Mourning the Biosphere
The sad reality of plant worship
Today more than ever, there is a strong dose of fantasy in the British dream of home ownership. The ideal house is no longer a comfortable dwelling and a way of accruing capital; it is a sandbox to be customised so that it reflects a personal vision of domesticity. This is nicely illustrated by the winner of the Royal Institute of British Architects’ house of the year award, announced last week. What began as a detached house in a Tottenham alleyway has been transformed into an airy interior courtyard, inspired by a traditional Moroccan riad.
The most striking feature of this enchanted space is what RIBA calls its “biophilic design,” meaning that it is teeming with plants. The front of the building is buried behind a lush screen of bamboo leaves, while the living room is a “domestic greenhouse” looking onto a no less verdant garden.
The biophilic environment is part of the zeitgeist today. It is not new of course; Le Corbusier introduced the roof garden to the repertoire of Modernism back in the 1920s, while the glass-walled conservatory with its pot plants, radio and reading chair has long been a domestic institution in Britain. But in recent years it has become fashionable to douse spaces in so much greenery that they begin to resemble garden centres.
Since around 2017, a whole genre of magazine articles has emerged to puzzle over the millennial “obsession” with houseplants. They cite testimony from fanatical young plant-lovers, and report on Instagram subcultures where every apartment has become a jungle of Monstera Deliciosa and Dracaena Trifasciata. Meanwhile no digital rendering of a new housing estate or office building is complete without at least a token smattering of trees. At Google’s new HQ in London, 40,000 tonnes of soil have been carted up to the roof to lay a garden along its entire 300-metre span.
Then there are the urban greening schemes. Manhattan got its High Line park a decade ago, and London tried to go one better with proposals for a dramatic Garden Bridge across the Thames (predictably scuppered by runaway costs and planning issues). In Paris, mayor Anne Hidalgo plans to turn the Champs-Élysées into “an extraordinary garden,” while Saudi Arabia’s imagined cities of the future show forests growing in the desert.
On its face, this looks like a straightforwardly positive trend, and not an especially mysterious one. The sublime beauty of the plant kingdom – the beauty of stem and leaf, fruit and flower, root and tendril – is one of the few aesthetic facts that does not need to be relativised. It sings out from artistic and ornamental traditions around the world. A garden is a profoundly human space because nothing so poetically captures the astonishing fact which alone underwrites our existence: that there are things which live and blossom. As for modern life, the company of such things is probably the simplest way to ease the burden of alienation from nature. There is plenty of evidence that plants make us happier and healthier in various ways, but then few people need to be told this before appreciating their presence.
And yet, there is also an undercurrent of sadness here. Like many things which have ended up under the dubious headings of “wellness” and “self-care,” plants are not just a tonic for 21st century life; they are a symbol of its painful shortcomings and a distraction from its consequences. Accounts of the plant craze among twenty- and thirty-somethings always come back to the same set of explanations, often given by the biophiles themselves. Plants soften the impersonal feeling of rented apartments; they provide an outlet for nurturing instincts at a time when family formation feels impossible; tending to them is a way of escaping the frantic, ephemeral experience of digitised life; and above all, for people who are always moving around and working long hours, a pet that lives in a pot doesn’t require a significant commitment, and can ultimately be abandoned.
In other words, the houseplant belongs to that increasingly common pattern of existence where good things take the form, not of simple pleasures, but of consolation for deeper deficiencies. My own experience is a tragicomic variation of the same theme. I would probably trade one of my kidneys for a garden, but in lieu of that, I’ve been amassing a small collection of botanical encyclopaedias. I lovingly study the illustrations, try to remember the names of the species (Latin and colloquial), and sometimes look up the histories of their discovery and cultivation. Yet I’ve moved house so many times in recent years that, at some point, I lost the habit of actually owning plants.
Something similar can be seen at the level of buildings and cities, where the appeal of urban oases and hydroponic facades must stem in part from collective feelings of guilt and regret. Even as our economic activities turn the planet into a vast toxic dump, we long to make our cities into shrines for worshipping the biosphere, or perhaps mourning would be a better term. Of course urban greenery can represent something less sincere, namely, a convenient fiction adopted by a highly destructive building industry. Still, it is a fiction we eagerly accept.
Plants cleanse our air and minds, but no less important, they allow us to stage the fantasy of a reconciliation with nature. That is a role they are increasingly called to perform in public spaces as well as in award-winning London houses.
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