Reflective Form


An important and often overlooked function of design is to inform people about their environment and help them understand it. Frequently, for example, the means of technology are hidden behind false building shells, across town in 'someone else's back yard', or in our own utility rooms and basements. Water and food flow in and out of the house and community with little knowledge of how it got there or where it is going. People have lost touch with how technology supports us and how it, in turn, is interconnected with the natural world. Design provides few clues to changing natural processes such as orientation, climate, the sun's position and seasonal change. It gives little information on culture or place. Television shows, virtual reality, theme parks, videos and books cannot substitute for on-site learning from the natural environment. Effective design helps inform us of technological support systems and our place in nature.

John Lyle in Regenerative Design for Sustainable Development explores the relationship between design expression and technology (pg. 44-45).

"A healthy society with the ability to make informed decisions concerning its technological base will require the ability to live in harmony with that base. For such ability to develop, it is important that technology become an integral aspect of common culture." For this to happen, the forms of technology must be made visible and a part of everyday experience, not hidden in 'other parts of town' or in the 'basement.' "The potentials for regenerative systems to heal the schism between culture and technology lie in sensitive planning and design. With understanding of the processes involved, it is possible to shape buildings and landscapes in such ways as to give visible form to those processes. The forms of buildings and landscapes have always been a major means of making connections between people and the environment. ... if we can manifest the inherent elegance of ecological processes in visible form, those forms will become symbols for the times." "The forms of regenerative technology impart useful information and increase our understanding of the world. Being seen, the processing can become part of daily life" and hopefully enrich our experience.

The nature/technology theme is fully explored in Robert Thayer's
Gray World, Green Heart; Technology, Nature, and the Sustainable Landscape.

Sim Van der Ryn and Stuart Cowan discuss the educational importance of making nature visible in
Ecological Design (pg. 160-171).

"De-natured environments ignore our need and our potential for learning." E.O. Wilson's biophilia hypothesis "powerfully asserts that much of the human search for coherent and fulfilling existence is intimately dependent upon our relationship to nature." People have lost touch with how technology supports us and how it in turn is interconnected with the natural world. In living and working in places of no natural distinction we soon lose our sensitivity to nature and place. "If our most visible monuments are highways, shopping malls, sprawling suburbs, office towers, and entertainment complexes, it is because our lives are dominated by movement, consumption, the search for individual realization, corporate power, and mass media." "Making natural cycles and processes visible brings the designed environment back to life."

Much of the problem with contemporary design as an informative and educational tool is that it deals more with image than with substance. In this it is reflective of patterns of marketing, advertising, consumption, entertainment and political discourse. It tends toward homogenization across broad geographical and cultural regions. The end result of such trends is to have a singular global economy and culture attuned to standardized mass produced design elements. Form, and much that we see around us bears this out, reflects simplification and loss of diversity. Counter to the push toward globalization is the resistance of people who feel a social and spiritual need for a sense of place and expression of regional, community and personal identity. Designs that grow from consideration of natural systems and forces have the ability to reflect the place and the individual.

Permaculture, with its concern for use of native species, intensive land use systems, yields of useful crops, reforestation and soil fertility, and self-reliance of individuals and communities, offers great opportunity for informative design expression. Permaculture is more concerned with substance of form than image. It recognizes that water systems, power supply, drainage, compost piles, and other infrastructure elements are just as important and meaningful to the design as the flowering plants and buildings. Permaculture recognizes that permanent agriculture and permanent culture are related and that both are based on human understanding of, and working with, the nature of the place. Reflective form grows from such an approach to design.