Nora Blog

"Architecture and Nature: Designing for Today’s Urban Landscape"

Sou Fujimoto, Japanese architect, renowned for his synthesis of nature and architecture
Walter Hood, landscape architect, specializing in the public realm and urban environment 

Reed Kroloff, architect and urban designer, former director of Cranbrook Academy of Art 

Sou Fujimoto and Walter Hood are two seemingly distinct architects with disparate focuses, and yet they made for a fascinating pairing for Culture Lab’s second panel discussion. While I was unable to stay through the Q&A discussion, I was able to catch both presentations and draw potential conclusions about how their work connects to the landscape here in Detroit.

    Due to weather conditions, Fujimoto’s plane was grounded in New York, so he was forced to participate via online video chat. His presentation gave a retrospective of projects he has worked on including the Serpentine Pavillion in London and the NA House in Tokyo. Fujimoto’s style blurs the line between public and private spheres, between visible and invisible space. His “N House” has a design that includes trees growing indoors and many windows to the sky. Fujimoto tends to manipulate the natural world within his designs, referring to his construction for the Serpentine Pavillion as a cloud, and thinking of several of his buildings as being like trees he climbed in his youth. His designs tend toward multi-layered grids that grow skyward. In some sense, his work exists in a space between the technological and the natural. While Walter Hood also utilizes the natural world in his work, the similarities largely end there.

    Hood’s presentation began with a nod to one of his former professors who stated that putting something in a landscape should change a landscape. The idea, while simple, has complex reverberations in a place like Detroit. There are many life-long residents of the city for whom absence marks the landscape around them, which makes for a daunting atmosphere, while the presence of both art and the natural world creates a surreal kind of magic. Hood discussed projects such as “Curtain Call” a winding garden in Pittsburgh’s historically black Hill District with a sincere nod to the legendary playwright August Wilson, whose 10-play “Pittsburgh Cycle” is set in the Hill District. The “curtain” or garden wall is a large construction with color photographs from residents of the area accompanied by what Hood calls “rain songs”, R&B songs about rain. The design incorporates elements of the wildlife that already exists within the Hill District, in a manner similar to his design of Solar Array at the University at Buffalo in Buffalo, NY. In the Solar Array, Hood encouraged growth of grasses to re-invigorate the ecology around the university’s solar panels. The Solar Array could, in some ways, serve as a template for several plots around Detroit. Notably, Hood explained that his main focus in designing was people, and that he questioned the idea that his stance was extraordinary.

    Hood also touched upon one of his more recent projects, which would return oak trees to his native Oakland, CA. The notion of returning what was lost to the urban precedence set during the Industrial Revolution is both simple and wildly complex. If we applied such a notion to Detroit, what would that look like? Would there be grazing fields of buffalo? What could be done with the salt mines? Would we return some of the roads to the rivulets they once were? One of the things that captures people’s imaginations when they are looking at “ruin porn” from Detroit are the ways in which nature reclaims structures. When we look forward and consider the future of Detroit, we, like Hood, often concern ourselves with people—who will move in? who will leave? who has already left? will they come back? will they stay? Those answers are not easy or straightforward, but when we think of projects like the Dequindre Cut, the notion or preserving graffiti mirrors intentions with “Curtain Call” in some ways. In this way, we never look to the future without simultaneously looking at history. Life-long Detroiters often look at something and tell you what it was despite what it is, or what it might become, and in this way both Hood and Fujimoto’s designs speak to the city—we can preserve both the natural history and the human history without succumbing to the notion that revitalization means everything must be torn down and built again.


*Credit Line for Free Press Photos: Courtesy of Culture Lab Detroit photo by Mina Magda/BFA.com