Natural balance

You know the thing – a postcard showing a view of a town or a building and in the corner they’ve plonked something pretty – a vibrant bunch of bougainvillea, for instance, or plain old geraniums. That’s nice, you think, and send a couple off to friends and relatives. (Go on, I know people still buy postcards.) It’s a small sign that we like a touch of nature with our buildings. It makes everything feel softer, more balanced.

What would this look like without all the greenery?

I was thinking about this the other day as I travelled home after visiting an inner-city house which has famously been run off-grid for the past few decades. I had admired the leafiness of the street and been delighted to find edible plants growing along its pavements. (I’ll post the link to the piece when the interview airs). During the trip home, as I scrolled through Instagram on my phone, I noticed a post by my chum Janne showing a leafy plant bed on Sydney’s revamped Goods Line, a redundant railway line that has become a park-like oasis in the centre of the city. She was attending a Landscape Australia conference and quoted one of the speakers, Thomas Woltz, an American landscape architect. “Contemporary society doesn’t have a real relationship with plants. Everyone’s in Range Rovers … and seems to be scared of bugs,” he had said.

a leafy oasis in a shopping mall

It was dusk as I left the train and I had to wait to cross the busy main road before heading towards my own street. It was then that I glanced up and noticed the silent traffic in the sky. Above me, like the relentless squadrons of aircraft you see in old war films, the sky was filled with a steady stream of fruit bats, also known as flying foxes because … well, I think you can work that one out. They were heading south, across the water to the Royal National Park to find fruit and nectar in the forest. Later I would hear them squabbling over the ripening bananas at the bottom of my garden.

my wild garden

Seeing them brought a moment of exhalation. The tension in my body slackened and disappeared. Being witness to and part of nature does this to me. It’s why I feel so grateful to live in a house with a garden. It struck me that urban life is so carefully curated and presented that we begin to lose touch with its random qualities, like this sudden flightpath of fruitbats.

Corellas grazing

Australia is particularly blessed in this regard. Whenever I walk down to the shops, I am likely to pass a flock of corellas grazing on the playing field and herons tiptoeing through the shallows of the bay searching for tiny fish. The trees are often full of blossom (and chattering parrots), scenting the air with a honeyed aroma. Pelicans wheel overhead in the thermals. There’s nature everywhere.

However much I love architecture and pore over books and Instagram images of buildings, I forget sometimes just how important nature is in part of its success. Creating a structure that acknowledges and works with its site is, of course, the mark of good architecture. The best buildings sit well with nature, and in more recent cases, where walls are planted, they can create eco-systems of their own. Le Corbusier famously said no when asked to design a new chapel at Ronchamp but the priests insisted that he at least visit the leafy, hilltop site. He obeyed and was struck immediately by its beauty, and went on to create one of the twentieth century’s most important buildings, one that responds to the nature around it. How different and diminished Frank Lloyd Wright’s prairie houses would look if they did not sit within the leafy landscape of their Chicago suburbs.

I heard a radio piece recently about a new practice in Japan which is called ‘forest bathing’. Sitting within a forest is recognised as having benefits for mental health. I think ‘forest bathing’ might equally be called ‘nature bathing’ as many of us know the calming benefits of walking by the sea or through mountain regions as well. Does anyone’s mental health improve by walking through a suburb or through urban areas unless it is touched by nature?

‘mountain bathing’ in the Swiss Alps

I love the traditional Chinese idea of dividing into three the energy of everything: Heaven, Earth and Human.  Heaven is the energy of our character, set with our first breath. Earth is the energy of our surroundings. Human is the energy of our intentions. It means that in order to lead a balanced life we understand our strengths and weaknesses (Heaven) and place ourselves in the most supportive environment (Earth) to do what we intend to do with our life.

The tiny Vert-Galant, an emerald jewel in the middle of Paris

I think we’re often disconnected from our surroundings, locked into our man-made environment, that we forget the support of nature around us – trees whose shade cools the heat of city streets, whose canopy filters pollution, and which add surprising birdsong to a busy square. Who truly loves plain walls? Don’t we need space in our lives to observe the smallness of ants, the call of the birds, the sight of trees in flower or autumn beauty? Because surely it is then that we feel replenished and can go on to do whatever it is we do. Like creating beautiful buildings for me to pore over.

How does nature figure in your life?

tropical waterlilies in a pot

Categories: Architecture, Australia, Design, feng shuiTags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. I cannot imagine living without it. We are also rather blessed by nature in France, as you know, and our house near Lake Geneva is designed to make the most of our surroundings. But when I feel stressed, just getting out and walking around, taking a bowl of fresh air and watching the leaves on the trees is enough to bring me back to myself. We are in rural England at the moment, an area of small villages and a lot of farm fields in Nottinghamshire. Nothing exciting but yesterday I took a walk for an hour or so just to breathe it in. Lovely!

    • Oh, I’m all for bowlfuls of air! You’re right, it’s so important to be outside – the Chinese might say that it enables the energy of heaven to fall on one’s head and replenish one’s chi…I find the French/ Swiss Alps very replenishing but rural England can be very soothing, too. And as DH Lawrence found, Nottinghamshire certainly has it moments! Enjoy your bowlfuls.

  2. I agree. Nature gives us balance and make us whole. Because we’re part of it.

  3. There’s a guy in my innercity suburb who plants greenery at the bases of the large plane trees that line the streets: succulents, ferns, anything. I assumed he was paid by the council and asked him one day if that was the case, No, he just does it because he did it when he lived in another suburb and wanted to introduce it here. A guerilla gardener! He’s now adding bricks around the edges so they look like mini gardens. I stop and have a chat with him occasionally. What a generous soul, brightens my day. Should be more like him.

    • I love people like that (and happen to live with one – no avocado stone is wasted in this suburb!). It makes such a huge difference to our city streets. I was particularly impressed by the roundabouts in Griffith many years ago – filled with bushy basil plants, rosemary, and oregano. Trust those Riverina Italians…

  4. A very interesting post, thank you Colin.
    I think it is also about colour. Green is the colour that most relaxes the eye – hence so much of nature is green. It gives our body a physical rest and our souls a spiritual one.

    • Ah, I knew you would mention colour and you’re absolutely right! Isn’t there some famous research that showed that people healed more quickly in hospital rooms with a view of nature than in rooms facing an internal courtyard or car park? I think there’s also the uncontainable quality of nature – even looking at trees in winter bareness, or the rigorous order of a Japanese stone garden with its mosses – that gives a sense of being part of something bigger than the human race.

  5. Ah, nature! In London I suppose it’s the parks and the river where I go for a nature fix. I love the feeling of the river when the tide is rushing in and you get that feeling of energy and power and of course there’s all the wild life – herons and cormorants and geese even kingfishers. Bishop’s Park in Fulham has woodpeckers and foxes and fantastic trees and recently it’s beautiful ancient wisteria flowered. And then there are the plane trees opposite where the crows nest and you can hear them early in the morning competing with the noise of the tube starting up. But I’ve never thought I could live in the countryside I’ve always thought I’d become depressed. I like to see people out and about to know I can jump on a bus and be in the centre of town in 30 minutes if I want to.

    • London is particularly blessed with its access to nature, and what a gorgeous sense of it you have so close to home (and what glorious images you’ve conjured). I lived for a while in the middle of Putney Heath and yes, it seemed amazing and so energizing how one could wake to the sound of pure birdsong and then cycle down the hill into the hubbub of a thriving city. I’m not sure one would feel the same thing in the middle of, say, Tokyo or Sao Paulo but maybe I’m wrong. The thing is how important these pockets of nature are, whatever the size.

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