There is a Natural Order to things; I see it when I look around me. Our dog “Tank”, a huge Great Dane, is friendly and sociable. He is a pack animal. It comes naturally to him. It’s also completely “natural” for him to chase the chickens, lick his genitals while we’re watching movies or bark at our assistant, Roy, when he comes to work in the morning. It would be completely “unnatural” for Tank to live in a fish tank or to eat a raw, low carb, vegan diet.
Of course, the idea of the existence of a “Natural Order” is not new at all. Lao Tsu spoke of it 4000 years ago already. The Idea of a “Natural Order” makes perfect sense when we apply the thinking to dogs or even to people like you and me. We can see that there is a natural way to be that just seems comfortable and right. My thinking though has (over the last 20 or so years as an Architect in private practice) meandered to the question of whether we can find a “Natural Order” that will guide the design of buildings, objects and spaces. Is there a way that a brick wants to behave; is there a way that a piece of timber or a roof sheet wants to behave?? Is there a natural way in which a landscape, a building site would like to express itself and most of all is it possible for an architect to facilitate the expression of this “Natural Order” through a conscious and mindful design approach? Is there a “Natural” way in which a team can come together to design and build beautiful things? And in any case what is “Natural” anyway? Perhaps a better word to use would be “comfortable”? I’m not sure. But I can easily spot when something is not natural, when it feels uncomfortable. When a building is “pretentious” and “overdesigned”, I can feel it. When a building is overly decorated or overly complicated or when it is just unresolved and clumsy, I can feel it. I can feel the absence of a “Natural Order’. It is this quality, this “Natural Order” I seek in our buildings and in the spaces we design. It is this quality we set out to achieve at the Bhisho Contact Centre and many of our other precious projects. The quest for a natural order informs its geometry, its relationship to the site, its use of materials and its play with light. The building seeks to answer the question, what was “meant to be” on this site. The building seeks to answer the question: “What would this space / surface / door / window / ceiling / component look like if it were to look like it were “meant to be” like that? This is what we have come to see as the “Natural Order” of design. I have come to see that this design approach is crucial if we are to play any part in creating a Natural Order Habitat.
To be clear, I am not speaking about a search for simplicity like our friend Mies van der Rohe. I respect that quest Sometimes the Natural Order of things is very simple but at other times it can deliver surprising complexity. Also, to be clear, my quest to find a Natural Order in design should not be confused with attempts at “Bio-mimicry”, where we learn lessons for the building of a staircase from the geometry of a sunflower or where our parquet tile floors are inspired by the patterns in the scales of an Armadillo. I love all that, but that’s not my quest right now.
We have been searching for this Natural Order for a long time. It permeates our attitude toward design and also, perhaps even more importantly, our attempt to find a comfortable and natural feel in the interpersonal collaboration that makes up the design and construction process. Some say it’s a silly quest, some say it’s a waste of time. I say though, that it’s a quest that I know may not reach a clear answer, a specific result or a particular destination. I know that this may in fact be true, but I also know along the way we will learn. Perhaps like the Alchemists that searched for a way to make gold from ordinary stuff, we may not find this elusive “Natural Order”, but we will learn many lessons along the way.
As we learn, I will share with you.