26 April 2013 – “Did you feel the breeze that came through just then?” asked architect Glenn Murcutt. We were sitting in his award-winning education centre at Riversdale, the property generously donated to the nation by artist Arthur Boyd, perched on a bend in the Shoalhaven River.
It was a very warm, still autumn afternoon but the wall facing the river, and its breezes, had been opened to embrace the outside. And it lifted the soul to feel that little wisp of air come through, reminding of the larger whole we were a part of. And right on cue. We had come to listen to Glenn Murcutt and social ecologist Stephen Kellert talk about biophilia, and the place it can – and should – have in the way we design our buildings and cities.
Biophilia is an idea coined to encapsulate humans’ (, our) inherent affinity for nature, a connection that goes beyond even those critical physical needs that we know all too well – clean air and water, crisp fresh foods with minimum of additives, the healing power of natural light. Rather, biophilia is about the urge to affiliate with other forms of life – which we ignore at our peril and was why we were listening to an ecologist and not just an architect talk about design.
Stephen Kellert, from Yale University and more activist scholar than aloof academic, has written extensively on the idea, worked with schools and other groups, and produced a film (https://www.bullfrogfilms.com/catalog/biod.html) all seeking to counteract the debilitating effect that the distancing from nature that now characterises too much of our lives generates.
He has been in Sydney to spread the word: that we must pay greater attention to bringing nature back into our day-to-day lives and, it follows, into how we design the buildings and other urban spaces in which we spend so much time. He also spoke at a social ecology symposium at the University of Western Sydney (https://www.uws.edu.au/education/soe/social_ecology_symposium) , and you can listen to him on ABC Radio (https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/lifematters/biophilia/4625444).
He calls this approach “biophylic design”. Murcutt referred to simply “responsible design” which suggests, as I take it, both an obligation to be “responsive” to (as Murcutt listed) the site features, the sun and winds in both their welcome and less pleasant modes, and the particular living demands and needs of the users, and also a moral need for designers (and clients and builders and regulators) to work in this way. A follow-up remark about disliking the term “sustainable development” brought murmurs from the audience, though whether in agreement or puzzlement I could not tell.
It would be a further conversation worth having , but I wonder whether what he was on about was the reductionist tendency we retreat to so often when dealing with anything as large, intricate and complex as sustainability. He also had a go at BASIX, the Building Sustainability Index introduced by the NSW Government as a set of design controls to force new buildings to be more efficient by using less water and energy.
And at “planners”, though maybe only those who are charged with implementing BASIX and, yes, that all-too-easy reductionist tick-the-box approach. Which can, as Murcutt seemed to suggest, lead to simplistic sealed (“insulated”) spaces designed only to chase energy reduction criteria, and not our wider need to embrace nature and the joy that results.
One can also think of how we have downgraded the otherwise useful tool of the “triple bottom line” in a similar way by referring, for instance, to the need to “balance out” the three criteria and which all-too-often leads to a trade-off mentality. When what we really need is the creative exuberance for design, and life, that Murcutt was discussing, and which can lead to new visions, new synergistic forms of development that achieve all of our social, economic and ecological requirements together, in new abundance.
But swipes at particular professional groups or regulatory tools also risk being in themselves reductionist by not defining the real, inherent problems or issues.
There is a need for something like BASIX for instance. We all know that what we were building previously has been far too wasteful on energy and water and resources generally, and BASIX does at least allow variations through its score-card system.
Stephen Kellert spoke a little softer, but echoed the dilemma in another way when asking why it is that we seem to no longer hold trust in our intuitive knowledge about how things should be and how we should design something, but rather demand to see all sorts of empirical evidence before acting. Ring true? We are the first generation in history he contended (with some sadness) that requires proof that nature is good for us.
For instance our recent “discovery” that we heal quicker in hospitals that have better access to the outdoors, opening windows, and views to vegetation. Then there are the examples given by Stephen Choi a recent article on The Fifth Estate, Buildings don’t use energy. People do where the empirical data did not give us the right answers in any case because we didn’t ask the right questions of the right people.
Kellert cited how we are perversely building ourselves larger and larger houses because indoor space is now all that we have given ourselves in our retreat from nature. He illustrated the alternative by describing a visit to another Murcutt building, a house that although quite small in floor area felt spatially large because of the way it was designed to open up and outwards in all sorts of different ways to its larger setting.
Importantly, Kellert believes that most people are actually looking for something better in their built environments than they are currently receiving – throwing open the challenge for those in the field, designers and builders and developers alike, to be the leading edge of the change we need.
And when that breeze came through – well, experience, and the design nous that allowed it to happen, is always more powerful than any words.
Greg Paine is a Sydney based planner