At the Intersection of Nature and Architecture: Modernism’s Response to the Alienation of Man

Nikolai Ladovskii’s General Plan for the Green City (Зелёный Город), 1930

Transitioning from my last series of posts (on humanity’s relationship to nature) to a topic more immediately relevant to my thesis, this entry will focus on some of the earlier attempts that were made at reconciling man with nature. From the turn of the nineteenth century up until the 1930s, a number of proposals were put forth aiming to eliminate the contradiction between town and country. These were drawn up by city planners hailing from many different countries. They believed that a solution was possible not only at the local level, but rather one that was universally applicable. Theirs was a global vision. And whether they were reformists or revolutionaries, these urbanists believed that human society could be finally reunited with nature through new patterns of settlement — patterns that could be put into effect anywhere, irrespective of national boundaries.

The international and universal character of the modernists’ thinking set them apart from many city planners today, who look for local solutions and strive to have as little impact on existing nature as possible. These contemporary planners are often under the influence of the environmental philosophies of deep ecology and permaculturalism. According to these modes of thought, humanity should seek to leave nature mostly intact and try to integrate as much of the existing environment as possible in order to create “sustainable” living spaces. The creators of these eco-friendly homes advocate a sort of soft resilience, one that blends in with nature as it already is rather than looking to fundamentally reshape it.

In contrast to this way of approaching building, the modernists saw nature as almost infinitely malleable. The wonders of technology could shear off the side of mountains, redirect rivers, and create artificial lakes. Blessed with new materials like steel and ferro-concrete, these planners believed that they build futuristic structures all while transplanting nature into new settings, determined by society. In this way, as part of an overarching plan, natural objects could be placed into geometrically-defined spaces, into strips or concentric rings spreading from the town center. Thus would the contradiction of man and nature be dialectically resolved — the most natural and organic objects arranged according to human and geometric patterns.

And so, looking backward with far greater hindsight than Bellamy, we can see that the problem of man’s alienation of nature was on the mind not only of radicals, but even bourgeois reformers.  The sense of a loss of connection from nature was felt everywhere, but nowhere more than in the factory towns that had sprouted up in the fury of the nineteenth century’s industrial revolution.  Alfred Richard Sennett, a proponent of what came to be known as the garden city concept, recalled that

As we desert the lanes of Nature for the cities of artificiality, we desert quietude, happiness, and integrity for bustle, unrest, and insincerity.  Contrast the modest, unaffected, truth-loving maiden, replete and content, in the charms of Nature’s adorning, with the ‘woman-about-town,’ a creature of guile, artifice, and insincerity.  The one charms and attracts us, rivets our belief in her sterling value, and secures our love; the other, ostentatiously displaying her tinsel seductions and demanding our admiration, fills us with distrust and secures naught but our contempt.  Contrast the smiling countryside, the bright sheaths of golden sunrays lazily suffusing across emerald meadow and bronzed upland; flocculent wisps of just perceptible cloud calmly gliding high above the land, like idly-soaring gulls, to enhance the comfort of the land-toiler as they momentarily temper the ray to merge a tinge of gray with the whiteness of the chalky headland; the wind — if such a feeble, scented breath can so be called — with scarce strength to send a sluggish ripple o’er the golden plush of ripening corn and the erstwhile merry prattle of the babbling brook subdued to the hum of drowsy content — contrast this, I suggest, with the unrest, the clatter and roar of our frowning, grimed, noisy, noisome, never restful, repellent towns.[1]

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