Environmental Forces

December 3, 2012


“If, for example, you really want to make a palm-tree feel unhappy, then force it to spend a winter in England without the protection of an artificial skin that shrouds it in its native climate.” (Sloterdijk 2005, p.944)

The environment is a morphologically charged system that shapes the development of architecture in many ways.

Creating hospitable enclosures for tropical plants for example, and transporting the local climate together with the plants, can be seen as organising architecture and developing structural techniques according to environmental forces (temperature, humidity, microclimate).

The environment can also be a source of reference to form-finding, as in the works of architect Frei Otto who studied natural structures such as soap bubbles to produce minimal surfaces. He experimented with soap film, observing that applying it to a set of fixed points will make the film spread naturally between them and offer the smallest achievable surface area.

In both examples, the engagement with materials has mainly to do with form-finding and advancing climate control techniques. There are also other, cultural, social, political questions concerning the environment.

Growing up in Sweden, the experience of the natural environment is very much merged with the cultural and the social one. In school you make trips to the forest for orientation classes or to pick mushrooms or to learn about plants and birds. The experience has less to do with an idealised environmental aesthetics and more with something crucial to your well being as well as a feeling that nature is yours to have. This has also a lot to do with something that has existed for generations, namely the Allemansrätten or the right of public access. It allows anyone the freedom to explore nature – to roam in the countryside, to swim and travel by boat in someone else’s waters. You can even camp on another person’s land for up to 24 hours.

Think of Sweden and you immediately associate it with nature, it is part of the county’s national identity. From the arctic region, northern lights magic to water and islands, long summer days and from fairytales of trolls and forests to movies, art and furniture influenced by nature. Maybe it is the seasonal, often harsh weather; with the cold winter in particular that has shaped this particularly woven environment. The harsh climate can be quite uncompromising and make it necessary to have good relations with your neighbours. Over time such relational habits grow and can become institutionalized in society.

For what it’s worth, we should remind ourselves that the environment is a morphologically charged system, a system of social, cultural, human, non human forces that shapes the conditions of architecture in many ways.



Peter Sloterdijk, ‘Atmospheres of Democracy’, in Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel, eds, Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy, Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2005.


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