Q&A: Framing Nature

Eva Hagberg’s latest book is a collection of gorgeous rooms with views of “nature” as the architectural elite frame it for elite clients. But Nature Framed: At Home in the Landscape (Monacelli Press, 2011) is anything but a book about windows. “This is architecture at its most primal: as a shift in consciousness from open […]

Eva Hagberg’s latest book is a collection of gorgeous rooms with views of “nature” as the architectural elite frame it for elite clients. But Nature Framed: At Home in the Landscape (Monacelli Press, 2011) is anything but a book about windows. “This is architecture at its most primal: as a shift in consciousness from open landscape to delineated space,” the critic writes in her introduction.

The collection of two dozen North American houses is infused with Hagberg’s enthusiasm and her clear and thoughtful perspective. There is such a powerful voyeuristic pleasure in house architecture. Many of the houses are luscious and delicious, powerful blends of site and fabric; they are all elegantly, sometimes hauntingly photographed (almost all lacking people in said photos, of course). The collection includes projects by Fernau & Hartman, Rick Joy, Kyu Sung Woo, Marlon Backwell, Tod William and Billie Tsien, and others.

There is something relentlessly compelling about constructed environments that set up and frame the human connection to nature, the physical connection between the interior and exterior. There are complexities to the relationship, of course. Hagberg writes: “Those with the resources to do so have created often-isolated little pockets of architecture design that bring us closer to an idea and interpretation of nature that becomes ever more elusive.”

Hagberg is passionate about the relevance of architecture. “I really do believe that architecture should work,” she says without a trace of irony. “Many people think that architecture doesn’t apply to them. That’s one reason why writing about houses can be so engaging—and why house architecture always seems to inspire designers, too.” I met Hagberg near the UC Berkeley campus, where she is a PhD student, and talked to her about the book and writing about architecture.

Kira Gould: You write, in the introduction: “Oversaturated by technology, commerce, and the constant flow of information, people have begun to seek solace in buildings that not only interact with nature but that invite nature in, domineer nature, control nature, alter nature, fetishize nature, and even reconstruct nature.” Is this a new phenomenon?

Eva Hagberg: I believe that this is a new way of addressing this search for solace.  I came to that conclusion by focusing on the buildings themselves. I think that’s part of my role as an architecture critic (rather than a historian or anthropologist or culture reporter): to look at the structures and see what they say. This is one of the big issues of criticism. Historically, there are questions of agency, power, the actors involved, whereas my process for this was to look really closely at these projects and then talk with the architects about the conceptual and architectural ideas that they were working out.  The fact that the buildings in this book were projects that explore the boundary between nature and architecture, often by physically extending the structure into nature, convinced me that there is a trend in which both the architect and those funding the projects are seeking out this kind of existential blend of comfort and terror.

KG: Do you think we are fetishizing (and reconstructing) nature now more because of our technology/information glut, or have we always been doing that? You have suggested that human settlement “in” nature has always done that in some fashion. Are these expressions just this moment’s version of something that’s been with us a long while?

EH: I think you’re spot on that they are this moment’s version of something that’s been with us for a long while. This is just the next evolution of that question. Ever since our ancestors first ran into a cave to get away from the lion and then put a painting on the wall and felt at home, humanity has been wondering how to deal with nature and what it means to us and how close we want to get to it. But I think it’s fascinating that the more technologically connected we get the more we fetishize solitude (while still demanding good iPhone service). So in the 1980s, the solution—when expressed aesthetically—was all about being ironic and arch and poppy and detached (like Starck and Venturi) and now architects seem to be interested in finding this essential and un-ironic relationship between inside and outside.

KG: Your book, as an elegant object filled with gorgeous images of very expensive architecture is itself a part of the complex construct that is “the architectural press.” I understand that you are beginning work on a dissertation that will explore that topic. Can you say more about this?

EH: It is just taking shape. I want to explore the hidden actors influencing architectural criticism in the twentieth century in the U.S. I’m interested in the publicist, this fascinating character that is so essential to so much architectural media coverage now. How did that person come to exist? How did the communications directors of architectural firms come to be necessary? What does it mean for how historians look at publication history?

KG: You have been clear about your dislike for “green” or “sustainable design” as something separate from design. It’s a little ironic, that your book may find its way to the sustainable design “pile” in bookshops with inattentive owners, just based on title. Setting that aside, it does seem that architects who are deeply exploring how we frame nature are perhaps more likely to be addressing other elements of the relationship between the object and its place, such as air/energy/water flows, issues of biophilia. Did these issues come up in your discussions with the architects?

EH: Tom Kundig had a wonderful, thoughtful deep take on this. He talked a lot about the falsity of our separating ourselves from nature and animals. “We are animals,” he pointed out. I think he summed it up best: “Architecture is the thin membrane between the inside cultural landscape and the outside cultural landscape.” The crucial point is that they’re both equally cultural landscapes. There’s a clear boundary, even though architects work very hard to create an illusion of there not being one, until the visitor decides they want to see it. That membrane is apparent in every single one of these houses, which is a key to what I am exploring: The membrane is always there, always obvious—even when its entire point is to draw attention away from itself.

Kira Gould, Assoc. AIA, LEED AP, is director of communications for William McDonough + Partners, an architecture firm with studios in Charlottesville, Virginia, and San Francisco. She is also co-author of Women in Green: Voices of Sustainable Design.

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