Home » Review of 'Architecture of Nature/Nature of Architecture'
The fortunes of Peter Cooper, patron and founder of Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, were based on the production of glue and household cements from byproducts of the slaughterhouse—cows’ and calves’ feet. It was a messy but profitable business, assuring Cooper a legacy as a “pioneer polluter” of New York’s pond water. Interestingly, Architecture of Nature/Nature of Architecture, which showcases work being done by architecture students in the institute built by Cooper’s industrial ingenuity, is a vivid catalogue of material and physical processes that are as alluring and troubling as the oily rainbow sheen on a contaminated puddle. The speculative schemes—products of a nearly decade-long series of design studios taught by the book’s lead author, architect and educator Diana Agrest, at Cooper Union’s School of Architecture to “deal with environmental issues”—present a dangerous kind of beauty. As historian and essayist D. Graham Burnett says in a dialogue with Agrest, “Let us hope that this book of yours, so apparently people-less, returns those who read it to the central problem of ‘us.’ Of us ‘now.’"
Agrest describes in moving terms her early and far-ranging travels, from her native Argentina to the underground homes of Matmata on the edge of the Sahara. She looked at the passing landscape in proto-architectural terms—from the “plan” of the Argentine Pampas, with its “uninterrupted horizontal” expanse, to the “section” of the geological record written in stratigraphic lines of the country’s Serranías de Hornocal mountains in the Argentine province of Jujuy. Traveling on foot, train, and in a beat-up old station wagon, the young student found the long-sought conduit between the sciences and humanities. As Agrest notes, the “central role of representation” in architecture is to create “a common ground between architecture and science in the understanding of nature.” These representations might take the form of standard architectural drawings and models adapted to nonstandard objects—such as seismic faults— as well as nature prints, scientific atlases, and even scans of electron-microscopic imagery. The significance of Agrest’s claim is apparent in “Representation as Production,” a far-ranging dialogue between the author and scholars Peter Galison and Caroline A. Jones. Like the Burnett dialogue, it is one of the book’s clarifying interludes between examples of the studio’s work. Another welcome voice is that of John McPhee, whose reprinted essay of 1980, “Basin and Range: Geological Time,” does not show signs of age.