The Building That Farms

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Essay for Bracket No. 1: ‘On Farming’ published by Actar, 2010

At my neighborhood public library in the early 1980’s I knew the architecture section by heart. They had a surprisingly good selection of books on late-hippie, environmentally conscious, low-impact, alternative building types, which I was particularly drawn to. Around that time I wrote my sixth grade research term paper on underground homes, and another on passive solar strategies the following year. The 1970’s oil embargo, and a nascent modern environmental movement had produced a strain of outsider architecture that was becoming marginalized (though I wasn’t aware of it at the time) during the Reagan era by a dialog on style, what a building looked like, mostly on the outside, postmodern they called it. On the other hand, the buildings that were seducing me seemed not to care what they looked like, with their exposed trombe walls of black painted oil drums, bulky thermal shades, and scavenged window frames. Performance or appearance, they seemed to be mutually exclusive, you had to choose.

I was born into a typical controlled homogenous Midwestern U.S. suburban existence, shuttled on freeways between a sealed windowless mall surrounded by parking, an industrial school box and a two-story “colonial” developer home that would be very familiar to many of you. In comparison these hand-made, heat-absorbing, water-collecting, south-facing, ferro-concrete, plant-covered, earth-sheltered, inflatable constructions thrilled me. They seemed so exotic and visceral in comparison. Here was the possibility of a different way of life, evidence of a more evolved existence, and It looked like the people in those buildings were having so much more fun.

The idea of farming probably does not sound like fun to most people. When we say the word “farming”, for most of us it probably triggers images of vast fields of one crop. Some romantic notions of the farmer may persist, but we know that farming today really means an industrial landscape of monocultures, mostly inaccessible, and in some cases rarely even tended by actual humans. These crops are on a life support system of chemicals and irrigation that allows for a global consistency without any regard for the nuances of place or people. If the general, perhaps ideal, principle of farming is about establishing a balanced relationship with the environment around us to provide what we need to thrive, our contemporary model for the activity of farming is impoverished. As issues of the environment begin to take center stage again, perhaps this is beginning to evolve.

For me, the most interesting recent developments in architecture have nothing to do with the actual physical shell of the building itself, but with the way that architects are starting to intervene in the expansive local and global systems that the building is a part of. I am interested in the architects that consider their task to involve some reconciliation between the impossibly complex physical, emotional, creative, intellectual needs and desires of the humans they are accommodating with the equally complex and varied resources and forces surrounding them. I like architects that are asking themselves questions about what we need, and then looking around to see how much of that might be provided right where we are. What an exhilarating feeling to think we might have everything we need already!

Let’s expand the role of architect beyond builder and planner, to also include farmer. The farming architect, the building that farms. What would that look like?

The building that farms pays attention….

It takes careful stock of it’s situation. It understands what is uniquely possible and available in a particular location and figures out how to sustainably transform it into something useful. What do we have here? Algae, birds, clouds, compost, dead trees, data, fire, fresh air, fruit, geo-thermal activity, honey, hot springs, humidity, lightening, manure, meat, moss, mud, oceans, rain, rocks, seafood, salt, sand, seaweed, smog, sunlight, spices, tides, trash, traffic, vegetables, running water, wind, worms? It is an inherently localized activity.

The building that farms takes responsibility for what it needs…

It takes steps towards removing itself from the corrupt short-sighted global supply chain that exploits people and places we will never see. Even though the building may not even come close to extricating itself from this remote support system, modest gestures in that direction start to provide evidence of what is needed for humans to survive and be comfortable in that place. Staying warm by the heat radiated from walls exposed to the sun, computers powered by electricity generated from the wind, eating a tomato that grew on the roof, the humans in the building become more aware of how their needs and desires are being satisfied.

The building that farms is sexy with a casual charm…

Buckminster Fuller was well known for scolding young architecture students, warning them that willfully trying to make a building beautiful was a ridiculous pursuit. If one were to follow the basic lessons, models, systems, and principles found in nature and in the environment, the building would be inherently beautiful in ways you couldn’t anticipate. A building that really performs, that has a job to do, that is responsive, that is engaged in a complex feedback loop of localized farming activity develops a particularly charming appearance that reveals itself over time. It can be messy, rough, tactile, sensual, and sometimes hard to predict.

The building that farms is alive…

It is constantly changing. Plants grow, the sun moves, the wind dies down, the rain comes, the leaves decompose, the food ripens, and we are there to be a part of it. Are the squash ready to harvest? Is the rain barrel full? Is the sun out? Should we open the windows? It is interactive. It requires attention and welcomes us to be in dialog with the building and each other. We are invited to become active participants in our environment and in our lives. The insidious zombie role of the passive consumer is not possible here.

The building that farms welcomes a new era of active participation.