Better Than Nothing

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By Mark Lundegren

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I would like to propose a bold new minimum standard for architecture and building – that of better than nothing.

This may seem as though I am lowering rather than raising the design bar. But if it does, it is worth spending a moment considering what we typically mean with the word nothing.

For me, in this context it means a building site that is in a natural or undeveloped condition, or one that is naturally returning itself to a wild state. As such, nothing is actually something, usually far from something negative, and indeed often something complex and inspiring, as my photo below reminds.

Undeveloped Nature – Nothing By Human Hands, And Yet A Dramatic Something

In this light, what we design and build too often can be seen as worse than nothing, since it degrades or subsumes wild nature, or is better than before only because a natural area previously had been beat into true or abject nothingness by others.

So, instead of lowering human design and development standards, my intent is to significantly raise, renaturalize, and inform them. By seeking to create in ways that are better than nothing, we have the opportunity for buildings and communities superior to their original natural condition, and not merely ones resurrected from oblivion and mediocrity. Importantly, this work naturally includes not only ensuring elevated aesthetics relative to natural conditions, but also natural autonomy, sustainability, self-renewal, functionality, and health-promotion too.

You may object, thinking I have cherry-picked the above photo or am romanticizing about wild nature. If so, my second photo provides examples of four vacant suburban lots, all currently for sale and awaiting development.

Four Vacant Sites Currently For Sale, All Undeveloped Nothings and Yet Beautiful Somethings

Scanning the four sites, perhaps you will agree that all are naturally beautiful and uplifting somethings, even as they are undeveloped, and thus nothing to some or in a sense. As waiting case studies in better than nothing or nature-informed architecture and construction, I could and would challenge you to conceive of development approaches that genuinely do better than these examples of natural nothing.

Of course, as wild or re-wilding natural ecosystems, all four sites again are not only beautiful, they are also resilient, interacting, evolving, healing, energy-harvesting, resource-managing, and waste-recycling, as is all or most of living nature. Each site equally is complex and synergistic, a store of value or outcome beyond the combination of its parts, in service of a diverse community of organisms, and a worthy lesson and foundation upon which to understand, and indeed demand, natural design excellence .

Once Marginalized Site Restored, Transformed, And Now Protected By Human Ingenuity And Love

I will leave you with one more photo, as you consider our opportunity for raising design standards to mimic and then enhance nature, and her landscapes and lifescapes. This is a before and after photo of a small stream in rural Pennsylvania, in a wild area previously farmed, mined, and logged nearly into unrecognition.

Since then, the site not only has been restored, but transformed into something new, remarkable, and uplifting by human intelligence, creativity, excellence, and love of nature.

Mark Lundegren is the founder of ArchaNatura. 

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