EcoEmpathy:
A New Paradigm for the Human Habitat

“The modern architect … has no philosophy that does justice to organic functions or human purposes … If human development does not become sterile and frustrated through an excessive effort to conquer nature without drawing upon all the resources of history and culture to rehumanize man, the architecture of the future will again be a true polytechnics.”

-Lewis Mumford, “The Case Against ‘Modern Architecture,’” 1962


As human beings, we have two unique powers: the capacity for feeling awe at the beauty of our shared habitat, and the ability to creatively reconstruct and redesign this environment. It is my life goal to work towards an architecture that can express the range of human creativity and emotion while never losing its connection with the natural world that our humanity evolved in and is still an intrinsic part of. I call this new approach to design Ecoempathy, Ecoempathy came out of my frustration with "Green" architecture. Inspired by Professor Stephen Kellert’s work on Biophilic Design, I realized that the issue at hand was not just outfitting existing cities with green technologies for the sake of measurable efficiency, as LEED standards suggest, but building a human habitat that can activate the biological affinity for nature present in us. Focusing on the human experience of and interaction with the built environment, Ecoempathy situates itself between pure aesthetics and pure scientific metrics, and, as the illustration above suggests, has four main nodes, which I investigate in my research and studies:

Ecointegration involves building habitats and ecologies into architecture and urbanism, from living walls to urban forests, concepts I explore with Professor Alex Felson’s Urban Ecology and Design Lab. While bringing residents into closer contact with nature, this approach takes advantage of ecosystem benefits like storm protection and pollution mitigation. I am also exploring how the “designed experiments” Alex builds into inner-city landscape designs can encourage participation, turning local residents into amateur ecologists and water quality monitors. 

Ecoprocess involves biological processes in design or construction, using organisms to make materials, generate structures, or be part of dynamic, self-healing buildings and infrastructure, in tandem with more advanced computational tools. This idea is central to David Benjamin’s work at The Living, where I interned this summer, researching the possibilities of using termites for wood processing and speculating on the potential of genetically modified microorganisms as building and city components.  

Ecoimpact covers building features designed to minimize impact on the local and global environments, but with a caveat: they cannot achieve their full potential unless the occupant interacts directly with them, and can visualize this impact. I continue my exploration of these concepts, begun in a college environmental psychology course, in environmental design courses with Professor Michelle Addington and in studio work. And I worked during Summer 2016 at The Living, which has designed pavilions and installations that, often using biological sensors, report environmental conditions real-time to residents.

Ecomimicry involves structures inspired by nature, including architecture that evokes the forms, scaling relationships, and sensory experiences found in nature, all of which have been found to correlate to well-being. This is a central part of Professor Stephen Kellert’s Biophilia research, which I helped with this Spring, but it is also something that my favorite architects—Gaudi, Soleri, Hundertwasser, Wright, Calatrava—tap into, and that my hero Christopher Alexander attempts to catalogue and turn into a series of rules. It is his belief—and mine—that traditional and classical architectures understood and embodied these principles as unspoken universals; this is why my work engages with historic architecture and urbanism. 

                What do ecoempathic cities and buildings look like? The biophilic architecture of the past is a valuable guide, but much of it was based on the Renaissance conception that placed man at the center of a mechanically functioning, geometrically perfect, and static universe. Ecoempathy still places human experience at the core of architectural design, but it integrates our new worldview based on chaos theory and quantum mechanics; it embraces the dynamism and uncertainty inherent in biological processes while celebrating our awe at the self-organized order they result in. Using the unprecedented wealth of tools available to designers in 2016, from computer simulation to 3d printing, I want to probe the possibilities for the creation of a new kind of human habitat that, in being as adaptable as an ecosystem, also gives its inhabitants true freedom.

                Through my research, I am interested in seeing how the aspects of ecoempathy that I propose can be integrated in a wholesome way into a new aesthetic that can connect people to nature and natural processes. To that end, I am working with Kent Bloomer, Alex Felson, and Kassandra Leiva on a paper that proposes ornament as a vehicle for integrating green interventions into cities and buildings.

In the future, taking my thesis in rules-based urbanism as a jumping-off point, I plan to develop ecoempathy  into an adaptable toolkit applicable to a variety of contexts through the tools of design and legislation.