Today I visited a Target retail outlet. While my wife shopped, I sat in the cafe and studied the structure and interior design. Ceiling heights, finishes, lighting, spatial arrangements, transitions, vocabulary, colors. I filtered it all and took some mental notes on big box retail design and fast food cafe design. The activity also stimulated a musing.
An indoor environment is its own ecosystem. There are space, light, climate and coexisting life forms. Of course people are part of the ecosystem of the Earth…of the biosphere. But the indoor world is partially a separate ecology from that of the biosphere. It is a new biosphere within an existing one and it is expanding. Imagine that the end result of our ever-expanding human-constructed biosphere is that it completely encompasses/replaces the original biosphere. What kind of a biosphere is it?
For comparison, think of a pre-climate-controlled structure, especially an ancient structure. It is made with materials pulled from the earth and reassembled to enclose space. Its climate and ventilation are regulated by the larger biosphere. All or almost all of its components are naturally occurring and required little processing to transform the raw materials into the final products. Contrast this image with our modern buildings. These do not rely on natural daylight and ventilation and very few of the component materials are naturally occurring. Even those that are naturally occurring often require significant post-extraction processing. We occupy buildings made of alloys, plastics, polymers, resins, adhesives, volatile organic compounds, and the ventilation, the conditioning of the atmosphere, the light, and the delivery and purification of water are all far removed from the functioning of the larger biosphere. Currently, the built environment is an alien biosphere residing within the larger biosphere.
Sustaining a separate and unique environment within an existing environment is a complex and consuming process. The biological diversity, capacity for evolution, and resilience of the constructed environment are very poor. The integration of the larger environment and a larger sense of community are severely deficient. Spaces and activities are strictly compartmentalized. This space is for commerce, this one for administration, this for domestic activity, this for celebration. In a word, this is all inefficient and requires tremendous input of energy and resources to sustain. Since we continue to push it as the preferred mode of living, it forces on our society and the biosphere the burden of assimilation. Rather than building our constructed environment to collaborate with and assimilate into our natural environment, we coerce the natural to adjust to the constructed.
Though looking at the situation through this lens raises serious concerns about the paucity and inefficiency of our constructed environment, full rejection of it seems reactive and simplistic. What is a healthy syncretization of the constructed with the existing biosphere? Acceptance and assimilation of that which we create and of that which we are through our environment, and integrating the product of our labor with our aspirations is a complex activity that requires subtlety and sensitivity – more so than we currently exhibit.