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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?