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Striking a Balance between Nature and Culture

Dorte Mandrup A/S

Striking a Balance between Nature and Culture
By Dorte Mandrup -

From Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater in the forest landscape of Bear Run to Peter Zumthor’s Allmannajuvet Zinc Mine Museum in the rugged terrain along the Norwegian County Road, architecture built within natural environments embodies both an ideal of a connectedness between culture and nature as well as a juxtaposition between human intervention and nature preservation. The discussion on the relationship between nature and culture is a constant ideological battleground of conservatism, dystopia and hope. Right now, we are in the middle of an ecological crisis and constantly faced with the consequences of our own interference in the natural environment – a new geological era often referred to as the Anthropocene, defined by the significant human impact on the Earth’s ecosystems. Every year, millions of humans and non-humans are forced to find new habitable places because of increasingly extreme climate conditions and weather phenomena. How does this radically changing context inform our relation to nature? Do we dwell in a belief that nature per definition is being spoiled by human presence and needs to be left alone? Or do we consider a balance – a state of synergy between culture and nature?

Museo della Miniera di Zinco Allmannajuvet lungo una strada provinciale norvegese a Sauda, Atelier Peter Zumthor & Partner, 2016 © Roger Ellingsen, courtesy Statens Vegvesen

Sometime ago, I read an interview with French artist Pierre Huyghe done prior to the opening of his exhibition Offspring at Kunsten Museum of Modern Art in Aalborg, Denmark. He spoke about a current state of perpetual crisis and the need to get to know the world in a completely new way, giving heed to vulnerability and challenging our fear of the unknown. He said: “I dream of neither a romantic nor a raw state of nature. The world is no longer ‘pure’ in the biological sense. We have polluted it and filled it with all things and systems that our troubled, anxious and separated minds have enabled us to create and depend on (…) It is the automatic and unconscious reactivity that is destructive because it is impulsive and blind. It prevents us from discovering how we can be here in a more present, responsive and gentle way”.1 Within the Anthropocene it is exactly this vulnerability and need to point in a direction of increased connectedness that seems important. I can feel emotionally captivated by nature, overwhelmed and sometimes even insignificant to it. But I never feel detached from it. To me, the natural is no longer secluded from human endeavors. We cannot simply step out of nature. Instead of asking if nature and culture can exist together, maybe we should rather ask how they can interact with each other in a meaningful and less harmful way.

Within the last eight years, we have designed building for four sites deemed Unesco World Heritage for their extraordinary natural beauty and value. With each project, the questions of striking a balance between the natural and the constructed became ever more pressing. Is it better not to interfere? Or can architecture bring about a new relevance and awareness? In his essay “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature” American historian William Cronon writes: “If we allow ourselves to believe nature, to be true, must also be wild, then our very presence in nature represents its fall. The place where we are is the place where nature is not”.2 This conveys a strange predicament. If we perceive nature and culture to be entirely disconnected and humans to be nature’s demise, then nature cannot endure if humankind survives. And without any major catastrophe this is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future. Humankind will remain a major geological force for many thousand years and as Cronon points out, placing humanity and nature at polar opposites leaves “little hope of discovering what an ethical, sustainable, honorable human place in nature might actually look like”. To get to know the world in a new and more responsible way, might exactly mean that we need to rescind the ubiquitous separation between nature and culture. And if done in a sensible and informed way, I believe that architecture can play a significant role in creating a new paradigm for how we live and interact with our surroundings.

Passeggiata nella nebbia sulla copertura del Kangiata Illorsua – Ilulissat Icefjord Centre. L’edificio si trova lungo uno dei percorsi escursionistici tra il paese di Ilulissat e il fiordo Ilulissat Icefjord, patrimonio Unesco © Adam Mørk courtesy Dorte Mandrup

Humans have transformed and interfered with the world for millennia and it is now difficult to imagine a place completely untouched by our influence. The pristine no longer exists in the true sense of the word and there are only a few places on Earth where nature still feels greater and more powerful than us. One such place is the Greenlandic wilderness. With average temperatures of -7 to -19 °C except for the short summers and windspeeds of 19 to 29 kph conditions are truly extreme. Almost 80% of the country is covered in ice, expanding over 1.7 million sq. km. The distances are immense, and it is impossible to measure any human scale. However, these harsh conditions are the foundation of the existence of both humans and nature. Around 2500 BC, the Saqqaq people migrated eastwards across Canada and established the settlement of Sermermiut in southern Greenland. Since then, humans have tailored a culture to live in close interaction with the ice. Today, Greenland’s 56,500 inhabitants occupy only around
20% of the country. They live along the coast with the land and the sea as their livelihood – hunting, fishing, gathering. Despite leaving only a small footprint themselves, they are severely affected by the consequences of climate change. With temperatures rising and the icesheet melting the majority of the Greenlandic people are in severe risk of losing their source of existence.

In Greenland we are confronted with both our own mortality and our superiority to the non-human world. Despite the powerful character of nature, it is extremely vulnerable. Small disturbances can have monumental effects. On the west coast of Greenland near the town of Ilulissat, the world’s most active glacier – Sermeq Kujalleq – carves more than 46 km3 of ice every year into the Ilulissat Icefjord and for the last 20 years the speed has accelerated exponentially, causing the glacier to retract. For 250 years, scientists have studied the ancient glacier to help develop our understanding of icecap glaciology and climate change, and in 2004 the Ilulissat Icefjord was deemed Unesco World Heritage. With this status came an obligation to tell the story of its unique natural heritage, to communicate the importance of ice and the consequences of climate change. This is the purpose of Kangiata Illorsua – Ilulissat Icefjord Centre. Opened in 2021, the building sits lightly in the landscape, on the edge of the Icefjord as a gateway between civilization and wilderness. Designing a building in the arctic requires both extreme sensitivity and profound knowledge. You need to understand the extreme cold, wind, snow, ice, and the historic significance of the place both geologically and anthropologically. We wanted to create a shelter and a starting point for experiencing the Icefjord, but most importantly, we wanted to make a habitable place for social interaction and knowledge sharing – to create a possibility to gain a new perspective on the Greenlandic culture, nature, and climate change; a place where the local community is invited to be part of the solution.

Lo studio Dorte Mandrup durante una passeggiata nella palude del Mare di Wadden © Dorte Mandrup courtesy Dorte Mandrup

The Ilulissat Icefjord Centre is designed to cultivate awareness and understanding. However, for some it also seems to highlight the inherent tension between culture and nature and question our right to intervene. We were recently asked by an international architecture magazine how we can justify designing a building in Ilulissat with the argument that we should not design anything which encourages people to travel to Greenland if we are to solve the immense challenges of the climate crisis and recover the ice sheet from further harm. Though I understand the dilemma this question entails, I am puzzled by how unnuanced it is. To me, it creates more questions than answers. Do we completely remove the possibility of visiting Greenland or any other place outside densely populated areas where we find the last bit of “true wilderness”? Do we restrict the people who live in these parts of the world from leaving? Do we prohibit them from developing and building their communities? This notion that some places need to be left undisturbed seems to me a Eurocentric ideal often voiced by those who leave the greatest imprint on our planet. It is a romantic belief that nature endures as long as we do not interfere in it. That we can somehow protect natural heritage by isolating it. At its worst, this mindset has led to stripping the people who live there of their ancient homes, all in the name of nature protection – though this might actually result in more environmental damage.

The consequences of climate change are not limited to local conditions. They transcend borders. Nature is connected and cannot locally escape the changes happening on a global scale. For that very reason, we cannot simply isolate certain places in an attempt to protect them. There are less than 5,000 people living in Ilulissat and they are pivotal to the natural preservation precisely because they are dependent on it. We are not going to stop the ice from melting and the sea from rising by simply not entering Greenland if we do not change our ways at home – nor of course by building a cultural center. However, we can contribute to a positive development and create the necessary awareness and understanding both globally and locally to encourage change. The Arctic has become a symbol of climate change. It is here in the icy terrain, that world leaders go to encounter the devastating consequences of global warming unfolding before their eyes. Experiencing the impact first hand can have an important effect on environmental knowledge, respect and action – creating momentum for change. With Ilulissat Icefjord Centre, we offer a vantage point for understanding both culture and nature while shaping a collective meeting place for the local community and a platform for research and education.

Le terre umide giallo-marroni del Mare di Wadden, Danimarca, habitat vitale per 15 milioni di uccelli migratori © Wadden Sea Centre courtesy Dorte Mandrup

Let me make it clear, I am not against protecting and preserving our natural heritage. Quite the contrary. What I question is, if the pervasive separation of nature and culture prohibit us from truly generating change; if the disconnection makes it difficult to imaging a hopeful future. Would there instead be a way to balance preservation with conscientious interaction? Not only in secluded parts of the world like the Arctic, but in our own backyard as well. In my native country Denmark, preserved nature is extremely scarce due to urbanization, cultivation and population density. Our biggest national park is the Unesco-protected Wadden Sea area on the west coast which is part of the largest coherent intertidal sand and mudflat system in the world, extending along the coast of Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands. This unique landscape is neither entirely natural, nor entirely constructed. Shaped 12,000 years ago at the end of the last ice age, it is a constantly changing ecosystem which holds a rich faunal diversity and is considered one of the most important feeding grounds for migrating birds. On a global scale, biodiversity is highly reliant on the Wadden Sea. The landscape is characterized by the tides coming and going, endless horizontal lines and a relentless western wind. Against all odds, humans have settled near the coast since the Neolithic period around 5,900-5,700 years ago and over time built dikes to protect their homes from storm surge and flooding, and drained large areas to turn them into fertile rural terrain. The landscape holds a unique history that has evolved through a tangling of human and geophysical impact – a cultural landscape, characterized both by its rich cultural history and extraordinary natural environment. It highlights just how complex, demanding and valuable the connection between humans and nature is; and even how difficult it is to separate.

Like the Ilulissat Icefjord Centre in Greenland, the Wadden Sea Centre was designed as a destination in the landscape to create awareness and knowledge about the marshland’s history, nature and culture. The building emerges out of the flat, yellow-brown marshland and is in form and materiality an interpretation of the place and its vernacular building culture. The reeds covering the roof and façades are harvested in the nearby fjords and by responsibly maintaining the reed forest – cutting and removing some – the building almost enters a cycle with nature. Since opening in 2017, the visitor center has contributed to a sustainable development of this peripheral rural area on Denmark’s west coast, creating new jobs and opportunities for the local community. It has been a catalyst for heightened appreciation of our collective natural heritage and the experience of the relationship between humans and nature. Today, the Wadden Sea Centre sets a high standard for the development of sustainable tourism across the entire European Wadden Sea coast – working towards a balance between preservation and interaction.

La facciata e la copertura del Wadden Sea Centre sono rivestite da canne provenienti dai fiordi vicini © Adam Mørk courtesy Dorte Mandrup

When we create architecture in natural environments it is often tied to a desire to form a connection between humans and nature. In the landscapes of the Wadden Sea and Ilulissat this is especially a question of how to bring a new relevance to the already spectacular typology, to understand the balance between culture and nature, past and present and find other ways to relate to nature, to enhance while protect. If we do not see humanity as part of nature and only consider it from a distance, it might be difficult to value it, learn from it, and develop in harmony with it. In his influential work Beyond Nature and Culture,3 French anthropologist Philippe Descola notes that the dualism between nature and culture is both a very recent phenomenon and mostly derives from a Western understanding of the world with a natural environment on the one side and a human society on the other. This conceptualization might also be what drives us to consider some nature more pristine than other. Because what is nature? Is it only the untamed and wild? Or is it also the dike and the garden? Is being huddled together in cities actually prohibiting us from finding a way to live and act responsible? Are we too far removed from what we perceive as nature to truly understand it? Instead of imagining nature as “out there”, separated from culture, the borders might need to be blurred, so that we experience even in the density of our cities how inextricably tied together we are. Now, after reading all this, you might be patiently waiting for my response. But rather than finding an answer, I want to open and encourage a debate about our perception of nature across the industry – one that might lead to a new understanding which is neither romantic, fanatical, nor dystopian. I feel like there is something that no longer connects – a dilemma that needs to be addressed. With the pervasive polarity between nature and culture, it seems immensely difficult to find a new path – one where we can be part of the world without further harming it and maybe even nurture and restore its systems.


1 Trine Rytter Andersen, interview with Pierre Huyghe

2 William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature”, in William Cronon, ed., Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1995)

3 Philippe Descola, Beyond Nature and Culture (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2014)



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