The relationship between humankind and the natural environment has always been a cyclical one: we carpet over landscapes with buildings only for nature to determinedly reverse these efforts. Caught up in this relentless cycle, the process of decay will inevitably lead a place to eventually revert to its original state, regardless of what was once built. Consider here in Australia, where the landscape is a strong presence (as is the case in Ireland – though there is a marked difference between the character of each) and whose indigenous occupants, the Aboriginal people, are widely regarded as having a special connection to the land. Since European occupation began in the late eighteenth century, the Australian landscape has changed rapidly and pockets of the continent are now heavily urbanised. It is one of the most recent occurrences of the substantive reshaping of the natural environment by humans, and with European structures in existence here for a relatively short time, the effects of nature on its young built environment are particularly clear.
The buildings of Sydney, for instance, are not old enough to be ruins, yet they are still subject to the same processes of decay; a skyscraper becomes progressively grubby at its formidable heights, or the exposed timber of an Art Deco window frame begins to crack and rot, its edges tickled by ragged curtains. The presence of landscape is disguised in cities to a certain extent, yet still, greenery leaks unsolicited into urban spaces. The natural elements of a site can evoke different feelings of place and their presence is a portal to understanding the character of an area. In Australia, it is the backdrop of its particular landscape that distinguish its cityscape so much from that of Europe, as city buildings here are largely European in form, but surrounded and infiltrated by an unfamiliar wilderness. Leafy Australian species of greenery push their way through cracks in concrete; Jacaranda trees dressed in purple line streets over which swoop enormous bats at dusk. The curiosity of it all is a constant reminder of my altered geographical location.
Where nature is so determined and bold as in Australia, the process of dereliction seems accelerated. The paint on candy cottages in Sydney is prematurely faded and peeling from the strong sunlight. On Bondi Road, the main thoroughfare to the celebrated beach of that name, there are a number of wonderfully decrepit buildings, visibly in the process of being reclaimed by nature. Two blocks of flats in particular caught my attention during a spirited, stormy morning. One was mustard yellow with dirt caked into the walls and the many, wet leaves of a eucalyptus tree slapping against its walls in the beachy rains. The other was a proud brick building with overgrown grass to the front enclosed by a low wall, claiming the space before its entrance. A cockatoo screeched, unseen, presumably from the upper branches of some nearby tree. The buildings stood side by side – with a scattering of forlorn objects before them, discarded by their occupants before taking refuge indoors. They were beautiful for their sense of abandonment and wildness that morning.
Dereliction is not generally viewed as a positive architectural quality in a building, but when I saw the condition of these buildings in the rain, I couldn’t help but be convinced that there is something admirable about the effort by nature to take hard or damaging materials back to the earth; tendrils of greenery gently but firmly encircling a building, enticing it back into the ground, almost tenderly. Buildings that fall into disrepair can be impressive, but that’s not to say that they shouldn’t be restored. If done sensitively, this should improve a building and is usually the best approach. Rather, it is the constant desire to bring a building back to its pristine state that smothers it when it’s trying to grow old. Buildings are, in most cases, almost alive and should be allowed some breathing room accordingly.
Our modern relationship to the landscape can be, in actuality, more of a relation to cityscape, with cities sitting on a seething mass of nature that’s trying to find its way back above the concrete. Methods of construction disconnect buildings from the landscape by increasing layers of separation, rather than being interwoven in the same three-dimensional field. And the humans inhabiting them are disconnected accordingly. Indoor existence is comfortable, surely, but there is something unnatural about being constantly in rooms with plastered-over surfaces, so far removed from outside. Yet, we cannot live in caves or trees: there has to be a middle ground.
Humans always have the inclination to bring nature under control and conversely, nature wishes to decompose our creations. So, if we are to accept this condition of cyclical decay as something that will inevitably influence the environments we live in, perhaps we also need to acknowledge the potential benefits of a different approach to design with this in mind, and pursue experimentation within that determinedly. There is an argument to be made, in certain climates, for the creation of an architecture that does not fully enclose space – for the closer merging of indoors and outdoors. What of an architecture that has a less clear distinction between where wilderness ends and curated space begins? What would our buildings and cities be like if they were designed and constructed to grow old and decrepit with their surroundings and dissolve slowly, slouching comfortably into their landscape? Rather than as a mass of concrete that must forever maintain sharp edges; clear grey lines neatly abutting yellow-green wilderness. There is vast potential for the exchange to be more beneficial for both parties. We need to think differently about where to draw the line between nature and urbanity.