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Interview: Juhani Pallasmaa returns to our relationship with the natural world

Stephen Cousins

A Finnish exhibition will see Juhani Pallasmaa reassess the world of animal architecture, some 27 years after his ground-breaking show explored their complex constructions. He spoke to Stephen Cousins about his current thinking on animal architecture and the lessons for architects in a changing world

Kingfisher Kuningaskalastaja.
Kingfisher Kuningaskalastaja. Credit: MFA

An exhibition called Animal Architecture runs throughout September at the Museum of Finnish Architecture and will revisit many of the themes explored in Pallasmaa’s 1995 collaboration with zoologists, where the versatile building skills of almost all classes of animal were on display.

The landmark show revealed a world of startling ingenuity with some parallels to human constructions. Animals were found to use tools and produce high-performance materials, for example spiders’ thread which is three times stronger than steel and light enough to ride on in the wind, and complex habitats adapted to site conditions – such as the different elements for the chimney, roof beam and wall in a wasp’s nest.

Like humans, certain animals make differentiated architectural elements – for instance, the trap-door spider’s hinged door and its a Gaudi-esque handle, or the marmot’s preference for a separate toilet.

Questions raised in 1995 about the coexistence of man with other species have become painfully urgent today. The irreversible destruction of animal habitats is a key reason for the accelerated extinction of certain species. Most animals are unable to adapt to the almost ubiquitous impact of humans on the environment and their diminishing living space has created an imbalance in nature.

Why is an exhibition you conceived and compiled 27 years ago still being remembered and celebrated today?

It is the disarming combination of innocence and amazing skill that keeps attracting people. We are not used to seeing animal constructions in their ecological, functional, technical and aesthetic contexts. Too often we consider them emotionally or sentimentally.

How can the building skills used by animals inform the design of more effective architecture?

I am not suggesting the formal imitation of animal structures because there are fundamental differences in function and scale, and their bodies and patterns of life are fundamentally different from human builders. Animal structures are products of continuous improvement through exposure to natural selection, usually over millions of years.

While our constructions are increasingly turning into short-lived techno-economic and shallow aestheticised products, the total integration of animal architecture into their ecological contexts and evolutionary continuity offers a valuable comparison and lesson.

Human relationships with nature and animals has changed significantly in 27 years, what can we learn from this as architects?

One the one hand, science has revealed many unexpected skills and ‘intelligence’ in animal and plant life, such as the automatic ‘air-conditioning’ systems built by termites and evidence of communication and collaboration between trees and fungi.

However, humanity’s interest in nature regrettably remains that of the casual outsider and animal architecture is still seen as a curiosity. Our understanding has not advanced significantly from Reverend Wood's illustrated study of the subject, published in the 1860s.

We are only just beginning to understand our deep and multi-faceted relationship with the world, especially the natural world, which could guide our understanding of the visual and aesthetic dimensions of architecture, as well as deeper existential issues.

Termite nest.
Termite nest. Credit: MFA

You have spoken before about the inhumanity of contemporary architecture and cities 'as the consequence of the negligence of the body and the senses, and an imbalance in the sensory system'. Do you still hold this view, and to what extent is this to blame for the current state we find ourselves in with climate change and damage to ecosystems?

We continue to disregard our complex ties with the world, especially the living world, and to neglect our responsibilities. I have criticised our obsessively vision-centred culture and highlighted the need to understand our evolutionary past and the current reality.

I sometimes say to my students that humans are in fact millions of years old, taking into account evolution, yet we don’t even understand how the human dwelling has evolved over time. Today, we need an attitude of respect and humility in our lives and our architecture.

Have humans strayed too far from a meaningful relationship with the materials and techniques they use to build?

Architecture has turned into techno-economic investment and visual manipulation, which is one aspect of the ‘aesthetic capitalism’ written about by the philosopher Gernod Böhme. We need to question our blind belief in the operational rationality we have created and realise the shallowness of our understanding of ourselves as creatures of nature.

Do you still feel positive about designers' ability to create more intuitive and ecological architecture?

Fundamentally, we need to understand how deeply we are changing ourselves as a biological species through our conceptual and technical inventions. Our biological and existential wisdom has become buried in an expanding quasi-rational landscape and blind confidence in technology. The continued existence of life on earth depends on the dynamic, yet balanced integration of all forms of life.



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