In his seminal essay ‘What’s wrong with plastic trees?’, which was first published in 1973 in the February issue of Science magazine, environmental policy and planning expert Martin H. Krieg answered this question by writing that “my guess is that there is very little wrong with them. Much more can be done with plastic trees and the like to give most people the feeling that they are experiencing nature.”
Now, almost half a century later Krieg’s provocative article seems more relevant than ever before. With natural ecosystems in free fall and artificial environments on the rise, from man made islands to vertical forests, we are forced to rethink our relationship with (what was formerly known as) nature. Despite our renewed interest in trees – and mushrooms, lichens, octopuses and other intelligent life forms – we have to find ways to cohabitate a damaged planet that is steadily becoming a patchwork of synthetic landscapes.
But where to start? Let’s first try to understand the historic shift away from seeing Earth as a living organism, towards understanding it as a technosphere which is entirely made or modified by man(kind). Next, let’s take a closer look at some recent attempts to reconcile architecture and nature. And let’s discuss a design ethos and urban policy for this post-natural world. Are substitution and simulation enough to create proxy environments that keep us alive and together?
Michiel van Iersel is an Amsterdam-based curator, educator and writer. For the past twenty years he has worked at the intersection of the arts, architecture, (urban) design, and heritage. Through commissioned and self-initiated projects he helps create moments of meaningful and playful exchange and critical dialogue around pressing issues. He is co-founder and active member of several initiatives including the international research platform Failed Architecture and Loom: a new collective operating across disciplines and geographies to create transformative rituals and transgressive actions that help people move forward collectively and creatively in a divided and depleted world.
Michiel is currently serving as Program Lead of the NEWROPE Chair of Architecture and Urban Transformation at ETH Zürich. He recently co-edited Rewriting Architecture (Valiz, 2020), a book that explores the environment as a ‘tabula scripta’: a multilayered reality that should be
enriched and not exploited. As a Loeb Fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Design he studied the environmental impact of architecture and the construction industry. This research project, titled Archipocene, is an ongoing exploration of (hi)stories and case studies that can help us better understand the paradoxical nature of a profession that wants to do more with less in a world that is addicted to growth.