[cc photo by gloomycorp]

In Alison Smithson’s piece on the habitats of Saint Jerome, she posits that their cultural depictions indicate something substantive about human habitation proclivities. For her, depictions of Jerome’s life can be organized into the following categories and successive indicators: 1) DESERT, representing idyllic nature and the wild For Smithson, the habitat of the “Desert” indicates the human need for interaction with the purity of nature and serenity of the untouched wild. 2) STUDY, representing the intellect For Smithson, the “Study” is an indicator of the human need for societal organization and rigorous intellectual pursuits. [The “Desert” and the “Study,” as representations, exist in vacuums. Their two spheres of idyllic reality, which Smithson refers to as “enclaves,” are irreconcilable and require occupants to move back and forth between the two. Only one can be experienced in any given moment. The third category of Jerome’s depictions encompasses a paradigm shift from the first two.] 3) GROTTO, representing an integration of nature and intellect For Smithson, the “Grotto” indicates that the basic human habitation needs displayed in the “Desert” and the “Study” can be fulfilled within one habitat. [Smithson calls this phenomenon “creating fragments of enclaves.”] __________________________________________________________________________ Smithson’s conceptualization of the human habitat rests firmly on the premise that “nature” is synonymous with “untouched.” While this might have been a common cultural definition during the centuries in which these depictions of Jerome originate, and might persist to be a common definition, the current condition of “nature” calls into question its applicability. First, if “nature” is untouched, then there is no part of the current ecosystems of this biosphere that could accurately be called “nature.” Everything has been touched. Many parts of the biosphere have been directly disrupted by human intervention, and the rest have been indirectly (and often inadvertently) altered through chemical dispersal, ecosystem imbalance, and greenhouse gas effects. If we want to continue discussing “nature” as a crucial component of the human habitat, we need to draw new distinctions around it. Some, such as David Gissen in Subnature, would argue that drawing any idyllic notions around conceptions of nature leads to the marginalization of some of its components. If only the beautiful or sublime portions of nature are considered, we might be ignoring the biosphere’s most significant parts (in relation to our health and everyday ecosystem interactions). Second, the conceptualization of “nature” as touched or untouched presumes that humans, and their effects on various ecosystems, are not part of nature. Separating ourselves from nature, and calling ourselves something different, is not only biologically inaccurate, but potentially facilitates cultural decisions to harm the biosphere. If I think that I am outside of nature, then I might also think that harming nature will do no harm to me. _________________________________________________________________________ Rather than conceptualizing the human habitat as part nature, part society, to be reconciled by fragmenting the two parts into pieces small enough to occupy a single spatial enclave, one might make softer distinctions between types of environment. Some portions of ecosystems are more altered by human action than others. They range from the undomesticated, to the agricultural, to the manicured. Portions of ecosystems could be organized on a continuum from most altered by human action (extremely urban) to least altered (those places only indirectly affected). The key to such a conceptualization is that even the most urban environment, completely constructed by human action, would be part of the continuum of “nature.”   [Subnature: Architecture’s Other Environments. David Gissen (2009). New York: Princeton Architectural Press. 224 pages. ISBN: 978-1-56898-777-4]