Rapid urbanization is reducing access to green space. At the same time our understanding of the need to live alongside plant life is growing – the propulsion of the climate crisis has pushed living green to the top of our societal to-do list. We’re well aware that the benefits of doing so are manifold, for the planet’s health and our own. As a result, it’s becoming clearer than ever that we need to make drastic changes not only at the exterior level, but the interior too. And that’s where design comes in: at Frame Awards 2020, a panel deliberated how we can more thoroughly integrate nature into built environments.
The term biophilic design, as Penny Sparke – Kingston University’s Professor of Design History and Modern Interiors Research Centre Director – pointed out to Frame’s business editor Peter Maxwell, has been around since the mid-1970s. The case against welcoming the outdoors in is almost nonexistent: since the phrase was coined, an avalanche of studies have been published outlining the positives of coexisting with nature – we are hard-wired to, after all. But can we get back to those basics today, with a world that’s become dependent on industry and technology? Sparke, Maxwell, Next Nature Network founder Koert van Mensvoort and MOSS (Makers of Sustainable Spaces) co-founder Nina Sickenga put their heads together to discuss if spatial design can indeed move beyond its fetish for a few well-placed pots and lobbies with living walls and instead create true interior habitats for nature.
‘I think there are things we can learn particularly from the Victorian period, where plants really came inside the home for the first time in a really serious way,’ pointed out Sparke, who is authoring a book on the subject. The Victorians, she explained, knew the biological world to be key to domestic education, physical and mental health and their spirituality. ‘The most important thing about their love of plants was that they had a shared sense of Christian faith and they believed that nature was made by God – and therefore nature was beautiful and true, and that was a sort of shared belief system. It’s important to remember the kind of meanings those plants had at that time, because I think we've lost them a bit – now, maybe, we should rethink them in the in the contemporary context.’
We should rethink the meaning of plants in the in the contemporary context
‘Quite often, now, when we talk about nature we talk about images of nature,’ Van Mensvoort reflected, ‘and how we like to position images of nature in an artificial space, like an interior – which is, I would say, by default an artificial space. And then we want to bring in the nature and yet we only bring in the visual appeal – so you see a beautiful flower, it smells nice, but then you have a wallpaper of a flower and you don't smell anything. It’s so limiting, and we need to move beyond that. Hardly ever do we ask the question of what our image of nature is and how might that be shifting in the 21st century. I think there's a tension with the notion of stewardship because it assumes we are the masters – it's also slightly paternalistic –like “Nature, we nailed it: we put you in a pot, we put the plant in the corner and yes we're going to take care of you. That's an assumption that I don't agree with. If you look back in history, nature was dangerous…because we started developing technology and inventing all kinds of things, we freed ourselves from these wild forces of nature.’
People should make wise decisions where to put greenery – to consider what the impact of it is and how people are surrounded by it
To Sickenga, an important distinction when talking about biophilic design is that plants should be integrated with, not just added to, interior spaces – and that they need to actually be created around the natural elements. ‘People should make wise decisions where to put greenery,’ she said, ‘[to consider] what the impact of it is and how people are surrounded by it.’ While one company may be able to install plants in their whole office, for example, budgets and building logistics mean that for other projects, it can be more feasible to think selectively. ‘I sometimes think it's better to create a few oases or places where people can go to, to escape from their daily routines – and maybe also to get them away from their desk,’ she explained. ‘Of course it's nice to see a plant standing in the corner of the room you're working in, but if you can really go away and visit the place or get this new feeling and then go back to your desk afterwards, it can also be interesting. It doesn’t always have to be this giant impact.’
This complete balance between biology and technology and living happily ever after…maybe it's fiction, but at least it's an aspiration that we can take steps toward today
It’s not impossible, as spatial design and architecture develops in this direction and modern technological facilities open the door to greater innovation, to imagine landscapes in which the interior and exterior coalesce. ‘What's great to see at this moment is that there's really starting to become a movement of nature becoming more a part of architecture again,' said Van Mensvoort. 'This complete balance between biology and technology and living happily ever after…maybe it's fiction, but at least it's an aspiration that we can take steps toward today. Indeed architects and designers are already doing this in different ways, working with living material to construct environments and to grow things.’