Dangers in the Air: Aerosol Architecture and Invisible Landscapes

It was a long and arduous process, but a short post on this blog slowly grew and morphed (with the expert supervision of editor John Knechtel) into an article for Alphabet City: Air, which comes out this month.

Places / Design Observer, led by its stellar editor, Nancy Levinson, ran an excerpt of it today. I’m indebted to Nancy for making the shorter piece into a clear read, but any errors or confusions are my very own! The image to the left comes from In The Air by Nerea Calvillo and collaborators at the Medialab Prado, discussed in the piece. This project served as the trigger for thinking about particles as architectural materials. Check it out on Design Observer and order your copy of Alphabet City, a wonderful alternative publication!

In/un-stable domesticity

For your clippings files, my friends: a recent news item I wrote for Frame Magazine on “Stability”, a work by Alex Schweder and Ward Shelley, reflecting “the tradition of experimental performances-cum-architectural interventions that revolve around making changes to daily life.”

Floating museum on The Functionality

Captivating project spotted at The Functionality on Tomás Sarceno at the Walker Art Center.

32SW stay green/Flying Garden/Air-Port-City (2007), consists of inflatable, self-sustainable spheres, which sustain the growth of grass through irrigation powered by solar panels that capture energy from existing light sources.

32SW stay green/Flying Garden/Air-Port-City (2007), consists of inflatable, self-sustainable spheres, which sustain the growth of grass through irrigation powered by solar panels that capture energy from existing light sources.

Floating museum – Day to day – The Functionality. Will make note of it and add it to sources related to a previous post here, Architecture Imagined as Ecological. Am reminded of the careers of people like Allora y Calzadilla, and Mark Dion.

Back Support

It’s been a few days since I posted. Lately I have been having a ball in an undisclosed location sifting through sources in a library, taking notes, and writing a dissertation prospectus. Meanwhile,I have also started to do some reading for an upcoming essay that will be due by the end of the year. Tired…

But as if that weren’t enough, I also am getting more and more interested in questions that were raised a few weeks ago here (2 much blog, 2 little arch). I have been pondering how is it that supposedly participatory systems, such as twitter, tumblr, and ffffound! also demand certain forms of discipline in order to demonstrate personal taste and thus belong to a social user group.  I wonder what the new stylistic modes of conformism and innovation are within the apparent arbitrariness of tumblelogs (of which some of my favorites are pootee, uuiuu!, dtybywl, and pblks). In a way, I am reminded of the work of my friend Yanni Loukissas, who studies how ‘design’ is conceptualized within cultures of simulation (such as Arup). Partly seen through the collective work in this new book, Simulation and its Discontents (2009), brought together by Sherry Turkle, we are forced to think about what it means to be ‘immersed’ in a technology, be it of modelling or of networking.

Inspired in this reading, I wonder how the incessant circulation of images amongst these addicts of the visual reshifts notions of the past, of reuse and remix, of nostalgia and tastes, of “intellectual property”, and even of matters so commonly glossed over as color and surface. In fact, the activities of these rebloggers, who very often turn to what we could identify as architecturally-flavored images, really call into question the oft-debated and fantasized “autonomy” of architecture.

As a reblogger you can’t afford to allocate architecture any primacy above anything else. In a sense, both the reblogging personae and their images are immersions into an imagination of space that I personally find at times much more hybrid, artistic, social—and provocative—than a good percentage of stuff architects are making out there… Or the purist objects in many archi-blogs. Here are some random examples of circulated images:

Not to imply that the impact of these social networks is wholly good. I often find myself uncomfortable with disturbing and problematic representations of race, gender and class within these streams, but the bottom line is that this trend is ripe for further investigation with eyes and minds wide open. Hopefully there will be more opportunities to look further into this matter…

Meanwhile, in case you’re interested, I have been sharing links on Twitter (@javierest). An interesting new development is that now, thanks to twitmark, I can use Twitter to automatically save bookmarks onto delicious (javierarbona), which is a fantastic development.

Ernesto Neto at Park Ave. Armory

We went to see the Ernesto Neto installation (“anthropodino”) at the Armory drill hall last Saturday. Warning: photos, while I’ll offer some here for some context, are futile. What completes this piece is, for one, the smell of spices hanging from spermatozoa-like sacks, which also seem to correlate to different color zones in this gossamer being. Another dimension is the play spaces that the structure accomodates, although it seems more useful to children than anyone else.

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(Small) Theses?

As I write this post, I’m frazzled and in a multitask fog. But there are so many exciting things coming across my screen that I thought I had to share and at the very least register before I lose track. I started with the title “theses” because most of these loosely related items hinge upon some kind of thesis in one way or another. But the title is really just suggestive.

The state of craziness right now has to do with the fact that I have just finished an intense semester at Cornell’s architecture department, where I co-taught an MArch I (second year) studio, and a nifty little seminar on what I like to talk about as “everyday architectures”, or the in-between states where design comes into play materially as part of a larger political and social millieu. Anyway, if I can get around to it, I might post a syllabus. Finishing a semester usually means doing the usual grading madness, and returning books, but for me it also means, once again, packing up my belongings and sending ’em off to California, where they will await their owner’s return in August. Tomorrow morning I’ll jump on a bus to NYC, where more craziness awaits. Lots and lots of people to see and shows to catch…. (Columbia architecture show, Ernesto Neto’s Armory installation, ICFF-related stuff, 49 cities at Storefront, Dwell party?, Pin Up … It might be interesting to see how many things I can do in two days).

But lately I’ve been pondering many issues related to the dreaded architecture thesis. Oh yes. That one. The so-called capstone to design where you prove you’ve made your bones. This past semester was an intriguing one, being my first seeing thesis reviews at Cornell–from the other side of the range, that is (thank god). It was mighty interesting and saw some good projects. Others, mmm, not so good, perhaps, though usually some salvageable ideas.

Well, here is an image from one of the better ones (just cus this student has posted it online and others haven’t, that I know of… I wasn’t on this review but got to see the project after). This was in intriguing proposal to design the ruination and occupation of the decaying space of a post-military landscape (surely a topic close to my heart!)

By Garyhe33
By Garyhe33. click image for more.

Surely this student sticks to some Platonic forms in the landscape and perhaps consciously avoids prevalent trends in architecture (good for him!). Aside from the issue of vocabulary, it was also speculative –and detailed– at various scales, which was refreshing to see. Click the image for more.

But what worries me now is not so much an issue like the all-too-common incompleteness that made many potentially good projects not-so-good, in my opinion. For instance, if a student decides to design a building, then there’s gotta be some consistency from drawings to models and on to renderings. Perforations should be consistent throughout (not change in relative size from one mode of representation to the next), to name just one basic issue. And it’s galling what some get away with. But that happens every year.

What’s more serious is that I think we’ve gotten to a point, and Cornell is not the only one, where students have no position on what thesis itself can be. Maybe I am being romantic, but I think students should be able to explain why they had to do what they did. The thesis project would thus plumb the depths of a problem they conceptually should be able to frame. Yet there seem to be a series of trends going around — decoys, in a way. These are ways of getting away from justifying the scale(s) that the project intercedes in and the formats that were called upon to test the problem framed, if the student can frame it that is.

Another issue is a raft of quasi-scientific and “parametricized” projects shown unassailably as a thesis, just because of their seeming rigor. Also, then you have theses that show a building as a fait accompli… As if doing a building is automatically a thesis. Would the general spatial experience promised been accomplished with a few changes in grade or some kind of circulation system? Yes? Then why have a gigantic structure merely to “connect” portions of the city? That’s merely a simulation of a test, a test that actually has no strong variables.

But then on the other hand, there is also the issue of projects that promise to shift the very premises of architecture, only to then leave the jury deflated when there is no push to test it in some site or at the level of complexity of a program. Surely it seems the students can’t win no matter what, eh?… But then again, they can, if they take possession of what premises the thesis answers to and what it tests.

Philippe Rahm’s Archimedes House, a thesis-building if there ever was one. click for related Metropolis article.
Philippe Rahm’s Archimedes House, a thesis-building if there ever was one. click for related Metropolis article.

Somehow somewhere we need to discuss theses again. Maybe part of the problem is that the technology at the level of computation and at the level of outputs (laser-cutting, cnc milling) has made testing so easy, that it is even easier to forget, once again, these matters of the architectural scale of work. The multiples are so vast and the tests so endless that any size is seemingly possible. The screen space itself is subject to such a spectrum of scales of immersion (although often the students don’t understand them as such) that there is no longer a challenge of the basic assumptions. So, not to resolve the tensions brought up here… (no time for this today!)… But I just wanted to quickly scan a few projects that are small and have hit my inbox lately. just cus…

Alex Mergold and Jason Austin’s House in a can

The small, as a thesis or as part of one, need not mean the ‘final’ or the complete somehow, but a scale all-too-often overlooked. The scale of this next project is also a means to succinctly test larger ideas of nature and sociability…

A bird house where birds must work as a team to get into the food, by Chris Woebken

A bird house...where birds must work as a team to get into the food (by Nathalie Jeremijenko with Chris Woebken) one opening the latch while the other eats...or traps the other inside(!) Photo by CW.

Another interesting project is this award-winner spotted on Pruned. So simple… and yet, it’s the kind of thing you could imagine a thesis student doing on the fly, in the dead of night… to take an idea to its limits…

The Crack Garden, by CMG Landscape Architecture. Photo by Tom Fox.

The Crack Garden, by CMG Landscape Architecture. Photo by Tom Fox.

Another aspect that really intrigues me about the small scale (of course, the important question is how small), is its possibilities to evade capture, it’s stealth potential… It can be a scale to be manipulated for maximum spatial effect, but operating at a scale that many-a-times might be increasingly unimportant to the capitalist, and therefore pregnant with opportunities for lateral movement, invading sites, or registering landscape from an angle not commonly allowed by hegemony (also a key part of the CCA Actions show). In that sense, I am reminded of another recent small project by Austin + Mergold…

A good reuse for insulation... A CNC Kite, a nifty and evasive scale to work at.

A good reuse for insulation... A CNC Kite, a nifty and evasive, stealthy scale to work at.

Total tangential relation to that kite, but thought I would just point you to an awesome pirate music vid: Windsurf – Weird Energy. Maybe it has nothing to do with the rest of this post, but it could…At least it’s representations of architecture with sound, and speaking of sound, I might as well also bring into this post what Nick Sower’s has been doing as a mode of spatial investigation: audio recording, which could very well fit into this theme of smallness. Check out his blog soundscrapers for samples…

One more example, just for the hell of it… The park cycle by Rebar:

An elusive park

An elusive park. Photo: Rebar

And finally, I thought I would also point you to what looks to be a very intriguing book going to press right now, though probably misplaced here, as it certainly may not be a small thesis: Subnature, by a frequent conversation partner, David Gissen. Check it out. Put it on your shopping list. More stuff to come soon…

Architecture imagined as ecological

(To coincide with the Ecological Urbanism Conference at the Harvard GSD)

Not so long ago I heard from a former student. She was anguished and deciding between applying to one out of two master’s programs offered by a famous architectural institution that only let her apply to one. Her choice was between a program specialized in housing and another one in sustainability. What a choice! How symbolic, I thought, of the quagmire we’ve gotten ourselves into: To dwell…Or to survive! Let’s have a look…

The all-encompassing discourse of sustainability is tangled up with global geopolitics at every turn, but that discourse hides its tail. What’s worse is that “sustainable architecture” can be the proverbial “greenwash,” as I think has become more than evident. We would only have to pass a roll-call of all the eco-resorts done in years of economic fluidity. Thinking about a sustainable practice is (still) supposed to arouse in us a moral instinct of how to satisfy our needs without “compromising the needs of future generations”. The small house movement serves as a good example of an architecture informed by notions of what is said to be ‘basic’.

Our “needs,” however, are a mirage. We know that they are essentially malleable. They’re subject to crass marketing manipulation. They evolve through the sieves of culture and desire. They’re hard to pin down and it’s no accident that capitalism pulls the rug from underneath us as soon as we try. Besides, unless the global economic crisis ends up destroying capitalism, we satisfy our so-called needs through an increasingly global economy, despite the localist and nationalist fantasies some may have. Even if we didn’t have capitalism, we’d still have trade, and subscribers to notions of Malthusian natural limits fail to adequately take this into account. Sometimes the sustainability talk sounds to me even xenophobic in its suggestions that a certain number of citizens will have a right to the city (blurring further the notion of what is natural: Numerical limits? Naturalization, as in citizenship?)

The ideologues of sustainability might deny that it is an issue of power and not morals, but it is. It has to do with who determines how much is a reasonable need for some and not others, both at a local and global level. By the way, I’m sorry for even using these terms like “local” and “global” because they pertain to imprecise scales, especially when ecological processes are involved. But none of this has slowed down the field of architecture. As often times is clear in the works of architects like Michael Sorkin and other adherents to the “ecological footprint,” design is an index of how much nature is judged to be fair and balanced according to some metric of consumption.

For one thing, this implicitly privileges the first-world consumer. Architecture seems to always want to rectify, say, energy consumption but is usually passive (or silent…) about the overabundant economic resources of its patrons, except to sometimes mildly chastise their bad taste. For another thing, the implicit focus on consumers (of energy, of resources, of food…) validates the continual restoration of a global project of resource and space distribution. Architecture and planning help with the order and design of this distribution but practitioners can’t face it. Sustainable architecture has circumscribed itself to an environmental crisis but not a geopolitical one, probably so as to not offend any clients. The economic crisis has hit architects very hard and it partially evinces how interlaced the bubble economy and ecological principles were. We can’t even look at now-historic images of green buildings in Dubai without a painful grimace. The mythical rupture with the past rears its head again. But, what is the global idea of self-proclaimed “green” architecture? How do we see nature and our uses of it through the representations made by these forms of architecture?

I think we can identify two general responses to the questions. Both treat the environmental crisis as a problem whose solution lies in addressing consumption. As David Gissen points out (pdf), both responses also treat the natural and the social as two separate spheres. To this we should also add that both responses reassert an age-old divorce between city and country (at the expense of the country and the gain of the city). By the way, let me stop here and address what might be a big protest in the mind of the reader. I suspect that even when flashing images of “production” in the form of vertical farms and windmills, the real anxiety beneath the image is about how we might sustain our first world consumption, not create, say, a more bearable life for the actual human laborers that will compose the new “rurban” peasant class in these future cities, let alone even think about what the future countryside will be like (hint: it’ll be more brutal, not less).

In addition, the mode of thinking of green or ecological urbanism ultimately defends a hazy abstract idea of cities at all costs as inherently good for the planet. (And defends a notion of the world in which first world cities do not yield their place as the governators of finance, power, truth, migrations, ideas…). But let’s continue…

The first of these responses in the architecture world is abstention. This architecture imagines a world without humans. Architecture therefore is our UFO for visiting a planet that we can only damage and we should not touch. No surprise either that architects are so obsessed with documenting the design of post-apocalyptic bunkers, temporary military structures, inflatables of all sorts, and polar research stations (no worry, I love ’em too).

The second trend, which seems to dominate architects’ imaginations nowadays even more, is a strategy that attempts a metabolic relation with the planet, supposing that idealized science (as if science wasn’t ideological) can reveal the correct balance. I admit my own enthusiastic participation in this trend too. As much as anyone, I still demand and expect a response to our modernity’s crass relation to the environment. Nevertheless, the current architectural operations proposing this kind of benevolent cycling base their idea of nature on a nice Eden. Have you ever seen any green architects show renderings of their green cities in the fall or winter, or on a cloudy day, or in any inclement weather for that matter? This is no mere coincidence.

These ideas of nature are so rooted in the historic first world domestication of the rudeness of nature that their authors confuse socialized nature with primeval nature itself. ‘If we only let nature work, it would give us everything we need to consume.’ Did everyone think that so much lushness and farming envisioned in the city aren’t going to open up new Pandora’s boxes of infectious diseases and sanitation problems as we come into contact with more manure, more bacteria, and more wild animals that we urbanites are not at all “naturalized” to? Of course, that’s all fine and dandy; our powerful scientific establishment will (hopefully) take care of it, but if you thought that inoculations would be fairly distributed to the urban world population, think again. (This message brought to you by Pfizer).

Both of these architectural trends idealize nature as divorced from the economy, society, and politics. Both think of nature as a self-regenerating realm. They distort history because they forget that nature has always been social, starting with how, as Donna Haraway among others has articulated, the body itself, inside and out, has evolved through survival mechanisms necessitated by a larger totality.

Worse of all, as Gissen also points out (see “Anxious Climate” pdf), architects in these camps seem to isolate in their minds the knowledge necessary for their design enterprise from what they know about the nature they conceptualize. We have to ask ourselves how do we even know about the environmental crisis in the first place if not through the tools (satellites, computers, genetic tests) that reveal it? These tools, of course, are part and parcel of the industrial revolution that brought on the crisis itself, while at the same time, strains of green architecture use them to measure flows of energy, quantify wastes, produce renderings, and wire buildings throughout with the high-tech communications that we demand. As Gissen says: “In attempting to maintain an imagined separate “natural world” we have proliferated a messy network of links between nature and society.” Or in other words, it’s harder to isolate society from nature than what we want to think, or shall we go on this voyage without navigation tools? (Of course, some architects still latch onto that sort of radical back-to-nature primitivism).

As countless theorists have revealed, we’re dealing with a natural world that for some might seem implausible because of how artificial it actually is. Another aside: we have to remind ourselves that most of the ideas of nature we transact with are the product of a highly urbanized and male realm of thought, written by many men that have constantly liberated themselves from many direct encounters with nature thanks to the unjust division of work and the sexes, starting with child-rearing itself. But let’s keep going.

What we need, then, is a more fine-tuned approach. In other words, if these architectural options simulate nature as something we can consume in balanced ways or in some sort of moderation–or, absurdly, not consume it at all–the alternative must be an awareness that the current crisis is not one of environmental destruction, but of environmental production. Where we have failed is at producing livable natures for oursleves.

Of course, you might protest that many landscape architects and theorists have been discussing the “production of nature” for some time now, especially following the work of James Corner (or his writings), but that’s not what I’m talking about. So far, discussions on the production of nature in architecture have seemed to remain stuck, implying an ideal “first nature” somewhere out there, beyond the “second nature” that we produce, as well as suggesting that second nature can be somehow shorn from its market relations. We have so far failed to understand and work into architectural production a key insight from Neil Smith, following Marx, i.e. that under capitalism, second nature produces and comes to substitute first nature. (Obviously this point opens up a much larger series of questions but in the interest of time, those won’t be addressed at this moment).

To finish, then let’s take a look at a few examples that seem to start to open a new fork in the road. Though there is much work to be done, let’s take a look at some work that seems to internalize the complexity of a world where the organic and the industrial have been mixed for a very long time or were never even separate things.

One example continues the line of provocative investigations coming from R&Sie(n). “Lost in Paris” is the name of it. (Maybe on purpose or by accident they evoke a short film by Julio Cortázar that has the same name, where Cortázar’s character plays hide and seek with Carole Dunlop. Maybe the metaphor of the film works well to understand in a very useful shorthand the very behavior of nature in the capitalist world).

This “Lost” house resembles, at first, the usual rotation of green houses with their planted walls. (There is a fantastic post, by the way, on “Living Facades” by Owen Hatherly). In this case, the living facade seems almost cartoonish. These architects do seem to revel in sticking their tongue out at the establishment once in a while. The living wall goes a bit extreme, hiding hard architecture with soft architecture. But nothing here is quite what it seems.

This natural-seeming fern wall relies on a hydroponic system that feeds off of stored rain water and a mixture of minerals that the inhabitants have to adjust during the course of the seasons according to a manual of instructions that came with the house. What I find interesting about this project is the hydrosocial relation between photovoltaic beings, architectural systems, and humans, all seen through a hallucinatory ensemble. The ferns find their nutrition within a series of hanging vases that are nothing short of amazing. (See also ArchDaily’s post of it).

The system itself is a hybrid made by natural processes mixed in with manual labor, which includes the stunning human labor that went into making the vases and the inhabitant’s operations themselves. I suspect, though I haven’t asked them, that the architects wanted the house to be both a visual delight and an organic fright.

There is something to it that’s also perverse–perhaps a sophisticated joke. How is it that these humans now find themselves sustaining a plant that produces just about nothing except for maybe some clean oxygen and not, say, some yummy tomatoes? But then again, isn’t that what’s peculiar about all sorts of bourgeois social creations like private conservation easements? Isn’t that what modern living within nature–without having to actually labor it–is all about?

Surely, it’s a refined work. Somehow it also alienates us from our accustomed relationships with second nature. From what I can tell, the interior yields the sensation that someone drew a curtain and showed us an organism that we didn’t even want to see–an odious “organic machine”, as Richard White has termed it–although our lives depend on it. Unfortunately, this system also has something nostalgic encoded into it, something like a reaffirmation of an old modernity in the vein of the Frankfurt School, as if there was no alternative but to socialize nature by domesticating it.

What is another avenue? I’m not sure I know what it looks like. I think we can see the contours of it in some of the work of artist duo Allora y Calzadilla or in the recent work of Natalie Jeremijenko. These two folks, Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, have been generating a series of works where they experiment with dialectical relations between an artifice and an organism without falling into preaching about imposing stability or balance. Along a somewhat parallel line, Jeremijenko has been using architectural devices to reveal how the city itself is not just a second nature to animals, but that these animals have already partaken in forming social networks with urban dwellers for a very long time. What architecture does is reveal them.

In Allora y Calzadilla’s work, their monstrous ensembles don’t presuppose some kind of Promethean control over the system, as perhaps we see in the work of R&Sie(n). Who governs whom in these projects is never clear. And if the work will satisfy long-term collectors is also bravely unclear. As Tyler Green wrote in his blog about their piece “Artificial Light”: “The work is both relentlessly smart (I couldn’t help but think that long-ago decayed plant matter was powering the Holzer that was nourishing the Allora & Calzadilla plant) and a twisting of post-industrial assumptions. Can artificially-lit structures save their own environment?” That, my friends, is what saving the earth is all about, because there’s nothing quite “natural” about stuff like carbon credits.


This article first appeared in Spanish and was translated to English, with new modifications, by the author, Javier Arbona. (Published in Dialogo, March 2009, pp. 20-21. The original editor was Manuel Clavell-Carrasquillo. Any errors or ommissions are my own).

This new iteration comes thanks to an instigation by Quilian Riano and the GSD Ecological Urbanism blog.Thanks, Quilian!

Selected Further Reading related to post:

  • Noel Castree (2000). “Marxism and the Production of Nature”. Capital & Class. Autumn. link
  • David Gissen, HTC Experiments. See especially: 2007. “Anxious Climate: Architecture at the Edge of Environment” [MICA].
  • Oven Hatherly (2009). “Living Façades: green urbanism and the politics of urban offsetting.” The Measures Taken.
  • Neil Smith (1984). Uneven Development: Nature, Capital, and the Production of Space. New York: Basil Blackwell. (New edition now available)
  • Richard White (1996). The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River. Macmillan.

See also:

  • Mark Jarzombek (2003). “Sustainability, Architecture, and “Nature” Between Fuzzy Systems and Wicked Problems” Thresholds 26: denatured. Spring: 54-56.  PDF

Updated with new citations and clarifications. 4 April, 2009 @ 21:55