Balancing nature with design is a core principle for us. After I watched The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, I came home and drew in my sketchbook for hours. The CGI in the film is stunning, very consistent with what I like about architecture. Minas Tirith, the castle and citadel where many characters seek refuge, is a fortified city wedged into the side of a mountain — dramatically contrasted with Isengard Castle, the iron fortress that dominates the natural environment. Fantasy architecture of Minas Tirith can inspire biophilic design, whereas the latter warns us not to stray too far from what nature intended.
Blending natural with the built environment
In Tolkien's story, Isengard is considered evil and Minas Tirith a place for peace. By no means is the built environment evil, yet what makes Minas Tirith so inspiring is its means of balance. Minas Tirith blends two forms, the man-made constructs and the existing cliff. The mountain softly slices the half circle citadel as if it was always there. A gleaming white city set upon a granite rock face, the green plain before it, and the mountain beyond this terraced community where inhabitants and their guests have everything they need — homes, businesses, farmland, communication, and gathering places all climb up the face of a mountain, which provides them with much-needed safety and security.
Embracing a symbiotic relationship with nature
Between the natural and built environment at Minas Tirith, dominance is shared. Meanwhile, The Shire gives glens, rivers and roots full reign. Hobbits, like Frodo and Samwise, embrace a symbiotic relationship with nature. Their form of protection is camouflage; not a war-like species, they just want to enjoy life in the woods. Play flute by the river, eat second breakfasts, and by night, host parties under the stars. Tolkien envisioned the Hobbits free of the stress of strain, anxiety and conflict. They don’t even wear shoes, so the body is deeply connected with the ground.
Each home is burrowed into the side of a hill. From outside, the dwelling looks like a rabbit warren. As a biophilic architect, I can’t help but wonder: Did the hobbit dig the hole and create the hill? Or did they build these things and cover them with dirt? Inside, their love for nature is obvious, the wooden floors and walls are beautifully crafted — an approach where building can take the place of the landscape but also restore it, and reflect it on the interior. Just as the Hobbits rebuilt the lowland hills, Frank Lloyd Wright rebuilt the waterfall at Fallingwater.
Creating a symbiotic relationship with nature through design means you work with nature, not against it. That being said, you can remove something and replace it while asking: Are you moving this tree to a better place where it can thrive? Act with intention, not for one’s own convenience. Remember that nature is strong. Grass grows in sidewalk cracks, and if rusted metal sinks to the bottom of the ocean, coral will happily grow on it — a touching example of how the built environment can lend support to nature.
Most imaginable cities would focus on man-made forms, and be very far off from The Shire. Yet Minas Tirith offers a balanced example — the hill remains as it has been for thousands of years and supports the structure and as a result, its function is to provide physical and psychological support to the community that inhabits it.
My takeaway: Evaluate what your site has to offer and figure out your occupancy and look for opportunities where they can complete each other. Synergistic and symbiotic — two parts combined can equal something greater.