Subnature: Architecture’s Other Environments by David Gissen

It is common that nowadays, with the heyday of sustainable and green design, the conversation of architecture and nature always includes a connection with natural forces such as sun, wind, water, and greenery. David Gissen’s book Subnature: Architecture’s other environment, introduce the world to other environmental forces that affect daily life and the way that architects have until now used natural or environmental constructions. The built environment has always been used to clean, filter, or avoid these primitive elements that he calls “subnatural.” The definition of Subnature as “those forms of nature that are more primitive, filthy and uncontrollable” (Gissen, 22) comes from a collection of things that are usually not approached in the interpretation of natural architecture. Gissen’s book explores and examines subnatural atmospheres, forms of matter and ways of life, and how they are simultaneously marginalized and embrace in architectural conversation. Throughout a compilation of contemporary and historical images, writings, and structural and urban design theories, along different periods in architecture. Understanding how historical processes are essential to examine how different peripheral and denigrated forms of nature have been perceived throughout time, as well as dealt with within society and the built environment.   Throughout time, few architects and designers have thought on an alternative view of how architecture and urban design can re-approach other natural processes to work with them in the same way that they have with desirables forms of nature. How can architects establish a connection within the often overlooked subnatural forces, the built environment, and social interaction with all of them to create a new sustainable approach?


Parting and reiterating the meaning of “Subnature” as something produced by humans and cities that are not accepted within society, or it does not belong to the natural surroundings. It comes from the atmosphere, such as dankness, gas, smoke, and exhaust; it comes from matter such as dust, mud, debris, and puddles, and living organisms such as weeds, insects, pigeons, and crowds. Throughout time, society and urbanists have approached and regarded each subnature differently. A good example is smoke; for primitive people, the fire was a vital aspect of the dwellings made of earth to help maintain the central heat. Later, during the Industrial revolution, homes, factories, and streets with people smoking cigarettes create an image of smoke-filled cities and spaces a characterization of modernization. However, like other forms of subnature, smoke was already being regarded as something that destroyed furniture and considered a nuisance. English industrialization was important for architectural theory because of its severity in the visual and structural environment. England was one of the first nations to industrialize, creating massive architecture and city planning rapidly. During this time, the smoke became romanticized as the center of industry where houses were filled with warm smoke, and hard work created chimneys full of it. John Ruskin talks about a theory of smoke regarding issues of social class, labor, and the economic structure of cities (Ruskin, 67). Depending on the smoke that was associated with the person, it was an indicator of its social rank; in this way, smoke from coal, wood, and tobacco became the social distinguisher and label of a city. Nowadays, the smoke has been given a lot more attention thanks to the effort of governments and global health entities to eliminate smoke emissions in urban centers, such as factories, transportation, chimneys, and even tobacco. A new sustainable approach in architecture is not only about the built environment, but it should also regard new policies and social behavior towards the approach of the “subnature,” in this case was smoke. Understanding the architectural relationship of smoke and economic growth is relevant since nowadays the “sophistication and wealth of contemporary cities is defined as the absence of smoke” (Gissen, 44), at this point is where the connection between subnatures, architecture and society appear.

Throughout time, architects have had their approach to smoke and other subnatures. Some of them have disregarded them, as something that is aesthetically disturbing or disrupts the function of architecture (put an example), some other have seen in them an opportunity of a showcase, such as the unrealized project of the Pilot Plant by NLA Architects.  This project proposal intended to bring inhabitants into space where nonindustrial and industrial uses might come together into a new concept, by addressing pollution and smoke from industries as a critical point to create a social dialog between the issue of industry, labor, and environmental decay.  The idea behind Pilot Plant is one of the best examples of how, like trees and plants, smoke, is one of the many forms of nature that humans are always surrounded by in the cities.


Humans are constantly trying to get rid of all forms of untidiness and are in the permanent move to somehow create a purely natural world, free of untidy elements. Beyond untidiness, there is a usual consideration of these forms of nature as a problematic matter of public health, and the cities are usually trying to remove or dismiss them. An excellent example of this manner is smoke and polluting, every day we see more inhabitants of office buildings are increasingly becoming ill with the “sick building syndrome,” causing them headaches, dizziness, fatigue, and nausea. Some of the causes of this syndrome came from off-gassing materials and bad ventilation. People in the cities were fearing exhaust as much as radiation since it was so toxic and full of chemicals, there is a clear view of how this impacts the cities in countries like China and India, were its inhabitants wear air purifying mask to go out to the streets. Other subnatures such as bugs, even the most beneficial ones, are unwelcome in most spaces because they tend to be carriers of diseases and a display of untidiness; same goes for pigeons. Pigeons are in constant interaction with architecture and humans; they are an undesirable pestilence because of the diseases they carry and also because, within their interaction with architecture, they stain and infest buildings. These birds can be found everywhere, generating disgust from plazas in Spain all the way in crowded cities like New York. As architects proposed more tightly coordinated spaces of mobility and habitation between humans and subnature, it is essential also to approach cultural and healthy standards as well. Is not about designing building and facades that insulate society from them or exterminating bugs and pigeons. Cities need to start creating new legislation for lowering emission, protect green areas, and even conservation of individual buildings by removing them from direct engagement with some problematic areas, as well as through improvements in building-skin technology and internal systems.

There are relations between poverty and environmental degradation that affect public health and city development. Exhaust, dust, and pollution are linked to particular places, such as developing countries, like China, India, and Mexico, are often judged for not being capable of controlling their emissions, making look the wester urban environment superior to that of the developing world. Subnatures represent a denigrated and less sophisticated urban environment from an environmental, social and geographical point of view; in many ways, it represents a lack of progression from the uncivilized past and fundamental ways, and the perception of a clean global city is considered the ideal western model. The absence of subnatures in Western cities reflect the socio-natural values of metropolitan capitalism (Gissen, 123). Government forces have neglected their cities and fail to coordinate the development of land and settlement, this with construction methods and more important materiality are used for economic and social polarization. Architecture in developed countries is thought of as a process towards refinement, and it is defined by distancing itself from primitive materials like mud and wood constructions, again is that constant desire of tidiness. Right now, there is an ongoing re-urbanization, re-planning, and re-designing of cities and buildings. Most of what is considered modern building practices employ materials such as steel, glass, and concrete, are now being replaced again with more traditional materials such as wood. Recent Architectural projects explore human discomforts, dislike, physical and mental health by rethinking of unhealthy subnatures in a different way, approaching them like Las Spuybroek’s Blow Out Project. The world is seeing an architecture that uses subnatural materials for the economy, naturalism, and building efficiency, leaving behind the ancient concept of what we consider a developed city.


From misunderstanding to embracing the legacy of traditional and vernacular construction, it is fundamental to put aside misconceptions associated with earth material architecture such as mud and wood. Many assume that it’s only used for housing in poor rural areas, that non-man-made materials are fragile and ephemeral when some of the oldest buildings on the planet are made of earth or mud. It is an Architect duty to promote the use of specific local materials that contains the quality of each region and serve the purpose of expression,  that allows the builders and users to perceive the undesirable quality of subnatures with pleasure and be able to recognize them for their distinctive positive features. As said before, urbanism and future city development depend on the shift of ideas and re-thinking ancient ways towards futuristic projects. The first skyscrapers were built of mud brick, due to the continuously growing population and city growth, more and more cities are growing up instead of spreading terrain. Construction with ancient techniques that are based on the sensitive to their environments, and economically viable to build and maintain. (building: B_MU tower by R&Sie Architects (Gissen, 81-82).  Architects have viewed subnatures as potentially confrontational to the existence of modern urban society; now they have the tools to imagine or envision them as a tool for social transformation, history and time, and how subnatures become metaphors of new individual forms in modern society. The new approach towards sustainability will regard architecture where the climate (gas, exhaust, wind) and thermodynamics (sun) are in constant relationship with the earth and subsoil(dankness). The building is literally produced with the remaining artificial products of other constructions (debris) and the earth (mud). Heat is created with geothermal energy, and smoke is trapped in the soiled walls purifying the interior air and giving it a freshness and a natural feeling. Is the return of society to nature, in order to create hybrid nature buildings “No form of life is inherently subnatural; rather, relative to architecture, life becomes subnatural when it makes us question the dominant social role of architecture.” (Gissen, 150).


It is difficult to imagine that architects might reconsider the relationship, both conceptual and factual, between buildings and most of the subnatures. But architects have already established these connections for a long time, projecting subnatures in a more organic manner and create a link between the building design, organization of space, and forms of socialization in the built environment. Architecture engaging with the environment forms of natures and subnatures in a harmonizing manner. An architecture that mimics or incorporates the mechanics of trees, sunlight, water, and wind; whether developing a country house or a skyscraper, it is essential to create a mutually beneficially relationship with the building, and architects should consider it as a critical role in the future of urban development.


Society is living in a very capitalistic economy and society, where nature is either an obstacle or an opportunity for growth and profit based on the economic benefit that might generate towards companies or governments. We are conditioned over time to look at environmental forces such as dust, mud, gas, smoke, debris, weeds, and insects as inimical to architecture and social surroundings. “Subnature can be transformed in a spectacle or commodity, as with the more naturalistic form of nature, but in general terms, subnatures force us to confront our prevailing relationships to the environment” (Gissen 211)


The environment is so much more than the nature that society has always perceive and keeps in mind; it is composed of inevitable subnatures that are produced by social, economic, political, and urbanization processes. Subnature helps understand the lack of control that humans have in any natural and subnatural forces, that instead of fighting to eliminate it from the environments, is essential to work with it as a material of its own in architecture and urban planning. It is not about letting the cities be surrounded by smoke, pollution, pigeons, and insects; it is about going back to a more passive and social architectural design. It is about challenging and proposing a more naturalistic environment that works with all kinds of nature that are surrounded by and benefits, not only society, but it strengthens the interaction between these environmental conditions and the city’s architecture. Lastly, Gissen finishes his book with the following phrase, “Subnature is not about what is natural to architecture; it is about the natures we produce through our most radical architectural concept” (Gissen, 214).



Gissen, David. Subnature: Architectures Other Environments. Princeton Architectural Press, 2009.

Gissen, David. Big & Green: Toward Sustainable Architecture in the 21st Century. Princeton Architectural Press, 2002.

Ruskin, John. The Poetry of Architecture. Hodder and Stoughton, 1930.

Rael, Ronald. Earth Architecture. Princeton Architectural Press, 2011.

Min Park, Melany Sun. “A Conversation with David Gissen on Subnature: Architecture’s Other Environments” Portfolio & Interviews, Sa264, pp. 117-121.,