The term “biophilia” literally means love of life or living systems, and biophilic design is about understanding the human-nature connection and designing with that in mind. This appeals to me on many levels. I’m an Engineer by training and an Environmentalist at heart. My life has been a study in contrast, compromises, and now, my journey towards enlightenment. In order to help understand why I’m drawn to understand biophilic design, I want to share with your some of my personal background.
I’ve spent the last 20 years of my life working in a highly technical field. A field rooted in science, logic, and mechanics. My chosen occupation has been devoid of any consideration for, or interaction with, nature. In fact, the products I’ve spent my time designing, building and selling, have relied on the mass destruction of trees. I live in, and love, the Pacific Northwest, and yet when I drive to the beach and see the clearcutting scars, I feel deeply responsible for my part. From the very beginning of my career I have recognized the dissonance between the choices I was making and the intrinsic, biological understanding of the beauty, importance and vulnerability of the natural world around me.
Before embarking on my oh so rewarding career, there were the many many many years (some would argue too many) spent at a technical university in one of the most beautiful settings in the country, San Luis Obispo, CA. I split my time between the large, cold, concrete mechanical engineering building learning how the world functioned according to the laws of physics and mathematics, and blowing off steam exploring the abundant and breathtaking central coast beaches, mountians and trails. And before that blissful yet grueling interlude, being the product of a 70’s style divorce, I spent my life going between Butte, MT and Palm Springs, CA.
Both located in amazingly beautiful natural areas. Both existing in complete incongruity with their natural surroundings.
Butte, best known for, and most dramatically illustrates, a turn-of the century, hardscrabble “Company Town”, that was completely spent by the time I came along in 1968. The 70’s and 80’s in Butte were a time of depression, decline, and the realization that they had a very big mess on their hands and nobody
responsible willing to clean it up. The corporation that created that mess, the Anaconda Company, (initially known as the Amalgamated Copper Mining Company, later bought by ARCO, and now owned by BP) had moved on to more fertile grounds in South America. In the 80’s Butte was declared the largest Superfund Site in North America, due to the heavy metal groundwater pollution that caused the rivers to run red when it rained. The Berkeley Pit in Butte contains some of – if not the – the most toxic water on earth. In the 90’s the city finally admitted the tap water was unsafe to drink…who knew your water wasn’t supposed to be tinted red and smell funny?
Butte and Palm Springs have some things in common, they both have lakes (albeit Butte’s lake full of heavy metals instead of golf balls), mountains, trees and…um…air.
It’s easy to see that Palm Springs stands in stark contrast to Butte. Palm Springs was, and is, posh, glamorous, self-confident and relaxed.
I guess you could say, though, they have something more important in common, they both owe their successes to
the exploitation advantages realized from their natural surroundings. For Butte, it was the rich earth that seemed to provide an endless supply of copper, silver and gold that drew hundreds of thousands of eager for work immigrants, and eager for profits corporations. For Palm Springs, it’s the warmth, clean air and natural beauty, combined with the proximity to Los Angeles – and the very important fact that it sits on a massive aquifer that enables the many splendid man-made golf courses, lakes, lawns and pools to continue to seduce the rich and famous and keep it lush and green while sitting in the middle of the desert. Without all that water, now topped off by the Colorado River (while parts of Colorado are in drought), Palm Springs would be barren.
There is something else that connects Butte and Palm Springs – electricity. Air Conditioning made the greater Palm Springs area inhabitable year round, and that required electricity, and moving electricity required copper – copper from places like Butte.
Anyway, back to Butte…I began my formal education (if you consider kindergarten formal) in Walkerville, Mt. I ended up attending 5 grade schools in Butte by the time we moved out of state. I had a pretty good “lay of the land” and by the age of 12 felt I understood what Butte had to offer me…I was not in love. I was not broken-hearted when my Mom, Sister and I moved to Spokane Washington before eventually ending up in Palm Springs. I would miss the family we were leaving behind, but there was nothing about Butte for me at that time that represented anything but hopelessness.
Given my parents’ divorce, after we moved my Sister and I still had the opportuntiy to spend most holidays and summers in Butte while growing up. I will share more about life in Butte, then and now, in future posts. Suffice it to say I have enormous respect for the people of Butte, their character, their fortitude, and their ability to see past the obstacles and stark realities of what is staring them in the face and hang-on to hope that Butte will once again be rich, vibrant and important. At one point in history Butte was known as the “Richest Hill on Earth”, it played an integral part in supportting the war efforts by supplying critical metals when we needed them most, and due to its immigrant make-up, it was one of the most culturally diverse and lively cities in “its day” (okay, that “day” was in 1916 – but still).
Butte has a future, I believe that out of the ruins and decay something beautiful can grow, I believe that man’s instinctual Biophilic Nature, “love of life”, combined with science and technology will fuel clean-up and restoration innovations that will once again put Butte “back on the map”. This time Butte can make a name for itself by leading the way towards saving the environment instead of aiding in its destruction.
Which brings me back to this post’s introductory question: “Why Biophilic Design?” I have a wealth of knowledge, insight and firsthand experience when it comes to science and technology’s ability to shape our environment. I have the openness and willingness to explore how I can put my skills to work to “do no (more) harm” and instill that spiritual practice in my everyday life. I have the honesty to say, and most importantly mean, “I can do better”.