Animal Ballast

[Image: Veduta dell’Anfiteatro Flavio detto il Colosseo (1776), by Giovanni Battista Piranesi; courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art].

While going through a bunch of old books for another impending cross-country move, I found myself re-reading an interesting detail in The Colosseum by Keith Hopkins and Mary Beard.

In a discussion of that ruined megastructure, now symbolic of the entirety of ancient Rome, Hopkins and Beard point out that the colosseum was once home to a rather unexpected ecosystem, a displaced environment that did not correspond to the natural world outside its crumbling walls.

“For whatever reason—because of the extraordinary micro-climate within its walls,” they write, “or, as some thought more fancifully, because of the seeds that fell out of the fur of the exotic animals displayed in the ancient arena—an enormous range of plants, including some extraordinary rarities, thrived for centuries in the building ruins.”

The idea of entire landscapes, even alien ecologies populated with otherwise unrecognizable species, lying hidden in the fur of exotic animals, gradually encouraged to flourish by the weird winds of an architecturally induced micro-climate, is absolutely fascinating to contemplate. You could think of them as animal ballast gardens, stuck like burrs on the unseen surfaces of the everyday world, waiting to prosper.

The Anthropocene is much older than today’s conversations seem able to admit; it began in patches, sprouting here and there in the broken stones of old buildings, transported across continents one seed at a time until the entire planet now is ablaze with artificial landscapes, a planet out of joint.

(Don’t miss BLDGBLOG’s two-part interview with Mary Beard, discussing her “Wonders of the World” series).

Local Code

[Image: Local Code by Nicholas de Monchaux].

Architect Nicholas de Monchaux—whom you might remember from, among other things, a long interview on BLDGBLOG a few years back—has a new book out this week.

[Image: Local Code by Nicholas de Monchaux].

Local Code is an exploration of design variants and latent possibilities in overlooked parcels of urban space. It is “as much design speculation as narrative (and as much obsession as exposition),” he explains.


[Images: Local Code by Nicholas de Monchaux].

The book includes no fewer than “3,659 drawings of designs (by me!) for vacant lots and spaces in New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and the Venice Lagoon, highlighting how such spaces can play an essential and unique role in providing ecological, social, and cultural resilience. Inspired originally by Gordon Matta-Clark’s Fake Estates project, the book has become a graphic and intellectual meditation on cities, networks, data and resilience.”

[Image: Local Code by Nicholas de Monchaux].

The book’s thesis is that “vacant public land”—by which de Monchaux means everything from “land under billboards in Los Angeles, ­dead-end alleys in San Francisco, city-owned vacant lots in New York City, and abandoned islands in the Venetian lagoon”—actually contain “unrecognized potential as a social and ecological resource.” The accompanying explosion of drawings and diagrams is meant to tease out what some of these potentials might be.

Consider picking up a copy, check out the book’s introduction online, and don’t forget to click back to BLDGBLOG’s interview with de Monchaux about the design history of the Apollo spacesuit.

Bacteria Rule Everything Around Me

HInder3[Image: From Financial Growth by Heidi Hinder; photo by Jonathan Rowley].

I somewhat randomly found myself reading back through the irregularly updated blog of the British Museum earlier today when I learned about a project by Bristol-based artist Heidi Hinder called Financial Growth.

Financial Growth, Hinder explains in her guest post for the blog, is a still-ongoing “series of petri dish experiments.” It “reveals the bacteria present on coins and suggests that each time we make a cash transaction, we are exchanging more than just the monetary value and some tangible tokens. Hard currency could become a point of contagion.”

Hinder1[Image: From Financial Growth by Heidi Hinder; photo by Jonathan Rowley].

While Hinder develops this train of thought into a lengthy and provocative look at other means by which human beings could exchange microbes and bacteria for the purposes of financial interaction, I was actually unable to go much beyond than sheer awe at the basic premise of the project.

Hinder4[Image: From Financial Growth by Heidi Hinder; photo by Jonathan Rowley].

By culturing individual coins, Hinder has revealed a vibrant ecosystem of microscopic lifeforms thriving, garden-like, on every monetary token in our pockets; these are landscapes-in-waiting that we carry around with us every day.

Hinder6 [Image: From Financial Growth by Heidi Hinder; photo by Jonathan Rowley].

I was reminded of the famous shot of “the bacteria that grew when an 8-year-old boy who had been playing outside pressed his hand onto a large Petri dish,” posted to Microbe World last autumn.

IMG_6288[Image: Via Microbe World].

We’re surrounded by the unexpected side-effects of these portable microbial communities.

We leave our traces everywhere—but we bear the traces of innumerable others, in turn, trafficking amongst microbiomes that are content to remain invisible until we force them to reveal themselves.

HInder2[Image: Via Microbe World].

Think of artist Maria Thereza Alves’s project, Seeds of Change, for example, a “ballast seed garden” that explored the hidden landscapes unwittingly carried along by ships of European maritime trade, with seeds unceremoniously dumped as part of their ballast, often centuries old.

[Image: Maria Thereza Alves’s Seeds of Change garden, via Facebook].

These were seeds left behind specifically from the ballast of ships—yet isn’t that exactly what Hinder’s project also explores, the portable, everyday ballast of bacteria left behind on our cash, our coins, our hands, our bodies?

After all, 94% of the money we handle every day has human feces on it. Put it in a petri dish and be wary of what begins to grow.

While Hinder’s larger point is that perhaps we could design a microbe-exchange economy based on the already-existing trade in bacteria we are all currently engaged in, whether we know it or not, the brute-force power of revelation makes Financial Growth grotesquely compelling.

We bring with us nearly infinite potential landscapes, carrying them in our wallets, purses, and pockets—on our hands, in the random waste left behind by ships and even airplanes—forming new, erratic ecosystems, a pop-up micro-wilderness we’re unable to control.

Typographic Forestry and Other Landscapes of Translation

[Image: The cover for About Trees, edited by Katie Holten].

Artist Katie Holten—who participated in “Landscapes of Quarantine” a few years back—has just published an interesting book called About Trees.

It is essentially an edited compilation of texts about, yes, trees, but also about forests, landscapes of the anthropocene, unkempt wildness, altered ecosystems, and, more broadly speaking, the idea of nature itself.

It ranges from short texts by Robert Macfarlane—recently discussed here—to James Gleick, and from Amy Franceschini to Natalie Jeremijenko. These join a swath of older work by Jorge Luis Borges, with even Radiohead (“Fake Plastic Trees”) thrown in for good measure.

It’s an impressively nuanced selection, one that veers between the encyclopedic and the folkloric, and it has been given a great and memorable graphic twist by the fact that Holten, working with designer Katie Brown, generated a new font using nothing less than the silhouettes of trees.

Every letter of the alphabet corresponds to a specific species of tree.

[Image: The tree typeface from About Trees, edited by Katie Holten].

This has been put to good use, re-setting the existing texts using this new font—with the delightful effect of seeing the work of Jorge Luis Borges transcribed, in effect, into trees.

This has the awesome implication that someone could actually plant this: a typographic forestry of Borges translations.

[Image: Borges, translated into trees, from About Trees].

Speculative short stories realized as ornamental thickets in the backyards of arboreally inclined landowners.

Given all the urban parks, hedge mazes, and scientifically accurate themed gardens of the world—two of my favorites being the exquisite Silver Garden at Longwood Gardens and the scifi otherworldliness of the Desert Garden at the Huntington—surely there is room for a kind of translation landscape?

Stories and fables—koans, slogans, poems, wisecracks—planted as cryptoforests, literary labyrinths you could somehow, impossibly, read provided you know what each species is meant to signify.

Just take Holten’s typeface as a new kind of planting guide, and see what landscapes might result.

[Image: From About Trees].

Holten’s About Trees is available for purchase, of course, if you want to check it out; in the meantime, I’ll keep my fingers crossed that someone actually implements a typographic grove somewhere, a planted language of texts flipped into readable tree-signs, sequenced using the font from About Trees.

In fact, recall the myth of Odin discovering the Nordic runes: hanging upside-down from a tree and mistaking, in the especially complicated carpet of roots sprawled out beneath him, the beginnings of a new typeface, an arboreal symbol system that could be written down and shared with others. Runes came from roots—and, as Holten implies, every tree contains a library.

Immaculate Ecologies

[Image: Via the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge].

“We will put up the mountains. We will lay out the prairie. We will cut rivers to join the lakes.” So says the narrator of a nice piece of ecosystem fiction by my friend Scott Geiger published over at Nautilus.

This corporate spokesperson is building virgin terrain: “all-new country, elevated and secured from downstairs, with a growing complement of landforms, clean waters, ecologies, wilderness.”

I was reminded of Geiger’s work when I came across an old bookmark here on my computer, with a story that reads like something straight out of the golden age of science fiction: a corporate conglomerate, intent on spanning vast gulfs of space, finds itself engineering an entire ecosystem into existence on a remote stopping-off point, turning bare rocks into an oasis, in order to ensure that its empire can expand.

This could be the premise of a Hugo Award-winning interplanetary space opera—or it could be the real-life history of the Commercial Pacific Cable Company.

[Image: Via the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge].

The Company was the first to lay a direct submarine cable from the United States to East Asia, but this required the use of a remote atoll, 1,300 miles northwest of Honolulu, called Midway, not yet famous for its role in World War II.

At the time, however, there was barely anything more there than “low, sandy island[s] with little vegetation,” considered by the firm’s operations manager to be “unfit for human habitation.” The tiny islands—some stretches no more than sandbars—would have been impossible to use, let alone to settle.

Like Geiger’s plucky terraforming super-company, putting up the mountains and laying out the prairie, the Cable Company and its island operations manager “initiated the long process of introducing hundreds of new species of flora and fauna to Midway.”

During this period, the superintendent imported soil from Honolulu and Guam to make a fresh vegetable garden and decorate the grounds. By 1921, approximately 9,000 tons of imported soil changed the sandy landscape forever. Today, the last living descendants of the Cable Company’s legacy still flutter about: their pet canaries. The cycad palm, Norfolk Island Pine, ironwood, coconut, the deciduous trees, everything seen around the cable compound is alien. Since Midway lacked both trees and herbivorous animals, the ironwood trees spread unchecked throughout the Atoll. What else came in with the soil? Ants, cockroaches, termites, centipedes; millions of insects which never could have made the journey on their own.

Strangely, the evolved remnants of this corporate ecosystem are now an international bird refuge, as if saving space for the feral pets of long-dead submarine cable operators.

[Image: Via the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge].

The preserved ruins of old Cable Company buildings stand amidst the trees, surely now home to many of those “millions of insects which never could have made the journey on their own.” Indeed, “the four main Cable Company buildings, constructed of steel beams and concrete with twelve-inch thick first-story walls, have fought a tough battle with termites, corrosion, and shifting sands for nearly a century.”

It is a built environment even down to the biological scale—a kind of time-release landscape now firmly established and legally protected.

It’s worth pointing out, however, that the constructed frontier lands of Scott Geiger’s fictions and the national park of curated species still fluttering their wings at Midway share much with the even stranger story of terraforming performed by none other than Charles Darwin on Ascension Island.

This is, in the BBC’s words, “the amazing story of how the architect of evolution, Kew Gardens and the Royal Navy conspired to build a fully functioning, but totally artificial ecosystem.” It’s worth quoting at length:

Ascension was an arid island, buffeted by dry trade winds from southern Africa. Devoid of trees at the time of Darwin and [his friend, the botanist Joseph] Hooker’s visits, the little rain that did fall quickly evaporated away.

Egged on by Darwin, in 1847 Hooker advised the Royal Navy to set in motion an elaborate plan. With the help of Kew Gardens—where Hooker’s father was director—shipments of trees were to be sent to Ascension.

The idea was breathtakingly simple. Trees would capture more rain, reduce evaporation and create rich, loamy soils. The “cinder” would become a garden.

So, beginning in 1850 and continuing year after year, ships started to come. Each deposited a motley assortment of plants from botanical gardens in Europe, South Africa and Argentina.

Soon, on the highest peak at 859m (2,817ft), great changes were afoot. By the late 1870s, eucalyptus, Norfolk Island pine, bamboo, and banana had all run riot.

It’s not a wilderness forest, then, but a feral garden “run riot” on the slopes of a remote, militarized island outpost (one photographed, I should add, by photographer Simon Norfolk, as discussed in this earlier interview on BLDGBLOG).

[Image: The introduced forestry of Ascension Island, via Google Maps].

In a sense, Ascension’s fog-capturing forests are like the “destiny trees” from Scott Geiger’s story in Nautilus—where “there are trees now that allow you to select pretty much what form you want ten, fifteen, twenty years down the road”—only these are entire destiny landscapes, pieced together for their useful climatic side-effects.

For anyone who happened to catch my lecture at Penn this past March, the story of Ascension bears at least casual comparison to the research of Christine Hastorf at UC Berkeley. Hastorf has written about the “feral gardens” of the Maya, or abandoned landscapes once deeply cultivated but now shaggy and overgrown, all but indistinguishable from nature. For Hastorf, many of the environments we currently think of as Central American rain forest are, in fact, a kind of indirect landscape architecture, a terrain planted and pruned long ago and thus not wilderness at all.

Awesomely, the alien qualities of this cloud forest can be detected. As one ecologist remarked to the BBC after visiting the island, “I remember thinking, this is really weird… There were all kinds of plants that don’t belong together in nature, growing side by side. I only later found out about Darwin, Hooker and everything that had happened.” It was like stumbling upon a glitch in the matrix.

In the case of these islands, I love the fact that historically real human behavior competes, on every level, for sheer outlandishness with the best of science fiction for its creation of entire ecosystems in remote, otherwise inhospitable environments; advanced landscaping has become indistinguishable from planetology. And, in Scott Geiger’s case, I love the fact that the perceived weirdness of his story comes simply from the scale at which he describes these landscape activities being performed.

In other words, Geiger is describing something that actually happens all the time; we just refer to it as the suburbs, or even simply as landscaping, a near-ubiquitous spatial practice that is no less other-worldly for taking place one half-acre at a time.

[Image: A suburban landscape being rolled out into the forest like carpet; photo by BLDGBLOG].

Soon, even the discordant squares of grass seen in the above photograph will seem as if they’ve always been there: a terrain-like skin graft thriving under unlikely circumstances.

Think of a short piece in New Scientist earlier this year: “All this is forcing enthusiasts to reconsider what ‘nature’ really is. In many places, true wilderness vanished thousands of years ago, and the landscapes we think of as natural are largely artificial.”

Indeed, like something straight out of a Geiger short story, “thousands of years from now our descendants may think of African lions roaming American plains as ‘natural’ too.”

The Meadowlands

I’ve just finished reading The Meadowlands: Wilderness Adventures on the Edge of a City by Robert Sullivan, a book perfectly discussed in the visual context of Meadowlands, a collection of photographs by Joshua Lutz (for which Sullivan actually wrote an introduction).

[Image: From Meadowlands by Joshua Lutz].

“Just five miles west of New York City,” the back cover of Sullivan’s book reads, are the Meadowlands: “this vilified, half-developed, half-untamed, much dumped-on, and sometimes odiferous tract of swampland is home to rare birds and missing bodies, tranquil marshes and a major sports arena, burning garbage dumps and corporate headquarters, the remains of the original Penn Station, and maybe, just maybe, of the late Jimmy Hoffa.” It is “mysterious ground that is not yet guidebooked,” Sullivan writes inside, “where European landscape painters once set up their easels to paint the quiet tidal estuaries and old cedar swamps,” but where, now, “there are real hills in the Meadowlands and there are garbage hills. The real hills are outnumbered by the garbage hills.”

Lutz’s book describes the region as a “32-square-mile stretch of sweeping wilderness that evokes morbid fantasies of Mafia hits and buried remains.” As Lutz explained in a 2008 interview with Photoshelter, “When I first saw the Meadowlands I was completely blown away at this vast open space with the Manhattan skyline in the distance. It was this space that existed between spaces, somewhere between urban and suburban all the while made up of swamps, towns and intersecting highways. None of it made any sense to me, still doesn’t.”

All told, the area has become, Sullivan writes, “through negligence, through exploitation, and through its own chaotic persistence, explorable again.”

[Images: The Meadowlands: Wilderness Adventures on the Edge of a City by Robert Sullivan and Meadowlands by Joshua Lutz].

To write his book, Sullivan went on a series of explorations through the Meadowlands, including by canoe and in the company of a former police detective.

While there are definitely some moments of rhetorical over-kill, the book is so filled with interesting details that it proved very hard to stop reading; in between learning about the “discharged liquefied animal remains” that were dumped into the region’s streams and rivers, or the “major pet company and Meadowlands development firm” that “drove so many steel girders into the ground that people joked Secaucus would become a new magnetic pole,” or even the old—and, unfortunately, forgotten—mine shafts that began swallowing a development called the Schuyler Condominiums, Sullivan’s book, like any good and truly local history, builds to a level of narrative portraiture that is as braided and fractally involuted as the wetlands it documents.

[Image: From Meadowlands by Joshua Lutz].

For instance, Sullivan discovers a flooded radio transmission room, “its giant antenna felled in the water like a child’s broken toy,” as well as “little islands, composed wholly of reeds,” one of which, in the middle of soggy nowhere and accessible only by boat, was “surrounded by bright yellow police emergency tape: CAUTION, the tape said.”

Relating the litany of pollutions that exist in the swamps, he guides the reader’s eye toward ponds of cyanide, truckloads of “unregulated medical waste,” and soil so thoroughly contaminated with mercury that, “as recently as 1980, it was possible to dig a hole in the ground and watch it fill with balls of shiny silvery stuff.”

This might even have affected the New York Giants football team after they moved into Meadowlands Stadium: “In the mid-1980s, playing football in the Meadowlands meant possibly risking your life, because shortly after the stadium opened players for the Giants began developing cancer… ‘Players complained of occasionally foul-smelling water, and the high incidence of leukemia in adjacent Rutherford…'” No official medical link was either admitted or found. Indeed, certain streams are really a kind of “garbage juice”—an “espresso of refuse,” as Sullivan nauseatingly describes it.

In many places, the so-called ground is, in fact, trash—so much so that “underground fires are still common today… you can see little black holes where the hills have recently burped hot gases or fire… huge underground plumes of carbon dioxide and of warm moist methane, giant stillborn tropical winds that seep through the ground to feed the Meadowlands’ fires, or creep up into the atmosphere,” forming a particularly Dantean local climatology of reeking crosswinds. One of these fires “burned for fifteen years.”

[Image: Bow-hunting amidst the reeds, from Meadowlands by Joshua Lutz].

The Meadowlands are, after all, a massive dump, more landfill than landscape. The effect, though, is a kind of new picturesque, an engineered sublime of artificial hills, deltaic chemical accumulants, cheap hotels overlooking it all on the periphery, and even entire lost buildings buried beneath three centuries of dumping. “If you put a shovel anywhere into the ground and dig just about anywhere in the Meadowlands,” Sullivan writes, “it won’t be long until you hit rubble from a building that was once somewhere else.”

In Kearny, one old dump contains pieces of what was once Europe. In 1941, under the auspices of the Lend-Lease Act, shipments of defense equipment went from the United States to Great Britain by boat. On their return trip, the boats used rubble from London bombings as ballast. William Keegan, a Kearny dump owner, contracted to accept the ballast. As a result, some of the hills of the Kearny Meadows are London Hills.

This is actually also true for New York’s FDR Drive, which is partially constructed on British war ruins used as fill.

[Image: An awesomely sinister photo from Meadowlands by Joshua Lutz].

There is an amazing chapter about mosquito control in the region, something I want to return to in a future post someday; another about treasure hunters on a quest for Revolutionary War-era gold and silver; and another about the construction of the hulking and monumental Pulaski Skyway. Before that oddly tunnel-like, 3.5-mile, elevated roadway was built, “ferries and sailboats took passengers from New York to Newark via Jersey City,” but, like something out of a Terry Gilliam film, “it was not unusual for papers to report that a ship making the trip had been blown out to sea and never been seen again.”

I could go on and on. There is even an entire subplot in which Sullivan hunts down the buried remains of New York’s Penn Station.

I want to end, though, with something said by the retired police detective who takes Sullivan under his wing on a series of driving tours toward the end of the book. When Sullivan asks the former investigator if he misses his job, the response is intelligent, thoughtful, and extraordinary. I’ll quote it in full:

“I miss it to this day, to this minute,” he said. “And do you know why? Because it takes you a long time to accumulate the knowledge.”
He pointed out the car. “Like for instance,” he continued, “look over there at that building, that warehouse. See how one door is open and one door looks like it’s closed up. Now, what I’ll do is store that. Keep it in my head. And see that sign over there in front of that building? You remember that. You remember that because you may need it someday. It may be useful. You accumulate the knowledge. Do you see what I mean? And then all of a sudden you’re supposed to just stop.”
He shook his head and started the car moving again, driving slowly up out of the swamp, up the hill. “The thing is, you just can’t,” he said.

This hermeneutic attention to everyday details—through which open warehouse doors or unusually parked cars all become raw data accumulated over decades for use in some later, possibly never-to-occur narrative dissection—is exactly the task not only of the detective but of the writer, and of anyone who would attempt to study an existing landscape in order to uncover its most unexpected and far-reaching implications.

In any case, together with Lutz’s photos of the region and its very particular anthropology—which Lutz discusses in an interview with Conscientious, remarking that the Meadowlands are “an astonishing mixture of towns, swamps, trains, motels and an amazing array of bisecting highways all trying to keep you out”—both books have been invigorating encounters over the past week or two, and each is worth checking out if you get the chance.

Books Received

[Image: Bookstore for Shibuya Publishing, Japan, designed by Hiroshi Nakamura].

Through a combination of publisher review copies and the slow-to-end fire sale at my favorite local bookstore, Stacey’s – they’ve gone out of business and are selling everything at 50% off, including now even the furniture – BLDGBLOG’s home office is awash in books. Since there literally is not enough time left in a person’s life to read all of these, I decided that I would instead start a new, regular series of posts on the blog called “Books Received” – these will be short descriptions of, and links to, interesting books that have crossed my desk.
Note that these lists will include books I have not read in full – but they will never include books that don’t deserve the attention.
Note, as well, that if you yourself have a book you’d like to see on BLDGBLOG, get in touch – send us a copy, and, if it fits the site, we’ll mention your title in a future Books Received.

1) Oase #75 and #76Oase is an excellent architecture and urban studies journal published by the Netherlands Architecture Institute and designed by Karel Martens of Werkplaats Typografie. Oase #75 is the 25th anniversary issue, and includes essays from Jurjen Zeinstra (“Houses of the Future”), René Boomkens (“Modernism, Catastrophe and the Public Realm”), and Frans Sturkenboom (“Come una ola de fuerza y luz: On Borromini’s Naturalism”), among many, many others. To be honest, there is so much interesting material in this issue that it’s hard to know where to start; look for this in specialty architecture bookstores and definitely consider picking up a copy. Meanwhile, Oase #76 arrived just in time for me to quote part of its interview with photographer Bas Princen in The BLDGBLOG Book – but the entire issue, bilingually printed in both English and Dutch and themed around what the editors call “ContextSpecificity,” is worth reading. There’s a whole section on “In-Between Buildings,” itself coming between long looks at context, tradition, and the generation of architectural form. #76 also includes virtuoso displays of how to push the typographic grid. A new favorite.

2) Blank Spots on the Map: The Dark Geography of the Pentagon’s Secret World by Trevor Paglen (Dutton) — Trevor Paglen is an “experimental geographer” at UC-Berkeley, well-known – perhaps infamous – for his successful efforts in tracking unmarked CIA rendition flights around the world. Using optical equipment normally associated with astronomy, Paglen has managed to photograph the goings-on of deep desert military bases and has even been able to follow US spy satellites through what he calls “the other night sky.” This book serves more or less as an introduction to Paglen’s work, from Afghanistan to Los Alamos.

3) The Thief at the End of the World: Rubber, Power, and the Seeds of Empire by Joe Jackson (Penguin) — Jackon’s book, new in paperback, explores the industrial implications of monopoly plantlife, telling the story of Henry Wickham, who “smuggled 70,000 rubber tree seeds out of the rainforests of Brazil and delivered them to Victorian England’s most prestigious scientists at Kew Gardens.” This led directly to the “great rubber boom of the early twentieth century,” we read – which itself resulted in such surreal sites as Henry Ford’s failed utopian-industrial instant city in the rain forest, Fordlandia. Here, Jackson describes that city, now in ruins and like something from a novel by Patrick McGrath:

The American Villa still stands on the hill. The green and white cottages line the shady lane, but the only residents now are fruit bats and trap-door tarantulas. The state-of-the-art hospital shipped from Michigan is deserted. Broken bottles and patient records litter the floor. A towering machine shop houses a 1940s-era ambulance, now on blocks. A riverside warehouse built to hold huge sheets of processed rubber holds six empty coffins arranged in a circle around the ashes of a small campfire.

Check out Jackson’s website for a bit more.

4) Ghettostadt: Łódź and the Making of a Nazi City by Gordon J. Horwitz (Harvard University Press) — By choosing the historical experience of Łódź, Poland, during its political assimilation and ethnic ghettoization by the Nazis, Gordon Horwitz shows how a long series of seemingly minor bureaucratic decisions can radically alter the normal urban order of things, paving the way for something as nightmarish as the Final Solution. This latter fact Horwitz memorably describes as “a phenomenon so unexpected and outrageous in design and execution as to exceed the then-understood limits of organized human cruelty.” About Łódź itself, he writes: “Secured by German arms, reshaped by German planning and technical expertise, the city was to be remade inside and out.” Horwitz shows how property confiscation, spatial rezoning, and literal new walls transformed Łódź into a Ghettostadt.

5) Condemned Building by Douglas Darden (Princeton Architectural Press) — The late Douglas Darden’s work seems both underknown and underexposed (perhaps because so little of it can be found online). This book, published in 1993, collects ten speculative projects, including the Museum of Impostors, the Clinic for Sleep Disorders, and the Oxygen House, complete with plans, models, elevations, and historical engravings. Darden’s work is an interesting hybrid of narrative fiction, visual storytelling, and architectural design – and so naturally of great interest to BLDGBLOG. For instance, his “Temple Forgetful” project weds amnesia, flooding, and the mythic origins of Rome. Good stuff.

6) Architecture Depends by Jeremy Till (MIT Press) — Architectural theory written with the rhetorical pitch of a blog, Architecture Depends is a kind of from-the-hip philosophy of “rogue objects,” construction waste, massive landfills, “lo-fi architecture,” and the fate of buildings over long periods of time. As Till states in the book’s preface, “Mess is the law.”

7) Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the Twenty-first Century by P.W. Singer (Penguin) — An extremely provocative look at the future of war in an age of robot swarms and autonomous weaponry, Singer’s book is nonetheless a bit too casual for its own good (reading that Singer wrote the book because robots are “frakin’ cool” doesn’t help me trust the author’s sense of self-editing). Having said that, there is so much here to discuss and explore further that it’s impossible not to recommend the book – eyepopping micro-histories of individual war machines come together with Singer’s on-the-scene anthropological visits to robotics labs and military testing grounds, by way of Artificially Intelligent snipers, drone “motherships” forming militarized constellations in the sky, and even “mud batteries” and automated undersea warfare. Like Singer’s earlier Corporate Warriors – another book I would quite strongly recommend – the often terrifying implications of Wired for War nag at you long after you’ve stopped reading. For what it’s worth, by the way, this book seems almost perfectly timed for the release of Terminator Salvation.

8) Sand: The Never-Ending Story by Michael Welland (University of California Press) — This book is awesome, and I hope to draw a much longer post out of it soon. Only slightly marred by an unfortunate subtitle, Welland’s book is disproportionately fascinating, considering its subject matter. On the other hand, “it has been estimated,” he writes, “that on the order of a billion sand grains are born around the world every second” (emphasis his) – so the sheer ubiquity of his referent makes the book worth reading. From the early history of sand studies to the aerial physics of dunes – by way of the United States’ little-known WWII-era Military Geology Unit – the interesting details of this book are inexhaustible.

9) A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir by Donald Worster (Oxford University Press) — Donald Worster has written a long biography of John Muir, the naturalist and writer who once famously climbed as high as he could into the canopy of a Californian forest during a lightning storm so that he could see what it was like to experience nature firsthand. At its most basic, Worster’s book explores the natural landscape of the American West as “a source of liberation.”

Going into wild country freed one from the repressive hand of authority. Social deferences faded in wild places. Economic rank ceased to matter so much. Bags of money were not needed for survival – only one’s wits and knowledge. Nature offered a home to the political maverick, the rebellious child, the outlaw or runaway slave, the soldier who refused to fight, and, by the late nineteenth century, the woman who climbed mountains to show her strength and independence.

Worster himself is an environmental historian at the University of Kansas.

10) Le Corbusier: A Life by Nicholas Fox Weber (Alfred A. Knopf) — I’m strangely excited to read this, actually – and I say “strangely” because I am not otherwise known for my interest in reading about Le Corbusier. But Nicholas Fox Weber’s approximately 765 pages of biographical reflection on Corbu’s life look both narratively satisfying, as a glimpse into the man’s daily ins and outs over eight decades, but also architecturally minded, contextualizing Le Corbusier’s spatial work within his other political (and libidinal) interests. I hope to dive into this one over the summer.

* * *

All Books Received: August 2015, September 2013, December 2012, June 2012, December 2010 (“Climate Futures List”), May 2010, May 2009, and March 2009.

Comparative Planetology: An Interview with Kim Stanley Robinson

[Image: The face of Nicholson Crater, Mars, courtesy of the ESA].

According to The New York Times Book Review, the novels of Nebula and Hugo Award-winning author Kim Stanley Robinson “constitute one of the most impressive bodies of work in modern science fiction.” I might argue, however, that Robinson is fundamentally a landscape writer.
That is, Robinson’s books are not only filled with descriptions of landscapes – whole planets, in fact, noted, sensed, and textured down to the chemistry of their soils and the currents in their seas – but his novels are often about nothing other than vast landscape processes, in the midst of which a few humans stumble along. “Politics,” in these novels, is as much a question of social justice as it is shorthand for learning to live in specific environments.

In his most recent trilogy – Forty Signs of Rain, Fifty Degrees Below, and Sixty Days and Counting – we see the earth becoming radically unlike itself through climate change. Floods drown the U.S. capital; fierce winter ice storms leave suburban families powerless, in every sense of the word; and the glaciers of concrete and glass that we have mistaken for civilization begin to reveal their inner weaknesses.
The stand-alone novel Antarctica documents the cuts, bruises, and theoretical breakthroughs of environmental researchers as they hike, snowshoe, sledge, belay, and fly via helicopter over the fractured canyons and crevasses of the southern continent. They wander across “shear zones” and find rooms buried in the ice, natural caves linked together like a “shattered cathedral, made of titanic columns of driftglass.”
Meanwhile, in Robinson’s legendary Mars TrilogyRed Mars, Blue Mars, and Green Mars – the bulk of the narrative is, again, complete planetary transformation, this time on Mars. The Red Planet, colonized by scientists, is deliberately remade – or terraformed – to be climatically, hydrologically, and agriculturally suited for human life. Yet this is a different kind of human life – it, too, has been transformed: politically and psychologically.
In his recent book Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions, Fredric Jameson devotes an entire chapter to Robinson’s Mars Trilogy. Jameson writes that “utopia as a form is not the representation of radical alternatives; it is rather simply the imperative to imagine them.”
Across all his books, Robinson is never afraid to imagine these radical alternatives. Indeed, in the interview posted below he explains that “I’ve been working all my career to try to redefine utopia in more positive terms – in more dynamic terms.”

In the following interview, then, Kim Stanley Robinson talks to BLDGBLOG about climate change, from Hurricane Katrina to J.G. Ballard; about the influence of Greek island villages on his descriptions of Martian base camps; about life as a 21st century primate in the 24/7 “techno-surround”; how we must rethink utopia as we approach an age without oil; whether “sustainability” is really the proper thing to be striving for; and what a future archaeology of the space age might find.
This interview also includes previously unpublished photos by Robinson himself, taken in Greece and Antarctica.

• • •

BLDGBLOG: I’m interested in the possibility that literary genres might have to be redefined in light of climate change. In other words, a novel where two feet of snow falls on Los Angeles, or sand dunes creep through the suburbs of Rome, would be considered a work of science fiction, even surrealism, today; but that same book, in fifty years’ time, could very well be a work of climate realism, so to speak. So if climate change is making the world surreal, then what it means to write a “realistic” novel will have to change. As a science fiction novelist, does that affect how you approach your work?

Kim Stanley Robinson: Well, I’ve been saying this for a number of years: that now we’re all living in a science fiction novel together, a book that we co-write. A lot of what we’re experiencing now is unsurprising because we’ve been prepped for it by science fiction. But I don’t think surrealism is the right way to put it. Surrealism is so often a matter of dreamscapes, of things becoming more than real – and, as a result, more sublime. You think, maybe, of J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World, and the way that he sees these giant catastrophes as a release from our current social set-up: catastrophe and disaster are aestheticized and looked at as a miraculous salvation from our present reality. But it wouldn’t really be like that.

I started writing about Earth’s climate change in the Mars books. I needed something to happen on Earth that was shocking enough to allow a kind of historical gap in which my Martians could realistically establish independence. I had already been working with Antarctic scientists who were talking about the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, and how unstable it might be – so I used that, and in Blue Mars I showed a flooded London. But after you get past the initial dislocations and disasters, what you’ve got is another landscape to be inhabited – another situation that would have its own architecture, its own problems, and its own solutions.

To a certain extent, later, in my climate change books, I was following in that mold with the flood of Washington DC. I wrote that scene before Katrina. After Katrina hit, my flood didn’t look the same. I think it has to be acknowledged that the use of catastrophe as a literary device is not actually adequate to talk about something which, in the real world, is often so much worse – and which comes down to a great deal of human suffering.

So there may have been surreal images coming out of the New Orleans flood, but that’s not really what we take away from it.

[Image: Refugees gather outside the Superdome, New Orleans, post-Katrina].

BLDGBLOG: Aestheticizing these sorts of disasters can also have the effect of making climate change sound like an adventure. In Fifty Degrees Below, for instance, you wrote: “People are already fond of the flood… It was an adventure. It got people out of their ruts.” The implication is that people might actually be excited about climate change. Is there a risk that all these reports about flooded cities and lost archipelagoes and new coastlines might actually make climate change sound like some sort of survivalist adventure?

Robinson: It’s a failure of imagination to think that climate change is going to be an escape from jail – and it’s a failure in a couple of ways.

For one thing, modern civilization, with six billion people on the planet, lives on the tip of a gigantic complex of prosthetic devices – and all those devices have to work. The crash scenario that people think of, in this case, as an escape to freedom would actually be so damaging that it wouldn’t be fun. It wouldn’t be an adventure. It would merely be a struggle for food and security, and a permanent high risk of being robbed, beaten, or killed; your ability to feel confident about your own – and your family’s and your children’s – safety would be gone. People who fail to realize that… I’d say their imaginations haven’t fully gotten into this scenario.

It’s easy to imagine people who are bored in the modern techno-surround, as I call it, and they’re bored because they have not fully comprehended that they’re still primates, that their brains grew over a million-year period doing a certain suite of activities, and those activities are still available. Anyone can do them; they’re simple. They have to do with basic life support and basic social activities unboosted by technological means.

And there’s an addictive side to this. People try to do stupid technological replacements for natural primate actions, but it doesn’t quite give them the buzz that they hoped it would. Even though it looks quite magical, the sense of accomplishment is not there. So they do it again, hoping that the activity, like a drug, will somehow satisfy the urge that it’s supposedly meant to satisfy. But it doesn’t. So they do it more and more – and they fall down a rabbit hole, pursuing a destructive and high carbon-burn activity, when they could just go out for a walk, or plant a garden, or sit down at a table with a friend and drink some coffee and talk for an hour. All of these unboosted, straight-forward primate activities are actually intensely satisfying to the totality of the mind-body that we are.

So a little bit of analysis of what we are as primates – how we got here evolutionarily, and what can satisfy us in this world – would help us to imagine activities that are much lower impact on the planet and much more satisfying to the individual at the same time. In general, I’ve been thinking: let’s rate our technologies for how much they help us as primates, rather than how they can put us further into this dream of being powerful gods who stalk around on a planet that doesn’t really matter to us.

Because a lot of these supposed pleasures are really expensive. You pay with your life. You pay with your health. And they don’t satisfy you anyway! You end up taking various kinds of prescription or non-prescription drugs to compensate for your unhappiness and your unhealthiness – and the whole thing comes out of a kind of spiral: if only you could consume more, you’d be happier. But it isn’t true.

I’m advocating a kind of alteration of our imagined relationship to the planet. I think it’d be more fun – and also more sustainable. We’re always thinking that we’re much more powerful than we are, because we’re boosted by technological powers that exert a really, really high cost on the environment – a cost that isn’t calculated and that isn’t put into the price of things. It’s exteriorized from our fake economy. And it’s very profitable for certain elements in our society for us to continue to wander around in this dream-state and be upset about everything.

The hope that, “Oh, if only civilization were to collapse, then I could be happy” – it’s ridiculous. You can simply walk out your front door and get what you want out of that particular fantasy.

[Image: New Orleans under water, post-Katrina; photographer unknown].

BLDGBLOG: Mars has a long history as a kind of utopian destination – and, in that, your Mars trilogy is no exception. What is it about Mars that brings out this particular kind of speculation?

Robinson: Well, it brings up an unusual modern event that can happen in our mental landscapes, which is comparative planetology. That wasn’t really available to us before the modern era – really, until Viking.

One thing about Mars is that it’s a radically impoverished landscape. You start with nothing – the bare rock, the volatile chemicals that are needed for life, some water, and an empty landscape. That makes it a kind of gigantic metaphor, or modeling exercise, and it gives you a way to imagine the fundamentals of what we’re doing here on Earth. I find it is a very good thing to begin thinking that we are terraforming Earth – because we are, and we’ve been doing it for quite some time. We’ve been doing it by accident, and mostly by damaging things. In some ways, there have been improvements, in terms of human support systems, but there’s still so much damage, damage that’s gone unacknowledged or ignored, even when all along we knew it was happening. People kind of shrug and think: a) there’s nothing we can do about it, or b) maybe the next generation will be clever enough to figure it out. So on we go.

[Images: Mars, courtesy of NASA].

Mars is an interesting platform where we can model these things. But I don’t know that we’ll get there for another fifty years or so – and once we do get there, I think that for many, many years, maybe many decades, it will function like Antarctica does now: it will be an interesting scientific base that teaches us things and is beautiful and charismatic, but not important in the larger scheme of human history on Earth. It’s just an interesting place to study, that we can learn things from. Actually, for many years, Mars will be even less important to us than Antarctica, because the Antarctic is at least part of our ecosphere.

But if you think of yourself as terraforming Earth, and if you think about sustainability, then you can start thinking about permaculture and what permaculture really means. It’s not just sustainable agriculture, but a name for a certain type of history. Because the word sustainability is now code for: let’s make capitalism work over the long haul, without ever getting rid of the hierarchy between rich and poor and without establishing social justice.

Sustainable development, as well: that’s a term that’s been contaminated. It doesn’t even mean sustainable anymore. It means: let us continue to do what we’re doing, but somehow get away with it. By some magic waving of the hands, or some techno silver bullet, suddenly we can make it all right to continue in all our current habits. And yet it’s not just that our habits are destructive, they’re not even satisfying to the people who get to play in them. So there’s a stupidity involved, at the cultural level.

BLDGBLOG: In other words, your lifestyle may now be carbon neutral – but was it really any good in the first place?

Robinson: Right. Especially if it’s been encoding, or essentially legitimizing, a grotesque hierarchy of social injustice of the most damaging kind. And the tendency for capitalism to want to overlook that – to wave its hands and say: well, it’s a system in which eventually everyone gets to prosper, you know, the rising tide floats all boats, blah blah – well, this is just not true.

We should take the political and aesthetic baggage out of the term utopia. I’ve been working all my career to try to redefine utopia in more positive terms – in more dynamic terms. People tend to think of utopia as a perfect end-stage, which is, by definition, impossible and maybe even bad for us. And so maybe it’s better to use a word like permaculture, which not only includes permanent but also permutation. Permaculture suggests a certain kind of obvious human goal, which is that future generations will have at least as good a place to live as what we have now.

It’s almost as if a science fiction writer’s job is to represent the unborn humanity that will inherit this place – you’re speaking from the future and for the future. And you try to speak for them by envisioning scenarios that show them either doing things better or doing things worse – but you’re also alerting the generations alive right now that these people have a voice in history.

The future needs to be taken into account by the current system, which regularly steals from it in order to pad our ridiculous current lifestyle.

[Images: (top) Michael Reynolds, architect. Turbine House, Taos, New Mexico. Photograph © Michael Reynolds, 2007. (bottom) Steve Baer, designer. House of Steve Baer, Corrales, New Mexico, 1971. Photography © Jon Naar, 1975/2007. Courtesy of the Canadian Centre for Architecture, from their excellent, and uncannily well-timed, exhibition 1973: Sorry, Out of Gas].

BLDGBLOG: When it actually comes to designing the future, what will permaculture look like? Where will its structures and ideas come from?

Robinson: Well, at the end of the 1960s and through the 70s, what we thought – and this is particularly true in architecture and design terms – was: OK, given these new possibilities for new and different ways of being, how do we design it? What happens in architecture? What happens in urban design?

As a result of these questions there came into being a big body of utopian design literature that’s now mostly obsolete and out of print, which had no notion that the Reagan-Thatcher counter-revolution was going to hit. Books like Progress As If Survival Mattered, Small Is Beautiful, Muddling Toward Frugality, The Integral Urban House, Design for the Real World, A Pattern Language, and so on. I had a whole shelf of those books. Their tech is now mostly obsolete, superceded by more sophisticated tech, but the ideas behind them, and the idea of appropriate technology and alternative design: that needs to come back big time. And I think it is.

[Image: American President Jimmy Carter dedicates the White House solar panels, 20 June 1979. Photograph © Jimmy Carter Library. Courtesy of the Canadian Centre for Architecture].

This is one of the reasons I’ve been talking about climate change, and the possibility of abrupt climate change, as potentially a good thing – in that it forces us to confront problems that we were going to sweep under the carpet for hundreds of years. Now, suddenly, these problems are in our face and we have to deal. And part of dealing is going to be design.

I don’t think people fully comprehend what a gigantic difference their infrastructure makes, or what it feels like to live in a city with public transport, like Paris, compared to one of the big autopias like southern California. The feel of existence is completely different. And of course the carbon burn is also different – and the sense that everybody’s in the same boat together. This partly accounts for the difference between urban voters and rural voters: rural voters – or out-in-the-country voters – can imagine that they’re somehow independent, and that they don’t rely on other people. Meanwhile, their entire tech is built elsewhere. It’s a fantasy, and a bad one as it leads to a false assessment of the real situation.

The Mars books were where I focused on these design questions the most. I had to describe fifteen or twenty invented towns or social structures based around their architecture. Everything from little settlements to crater towns to gigantic cities, to all sorts of individual homes in the outback – how do you occupy the outback? how do you live? – and it was a great pleasure. I think, actually, that one of the main reasons people enjoyed those Mars books was in seeing these alternative design possibilities envisioned and being able to walk around in them, imaginatively.

BLDGBLOG: Were there specific architectural examples, or specific landscapes, that you based your descriptions on?

Robinson: Sure. They had to do with things that I’d seen or read about. And, you know, reading Science News week in and week out, I was always attentive to what the latest in building materials or house design was.

Also, I seized on anything that seemed human-scale and aesthetically pleasing and good for a community. I thought of Greek villages in Crete, and also the spectacular stuff on Santorini. One of the things I learned, wandering around Greek archaeological sites – I’m very interested in archaeology – is that they clearly chose some of their town sites not just for practical concerns but also for aesthetic pleasure. They would put their towns in places where it would look good to live – where you would get a permanent sense that the town was a work of art, as well as a practical solution to economic and geographical problems. That was something I wanted to do on Mars over and over again.

[Image: Photos of Greece, inspiration for life on Mars, taken by Kim Stanley Robinson].

Mondragon, Spain, was also a constant reference point, and Kerala, in southern India. I was looking at cooperative, or leftist, places. Bologna, Italy. The Italian city-states of the Renaissance, in a different kind of way. Also, cities where public transport on a human scale could be kept in mind. That’s mostly northern Europe.

So those were some of the reference points that I remember – but I was also trying to think about how humans might inhabit the unusual Martian features: the cliffsides, the hidden cities that I postulated might be necessary. I was attracted to anything that had to do with circularity, because of the stupendous number of craters on Mars. The Paul Sattelmeier indoor/outdoor house, which is round and easy to build, was something I noticed in Science News as a result of this fixation.

There was a real wide net I could cast there – and it was fun. If you give yourself a whole world to play with, you don’t have to choose just one solution – you can describe any number of solutions – and I think that was politically true as well as architecturally true with my Mars books. They weren’t proposing one master solution, as in the old utopias, but showing that there are a variety of possible solutions, with different advantages and disadvantages.

[Image: A photograph of Santorini taken by Kim Stanley Robinson].

BLDGBLOG: Speaking of archaeology, one of the most interesting things I’ve read recently was that some archaeologists are now speculating that sites like the Apollo moon landing, or the final resting spot of the Mars rovers, will someday be like Egypt’s Valley of the Kings: they’ll be excavated and studied and preserved and mapped.

Robinson: Yes, and places like Baikonur, in Kazakhstan, will be quite beautiful. They’ll work as great statuary – like megaliths. They’ll have that charismatic quality and, in their ruin, they should be quite beautiful. As you know, that was one great attraction of the Romantic era – to ruins, to the suggestion of age – and there will be something nicely contradictory about something as futuristic as space artifacts suggesting ruins and the ancient past. That’s sure to come.

The interesting problem on Mars, and Chris McKay has talked about this, is that if we conclude that there’s the possibility of bacterial life on Mars, then it becomes really, really important for us not to contaminate the planet with earthly bacteria. But it’s almost impossible to sterilize a spaceship completely. There were probably 100,000 bacteria even on the sterilized spacecraft that we sent to Mars, living on their inner surfaces. It isn’t even certain that a gigantic crash-landing and explosion would kill all that bacteria.

So Chris McKay has been suggesting that a site like the Beagle or polar lander crash site actually needs to be excavated and fully sterilized – the stuff may even have to be taken off-planet – if we really want to keep Mars uncontaminated. In other words, we’ve contaminated it already; if we find native, alien bacterial life on Mars, and we don’t want it mixed up with Terran life, then we might have to do something a lot more radical than an archaeological saving of the site. We might have to do something like a Superfund clean-up.

Of course, that’s all really hard to do without getting down there with yet more bacteria-infested things.

[Image: Two painted views of a human future on Mars, courtesy of NASA].

BLDGBLOG: That’s the same situation as with these lakes in Antarctica buried beneath the ice: to study them, we have to drill down into them, but by drilling down into them, we might immediately introduce microbes and bacteria and even chemicals into the water – which will mean that there’s not much left for us to study.

Robinson: They’re already having that problem with Lake Vostok. The Russians have got an ice drill that’s already maybe too close to the lake, and in the sphere of influence of the trapped bacteria. And now people are calculating that the water in Lake Vostok might be very heavily pressurized, and like seltzer water, so that breaking through might cause a gusher on the surface that could last six months. The water might just fly out onto the surface – where it would freeze and create a little mountain up there, of fresh water. Who knows? I mean, at that point, whatever was going on, in bacterial terms, with that lake in particular – that’s ruined. There are many other lakes beneath the Antarctic surface, so it isn’t as if we don’t have more places we could save or study, but that one is already a problem.

[Image: Architecture in Antarctica, photographed by Kim Stanley Robinson].

Also, I do like the archaeological sites in Antarctica from the classic era. Those are worth comparing to the space program. Going to Antarctica in 1900 was like us going into space today: as Oliver Morton has put it, it was the hardest thing that technology allowed humans to do at the time. So you could imagine those guys as being in space suits and doing space station-type stuff – but, of course, from our angle, it looks like Boy Scout equipment. It’s amazing that they got away with it at all. Those are the most beautiful spaces – the Shackleton/Scott sites – even the little cairns that Amundsen left behind, or the crashed airplanes from the 1920s: they all become vividly important reminders of our past and of our technological progress. They deserve to be protected fully and kind of revered, almost as religious sites, if you’re a humanist.

[Image: Shackleton’s hut, Antarctica, photographed by Kim Stanley Robinson].

So archaeology in space? Who knows? It’s hard enough to think about what’s going to go on up there. But on earth it’s very neat to think of Cape Canaveral or Baikonur becoming like Shackleton’s hut.

Thinking along this line causes me to wonder about the Stalinist industrial cities in the Urals – you know, like Chelyabinsk-65. These horribly utilitarian extraction economy-type places, incredibly brutal and destructive – once they’re abandoned, and they begin to rust away, they take on a strange kind of aesthetic. As long as you wouldn’t get actively poisoned when you visit them –

BLDGBLOG: [laughs]

Robinson: – I would be really interested to see some of these places. Just don’t step in the sludge, or scratch your arm – the toxicity levels are supposed to be alarming. But, in archaeological terms, I bet they’d be beautiful.

• • •

BLDGBLOG owes a huge and genuine thanks to Kim Stanley Robinson, not only for his ongoing output as a writer but for his patience while this interview was edited and assembled. Thanks, as well, to William L. Fox for putting Robinson and I in touch in the first place.
Meanwhile, the recently published catalog for the exhibition 1973: Sorry, Out of Gas offers a great look at the “big body of utopian design literature that’s now mostly obsolete and out of print” that Robinson mentions in the above interview. If you see a copy, I’d definitely recommend settling in for a long read.

Architecture and Climate Change: An Interview with Ed Mazria

[Image: (Right) Ed Mazria, photographed by Doug Hoeschler for Metropolis].

Last year, Ed Mazria and his New Mexico-based non-profit organization, Architecture 2030, revealed that architecture – or the building sector, more generally – is the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions, worldwide.
To help prevent “catastrophic” climate change, then, the building sector must become carbon neutral. Reaching that state before the year 2030 is what Mazria has dubbed the 2030 Challenge.
In an effort to speed things along, Mazria will be co-hosting an event, on February 20th, called the 2010 Imperative. This will be a “global emergency teach-in” broadcast live on the web from New York City. The 2010 Imperative – discussed in more detail, below – has been specifically organized around the idea that “ecological literacy [must] become a central tenet of design education,” and that “a major transformation of the academic design community must begin today.”
I recently spoke to Mazria about climate change, sustainable design, and carbon neutrality; about the present state, and future direction, of architectural education; about suburban development, Wal-Mart, and SUVs; and about the 2030 Challenge itself.
What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

• • •

BLDGBLOG: First, how did you choose the specific targets of the 2030 Challenge?

Ed Mazria: Well, let’s see. The way we developed the 2030 Challenge was by working backward from the greenhouse gas emissions reductions that scientists were telling us we needed to reach by 2050. Working backwards from those reductions, and looking at, specifically, the building sector – which is responsible for about half of all emissions – you can see what we need to do today. You can see the targets that we need to reach so we can avoid hitting what the scientists have called catastrophic climate change.

If you do that, you see that we need an immediate, 50% reduction in fossil fuel, greenhouse gas-emitting energy in all new building construction. And since we renovate about as much as we build new, we need a 50% reduction in renovation, as well. If you then increase that reduction by 10% every five years – so that by 2030 all new buildings use no greenhouse gas-emitting fossil fuel energy to operate – then you reach a state that’s called carbon neutral. And you get there by 2030. That way we meet the targets that climate scientists have set out for us.

That’s how we came up with the 2030 Challenge – meaning a 50% reduction today, and going to carbon neutral by 2030.

[Image: A chart of Architecture 2030’s goals; via Metropolis. Graphic also available as a PDF].

BLDGBLOG: When you say that the building sector is responsible for half of all greenhouse gas emissions, though, do you mean that in a direct or an indirect sense? Because surely houses aren’t just sitting there emitting carbon dioxide all day – it’s the power plants that those houses are connected to.

Mazria: It’s direct. The number is actually 48% of total US energy consumption that can be attributed to the building sector, most of which – 40% of total consumption – can be attributed just to building operations. That’s heating, lighting, cooling, and hot water. There are others – running pumps and things like that. But 40% of total US energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed just to building operations.

BLDGBLOG: What’s the other 8%?

Mazria: The other 8% is greenhouse gas emissions released in producing the materials for buildings – materials that architects can specify – as well as during the construction process itself.

But the major part, you see – 40% – is design. Every time we design a building, we set up its energy consumption pattern and its greenhouse gas emissions pattern for the next 50-100 years. That’s why the building sector and the architecture sector is so critical. It takes a long time to turn over – whereas the transportation sector, on wheels, in this country, turns over once every twelve years.

[Image: “U.S. Energy Consumption by Sector. A reorganization of existing data – combining the energy required to run residential, commercial, and industrial buildings along with the embodied energy of industry-produced materials like carpet, tile, and hardware – exposes architecture as the hidden polluter.” Graphic by Criswell Lappin, via Metropolis].

BLDGBLOG: Speaking of which, you’ve pointed out elsewhere that SUVs only represent about 3% of total greenhouse gas emissions in the US – yet they receive the brunt of the media’s attention and anger. The real culprit is wastefully designed architecture.

Mazria: People must remember, though, that this doesn’t let the US automobile industry off the hook! Cars and SUVs are still part of the problem – and we need to attack that part of the problem.

And there are solutions. One of the solutions, for example, is to use plug-in hybrid flex-fuel technology. Plug-in meaning you can collect energy on your rooftop, with photovoltaic cells, and then plug your car into a battery at night, and drive 30-50 miles on a charge. Then you can use hybrid technology to get incredible miles. Then you can use flex-fuel: you put high-cellulose alcohol or ethanol into the tank, rather than fossil fuels. So there are solutions in that sector.

BLDGBLOG: It seems like the 2030 Challenge has met with a lot of enthusiasm from both the American Institute of Architects and the US Conference of Mayors. Is that the case, or were you hoping for a better response?

Mazria: The response was immediate, and very gratifying. Right when we issued the challenge, in January of 2006, the American Institute of Architects adopted it for all its 78,000 members. That did two things. One, it got the wheels turning within the architecture and building sector to figure out how to meet the Challenge. Two, it began getting resources and information to architects and to designers about how to change course.

Just as important, the US Conference of Mayors then adopted the 2030 Challenge in a resolution that was passed at their annual convention. That was passed unanimously. The Challenge was adopted for all buildings in all cities. That’s very important.

[Image: The interior of Ed Mazria’s New Mexico home, designed by Mazria’s own firm; photographed by Doug Hoeschler for Metropolis. “Masonry walls and floors in the dining and living areas absorb heat and provide cool interior surfaces in summer and warmth in the winter,” we read].

BLDGBLOG: As far as implementing the Challenge goes, is that as simple as sending out a new pamphlet to housing contractors that explains how they can change their building techniques? Or is it as complex as starting whole new university degrees?

Mazria: Well, first you have to inform. People really have to be aware of this issue. Universities don’t really understand their role in this whole situation. So the first step is to inform – and we’ve actually gone a long way in that. We’ve done a lot of magazine articles and other publications; we’ve done public speaking; and there’s also our website – so we’re making an impact.

What we’re really doing is changing the conversation. Through changing – or expanding – the conversation, we’ve been able to issue the 2030 Challenge. We would not have been able to issue that had we not changed the conversation. So we issued the Challenge, which was picked up by the profession and then by the cities, and that was absolutely critical.

Now businesses are picking it up. For instance, at the same time that we were issuing the Challenge, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development came out with a call for carbon neutral buildings by 2050. So we’ve asked the AIA to begin a dialogue with them to get that done by 2030, instead.

Also, since that time, I gave a talk at a conference hosted by the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives. ICLEI‘s membership consists of about 475 cities worldwide. It’s kind of a global counterpart to the US Conference of Mayors – though many cities in the US are members. At the end of that conference, they adopted the 2030 Challenge. They’re now bringing it up with their global Board of Directors, to discuss adopting the Challenge worldwide. Actually, adopted is not the right word – they incorporated the Challenge into their targets.

BLDGBLOG: Do you think the speed with which the Challenge has been adopted reflects a kind of embarrassment over the failure of the Kyoto Protocol?

Mazria: That’s possible. It’s also now more accepted that the science is firm; people are accepting that the debate is essentially over, and that we must move from debate to action. But scientists have given us a very, very small window of opportunity here. We have essentially ten years to begin to get this situation under control. Otherwise we’ll hit tipping points beyond which there will be very little anyone can do to influence things. So there’s a new sense of urgency.

What has been lacking so far are specifics on how to attack the problem. Most initiatives are general, without real teeth behind them, saying that we’re going to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by this much, by this date. But I think that the people who have adopted these initiatives are now looking for ways to implement them, to meet their own targets.

The 2030 Challenge gives them a very specific way to do this – and I think that’s the main reason why this has taken hold as quickly as it has.

BLDGBLOG: In the meantime, you’ve seen corporations like Wal-Mart try to reinvent themselves as pro-green, pro-sustainability firms, because they’ve seen that there is a profit motive. It makes sense for the environment – but it also makes sense for shareholders. The shift isn’t necessarily altruistic.

Mazria: I think it’s going mainstream for a number of reasons. One of the reasons is what we just talked about: the urgency of the issue. There are many people out there with a conscience, and they think about the future rather than just their own immediate needs. They think about their children and their grandchildren. I think that’s moving some of this.

But I think you’re right: I think another part of this is essentially self-serving, that going green may give you a leg up on the competition. It may save you money. It may enhance your image in the community, which means your business can maneuver with more ease and fewer restrictions.

The real point is: whatever the motivation, it’s going in the right direction.

[Image: Skylit gymnasium in Genoveva Chavez Community Center, Santa Fe; designed by Mazria Inc. Photo by Robert Reck, via Metropolis].

BLDGBLOG: So what roles do the architecture and design schools play in all this?

Mazria: An AIA COTE report came out last year, called Ecology and Design. It was a year-plus long study by a panel of AIA COTE members. Every school should read this.

From page 43: “Schools and teachers are discovering and creating new ways to incorporate sustainability into studios and other coursework. There appears to be more out there than there was 5 or 10 years ago and the efforts are deeper, more layered, and more complex.” But this next part is what’s important: “But our sample includes not a single example where the issues have informed a true transformation of the core curriculum. As promising as many of the courses are, it must be said that sustainable design remains a fringe activity in the schools.”

It gets worse:

Many of the most highly rated architecture schools show little interest in sustainable design, according to our research. The Ivy League schools, which consistently draw top applicants, have not made a noticeable effort to incorporate environmental strategies into their coursework. With few exceptions – notably California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo, our top winner – the same may be said of all the programs listed in the 2005 Design Intelligence ranking of top schools. The implication is that ecology is not considered a design agenda but, rather, an ethical or technical concern. If the best programs, instructors, and students do not embrace ecology as an inspiration for good design, what chance does this endeavor have to transform the industry?

Now I want to turn to Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, their “top winner.” This is Cal Poly: “the most significant drawback of the Sustainable Environments program is the fact that it is an elective minor and not an integral part of the core curriculum. Though enrollment in program grows every year, currently only about 20 percent of CAED students take part.” Now, listen to this: “Dean Jones, who is new to the school, sees the Sustainable Environments minor as a pilot program for the entire department: ‘It is a long-term goal to integrate this kind of approach within the core curriculum.'” Long-term.

You have ten years basically to change course across the entire building sector, and the top-ranking ecological design program has a sustainable development minor. The top school. And it’s a long-term goal for them. So you get the picture.

School’s must transform – and they must transform immediately. So we’ve organized what we term the 2010 Imperative. That will explain to all the schools what we think needs to be done today, immediately, as well as beginning with the next school year – and, to complete the process, what needs to be done by 2010.

By 2010 we’re looking at total ecological literacy in architectural education.

BLDGBLOG: The 2010 Imperative is a “global emergency teach-in” scheduled to occur in about three weeks’ time. Could you tell me a little bit more about that?

Mazria: The teach-in will happen on February 20th. It will be a live webcast from the New York Academy of Sciences, from 12-noon to 3:30. It will have four speakers: Dr. James Hansen of NASA will talk about the science and the implications of global warming, and the urgency for action. I’ll talk about the building sector and what we need to do – and why – and how education is a critical piece of this whole thing. Susan Szenasy will do the introductions, and talk about all the design disciplines. She’ll also moderate the panel at the end. And Chris Luebkeman will give a talk called “Doing Is Believing” – which is pretty interesting – and he’ll talk about Arup‘s projects all over the world. That should take about an hour and a half.

Then it will be open to questions and answers – and general discussion – from people typing-in, live, from anywhere in the world. So it’s as participatory as we can get. We’ll also have a live audience of about 300-plus, made up of people from the nine New York City-area design schools.

BLDGBLOG: Have universities and institutions outside of New York signed up to participate?

Mazria: The teach-in has been supported by the ACSA, the AIA Committee on the Environment, the US Green Building Council, and a lot of other schools. We’ve received emails now – probably about 15,000 – from people saying that they’re going to log on. We’ve got schools that are going to be canceling classes that day and creating full-day events around the teach-in – so it’s very exciting. We’re getting responses from everywhere: Berkeley, Harvard, Cal-Poly-San Luis Obispo, UW-Milwaukee. 50 to 100 come in a day, including practitioners and architecture offices that are going to get their whole office to participate. Those offices will also get continuing education credits for their architects.

You know, you can give a lecture to 1000 people, or to 500 people, or to 300 people – but this way you’re talking to tens of thousands of people, in one day. It’s a really good way to use the technology to get the word out.

BLDGBLOG: Some of these changes are going to require a pretty major conceptual shift, I think. You’re moving from an artistic or historical approach to architecture – where architecture is something of an expressive design medium – and you’re going to an approach that treats the built environment as something whose effect is scientifically measurable. Ecologically speaking, a design can literally be good or bad, no matter what it looks like, or whether or not the client likes it. Do you see this as a possible issue down the road?

Mazria: I think you can incorporate both personal expression and aesthetics into ecological literacy. Ecological literacy just gives you another tool with which to design. Architecture is not just pure sculpture; it’s not just pure function; it’s not just pure performance – it’s all of those. And so what must be added and integrated into the design curriculum is this notion of ecological literacy. You cannot design anymore without being literate in this area – otherwise you’re doing more harm than good.

BLDGBLOG: Beyond the teach-in, how do you anticipate getting this message into the schools and design offices? Is this a question of issuing textbooks and PDFs, or just organizing more events?

Mazria: You’re not going to do it one school at a time. There are too many schools. You have hundreds of thousands of students being educated today, and they are not fully ecologically literate. They don’t have a total grasp of the global situation we’re facing, and what must happen next. And it’s not just the students – their instructors aren’t fully aware of this, either.

So we propose to do this in two ways. One is an immediate method, and one is a short-term method. The immediate method is well-defined: we will address every design school in the world, globally, and we will ask every instructor to add one sentence to every problem that they issue in their design studios. That’s all we’re asking them to do. We’re not asking them to change the assignments – we’re asking them to add one sentence.

That sentence is: “That the project be designed to engage the environment in a way that dramatically reduces or eliminates the need for fossil fuels.”

This will set off a chain reaction, globally, throughout the student population. Because what the students will do at the outset of a new assignment is they will research the issue. They’ll then come back to the class with all the information they can find – and all the information, by the way, is available on the internet. They have access very, very quickly to this information. They’ll then bring everyone else in that class, including the instructor, up to speed on the issues, the design strategies, and the technologies that are available and part of the design palette. Out of that, universities and professional studios will become instruments for transforming design.

If you bring creative problem-solving to the issue, many, many different ways of addressing the problem will come about – in ways we can’t even imagine. And that’s the beauty of making this change immediately.

We can then work on a systematic approach, between 2007 and 2010, to bring true ecological literacy to all the design schools.

[Image: Materials Testing Facility, Vancouver, designed by Busby Perkins + Will. The design “incorporates recycled and reused materials extensively throughout the building,” and other “sustainable (‘green’) building design concepts, such as natural ventilation and solar shading have also been utilized.” Via Architecture 2030].

BLDGBLOG: In that same time period, do you plan to approach large-scale home developers, like Toll Brothers or KB Home, to inspire environmental change on a larger and more immediate scale?

Mazria: You have to remember that we’re a very small organization! [laughs] I think, though, that a growing movement around these issues, and around the 2030 Challenge, is beginning to take shape, so I would imagine that there are many other people in other industries who may begin to embrace these changes. For example, there’s an organization called ConSol, and they address the mass-market housing industry in terms of the issues we just talked about. There’s the Urban Land Institute. There’s the Congress for the New Urbanism. They all specifically address how such issues affect development.

BLDGBLOG: What about designing a kind of prototype development, or model village, that might serve to exemplify the 2030 Challenge?

Mazria: To teach by design? I think that’s happening. On our website, we have a whole section on projects that begin to meet the targets, and we do have buildings that fit that category, that we’ve designed over the years. In fact, in the 1980s, we designed the Mt. Airy Library that reduced its consumption of fossil fuels over an average building of that type, in that region, by over 80%. Just through design.

In fact, in the early 1980s, right after the first energy crisis, the US Department of Energy sponsored anywhere between twelve and eighteen architects around the country to design very low-energy buildings. I would say probably every one of those architects demonstrated that you could get reductions of 50-80% just through design! There were many, many buildings built in the late 1970s, and during the 1980s, using passive solar design, and day-lighting principles, that actually put those buildings off the grid.

So you have a wealth of information generated way back then. It wasn’t until oil went down to $10 a barrel, and the Reagan Administration came in and basically killed off all these initiatives, that we really came to rely on fossil fuels. Now our buildings are sealed up; they have no real integrated relationship with the exterior environment. When we talk about a connection to the environment in architecture today, for the past 30 or 50 years we’ve just been talking about a visual connection. We haven’t been talking about a real, integrated, energy-based connection between the building and its environment. And that’s where the term open systems comes from – and where we need to be headed.

[Image: School of Nursing and Student Community Center, Houston, designed by BNIM. From their website: “Goals of increased air quality, increased natural daylighting, reduction of polluting emissions and run-off, and increased user satisfaction and productivity were achieved using the LEED® rating system.” Via Architecture 2030].

BLDGBLOG: If you drew up actual plans for a carbon neutral city of the future, though, wouldn’t that give people a clearer sense of what all this will look like? Which would then help both the clients and the architects understand what they need to do next?

Mazria: I think that’s a really good question – because having some imagery for what we’re talking about is very important in terms of us acting. But for only one person to come up with a plan or an image – that might actually do more damage than good. I think you need a whole range of aesthetics and ideas to take shape, and what shakes out will be those ideas and solutions that work. I think tying it to just one visual image would not be helpful.

BLDGBLOG: You’ve also talked about the importance of new design software – software that can model, in real-time, the projected energy-use of an architectural design. That would help architects meet their emissions targets. Has there been any progress on that front?

Mazria: Every time we make a decision – we reorient the building, we twist it, we add glazing, we use this kind of material, we add a shading device, we reposition or realign a wall – we have to have, in the corner, the energy implications of that. It should be as simple as just two numbers: one would indicate whether we’re meeting our target of a 50% reduction, or a 60% reduction, or a 70% reduction – how close we are to hitting that target. The other would indicate the actual embodied energy in the materials and construction of the building. If we had those two numbers as we design our buildings, then, intuitively, as designers, we would understand the results of our actions.

These design tools are a critical piece, and the major players are AutoDesk, Google – we need them to take this on almost as an emergency effort, to put this on a fast-track. In fact, Green Building Studio is already working diligently in this area. Students can send their design over to them and get an analysis back in, I think, fifteen minutes – for free. But the companies that supply us with these tools really need to step up to the plate. The federal government can help, or the larger states that have resources of money can help, by putting some dollars into R&D and getting those tools out there immediately.

BLDGBLOG: Could you issue a kind of Software Challenge to help kick things into gear?

Mazria: We could. I think that, because the AIA adopted the 2030 Challenge, you would see now that the federal government and the larger states – and the cities, and the companies – would not be far behind. Adopting the Challenge was critical in getting more movement in this area. I think as more cities adopt the Challenge, and want to understand how they can implement it, they’re going to require certain kinds of software, and the software companies will be competing to supply that software.

Right now we’re in the process of creating a huge market for those tools. If the Challenge gets adopted by the schools, then even the schools will be looking for this software.

We’re helping to put a market in place – so the software companies will have to act.

[Image: Energy Savings Buildings, Albuquerque; designed by Mazria Inc. Photo via Metropolis].

BLDGBLOG: Finally, you mentioned mayors earlier. How has your experience been with other political leaders, at different levels of government?

Mazria: It’s actually gone quite well – the mayors are highly interested and motivated. I was in Washington yesterday, actually, talking to Senators and to members of Congress about getting federal support. That would mean having federal buildings lead the way – because the federal government does quite a lot of building – probably about 3% of total construction – and we’re asking for all federally-funded buildings to meet the Challenge targets.

We’re also asking for incentives to help meet these targets, until everyone gets up to speed. In some cases there are costs involved, so if you provide incentives you can help accelerate the adoption of the Challenge – so the quicker we get incentives into place, the better.

But there’s now a lot of interest on Capitol Hill for what we’re talking about.

BLDGBLOG: Is that because of the elections this past November?

Mazria: It is.

We just don’t have that much time left. We really have to work absolutely as hard as we can right now to get things done. We need everyone – I mean everyone – really pulling in the same direction, and not getting discouraged. You can make things happen. Everyone has a role in making things happen. I can’t emphasize this enough: we need everyone. It’s the people who respond to the situation that will make it happen – and that’s who we’re looking to reach.

This is doable. It’s a doable job, and I think all the pieces are known; we understand them – we know what needs to be done. We only have to do it now. We now know exactly where we need to be; we know what the reductions are; we know how to get them; we know where to go for the incentives – we just have to make it happen.

The time for small, incremental changes has passed. This is not a top-down action; that’s too slow. This change has to come from across the universities, the industries, and the entire political spectrum.

• • •

With huge thanks to Ed Mazria for his interest, efforts, and time. Thanks, as well, to Quilian Riano, for helping set up this discussion.

[Note: This interview was simultaneously posted on both Worldchanging and Inhabitat].