Hide and Seek
A system is fragile when the impact of unforeseen risk can bring it to collapse. Managing risk becomes harder when we ignore what we don’t know that we don’t know. Othering justifies ethically our ignorance of unknown unknowns. Applied to Nature, othering leaves us exposed to the ignorance of structural, non-linear interdependencies that hold together the biosphere. To avoid the othering of Nature we call for an awaking of biophilia, triggered by deep, mindful exposure to natural environments. We designed a mass customisable, off-grid construction system called HideandSeek that can be placed in any local natural ecosystem and managed as a piece of rural commons infrastructure.
Yes / No and Maybe
Yes means Yes and No means No.
However, when we cannot be 100% sure about something, we can adopt various degrees of certainty or uncertainty. From “absolute no” we may slide towards “impossible” or “improbable”. These shades of uncertain are mirrored by the reverse progression of “possible”, “probable”, “positive”, “certain”. It might all sound obvious but we must not forget that mixing up these degrees of uncertainty can have catastrophic effects. Assessing uncertainty is the flipped side of the coin of managing risk.
What about Impossible and Improbable?
Easy enough not to mix up Yes with No but how clear is the difference between impossible and improbable? The impossible cannot happen. The improbable, albeit infrequently, can still happen. If overlooked, this subtle difference can be a source of great peril. When an event is very unlikely, when its probability is close to zero, it is quite possible to slide into a dangerously lazy habit of approximating a very remote chance with the absence of chance. We mistake the improbable as impossible every time we, more or less consciously, we decide to ignore the minor details, the small print of reality and the theoretical possibilities without due care and lasting memory of our simplification.
Why would we mix up impossible and improbable?
If simplifying exposes us to higher risk, why on Earth would we do that? The simple and shocking reality is that because that’s human nature. We are bound to miss out details all the time. Simplifying things is intrinsic to the way our brains stores memories. It is easier to remember a story, based on a clear simple plot and few well described events, than to remember a long collection of isolated data. A story, or any other narrative construct, doesn’t need all the infinitely minute details to make sense. We just need as little information as possible to get some meaning out of it. We don’t need to know the size of little red riding hood boots, whether she is lactose intolerant or whether she is any good at Maths to make sense of her tragic encounter with the wolf. All we want to learn and teach to our little one through the story is to be wary of very hairy grandmothers with long teeth. The simplification of raw data into meaningful narratives is intrinsic to human culture. Knowledge is the controlled loss of raw information. Our brains needs narratives, linearity and determinism for logic to function. Before digital computing humans made little progress in understanding how complexity and randomness work. We need to ignore the details because it saves us brain power. It made evolutionary sense, when our ancestors crossed a thick forest, for their emotions to cling on the simple narrative of a saber toothed cat hiding in the bush. All brain computing capacity was dedicated to spotting potential clues of a predator and leg it. Narrative simplicity and quick cause-effect logics triggered our survival instinct and helped our great great grandparents to stay alive. So simplifying is OK. What is not OK is to simplify the complexity of reality without acknowledging our actions. We need a simple model of reality to make sense of it. This doesn’t mean that reality is any less complex. If we simplify our narratives and models without care our ideas, understanding and projections will be undermined by a blissful ignorance of extreme rare events. If we think that improbable events are basically impossible, our risk assessment might prove grossly underestimated.
If fragile, handle with care
Simplification needs to be handled with care. If a rare event, or an unforeseen relationship between various events, no matter how small, undermines the structural stability of the system, the system can collapse following an exponential domino-effect quake. Up to last November we collectively believed that the probability of a bat-soup shattering the world economy was so improbable that it was treated practically as impossible.
We saw earlier that the problem is that humans need narratives to make sense of the world and the systems we build are based on our narratives. Within our narratives we deliberately include or exclude elements and we attach meaning to a wider or narrower sample of reality. The definition of ourselves, our culture and our interests depends on what we include in or exclude from within our domain of cognisance. Over millennia we have been drawing invisible lines in the sand and described ourselves, our identities, our beliefs and our agency by the virtue of being different from others. Where I stop, the other begins. If we couple our tendency to simplify reality with the lessened interest towards the other compared to the self, we end up with a cocktail of often ignored and soon forgotten potentially dangerous events.
The idea that human intellect alone can implement a reliable control over nature and ensure best outcome sits at the core of Modernity. It comes along with linear thinking, technological specialisation and the dumping of negative externalities on “other” systems. In the pursuit of anthropocentric self-reinforcing narratives we have become very good at focusing on what we are already good at and extremely ignorant about what we don’t know that we don’t know.
…And Modernity crumbles
Modernity has meant huge steps forward for human science and technology and has pushed us a long way along the evolutionary path. Linearity and top down determinism enabled us to translate theories into practice, unlocking scientific and technological development. With increased understanding of complexity and non-linearity, the trust in linearity is beginning to shake. Well before COVID19 squashed our confidence in the resilience of human systems, Climate Change was already demonstrating how dangerous ignoring the unknown unknowns can be. What’s most troublesome is that the relationships holding together the biosphere are extremely complex and all encompassing. The more we simplify our narratives and models, the more fragile our system becomes. Modernity is rooted in specialisation and linearity. It deliberately focuses on certain problems missing out others. Such approach can only work as long as separate systems stay separate. But as soon as feedback loops back fire, systems begin to shake.
The question then becomes, can we change? and, if yes, how should we change? Are we stuck with Modernity? Of course we can change and we need to change. The only certainty in evolution is change. We need to find somehow the way to virtually go back in time and tie-back all the loose ends left behind by the silos-mentality of Modern linearity. In other words, if the lack of resilience, bred with simplification, made our systems fragile, how can human systems become anti-fragile? The good news is that around the edges of the western patriarchal postcolonial capitalist belief system of Modernity, alternative wisdom survived.
For one, traditional knowledge, the traces our pre-Modern culture, is inherently anti-fragile. The reason why our grandmothers know best is because their simple and powerful wisdom comes from generations and generations of persistence through time. A good old piece of advice will survive through generations because it has survived until today. The longer it survives, the longer it will survive. In its generic prescript, a good old piece of knowledge embraces – and is embedded with – a vast variety of applications. This is the opposite of a highly specialised recommendation, which may be proven incorrect by a small change in its contextual assumptions. Like traditional knowledge also pre-modern architecture has built-in resilience. Well before the wonders of applied physics gave birth to the efficiencies of ultra light frame buildings, traditional architecture was built to last and to endure unspecified risk. A overly static structure – embedded with several degrees of stability beyond its minimum requirements – meant increasing the resilience against unknown unknowns, such as an exceptionally harsh weather or an earthquake. Similarly to grandma’s advice and traditional architecture also rural lifestyle is anti-fragile. Preserving food together for the winter, sharing time and resources among the community, keeping traditions alive are all examples of resilience building within the fabric of rural society. Exposed to the harsh reality of living with the cycles of nature, rural communities learnt to collaborate and increase their instinctive risk management. Perhaps the most effective and refined example of non-fragile systems is Nature itself, particularly when represented as large, ancient and balanced ecosystems… like forests. In a native forest energy efficiency is maximised, waste is non-existent and all forms of life keep each other in balance. Within acceptable climatic variability the system self-regenerates autonomously.
Copying from nature
To build resilience back into our systems, a simple way forward would seem to be an evolution of Modernity based on the emulation of nature. But how to learn? If we look at how the young of any animal species learn, the answer would seem quite obvious: just watch and copy. Children, puppies, kittens and the rest of the animal kingdom just emulate the behaviours they wish to master. Despite significant exposure, most humans don’t seem to be awfully interested in nature. Until recently, we just have been pursuing our mainstream cultural paradigm harder and harder hoping to fix the issues that result from it in the first place. That seems non-sensical because it is non-sensical. The blind belief in human intellect and the othering of nature is making us miss hugely important details that make our system fragile. Because we other, we ignore. Because we ignore, we mistake improbable for impossible. Because we believe the possible to be impossible our systems collapse. See COVID-19 and then think Climate Change. From Leonardo da Vinci to Artificial Intelligence, humans certainly do not lack technological prowess or creativity in nature inspired innovation. What is preventing us to embrace the emulation of non-fragile natural systems is our failure to accept a higher degree of complexity above our anthropocentric obsession. Modernity is symbolised by mankind, represented primarily by male specimens with oversize fig leaves, metaphorically placed at the centre of the universe. It is our collective narrative that is preventing us to change tack. It is our collective consciousness that prevents us from embracing a wider sense of belonging, the greater complexity of the web of life.
How do we change consciousness?
To change our mind we either slowly grow into a new belief system or we live an exceptional event that causes us to awaken and realise the glaring evidence of the new order. In other words, either by learning or by intuition. The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago, the second best time is now. Given the state of emergency at the dawn of Modernity, I would suggest we try both.
Personally, it was a slow learning process with unexpected sparkles of intuition. I was lucky enough to grow up in a thick woodland area and not far from the sea. My consciousness was shaped during years of outdoors and wildlife adventures surrounded by friends, wild boars, deer, fish, crabs, sea rocks and maritime pines. I owe those woods and beaches a childhood of happiness and wonder.
My friends’ consciousness
As I grew up and travelled across Europe to live, study and work in different countries, I found myself going back to the woods and beaches of my childhood almost every year, like a flock of migratory geese. As my social family grew, I subconsciously replicated the childhood equation of “outdoors + friends = happy” and created with my now wife a not for profit organisation called ZeCrew focused in Low Carbon Adventure travel. During each bike journey, mountain climb or sailing flotilla I realised that the childhood equation “outdoors + friends = love” still worked well and not just for me. No matter how fit or experienced, all our friends who took part in ZeCrew low carbon adventures suddenly unlocked an ancient genetic memory of mutual care, deep presence and profound wellbeing. The need for consumeristic projection gone, individualism forgotten. This bond with nature is somehow imprinted in the genetic memory of us all no matter how slow a cyclist, unfit a climber or confused a sailor.
The experts’ advice on consciousness
That simple equation “outdoors + friends = happy” stuck with me and found more refined articulation in many great books, which together draw the boundaries of a large multidisciplinary field. The works of Bertrand Russell, Nicholas Nassim Taleb, Jeremy Rifkin, Charles Eisenstein, John Ratey and Richard Manning, Naomi Klein, Elizabeth Kolbert, George Monbiot, Yuval Noah Harari and James Gleick among others opened a world of wonderfully diverse insight on a variety of crucially urgent topics for me. At the same time the diverse wealth of knowledge of these great authors could be brought all back to three simple principles:
_ Empathy builds resilience
_ Nature is anti-fragile
_ Othering builds up risk
A pattern is emerging and if we want to learn from nature, we must take the time to listen.
The sense of safety and wellbeing connected with deep emotional immersive experience in nature is the basis of biophilia. The re-descovering of ancient wisdom, which is still present in what is left of pre-Modern and native cultures, should be connected to the evolution of our collective consciousness beyond the paradigm of Modernity.
Humans can’t live in the woods
Still, we can’t simply leave our homes, pack a rucksack and go wild into the forest. Humans have lost their ability to live in wild environments. Although our genetic memory demonstrates our bond with nature, our muscles, teeth, skin, digestive system and immune system won’t cope very long living outdoor. Shielded by our culture humans are on top of the food chain, back in the woods we are prey.
Thinking like a prey
Perhaps instead of refusing our place along the food chain, we should make the most of it. Prey animals have evolved beautifully for millions of years and can teach us a thing or two. To increase their chances of survival, prey either run very fast or hide very quickly, preferably in places hard to reach. Trees offer excellent refuge to prey animals although access among tree branches might still prove hard for most humans.
An interesting evolution of architecture typologies could arise from the design of a series of safe and accessible refuge shelters to be placed in the heart of natural and wild environments with minimised disruption to local ecosystems. Similarly to a camouflaged tent, the new typology could allow its guests to disappear in nature in deep contemplation. Our objective is to extend our exposure to natural environments to facilitate the shift in consciousness evolution beyond Modernity. The longer the period of deep forest bathing persists, the better. The more widely available the access to the experience, the better. Beyond the usual categories of recreational activities, holidays or daily leisure, deep forest bathing should be pursued as an act of evolved civilisation, like personal hygiene was mass introduced in society to limit the spread of common diseases like head lice, athlete’s foot or chronic diarrea.
A Hide is a small cabin raised above the ground level meant to disappear in the woods. It is mainly used by deer hunters and ecologists either to take or to support life. The Hide&Seek architecture could at once allow its guests to hide in nature and seek a deeper connection to embrace a wider instinctive appreciation of complexity.
We want to be able to hide in the woods and seek a deeper connection. If the idea is to work, the practice of wild hiding and psychological seeking should scale up pretty quickly. A way to market would be to create a hybrid sector between healthcare, tourism and business. Deep forest bathing should become at the same time a therapy, a holiday and the condition to produce better, more impactful content.
Disconnecting and reconnecting
The tail end of Modernity has come with a widespread increase in psychological and mental health issues related to a more or less conscious state of disconnection. People feel disconnected from a meaningful jobs, from their communities and from the natural environment. In children and teenagers the effects are even more severe with increased learning difficulties, anxiety, depression and anti-social behaviours.
Eco-Tourism has a great role to play addressing mental health, re-distributing resources to rural areas whilst evolving our culture towards circularity and sustainability. Eco-Tourism has already reconnected fragile economies to a healthy flow of capital resources and investment. Remote and wild areas can leverage their environmental capital creating value through sustainable hospitality, traditional organic food and local arts & culture. The variety of the offer caters for unique, energising and memorable experiences.
The deep forest bathing that we propose through Hide&Seek extends the benefits of Eco-Tourism into psychological wellbeing. We want our guests to feel connected to nature’s grain, experiencing the deeply healing energy of woodlands without impacting the rhythm, the sounds and the views of the hosting forests. We want to combine the simplicity of hunting hides with the comfort of well designed sustainable and off-grid architecture.
Hide&Seek is at the same time a tree house, a two people monastery, a secret outpost, a cave, a reading room, a yoga studio, an off-grid earth-ship, a large animal exo-sceleton and an ancient tower. The architecture is at the same time man-made and wild.
Hide&Seek is underpinned by the widely demonstrated awareness that a change in individual and collective consciousness is necessary to address the Climate Change Crisis. It provides a space for people to re-connect with nature and with themselves. It shows that off-grid living is possible and desirable.
A practical proposal
The task ahead of us is simple. To build resilience we need to evolve beyond the linear thinking or our social narratives. We need a consciousness paradigm shift beyond Modernity to embrace a wider understanding of complex systems. Spending time in nature has demonstrated benefits in increasing well-being, empathy and unlocking the genetic memory of biophilia. Hide&Seek is a mass-customisable design based on seven modular components
Root (single pile foundation)
A single micro-pile foundation minimises disruption to existing root systems in the wood and acts as a tree root in stabilising soil against erosion and flooding.
Runners (ground level Mechanical and Electrical installations)
The radial systems of rainwater tanks and small plant equipment will be created in recycled PET and PE with an external lining of CORTEN steel and charred bark. This will offer habitat for native woodland species.
Trunk (vertical structure)
The vertical structure is made out of a central reinforced concrete hollow core (marrow), which incorporates all the services risers (water and electricity). Around the small central core, a modular stack of cross laminated timber components provides additional structural vertical and horizontal stability. The structure is finished with charred timber that makes it weather resistant.
Petals (horizontal structure)
Floors and stairs are modular FSC components designed to slot in place in the vertical structure using traditional carpentry details and minimising the need for metal fasteners.
Cell Membrane (inner textile lining)
Internally, the space is made weather-proof by a textile shell of waxed canvas and recycled PET fabric. The opacity of the internal lining varies to offer an incremental level of shading. The canvas is breathable but water proof offering excellent protection from insects where necessary. The internal lining canvas is designed to allow rainwater to be collected on the perimeter planters or reach the ground.
Exo-skeleton (external sun-shading cladding)
The external protective cladding is a triangulated mesh of CNC cut glue-laminated timber panels. The density of the latticework offers optimal sun shading at various times during the year. The cladding is inspired by the fractal growth of tree branches. This minimises cantilevering loads and offers perfect habitat for nesting birds and evergreen climbing plants.
Sun-Flower (onsite renewables installations)
At the top of the building a light-weight steel and carbon fibre structure incorporates a rain-water harvesting impluvium, which is connected to the water tank in the Runners via internal pipework in the Trunk) a vertical axis 5KW window turbine and a 720W photovoltaics panels. Supported by a series of batteries hosted in the Runners the building is off-grid and self-sustainable for short holiday lets.
Thank you for taking the time to read this far in our hybrid text, which started as an essay and ended with a project proposal. At Marcel Mauer Architecture we believe that theory and practice should march ahead shoulder to shoulder to implement the positive change we need to reach regenerative humanity and sustainability. If you interested in our work, wished to collaborate or publish our content, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Keep safe. Thank you.