A quick history of biophilic design (2024)

Biophilic design may have been embraced by America’s big tech businesses, but it’s a concept that’s been around for decades, writes Stephen Hitchins

A quick history of biophilic design (1)

Words by Stephen Hitchins

There was a time, not so very long ago, when one might walk into the office of an American corporation at 7.30am and find middle management already established at their desks in the belief there really was something in Woody Allen’s quip that 80% of success is showing up. They might only be reading newspapers and drinking coffee, but they were there, so they might impress their own staff, and be seen by senior management, who arrived later, after breakfast. Gazing out across acres of buttoned-down Bürolandschaft, seeing those men – and in those days it was men – just being there would have also brought to mind Ronald Reagan’s dictum ‘it’s true hard work never killed anybody, but I figure, why take the chance?’

The collective self-delusion in this pretence of actual work was like one of the worst aspects of an old joke in the USSR: ‘We pretend to work and managers pretend to believe us’. Large bureaucratic organisations were like that: machine-like hierarchical models of office design, places where creativity was sacrificed to the perceived needs of organisational efficiency. It was an age of presenteeism, and a time when managers, who were often no good at judging employees’ performance, used time spent in the office as a proxy.

To be truly productive, however, you need presence of mind rather than simply being present in the flesh. Today, rather than turn up early to read the papers and smell the coffee, that means taking more than a keen interest in the health and wellbeing of staff.

The office, that facility based on change, to quote the title of Robert Propst’s book, is changing once again. Designers are making a day at the office like a walk in the park.

A quick history of biophilic design (2)The Waterside was built at Harmondsworth, Greater London, as the new home of British Airways

For years, architects and designers brought nature into the workplace – natural materials were used, and plants, often very large ones in big tubs, were employed to break up the large, open floor plans. Perennial questions about enclosure and access, arenas and workstations, vectors and sightlines, displays and communication, privacy and security, portability and change, were all gone over relentlessly, as were those regarding traffic to, through and around the office. Questions about social psychology, health and vitality, were asked less often. But that’s no longer the case.

By the 1990s, as new and flexible ways of working became the norm, a group of six buildings, known collectively as the Waterside, were built at Harmondsworth, Greater London, as the new home of British Airways.

A quick history of biophilic design (3)The Waterside was built at Harmondsworth, Greater London, as the new home of British Airways

Constructed at a cost of £200m in 1989, the Waterside really had it all. It was a community based on openness and team working, with a covered central ‘street’ – with olive trees, fountains and sculpture, and where people gravitated to collaborate and eat – linking everything together. It was an arena that facilitated a change in the way people behaved at work. There was also a library, a bar, cafes, restaurant, and a ‘speaker’s corner’, all adding to the buzz of a place that was a 114,000 sq mhub for 4,000 staff.

It is akin to the building’s forerunner, the Scandinavian Airlines headquarters at Frösundavik on the outskirts of Stockholm, which was completed in 1987. It was Jan Carlzon, the airline’s president and chief executive from 1981 to 1993, who realised he needed a new physical environment if he was to implement what he had set down in his book Riv Pyramiderna (Tear Down the Pyramids) and put people – both customers and staff – first. There were 130 entries to an open competition before a shortlist of 11 bids were selected. Niels Torp’s group of low white buildings finally beat Henning Larsen’s two skyscrapers, with the lower buildings symbolic of the flat organisation Carlzon was creating.

A quick history of biophilic design (4)The atrium garden found at the Ford Foundation. Image Credit: Simon Luethi

Half the size of Waterside, it is an easy-going unceremonious place with terraces, galleries, balconies, pedestrian bridges, planting and natural materials. The thoroughfare changes character as you descend towards a lake, past an auditorium, a swimming pool, a sports hall, shops, cafes, meeting rooms, and offices. At first, middle management must have felt really challenged and very exposed. This was different. The office was no longer an edifice. Back in 1967, long before Torp had got to work, a piece of mid-century modernism raised to monumental grandeur was created in Midtown Manhattan for the Ford Foundation by the Irish architect Kevin Roche together with landscape designer Dan Kiley.

To many, Roche’s buildings sum up everything that was wrong with modern architecture in the 1960s and 1970s, a period associated with hulking megastructures completely out of touch with what was once called ‘human scale’. Yet the Ford building is very humane. It reimagined corporate modernism, wrapped around a soaring 12-storey atrium garden that slopes down from 43rd to 42nd Street, with a public route cutting right through. Hailed as ‘a splendid, shimmering Crystal Palace’, light pours through a saw-tooth skylight and the glass curtain walls fixed in place by grids of rusting Corten steel. It is a Mad Men-era version of a complete work of art, a true Gesamtkunstwerk. Built in a rough part of town, the garden was a slice of Eden, dubbed by Life magazine ‘an act of faith in the midst of ruin’.

A quick history of biophilic design (5)Fredrikstad Cicignon Park in Norway is a new Niels Torp project

As Ford executives gazed across the bougainvillea, at the private offices mixed with a public park, they saw a structure that improved the lives of workers and gave New York a building that lent form to the Ralph Waldo Emerson ideal ‘together with nature’.

For, Emerson nature was a language, and if biophilic design is anything, it is a design language.

Last year, a $205m makeover by Gensler was completed and the building was nudged into the 21st century with new lighting, safety features, wheelchair access, a garden for the blind, new water features, the restoration of furniture, and the preservation of original colour schemes and materials. Standing as a reliquary of mid-century detail, reminiscent of the Met Breuer in New York and Louis Kahn’s Yale Center for British Art in Connecticut, its geometry sings again.

A quick history of biophilic design (6)The Oakland Museum of California. Image Credit: Matthew Millman Photography

But for all its natural credentials, the building was originally a hierarchical design incompatible with the culture of the changing organisation. Going to visit the president of the Ford Foundation involved a long walk through a series of grand spaces to his personal suite of very large rooms. They are one of the original features that have been sacrificed in the revamp as the whole building has been opened up and the corridors of offices removed. The fern pines, Norfolk Island pines, weeping figs, bougainvillea and camellia were given away and a new planting scheme installed by American landscape architects Raymond Jungles. But Gensler was ‘disabused’ of any intention it had to remove the 5,000 pieces of Warren Platner and Charles and Ray Eames furniture, which have been largely restored. Overall, the renovation turns the Ford Foundation’s workplace and public spaces into a manifestation of its mission: to promote the inherent dignity of all people.

At the tail end of the 1960s Roche followed up the Ford Foundation – now known as the Ford Foundation Center for Social Justice – with the Oakland Museum of California. It’s a building that occupies four blocks and was conceived as a walled garden, with large welcoming entrances, galleries arranged so that the roof of one becomes the terrace of another, pedestrian streets that connect different levels and auditoria, classrooms, a restaurant, offices and a garage. Each area opens directly onto lawns, terraces, trellised passages, and broad flights of stairs. The planting has done what it was hoped it would do: grow over the entire building, submerging its form and creating a lush, colourful garden, with the terraced roof functioning as a public park.

A quick history of biophilic design (7)The Oakland Museum of CaliforniaImage Credit: Matthew Millman Photography

Today, the design science of biophilia rules and the environmental credentials of a building matter more than ever. In terms of style, everything is done to connect the inside with the great outdoors. It is a trend, and, inevitably, in many cases it is a pretence, with less environmentally friendly options piggybacking off the market for sustainability and wellbeing. Nevertheless, some of the principles will outlast mere nature-inspired themes, rough textures, visual imperfections, irregular motifs, and randomised patterns that mimic the living world, which are all in vogue and give an illusion of nature. Moving beyond simple aesthetics to embrace the natural world is more complex than a tick-box exercise in BREEAM and LEED-rating a building, or gaining a WELLBuilding Standard.

Target-driven engineering disciplines produce systems and process; they do not bridge the gap between human experience and the commercial advantages that might be garnered at the same time by being at one with nature to everyone’s benefit.

In theory, biophilic design creates healthy, happy working environments. It supposedly improves physical wellbeing – decreasing stress, minimising health problems and even accelerating recovery from illness – and enhances creativity, reduces absenteeism, and raises both staff morale and customer satisfaction levels. It improves both economic and environmental performance. It has been argued that it can make schoolchildren concentrate harder on their studies and shoppers linger longer and spend more. It is the new frontier in sustainable design. The benefits outweigh the investment and maintenance costs. Thus, it has universal appeal. It is not just about plants, stimulating airflow, hearing the sound of water, using natural ventilation, maximising the use of natural light to enhance visual comfort, or biomimicking natural shapes and organic forms like the patterning elements of the Fibonnaci sequence in leaf arrangements. It is connecting building occupants more closely to nature. If design does not focus on aspects of the natural world that contribute to human health and productivity in the age-old struggle to be fit and survive, it is not biophilic.

A quick history of biophilic design (8)The Oakland Museum of California was conceived as a walled garden. The planting as hoped, growing over the entire building. Image Credit: Matthew Millman Photography

There are plenty of fine examples to look at. COOKFOX is an architectural practice that focuses on sustainability, making green outdoor space a priority when taking on a commission.Walking the walk, the firm grows kale and tends an apiary on the terraces of its own studio at 250 W 57th St. 17th floor, in New York.The firm designeda 16,000sq m building forVornado Realty Trust and the Albanese Organizationat512 W 22nd Street in New York, which features a further 1,600sq m of terraces and a roof all planted with native grasses and trees selected by MKM Landscape Architecture. Every floor in the building has an outdoor space attached to it.

Outdoor work areas are a logical next step in the evolution of flexible offices, providing a space for employees to operate without feeling chained to their desks. From Stefano Boeri’s Bosco Verticale in Milan to Atelier Jean Nouvel’s One Central Park in Sydney, like many interior office innovations, the biophilic trend in outdoor spaces has roots in the workplaces of the technology giants.

Microsoft’s campus at Redmond, Washington, has now sprouted treehouses, but a 20-minute drive west is something far more interesting. Designed by NBBJ (originally Naramore, Bain, Brady & Johanson), Amazon’s Spheres, or ‘Bezos’ Balls’ as they are known locally, is the centrepiece of the retail juggernaut’s corporate headquarters, a $4bn urban campus in Seattle featuring a 20m-high living wall of 200 species. With carnivorous Asian pitcher plants and Philippine rhododendrons, plinia cauliflora, Brazilian grape, Australian tree ferns and a Port Jackson fig, it is a place of wooden paths, leafy canopies, and beds of succulents surrounding secluded meeting spaces, where you quickly forget you are in a bustling downtown office.

For a 25-year-old company that did not even signpost its offices, the move in 2018 to an architecturally ambitious focal point with a mature, if unusually well-manicured, jungle has made staff feel and think differently. The lush paradise of a botanical garden harbouring exotic varieties on the corner of Leonora Street and Sixth Avenue was produced just 20 miles away by Amazon’s own horticultural team in a 4,000m2 greenhouse at Woodinville. They were not attempting to recreate the actual Amazon in Seattle, but with 25,000 plants kept in 60% humidity you could be forgiven for thinking they tried.

Drive south down the Pacific Coast Highway for a day and very different parks await. CMG landscape architects designed a 3.6-acre rooftop park, a redwood forest in the courtyard, and a tiered outdoor amphitheatre akin to a botanical garden to adorn Frank Gehry’s MPK21, Facebook’s $300m, 40,000sq mMenlo Park offices in California. Gravel paths wander among mature trees, mounded shrubs, and drought-tolerant grasses, offering views of mountains and an expanse of San Francisco Bay. Along the winding pathways there are Gehry-designed tepees, garden furniture and art installations.

A quick history of biophilic design (9)
FXCollaborative’s work on the Center for Global Conservation in New York, home to the Wildlife Conservation Society, and the Prudential Center in Boston, US Image Credit: Matthew Millman Photography

A 30-minute drive south from Facebook, past Stanford and through the foothills along Interstate 280, and you arrive at Cupertino in Santa Clara County where Apple’s 230,000sq mheadquarters is located. A beautiful piece of work designed by Foster+Partners that took more than eight years to complete, it was much criticised at first by staff and critics alike when the emergency services kept having to treat staff for injuries caused by walking into the glazed walls. Apple’s former chief design officer Jonathan Ive wavered between saying how anxious he was about the public’s reception of the building and, as the criticism started to fly, stating how it was ‘not for other people’. ‘Apple’s new campus sucks,’ was how Adam Rogers at Wired summed it up, dubbing it ‘an anachronism wrapped in glass tucked into a neighbourhood’. He continued: ‘It may look like a circle, but it’s actually a pyramid – a monument, more suited to a vanished past than a complicated future. Successful buildings engage with their surroundings – and to be clear, Apple isn’t in some suburban arcadia. It’s in a real live city, across the street from houses and retail, near two freeway ramps.’

A high-end, suburban corporate HQ building in the manner of 1950s corporate America, the spaceship-doughnut campus has an underground car park for 11,000 cars that in future may become something of an anomaly, and is surrounded by a verdant 72-hectare park with 8,000 trees aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions directly through carbon sequestration – a debatable idea according to recent studies by both MIT and California State University, Northridge.

A quick history of biophilic design (10)
FXCollaborative’s work on the Center for Global Conservation in New York, home to the Wildlife Conservation Society, and the Prudential Center in Boston, US Image Credit: Matthew Millman Photography

Drive for another 20 minutes – passing not far from Google’s Googleplex HQ with its Bay View additions by NBBJ – and you arrive at Samsung’s highly energy-efficient North American headquarters at San Jose, also by NBBJ, which worked with landscape architecture firm SWA. It is a 10-storey tower where none of the 2,000 staff are ever further than one floor away from green space. The building is split horizontally like a layer cake with openings that contain terraces and amenity spaces – garden floors where staff can relax and socialise, practice their golf swings on the putting green, do yoga, or rest in ‘a reflection garden’.

Google’s London HQ, meanwhile, features some outdoor workspace, balcony gardens and allotments, a gym and a dance studio. But it is the Chicago office that is really interesting. The industrial bones of a historic building located in the West Loop have been preserved, and a windowless cold storage warehouse has been transformed into a healthy, naturally lit workspace based on natural patterns and processes, full of sustainable features and sensory variables, from edible plants to biomorphic furniture. It was designed by VOA Associates, which is one of over 100 companies within Stantec, ‘the global design and delivery company’ based in Edmonton, Canada.

Of course, 30 years before all this Torp was doing everything we would expect of biophilic design today, and 50 years before Roche was right there on the biophilic button. The challenge now is to ensure biophilic design does not become just something for elite technologists living in green bubbles.

A quick history of biophilic design (2024)
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