Subnature: Architecture’s Other Environments

Books on architectural history and theory often overlook mud and dust as a material of architecture and cities. As author David Gissen points out in his new book, “Subnature: Architecture’s Other Environments“, the eradication of mud from urban environments is often seen as a form of cultural advancement. “Massive paving projects were undertaken to remove muddy pockets from the centers of cities, and drainage efforts eliminated mud from most public parklands. The appearance of mud [in the ninetieth and twentieth centuries] became emblematic of urban engineering failures and impending pathologies”, writes Gissen. He then goes on to describe the expanded potential for this material from a historical and theoretical perspective in projects such as de Paor architects pavillion for the Venice Bienale, which was constructed of 21 tons of Irish peat and Otero-Pailos’s The Ethics of Dust, and experimental preservation project which captures an interiors dust in latex that is then assembled as an interior facade. The book is not about fashionable topics surrounding sustainability and ecology. With chapters on smoke, dankness, debris, exhaust, weeds and other counter-architectural conditions, Gissen seeks to expand one’s perception of truly alternative materials in a positively original way.

Book Description
We are conditioned over time to regard environmental forces such as dust, mud, gas, smoke, debris, weeds, and insects as inimical to architecture. Much of today’s discussion about sustainable and green design revolves around efforts to clean or filter out these primitive elements. While mostly the direct result of human habitation, these ‘subnatural forces’ are nothing new. In fact, our ability to manage these forces has long defined the limits of civilized life. From its origins, architecture has been engaged in both fighting and embracing these so-called destructive forces. In Subnature, David Gissen, author of our critically acclaimed Big and Green, examines experimental work by today’s leading designers, scholars, philosophers, and biologists that rejects the idea that humans can somehow recreate a purely natural world, free of the untidy elements that actually constitute nature. Each chapter provides an examination of a particular form of subnature and its actualization in contemporary design practice.

The exhilarating and at times unsettling work featured in Subnature suggests an alternative view of natural processes and ecosystems and their relationships to human society and architecture. R&Sien’s Mosquito Bottleneck house in Trinidad uses a skin that actually attracts mosquitoes and moves them through the building, while keeping them separate from the occupants. In his building designs the architect Philippe Rahm draws the dank air from the earth and the gasses and moisture from our breath to define new forms of spatial experience. In his Underground House, Mollier House, and Omnisport Hall, Rahm forces us to consider the odor of soil and the emissions from our body as the natural context of a future architecture. [Cero 9]’s design for the Magic Mountain captures excess heat emitted from a power generator in Ames, Iowa, to fuel a rose garden that embellishes the industrial site and creates a natural mountain rising above the city’s skyline. Subnature looks beyond LEED ratings, green roofs, and solar panels toward a progressive architecture based on a radical new conception of nature.

Dune Anti-Desertification Architecture

Dune Anti-Desertification Architecture investigates adaptive (as opposed to mitigatory) strategies leading to the creation of a climate-conscious
architecture that responds to the extreme environments of tomorrow’s globally-warmed world. Highly speculative yet buildable, the scheme aims to find innovative solutions to combat desertification in the Sahel region of Africa, where sand dunes are currently moving southward at a breathtaking
pace of around 600m per year, ruining the land and making it impossible for the inhabitants of this area to make a living or even stay in their homes. The forced migration of desertification refugees is perhaps more threatening in Nigeria than anywhere else. With a population of over 140 million people, Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa, with serious desertification issues throughout its northern states. It was Nigeria’s former president, Olusegun Obasanjo, who initiated the anti-desertification Green Wall Sahara initiative in 2005. This pan-African scheme seeks to plant a shelterbelt across the continent, from Mauritania in the west to Djibouti in the east, in an attempt to stop the dunes from migrating. The trees are being planted right now.

An architectural response to this campaign would be to go beyond the mere planting of a mitigatory shelterbelt. Habitable spaces can be created in close proximity to the trees. By cutting through the sand dunes and digging down to find water and shade, an artificial oasis can be formed underground.

The sand is solidified using bacillus pasteurii, a microorganism with which professor Jason DeJong has turned sand into sandstone in a mere 1,400 minutes. This technology of organically cementing networks of sand dunes into habitable barriers that stop the desert from spreading has never been proposed before, but on hearing about this project, the professor was enthusiastic: “I do think the application you are talking about is possible”. I’m proposing anti-desertifi cation structures made out of the desert itself, sand-stopping devices made of sand: a poetic proposal that simultaneously works in a sustainable way with local materials and assets.

Special emphasis has been put on finding a solution that is high-tech in result but low-tech in application and construction, with the economical scenario being hard to pin down as this method is virgin territory. It is recognized that poor people are highly vulnerable to the effects of weather, as drought can cause famine while good rains can cause drops in crop prices. The architecture presented here could form a stable base from which to fight back against both effects.

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Kibbutz Lotan

Kibbutz Lotan was founded in 1983 in the Arava Desert in Israel, with the discovery of a significant source of groundwater. Lotan sits at a low point in a valley, hundreds of feet above an aquifer. Over the years, Lotan has become known for its example in sustainability, proving that an inspired group of people can create community and habitat in even the harshest of environments, by being resourceful.


Mumemo is a blog about a training course carried out in Mumemo (Maputo, Mozambique) on earth construction by two Portuguese architects, Miguel Mendes and Teresa Beirao, during May and August 2006. The project was created for the inhabitants of a new village, created as a resettlement for the victims of the massive floods in the year 2000. The course gave students a wide and solid knowledge about earthen construction and three main techniques (rammed earth, adobe, compressed earth blocs) as well as provided them with the ability to direct similar courses in other communities. During the course, a small 50m2 house was built.