Architect Joel Sanders seeks building designs that integrate with nature

Joel Sanders is among a growing number of architects encouraging the design of buildings that integrate more with the environment

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 March, 2013, 5:20am

Five years ago, New York-based architect Joel Sanders was renovating a Manhattan penthouse when he ran into a problem.

"There was a rooftop garden, and what we needed to figure out was how to connect it to the loft," he says. "We decided to reverse modernist convention. Instead of taking hard materials outside, we brought the outside in."

Like a waterfall of greenery, the roof garden makes its way into the centre of the apartment through a skylit atrium, through which runs a minimalist wood and metal staircase. The green space serves a dual function as a focal point and a barrier, separating the public areas of the apartment from the bedroom. Glass walls in the bathroom look out to lush foliage; bathing inside "is like being in a spa", Sanders says. "We made living with nature part of the lifestyle of the apartment by literally weaving the indoor and outdoor spaces together."

It's a concept that scales up. Last year, Sanders and landscape architect Diana Balmori, both of whom teach at the Yale School of Architecture, published Groundwork: Between Landscape and Architecture, which seeks to eliminate the "false dichotomy between architecture and landscape" - the idea that the built environment is distinct from the natural one. In a public lecture tomorrow, Sanders brings his message to Chinese University's School of Architecture.

"What we need to do now, because of the imperative to face environmental issues today, is to see buildings and landscapes as always being interrelated," says Sanders. "We need to design buildings that are green, sustainable and tied into the environment, but also spatially integrate the indoors and outdoors."

Sanders argues that the divide between buildings and nature is deeply rooted in Western culture.

"Mother Nature became something that had to be protected from the ravages of modern civilisation," Sanders says. That philosophy informed landscape architects like Frederick Law Olmsted, whose meticulously designed green spaces - including New York's Central Park - disguised their traces of human intervention. "There was a kind of guilty conscience that said to design the landscape was to somehow violate it," Sanders says. "Even today, a green building is still seen as a building that somehow leaves nature untouched."

In Groundwork, Sanders and Balmori explore a variety of projects around the world that break down the division between landscape and architecture. They split them into three groups: topographical, which manipulates the ground in order to merge buildings into their surroundings; ecological, which addresses issues such as climate change; and biocomputational, which takes advantage of new technologies to create buildings that are essentially alive and able to adapt to their environment.

"One of the things Groundwork is trying to champion is a new generation of architects who consider not only site geography and topography but climate, rain and wind conditions, so they can make houses not only more efficient but more responsive to their environment," he says.

Sanders is working on a retirement community for gay and lesbian seniors in Palm Springs, California that includes an assisted living facility and private villas, all focused on a landscaped common area and linked together by an enormous lap pool. Residents could, in theory, swim from their living room to the spa and then to a neighbour's house for drinks.

"Nature is the social glue," Sanders says. "We're trying to use landscaping devices to bring people together, but also make natural boundaries that give people privacy without resorting to fences or walls. It's different from the strong tendency in Western typology to build something as an isolated object that has a kind of envelope around it that makes a sharp differentiation between inside and outside space."

It's a particularly relevant message for Hong Kong, where the differentiation between nature and city is sharp. Even though Hong Kong is mostly lush forests and scrubland, most inhabitants live in shoebox apartments with only small windows to connect them to the outdoors. Historically, though, living spaces in Asia were far more integrated with nature, even in densely populated cities.

"A while back we took a class of students from Yale and went to Suzhou, which blew our minds," Sanders says. "I can't think of any better example of this integration of indoor/outdoor space than the courtyard homes there. My sense is that the human-nature dichotomy doesn't exist to such a great extent in Asia, and some of the greatest paradigms of nature and buildings that work really well together are there, like Chinese and Japanese gardens."

Today, no place has adopted the high-rise housing block with as much enthusiasm as cities like Hong Kong and Seoul, but Sanders sees potential in Asia's fast pace of development. He is eager to explore Hong Kong. "I've heard my whole life that Hong Kong is one of the most spectacularly situated cities in the world, this very dense space that has a radical relationship to its topography. I'm excited to see it."


Joel Sanders will speak at CUHK's School of Architecture at 6.30pm on Thursday, March 14. Visit