115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Separate Entities: Thoreau’s Conception of Nature and its Application to the Realm of Architecture

Angela Gattuso, University of Colorado, Boulder

In this paper, I argue that Thoreau’s conception of nature is an individual entity which may be applied to the separate realm of architecture. In doing so, I compress Thoreau’s spiritual view of nature into a single unit which paradoxically maintains freedom while creating distinction, a paradox which I locate in the idea of truth. 

Proposal: 

One of the most important facets of architecture (if not the most important) is the interaction between human beings and the physical structure surrounding them, and the ways in which that physical structure has been designed to interact with human beings. Recognizing this interaction or relationship requires a certain degree of awareness of the everyday objects which constitute our lives, a state of being which appears frequently throughout Henry David Thoreau’s transcendental memoir, Walden.

In this paper, “Separate Entities: Thoreau’s Conception of Nature and its Application to the Realm of Architecture,” I establish this state of alert as just one aspect which contributes to the idea that the relationship between nature and man is one which may be mapped onto that relationship which Thoreau prescribes between nature and architecture. Specifically, I argue that Thoreau’s conception of nature is an individual entity which may be applied with equal force and meaning to the separate realm of architecture. With this argument, I re-frame widespread scholarship on Walden--which views this relationship between nature and architecture as symbiotic--and, by way of separating the two, compress Thoreau’s transcendental, spiritual view of nature into a smaller, single unit which paradoxically maintains freedom while creating distinction, a paradox which I locate in the idea of truth.

In defending this argument, I first address the relationship between nature and man in what I refer to as “Thoreau’s conception of nature.” In this conception, I discuss ideas of necessity, simplicity, and awareness. I go on to show how this conception exists in Thoreau’s perception of architecture and then actually apply the conception to architecture, citing the foundations of the self from which architecture is built and the literal transference of nature into the edifice by way of fire.

In mapping Thoreau’s ideas of nature onto architecture in this way, I not only position myself against the greater body of scholarship concerning this relationship, but uncover multiple paradoxes: the call for unconscious truth while simultaneously maintaining a state of alert, and the distaste for ornament with a simultaneous attention to detail. I find in these paradoxes a sense of truth manifested earlier in both Thoreau’s conception of nature and in what Thoreau recognizes as “good" architecture. What I conclude, then, is that while this argument creates a distinction between nature and architecture, it locates within each a reliance on truth; it is in truth that nature and architecture are made to succeed, and in truth that freedom is born out of distinction.