The symbiotic relationship between architecture, art and nature is one that stretches back for millennia. From the Egyptians mapping the location of the pyramids using the stars, to the mysteries of Stonehenge, humans have constantly been challenged and inspired by the natural world. Radical Nature: Art and Architecture for a Changing Planet 1969-2009 is a new exhibition at London’s Barbican Centre that tells the story of the relationship between architecture, art and the environment from 1960 to the present day.
The past 40 years have seen problems of environmental degradation and climate change rise to become some of the most pressing issues facing mankind. By drawing on the concepts that have emerged from environmentalism, Radical Nature shows how this has been reflected in increasingly urgent artistic responses.
The variety of mediums used by 25 artists spanning generations conspire to turn the gallery space into a fantastical landscape that challenges as it inspires. Works by 2005 Turner-Prize-winner Simon Starling will be shown alongside Full Farm (1972), by Newton Harrison and Heather Mayer Harrison, where fruit and vegetables grow in an indoor farm.
How humans engage with the environment is a concept that remains constant throughout, but the diversity of approaches to the subject matter is staggering. Richard Buckminster Fuller’s visionary 1960s concept of ‘Spaceship Earth’ took physical shape in his iconic geodesic dome – a sphere able to sustain its own weight at any size, a version of which will be created inside the gallery. Buckminster Fuller’s work shares the space with pieces that it has directly inspired. One such piece is Tomás Saraceno’s Flying Garden (2006), a suspended bubble-shaped habitat on which
Tillandsia plants are able to grow, receiving all the nutrients they need from the air.
Other artists explore the direct confrontation between the manmade and the natural world. Henrik Håkansson displaces nature and brings the outside in with Fallen Forest (2006), where a section of forest has been flipped on its side to grow horizontally.
It contrasts with Agnes Denes’ Wheatfield – A Confrontation (1982), which took nature to the heart of Manhattan by planting two acres of wheat in Battery Park landfill site.
The exhibition also features artists that use nature as an artistic material. One of the most prominent exponents of this is landartist Robert Smithson. His extraordinary creation Spiral Jetty (1970), a 457m spiral path jutting into the Great Salt Lake in Utah, will be brought to life in the film of the same name. The film tells the piece’s fascinating story from conception to construction, and of how the piece became submerged from view for almost three decades as water levels rose.
Mirroring the ideas shown in much of the art, the exhibition itself spills out from the Barbican and into the streets, where experimental architecture collective EXYZT will create a specially commissioned off-site piece. From the 15 July to 6 August they will turn a disused site into an urban summer oasis, complete with windmill.
A series of events will run alongside the exhibition, with talks from eco-artists Newton Harrison and Helen Mayer Harrison and guerrilla gardener Richard Reynolds
Will Bugler is a freelance journalist
Radical Nature: Art and Architecture for a Changing Planet 1969 -2009 will run 19 June -18 October at the Barbican Art Gallery, London. Entry £8, concessions £6. 0845 120 7550; www.barbican.org.uk/artgallery