2013 Non-Sequitur: Where Things Felt Right … Until They Didn’t

2013 in review, yay! Nature, happiness, joy, triumph of the soul, financial and spiritual freedom, a life of blissful … Wait, never mind. Let’s cut the crap. Some of my decisions worked out in the end, some didn’t. All of my decisions were a result of naivety and experience, knowledge and ignorance, broad mind and dogmatic preconceptions. There may be stuff in here that’s useful in a wider sense, but these were the things that worked (and didn’t) for me. You may find that spending major holidays in the forest isn’t your thing – in which case, my advice below cannot be held responsible for your mosquito-induced misery to come.

So, here goes:

1. Spend All Major Holidays … And Any Other Days in Nature

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“Not all those who wander are lost.” Mr. Tolkien, how did you just so perfectly express the entire philosophy of my life? Photo taken by Anthony Dewar, the only person in this world, who can magically transform me from an awkward squirrel into a somewhat elegant human-being. Canada Day in Copeland Forest, 2013

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Oh no, never mind, here’s that awkward squirrel again. Photo is still by Anthony Dewar. Christmas in Copeland Forest, 2013

Want to understand design from functional, aesthetic and experiential perspectives? Let’s start with the idea that we can experience all these phenomena, the objects and the events of the world, as they show up during your walk through a forest. The experience of the world ‘just as it is’ often requires significant attention, the quieting of the mind, the relaxation of the body, and the suspension of preconceptions. These are the skills you will learn not by studying ‘about’ nature, but learning ‘from’ nature during your walk in a forest. Once a designer can fully intake the unfiltered experience of sun and wind, light and shadow, damp and dry, fragrant and fetid, patterns of function, aesthetic, and experience begin to emerge. This is the beginning point for designing objects, spaces, systems, and experiences that engender and facilitate thoughtful solutions.

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Francine Houben: culture and nature in landscape design

Designers love to build prototypes. So do architects. Let’s imagine the farmer to be one of such prototypes. “He prospers only insofar as he understands the land and by its management maintains the bounty. So too with the man who builds. If an architect is perceptive to the processes of nature, to materials, and to forms, his creations will be appropriate to the place; they will satisfy the needs of social process and shelter, be expressive and endure.”

Vincenzo and I went to a lovely lecture by Francine Houben, an architect who loves and builds for people. The lecture series, organized by Azrieli School of Architecture and Urbanism and held at spacious National Gallery of Canada Auditorium, feature such prominent architects as Edouard Francois – the author of Flower Tower; Gregory Burgess – the proponent of architecture as a social, healing, and ecological art; and other inspiring urban innovators.

The Forum Lecture Series kicked off with an inspirational quote by Wim Wenders “If Buildings Could Talk … ”

… some of them would sound like Shakespeare.
Others would speak like the Financial Times,
yet others would praise God, or Allah.
Some would just whisper,
some would loudly sing their own praises,
while others would modestly mumble a few words
and really have nothing to say.
Some are plain dead and don’t speak anymore…

Buildings are like people, in fact.
Old and young, male and female,
ugly and beautiful, fat and skinny,
ambitious and lazy, rich and poor,
clinging to the past
or reaching out to the future.

Don’t get me wrong: this is not a metaphor.
Buildings DO speak to us!
They have messages. Of course.
Some really WANT a constant dialogue with us.
Some rather listen carefully first.
And you have probably noticed:
Some of them like us a lot, some less
and some not at all.

What a perfect introduction to Miss Houben’s lecture about buildings “that are eager to welcome, to help, to be of service”.  The famous Library of Delft University of Technology has brought Francine an international recognition in 1998.  Her reasons for undertaking the project seemed to revolve around the issue of public spaces and natural settings that would welcome people to walk, feed on sunlight, and enjoy the company of each other.

TU Delft Library

Source: mecanoo.nl

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iSite Basics: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About iSite* (*But Were Afraid to Ask)

Identify a spot that feels curious to you. You might use this same spot day after day or migrate around. It’s up to you. Once you are there, get settled and spend at least 20-30 minutes observing.

What relationships do you see? How about patterns? Describe or sketch them. What are some adaptations you see as a response to wind/predation/rain/decay/etc? Rather than asking “what is this organism doing?” ask “how does this behaviour fit the environment, and what will the organism do next”? 

These two paragraphs were taken right out of Biomimicry Resource Handbook. iSite was an excellent exercise that every Costa Rica workshop participant enjoyed throughout the week. It teaches how to be humble, how to quiet our cleverness, how to listen to the life shaping the environment.

iSite: David and Goliath

This sketch was drawn on the 4th day of the workshop during the intertidal zone visit. I sat on the rock for at least 30 minutes, observing a tiny crab gathering all its might to lift a gargantuan carcass of Goliath for who-knows what kind of purpose. A Halloween costume, perhaps? It was exhilarating to observe his fidgety self, patterns on the rocks adorned with barnacles, smell the air filled with salt and iodine, and hear the sound of waves crashing upon the crab whenever he would dare to approach the Goliath. Perseverance was rewarded by victory.

However, you do not have to go to Costa Rica to practice iSite – Tim wrote an excellent post about learning to observe without knowing what you observe right here, in your backyard. I do it all the time.

I never try to identify the species I draw. All the notes are added at home, when I have the need to dig deeper into the functions and behaviour of my teaching organism. Sometimes, it is incredibly hard – especially, when you are tempted to draw someone as common as a loon.

The way to do is to be

The other day, Vincenzo took me out for a bella giornata of fishing and a river-side picnic. If you picture a typical fly-fishing layman – standing thigh-deep in a streaming Ottawa River, rubber boots overflowing with water and sunburnt nose the colour of a boiled crayfish – you would picture me. This experience, however, reminded me of that 30 minute iSite, observing a tiny crab struggling against the waves to reel in an unyielding mass of a potential dinner.

Vincenzo knew exactly how to weave a loop of line in the air, how to settle the fly on the surface of the water, and how long to wait before mending the line. He was in tune with the environment. And while I was struggling to keep more water from streaming into my already waterborne socks, he was one with the experience.

iSite is quite similar to fly-fishing, I find. As long as there is just the mind (Which organism should I pick for inspiration?) and body (which sense do I tune into?) in the process, there is always a seesaw of power. But as soon as there is a more unifying goal – you become a spectator of a great theatrical performance, orchestrated by nature.

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