Architecture and the Environment

Kenny Cupers, S. Hochhäusl, T. Lange, et. al.
Architectural Histories, 6, 1, 2018

Despite its ubiquity in contemporary discourse, the notion of the environment has yet to be analysed as a central category of thought in architectural history. Environmental perspectives of both historical and contemporary architecture are currently being put forward, but what is lacking is an analysis of how environmental thinking underlies the very emergence and development of modern architecture. In the course of the nineteenth century, the professional and disciplinary field of architecture developed in a constellation of ideas and practices of the environment, which range from romantic philosophy and the natural and social sciences to the realms of social, urban, and cultural reform. To excavate this constellation requires an approach to history that, instead of taking the environment as a given, recognizes its material and intellectual production.

The modern definition of environment, which entered dictionaries in the mid-nineteenth century, emerged at the intersection of physics, geography, anthropology, and biology. But it was also shaped by long-standing deterministic convictions – such as that climate determines race, or miasma bring disease – and by reform projects that emerged in response to capitalist industrialization and urbanization. Such intersections suggest a close relationship between what are usually considered to be separate intellectual traditions: a romantic strand of philosophy focused on the experience of nature and a much harder, instrumental belief in the influence of the environment on human culture and behaviour, a conviction that has been coined ‘environmental determinism.’

In light of this relationship, the rise of modernism at the turn of the twentieth century might be understood as the reversal of the deterministic relationship between humans and their environment, a reversal in which the environment becomes recognized as being constructed architecturally and humanity itself is increasingly understood as a geographical factor. Such an argument might contribute to our understanding of one of the central paradoxes of modernity, namely that the modern violence towards both nature and humanity that pervades much of twentieth-century history, including the history of architecture, can be seen as integral to a worldview that positions humanity as an integral part of nature.

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