcendentalist thought also can be evidenced in the philosophy of deep ecology, a term coined by Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess in 1973 (Naess, 1973). For Næss, deep ecology is a philosophy of ecology that finds all living beings inherently equal and having significant value. In this philosophy, the human disruption of ecosystems is detrimental not only to the disturbed organisms, but to humans as well, due to the upset of natural order.


The bond between Romanticism and modern science is nowhere more evident than in the formative years of the Staatliches Bauhaus in Weimar, Germany, and in the aspirations of its founder, Walter Gropius, to unify the arts into a coherent and indivisible whole. In his proclamation of the Bauhaus school in 1919, Gropius advocates for an organic reunification of architecture, painting, and sculpture accompanied by Lyonel Feininger’s woodcut, where interlacing rays join in a mountainous edifice, strikingly similar to Bruno Taut’s treatise drawings of an “Alpine Architecture,” published a little earlier than the announcement of the Bauhaus manifesto.

The idea of unity with nature that the Bauhaus proclaimed does not lie far from the sermons of American transcendentalists and the organicism of Frank Lloyd Wright. What is distinct, nevertheless, is the belief that the unity of nature is to be literally transferred and reconstructed in artificial edifices, in complex incarnations of biological systems. Historians Peder Anker and Oliver A. I. Botar have used the terms biocentrism and biofunctionalism to reference the idea of an irrefutable functional utility found in biological organisms and complex systems that was pronounced across a wide spectrum of individual teachers at the Bauhaus, including Oskar Schlemmer, Paul Klee, Johannes Itten, Wassily Kandinsky, and Mies van der Rohe, and, most prominently, in the biological references made by the Hungarian visual artist László Moholy-Nagy.

The leaders of the Bauhaus, who were complicit in modernist organicism, were in fact resurging through the prism of modern science a premodern notion of nature hailing from the Romantic period of the 19th century. Aiming toward balance, harmony, and health, this premodern, Romantic understanding assumes a healable and—when properly managed—harmonic interaction between an organism and its environment (Moore & Lopez-Durand, 2010). Botar (2017) argued that biocentrism can be cast as the forerunner of today’s benign environmentalism, espousing a monist, neovitalist, and ecological view of the world.

Moholy-Nagy’s disposition in adapting natural systems to technical artifacts and advancing this analogy toward environmental amelioration was introduced to him in the book Plants as Inventors, by the Hungarian-Austrian soil biologist Raoul Francé. Francé is regarded as one of the founders of the discipline that is now called Bionics, but the actual term that he coined was Biotechnik (biotechnique), having consistently analyzed plants and the possibility of plants to offer solutions to technical problems (Figure 7). The writings of Francé were pervasive in the Bauhaus and heavily influenced other leaders, particularly Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee, who were (as Botard argues) vitalist and monist organicists viewing the world and its components as nested hierarchies of organisms animated by an ineffable life-force (Botar, 2017).

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Figure 7. Austro-Hungarian botanist and microbiologist Raoul Heinrich Francé pioneered the analysis of plant forms and structures to find solutions to human technical problems, one of the first formal forays into biomimetic design, in Die Pflanze als Erfinder (1920).

An early complex-systems thinker, Francé designed pods, cones, and single-celled organisms like artifacts and attributed a functionalist character to natural systems, advocating that the inorganic and organic are one. Ecological oneness, sometimes referred to as holism, would ameliorate the living conditions of designed environments. Francé’s monism suggested that there is one substance, one interconnected unity in the agency of all life forms. Monism was also a philosophy supported by the biologist Johann Jakob von Uexküll, manifest in his most notable contribution, the notion of Umwelt, which was used later by the semiotician Thomas Sebeok and the philosopher Martin Heidegger. In his extensive studies of animal behavior, von Uexküll described Umwelt as a self-world that an organism composes, both perceptually and materially, to live inside and act as a subject. To construct the Umwelt, the external and internal forces of life are unified by the organism in a single entity that the architect Caroline O’ Donnell describes as a bubble (O’Donnell, 2015).

For certain Bauhaus leaders, the inherent functionalism of natural organisms signaled more than compositional concerns for harmony and nested hierarchies that unify layers of the natural world; it revealed an underlying belief in improving human evolutionary fitness, as well as environmental living conditions through ecological design (Anker, 2010). This conviction, that the design of the environment may be a vehicle for the amelioration of the human race, deviates slightly from the mainstream biofunctionalist discourse, wherein the biological metaphor is seen as paradigmatic for science, society, and aesthetics. Anker (2001) argues that ecological thinking and the normative policies of environmental order veil eugenic and nationalist tendencies, which were at work in the liberal mechanism of the British ecologist Arthur George Tansley and the holistic ecology of the South African statesman Jan Christian Smuts. Through the combination of design, technology, natural order and managerial politics, the discourse of ecological design at the turn of the century was perceived on many fronts as a new form of humanism, comparable to Marxism and Christianity, or the next opiate for the masses, as Slavoj Žižek has famously argued (Žižek, 2008).

Synthetic Naturalism (c. 1966–2000)

Searching for “Systems”

Origin Point: The View of the Whole Earth in 1966

The second period, unfolding approximately from the end of World War II until the end of the 20th century, is tentatively called the period of the system, with the term system referring to ecological design as the planned redistribution of global resources. The period succeeding World War II signaled the rise of a modern environmental era, distinctly different from preservation rallies for the fresh spirit of wilderness in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In the 1960s and 1970s, ecologists appropriated the prevalent social and political discourse of a closed, ill-managed planet heading toward evolutionary bankruptcy, arguing that their science provided the most faithful account of civilizational values. With mounting alerts of worldwide pollution levels, the implosion of cities, and the physical downfalls of economic growth, such as the production of excessive waste flows, environmentalism displayed a sense of social activism by means of the vigilant redistribution of global resources. Toward this line of thinking, Buckminster Fuller, John McHale, and Ian McHarg played a seminal role, explaining ecosystems by parallels between the Earth and human processes (McHarg, 1969).

The starting point for this period is the highly publicized image of the whole Earth, which was anticipated throughout the 1960s and eventually reached its apogee in the famous Earthrise series taken by Apollo 8 in 1968. With this collective mirroring of humanity circ*mscribed in the finite space of the Earth, this image accentuated the convergence between the fields of ecology and cybernetics following World War II. The material reality of the Earth called for the mobilization of cross-disciplinary tools for the purpose of global information and systems control. Previous concepts of nature’s flawless preservation, as separated from the urban milieu, engendered a novel naturalism of “synthetic naturalism” or “artificial ecology,” where the functions and operations of nature were copied as precise analogs in artificial systems. This signaled the end of nature as an autonomous field and the rise of ecological design as a replication of self-organizing cyclical systems instrumentalized through technological mediation (Kallipoliti, 2013).

Burdened with Le Corbusier’s metaphor of a “machine for living” in the 1920s, the rise of ecological design in the 1960s and 1970s announced the building as a performative machine and as a tool to address and harness the disturbances of the planetary reservoir due to rising levels of pollution and overall environmental degradation. This modality of reasoning for ecological design, which was prevalent followed World War II, foreshadowed a new, modernist ethos, with function replaced by environmental performance, although this directive was now devoid of a tectonic expression and a set of form-giving strategies, contrary to the distinctive formal language of early modernism at the turn of the century.

These paradigm shifts were very much related to the ecologist’s appropriation of a very specific scientific language and a set of classification tools used by cyberneticians in the postwar period. By diagramming the flow of energy in the natural world as input and output—circuits in a cybernetic ecosystem—cyberneticians provided ecologists with new research techniques and a new biologically informed, but also a computational theory of reading the world as a system composed of subsystems. The prolific brothers Eugene and Howard Odum were major contributors in this direction, as they have promoted via their numerous publications their concern with systems rather than individual environmental factors or organisms. Even more, they have pioneered the visualization of ecosystems as a language that could be broken down into components, pieces, and their feedback similarly to electrical circuits.

According to historian Peder Anker, Howard Odum’s “methodological reductionism of all biological life (including human behavior) to charts of energy circuits became the justification for his proposals for scientific management of human society” (Anker, 2010, p. 99). In the 1950s, Howard Odum invented “Energese”—Energy Systems Language—to instrumentalize ecosystems, as well as human agency, in terms of input and output during studies of the tropical forests funded by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. This representational language for ecological simulation models, derivative from electronic circuits, has become the primary tool for architects to visualize performance and energy flow using arrows of feedback (Figure 8).

History of Ecological Design (8)

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Figure 8. Howard Odum’s energy-flow diagram for an aquatic ecosystem, an example of an early metabolic (energy-flow) diagram for an aquatic ecosystem.

Source: Howard Odum (1956), Limnology and Oceanography.

World Planners

In his work throughout the 1960s, sociologist and futurist John McHale has observed a substantial shift in the very nature of the design process; he argued that in a new age of intensive industrialization, design involves the design of the planet itself (i.e., the entirety of the planetary surface within which life proliferates). In his seminal book The Future of the Future in 1969, he wrote that “man has enlarged his ecological niche to include the whole planet.” McHale was an associate for Buckminster Fuller, arguably the single most significant predecessor of ecological design in the 20th century. In the “World Design Science Decade,” directed by Fuller and McHale, the goal was to diagnose a physiological flowchart of planetary resources, a vast and comprehensive reshuffling endeavor, which took cognitive analytical form in McHale’s second book The Ecological Context, as well as in a different route in Ian McHarg’s seminal book Design with Nature.

The World Design Science Decade was a research program that originated with Buckminster Fuller’s proposal to the International Union of Architects (IUA) at their VIIth Congress in London in July 1961. Fuller proposed that architectural schools around the world should be encouraged by the IUA to invest over the next 10 years into solving the problem of how to make the total world’s resources serve 100% of humanity through competent design, despite a continuing decrease of metal resources per capita. In 1961, the total of the world’s resources served only 40% of humanity (Buckminster Fuller Institute, 2012). On the one hand, these authors were earnestly utilizing design as a tool of systemic management to address social equity and fair distribution of food globally; on the other hand, their vision of the totality of the Earth, which could or should serve as a stage of action, envisioned a new empire and reasoned backward to a colonial and empirical modality.

In many respects, Fuller’s, McHarg’s, and McHale’s work envisaged an idealized systemic analysis of the universe where all patterns could be imagined as interlinked, engraved as subsystems of systems in a master plan of natural order. All elements could recur in different scales, nested within one another. “This was essentially the same notion of organizational unity—from the intergalactic to the subatomic level—that was expressed at the same time by Charles and Ray Eames in their film Powers of Ten of 1968” (Reinhold, 2001, p. 42). This holistic vision of the world, evident in his insistence on the latent connectivity of all physical forces, can be viewed as foundational for Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s General Systems Theory in the 1950s, presupposing the universe—now a system of systems—not only as a model for theoretical biology and the hard sciences, but also as a description of society itself (Bowker, 1990).

The countless geopolitical statistics and data that populated the writings of Buckminster Fuller and John McHale depict their conviction that only through advanced systems management could one begin to deal with the daunting environmental complexity of the planet Earth. Toward this substantial undertaking—the management production of new principles for habitation—the interdisciplinary field of cybernetics seemed to offer a viable solution. Actually, cybernetics was more of a necessity than a choice for futurist world planners, in order to assess the “magnitude of a complex planetary society” (McHale, 1969, p. 110). Cybernetics granted the architect—the global planner—versatile tools to segment and systematize nebulous data effectively for the benefit of design. At the same time, beyond the logistics of useful information operators, cybernetics’ alleged convergence of living systems and machines provided a credible cultural safety net, in alliance with the ecological zeitgeist of the time (Kallipoliti, 2013).

To this end, the Odum brothers have popularized cybernetic methods to describe ecosystems. They translated this ecosystems approach, which Eugene Odum also terms the “whole before-the parts” approach, to city planning and an analysis of Earth’s systems as they relate to generations of human life (Odum, 1967). The Odums advocated the science of ecology (predominantly the study of ecosystems) as the key to understanding and managing Earth’s systems for the good of humanity and all its life forms. In Relationship of Energy and Complexity in Planning (1972), Howard T. Odum explicitly expanded on the notion of planning as human ecology that was first touched upon by Patrick Geddes in his 1915 book Cities in Evolution. This regional planning of land-use activities is holistic and comprehensive, much like the strategy to achieve informed management of the environment and Earth’s resources for which Eugene P. Odum argues in Ecology and Our Endangered Life-Support Systems (1989). The Odums furthered the principles of holistic systems ecology and provided the scientific basis for approaching planning as applied human ecology.


In the context of the Vietnam War in the 1960s and the unsettling atmosphere of rising levels of pollution globally, “dropping out” of cities was a survival mechanism for thousands of young intellectuals in the United States following Timothy Leary’s advice to “Turn on, tune in, and drop out.” Many took Leary’s advice to heart, rejecting the establishment of the political scene and translating quite literally his call to abandon urban life by establishing alternative living communities in remote areas. One of the most notable examples is Drop City, a community of geodesic domes made from car parts, which was founded in Trinidad, Colorado, in 1965. Along with Drop City, several other communes were established in the southwestern United States as ecological, living laboratories, able to sustain themselves and cut off from the main urban networks; communes were to recycle their waste, produce and distribute energy, and achieve a degree of autonomy in a restored equilibrium with nature.

The emergence of the “do-it-yourself” culture in the network of these living communities was fostered by the Whole Earth Catalog, envisioned by its creator, Stewart Brand, as a planetary system of free information distributed throughout the Earth’s territory. The open-source character of the Whole Earth Catalog was claimed by Brand as “access to tools.” Jay Baldwin, Brand’s long-standing collaborator and also a graphic designer, inventor, and creative builder, recalls the use of the word tools as being detached from any sense of utility. Baldwin was a former student of Buckminster Fuller and a leading figure in incorporating solar, wind, and other renewable sources of energy in the design of habitats.

Overall, the Whole Earth Catalog instigated the production of several “do-it-yourself” instruction manuals that certain communes produced, including Steve Baer’s Dome Cookbook and ZomePrimer, Lloyd Kahn’s Domebook 1&2 and Shelter, Antfarm’s Inflatocookbook, and Sim van der Ryn and Peter Calthorpe’s Farallones Scrapbook. One could argue that the emergent practice of ecological design was coupled with a specific building language, structured as an open-source living code. Writing open-source design code on how to create a shelter was by no means a neutral agent of recording a building process that was already predetermined and consequently executed; the manuals themselves became a type of activist ecological design—in fact, the most radical kind of environmental activism in the 1960s.

Steve Baer was the author of the first instruction manual, the Dome Cookbook, and the inventor of the word zome, meaning a flexible type of geodesic dome that can be adapted to various site conditions. He was arguably the most skillful and knowledgeable dome builder, who traveled to many communes of the American Southwest aiming to share his expertise; he performed various jobs and shifted activities from advanced calculations to crude, hands-on crafting. He later founded the company Zomeworks in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to utilize solar energy for direct heating of buildings. Baer is considered a pioneer in solar design through his work on experimental Drum Walls for his residence in Corrales, New Mexico, built between 1971 and 1972. In the interior of the house, 55-gallon, water-filled barrels on a support frame served as the house’s primary heating and cooling elements (Baer, 1975).

Parallel to Baer, Lloyd Khan, a dropped-out San Francisco insurance broker who became a craftsman and builder, was largely inspired by Baer’s Dome Cookbook and maintained a close relationship and collaboration with Brand as the designer and editor of the “Shelter” and “Land Use” sections in the Whole Earth Catalog. Khan’s Domebooks were produced from the Pacific High School, an experimental dome community in Bolinas, in the San Francisco Bay Area. Peter Calthorpe, a former member of the Pacific community and assistant in the production of the Domebooks, has become a leading pioneer of sustainable design and technology along with his collaborator, Sim Van der Ryn. Calthorpe and Van der Ryn published their own manual in the 1970s, the Farallones Scrapbook, to outsource the experiments of the Farallones Institute, a community that they founded in the late 1960s in Occidental, California, along with Sanford Hirshen.

The building experiments of the American counterculture in the postwar period have been accounted by architectural historian Felicity Scott in her books Architecture or Techno-Utopia: Politics After Modernism (2007) and Outlaw Territories: Environments of Insecurity/Architectures of Counterinsurgency (2016). Scott’s poignant narration does not simply bring to light marginal histories left untold; it also questions the absence of ideological position and political intent in current architectural debates by tracking the late history of utopia and dystopia, as well as its vanishing point; in her own words, “the disassociation of architecture from both its historical and political context as well as from its dreams of a better world to come” (Scott, 2007).

“Dropping out,” nevertheless, was more than a regressive grass-roots movement in the context of the “do-it-yourself” culture in the United States. Despite the ardor for the application of low-tech systems, the outlaws made recurrent references to the space program, used NASA’s numeric tables as dimensions for their dome planks, and designed domes by developing mathematical equations rather than drawings. They also shared a fervent interest in crystallography, mineralogy, and the biological processes of growth and metabolism, reading the cybernetic theories of Norbert Wiener, Marshall McLuhan, and Buckminster Fuller.

As cultural theorist Fred Turner points out, the outlaws aspired to project a unified global vision—one in which material reality could be imagined as an information system. In his book From Counterculture to Cyberculture, Turner (2006) described this vision as “cyber-counter-cultural” and suggested that “the cybernetic notion of the globe as a single, interlinked pattern of information was deeply comforting: in the invisible play of information, many thought they could see the possibility of global harmony” (p. 4). In this light, it might be vital to question if the digital evolution in design fields is the direct effect of technological advancements or if it was already underway by an entire generation of subversive thinkers who, however distant from actual machinery, were distinctively in tune with the systematization of thought that machines promised.

Deep Ecologists

The work of American transcendentalist writers in the 19th century gave birth to a preservation movement in the 1960s and sowed the seeds for a modern environmentalism that inspired a reverence for the sanctity of nature. As the transcendentalists alerted the American conscience to the ongoing harm to the natural world as a result of human activity, so did Rachel Carson’s landmark book for the environmental movement, Silent Spring. Carson challenged the notion that humans should impose technological control over the environment through chemicals, warfare, and space travel. On the contrary, she suggested that human domination and design of nature was not necessarily the correct course of action for the future. She urged people to question authorities who imposed control and authoritarian design over nature, bringing popularity and a sense of social urgency to the emerging environmental causes of her time. The cultural aftershock of Silent Spring inspired the environmental movement that led to the founding of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970.

Influenced by Carson’s writings, Norwegian philosopher Arne Næss coined the term deep ecology in his 1973 article “The Shallow and the Deep, Long-Range Ecology Movement: A Summary.” He proposed deep ecology as a holistic worldview to remedy the shallow paradigm of ecological thought and study. Much as Thoreau ventured to a cabin in the woods in Walden Pond to live and contemplate life and the natural world, Næss made a similar foray into the mountains of Scandinavia, spending weeks at a time in a small dwelling on Hallingskarvet.

The eight basic principles of deep ecology that Næss proposed while he stayed on Hallingskarvet established the philosophy as an ecological worldview predicated on observing and living with nonhuman nature to understand the interconnectedness of all life forms, including humans. Næss’s deep ecology advocates a holistic approach to the science of ecology, stressing the importance of experiencing life within nature and recognizing the human position as intrinsically connected to the Earth and its well-being. The philosophy of deep ecology can thus be thought of as a continuation of American transcendentalist thought. Unlike Walden, nevertheless, wherein Thoreau avowed the greater meaning of life for humans as individuals and societies when cognizant of the values of wilderness, Næss’s interest was decentralized from the human as the main cognizant inhabitant of the natural world. For him, every bit of life, human or nonhuman, had equal significance, giving leeway to the rise of posthumanist theories in the 1980s, as manifest in the writings of Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, Gregory Bateson, Bruno Latour, Cary Wolfe, and Donna Haraway.

Garbage Architects

Garbage housing was a movement in the 1970s that mainly was spearheaded by the British pioneer of so-called garbage architecture, Martin Pawley. Pawley’s translation of the laws of nature and metabolism, rather than a simulation of growth in material processes, was logistical and operative, literally suggesting the immediate use of the leftover materials from global consumption. Perceiving building as an interface of global resources, Pawley proposed that consumer by-products be fed back into the loop of production as new building materials. With his various writings on garbage architecture, Pawley merged two predicaments of the time (the housing crisis and excessive waste flows), hoping to salvage two crises by feeding one into the other. The aspiration was that as natural systems recycle their waste, by-products of urban environments might as well be recycled too—an idea that sounds at first sight credible and worthy of pursuing, given that a new functional life could be attributed to material excrement.

Garbage housing was conceived of as solidly confrontational to a vast and urgent social problem—namely, the solid waste crisis, which called for resolutions at a national level concurrently in both the United States and in the United Kingdom. In fact, the origins of garbage housing can be traced to federal agendas envisioning the whole Earth as a closed system with no material loss. Already by 1966, the U.S. National Academy of Science declared: As the Earth becomes more crowded, there is no longer an “away.” “One person’s trash basket is another person’s living space” (Waste Management and Control, US National Academy of Science, 1966).

Pawley collaborated with the municipality of Santiago, Chile, on the prospect of assembling available discarded items and transforming them to housing elements, as a remedy to the explosive urbanization and housing problems of Santiago’s metropolitan region. Following field research, he headed a research program at Cornell University as a visiting professor in the spring of 1973, experimenting with various worthless materials that were in a state of oblivion as industrial by-products such as cans, bottles, and corrugated cardboard. As a visiting professor in the United States throughout the 1970s, Pawley carried on his research at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Florida A&M University, thoroughly examining ways in which to create links between packaging-container industries and building industries in order to construct his vision of a parasitic housing policy.

Pawley’s colleague Witold Rybczynski experimented at the time in Canada with sulfur, a valueless by-product of mining operations, attempting to mold it into new concrete building blocks and other building elements. He was one of the founders of Ecol Operation. Associated with McGill University’s Minimum Cost Housing Group in Montreal, the Ecol Operation, like garbage housing, was advertised on the cover of a student university publication with the equation: “Ecology + Building + Common Sense,” based on the assumption that feeding the solid waste crisis into the housing crisis could become an ecological therapy for the global economy.

However, hints of frustration had already arisen from the movement’s main advocates by the mid-1970s. With the technology available at the time, it was excruciatingly difficult to use by-products to produce quality housing, fulfilling technical standards of insulation. On top of this difficulty, garbage architects’ sincere attempts to seek pragmatic solutions for the growing housing problems faced immense impediments by the building industry, which was functioning in a closed loop of linear productivity and could not act as a receptor for by-products of other industries.

Garbage architects’ initial, very sane cause was more than frequently overwhelmed by demographic statistics, numeric analyses, and hectic solid waste classifications, with the scope of redirecting all garbage to industrial utility. In short, garbage housing, centered on attributing a functional causality to waste, while other aspects, such as the exploitation of the nature of the found material, were largely forgotten. Garbage architects did whatever was necessary to complete the material cycle of feedback loops, but without offering new habitation possibilities. This was eventually a nonmarketable housing strategy and ended up getting a firm rejection from the building industry, which could not absorb cans and all sorts of other stuff back into its organism.


Following the oil crisis and a decade of intense environmental debate, the terms self-sufficiency, self-reliance, life support, and living autonomy became pervasive in the lexicon of alternative technologies in the 1970s that had preoccupied the British avant-garde scene for several years. Based on its biological definition, autonomy refers to a system’s organic independence and self-governance, a notion that was transferred to the domestic realm to advance the idea of the house as a self-reliant ecosystem, detached from its context. An autonomous housing community was like a restored Garden of Eden, where architecture, systems theory, and human biology could blend together in the hope of radical social reform. Autonomy was not only an ecological statement, but also a political statement, announcing a scheme of detachment from central authorities in favor of self-empowerment via involvement and dependence on the erratic nature of planetary forces.

A prime example of an ecological autonomy case study is the Ecological House built provisionally by the Street Farmers in London in the 1970s. In 1976, a venture of similar nature was materialized in Berkeley, California, under the auspices of the Farallones Institute. Centered around Sim Van der Ryn, a diverse group of farmers, builders, architects, engineers, and biologists purchased and retrofitted a typical Californian house to an experimental self-sufficient living laboratory. The primary goal was the creation of a self-reliant urban household that would integrate the life-support systems of its residents in such a way as to conserve and redevelop energy and resources (Farallones Institute & Van der Ryn, 1979). Coined as the “Integral Urban House,” it contained several animal and plant species as well as humans under one roof, with machines mediating and regulating their delicate codependence (Figure 9). Along with Van der Ryn, a number of people participated in the materialization of this project, including Bill and Helga Olkowski, dedicated ecologists in the San Francisco Bay Area, who helped establish the first Ecology Center in the United States at Berkeley in 1969 and organized the West Coast’s first community recycling center.

History of Ecological Design (9)

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Figure 9. Feedback drawing for the Integral Urban House, built in San Francisco in 1975. Produced by Lydia Kallipoliti and Tope Olujobi for the exhibition “Closed Worlds” at the Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York in 2016.

The years immediately following the oil crisis saw a boom of alternative technology movements in the United States, Canada, and Britain. The autonomy project took off to the extent of Architectural Design’s special issue on “Autonomous Houses,” in 1976, and Casabella’s response in its editorial “The Other Face of Self-Reliance” the same year. A prolonged genealogy of autonomous house projects was presented in Architectural Design, including, among others, John Shore’s “Solo Dome”; Robert and Brenda Vale’s “Autonomous House” in Cambridge, UK; The “Ouroboros House,” built by students at the University of Minnesota; Simon Longland’s “Autonomous House” at the University of Edinburgh; Alexander Pike’s “Autonomous House” at the University of Cambridge; Jaap‘t Hooft’s “Autonomous Dome,” built in the Netherlands; Robert Reine’s “Integrated Living System,” in Tijeras, New Mexico; and the “Ecol” project, built by the Minimum Cost Housing Group at McGill University.

Urban retreat was as substantial all through the United States, as witnessed in the propagation of several self-sufficient institutes experimenting on alternative energy production from the early to mid-1970s. Inspired by John and Nancy Todd’s New Alchemy Institute in Hatchville, Massachusetts, the Institute of Local Self-Reliance in Washington, DC, the Foundation for Self-Sufficiency in Catonsville, Maryland, and numerous other organizations and individuals experimented with food production and backyard homemade reprocessing systems in an attempt to craft continuous cycles of people, animals, plants, produce from land, and waste recycling. The premise was to forsake interaction with the outside and to popularize an ecological and libertarian way of living and acting, as well as to herald autonomy from the grid of energy supply as a political statement against consumerism and capitalism (Figure 10).

History of Ecological Design (10)

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Figure 10. Feedback drawing for the Ark of Cape Cod in 1976. Produced by Lydia Kallipoliti and Tope Olujobi for the exhibition “Closed Worlds” at the Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York in 2016.

On a slightly different plane, one can consider the work of Italian architect Paolo Soleri and his distinctive “arcology” project, which aimed to establish and maintain large, self-sufficient communities of people. In Arcology: City in the Image of Man (1969), Soleri introduced his scheme to fuse architecture and ecology by reducing the ecological impact of human inhabitation through constructing communities that were dimensionally compact, dense, and walkable. These communities/urbanities were to be efficient with energy resources and highly autonomous, relying on local food and energy. In 1970, Soleri and his wife began the construction of the Arcosanti community in central Arizona as a simultaneous proof-of-concept and urban-design laboratory to test and revise methods of implementing arcological principles. Construction has continued through the present by means of workshops that draw people from a wide variety of architectural, ecological, artistic, agricultural, and urban planning disciplines to learn about arcology and participate in the construction of facilities. At present, residents of Arcosanti are primarily artists, students, and volunteers invested in the livelihood of the community and furthering the Soleris’ arcological mission.


Twin brothers Victor and Aladar Olgyay coined the term bioclimatic, or passive solar design, as a specialization within architecture in the 1950s. They proposed a linear design methodology for creating comfortable spaces in different climatic regions using charts and human comfort zones. This linear process was climate > biology > technology > architecture. In his book Design with Climate: Bioclimatic Approach to Architectural Regionalism (1963), Victor Olgyay defined the essence of bioclimatic architecture as the creation of a favorable (comfortable) microclimate inside and outside the building through the application of various architectural techniques. Further writings and projects identify solar architecture and passive architecture as design strategies for creating climate-responsive and human-friendly spaces. As the historian Daniel Barber suggests, “In the immediate postwar period, before mechanical heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems became affordable and widely available, the Olgyays were the preeminent researchers into methods for using architectural means to place a building in its climate” (Barber, 2014).

Whereas in the 1950s, the Olgyays were invested in orchestrating the tectonic vocabulary of buildings in direct response to environmental conditions, the advancement of technologies in air conditioning, humidifiers, and other devices for regulating interior climate saw a massive increase in the early 1960s. In regulating indoor climate, the opposition between form and machine became a core issue in building design.

The vital figure to begin mining this controversy, in the 1960s, is Reyner Banham, who forecast the inevitable critical role of machinery in building systems and was thus frequently critiqued as the technophile theorist of refrigerators. Banham’s famous collage of an “Environmental Bubble” (originally published in Art in America in 1965) is in many respects the antipode of bioclimatic design. While Banham’s Environmental Bubble would be a sealed interior bubble controlled atmospherically by a tower of air conditioning and heating mechanical devices, a passive house of the same period, such as Costantinos Dekavallas’ house in Aigina, Greece, is entirely open to the exterior, creating natural breezes by managing upward convention air flow. The former case speaks of a closed, self-organizing system re-creating its own interior environment, while the latter case speaks of an open system synchronized with the perturbations of the exterior environment.

Whereas Dekavallas’s intentions were to use ecological design principles—including natural cooling, heating, lighting, and ventilation—as generative parameters for his work, Banham’s concerns were mostly hygienic; that is, how to screen noxious atmospheric pollutants from the domestic interior by regulating its interior climate. According to Banham, the word atmosphere was to be read literally; he claims that historically, atmosphere has not only been calculated, but also governed design decisions—decisions undertaken with the aid of medical practitioners.

Banham linked technological developments in regulating the conditions of interior human habitation to a new desire to exert mechanical control over systems in feedback loops, effectively coupling biology and architecture. He argued for the importance of recognizing and realizing human needs, technological advances, and environmental concerns as inherent components of modern architecture. His body of work on the use of mechanical equipment was surmised in the seminal book The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment, where he examines the massive intrusion of mechanical services in buildings throughout the 20th century—machines for heating, cooling, ventilating, artificial illumination, and acoustics—which eventually appropriated large parcels of the building volume. Such technologies have obstinately remained outside the realm of architectural design and were efficiently concealed by the building shell. Banham’s views on the use of mechanical equipment for climate regulation were polemical, as he saw machines as a radical design proposition that can change architecture systematically and organizationally. His expressive integration of machinery in building design arguably influenced the development of the Centre Georges Pompidou, built by Richard Rogers Renzo Piano and Gianfranco Franchini in 1977, in which machinery is fully exposed and color coded as an urban proposition for Paris.

Dark Naturalism (c. 2000–2017)

Searching for “Hyperobjects”

Origin Point: The Anthropocene

The third period, unfolding approximately from the end of the 20th century until today, is tentatively characterized by a search for hyperobjects, a term coined by philosopher Timothy Morton in his 2010 book The Ecological Thought. Morton describes hyperobjects as so massively distributed in time and space that they transcend localization (Morton, 2013). The term is used broadly to refer to conditions ranging from global warming, to Styrofoam, to the machinery related to capitalism.

Nevertheless, looking at Morton’s terminology from the perspective of ecological design, one can think of the materialized constellations of new artificial creations such as the Great Pacific Gyre. Also called the “plastic soup,” a pile of wasted fragmented materials has coagulated and manifested itself as an island, cohering from a soup of waste to cell-like locales—places that exist beyond human perception of urban daily life. These emergent islands now force us to delve deeper into the geochemical affinities between capital and excrement. Such places or islands will outlive us, but most important, they will inevitably alter and redefine the complex interrelationships between subjects and their environment, thus inevitably altering the definition of ecological design as it was given by Haeckel in 1866. As emergent types of artificial natures, such places are not in the environment; they are environments themselves.

The starting point for this period is the Anthropocene, a new geological era for human civilization popularized in 2000 by Nobel-winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen after being used by ecologist Eugene F. Stoermer since the 1980s. We are running through an Earth epoch wherein the products of human invention and production, including the making of buildings and cities, have unwittingly reformed the planet’s geophysical properties. Perpetual floods, ice melts, tropical outbursts, dryness, and other climatic phenomena reflect what we so often refer to as climate age, or what sociologist Andrew Ross refers to as “strange weather” (Ross, 1991). If anything, the growing signs of environmental degradation that first became apparent to the public eye in the late 1960s, but were seen principally at local scales and as national problems, have escalated into an all-out global crisis. The Earth now contains throughout its circumference a thin layer of radioactive materials that began being deposited in 1945. The deposition of this layer marks a decisive geological moment—a geological time marked by humans shaping the Earth.

The etymology of the word “Anthropocene” is an oxymoron; it implies the human–άνθρωπος‎—at the core of the stage set—σκηνή‎, yet at the same time, it suggests that we are no longer supposed to think of history as exclusively human. Unlike its anthropocentric predecessor eras, this new world, as posthumanist thinkers argue, does not tolerate the separation of humans from nonhumans. Rather, it imposes an asymmetrical confrontation between the human and the nonhuman (Morton, 2013), as the pervasion of nonhuman elements with human ones is seamless even in our own physiology.

Political theorist Jane Bennett approaches the impossibility of separating human from nonhuman elements through the concept of vibrant matter, which presumes livelihood in all material formations. Her vivid descriptions of materialized clouds, like omega fatty acids that alter human moods and lively streams of methane emanating from landfills, paints the picture of a darker era, where the blur of all things is seamless. For Bennett, the image of dead or inert matter has fed the human ego and has empowered Earth-destroying tendencies by preventing us from detecting and acknowledging a large range of nonhuman powers and influences with which we interact (Bennett, 2010).

The Anthropocene lends tangible identity to this new period in which we live, one of increasing existential threat. Therefore, how does one think about art, architecture, aesthetics, and ecological design in the Anthropocene? The range of responses to this period of environmental anxiety is extensive, from corporate approaches to generate income through ecological tourism, to radical ecological design. The consensus, nevertheless, is that Ernst Haeckel’s definition of ecology in 1866 (as an integral link between living organisms and their surroundings) or Sim van der Ryn’s definition of ecological design in 1996 (a call to minimize the ecological footprint of designed objects) is not enough. Ecological design can no longer be conceptualized exclusively as a combative tool against aggravating climatic conditions. Technology, as weaponry and as defense, is not the sole option; neither is an exclusive engagement with teleology. The new geological era of the Anthropocene raises not only material problems, but also cultural and aesthetic issues. Our perception of the environment and orientation in the world is irreversibly displaced, as the fantasy of our habitation outside of nature, or even the very existence of nature itself, is no longer tenable.

In the age of the Anthropocene, is it possible that measures, policies, and regulations limit the imaginary of architects, designers, and thinkers? Commonly, environmental concerns promote a conservationist ethic and a list of cautionary daily practice of scarcity. Nevertheless, are austerity and caution the only options for revering nature as a found object? Theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson, one of the most respected figures for his work in quantum electrodynamics, solid-state physics, astronomy, and nuclear engineering, argues that the rising levels of CO2 in the atmosphere have transformed the world into a greener planet. As paradoxical as it seems, Dyson says that there is scant evidence that human activity is causing global temperatures to rise, and that climate models projecting dire consequences in the coming centuries are unreliable. In fact, even if temperatures do increase significantly, it could actually be a benefit to humanity (Dyson, 2009).

In fact, the term Anthropocene has been highly contested. Donna Haraway, a prominent historian of science, has suggested a replacement for it, debating the merits of terms such as Capitalocene (placing the blame on the overconsumption of capitalism) or Plasticine (pointing to the material that is choking our planet). The alternative term that Haraway seems to favor is Chthulucene, a name for the dynamic, ongoing, symchthonic forces and powers of which people are a part (Haraway, 2015). As she argues, “I am a compost-ist, not a posthuman-ist: we are all compost, not posthuman.”

For Haraway and other scholars and thinkers, in these darker times, it is imperative to investigate, monitor, and document the strangeness of the real, to devote design as an imaginative endeavor completely to the problems of the real, rather than projecting an idealized outdated version of whole environments and healthy ecosystems. The Chthulucene is not about constructing fictions and fantasies of wholeness. Rather, it is about closely observing the ubiquity of pollution, asking questions and instrumentalizing one’s findings in a creative way, without being unaware of their uncertainty and complexity.


The term subnature is borrowed from architecture historian David Gissen to describe what he calls a “fearsome zone, where the limits of contemporary life might be staged” (p. 23). For Gissen, subnatures like smoke, gas, exhaust, dust, puddles, mud, debris, weeds, insects, and other curious worlds are canonically marginalized in architecture discourse. At present, though, human activity in industry and technology has profoundly altered the natural world, creating new states of nature found in the most contaminated, polluted sites on Earth. Rather than attempting to synthesize or integrate design with nature, the designers in this group create deviant, new natures out of the current contaminated conditions.

Photographer Edward Burtynsky captures landscapes that are simultaneously beautiful and unsettling—stunning scenes of oil fields, nickel extraction, and landscapes marred by industrial waste disposal. This unsettling combination of the gorgeous and repulsive has been called “the toxic sublime” by Jennifer Peeples, a professor of communication studies at Utah State University. According to Peeples, the toxic sublime reveals the tensions arising from visual representations of environmental contamination: beauty and ugliness, magnitude and insignificance, known and unknown, inhabitation and desolation, security and risk (Peeples, 2011).

In Spain, Enric Ruiz-Geli and Cloud 9, his interdisciplinary architectural team in Barcelona, apply research and carry out workshops within the context of global warming scenarios. Similarly, AMID (Cero9)—Cristina Díaz Moreno, Efrén García Grinda, and their collaborators—focuses on new, culturally relevant, and unconventional forms of natural beauty. A 15-year collection of their work was recently exhibited under the title “Third Natures” at the Architectural Association in London. Deviant approaches to ecological design are concerned with the lack of nature, in that the by-products of design and human activity have the ability to create new, nonbucolic natures.

Another Spanish architect working with the generative potential of atmospheric pollution and toxic politics in urban environments is Nerea Calvillo, founder of the collaborative visualization project “In the Air” and the architecture office C+arquitectos. “In the Air” (Calvillo, 2017) makes visible the microscopic and invisible agents of Madrid´s air (gases, particles, pollen, diseases, etc.), to see how they perform, react, and interact with the rest of the city. A Web-based dynamic model builds up the space that pollution components generate, visualizing behavior patterns through data crossing. Similarly, “Yellow Dust” (Figure 11), Calvillo’s installation for the Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism 2017, builds a yellow cloud of water vapor, measuring airborne particles in the area in which it is located. “Yellow Dust” opens the monitoring process in several ways, showing the particulate measuring devices while allowing the viewer to feel the quality of the air through the contact of the cloud with the body.

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Figure 11. The “Yellow Dust” installation for the 2017 Seoul Biennale “Imminent Commons”; designed by C+arquitectos/In The Air (Nerea Calvillo, Raul Nieves, Pep Tornabell, Yee Thong Chai, Marina Fernandez, and Emma Garnett).

Photo Credit: Daniel Ruiz.

An important voice in environmental debates comes from the Swiss architect Philippe Rahm, whose Paris-based practice urges architects to develop a new architectural language that is directly linked to climate change. In his manifesto for a “Meteorological Architecture,” Rahm claims that “climate change is forcing us to rethink architecture radically” (Rahm, 2009) and urges the advancement of new tools for architectural composition derivative from phenomena like convection, conduction, radiation, and evaporation. In his various projects, including the Jade Eco Park in Taiwan (2012) and the “Hormonorium” in the Venice Architecture Biennale of 2002, Rahm literally designs atmospheres and weathers, amplifying the viewer’s perceptual ability through various visualizations, as well as the viewer’s sentient ability through body senses.

Along the same lines, the Chicago-based architect Sean Lally uses immaterial means, including electromagnetic, thermodynamic, and acoustic energy, to design atmospheres and environments. Evoking Reyner Banham’s famous “Environmental Bubble” in 1965 (in collaboration with Canadian artist Francois Dallegret), Lally argues for an architecture without walls, where boundaries can be formed by harnessing energy streams rather than rearranging building components. In his project “New Energy Landscapes,” for the second Istanbul Design Biennial of 2014, Lally claims that building with energy would fundamentally change the ways humans interact with each other and their environments.

Machine Expressionists

Environmental expressionism dates to Reyner Banham’s “Environmental Bubble,” as illustrated by François Dallegret in 1965, in “A Home Is not a House.” Banham questions the necessity of conventional architecture, wondering, when a house “contains so many services that the hardware could stand up without any assistance from the house, why have a house to hold it up?” Thus, architecture assumes the form of the inner workings of things—the “guts,” the circuitry and the tubes that materialize necessary connections; it exposes plumbing and circuity and develops an aesthetic proposition from the performance of circulation and system feedback loops.

Environmental expressionism is distinct from biomimicry, in that there is no intent to mimic nature formally or functionally, but rather to disclose the mechanical and chemical viscera of ecosystems and buildings. It is conceptually related to structural expressionism, which places visual emphasis on traditionally internal structural steel elements of buildings by bringing them outside the primary envelope. In Renzo Piano, Richard Rogers, and Gianfranco Franchini’s Centre Pompidou of 1971, for instance, the structurally expressive façade is predominantly an aesthetic of legibility of mechanical systems, as most of the components serve no structural purpose.

The Urban Algae Canopy project, by ecoLogicStudio (Marco Poletto, Claudia Pasquero) with Carlo Ratti Associati, is an example of this concept, as it integrates microalgal cultures into an architectural cladding and digital regulation system, avoiding all attempts to hide the photosynthetic organisms or the technology that regulates their oxygenation and growth. Similarly, Cesare Griffa’s Water Lillies are architectural components that grow algae to be harvested as bio-fuel. Griffa posits the Lillies as an expressive lighting system as well, creating a unique, luminescent, green night environment.

Likewise, HYDRAMAX Port Machines from the Future Cities Lab (Nataly Gattegno and Jason Kelly Johnson) rethinks San Francisco’s waterfront following sea-level rise in a “synthetic architecture that blurs the distinction between building, landscape, infrastructure, and machine” (Gattegno & Johnson, 2012). Filamentous, spiny, robotic structures make boundaries more flexible and pliant by intelligently regulating the environments of new aquatic parks, community gardens, wildlife refuges, and aquaponic farms. All ecological functions of the project, like harvesting rainwater and fog, modulating air flow, and solar gain, are performed by intelligent building systems mobilized by sensors and motorized components that are outwardly visible in the utmost detail. For Future Cities Lab, the proposals are not merely expressive of the inner workings, but work as live models, in direct, real-time mechanical response to changing environmental factors.

An alternative direction in the expressive demonstration of mechanical viscera and circuitry, as the vital effective organs of environmental systems, is evident in the work of Spanish architect Andrés Jaque and the Office for Political Innovation that he founded in Madrid in 2003. Jaque’s projects are playful and humorous, yet highly precise, with each proposal conceptualized as a built manifesto overlapping environmental with economic and political concerns. For example, his project for the 2015 Young Architects Program for MoMA PS1 in New York City was described by Dezeen magazine as a giant water purifier, a movable artifact made of customized irrigation components, that makes visible and enjoyable the so-far-hidden urbanism of pipes that we live with (McKnight, 2015). Jaque frequently uses ready-made elements that reiteratively follow a logic of orchestrated excess in order to make visible the intransigent infrastructural systems that are commonly used for environmental amelioration. By making circuitry and machinery overtly perceptible, he criticizes the state of environmental affairs and argues that environmental and political parameters are profoundly intertwined.

Corporate Performatists

Ecological capitalism is an emerging term enabling the capitalization, not necessarily of nature but of our sense of loss of nature, for the development of new economies. According to Sir Tim Smit, the executive vice-chairman and cofounder of the Eden Project in the United Kingdom, more than 16 million people have come to see what was once a sterile pit now transformed into a cradle of life, containing world-class horticulture and startling architecture symbolic of human endeavor. Eden has contributed over 1 billion pounds to the Cornish economy. This common and admittedly banal use of the word sustainability strengthens the development of a most peculiar type of architecture: “one that articulates a unique relationship between architecture and fantasy against a background of immanent catastrophe” (Adams, 2010, p. 88) and eventually commoditizes architectural and construction performance as a selling point for a rising ethos of ecological capitalism. Smit has explicitly denounced the perception of mutually exclusive capitalism and environmental consciousness, claiming that the Eden Project is the product of powerful capital, as well as ecologically political conviction. Performance and corporate ecology shape our practices of ecological and economical consumption, providing guidelines for manufacture and expenditure and minimizing risks in which both economy and ecology are implicated.

Ecological design has become a commodity. This approach demonstrates an interest in technological achievements, in selling ecology, and in developing criteria for professionals on which to judge ecological awareness, responsiveness, and design. The Global Footprint Network, for instance, provides and revises a framework and procedure for measuring the rate at which humans consume resources and generate waste compared to how quickly the planet absorbs human waste and replaces those consumed resources. Architecture historian Jonathan Massey has cited Foster + Partner’s 30 St Mary Axe, more commonly known as “The Gherkin,” as a design that addresses the “ways we imagine the risks associated with climate change, terrorism, and financial globalization” (Massey, 2013). Risk management, most often considered as a form of rationalizing contingency and uncertainty in business, is ecological as well. Massey argued that 30 St Mary Axe is both a marker and an agent of change through addressing risk. The Gherkin successfully bridges a perceived gap between sustainability initiatives and economic growth and sells a certain kind of ecology to the public, even though its sustainable features in operation actually fall short of achieving its touted energy performance.


With its roots in Arne Næss’s definition of deep ecology, which proclaims that all living beings are of inherently equal value, design for nonhumans affirms that design should accommodate more types of life than merely human. Ariane Lourie Harrison of the architecture firm Harrison Atelier, founded with Seth Harrison, who is an entrepreneur in biotechnology and culture, has speculated as to what comprises the world following the contemporary anthropocentric moment, what they have referenced as the posthuman world. Several of their installation projects accommodate birds and bees (among other species), which emerge at the forefront of their thoughts rather than being marginalized.

Architect Joyce Hwang, who is an associate professor at the University of Buffalo and director of the Ants of the Prairie studio, has engaged in several projects pitched for nonhumans, most notably Bat Tower, which she constructed in 2007 in upstate New York for bats. She has designed several iterations of installations for bats and pests in an effort to explore strategies for increasing public awareness of supposedly unwanted species as a critical component of our ecosystem. Similarly, Pneumastudio, founded by Chris Perry and Catherine Dwyre, envisions an architecture “Not for ‘us’ alone,” in the darker urban, geographical, and architectural future predicated on the ecological crisis. In their Anthropocene Folly, ecological design is conceived as a zone of exchange between human and nonhuman forms of habitation (Figure 12).

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Figure 12. An Architectural Folly for the Anthropocene by Chris Perry and Cathryn Dwyre of Pneumastudio. A full-scale, “permanent installation” at OMI International Arts Center, Ghent, New York, in 2015.

Terreform ONE (Mitchell Joachim and Maria Aiolova), a nonprofit architecture group based in New York City, proposed in 2016 a modular Cricket Shelter (Figure 13), with “a multipronged focus on international hunger solutions, sustainable food distribution methods, and emergency architecture,” with an aim to hygienically and humanely house and harvest crickets for human consumption in developed and developing countries (Terreform ONE, 2016). According to Terreform One, “harvesting insects for food takes about 300 times less water than acquiring the same amount of protein from cattle, pigs, and chicken.” Cricket Shelter is a polemical project, in that it not only provides a habitat for forgotten species like crickets, but also provides a plan for the entire harvesting process and food production and consumption. This design approach intends to address contemporary ecological conditions through interventions that foreground the Anthropocene yet are not necessarily for humans.

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Figure 13. Cricket Shelter: Modular Edible Insect Farm by Terreform One (Mitchell Joachim, PI), built at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York, 2016.


As a design approach, resilience emphasizes designers’ combat with climate change through the remediation of contaminated ecosystems and the recreation of soft boundaries between dense human settlements and sparser, more rural areas. Ross Exo Adams writes that resilient urbanism is cross-scalar, transcending boundaries of measure, governance, and information. He cites New York City’s Resilience by Design (RBD), an initiative to implement resilient design measures across the city’s coastal zones. The transcendence of boundaries is key to ecological resilience, and Adams finds the initiative’s great success thus far to be in its urbanization of the body, politicization of local community, and accessibility of data-collecting, cybernetic technologies for the individual. According to Adams, urban resilience “gains clarity as an ecology,” in which design innovations negotiate between scales and types of urbanity from the environmental to the political and technological (Adams, 2016).

As an operating case study of resilient design, Kate Orff’s practice SCAPE reenvisions urban landscapes while incorporating principles of brownfield remediation, minimized site disturbance, and meshing natural systems with human habitat. For instance, SCAPE’s collaboration with Perkins + Will Architects for developing a resilience strategy for the brownfield area of the Hudson Riverport in Kingston, New York, demonstrates a methodology of crafting ecological resilience against flooding and sea level rise through schemes that Kingston could deploy that would take a “cut-and-fill approach to softening the edge and raising land to be developable,” increasing habitat on land and in water (Scape/Landscape Architecture PLLC, 2014).

Dlandstudio, led by landscape architect Susannah C. Drake, is also known for practicing resilience, which is particularly evident in the studio’s Gowanus Canal Sponge Park a severely polluted site in Brooklyn, infamous as an EPA Superfund site. Dlandstudio proposed a green corridor along each side of the canal that would absorb and remediate water runoffs, but also would create new neighborhood activities for local residents. After five years, the project was funded in 2013 for a pilot section of the park, bringing to fruition Drake’s belief in remediating landscape corridors that intertwine the ecology of land use and people.

A different tangent on remediating contaminated ecosystems is evidenced in the work of landscape architect and scholar Bradley Cantrell, who is chair of the Landscape Architecture Department at the University of Virginia. Cantrell’s body of work, often referenced as “Responsive Landscapes,” “Synthetic Landscapes,” or “Cyborg Ecologies,” intersects computation and ecology, offering entirely novel ways to monitor, understand, and represent complex natural processes, such as sedimentation and the evolving geomorphology of riverbeds (Bentley, 2016). Cantrell develops and designs devices and infrastructures that create complex interrelationships among maintenance, evolved processes, and environmental responses on his custom-made test bed—a “fluid modeling table”—which uses ultrasound to model topographic landscapes. Although Cantrell’s work is mostly focused on digital and physical simulations in the laboratory, his computational landscapes, using computing and machine learning, offer insight in building physical infrastructures and natural landscapes that relate symbiotically with cities and natural systems (Cantrell, 2014).


Related to Kenneth Frampton’s “critical regionalism,” which strives to achieve a balance between hom*ogeneous, global forms and practices of architecture and heterogeneous, vernacular, and local forms and practices, environmental contextualism exploits unique qualities of place and locale to a resourceful end. Design involves capitalizing on local places and resources to create magnetic, ecologically conscious architectures. Australian architect Glenn Murcutt practices environmental contextualism in constructing a new domicile in the vernacular of the aboriginal that espouses weightlessness of form and environmental impact. His structures take advantage of the Sun and wind for lighting, heat, and cross-ventilation purposes and use local materials in thermally strategic, culturally sensitive ways. Murcutt’s ethos of environmental sensitivity can be surmised in the phrase “how to touch the earth lightly,” which has become the title of a book on his design work written by Philip Drew in 2001. Speaking of his work, Murcutt seems emotionally and sensorially immersed in the context of the built word and conjures an ethical and civic responsibility to the planet and its resources.

Context exists at the scale of site and region, and while one may think that this place specificity limits Murcutt’s work to that locale, he forges an architectural connection with ecology that is global in understanding and application. A contemporary of Murcutt’s, Richard Leplastrier, also takes on the aboriginal conception of leaving little trace on the Earth by reworking and reconfiguring spaces into minimal niches, adjusting the tectonic composition of space in accordance with ecological conditions of region and site.

Living Fabricators

The architects and designers in the living fabricators group focus on what one might loosely reference as biological design and fabrication. Stemming from ancient alchemical practices and from a genealogy of experiments on chemical computation, the ideas motivating the living fabricators involve the blurring of boundaries between living and nonliving entities, as well as the aspiration to control design by animating and orchestrating inner material forces. Understanding design as a growth process of organic substances—one that can be steered to a projected outcome—is not by any means a new concept. What is different, nevertheless, is the way in which in the past 15 years, such enterprises have shaped via technological instrumentation.

One of the first groups that spearheaded the introduction of biology in the arts is the SymbioticA artistic research lab, founded by artists Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr, biologist Miranda Grounds, and neuroscientist Stuart Bunt at the University of Western Australia’s School of Anatomy and Human Biology in 2000. One of Zurr and Catts’s first projects involved “The Semi-Living” Worry Dolls, the first tissue-engineered sculptures to be presented alive in a gallery, part of the Tissue Culture and Art Project. Inspired by Guatemalan worry dolls, these dolls were handcrafted of degradable polymers (PGA and P4HB) and surgical sutures, and then seeded with living cells that, throughout the exhibition, were gradually replaced with polymers within a microgravity bioreactor. According to the artists, the aim of the project was to “direct and control the growth of tissue into a desired shape in order to replace or support the function of defective or inured parts” (Zurr & Catts, 2002).

A corollary term with semiliving, used for the transference of innovative technological approaches in biology, microbiology, biotechnology, medicine, and surgery to design fields is neoplasmatic design, coined by Marcos Cruz and Steve Pike in an issue that they guest-edited in 2009 for Architectural Design. The editors defined as neoplasmatic projects that are partly designed objects and partly living material, blurring the lines between the natural and the artificial (Cruz, 2009). For the authors, neoplasmatic design implies semiliving entities that require completely new definitions. As an educator, researcher, and designer at the Bartlett (University College London), Cruz has taught and worked on many projects that utilize living matter in buildings, mostly focusing on the utilization of bacteria and algae.

A different position on the use of biological materials is manifest in the work of David Benjamin, who is an assistant professor at Columbia University and founder of the New York–based studio The Living. Rather than displaying in detail the surgical mechanisms of material conversions as Cruz does, Benjamin’s interest lies in using form and materiality to produce design proposals of negligible footprint. In the project “HyFi,” built for the MoMA PS1 Young Architects Program in 2014 (coordinated by the Museum of Modern Art), Benjamin deployed bricks made of corn and mushrooms to shape cylinders that drew the heat upward in PS1’s courtyard. The bricks were manufactured by Ecovative, a biomaterials company based in upstate New York that mostly creates products grown from mushrooms, fungal mycelium that are low-value, nonfood agricultural materials, using a patented process. The bricks were grown within a period of less than 1 week and were consequently planned to return to the city soil after the temporary exhibition space closed.

The work of Canadian architect Philip Beesley and American architect Jenny Sabin is also notable due to their poetically effusive enveloping presence, demonstrating the intersection of computation, with biotechnology, mathematics, and synthetic biology. Beesley’s most prominent work is “Hylozoic Ground” (Figure 14), part of a series of immersive installations that he initiated in 2008, which react to the presence of visitors. His intention was to create a metabolic architecture, a living, breathing entity capable of regeneration and growth. Sabin won the MoMA PS1’s Young Architecture Program competition in 2017 with plans for a shelter made of robotically knitted textile solar panels. Mostly focusing on textiles, her work is not simply translating biological metaphors but is invested in the nonlinearities of material and form across different disciplines and scales. Seminal references for Sabin’s work include matrix biology, materials science, and mathematics through the filter of crafts-based media including textiles and ceramics (Sabin, 2014).

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Figure 14. Hylozoic Ground by Philip Beesley at the Canadian Pavilion of the Venice Biennale in 2010.


In the footsteps of Buckminster Fuller’s “World Games” and John McHale’s drawings for vertical mobility—large cross sections of the Earth from the core to the stratosphere—one can trace the work of Design Earth, a collaborative practice led by El Hadi Jazairy and Rania Ghosn. As El Hadi Jazairy and Ghosn argue, their design research engages technological systems such as energy and trash precisely because these systems do not respect the morphological boundaries between the country and the city (Korody, 2016). In a series of drawings engaging large-scale infrastructural systems (Figure 15), narrated via a sensual visual storytelling, the authors are intent on reimagining urbanization’s contract with nature. Via their work, Design Earth asks: What is the agency of design in shaping such spaces of technological systems, particularly now that the ecological crisis has opened the black box of urban externalities, all while these systems often remain essentialized by the alarmist rhetoric of “energy needs,” “waste crisis,” “green infrastructure,” or “food security”? (Korody, 2016).

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Figure 15. After Oil by Design Earth, El Hadi Jazairy, and Rania Ghosn. Exhibited at the Kuwait Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, Between East and West: a Gulf, 2016.

Similar questions on how to lyrically reinvent infrastructures and design large-scale territories are posited by Lateral Office, a Toronto-based platform for new spatial environments founded by Lola Sheppard and Mason White. As a body of work, Lateral Office’s projects are mostly territorial, blurring the lines between nature and technology, landscape and architecture. In 2010, Lateral Office, in collaboration with Infranet Lab (Neeraj Bhatia and Maya Przybylski), published the book COUPLING: Strategies for Infrastructural Opportunism. According to Geoff Manaugh’s review in BLDGBLOG, the authors seek out moments in which architecturally dormant landscapes, from the Arctic Circle to the Salton Sea, can be activated by infrastructure, be spatially reused, or both. It is architecture on the scale of infrastructure and infrastructure on the scale of hemispheres and ecosystems—the becoming-continental of the architecture brief.

The projects presented in COUPLING were conceptualized as life-support ecologies for large-scale territories, enabling infrastructure to take a prominent role on a new environmental stage set. Along these lines, Bhatia later founded the studio The Open Workshop in San Francisco, with a number of projects addressing the intersection of politics, infrastructure, and urbanism. Bhatia is also the research director of The Petropolis of Tomorrow, which explores the relationship between urbanism and resource extraction, and particularly cities formed from resource extraction associated with energy.

Another practice whose work addresses territory and geography presented as excerpts of Earth samples is NEMESTUDIO, based in San Francisco and founded by the Turkish architects Neyan Turan and Mete Sonmez. In her own words, Turan argues that her work “draws on the relationship between geography and design to highlight their interaction for new aesthetic and political trajectories within architecture and urbanism” (NEMESTUDIO, 2014). Similar to other members in this category, NEMESTUDIO’s work is lyrical and engaged in powerful formats of visual representation and storytelling on projecting the availability of resources in the future. In many of these projects, samples of earth are overtly exhibited as testimony to the way that absurdity has been institutionalized in environmental legislation.


Looking back at the breadth of the history of ecological design enables an alternative, elastic understanding of the term ecology, addressing not only a new kind of naturalism and/or technoscientific standard, but also a recirculatory understanding of the world and its resources. In this context, revisiting the term ecological, rather than sustainable and green, is of the essence and may contribute to a reassessment of contemporary debates on the environment. It may be in this epistemological fusion that we can ask more of architecture and design.

The condition of flow and constant conversion was characterized by Gyorgy Kepes in 1972 as a primary reorientation of the 20th century. He explained:

The dominant matrix of nineteenth-century attitudes was the use of Marx’s term “reification”; relationships were interpreted in terms of things, objects, or commodity values. Today a reversal of this attitude has begun to appear; there is a steadily increasing movement in science and in art toward processes and systems that dematerialize the object world and discredit physical possessions. What scientists considered before as substance shaped into forms, and consequently understood as tangible objects, is now recognized as energies and their dynamic organization. (p. 11)

As well as a practice of minimizing the detrimental impact of buildings, ecological design is an ideational and philosophical system of viewing the world of ideas, information, and matter as flow, rather than as the accumulation of discrete objects. More than a material system, it signals the migration of life through the conversion of one thing to another.

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