‘Soft and hairy’ architecture: why designs should embrace nature

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‘Soft and hairy’ architecture: why designs should embrace nature
Skywalks built as part of Singapore’s Park Connector Network / © Jonas Gratzer/LightRocket via Getty Images

Some may still hate buildings that include greenery but its benefits for wellbeing are undeniable

There is an anecdote about the time Salvador Dalí gave Le Corbusier a tour of Gaudí’s buildings in Barcelona. Predictably, Le Corbusier hated them and gave the surrealist an impromptu lecture on purism and his “five points of a new architecture”. Dalí listened patiently, then said: “No. Architecture should be soft and hairy.”

In fact, the differences between Le Corbusier and Dalí were not as polarised as the anecdote suggests. Even if the architect’s strategic urban planning was the least convincing part of his oeuvre, he was a strong advocate of contact with nature, creating a surrealist masterpiece in the form of a roof garden with sliding hedges for Charles de Beistegui in 1929.

Since then, architecture’s relationship with nature has been uneasy, at times even paranoid. In cladding specifications, it is standard practice in the UK to include “non-infestation clauses” — essentially a contractual obligation to exclude all non-human biological life from a building, apart from a few plants. In some parts of the industry, there is a surprising antagonism towards incorporating biological life in architecture. To some, it is a costly fringe interest that can be equated with tree hugging, pike rights and faffing about with slowworm surveys.

Yet the situation is changing and cities are pioneering new approaches based on “biophilia”. The term was coined by the great biologist EO Wilson, whose hypothesis was that, because of the way humans evolved, we are happiest and most productive when in regular and direct contact with nature. In 1984 he defined biophilia as “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life”. […]