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Architecture as Catalyst: Third Nature

Author(s) Participants in 2012 Catalyst
Date Posted March 20, 2012 3:40 PM
Program M. Arch
Instructor Blaine Brownell (host), Sheila Kennedy & Frano Violich (guest instructors)

We have been conditioned over time to view 'nature' as something pure and immutable, distinct from and therefore somehow 'exterior' to architecture and urbanism. With industrialization, infrastructure became so ubiquitous and so seemingly 'natural' to the city that its presence was taken for granted constituting a kind of second nature that is set against the utopian construct of a 'pure' nature.

The work of the THIRD NATURE Catalyst Course challenges this position, by exploring instead the uncanny cross-overs and hybrid conditions that characterize a third nature, where computationally generated form and technology in architecture are integrated by design with ecological materials and natural processes. Here, nature is not 'pure', easy or predictable--it always retains the provocative primal aspects of wild beauty, unpredictability, and strangeness and cannot be easily domesticated.

The Workshop considers the industrialized north edges of the Upper Mississippi River, between the BNSF Railway Bridge and Lowry Bridges, one of the key focus areas of the RiverFIRST initiative where a set of pedestrian bridges and trails are designed to provide public access to--and along--the Mississippi river. This extensive area has been widely de-treed and most of the ground is covered in non-asphalt and other non-pervious materials.

As David Gissen has argued, certain environmental forces such as dust, mud, gas, smoke, debris, weeds, and insects have been historically seen as inimical to architecture. Much of today's discussion about 'sustainable ' and 'green' design revolves around efforts to clean or filter 'out' these elements, as if architecture could be bounded from impurities that surround it in the larger urban territory. It is clearly impossible to try to re-create a 'purely' natural world, free of the untidy elements that actually constitute nature.

Taking this a-biotic industrialized riverfront territory as a site, students in the Catalyst Workshop worked in teams to explore, design and construct full-scale third nature cladding systems for selected sections of the pedestrian bridges. Unlike conventional cladding, these systems are designed as 'hosts' that invite and sustain the presence of insects, volunteer vegetation (weeds) and insectivore birds species to boost the bio-diversity and future carrying capacity of this stretch of the Upper Mississippi River.