FIRST EARTH | Uncompromising Ecological Architecture

Eugene Tsui

The impact of current design, for one thing, is we're suffocating the planet. It's a proven scientific fat that the earth is a living organism, in fact a breathing organism. And if we build buildings that asphalt and concrete-slab over the surface of the planet, we are in essence strangling that planet. We are suffocating the planet at large. So what effect does that have?

We are also creating an ugly blight on the earth. And what psychological-spiritual effect does that have on us? Well, I think it's quite obvious, so we tend to turn our backs on it. But it seems to me very clear that this sense of alienation, this sense of ugliness, of uniformity that we have around us is affecting us emotionally and spiritually. So there's that aspect of it.

But the physical aspect of it is that we're suffocating the physical system that we need to survive. And we're creating these ugly blights around the planet. These subdivision developments. The shopping mall so-called industrial parks. The bio-technology parks. They're euphemisms of plain old destruction of the environment, let's face it.

What are the prerequisites, or the requirements, that have led to the development of monumental architecture, historically speaking? And also, in the present day? It seems to me, first, historically speaking, that if you really think about the history and the actual happenings, the actual things that took place to create that "monumental, monolithic architecture", it had to do a lot with aristocracy and social stigma, and shall we say the oppression of different social strata.

And if you look at architecture in that light, then maybe those monumental architectural expressions are not so valuable. We tend to think that the Egyptian Pyramids, the Temple of Heaven in China, the Great Wall of China, the gigantic and monumental structures, the churches of Germany and France, these kids of things are great examples of human ingenuity and the reach for the future.

But in fact, it seems to me that they were aristocratic egotism. That in fact, in most cases, they were created by the oppression of others. And in some cases, the downright slavery of generations and generations of people. And so you think, Well what's so important, valuable about that? In that light of things, I don't give a lot of credence or value to many of the historical monuments of the past. Because to me, they were the aristocracy taking advantage of the poor, for their own self-aggrandizement.

Sure, in a sense, they were a collection of the knowledge of the time, which is nice. The pyramids have a lot of knowledge that we are even still discovering today. Mathematical knowledge, scientific, and so on. But then if you think of the overall concept of how and why it got built, then it's not such a great thing.

And then if you look at the shapes and forms and the actual technology that was used, well, sure, lifting 40-tonne blocks is quite a feat. But the overall reason for it -- just to house a few dead bodies seems an absurdity. And these absurdities, especially all the people that died for it, that had no choice, that were slaves to this aristocracy, suddenly it doesn't seem like such a great thing.

And to me, maybe of these monuments are monuments to egotism. And sure, they're expressions of an ancient civilization, and they're great records, okay. But what are they records of? They're records of the wealthy against the poor. The wealthy making the poor subservient to their own whims. And so, why is that such a great message? And so I don't give a lot of weight to the study of those structures, because the conditions within which they were actually made, to me, are atrocious.

I just don't feel that there's a lot of value there, when you look at the whole picture. We tend to value things, it seems historically, based on, Well, isn't it a great human feat? Well, okay, yeah, it was a great human feat. Thousands were killed, and generations were enslaved, yeah, that's a great feat. But what does that mean to us now? We're still doing that today!

And so, when you look at the real picture of what's being built, and how, suddenly these monumental structures don't seem so important, to me, anyways. Because they're built at the cost of human degradation. And it seems to me that a building, of all things, ought to be a symbol or an example of dignity, of teamwork, of ingenuity, of all the people involved. And so I don't give a lot of credence to these giant monuments. Because when I see the real story revealed, as to how and why they're being built, they're not so valuable.

So let's talk about the assumptions about human-made architecture. First of all, one of the assumptions is that it has to be rectilinear. And I think that is probably the most lethal odious assumption about human-made architecture. Because the square box is one of the worst structures you could ever invent. You notice that nature never has anything square -- there's a reason for that! Because probably if there was anything square, ever, in the 5-billion-years history of nature, it lasted maybe a minute. Because the square box is probably, from my research, the most inefficient, ineffective shape in the universe. And I'll tell you why.

When you try to put pressure on a box, there's 2 places it'll break apart. 1, is that the flat planes are very difficult to reinforce. So you have to put more material into those flat planes to resist stress. So that means utilizing material in a very poor fashion, which is what we've assumed we have to do. Then also when you put pressure on a box, it'll start to skew and break open at the corners. So the corners are very weak. Also, if you have a fire, and usually fires are carried by wind, if you blow fire against the side of a box, a flat surface, it'll actually create a suction, and the surface will create a target for fire, there's no place for it to go, because it's flat. And in an earthquake, tsunami, in any kind of stressful situation, the box will not hold up.

And if you're heating a box or cooling it, the hot or cold air will rise, and stay there at the top. So where you are, at the floor level, it's not getting to you. And so we wonder, Okay, we're paying all these heating bills, but where's the heat? It's up in the ceiling! So that doesn't work very well.

So you have to buy more materials, or use more materials to reinforce this object. And energy-wise it doesn't work very well. And also, if you think about it, how do we move in space? We move usually in arcs and curves. You never see anybody walking straight, and then a 90-degree angle turn, and then turn again 90 degrees. The box doesn't accommodate our natural physical way of movement. So when you combine all of these inadequate features of this square, or this cube, you come up with an anti-solution. It's not a solution at all.

The characteristics of nature's designs are nature expresses certain principles that are universal to everything. And those principles are like minimizing the amount of materials, maximizing the structural strength of the object, maximizing the closed volume of the object, shaping the object in such a way that stresses that are placed on this shape are distributed equally. So that the shape is essential to the survival of the form or the organism. And so nature is creating a shape, a form, that is dissipating force that's placed on it.

Also, nature chooses forms that are energy-efficient, in the sense that if there's warm air inside this shape, that the air naturally circulates, it's because of the form, not needing any kind of external power. And that's one of the beauties of nature, that nature allows the material and the form to dictate the entire workings of the organism.

Also, it's localized. All shapes and forms, existing things are of the native area, and that they're used in such a way that understand how that particular material works. So when you put all of these principles together, you get always an incredibly intelligently designed shape and form and material that is entirely functional. Really, the function, the purpose, and the form itself are completely integral.

The added feature is that aerodynamics is very important. The shape has to be aerodynamic, because the winds, the breeze, the characteristics of air movement around it is sometimes crucial to the survival of whatever the organism is, whatever the shape is. And so you put all these natural forces together, and the materials available, and you get the most intelligent result for a design.

And the problem with human design is that we don't think of our built environment as needing to address the issues of wind and internal efficiency of air currents and dispersion of stress and strain, and all those things. So we're working on a much less efficient level than nature is working. And keeping in mind that nature has been here for 5 billion years. And we've been around, just as an intelligent species, for 1,000,000 -- and as a civilization, at most 10,000 years.

So if you were to put nature's existence into 1 year, we would have existed as an intelligent being for about an hour. So it seems to me to look into nature as a resource for educating ourselves about how to build better environments is absolutely crucial.

And I should point out, too, that we're the only living species on the planet to not have any kind of intrinsic inborn intelligence about how to build anything. We actually have to learn it. We come into the world with absolutely nothing, with complete ignorance about the environment around us. And so, since we have to learn it, where do we go to learn it? Well, it seems to me that nature is the best teacher for that.

Once you discover the information that it's wrong, that everything we're doing is wrong, that the built environment is completely incorrect, then you can't go back.

What we've done in the past with architecture is that we've created this Cartesian plane, this Descartes mathematical checkerboard that we've put down everywhere. And that makes everything very rank-and-file, cut-and-dried, and familiar. But in fact, nature and space itself doesn't work like that. And Einstein proved that. Because he showed that space is not a checkerboard, that it's actually a moving, heaving, it's like the ocean, that space is not static, that it's alive, that it's heaving, moving, and changing its structure, depending on the presence of bodies. Because bodies have this electromagnetic force and it changes space, and it warps it, and it curves it. And that space itself is curving and moving, all the time, it's changing.

So we're in the old Cartesian model of everything uniform, mathematically precise. But in fact, the truth is that even space itself is heaving and dynamic and always changing. So we need to acknowledge the truth of that and see that our built environments can also be like that, that there is a sense of disorderly order in nature. It's a wonderful thing. So that means that if you followed that example, that buildings would be moving, that they could actually open and close and expand and contract, and that our floors would be sort of undulating, heaving, curving planes that change all the time.

Well, you think, why are our bodies designed the way they are? Our bodies are perfect examples of how space really is. They're continuous curving changing stretching flexing compressive organisms of space. And so, we need to start thinking of space as that true way of existence. And space is actually a very dynamic thing. And so the spontanaeity and movement that is intrinsic to all things could be something that is expressed architecturally, and needs to be.

And yet we're still practicing the very very old and false -- it's a lie that things are flat and static. That's an actual lie. So we're actually living a lie by living in these environments that are checkerboard and flat and static.

So we need to reach for this new dimension of design and view of space that is the truth, that makes sense, that would really revolutionize the whole way we experience space. Because you can imagine, if suddenly every building were warping and heaving and curved, it would be a whole different planet of the built environment. And that really is the true way of nature, that approach to space and structure, of which we're way way behind, in fact, virtually ignorant of.

You know, I have to be careful, because I want to say that we are not mimicking or copying nature. Now there's a big different between copying the forms of nature and understanding the principles of nature. Because a lot of people think, Oh, that's just that crazy guy that makes those buildings like fish or bugs or birds. And it's not that at all. It's not taking the forms or nature and copying them. I'm trying to understand the way that nature works and why, and applying that principle to the environment.

But the funny thing is, when you work with the same efficiency as nature, you're creating the most perfect, more effective, efficient structural forms, you start to become very close to nature. Things start to look like sea urchins and seashells and birds' nests, and things like that. You can't get around it, because nature has already arrived 5 billion years ago, so here you are trying to perfect the shape of form and materials and structure, and you're going to end up like nature. So, I can't help it. Because, unless I say, I'm not trying to use these principles, I'm not trying to make the most efficient form, you're going to be very close to nature. And so, things do look like that. They will end up looking like seashells and termite nests, and things.

They'll be colourful, something I've mentioned, colour and texture. What happened to our colour and texture? We don't have any! Everything is this colourless grey-black-brown. What kind of joy can you find walking around in an environment that doesn't have any colour! But look into nature, Oh, nature, the most wonderful feels, and the desert, and the ocean, the mountains. Well, what's so wonderful about it is the colour there, the greens and the pinks and the purples and the yellows and the brilliant oranges. Well, can you imagining your front door and walking into an environment that has flourescent pinks and brilliant oranges and yellow, wow! You couldn't even find it in a movie!

So, our future environments are going to be colourful. They're going to have texture. They're going to have things that stick out. And they don't stick out just for fun -- although, that's fine, too! But they'll stick out because they might be heat-convection fins, that might stir heat to the building. And there's a need for that. But have you ever seen a convection fin on a building? No. Well, they do it for stereo systems, why can't they do it for a building? Gee, I never thought of that! Well, this is the whole idea, is that we're going to take all of these principles that exist here in other forms today, like in a stereo or in a car, and we're going to apply it to our architecture, so we're going to have an architecture that is just going to astound people.

So the buildings that we'll have that are based on this. And I hope we get to that point. And I hope that happens before our generation dies. We're going to have an environment that is colourful, that is full of texture, that is full of inteligence and functionality and imagination. And so every building will be an expression of those people that were responsible for building it, designing it, but living in it, too.