The Relations to Nature

Note: this is the finished first chapter of the thesis. Soon I will be posting about some minor changes in the research structure.

By Patricio De Stefani

The Natural Order and the Passive Body

We often think of nature as the so called ‘natural environment’, that vast landscape which is out there surrounding our cities, untouched by the intervention of the human hand. For a proper understanding of the relation between architecture and nature, I want to propose we remove this ‘common sense’ image right away. For what is at stake in this relationship is the very nature –in that other ‘intrinsic’ sense– of architecture.

Nature has an order. Its various cycles develop according to more or less invariable laws which are the object of the natural sciences. Viewed in itself, as a pre-human order, it is external to and independent of human knowledge and praxis, a world which is the product of no conscious thinking or action, a ‘blind and non-conceptual occurrence’.[1] However, human beings have had to dwell within natural space from the beginning –just like any other species on earth– thus nature is the primary source of all human dwelling, ‘the place from which man is absent is also the place where man begins, taking shape and moving ahead of himself’.[2]

The natural world and its forms

Understanding nature in itself, as an absolute, gives us no clues as to its relation to human beings, ‘what else can I say about it, other than that it exists?’[3] Instead, we should identify a conflict –or ambiguity if you like– within the concept of nature itself, for ‘it happens that we use the same word to designate nature in man (human nature: instinct, need, desire) and nature without man, before man, outside man’.[4] Attempts to draw a clear-cut distinction between man and nature have developed mostly from classical metaphysics and later, eighteenth century bourgeois thought. These start to fall apart as soon as we grasp the relation dialectically, which means to see nature in man and vice versa, without confusing them. This is the approach taken by Marx –in a bit fragmented way– and recognised by Lefebvre. For the latter nature can be understood either as external (pre-human) or as internal (within-human). Man is dependant from nature, but nature is independent from man.[5] The contradiction between these two definitions arises as soon as we look from one into the other. As external, nature appears deceptively as something ‘pure’ and empty, thus inaccessible. As internal, corresponds to our natural limits and capacities as biological and sensorial beings. However, nature within man (human nature) is always something which is emerging as half-nature and half-antinature, for it is only by means of abstraction that men have become men at all, only by transforming nature into something which goes beyond it without being completely separated from it. We don’t have right now the space here for going in depth into this debate, but we should to keep in mind that this ‘physis-antiphysis dichotomy is superseded as soon as we realize that it is by antiphysis, or antinature, that man controls and returns to nature’.[6]

Toad living against the earth’s surface

If we imagine nature as the external world, in an ideally –and it could be only in that way– pure, pre-human state, and suspend any human (social) mediated conception about it, we can begin to understand why is it that human beings cannot inhabit the earth in the same way than the rest of species –leaving aside the obvious fact of reason and intellect for the time being. According to the Dutch architect Hans van der Laan, natural space is earth-centred, unlimited, and homogeneous.

The space that nature offers us rises above the ground and is oriented entirely towards the earth’s surface. The contrast between the mass of the earth below and the space of the air above, which meet at the surface of the earth, is the primary datum of this space. On account of their weight all material beings are drawn into this spatial order, and live as it were against the earth.[7]

This means that natural space is fundamentally vertical-oriented along the axis earth/below-air/above. Natural space is the primary phenomenal world we confront with our sensory apparatus –i.e. our passive body– yet there is something in us which prevents that we inhabit this vertical order as such. First, it is an unlimited space which extends towards all directions, and in which limits to perception arise only as folds in the surface of the earth –threes, hills, mountains, and so on.[8] Second, it is a homogeneous space as it extends continuously along the mass of the earth, without any breaks, only folds and cuts in its own surface. Man cannot live solely on natural space because our ‘great manifestation of life lies just in our ability to stand upright and move, and in so doing to counteract the downward movement caused by gravity’.[9] Van der Laan also emphasizes what he calls our experience-space –i.e. the space-image we construct in our mind and according to our own bodily structure.[10] In contrast to natural space, the space we construct from our experience is body-centred, limited, and heterogeneous; and for this reason it is ‘necessarily in conflict with the space of nature’[11], affirms Van der Laan. Following this, the Chilean architect Juan Borchers asserts:

In nature things extend continuously in all directions. They can have all possible measures (…) The human mind has to make a distribution of them all and group them into a few simple and meaningful directions, directly related to the subjective constitution of the human body: height, width, length. These same, grouped in opposing pairs and separated by a cut: right and left, back and forth, up and down.

These sensations do not exist in the outside world from which the stimuli that affect our sense organs come from, but in our subjective structure that we transfer to the outside world.[12]

Because experience-space –subject-space if you like– is body-centred, it is essentially horizontal, which means, as Van der Laan notices, that potentially contradicts the gravity-based vertical axis of natural space. Humans are also the only evolved bipeds, and in virtue of this upright position they cannot live simply upon or against the earth. However, this mismatch between man and nature is not as self-evident as it may appear. Man is also part of nature, which means that nature has created a species which is, by nature, in contradiction with the world –with nature itself. Van der Laan is plainly aware of this problem: nature has produced such a species because it lacks something, it is incomplete. What does it mean when we say that ‘we are in nature, we form part of it like everything else, and yet we are also outside of it’[13]? If external nature is incomplete, so it is internal nature, ‘nature is also what man lacks’.[14] It is the force of abstraction what allows humans to detach themselves from nature by changing its form, but does not abstraction comes from nature in the first place? If this holds true, the argument according to which human abstraction (consciousness) is based ultimately in its material, phenomenological experience of the world, must be deepened.

The coordinate system of man

The natural order is the concept which allows us to grasp the contradiction between external and internal nature. We have said that nature has and order, which manifest itself in the unlimited, homogeneous, and vertical orientation of its space. It also manifests itself in all its organic creations, which grow by intussusception[15] –i.e. from within themselves. Yet, this order remains somehow in human-made objects, but how is this possible? According to Marx, there always exists an inevitably organic relation between man and nature, without which human life would not be possible:

Nature is man’s inorganic body –nature, that is, insofar as it is not itself human body. Man lives on nature –means that nature is his body, with which he must remain in continuous interchange if he is not to die. That man’s physical and spiritual life is linked to nature means simply that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature.[16]

From this, we can draw an initial conclusion: if the natural order, with its laws and dispositions, is the law of nature, then it is part of human nature too. Man’s immediate biological and physiological needs –e.g. eating, shelter, sleeping, sex, and so on– do not necessarily require previous elaboration of abstraction tout court. Thus, for satisfying these primordial natural needs, man has to work as nature itself would –he has, like other species, hunt or gather its food, find or construct its shelter, and the like. But this does not only apply to ‘primordial needs’. What does mean when we say that something is or develops in a natural way? Here we should carefully differentiate nature from the natural. The latter means something which develops spontaneously, without the intervention of rational and systematized thought, according to natural laws –i.e. vital and organic laws. The distinction between man and nature gets even more blurry when we take into account the development of human history in relation to nature. Marx suggests that nature in-itself is an illusion created by bourgeois thought to make us believe that there is a clear-cut distinction between man and nature.[17] As Schmidt suggests, ‘nature is for Marx a moment of human praxis and at the same time the totality of what exists.[18] For Marx, the phenomenal world is both natural and social:

The sensible world is certainly not for Marx ‘a thing immediately given since eternity, always identical to itself, but rather the product of industry and the condition of society’, but this world socially mediated is yet at the same time natural and historically precedes the whole of human society.[19]

Marx goes even further as to claim that ‘the nature which develops in human history –the genesis of human society– is man’s real nature; hence nature as it develops through industry, even though in an estranged form, is true anthropological nature’.[20] Here, he asserts that the only nature accessible to human beings is the nature transformed by their activity. Man must labour, because it is in his nature, it is what makes him human, and simultaneously, what makes him to struggle against nature. In man, nature struggles against itself.

The Active Body

Although it was implied all along, we should clarify the concept of the passive body and its conflicting yet dependant relation to the natural order, as a precondition to understand the relevance for architecture of what Lefebvre deemed as the active body.[21] What is implied in this dual structure of the human body is a theory of its ‘metabolic’ interaction with the environment. According to Lefebvre, the human body and living organisms in general can be understood as energy-catcher devices:

(…) the living organism may be defined as an apparatus which, by a variety of means, captures energies active in its vicinity. It absorbs heat, performs respiration, nourishes itself, and so on. It also, as a ‘normal’ thing, retains and stocks a surplus of available energy over and above what it needs for dealing with immediate demands and attacks. This allows the organism a measure of leeway for taking initiatives (these being neither determined nor arbitrary).[22]

The passive body and the sensory apparatus

The passive body corresponds to the functions performed by our sensory apparatus or external senses –e.g. sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell, temperature, kinaesthetic, and so on. Under this modality the body effects minor transmissions of energy with the environment (sensory data). Because the passive functions of the human body are linked directly to external nature, they are responsible for the infinite variety of forms, images, smells, sounds, that give shape to our phenomenal world, or Umwelt –i.e. surrounding world.[23] Therefore, if something natural remains in the social development of our biological being, it is above all our sensory perception. Without natural laws operating through the passive body, it would be impossible for the empirical world to have a coherent shape for us.

Our experience-space is the result of the interaction between the passive body and natural space. As we have seen, the contradiction between these spaces stems out of the conflict between external and internal (human) nature. The first takes the shape of a natural pre-human space which does not fit our natural bodily constitution. As humans, we need to do something in order to complete natural space so as to make it liveable for us. Van der Laan illustrates this with a simple but telling example:

The ground being too hard for our bare feet we make ourselves sandals of softer material than the ground, but tougher than our feet. Were they as hard as the ground or soft as our feet they would give us no advantage, but being just hard enough to stand up and wear and yet just soft enough to be comfortable, they bring about a harmony between our tender feet and the rough ground.[24]

This example implies the fact that external nature is ‘too rough’ for us to live in or to adapt like other creatures, hence it appears as an incomplete order –which by no means posits it as inferior. As Heidegger puts it, man is thrown into the world,[25] but also in an ‘incomplete’ form, so he has to develop himself and its surroundings in order to survive. The only possible way for man to overcome this mismatch –in which, as it were, man is ‘too weak’ and nature ‘too strong’– is to act and directly modify nature as to make it fit for its own needs: ‘Against the unity of man with nature it is stated its irreconcilable character, that is, ultimately, the need of labour.’[26]

Motion study

The active body is set in motion by those functions that imply massive energy transmission between our body and its surrounding space. These correspond to our sense of orientation (space), locality (place), and time, provided by our vestibular and locomotor systems, among others. The movement of the human body is what makes possible the potential overcome of the contradiction between natural space and experience-space. Nonetheless, it is not any movement or any kind of activity, there is one primordial activity without which any other would be impossible to sustain: human labour. Why? Because it is only by changing the form of nature that man is able to survive within nature. He has no choice but to use its natural bodily forces to ‘set aside’ a portion of the earth and shape it as to fit his needs. For Marx, labour is not only a requirement for survival, but a ‘nature-imposed’ necessity:

The labour-process (…) is human action with a view to the production of use-values, appropriation of natural substances to human requirements; it is the necessary condition for effecting exchange of matter between man and Nature; it is the everlasting nature-imposed condition of human existence, and therefore is independent of every social phase of that existence, or rather, is common to every such phase.[27]

This activity has, therefore, a universal character. But before we turn into the social aspect of the labour process, let us examine the biological and physiological implications of it in more detail. Both Marx and Lefebvre saw human labour primarily as a general physiological action and not as a definite type of activity. For Lefebvre the active body implies the work done by limbs, muscles, and the like, in order to move and perform any activity. In turn, Marx suggested that ‘however varied the useful kinds of labour, or productive activities, may be, it is a physiological fact, that they are functions of the human organism (…) essentially the expenditure of human brain, nerves, muscles, &c’.[28] Thus, this general understanding of human labour approaches to the definition of (mechanical) work in physics –energy required by a force to displace an object. There is much discussion as to the nominal difference between labour and work as we can see, for example, in Arendt’s critique of Marx.[29] Yet, we are concerned here with human activity in its most concrete and general fashion, as the human body in motion through space with the aim to modify it.

The labour process

What is external nature for the active body? If man cannot avoid modifying nature, then the latter has a use value for him. Man opposes the forces of his body to that of nature by way of physical work, an expenditure of energy that extracts the materials provided by it. Both Marx and Van der Laan coincide in the fact that there seems to be a necessary conflict (and unity) between man and nature –arising from the fact that he must withdraw a space from nature and make it work for his own purposes– but also in their focus on human movement and activity as the real source of all human creations. In this everlasting activity, nature acts as the subject of labour, while the body acts as the primary instrument of labour.[30]

The soil (…) in the virgin state in which it supplies man with necessaries or the means of subsistence ready to hand, exists independently of him, and is the universal subject of human labour. All those things which labour merely separates from immediate connexion with their environment, are subjects of labour spontaneously provided by Nature.[31]

Apart from food and others, the earth’s surface itself provides materials which can be assembled as to form barriers and limits that did not exist before. In order to do this, man needs to employ his bodily forces in a certain manner consistent both with the laws of those materials (of nature) and the laws of his own purposes (mental laws). This is what Marx had in mind when he talked about an interchange of matter (stoffwechsel or metabolism) between man and nature. What is the relation between labour and the body’s movement? Consider first the different roles of arms and legs:

The body composed of trunk and limbs, and crowned by the head with its sense organs. In movement the trunk acts as the static and the limbs as the dynamic component; the arms and legs move relative to the trunk which stays still.

In contrast to four footed animals, which use their fore-legs and hind-legs in a fairly similar way, man uses his arms and legs quite differently: with the first he works, with the second he walks (…) Work movements go completely against the downward tendency caused by weight, whereas walking is a coordination of the downward movement due to gravity and the free, upward movement of life.[32]

Furthermore, for Van der Laan, the relation between limbs and trunk mimics that between the whole body and its immediate environment, as he sees a static-dynamic dialectic at work in human activity. The upright body, and its semi-detachment from the ground via its movement, allows it ‘to extricate itself from the stability of the environment thanks to that very stability. We need the stability of the trunk to move the limbs; we need the stability of our surroundings to move our body from place to place’.[33] The physiological constitution of body also demands certain type of actions to be coordinated in order to achieve the transformation of the materials provided by nature. Lefebvre locates these on the different bodily gestures we perform according to distinct activities, such as work: ‘The space of work is thus the result, in the first place, of the (repetitive) gestures and (serial) actions of productive labour (…)’.[34] In order to give form to the materials of nature, man has to dominate a technique of work. For this, he also is able, unlike other species, to divide the work process into stages: conception and execution –i.e. the ability to plan process and product in advance to its actual material realisation.

The Housing-Labour Process

We have reached the point where it becomes almost impossible to keep going without discussing the only product of labour in which man can live in: the house. As the first architectonic construction, we are concerned not with the concrete house, but rather with what Van der Laan designates as the general housing process.[35] Continuing his example of the sandal, he addresses this process as arising from the initial contradiction between man and nature:

Just as the material and form of the sandal are so chosen as to be in harmony with both rough ground and tender feet, the artificially separated space must also be created in accordance with the demands of the natural environment and of our own constitution.

For the foot the surface of the sandal represents a little piece of soft ground, whereas the underside acts as a toughened foot in relation to the ground. In the same way the inside of the house is for man a piece of habitable environment, while on the outside, where it confronts nature, it stands for a fortified human existence (…) With the house it is a matter not just of the contact between our feet and the ground, but of the meeting of our whole being with the total natural environment.[36]

The housing process comprehends the necessary course of action for man to complete natural space by means of labour, and so be able to inhabit his own separated human space. This process in composed by four terms: nature at one extreme, the material extracted and the house built at the middle, and man at the other extreme. Van der Laan distinguishes three phases or functions by which these four terms are linked: 1) the extraction and preparation of the materials provided by nature; 2) the assembling of these through an adequate building technique; 3) the dwelling of the finished house.[37] For Van der Laan this regulation of the ‘metabolism’ between of man and nature is what allows an understanding of the human activity of building as something that can bring about a potential harmony between them, as he sees architecture as the complement of both nature and man.

Hominid using his natural force against that of nature

The role of the active body in this process is first and foremost to oppose his force to that of nature, as he has to use his arms, hands, and special instruments to remove from the earth the materials necessary for building. Hence, the contradiction between man and nature is played out even at the most concrete level of material labour. Marx notices this in his conceptualization of the labour process:

Labour is, in the first place, a process in which both man and Nature participate, and in which man of his own accord starts, regulates, and controls the material re-actions between himself and Nature. He opposes himself to Nature as one of her own forces, setting in motion arms and legs, head and hands, the natural forces of his body, in order to appropriate Nature’s productions in a form adapted to his own wants. By thus acting on the external world and changing it, he at the same time changes his own nature.[38]

From block to pier by diminishing the upper surface and increasing the height

The dialectical interdependence of this process is clear: by transforming nature, man transforms his own nature; by building his own house, he builds himself. Notice how both, Marx and Van der Laan, talk about process rather than things: Marx centres on the labour process –instead of product– as the primary human activity that assures survival, and Van der Laan talks about the housing process –instead of house– to refer to building as the primary activity which allows man to survive in nature. Therefore, there must be something within this material process which is crucial for understanding the nature of all architectonic constructions. This understanding will give us a hint of the importance of human motion in the production of space, and hence, of architecture. Following this path we need first to leave behind the obvious fact that architecture emerged out of the necessity of shelter. Only after doing this, we can begin to reach a deeper understanding of the emergence of architecture as an extension of our own bodily structure and movement. In this, Van der Laan is critical of the attempts to justify architecture on functional requirements, material suitability, or construction methods. He sees these as necessary but ultimately contingent and specific requirements, which do not reach ‘the first fundamentals of the house form’.[39] It is clear that if architecture is narrowly explained in terms of ‘shelter’ we don’t get too far in gaining insight on why man builds, and why he builds in a determinate way and not another.  Consequently, for Van der Laan the contradiction between vertical (natural) and horizontal (experience) space is what gives rise to architecture as a primordial fact:

Architecture is born of this original discrepancy between the two spaces –the horizontally oriented space of our experience and the vertically oriented space of nature; it begins when we add vertical walls to the horizontal surface of the earth.[40]

The wall as the second architectonic datum

In order to change nature into useful form, man has to join two components: matter and labour.[41] Matter as such has no definite form; it is formless, because it is a universal abstraction.[42] Whereas existing and concrete natural matter has no true form for human beings, because it is only a variation on the earth’s surface. For form to exist materials have to be assembled in a definite shape. Van der Laan identifies three primary architectonic datums: the pier, the wall, and the architectonic space.[43] The first comes about when we realize that a block of stone extracted from the earth is not enough to build a separated space. We must pile several blocks in such a way as to reduce its upper surface in relation to its height, thus forming an upright bar-form or ‘bar-shaped pier’. But this pier is still not enough though, hence ‘in order to subdivide space into two parts the bar-form must be broadened into a slab’.[44] This upright slab constitutes the wall, which yet cannot create by itself a limited separate space, for it only can bisect natural space into two major spaces, ‘but to cut off a piece of space from the major space a second wall is needed that relates to the first in such a way that a new space is generated between the two’[45], architectonic space.


[1] In reference to Hegel’s concept of nature, see: Alfred Schmidt, El concepto de naturaleza en Marx (Madrid: Siglo XXI de España, 1977), 38. Translated from Spanish to English for academic purposes by Patricio De Stefani, 2012.

[2] Henri Lefebvre, Introduction to Modernity: Twelve Preludes September 1959–May 1961 (London: Verso, 2011), 138.

[3] Ibid, 136.

[4] Ibid, 134.

[5] We are not speaking here in historical terms, but just highlighting the fact that external nature (the earth) in no way needs the human species to evolve itself, though this could be rightly put into doubt if we confront it with current climate change issues –i.e. historically.

[6] Lefebvre, Introduction to Modernity, 143.

[7] Hans van der Laan, Architectonic Space: Fithteen Lessons on the Disposition of the Human Habitat (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1983), 5.

[8] Ibid, 6.

[9] Ibid, 21.

[10] Ibid, 5.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Juan Borchers, Meta-Arquitectura (Santiago: Mathesis, 1975), 28. Translated from Spanish to English for academic purposes by Patricio De Stefani, 2012.

[13] Jorge de la Cruz, “Alquimia: El Acto y el Número” (Master diss., Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, 2000), 87. Translated from Spanish to English for academic purposes by Patricio De Stefani, 2012.

[14] Lefebvre, Introduction to Modernity, 138.

[15] ‘Organic beings grow by intussusception, the inorganic ones by juxtaposition’. Juan Borchers, Meta-Arquitectura, 29.

[16] Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, trans. Martin Mulligan (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1959), 31, accessed December 10, 2011, http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/Economic-Philosophic-Manuscripts-1844.pdf

[17] See Marx’s critique of Bruno Bauer: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology (Progress Publishers, 1968), 75, accessed December 10, 2011, http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/Marx_The_German_Ideology.pdf

[18] Schmidt, El concepto de naturaleza en Marx,  23.

[19] Ibid, 29.

[20] Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, 47.

[21] Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 1991), 405.

[22] Lefebvre, The Production of Space, 176.

[23] ‘(…) all that a subject perceives becomes his perceptual world and all that he does his effector world. Perceptual and effector worlds together form a close unit, the Umwelt.’ Jakob von Uexküll, “A Stroll Through the Worlds of Animals and Men: A Picture Book of Invisible Worlds”, in Instinctive Behavior: The Development of a Modern Concept, ed. Claire H. Schiller (New York: International Universities Press, Inc., 1957), 6.

[24] Van der Laan, Architectonic Space, 1.

[25] See the concepts of throwness and Being-in-the-world. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 2001), 174.

[26] Schmidt, El concepto de naturaleza en Marx, 26.

[27] Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy (Volume I), trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications Inc., 2011), 50, 205.

[28] Ibid, 82.

[29] See: Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (London: The University of Chicago Press, 1998), 79-167.

[30] ‘The elementary factors of the labour-process are 1, the personal activity of man, i.e., work itself, 2, the subject of that work, and 3, its instruments.’ Karl Marx, Capital, 198.

[31] Ibid, 198-199.

[32] Van der Laan, Architectonic Space, 21.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Lefebvre, The Production of Space, 191.

[35] Van der Laan, Architectonic Space, 2.

[36] Ibid, 1-2.

[37] Van der Laan, Architectonic Space, 2-3.

[38] Karl Marx, Capital, 197-198.

[39] Van der Laan, Architectonic Space, 4.

[40] Van der Laan, Architectonic Space, 5.

[41] Karl Marx, Capital, 50.

[42] ‘Matter as such is a pure creation of thought and an abstraction. We dispense with the qualitative differences of things when we gather them under the concept of matter as corporeally existent.’ Quoted by Schmidt, El concepto de naturaleza en Marx, op cit, 30. Translated from Spanish to English for academic purposes by Patricio De Stefani, 2012.

[43] Van der Laan, Architectonic Space, 9-10.

[44] Ibid, 9.

[45] Ibid, 10.

About patriciodestefani

My main focus is on the role of architecture within capitalist society and the search for a radical alternative practice. https://artificialorder.wordpress.com/
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3 Responses to The Relations to Nature

  1. Pretty interesting. Man in nature, specifically man as influenced by the seasons, has been my field of study for several years now. Good luck on completion of this work.

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