Friday, February 13, 2009

Nature: Science or Poetry

Yesterday, I took the day off and went to the new California Academy of Sciences. The building has been hailed as a model of green design. I walked through the glass and steel front door, wide-eyed and ready to learn. What I found was the current dilemma of Nature, Imagination and Architecture. The scientific mind-set of our culture breaks nature into definable categories, wraps it in a dazzling technological package and feeds us the illusion that we are connecting with the ecological web that sustains life on this planet. I realized the truth of the words about science uttered in the movie, Contact. Jodi Foster plays a scientist who passes to another dimension through a worm hole in time and space. The beauty and mystery on the other side of the worm hole is so overwhelming that Jodi cannot described it in scientific language. All she can do is mumble, "They should have sent a poet."

Without poetry, the displays at the California Academy of Sciences are nothing more than quick, fragmented "Wows." "Wow, look at that gecko walking up the glass." "Wow, look at the size of that catfish." "Wow, look at the carbon footprint made by a steak dinner." Certainly, the facts introduce us to the terrain of nature and the patterns of ecology that we must take into account to dwell on earth sustainably. But, the threads of poetic imagination that weave the fabric of life together can take us beyond the isolated view that got us into the mess of pollution and global warming. Poetry can assist us in directly experiencing the integrated whole that makes nature a practical wonder. Precise poetic language opens dimensions of nature that scientific formulas cannot. 

Maybe, green buildings could be rated not only on the linear scale of LEED requirements met, but could include descriptions of the their poetic power.
How many sparks of wonder and beauty does the building ignite? In how many places do the walls, roofs and other forms point toward the formless? To the rational mind, this seems absurd. To the poetic soul, this is the genuine substance of architecture that is attuned to nature. If we don't include the poetic eye and heart in our intersections with ecology, our efforts at green building will only result in a new fashion of cages. We'll end up like the panther in the poem by Rainer Maria Rilke:

His vision from constantly passing bars,
has grown so weary that it cannot hold
anything else. It seems there are
a thousand bars, and behind the bars, no

As he paces in cramped circles, over and over,
the movement of his powerful soft strides
is like a ritual dance around a center
in which a mighty will stands paralyzed.

Only at times, the curtain of the pupils 
lifts, quietly—. An image enters in,
rushes down through the tensed, arrested 
plunges into the heart and is gone.

1 comment:

  1. Anthony I agree that reducing the definition of success in green design to quantifiable efficiencies is like squeezing the soul out of the work. It may meet technical goals well, but be lifeless, which in the end may mean they are worse buildings or places to be than less efficient, beautiful spaces.

    My background is engineering, and I often reflect upon the fact that infrastructure lacking in beauty, which fails to enhance the life of the spaces it serves, is also somehow "lacking". Nature doesn't need to compromise beauty to accomplish function- that much is obvious!

    Just recently I made a related point about beauty and function with respect sustainable water infrastructure.