A 60-foot-tall piece of scaffolding wouldn’t ordinarily draw much attention, but in the summer of 2010, more than a half-million people went to marvel at just such a thing: Doug and Mike Starn’s “Big Bambú: You Can’t, You Don’t, and You Won’t Stop.” Consisting of 7,000 bamboo poles continually hand-tethered by a crew of climbers into a humongous wave form, the temporary structure on the roof of New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art offered visitors a spectacular view overlooking Central Park. In a matter of weeks at the 2011 Venice Biennale, another version of Big Bambú spiraled up out of the water over the Grand Canal. At Rome’s MACRO in 2012, a third installation by the Starns spiraled to a vertiginous height of 130 feet and featured a double-helix staircase leading up to an auditorium that could accommodate 50 guests—suspending them high above the eternal city using nothing but sticks and rope.
Extraordinary as it is, Big Bambú is not unique. The Starns’ project is part of an increasingly popular trend of installations emerging at the intersection of art, architecture, and activism. Hand-built and naturally sourced, these works employ aspects of sculpture, design, and performance to address a wide range of social, spiritual, and environmental deficiencies. They have been loosely gathered under the somewhat paradoxical term “natural architecture,” which was the title of the late Alessandro Rocca’s much-acclaimed book on the subject. With the second volume, “Natural Architecture Now” (Princeton Architectural Press, 2014), Francesca Tatarella updates the genre with a second group of case studies ranging from Big Bambú to a schoolhouse built for $200 in coastal Ecuador.
The book details, for example, how Finnish artist Marco Casagrande built “Cicada,” a woven bamboo hut, as “urban acupuncture” for the city of Taipei. “Bug Dome,” a similarly gigantic bamboo cocoon, is what Casagrande calls “weak architecture”—an intentionally provisional structure offers respite to migrant workers in rapidly expanding Shenzhen, China. In Brussels, Shanghai, and Black Rock City, Nev., Arne Quinze has assembled breathtaking temporary structures out of what look like countless big toothpicks. (Or matchsticks, when he sets them on fire.) In South Africa, a designer called Porky Hefer was inspired, he says, by the idea of “lessening your footprint” to mimic bird weavings and make airborne nests for his own species. This new book includes many variations on the theme, but the title of one piece in particular—“A Sanctuary of a Thousand Sticks,” made in 2003 by Strijdom Van Der Merwe in Lulea, Sweeden—provides perhaps the pithiest summary of this growing and global phenomenon.
Humans have long made structures with what is directly at hand, but this trend is something different. Though there are parts of the world where people still live in thatched huts, this new brand of architecture is emerging out of places where non-natural, machine-made constructions are the norm. In this context, the natural materials represent a choice rather than a strict necessity, and the hand-built ethos is a self-conscious step away from the long march of technology. Where conventional architecture separates us from nature for protection, natural architecture intends a kind of reversal: salvation through exposure and connection.
Besides pointing “a way forward, toward a new organic simplicity of structure and form,” the two books repeatedly suggest that natural architecture, as a movement, will help refigure our relationships to nature, to one another, and to the planet as a whole. The promise, implicit or explicit, is to offer sanctuary, rebuild public space, bring diverse peoples together, and reconnect them to nature (all while using resources sustainably and economically).
Some of the projects described in the book hold this mantle lightly, aiming to address specific problems in sensible and elegant ways. Nueva Esperanza school in Ecuador, for example, involved the Quito-based architectural firm Al Borde helping a local community use the skills and resources it had at hand to build something residents needed. The result was impressive, precisely because it looked like the other grass huts in Manabí, but bigger. Two years later, Esperanza Dos, a community center, was built in a similar style, confirming the popularity of the approach.
In a very different venture in upstate New York, a group called Ants of the Prairie, led by architect Joyce Hwang, made “Bat Tower,” a conspicuous wooden totem intended to simultaneously provide sanctuary and serve as a reminder about the ecological importance of bats. The first in Hwang’s Pest Architecture series, this interspecies offering seems useful not least because it forces us to wonder which mammal is the true pest. More straightforwardly, Yolanda Gutierrez’s woven-reed bird sanctuary in Mexico City’s Xochimilco park provides a visually striking but functional home for aquatic birds that would otherwise struggle in the sprawling city.
In almost all the cases these pieces have an organic, handmade beauty, which dovetails neatly with the idea, latent since childhood, that we can still build our own shelters. They tend to resemble bird nests and beaver dams, delivering a subtly reassuring message: we too can live in harmony with nature. And although the new book’s subtitle promises “new projects from outside the boundaries of design,” the actual narrative—upheld in various ways by the designers themselves—is one of inventive, resourceful solutions very much within design’s realm. Both literally and figuratively, natural architecture suggests we can take matters into our own hands.
It’s only when you pan out a bit that this encouraging message reveals its darker flip side. Seen against our spreading cities and a backdrop of environmental crisis in particular, the emphasis on handmade, local design seems both out of scale and out of synch with the problems we face. Do nests for humans really reduce our so-called footprint? Do we need woven wood to entice us to the forest? Does erosion require a handcrafted solution? The less they address a specific problem, the more these tiny shelters start to feel like design-world hubris, a dangerously aestheticized form of distraction. Eventually, as they accumulate, an even more disheartening reading starts to emerge. Rather than seeing these creations as beacons of an environmentally attuned, human-scaled future, you begin to experience them as unwitting premonitions. This is what we’ll be scrapping together when all our bigger structures have finally failed us: the return to a natural state. A sanctuary, indeed, of a thousand sticks.
One pair of projects stands out for being self-consciously bleak. Darkly rehearsing procedures for an environmental and social collapse, Heather and Ivan Morrison’s “How To Survive the Coming Bad Years” is explicit in both its title and in its shape—a disturbingly fecal clay bunker, with minuscule lookout holes and protective sticks jutting like porcupine quills out into the surrounding forest. Their recycled wood tea-house, “I am so sorry. Goodbye (Escape Vehicle number 4)” is marginally more cheerful, but its reprisal of Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome structures echoes the original with clearly dystopian undertones.
Perhaps the most unsettling images, though, are the anxiously optimistic ones like those of Ichi Ikeda’s “Water in Water” project, in which tiny oak huts were loaded onto painfully minimalist bamboo rafts and paddled down the Kedogawa river and out into the East China Sea. Ikeda aims to “embrace society’s potential to connect daily life to nature,” and the overt message of the expedition—printed white on blue in all-caps English—was “SAVE WATER.” But that abstract call to action barely floats above an overwhelming subtext of rising seas and impending evacuations.
Ikeda’s work focuses on water—hopefully, or perhaps stubbornly—as a “means for defining a deep-rooted change among human beings,” the artist writes. In the photo documentation, however, the dozen or so inhabitants of the so-called water village look less like earth dwellers happily re-discovering their connection to nature and more like a sorrowful crew of post-apocalyptic gondoliers.
Dushko Petrovich is an artist and writer who teaches at Yale and RISD.