September 9, 2009
The UHC Lecture Series 2009 9) Living Structures lecture on September 3, 2009 took us on a tour around the world and through time showing how nature is capable on its own, or via the coaxing of humans, of providing us with shelter, infrastructure and aesthetic enjoyment.
We were first introduced to a baobab tree (Fig. 1, above) in Africa, a species of tree that stores water inside its trunk. Its large proportions make it suitable for use as a market structure with very little need to alter it to serve as a shelter for people.
In Turkey, the underground city of Kaymakli consists of many levels of tunnels complete with ventilation shafts, water wells, and defensive elements that closed the tunnels in case of attack (Fig. 2, above). The carved structure is complete with monasteries and churches (Fig. 3, below) with architectural details similar to conventionally built (above ground) churches.
The ruins of the Temple of Ta Prohm in Angkor, Cambodia (Figures 4 and 5, above) are being devoured by the spreading nature within which it was nestled. The trees, whose roots are enveloping the ruins, could be seen as powerful rulers of their domain, cleaning house when a man-made structures become obsolete or abandoned. I got the sense that the trees were going to neutralize the space and bring it back to its original order. Because I love buildings and the ingenuity of ancient civilizations, I’m caught between feeling for the loss of an important cultural artifact, and cheering for nature to create stability. This is an example of nature, unprovoked by humans, growing and spreading in a manner that best serves the environment.
We were presented with a photograph of a bridge in India made of rubber tree roots that had been manipulated across the river, attracted by the sunlight at the end of the hollowed out trunks of the betel palm (Figures 6, above, and 7, below). The rubber tree, indigenous to the area, thrives in wet climates and readily endures the erosion experienced by the monsoon floods. The people who knew these facts about the plants and trees in their back yard knew to stretch and entreat the branches across the ravine to create a bridge between their village and plantation.
The vision of the bridge is what most designers might be seeking when they’re designing with concrete, cable and steel. The roots intertwine and undulate across the river as if they too are flowing like the river below it. The bridge has a sturdy bottom and handrails that have survived hundreds of years. Based on some research I did after the lecture, I found one source that said the bridge takes about 20 years to complete.
Although nature is fascinating and humbling, I’m almost more impressed by the ingenuity of the people that can transform nature into the function of a bridge that rivals modern day expansions. I’m inspired by the dedication of a collective group to build something that may not benefit an individual immediately, but will certainly benefit their community down the line.
Now owners and contractors are looking to shave days, weeks, or months off their construction schedules, and it’s encouraging to be presented with an example from a time when a community was faced with a problem and found a solution that involved only what was immediately available to them and were driven by their collective long-term commitment to the survival of their people. They didn’t accomplish survival by clearing the land and introducing an outside solution, rather through a compromise with nature and the reverent manipulation, they found a way to continue together.
Living Structures showed us how harmonious the union can be between man and the natural world around him. We have a need to create a sense of place; a connection with the land we live on that we hope will last longer than our lifetime. The challenge is finding a way to accomplish that while showing complete reverence for the environment and utilizing the inherent characteristics of the materials.
About the author
Guest blogger Breena Ferguson earned her Bachelor of Art in Architecture from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. She’s into buildings, the environment, and people.
Even more still, how people interact with buildings and their environment.