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Designing a gateway to nature

Designing a gateway to nature

9 September 2014 Written by By Mattias Lind Partner and Architect at White Arkitekter

Can architecture provide an impetus for getting urban dwellers back to nature? White Arkitekter's Mattias Lind, one of the speakers at our upcoming Active by Design summit, discusses just how architecture can get people moving.  

Spending time in nature benefits our health, as proven by the expanding research field on the impact of the physical environment on mental health and well-being. Forests and woodlands are now being promoted as ‘nature’s healthcare service’. However, in today’s urbanised world, few of us have a natural connection to nature.

Even in Sweden, which boasts great natural treasures including 29 national parks and some of the last remaining wilderness areas in Europe, dwindling visitor numbers reveal that much of the population have never experienced this incredible resource. It’s time to tackle this issue in a new and original way. You need to inspire people to return to nature, and we think architecture is one way to do it.

Our ambition was to design a grand symbolic gesture welcoming people into the untouched wilderness.

In 1973, the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency introduced the concept of Naturum - visitor centres with the purpose of stimulating public interest in, and providing access to, the natural environment. But the visitor centres had limited success, often as a result of the Naturum buildings themselves - abandoned barn buildings with damp leaflets and plain information boards.

Back in 2001 when White was first commissioned to design a new Naturum, we knew immediately that we didn't just want to create a visitor centre, we wanted to create a destination. Our ambition was to design a grand symbolic gesture welcoming people into the untouched wilderness. The architectural frame would open up and fully exhibit the natural landscape. Our approach was that the Naturum should trigger a strong desire in every visitor to further explore the natural environment.

The starting point is not the building itself, but its purpose as a gateway to nature. That is not to say the design of the building is secondary, rather the contrary. The architecture needs to embed itself in the place and serve as a crescendo of the experience.  By placing, forming or materializing the building sympathetically in the landscape, we can bring in, and point out, the uniqueness of the surrounding nature. When we achieve that we will have achieved something far greater - a way to inspire people to return to nature, which ultimately means incorporating a little more activity in their lives.  

In some of our Naturum, the architectural references to the natural location are strongly manifested, whereas in others, they are abstracted. At the marine national park in Kosterhavet, the special qualities are mostly found underwater. The Naturum is placed right by the water’s edge. The folded roof and the geometric structure of the building resemble a large stylized wave, an abstract physical transformation of the natural park’s topography. Inside, the shape of the ceiling gives visitors a sense of being beneath the water’s  surface.

What really matters is making an architectural response to nature  by creating an intimate marriage between building and landscape. The result is a building which demonstrates the designer’s deep understanding of and sensitivity to nature and place. We believe that our commission is with nature and guided by an unspoken agreement - to take the humble approach of creating, but not changing, of enjoying, but not consuming, of being present, but not exploiting. If visitors embrace this, they too will be prepared to care for and protect nature.

The Naturum buildings provide the impetus for people to get back to nature and to have inspired such activity is incredibly rewarding.

Today the Naturum centres attract over 1,5 million visitors each year. By making nature an attractive destination – through a symbiosis of natural values, architecture and exhibition – we have incited people to experience, explore and enjoy nature, thereby promoting their physical and mental wellbeing. The Naturum buildings provide the impetus for people to get back to nature and to have inspired such activity is incredibly rewarding.

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