Property developers and estate agents have long agreed that a riverside location, a nearby paddy, a terrace or even just a good view are the fastest track to achieving premium prices. Moving to the country isn't just about growing up and spreading out any more, it is a fashion statement. A trend manifested in the recent Yeo Valley rap advert, where muscular farmers extol the benefits of country air and Barbour jackets, and in a great hippy-hipster convergence - guerilla gardening from a new generation growing-their-own. Green is good. Fresh is best. In London, the Farm Shop in Hackney and Wayward Plants' amazing pop-up projects such as the Urban Psychic Garden are further proof.
So far, so simple. But while on the earthy surface this movement seems to hanker after more traditional, slower ways of living, at its heart is an essential issue: the urge to reconnect with nature. Designers and architects are responding with some truly mind-bending solutions. While nature inspiring design is certainly nothing new, this time around the indoor elements are both high tech and, crucially, very unpredictable. It isn't about plants, green walls and water features.
We have spent decades trying to control the elements, piling ourselves up in reinforced concrete towers, experiencing the world and communicating with each other through a wall of monitor screens and mobile handsets. Basking in our sophisticated air conditioning systems, dimming our intelligent lighting, and not having to water our plastic flora. And the only result is that we have become ever more disconnected with it. Indeed, it takes a tsunami or freak extreme conditions for us to even notice the weather.
Nature is volatile - this is both why we have spent so long trying to shield ourselves from it and control it, but also why it is stimulating and inspiring. Designers and architects are learning to harness this and far from finding things difficult, the living, breathing, responsive and ever-changing features of nature have some powerful mood-boosting and healing properties too.
Gothenburg-based designer Daniel Rybakken illustrates this well. Since establishing his studio in 2008, Rybakken has developed a worldwide reputation for lighting and product designs, in particular for his innovative experiments in creating fake daylight indoors. His first and now renowned product was a table that casts a convincing shaft of fake sunlight on to the floor below. When placed in a room with little access to daylight, the table has the effect of changing the entire atmosphere of the space, tricking the body to believing nature is close by and promoting the inherent uplifting benefits. Rybakken's focus is to look at how interior and furniture design could relieve recognised human conditions such as Seasonal Affective Disorder. "It's so simple," he says. "You get subconscious information that something is outside, there is a perceived sensation of larger space that makes you feel not so enclosed or lonely."
Although the table has yet to be produced, Rybakken was quickly snapped up by Scandinavian corporations, who have presumably long battled the detrimental effects of long dark winters on staff morale. Bespoke and site-specific commissions include a commercial office reception in Stockholm where his piece Daylight Entrance projected a giant feat of light trickery on to the foyer wall. Another piece, Screened Daylight replicates a fake window with its blind drawn. The screen depicts dappled light and moving shade, offering the impression of a breeze moving through a tree just beyond. In fact, it employs a series of screens and mirrors to make people feel they are just a few metres away from the wonders of the natural world.
Kram/Weisshaar, a multi-disciplinary design practice based in Stockholm and Munich, elevated the idea of digital nature to a new level for a private client in Cologne recently. Hypersky is a ceiling installation in the central foyer of the house. The designers describe the piece as a "digital fresco of the 21st century" - but a better definition, according to Clemens Weisshaar, would be "an augmented reality hole in the ceiling".
Hypersky covers the entire ceiling with a live video signal of the sky above the house. Every passing bird, cloud and aeroplane is replicated, and changes in the light and weather are observed in real time. When it rains, a graphic effect is created giving the residents and their guests the feeling of "being a frog in a pond", albeit without the damp conditions.
The beauty of the installation, says Weisshaar, is that it is constantly changing. While a commissioned painting remains static, especially to our overstimulated senses these days, Hypersky is designed to be lived with over a long time. But why not just build a conservatory and get the real thing? This is nature, augmented. At night, it displays a live map of the planets and stars, in ways you would never be able to identify from the garden given the light pollution and clouds that obscure our sightlines. Technology is harnessed to offer a hyper-real experience of the great outdoors that no mountain holiday or camping trip can ever compete with.
According to these designers, today's methods can be used to evoke the natural world artificially and to channel it in from the outdoors directly. Essentially "filtering" it without compromising our basic need for shelter.
Phillips Design [as profiled in our last issue] recently conducted a far-sighted research programme, or "Probe", into the idea. Concept designs were created with a view to the home working as a filter to limit air pollution, electromagnetic smog and industrial noise while allowing in natural light, air and sound. "While seasons and time awaken powerful instinctive responses in us, the spaces in which we currently live and work do not reflect the changes outside to allow these effects to take place," explains the report, titled Metamorphosis. "Shimmer" is an architectural solution designed to facilitate wellbeing through surprise, movement, natural noise management, air movement and natural light dispersion. Walls become "stripes" of flexible elements that also emit natural light and channel air. The stripes undulate and shift changing the interior characteristics of a space in response to people as well as the external atmospheric conditions.
The series of products also included the "Sunbeam Concept", which uses reflectors and an array of reflective surfaces to scatter natural light piped in via fibre-optic cable. Usefully, an added advantage of this concept is the ability to direct sunbeams to solar-powered appliances needing a charge.
London-based Simon Heijdens was nominated for the Design Museum's 2012 Designer of the Year award on the strength of his extraordinarily beautiful installation Shade. Commissioned by the Art Institute of Chicago, where it is now part of the permanent collection, the piece is essentially an electronic wall, or window, that senses the weather and wind speeds outside and uses the data to cast a mesmerising and graphic play of shadow and light into a room accordingly. "As both the angle of the sun and the patterns of wind are continuously changing throughout the day and year, the perpetual character of the artificial space is reconnected with an evolving, unplanned natural timeline."
Shade follows a theme that Heijdens has been experimenting with for some time. One of his earliest successes was Lightweeds [now a travelling installation], which sees digital plants growing and evolving on the walls of a room. His inspiration was the simple observation that nature is becoming rare in our daily life, he says. "We pass most of the day in perpetual spaces with conditioned climates and 24-hour lighting that mute the relief of the day and year. When unplanned natural elements like a lifting breeze, a sudden shower or a setting sun are planned out of our surrounding, the timeline of our every day is lost."
Branches, presented by Gallery Libby Sellers in 2010, saw a living digital organism growing on the ceiling of an indoor space. Again using site responsive software, Heijdens generated a canopy of branches that would grow, move and behave depending on external environmental conditions, and on how people indoors were using and moving around the space. Movement sensors gathered information and the branches and leaves opened to allow extra light into areas where there was more kinetic activity in the room.
Designers aren't playing God or trying to improve on nature. But there is great potential in this design direction to transform the built environment into a place less sterile. It may be some time before London Underground stations are magicked into hypnotic fields of fresh air and daylight, but such a vision is no longer so ridiculous as it might have sounded five years ago. While we cannot all relocate to the country, it is at least comforting to know that nature is not just for outdoors.
Simon Heijdens, Lightweeds, location-sensitive light projection (2006). Part of the permanent collection of the MoMA, New York