Designing a Relationship Between Nature and Culture

Updated: Oct 17, 2018

By Besiana Hadri.

In the article “Real Nature is Not Green,” Koert van Mensvoort posed these two questions: ”Do we have a genuine experience of nature any more? Or are we living in a picture of it?” (Mensvoort, 2006) The concept of nature is hard to imagine any more, maybe its not that we are living in a picture of it, but rather living picturing it. We may be better off trying to reimagine a whole other nature then the one that is ”left” around us.

Mensvoort writes about the Netherlands and how the whole area is a man-made landscape. The concept of original nature cannot be found there. The ”nature reserves” are ”culture reserves” made by humans. It is the need to reinvent something, which is lost: Nature, according to Mensvoort, is supposed to be associated with originality, and this originality only appears as it disappears. He writes how nature is a contemporary experience consisting of certain associations, such as a car commercial. The common picture consists of a car driving through natural forest, which has roads plastered on top of it. (Mensvoort, 2006)

Mensvoorts main topic in the article is looking at the relationship between nature and culture. He writes about how drawing a line between these two is very difficult. The great example he mentions is when a bird builds a nest it is called nature, however, when humans construct apartment complexes it is culture. The distinction between nature and culture has been present since the ancient Greeks. Since then many things have changed and a nature untouched by humans is hardly present any longer. (Mensvoort, 2006)

On the other side we have cities that have been stripped of the concept of nature. In the article “Edenic Apocalypse: Singapore’s End-of-Time Botanical Tourism”, Natasha Myers writes about Singapore and its synonymy to excess and artifice. It boosts with greenery, from actual tree trunks to structures that mimic them, blending together as if it’s a natural occurrence. 87% of the island shoreline is reconstructed and the whole city is a major product of deforestation. (Myers, 2005, p. 31) Myers chooses to end the introduction by saying ”Artifice is Singapore’s nature.” How can this statement be interpreted when one looks at the relation between nature and culture? Culture in a way is trying to become nature.

”The Gardens by the Bay,” a billion-dollar infrastructure project for botanical tourism is one example of an environmental architecture approach in Singapore. The fifty meter tall tree-look-alike's key element is its sustainable infrastructure, which gathers solar energy. (Myers, 2005, p. 32) The Supertrees are supposed to mimic the photosynthesis of plants in that it uses the energy to make properties around it function, such as air condition, fountains and artificial lightning, something that is far from natural. Koert van Mensvoort underlines the importance of distinguishing between natural and artificial processes. Some things appear because of human actions but many things don’t, such as the difference between the natural process of sunrise and the artificial process of a light switch. He states that a lot of what we call nature has taken on an artificial authenticity. (Mensvoort, 2006) Human design amplifies the natural in nature; a genetically modified tomato and an architectural structure have similar artificial properties compared to what Mensvoort defines as hypernatural. They are both far from being hypernatural and they emphasise what truly is.

As Mensvoort states, the concept of nature and culture have been closely integrated in the evolution. He mentions how when one speaks of nature, one is always speaking about one's relationship to it, not about nature by itself. The words "natural" and "cultural" always presents a certain positioning. Although our image of nature has changed and appears foggy at times, Mensvoort proposes that in the future humans will continue to adapt to it. We are constantly going to look for nature. According to him, cultural processes are purposeful an intentional human actions and culture is everything that human invents and controls. And because we are trying to control nature and natural processes, nature is entering the realms of culture. (Mensvoort, 2006)

The question Mensvoort poses is if culture can become nature as well? He states that the idea that we think we can control nature completely is impossible, because nature changes just as we do. He believes that the line between nature and culture is changing, the reason being developments in science and technology. The birth and origin of something, such as associated with nature, is becoming less important. Everything is a copy of a copy. We should look at the dynamic properties of nature rather then the static. (Mensvoort, 2006)

Marin Prominski also writes about the nature/culture relationship in the article “Andscapes: Concepts of Nature and Culture for Landscape Architecture in the ‘Anthropocene.’” He mentions how ecology is conceptualized as being cultural because humans can design it and that this can also be applied to the word landscape. The article proposes that the dualistic understanding of nature and culture should be replaced with a more unitary concept. He presents examples from Japanese culture where a dualistic concept of nature and culture is unlike the West. Kinji Imanishi and Tetsuro Watsuji both argue that the world does not consist of oppositions between natural and cultural elements. It is not the human and all the other elements, but rather an intricate web where all the elements are gathered in a dynamic relationship. Prominski says that this type of process should be applied in landscape architecture so that one can design complex relations between all elements in the project.

Although it is a good idea to try to incorporate a worldview - where humans are not in the centre - into design thinking, it still leaves one sceptical. Holism, and its all-inclusive properties remains a form of tactic in the process of architectural production. In the article “Architecture of the Anthropocene: The Crisis of Agency,” Renata Tyszczuk writes how urban design practitioners and building environment professionals take on the task to plan, repair, maintain and prepare the cities for unpredictable conditions. They have to think about how these cities and the buildings are supposed to manage and co-operate with the environmental changes present today. (Tyszczuk, 2014, p. 67) In this way, architecture and design becomes nature’s inseparable component. When one speaks about architecture and nature, one does not speak of nature by itself, but of the relationship we have to it. Design is claiming and taking on an important role in the discourse of the environment, for better or worse. By trying to integrate itself into nature, it is disguising its true identity behind it. But in a sense, nature is inspiring design to become more like it. The “real” concept of nature still remains an attractive idea. And just as Mensvoort mentioned earlier, we seem to want to design the nature, which is lost.


Mensvoort, Koert von. (2006, November 6). Real Nature is Not Green. Next Nature Network. Retrieved from

Myers, Natasha. (2015). Edenic Apocalypse: Singapore’s End-of-Time Botanical

Tourism. In H. Davis & E. Turpin (Ed.), Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies. (p. 31-42). London: Open Humanities Press.

Prominski, Martin (2014) Andscapes: Concepts of nature and culture for landscape

architecture in the ‘Anthropocene’. Journal of Landscape Architecture,

Vol.9(1), 6-19. Retrieved from https://www-tandfonline-

Tyszczuk, Renata. (2014). Architecture of the Anthropocene: The Crisis of Agency.

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