“Integral Design,” Sausalito, CA, 1988
We are ready for a new paradigm. In my 25 years in architecture, I have never seen it so intellectually bankrupt. The whole architectural profession seems to have given up its morale and its visionary role in society. And yet we are at a time when what we know and what we can do, as architects, is more important than ever before. The real task seems to be to translate the rhetoric of the architect as the builder, the integrator, and the coordinator, into action. Having spent four years as State Architect in California, I can say that it is possible to do this. It’s possible to talk sense to legislators and get them to do some very good things. The real opportunity we have is the one that results from designing with limited resources and beginning to become aware of the opportunities that grow out of the depletable nature of our resources. What this means to me is what I am going to define as “integral design,” in which architecture becomes not only building but an orchestration of the other forms of energy that are designed into the form of the built environment. We need to consider what happens to the waste generated by buildings, as well as the energy that is involved in creating a building and the energy that is involved in maintaining it. The decisions that we make will be paid for by people many years down the road. Our children don’t inherit the world from us; we are simply borrowing it from them. The decisions I make in my work are going to influence those after me,
just as the ones you make are going to affect future generations. We need to look in a more integrative way at how we orchestrate everything that makes up a life-support system-not just shelter and the habitable environment, but food, energy, waste, and all the things that are part of the system. The kind of paradigm we need to develop is one in which we begin to look more closely at what happens in the natural world. When I went to architecture school-and I suspect it hasn’t changed that much in 25 years-I went through six years of training and never took a course in natural science. In architectural curricula, you study dead things such as concrete; there is no study of botany or even geology. This missing ingredient was bypassed in the great revolution that took place in architectural education in the 1920s, although the people in the Bauhaus movement were aware of forces that constitute the missing ingredient. They were never integrated into how we think and how we design, and that is the major focus of what I am working on now. So if it seems my ideas relate more to agriculture or biology, it’s on purpose. We need to look much more closely at how natural systems work, and we must learn from them. Integral design is about creating living places or habitats, the humanly created organization of which is analogous to the features of a healthy natural system. By doing this, we can begin to approximate the economy, the efficiency, and the simple elegance
that is inherent in any natural system. The work we use to describe the tendency to approximate the features of a natural system is “integral”— connected or unified. The dictionary meaning of integral is “essential to completeness.” It’s important to keep in mind that no humanly designed system can ever achieve the organization that natural systems have evolved over millions of years. But we must keep in mind that integral design has as much to do with process as it does with realized form. A house whose shape is analogous to a nautilus shell, or a dome emulating the microscopic structure of an organism, is not inherently organic. Process must be analogous as well as shape, although we do tend to think of houses built with natural materials, like earth, stone or unsawn wood, as more natural than those built with industrial materials such as glass, steel, or concrete. Integral design applies the lessons of the biology and ecology of the natural systems to the design of environments for people. This emerging kind of integration of architecture and biology, dubbed “bio-tecture” or “eco-tecture,” is in its infancy, although we can already begin to identify principles and patterns. An obvious question is, “Why emulate natural design?” What is there about the behavior of natural systems that we should pay attention to in designing our cities, towns, and houses? The answer is framed by the most natural observed event on Earth. The source of all light energy is the sun, but the Earth is only habitable through the action of green plants, from lowly algae to towering redwoods, which capture only about 1 percent of solar energy and transform it into useful forms of energy for all life. Without these complex natural systems to fix and transform energy, all solar energy would be lost as waste heat and life could not be sustained. We express this process as entropy: the tendency of all energy to degrade into unusable waste heat radiated back into space. The opposite is negentropy, which is the sum total of all life processes
that capture and transform energy into usable form. It is negentropy, the work of all the silent plants and bacteria, the entire complex of natural systems, which is the basis for life and civilization, the savings that we accrue through natural systems. Evolution is a process by which natural systems become increasingly diverse, complex, and differentiated, in order to counteract entropy. Evolution, through negentropy, may be seen as nature’s slow but certain strategy to achieve stability in the face of the inevitable degradation and eventual death of the planet. Human beings cannot hope to improve on the efficiency of natural negentropic processes, but we should be able to design habitats and culture in such a way that natural systems, and the information in them, are not degraded. If natural systems are degraded, then human cultural evolution will be degraded and destroyed. Humans, as a species, are uniquely adapted to storing information in abstract and symbolic forms, and this gives us our unique ability to manipulate our surroundings as no other species can. It’s interesting that some people claim that modern societies are more callous about their effect on natural systems than were earlier peoples. In truth, while there are important exceptions, the rule seems to be that most cultures have been callous about their natural systems and environments. Throughout history, cultures have gained short-term advantage by juggling what ecologists call “early successiontype” monocultures, and as ecosystems deteriorated through early succession-type monocultures, people had to take the consequences and move on. In Edward Hyams’s book Soil and Civilization, he documents the ecological destruction of vast areas of the planet by earlier cultures. We don’t have to suffer heavy guilt about modern industrial society as destroyer: most cultures have destroyed their environments. So we don’t have a corner on ignorance (although we do seem to be in the lead).