RTKL, Zhifu Fashion City. Mixed-use development with continuous garden roofs turns the city into a savannah. Courtesy RTKL.
In Biophilia (1984) (link to our Ressources section), biologist EO Wilson was among the first to propose that because for the first 98 percent of our history the human brain evolved in a particular environment—namely, the African savanna—we unconsciously have sought (and built) similar spatial cues everywhere since leaving that place some 50 thousand years ago. Across the globe, rolling terrains dotted with stands of trees and modest bodies of water populate parks, gardens, greens, and golf courses. Landscape design is a kind of archaeology of the unconscious that mines the distant memory, locked in our collective minds, of the cradle of our race. Home is where the genome is.
Wilson outlined the savanna theory, and a few decades later it is gaining traction among designers. Meaning literally “love of life,” biophilia centers on the instinctive bond between people and other living things, and research consistently shows that abundant access to natural light, views of landscapes, daily and seasonal cycles, and other earmarks of nature have myriad benefits for health and well-being.
The way architects typically embrace this body of research is simply to provide more access to vegetation, indoor or outdoor. Yet, biophilia doesn’t necessarily refer to nature’s hidden processes, some invisible chemical dependency on other living things. First and foremost it involves our sensory experience of nature—we thrive on the visible rhythms and vivid textures of the living world. “With aesthetics we return to the central issue of biophilia,” writes Wilson. Design can embody the qualities and organizing principles of nature—with all their accompanying gifts—without slavishly copying natural forms. This revelation could revolutionize aesthetics.
Imagine a world made up of spaces and places—whole cities, even—where every shape, color, texture, and pattern feeds the eye and nourishes the mind and body. Everything around you could both look good and be good for you.