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Our complicated relation with nature: a quest for biophilic homes

Back in the summer of 2010, concerned about how drought and water scarcity were developing in California, we headed from the Bay Area to the Sierras, intending to stop by some friends’ condo in Mammoth Lakes and, realizing our proximity to Mono Lake, we paid a visit to the deserted, alkaline area transformed by water diversion to the city of Los Angeles. The lake’s hypersalinity creates tufa towers, cave-like formations on the water immortalized by Pink Floyd on the inside sleeve of their 1975’s Wish You Were Here album.

Mono Lake at twilight, 2010 (Nicolás Boullosa)

It was exceedingly warm and devoid of life. We could have experienced a mirage and seen, like in the album, a person falling from the sky and diving in. But looking carefully at the dry basin where the lake sits, a subtle natural world unfolds. There was no diver, but that corner of the Sierra Nevada’s Piedmont displayed to the trained eye all sorts of plants and insects while birds refreshed themselves, taking wind tunnel rides above the water. Our two children back then were with their American grandparents in the Bay Area, and we didn’t need to protect ourselves beyond what’s convenient anywhere in the Western high desert land.

Since time immemorial, the area had been inhabited by the Kucadikadi, or “eaters of the brine fly pupae,” we had read in the car on our way there, establishing a tradition of reading what we could find about one place, taking notes and, of course, footage. But that day, there was no apparent story or knowledgeable interviewee. Behind us, trucks were roaring south through Route 395.

A tree staring at you

Not long from there, in the White Mountains of California and Nevada, a triangular mountain range east of the Sierras, bare and twisted bristlecone pines live for thousands of years despite their modest allure. If seen with their naked eye, their highly branched, shallow roots would allow us to understand the species’ longevity despite the harsh environment and extreme temperature changes they have evolved to endure: they provide stability and resistance to severe droughts. Methuselah Bristlecone, the oldest verified living tree in the world, stands in the area.

Methuselah is 4,853 years old, unaware of the Neolithic Revolution taking shape in several areas of the world five millennia ago when it sprouted timidly, its cells displaying the same distributed intelligence that allow any complex plant to react to environmental inputs with no need of an animal-like nervous system, much in the fashion of other unrelated organisms or superorganisms, from blobs to ant colonies.

Mono Lake, golden hour, August 17, 2010 (Nicolás Boullosa)

Much like distributed computing systems, parts can set their cells to cooperate in processing information and making decisions accordingly: a branch sensing a strong shock of wind will bend, risking damage, but a chain reaction will instigate a different reaction as the wind keeps blowing on it; the same distributed capability will allow the plant to “sense” the pressure of insects or birds and react depending on the “perceived” threat. Sometimes, these reactions take the shape of chemical segregations with varying effects within their surroundings. Volatile organic compounds are essential oils trees use to fence off perceived attacks by microbes, fungus, or insects. But what represents a death threat to pests can attract and even become beneficial to other species.

A bird, much heavier than a swarm of insects sensed as a pest, won’t kick an aggressive chemical reaction from leaves and bark of some species, for example. And to humans, phytoncides can boost some immune functions, some studies suggest. Like in distributed computing, plants’ swarm behavior hints at an intricate system of information processing among the cells that conform to a more significant entity, much more complex than science had acknowledged in the past.

And, as in artificial distributed networks, information processing and reactions following subtle environmental “perception” implies that, indeed, there’s such thing as “learning” and “memory” in plants, just so different from the nervous system in vertebrates that we keep making the same mistake we have culturally inherited, considering plants little more than an aesthetically appealing and useful part of the inanimate world surrounding us.

Biophilia and vernacular dwellings

Our inability to see “intelligence” or complex behavior beyond vertebrates is slowly changing, and science has recognized the proven intelligence of octopuses or the collective intelligence of social insects, but plants have represented a puzzling case of a type of intelligence that goes beyond the cellular capacity of sensing pressure differences on their immediate vicinity.

It’s difficult for us to imagine something so unlike us than some of the landmark flora of the West, often adapted to harsh, demanding ecosystems. Yet to the ancestral people inhabiting the area east of the Sierra Nevada, there’s a continuum among all living things sustaining each other, and so the bristlecone tree would cure sores and boils by using a poultice of heated pitch, while the lake’s brine shrimp and the pupae of alkali flies, once dried and cooked in a stew, served as extra protein when jackrabbits, deer, mountain sheep, and the area’s abundant Pandora moths were not handy.

Vegetation detail, Mono Lake, August 17, 2010 (Nicolás Boullosa)

Piñon pine would provide nuts, and the sturdy wood of the Utah Juniper—as small and twisted as the bristlecone despite being a close relative of the giant sequoias—would become the structure for tomoganis (the conical, half-buried winter dwellings built by the area’s population). To the untrained eyes, what seemed barren land was an Arcadian feast to sharpener regards, completed with more game (and acorns) from the Merced River shore.

As travelers of another era, there was so much to learn and to celebrate about life in the area before European arrival. Mono Lake wasn’t supposed to be the place where we could instinctively connect with other living things. Yet, there we were, agreeing with entomologist Edward O. Wilson in his definition of our innate drive to feel captivated by nature. It may well be Wilson’s biophilia that prompts some of the people we have encountered since to build their dwellings in such a way that shelter becomes a part of its natural surroundings, often using local, affordable materials at hand and organic lines mimicking those found in nature’s surroundings: we soon experienced through our visits that the thermal needs of a dwelling in the Southwest US’s high desert landscapes will demand an earthy, often partially-buried dwellings to counter the extreme temperatures, whereas the often forested, foggy coastal areas would inspire shingle-clad, light dwellings whose façades would resemble the trees’ bark —and behave like it, protective yet permeable enough.

Human adaptation to other areas was radically different. The verdant, rainy shores of New England fostered light, dome-shaped homes like those of the Wampanoak. The shape and repairability of their wetus already included the advantages that futurist Buckminster Fuller vindicated for geodesic domes: one round interior shape convenient for heating and cooling while withstanding high winds and hurricanes. The frame’s bent saplings were the tensegrity (geodesic domes’ efficient tensile forces) of their time, and the bark used for the cladding was easily repairable. The wetu’s good adaptation to New England’s harsh winter and humid summers may have inspired the first Europeans to arrive in New England. Though an embellished, conflict-free replica from the times of the Mayflower, in 2015 we paid a visit to the Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Massachusetts, to find out how the Wampanoag’s wetus contrasted with the vernacular settlers imported from England.

A walk in nature

Back in Mono Lake, if we confronted a picture of the area we visited one century prior, one change would have been transformative: Mono Lake’s water level and extension. At first, the landscape had felt inert, then had come to life, and now it reflected a trajectory of impermanence and transformation due to the impact of human activity. Maybe, what we couldn’t entirely grasp from the landscape was its apparent desolation. As a part of a society that has mastered convenience, we could not find the markers of survival in such an environment. First used by social psychologist Erich Fromm by popularized by biologist Edward O. Wilson, biophilia refers to our instinct to engage with the surrounding nature as if, by bringing the outdoors in, we could connect better with ourselves.

Mastering biophilia may prove as illusory as achieving “happiness” for what we receive when in nature is not easily quantifiable and affects our well-being. Back in the ‘1980, as work became an inescapable marker of social achievement and perception in Japan, a term emerged designing the benefits of taking a walk in the woods. But the practice, poetically known as “forest bathing,” shinrin-yoku, has arguably defined humans since time immemorial since our immersion in environments uprooted from natural patterns is a relatively modern phenomenon. Half an hour to the West on State Route 120, we reached the area of Yosemite, where we assisted in one of the paradoxes of our time, traffic intensity in traversing a National Park. John Muir, crucial in protecting the area, had attested that “in every walk with nature one receives far more than one seeks,” but walkers reaching Yosemite that day were doing so by car.

When in Tokyo in 2015, we immersed ourselves in a modest yet inspiring forest bathing at the park surrounding the Nezu Shinto shrine, near Ueno Park and the University of Tokyo. Irregular paths marked with vermilion and gold lacquered torii gates leading to a garden of azaleas hosting over 100 species. Qing Li, associate professor at Tokyo’s Nippon Medical School and president of the Japanese Society of Forest Medicine, met us with one assistant at the part. When walking in a park, like us at that moment, or in the forest, the easily forgotten sense of smell was the most important. The effect of being on a garden or forest was complex and multi-sensorial, but “but the biggest effect is from the olfactory, smell, we call them phytoncides. Also, people call them essential oil, aroma.” Phytoncides resemble essential oils, and Japanese Cypress looked most effective during such “baths.”

George Dyson’s treehouse back in the Seventies

The contrast between Mono Lake, Yosemite, and the suburban and urban landscapes once driving 120 East got us to the San Francisco Bay Area hours after, represented a synthesis of the challenges and opportunities of human designs intending to become more biophilic and integrate better with nature to reduce stress, nurture our creativity and improving our well-being. We had observed varying landscapes with dramatically diverse flora and fauna, at very different altitudes and weather conditions, influenced by mountain ranges, rivers, and valleys, or the ocean. If taken seriously, biophilia ought to be local and rooted in a deep knowledge of localities, from soil composition to weather patterns and trends of remarkable and well-documented events as far back as possible, using an approach as interdisciplinary as possible.

Yet, to those exploring the integration of natural patterns into architecture, the new Frontier is less in the manuals and more in the learn-by-doing approach used by George Dyson in the seventies. Living in a self-built treehouse in British Columbia, Dyson had decided to travel back and forth the area’s fjords and inlets on his own version of Aleutian kayak, a light, low-sailing, and very fast canoe known by early Russian trappers as baidarka, using an aluminum frame he kept carefully improving upon the experience of daily use.

In The Starship and the Canoe, Kenneth Brower explains Dyson had decided at one point to build a canoe that could carry a crew of 12 and several tons of cargo up and down his extended “home” —the Inside Passage along the coasts of Southern Alaska and British Columbia, D’Sonoqua for natives. Applying for a grant, Dyson tried to be concise in expressing the ethos of his work:

“… I have worked on and operated vessels of many types in these waters. I am educated in my knowledge of marine design, boatbuilding, and coastal navigation through a combination of study, experience, and experiment.”

“The past inhabitants of this coast developed the art and skills of seagoing canoe travel to a degree unmatched anywhere in the world. (…) they built large dugout craft of sophisticated design, which when combined with these peoples’ strength and seamanship, enabled swift and reliable travel throughout the Pacific coast. I know of no work other than my own which seeks to adapt this once widespread manner of life and travel to presently available skills and materials.”

Counting space in tatamis

Dyson’s tree cabin had come naturally to him. He had found a sheltered spot along the waterfront of Belcarra Bay, nearby an unincorporated village buzzing with blacksmiths and marine trade shops. Winter came, and he needed something better than a tent. There was a suitable, majestic Douglas fir with a good view. First, he didn’t intend to build a house as far off the ground, but the views got better up high, so the structure, attached to 14 branches, swaying as a one-room snug human nest with the breeze, only accessible through the tree’s branches.

When we visited Japanese builder and craftsman Yuichi Takeuchi on the outskirts of Fujiyoshida, in the central region of Honshu, Japan’s main island, the day was rainy, and we moved, taking the nearby Mount Fuji as a reference. Yuichi lacked the formal rigidity of other people we had encountered during the road trip days prior to our encounter with him, and once we saw the place tall, slender, and with a natural, unpretentious elegance, we considered its resemblance with the designer himself. Like George Dyson’s treehouse in Belcarra Bay near Vancouver, Yuichi’s treehouse sits high up and sways with the wind or the activity inside. He, too, seems to improve upon personal designs by a combination of study, experience, and experiment. The cabin’s stairs went almost vertically about 20 feet high, too much of a stretch for the children, but once upstairs, the space of “about four and a half tatami mats” on two young trees felt as comfortable and natural as a precise log cabin gently suspended in the air. The carpeted surface was lemon-scented. “It comes from the wood,” Yuichi told us.

“If you go up in here, it’s just simple, tree and me. That makes me feel very good, and there’s no other reason, it’s just to feel good.” Yuichi had built the treehouse behind a friend’s workshop out of Japanese Hinoki cypress wood from the area, a species used to build temples and shrines that has shown flexibility and resistance to rot. The wood had been cut longitudinally, considering its straight shape and grain, still visible in the little building’s fencing and cladding. We wondered whether the lemon-scented wood Yuichi had used was influencing us beyond the comfortable, sheltering connotations of raw wood finishings in small places.

We woke up in Yuichi’s treehouse to the sound of rain. It had considerably cooled down when we drove to meet architectural historian Terunobu Fujimori in his hometown of Chino, a fifty thousand town in Nagano prefecture. Despite the international projection of his work, Fujimori had warned us he didn’t speak nor understand English, but Yuichi was happy to join us in our visit and act as an interpret, enjoying the struggle to translate the subtleties of techniques such as yakisugi, also known as Shou sugi ban, a traditional method to protect wood classing by charring the wood’s surface to enhance durability.

Fujimori’s charred wood technique connects with woodcraft techniques that can be traced back to the Neolithic, back when builders would have improved their craft through a process that young George Dyson would have found familiar when boatbuilding: improvements came through a combination of study, experience, and experiment. Also, by deeply sensing the dynamics of nature. Charring wood to protect it is as counterintuitive as it can get, and resembles the ancient practice of mithridatism, one of the savvy resources shown by Alexandre Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo; it consists of protecting oneself from the threat of a poison by becoming immune to it through the regular self-administering of non-lethal amounts of the substance.

From charred wood to cork

Some woods seem to have achieved the properties looked after by traditional methods, such as charred wood through evolution. Across the Western Mediterranean, people have harvested the bark of Quercus suber, the native cork oak, for millennia to use it as building cladding, bottle stoppers, beehives, and as a material for all sorts of objects due to its low density and buoyant properties, impermeability, elasticity, shock resistance, and tolerance to fire that competes with that of charred wood. Cork can also be recycled and transformed into bricks. Matthew Barnett Howland used 1,268 cork blocks to erect by hand a biodegradable home with cork LEGOs, using no glues in the process. Oliver Wilton, who participated in the design of this Cork House, welcomed us and showed us how the experimental house, located in Eton, (Berkshire, England), achieved no impact and allowed for easy disassembly.

On Catalonia’s coastal forest of Garraf, architect Elisabetta Quarta Colosso built a cork-clad home for a retired couple that uses the material’s insulation, as well as a thermal wall with circular vents and a pond, to create a stable microclimate that helps plant regeneration in the small lot. When we visited, the cork had begun to gain its own patina after two years since construction, but this aging, similar to the one achieved with wooden shingles, does not affect its effectiveness as an insulator, unlike foams and other artificial, toxic, non-biodegradable materials.

Terunobu Fujimori’s small buildings and “fairy tale teahouses” are an artistic reinterpretation of Japanese materials and building traditions in a Studio Ghibli-like key. His “Neolithic modernism” blends Jōmon culture rough and earthy finishes in natural materials, with techniques such as charred wood for exteriors with whimsical designs whose poetical names defy the utilitarian goals of modern construction: the “Takasugi-an” (Too High Teahouse) is a four and a half tatami dwelling perched 20 feet in the air on two slim chestnut trees; we also visited the Flying Mud Boat, a round, a strangely familiar structure that is suspended only by steel cables. Both buildings were swaying in the rain as if they were suspended in the air. It rained outside, and the wet earth and fresh grass scents blended with those of wood.

Love of place

Days after our visit to Yuichi, Terunobu, and other builders bringing back traditional building techniques and building materials, we headed for Kyoto, staying at an old wooden townhouse. It felt both cozy and sturdy except for the washi paper interior doors the children had learned to recognize and be gentle with “as if they were a flower,” our youngest, then a baby boy, repeated on every possible occasion. It was a vernacular, airy machiya, a light, wood-scented building around a central living room that played with light and darkness much in the fashion novelist Junichiro Tanizaki describes in his short, evocative essay on aesthetics In Praise of Shadows. The surfaces were imperfect and worn out with use and proper maintenance, and all plumbing installations were neatly exposed, celebrating their precision and simplicity. We were realizing, also “through a combination of study, experience, and experiment,” some of the secrets of the art of impermanence, or “mono no aware,” an “empathy” towards things that resembles Edward O. Wilson’s very definition of biophilia:

“…Biophilia is not a single instinct but a complex of learning rules that can be teased apart and analyzed individually. The feelings molded by the learning rules fall along several emotional spectra: from attraction to aversion, from awe to indifference, from peacefulness to fear-driven anxiety.”

In Miura, Kanagawa, about an hour and a half south of Tokyo, architect Tono Mirai showed us his version of the “house of the future,” a modern-traditional mud home that achieves bioclimatism on a budget by creating walls with traditional earth plaster that act as a heat sink. Vents integrated into the outer walls control the airflow, while an extensive living roof acts as an insulator. As one commenter of the video Kirsten posted with Tono Mirai, the home combines successfully natural building techniques, passive heating and colling, and the impermanent, difficult-to-isolate attributes of the Japanese aesthetic.

Biophilic design can nurture a love of place because it takes into consideration sensory patterns, but also long climate models, the ecology and materials a place can provide, and a study of the area’s vernacular/s to take advantage of things that work.