Nostalgia for the Natural in the City

The designer Martín Azúa talks about the natural origin of his creations and the materials that surround us

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The ‘artificial’ and ‘natural’ appear to be opposites, but if we think about it harder, the artificial is also natural – in the sense that everything has its origin in nature. Material culture and technology developed by human beings is akin to the ability of plants and animals to survive and make communities. Maybe our problem comes from not recognising ourselves as natural, and seeing our environment as something separate and disconnected from the natural reality.

Natural Mark (Mancha Natural) by the designer Martín Azúa
Natural Mark by Martín Azúa

Maybe because I grew up in the countryside, my vision of happiness is a collection of vignettes related to nature. As attractive and sophisticated as an ‘artificial environment’ is (even those virtual reality images of incredible worlds where everything is possible) nothing compares to the feeling you get when walking through a forest. Maybe I say this because my relationship with forests is very sensual. Perhaps I am part animal, or plant. I need to feel a connection with permanence, of being part of something.

For the past decades, I have been an urbanite nostalgic for the natural world. As a designer, I decided to create products that connect with the organic. That is why many of my projects, especially the most personal ones, aim to be harmonious with nature.


Trees and moss. Image by Martin Ázua
Trees and moss. Image by Martin Ázua

The first project that reflected my love of the natural world was Mancha Natural (Natural Mark). In 1999 I left some vases made of porous ceramic in the Urrederra River in Navarre so that they would become naturally discoloured. I really only wanted to display the power of nature to invade the manmade. I have always been intrigued by those romantic images of ruins of cities overgrown with vegetation.

Vases with natural mark by Martín Azúa
Vases with natural mark by Martín Azúa

Mankind is capable of transforming natural spaces into cities but at some point Mother Nature takes it back. She works slowly, so we barely notice it. The patina that grew on the Mancha Natural vase only lived in the place where it was created – when the vases were transported to Barcelona they died. Their life was dependent on ecosystems and local environments. This is very different to our tendency towards a globalised world where resources and solutions are used in a universal manner. Later on, I applied this process to architectural floors and walls so that buildings could to be ‘colonised’ by nature and blend with their natural surroundings.

Another project in this vein was manantial (natural spring); vessels of porous pottery were used for a filtering process using plants, gravel and mud; returning the water to its natural state of ‘karma’ and simulating the natural water cycle when we drink it at a water spring in the forest. It was a symbolic project, in order to raise consciousness on how we can interact with nature with very basic technology.

More recently I have begun to gather stones and branches that I integrate into ceramic vases. Within these, nature represents itself, following a decorative tradition of natural motifs; plants, landscapes and animal life.

Nature in the urban environment, work of Martín Azúa
Jugs with stones

Maybe one of the aspects that brings us closer to nature is recognising the natural origins of the materials that surround us in an urban area. I especially like materials that haven’t been processed excessively, that conserve their tact, temperature, smell, and colour. In this sense, ceramic, wood and natural fibres are particularly evocative. When a carpet of straw or jute is delivered to the studio, it is still part of the landscape. It is possible to recuperate a connection with the natural world if we are conscious that we are natural, and what surrounds us must in harmony with nature.

The city can be understood as a natural way to live in a community, streamlining resources and being conscious of their limits. The natural world adheres to an economic principle in the use of materials and energy, which we must also apply. I am not suggesting we put aside innovation, but rather understand it as a key to progress, and that it must serve people and the environment as a whole.


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