An open charter of Vegetal Design
Text by Patrick Nadeau – Translation by Earlwyn Covington
The relationship between man and nature is today going through profound changes. Man has become predominantly urban while cities more extensive. On some continents, Latin America and Asia in particular, the traditional balance between city and nature is already completely transformed by the development of megacities that absorb swathes of countryside, whether wild or cultivated. The idea that the city and architecture is apart from nature gives way to the appearance of an inhabited continuum integrating nature and artifice. It also erases the representation of independent man in his natural environment, giving way to that of man considered equally as natural phenomenon, among many others.
The increasing overlap of the city and nature drives architects and designers as shown by many contemporary projects. When Jean Nouvel proposes, for example, for the Temporary Guggenheim Museum of Art in Tokyo, a fully covered structure of plants converting the building into mountains, it dissolves the traditional boundaries of architecture and reinterprets the relationship between city and nature. Many artists sensitive to the problems of space are also interested in this issue. Pushing the duality principle which modern architecture relies upon (the inside against the outside, artificial against the natural, shape against the formless, the visible against the invisible) they work on multiple and reciprocal dependencies including the human being, built space and nature. Installations by artists Gerda Steinner & Jörg Lenzlinger or the half-real, half-fictional narratives of architect Philippe Rahm are all examples of this way of thinking.
It is interesting and significant that in parallel with the research on space that the current progress in new technologies and new materials also, quite often, incorporate the ‘living’. Agrimaterials for architecture or materials biotechnology in industry are undergoing dramatic developments and all become a little bit more operational everyday.
Vegetal Design is in this context directly related to the introduction of the living in built environments, on the scale of objects and everyday spaces. It considers the plant as subject to the measure of man and seeks to put in place conditions for cooperation. The plant is then viewed as a possible architectural material, component, reference, or object for design. The stakes are multiple. Sensitive and subjective qualities of space comprising the visual, tactile, olfactory… are paramount. The process feeds on current research from various disciplines including biology that after years of exploration around the animal kingdom has discovered the incredible sophistication of the plant kingdom. The work of Francis Hallé on this subject is exemplary.
Integrating the vegetal into objects or architecture questions the environmental disciplines in new and unexpected ways. When the problematic appearance of cluster, temporal, plastic, use, technical, ecological, ethical and qualitative policy create questions that give rise to personal interpretations involving various types of media that could be object, installation, set design, interior design or architecture, and are each at the texture of this new discipline.
Different approaches to Vegetal Design
Designing spaces or objects which implement the vegetal naturally refers to the contiguous territories of architecture and design such as garden and landscape. The interest of such projects lies precisely in their statutory ambiguity and openings in terms of fostering formal, visual or structural research.
Plants are theoretically eternal while objects are transient, obsolescence often even programmed. Plants grow, germinate, propagate. The ‘stability’ of an object incorporating plants is challenged by its share of organicity. Proliferation and interference condition its evolution, causing alterations, modifications and conversions. This raises again the question of the temporal status of such objects, as well as the maintenance and affective relationships established with the living. When restoring old gardens, for example, replanting the same species, or some descendants of their ancestors, returning to the origin. They are both similar and different. Respect for the aesthetic, historical and physical integrity of such monuments is then collected in an overwhelming sense of timelessness.
Considering plants as a ‘material’ to be incorporated into living spaces invite the reconsideration of their visual and formal qualities in terms of architecture – color, transparency, density, texture, reaction to light, and sound. The dialogue between the botanic and the visual creating an antiphonal play of substance.
Integrating into daily domestic life, places of work or commercial spaces, is to confront the principles or concepts specific to contemporary architecture such as flexibility, modularity and workability. Many remote notions about gardens might be applied, basically everything from values of sustainability and stability to durability and lifecycle.
The development of techniques for soilless cultivation, mainly due to intensive plant production, allows a finer nesting of intimate spaces between plant and space. Taming these technologies raises questions about their ability to influence the aesthetics of the garden. Landless culture also questions the relationship between flora detached and released from soil to space: suspended, floating gardens etc. Technology allows for the heart of the habitat to be interpenetrated, following the principle of juxtaposition prevailing in greenhouses, conservatories and winter gardens.
Working with plant specialists challenges many assumptions about the ecological virtues of plants, usually based on criteria of ideological marketing that is increasingly questioned. Better knowledge allows, for example, the creation of ‘service providers’ that are responsible to treat or clean up our environment, when to focus on the vegetal, sentient qualities are welcomed as allies of enrichment thereby reframing contemporary life.
The more we learn about plants, and the more know ourselves, increased by comparison or assimilation, could the workings of human consciousness might be grasped? Rather plants teach us to unlearn. They let us come in, as quantum mechanics caused by upsetting our perception of Newtonian physics, a new era of relativity, humility and curiosity about life in all its forms.
The plant is now considered to be a standardized product, handled, packaged to meet the commercial logic of marketing and sales. The designer rehabilitates and reconsiders the plant in its individuality, diversity and status as a single living organism that must be treated with respect.
Green today means to play a major political and geopolitical role in the areas of food, energy and health. The excesses of these issues – GMOs, deforestation, speculation – condemn the medium and long-term existence of the plant kingdom. Vegetal Design proves an instrument of mediation, dialogue and activism. Say it out loud with flowers, no scream it.
Flowers and trees are manifestly a part of our celebrations, loves and losses. With humor and irreverence, Vegetal Design plays with space, colors, fragrances, fun. It calls for the feast of forms and participates in a joyful communion, free and fruitful in the sense of life.