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Artwork by Ahmed Gamal


Applying Wangari Maathai’s Eco-Spiritual Values in a Postmodern Architectural Context

by Gaser Mohamed


The Industrial boom that occurred from about 1760 brought along a revolution in terms of manufacture and production. This transition translated into increased population growth, an improvement in peoples’ lifestyles, and encouraged consumerism. However, in turn, it triggered adverse effects on nature and the environment. Further, missionaries across the world pushed people away from the ‘primitive’ mores of traditional societies, which were in conflict with the ‘modern’ religious doctrines, but were environmentally friendly. As people moved away from nature and their traditions towards modernity, they further grew unaware of the deteriorating environment. Urbanization veils peoples’ perception of limits; as people move away from nature, they tend to lose sense of the visual feedback from nature resulting from their actions. Hence, people grow more unaware of the extent to which their actions could impact their environment as they detach themselves from nature. Tradition, which holds much of Wangari Maathai’s spiritual values, recognizes and maintains its link with the environment. Yet, it seems to be disregarded when compared with the ‘new’ and ‘modern’ present in urbanization programs. These concerns are particularly evident in the on-going urbanization of the Gulf region which includes cities in the UAE, KSA, Bahrain, etc. The development of these cities into emerging metropolitan regions and their simultaneous increase of carbon footprint stress the significance of finding a common ground on which modern urbanity and our traditional obligation towards nature could co-exist. Therefore, the importance of promptly identifying and resolving these issues contributes to their application not only in existing structures, but lends to future understanding about possible means of implementation by regions on the rise. Further, in regard to reintroducing nature into a metropolitan context, what governs the effectiveness of the solutions we propose? Should we suffice by planting trees wherever possible? What are the limitations of planting trees in a particular condition? Are there alternatives to such proposals? In this light, this paper aims to explore the possibility of applying eco-spiritual traditional values in an urban architectural context, while reviewing the challenges it poses. Specifically, the essay prospects at modern concepts in architecture, such as planting trees on top of tower blocks and skyscrapers, in an attempt to introduce nature into an urban setting.



In 1992, the Earth Summit was held in Rio de Janeiro, in which governments, non-governmental organizations, and people participated in joined efforts to tackle the issue of climate change due to increased carbon footprints [28]. A carbon footprint is defined as the measure of the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions produced by the activities of individuals or organizations. A carbon footprint consists of a primary footprint (as shown by the green portions in the pie chart) and a secondary footprint (shown as yellow portions) [9]. The primary footprint is the total direct sources of CO2 emissions, while the secondary footprint is the measure of the indirect sources of CO2 emissions. 









A 2012 report- by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency and the European Commission's Joint Research Center- revealed that the global carbon dioxide emissions rose by 1.1%. This percentage is noticeably less than the average rise of about 3% over the last 10 years [26,27]. Nevertheless, it is important to realize that the annual rise in emissions grows nonuniformly, so a slight decrease in a year’s emission is not unusual [26]. Further, growing countries, such as China and the United States continue to top the ranks of the annual CO2 emissions. For example, since 1980, China’s annual CO2 emission in metric tons has risen from 1,500,000 to 7,031,916 in 2012 [25,29]. This stresses the urgency of solutions and initiatives to tackle the various sources lending to the increase in carbon footprint. Furthermore, these solutions are advantageous to not only the countries with the high annual CO2 emissions (such as China), but also to the emerging countries that are in turn rising in their annual emissions of greenhouse gases. These developing countries, especially in the Gulf region, such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), and Kuwait, rank highly in the list of countries with the most CO2 emissions per year [25,29]. The UAE, for example, is the 5 th highest consumer of energy per capita in the world in 2012, and ranks 26 th among the highest energy consuming countries globally, lending to the rise of carbon footprint that contributes to climate change [2,25]. For the purpose of this paper, we are going to focus on the CO2 emissions that result from buildings and furnishings (refer to the pie chart above), and at possible solutions that could reduce the impact.



As global awareness of the condition of the environment increases, governments and organizations around the world launch campaigns, establish codes, and implement strategies to preserve the environment. In the Gulf region, the UAE is at the forefront of sustainable, holding 65% of the green buildings in the region. Green buildings differ from conventional buildings through their concept of integration, by which a team of multidisciplinary professionals work together from the predesign phase through post-occupancy to optimize the building for environmental sustainability, operation, and cost efficiency [18]. However, in the effort to build sustainable cities through the reduction of energy consumption, we lose sight of an integral part that is of significant importance to our quest for sustainability. Specifically, we do not focus on how nature could contribute to building sustainable cities. Since we focus on sustainability from an architectural viewpoint, we will limit our discussion of integrating nature to one form of representation: trees. In Replenishing the Earth, [the Kenyan environmental activist and 2004 Noble Peace Prize Laureate] Wangari Maathai (1940-2011) states “For unless we see [nature], smell [nature] or touch [nature], we tend to forget it.” [30]. As we lose the direct experience and reality of nature, we gradually lose the little knowledge we have of what is happening to it. Our human capacity to comprehend the natural limitations of our planet’s capital is slowly fading in our industrialized environments. It is therefore vital that we introduce trees into urban contexts, in which they serve as natural indicators of climate change. Additionally, trees mitigate the negative effects of the greenhouse gas emissions, and perhaps stand as a reminder that we are part of a larger system of living beings. As Maathai continuously asserts, our obligation towards our environment is a spiritual one; our circle of concern for nature expands from the benefits it holds to an individual to encompass the common good [30]. For this reason, we require a new level of consciousness in order to fully address this issue, with which we would gain the right perspective in viewing Earth and how we belong to it as part of a larger family of life [30]. This entails maintaining an open mind that is predisposed to embrace new ideas and sets of knowledge [30]. In this manner, design would become centered on deriving solutions to existing challenges and conditions, with nature being at the heart of the process.


2.1 How are trees useful?

For millions of years, CO2 has been removed from the earth’s atmosphere through the process of photosynthesis and stored in plant material, mainly trees. As mentioned earlier, we are now at the highest peak of releasing carbon dioxide into the earth’s atmosphere by burning fossil fuels. Concurrently, we have also been removing trees from the earth’s surface to make room for buildings to house people. Apart from being one of the most effective and cheapest means of drawing the surplus CO2 from the atmosphere, a single mature tree can draw in CO2 at a rate of 48lbs per year and release back into the atmosphere enough oxygen to support 2 people [10,23]. Therefore, the replanting of trees in urban areas will help remove and store carbon dioxide, acting as ‘carbon sinks’. For this reason, the reduction of CO2 in the air should be a first concern for people and organizations.

2.2 The spirituality of trees


As one of the oldest and largest living organisms on this planet, trees have established a spiritual significance in human culture and tradition. One of the guiding spiritual concepts for trees is that they require so little of us and yet give back so much [30,31]. This spiritual resonance of the trees, along with the space and shade they provide, has transformed the role of trees into nature’s focal spots for a community to gather to discuss different subject matters and its future [30]. In nature spirituality, we realize that all nature, including human beings, share a collective feeling of oneness that affirms life[24,30]. The presence of trees links us to the spirituality of nature, through:

1) Breathing: like all living beings, trees “breathe”. With the “breathing” of trees through photosynthesis, we are provided with our most essential need: air to breathe. This reliance establishes a spiritual connection between trees and us, as living beings whose coexistence depend on one another. [31]

2) Enlightenment: trees lead us to enlightenment, be it through form and anatomy, endurance through time, or their symbolic rootedness in the soil that epitomizes the connection between the earth and the sky. Enlightenment occurs through silence, contemplation and reflection, and manifests itself through the realization of our oneness with the tree, and nature. Just as the leaves, branches, and roots exist as part of a larger living tree, we realize our position as part of a larger, modular existence [31]. Several religious traditions value the individual retirement into stark, more intimate landscapes to contemplate or cogitate, such as Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) usual visits to a cave, where Archangel Gabriel was believed to have revealed the first verses of the Qur’an to him [30]. The Bodhi-tree under which the Buddha obtained enlightenment is example, and in early Buddhist iconography it represents the Buddha himself.

3) Time: trees tell time; they change with seasons. Nothing communicates the change in time more clearly than the spring colors or the delicate green of new sprouts on plants [31].


2.3 Trees around buildings

In relation to buildings, architecture has to do with the designing and constructing of space, form and ambiance. In this sense, our initial experience with any building occurs in the exterior space around it. Most of our initial interactions with architecture occur within the parking spaces of buildings. In our modern time, our use of vehicles facilitates our interaction with parking areas from small towns to large urban centers. Therefore, it would make sense that we introduce trees into these spaces, for a number of reasons:

1) Since transport, in general, contributes to the increase in carbon footprint, it would be sensible to  have trees in the parking spaces in order to directly mitigate and reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that concentrate in these areas.

2) The tree canopies could provide shade to the cars, and so it could eliminate the need for roofed parking areas. In addition, the shade has a cooling effect on paved surfaces and thus, reduces the accumulation of heat that contributes to the heat island effects in urban areas.[23]

3) The presence of trees in parking spaces increases the average moisture level in the area which dissipates the heat from the sun through evaporation.[23]

4) If the structure exists close to the parking space, the trees could function as a buffer that moderates the effect of light and sound to the interior of the building.

5) Trees planted strategically near buildings can reduce energy needs for cooling and heating, which results in a lower overall demand for energy.[23]

6) Air pollution can also be reduced by trees with the aid of precipitation, since the particles attach to the leaves and gases are absorbed by the tree. The degree of atmospheric filtration depends on the type of tree, the age of the tree and the climate.[23]

7) Since paved surfaces are no longer able to absorb rainfall, the introduction of trees could reduce storm water runoff; trees hold a large amount of rainfall in their canopies, where it evaporates before reaching the ground. When used in combination with an infiltration system, trees have proved to be an effective method of storm water management. [23]

8) Social science research has reported that in business settings, the presence of trees and greenery is associated with higher rental rates and land values for commercial and residential buildings [33,34]. A separate set of studies about the integration of nature into central business districts reveals to us that a high-quality urban forest is associated with consumer reports of higher frequency of visits, and the greater length of visits [35]. This relates to the spiritual role of trees as nature’s focal points at which communities converge. Hence, effective landscaping and trees extend a message of care and quality from establishments to their potential customers on the sidewalk.


2.4 Trees on skyscrapers

Postmodern architecture, as seen through the work of Robert Venturi, rejects the modern belief of a 'simple' form or 'superlative' architectonic detail. Instead, it eminently draws from all methods, materials, forms and colors available to architects. Postmodernist architects led one of the first aesthetic movements to openly challenge Modernism as "totalitarian" and antiquated, favoring diversity and subjective preferences over objective, ultimate standards [1]. As such, architects began to reinstate their connection with nature. They hoped to regain their link to the tree, which symbolizes their natural connection to the earth and nature’s core, yet forever yearning towards the sky. This symbolism is architecturally manifested in the verticality of the soaring towers and skyscrapers that define urban contours around the world. To preserve this connection with nature, architects started to design buildings with trees and rooftop gardens, holistically mimicking the tree connecting us to the earth, while all the more surging towards the sky. However, architects and critics have recently begun questioning the practicality of such abstracts. They all contribute to the same question: are trees on skyscrapers capable of surviving in such conditions in real life? And thus aspiring to Maathai’s eco-spiritual values [30]. 

























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