|Amelia Jones

Nature’s Blueprint: Tracing the Roots of Biophilic Design

nature’s blueprint: tracing the roots of biophilic design

Close your eyes and think of a place that makes you feel relaxed.

Were you at the beach? A mountain top? A meadow? A garden?

When asked this question, the majority of people imagine themselves in a natural setting. The human inclination to engage with the natural environment is the basis of biophilic design. While researchers over the past few centuries have proposed different theories as to why we are drawn to incorporate natural elements into our homes and cities, today’s designers look to practical ways of how we can implement biophilic design to improve the well-being of people and create a more hopeful climate future.

Biophilic design is an approach to architecture, urban planning, or interior design that intends to connect people more closely with nature. The word comes from the Latin “bio,” meaning “life/living,” and “philia,” meaning “love/affinity.” Biophilic design takes many forms, as it can be uniquely interpreted by designers around the world; features may include direct experiences of nature for occupants, such as integration of plant life inside or outside of buildings, the allusive use of water features, and an emphasis on natural light. Other elements may be indirect experiences of nature - the feeling of natural wood underneath your feet, your eye following organic architectural forms with no straight lines or corners, or a color palette found in nature to fill your space with greens, blues, and earth tones.

While the benefits of biophilic design are significant and continually studied, this article will take you back in time to explore the origins of the field. To understand how designers can innovate going forward, and even what it means to incorporate biophilic design into our own spaces, it's essential to grasp the foundational reasons for its existence. Step back in time with us to uncover the origins of biophilic design - it's far more intriguing than any history lesson you've ever had.

Ancient History: Nature as Muse

Cultures across the world have historically built in ways that serve as early inspiration for today's biophilic designers, incorporating elements like courtyards and gardens, water features, alignment with natural phenomena, and open-air structures in their homes and public spaces. Some of these include:

  • Japan: Traditional tea houses and Zen gardens seamlessly blend indoor and outdoor spaces, encouraging guests to contemplate and appreciate the gifts of the natural environment. While there are endless examples of this style, temples like Tenryu-ji and Kinkaku-ji in Kyoto stand out for their integration of natural elements, beautiful water features, and strategic use of natural light.
  • Egypt: The use of water elements, expansive courtyards, and intricate animal motifs into architectural designs fostered a strong connection to the natural world in Ancient Egypt. The Fayum Oasis Settlements represent a nature-centered approach to urban planning (it is an oasis, after all) through their innovative use of irrigation, green landscapes, and depictions of local wildlife, which collectively demonstrate a harmony between human habitation and nature.
  • Mesoamerica: The Maya and Aztecs often aligned their structures with celestial bodies, highlighting the connection between architecture and the natural world. One incredible example is the ancient city of Teotihuacan, which includes a series of pyramids that match perfectly with Orion’s Belt, that exhibits precise astronomical alignments and intricate architectural planning.
  • Ancient Persia: Several countries in the region, including Iran and Egypt, claim to have invented the windcatcher, a sophisticated tower-like structure designed to harness the wind and naturally cool buildings. The earliest windcatcher dates back to 4000 B.C., illustrating humanity's long-standing connection with nature. Furthermore, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon (today in southern Iraq) are one of the Seven Wonders of the World, with terraced gardens built into the walls of the royal palace of Babylon to imitate a natural mountain landscape.

1850s - 1950s: The Beginnings of "Biophilia"

During this period of time, scientists, philosophers, and designers revisit biophilic principles due to the growing awareness that humans are healthier and happier with access to the natural environment.

  • 1850s: Florence Nightingale develops multiple theories published in her work Notes on Nursing: What it is, and What it is Not (1959). One of these is her “environmental theory”, in which she encourages using natural elements in our living spaces to promote physical and emotional well-being, as “nature alone cures.”
  • 1873: After his exploration of more-than-human relationships with nature in his 1964 book The Heart of Man, Erich Fromm coins the term “biophilia” as “the passionate love of life and of all that is alive; it is the wish to further growth, whether in a person, a plant, an idea, or a social group” in his book The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness. Fromm’s work helped to lay the foundational understanding of humanity's intrinsic connection to nature, influencing later theories and practices in environmental psychology, biophilic design, and ecological conservation.
  • 1870s - 1900s: Frederick Law Olmsted rises to prominence designing parks throughout New York City (Central Park (1876), Prospect Park (1873), and Morningside Park (1895) to name a few) and across the US, promoting the idea that natural spaces are essential for public health and well-being.
  • 1930s - 1950s: Through his philosophy of organic shapes and harmony with nature, Frank Lloyd Wright ushers in a new wave of biophilic design to American architecture. His designs put natural elements at the forefront and integrated human habitation seamlessly into the surrounding environment, seen in works such as Fallingwater (1939) and Samara House (1956).

 1950s - 2000: A Rise in Environmental Awareness

  • 1969: Ian McHarg, a leading landscape architect and planner, publishes his influential book Design with Nature. In his work, McHarg emphasized the integration of ecological principles when designing, representing a push towards sustainable and environmentally conscious building.
  • 1970: In the second half of the 20th century, people across the country were growing increasingly aware of how human health and environmental health were tightly interconnected. Over 20 million Americans celebrated the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was established in December of that year. The environmental movement of this decade raised awareness about the importance of nature and our responsibility to it, influencing the development and acceptance of biophilic concepts.
  • 1984: E.O. Wilson writes Biophilia, popularizing the term and proposing his own definition of biophilia as “our innate tendency to focus upon life and life-like forms and, in some instances, to affiliate with them emotionally.” Through his work as a biologist, his ideas provided a scientific basis for understanding the psychological and health benefits of connecting with nature.

21st Century: Biophilia Becomes Practical

As the evidence and understanding of anthropogenic climate change continues to develop, researchers in climate activism, architecture, and urban planning alike have looked to biophilic design as a way to rethink our relationship to the planet and to design a better future.

  • 2008: Stephen Kellert and Judith Heerwagen establish biophilic design as a formal discipline in their book Biophilic Design: The Theory, Science, and Practice of Bringing Buildings to Life. As a social ecologist and environmental psychologist, Kellert and Heerwargen took concepts of biophilia from past authors and translated them into practical design principles that could be more easily applied.
  • 2000 - present: In the past 25 years, many renowned architects and designers have founded practices where biophilic design is a fundamental pillar of their work. Some of the leaders in biophilic design today include Kongjian Yu, Zaha Hadid, Eduardo “Roth” Neira, Stefano Boeri, and Bill Browning.

In future articles on biophilic design, we’ll take a look at how the concept has been explored and praised by interior designers, and we’ll also do a deeper dive into the benefits of biophilic design for humans and the environment - stay tuned ;)