Broken Nature: Design Takes on Human Survival
This is the extremely evocative title of the XXII exhibition of the Triennale di Milano, an immersive journey in the (unhealthy) relationship we’ve had with the natural world so far and the potential of design as a driving force in bringing a (much needed) change.
But let’s start from the beginning.
Humans and the environment are really one single thing
The idea behind Broken Nature starts with acknowledging the fact that humans have always operated with a sense of superiority over the rest of the living world.
“We find ourselves completely immersed, along with our responsibilities as the dominant species and our culture of self-colonizers, in the unbalance, caused by the arrogant anthropocentrism that has violated and expelled from the human sphere entire parts of the living world […]”
Cit. Stefano Boeri, President at the Triennale di Milano
So what to do now?
The first, fundamental step is a radical mindset shift. We need to start thinking at all the living entities as one single organism, whose parts are strongly linked with each other. From facing big issues like climate change, to (apparently) smaller actions like designing a new product, this
“does not only mean finally doing our best to reduce the anthropic impact on the planet, but also abandoning the simplistic vision that continues to separate Nature and Culture, Nature and Urban”.
Cit. Stefano Boeri, President at the Triennale di Milano
Restorative design: the new page of mankind history
To explain the concept of restorative design, Paola Antonelli (curator of Broken Nature), draws an evocative comparison with food. If we eat too much or not well, food can potentially become a threat to our health. But it can also coexist with health, pleasure and conviviality.
Similarly, the idea behind restorative design is that
“after a healthy correction, [restorative design] might establish new responsible and sustainable baselines upon which to grow a vividly creative universe.”
Cit. Paola Antonelli, curator of Broken Nature
Overall, restorative design is not only giving back to the environment. It’s actually a new way of designing that allows us to keep creating without disrupting the rest of the living world around us.
Practically, this can translate into many different things and the 100+ projects exposed at Broken Nature are an extremely varied representation of it. But they all have one thing in common: they all come from observing nature, respecting it and truly learning from it.
Listening to nature: the Great Animal Orchestra
How to better express the importance of listening to nature than to actually have visitors listen to it?
Over 50 years, musician Bernie Krause (opened in a new window/tab) has collected more than 5.000 hours of recordings of natural sounds taken from different ecosystems, from forests to oceans. Then, the London-based studio United Visual Artists (UVA) (opened in a new window/tab) has created a visual translation of these sounds.
Together, this has resulted in a truly magic installation. Entering the black room is like jumping into a natural environment filled with sounds. All visitors have to do is sit down and listen, while realizing that all those sounds are in reality the voice of nature.
The sensation in this room is to be really only a viewer, it's like hearing a foreign language we cannot understand, but that still deserves respect.
And besides being beautiful to listen to, this installation shines a light on the importance of biodiversity and calls for a more comprehensive consideration of how our actions impact the world around us.
Here is a short video I recorded of one of the segments I’ve enjoyed the most. It’s the voice of the deepest ocean, something we don’t get to hear every day. I don’t know you, but I get goose bumps every single time I listen to it!
Nature beyond animals: the Nation of Plants
If animal sounds are a language we don’t understand, plants have a silent language that is way more sophisticated than we can even imagine.
Broken Nature has tackled this topic with the Nation of Plants. Curated by Stefano Mancuso (opened in a new window/tab) (one of the leading experts in plant neurobiology), this show aims at helping us to understand plants a bit better.
It all starts with a question: What do you see?
More than 90% of people say “a tiger in the forest”, putting the focus on the one tiger rather than on the many plants. This is the effect of the so-called plant blindness. But why do we give plants so little importance?
The answer is twofold:
- we’re used to taking into account what we know and plants are the least understood living organisms in nature.
- our brain retains just the most relevant information of all what our eyes see. And it has learned to give more attention to humans and animals that – being moving – can be more dangerous than a still plant.
The show continues with plenty of fascinating proves that plants hear sounds, have memory, have a clear perception of their position in the space and speak both to each other and to animals. If this was not sufficient, plants actually have 13 senses beyond our 5: they can feel electromagnetic fields, measure soil humidity, and much more.
What makes plants so different from animals (humans included) is that their senses are spread across their entire bodies. If we have ears to hear and eyes to see, plants hear and see will all of their body. This may seem an unimportant detail but it actually means that plants can survive without any functionality loss even if they lose 90% of their body!
Besides highlighting features of plants we’re not really aware of, The Nation of Plants reminds us that plants have been around for much longer than humans and that – in all this time – they’ve been able to find strategies to adapt in a way that is efficient and does not harm the surrounding ecosystem. We should then learn from plants, taking them as a model to help us face our future challenges.
The show concludes with a speech by the representative of the Nation of Plants to the United Nations. And this one honestly made me nearly cry.
If you wish, you can read the transcript of the speech of the Nation of Plants (opened in a new window/tab).
Examples of restorative design
In practice, restorative design can be many different things. Below are a few interior design-related examples out of the many that inspired me at Broken Nature.
Circular design means seeing waste as a resource and upcycling it into new valuable objects. And this is certainly a sustainable way of designing that – not filling it with trash – shows respect to the world.
For example, audio cassettes used to be a big thing, but now, they’re pretty much just trash. Textile-designer Scott Bodenner (opened in a new window/tab) has had the genius idea of mixing recycled cotton, wool, linen, silk and rayon with cassette tape. The resulting fabric – Mixtape – has a touch of shine to it, plus it gets rid of a pile of trash very elegantly.
Similarly, Studio Swine (opened in a new window/tab) has designed a portable foundry that – powered by cooking oil – melts aluminum cans and gives them a new life. In fact, the Can City project was inspired by a tradition of São Paulo, the catadores: people who collect recyclable waste from the streets and transform it into gorgeous pieces of jewelry and furniture.
Restorative design can also help to save and foster natural biodiversity.
For instance, there exists plenty of different types of corn that grow in Mexico. But they’re in danger, because they’re constantly replaced by genetically modified crops. A design reaction to it is offered by Fernando Laposse (opened in a new window/tab), who has used colourful husks coming from native corn types to create a veneer material. With its stunning colour variations, Totomoxtle can be used for the most various applications and – at the same time – it gives a whole new value to these less known crops.
The living world is made of many interconnected components. And aquaponic is one of the many ways design has been indpired inspired by this. In aquaponic cultures fishes and plants live together: fish “waste” feeds the plants, who purify the water that can go back to the fish keeping their environment clean.
Aquaponic may seem a very lab-like activity, but with Local river (opened in a new window/tab), Mathieu Lehanneur has created a home aquaponics system that decorates the space with natural elements (and you know how much of a fan I am of this) while allowing people to grow food.
Growing food at home is actually a very actual topic and may soon become a necessity given the latest growth population forecasts. So we do need elegant solutions to bring food growing at home! IKEA is also looking into this topic and – at IKEA Democratic Design Days 2019 – has announced a first idea to help us all grow some of our food at home
Closing out our journey around Broken Nature, there are actually two ways to look at this exhibition. Someone has described it as the documentation of an “irreversibly compromised bond” between men and the natural world and said that all we can do now is make the extinction of menkind a bit more elegant.
But to be honest, I just can’t look at it this way. I prefer to embrace the it’s not too late perspective, in which restorative design is a radically new way to look at design as a whole, a way that acknowledges and respects the existence of all life forms on this planet!