Meditations in an Emergency: The Voices of Emerging Ecologies
Listen to architects and designers reflect on how to build a more sustainable world.
Sep 12, 2023
Revisiting the Past
Emilio Ambasz on ecological thinking in architecture practice
The Green Over the Gray Punto.
With that, people can remember perfectly well what is that I intend. I intend that the building, which is gray, should have the green on top, and that is the essence of a very powerful slogan. I’ve been using it for the last 40 years when I started doing architecture.
When the project is in a site that requires paying attention as always, not only to the context, but also to the weather and the climate, I pay great attention to how the building is integrated into the system of winds, into the local plants. And I try by all means, if possible, to give up a hundred percent of the ground that the building covers, in the form of accessible gardens, on the roof or on the walls. I never build a building below ground, never. Always above ground. People think I do below ground, but it’s not true. It’s always above ground and then we berm it up. And the advantage of that is that the earth keeps the building very comfortable in the winter, and in the summer you don’t need heating, you don’t need air conditioning.
Amy Chester on Warren County
Not much has changed since the ’70s and since the beginnings of the environmental justice movement. Neighborhoods everywhere, no matter where they are, are still fighting these challenges, and it tends to be the neighborhoods that have the most disadvantaged community members to begin with. So, even though we have civil rights, even though we have voting rights, we do not have enough protections to the people who are lowest income, who are immigrants, that are communities that are Brown or Black, or folks that are vulnerable for a variety of reasons. Because we continue as a society to put noxious uses in those areas knowing that they do not have the same political power as an affluent white community that would never stand for it.
So what happens, and what’s happened over the past generations, is that people come together, neighbors come together. They come together with schools, they come together with organizers or with experts, and they say, “We’re not having it any longer.” It’s very interesting, because a person is just one person, but when you’re with a lot of other people, it starts to multiply in political power and also political kind of space.
And I think that that’s the interesting thing between architecture and politics and political organizing, because people take up space when they’re angry and they’re working towards a goal of changing something, and they physically come together. They’re saying, “Look, you have to look at us. You have to see what we’re saying.” That kind of spatial aspect of it is very closely connected to architecture. And you can think about the architecture of a protest or the architecture of a movement, and if you’re able to track all of the different tactics that communities use, you can track it in a way that understands the spatial implications a bit better.
Carolyn Dry on designing with natural processes and self-healing concrete
I’ve done many projects on designing with natural processes. Right now, we’re doing two projects for the Department of Energy, one of them on using the ash from burning garbage and putting that into cements. And these cements don’t release any CO2 [carbon dioxide]. And another one, where we’re making the last half of the regular ordinary Portland cement not release any CO2.
I started out with concrete and cement because cement releases 8% of the world’s CO2. And the problem is that that’s terrible for the environment. And because the cement is so deleterious to the environment, I decided that maybe if you could self-repair, you would use less cement. I did the tying of the rebar and then had a commercial cement come in and pour the cement and tested it and showed that we put in some tiny little tubes of repair chemical and we could make the bridges a lot stronger. And then we also looked at them for trying to reduce surface cracking, which is one of the ways that concrete deteriorates. But I think that the field in general should rethink using concrete and steel.
I have an aesthetic sense in everything. But I think the aesthetics, people respond to things that look natural, and I think we spend a lot of time in our designs trying to look natural, but why not actually be natural and have the forms evolve from the processes themselves rather than something that we put on artificially that can’t adapt or change or respond or be healthy.
Meredith Gaglio on New Alchemists and the “appropriate technology” movement
Something to be learned from appropriate technology is that we can look at architecture more holistically. We can look at architecture in the world. And we can look at architecture as part of an ecosystem. And also, we can look at the history of architecture and how ecology fits into that. I think right now we have ecology as a certain moment in the curriculum, but not something that our work is necessarily focused on or revolving around.
The New Alchemy Institute was on the forefront of these sorts of systems. It was founded by two marine biologists, John Todd and William or Bill McLarney. And they worked together at San Diego State College, and they found that pesticides were hurting ecosystems. The New Alchemy Institute begins with looking at aquaculture specifically. So they look at, they have a project that they call backyard fish farming. And backyard fish farming is meant to allow everyone to have the capacity to grow their own food in their backyard. They find that tilapia are the fish that are most conducive to backyard fish farming. They find that tilapia will eat algae and certain types of waste products. And that they can grow what protein these fish need in their own backyard as well. So they start trying to experiment to find what is the most sustainable way that we can go about creating aquaculture in our backyard. They look at, How can we do this at a larger scale? How can we integrate this into other buildings?
I think since the New Alchemy Institute was founded focusing on experimentation, looking at how processes succeeded or failed, really not being afraid necessarily of that failure, but being curious. We see a lot of interest in collaboration. And because of that collaboration, we see these projects growing in a way that is more dynamic than maybe they could have done just on their own.
Jeanne Gang on Ralph Knowles’s “Solar Envelope” concept and the importance of designing for solar access
I loved the work of Ralph Knowles and it really inspired me. He studied and wrote down ways that buildings could coexist and that heights and shapes would be determined by the relationship to the sun's daylight in certain hours. And it’s a phenomenal idea and it makes so much sense. And it produces buildings that are specific to the place because every city is on a certain latitude and is built within a certain context.
It’s really about thinking about that energy that you get that free energy from the sun and using it like people did long, long, long ago. But now in cities, how do we transform that concept to the urban context? And so the whole idea of the solar envelope that Ralph Knowles created gives us a path forward. Placing a building on our earth, it’s a big responsibility. It’s part of this critical zone.
I like this idea of autonomy, of the idea that architecture should be its own discipline, however it does not stand alone. It is influenced by the users, the environment, the whole entire ecology. We have to reduce our energy use and increase quality of life in denser and denser cities. We have to start thinking about how all these things are interrelated, stopping, polluting. The whole food chain depends on the very small organisms at the bottom of the food chain. And so things are all interrelated. I think Ralph Knowles really saw that.
Mae-ling Lokko on Michael Reynolds’s Earthships, material technology, and upcycling
Reynolds, for me, I think sort of brought to the surface this glimmering issue in our modern material economy around the fact that the end of life of the material wasn’t something that was critically thought about or designed for. The options that exist to us around what happens at the end of life of one life cycle of a material sort of span from reuse to recycling to landfill. How do you actually design so that an object or whatever material has three lifetimes in mind?
Recycling is very, very complex because we see materials that have mixed very difficult or energy-intensive to separate them. And if we do, we end up creating tons of pollution or even higher embodied carbon materials that cannot return back to our land. And so reuse here and in Michael’s projects in the earthships, over 3000 of them that have been built, show us a way of patiently storing these materials as these really climatically responsive systems. And I think we can learn a lot from that because there are actual inherent properties and these materials that we need to recognize and celebrate.
I think the connectedness and ecosystem thinking is something that I think the earthship methodology or earthship paradigm could use. I think a lot about the types of people who are attracted to earthship homes, and they may range from environmentalists all the way to groups that want to be isolated and control their borders and resources so that no one else can enter or take away what they have. And I think this question of autonomy is sort of at the heart of it. So for me, some of the biggest challenges–and we’re still grappling with this today–is how do we provide energy, food, water, shelter for a society that is incredibly divided in terms of equity, diversity and inclusion.
Charlotte Malterre-Barthes on City within the City—Berlin: A Green Archipelago and the “stop building” approach
Architecture defines itself as the discipline of construction. So it has the mandate of sheltering humanity. there is this kind of overpowering aspect of architecture in a way, which of course is put into question. If we say, “Well, we don’t need to build,” it doesn’t mean to me that architecture is condemned in a sense. Of course, architecture is more than just construction. It is also by questioning this kind of dichotomies between the ones who build and the ones who don’t.
A lot of my research has been focused on the political economy of commodities and understanding how they affect the built environment at large. So shifting to a kind of more complete or holistic understanding of how our built environment is basically the product of these resources. The question of labor is across every single mechanisms of space production and is potentially key to how we change the construction industry. And it’s a very large topic, which I think architecture has neglected for a very long time.
I find the Green Archipelago an interesting and valuable, potentially groundbreaking project. It is a critique of traditional approaches to construction, and it is definitely about embracing a more sustainable relationship with nature. Of course, in that, basically, there is also the seeds for the idea of de-growth, I guess to a certain extent, the fact that well, cities might not be extensively growing, but that in fact they might be shrinking.
And so what does it actually mean? And there in a way lies the critique, I guess, which is the question of universality of sustainability. So how much of this understanding is applicable today? Why would we throw imperatives of development onto other countries which might have also different lifestyles?
There are a lot of construction moratoriums happening across the world. What is different this time is again, the kind of timeliness of this call. It has arrived to architecture that we are complicit to destruction. I think this is something that has really emerged everywhere, and this is the time of green capitalism. So of course to stop construction is also a way to kind of question the green capitalism, the sustainability argument that says that we can keep on doing things the way we do.
A Look to the Future
Emilio Ambasz: Hello, I’m Emilio Ambasz. I’m an architect, an industrial designer. I write fables. It’s very hard for me to say that students and young practitioners don’t need advice. Everybody can benefit from a certain amount of advice. I would say that students and practitioners should be made aware of the difficulties they’re going to encounter in their profession. It’s an extremely hard profession because they cannot control so many factors. The architect can only do the architecture, but he has to deal with the cost and the regulations and of course the structures and climate and other things. But architects have to propose solutions, that is their task. They have to propose better solutions for the future.
Amy Chester: I’m Amy Chester and I’m the managing director of Rebuild by Design. We want to build the space that communities want, and then we think about, How do we leverage climate infrastructure and local government to help communities get what they need? Yes, we do connect communities and architects together, but we really see ourselves as collaborators. We collaborate with architects and communities and local government and help them see that they have really a shared understanding of what they want, and build on that shared understanding to be sure that each one is getting what they need.
An architect designs the spaces that we live in or the spaces that we educate our children in or that we provide healthcare in, and an architect has a lot of power to determine how that space is used. Are you going to create areas where people are going to come together naturally? Or does everyone need their own separate space? Are you choosing to do a Net Zero Energy building and trying to showcase it as a model? Or are you doing exactly what needs to get done because you need to do it and multiply it in order to create affordable housing?
What we need to do, because climate change is here, is we need to rebuild our communities, and we need to do it in ways that don't only respond to climate change, but respond to all the different problems and challenges and vulnerabilities that communities face every day. Because even though climate change is one of the scariest things that our generation will face, it also brings big opportunity to communities. It should provide an opportunity for communities to come together and for the first time kind of pose that question of, what kind of place do we want to live in? And then they can actually build it.
Carolyn Manetta Dry: My name’s Carolyn Manetta Dry, and I’m an architect, a woman architect, and an inventor. It’s important to design with nature because we don’t really have much of a choice, do we? I mean, mother nature is so much more powerful than anything that we can do. And if you don’t respect her, you get punished in the form of storms and other kinds of destructive events.
I lecture a lot about all the various cycles. I would think what way this project can adapt to the environment outside so that it’s an adaptive machine. But an adaptive machine that’s based on chemistry and biology. I think that architects should use different tools instead of computers, which make you of course forget about breathing and water use and everything else.
If you look at your body, you can’t go without a breath for a moment. You can go without water for maybe a day or two, and you can go without food for a week. So that tells you something about what’s important for our survival, but it’s also important for survival of the planet. In terms of the future of architecture, there’s a lot of changes and it seems like most of it right now has to do with screening the sun and planting more trees and green matter within the buildings themselves. I would really like to have people to think about what material do you have and then what force do you have? And of our projects, well, I don’t know, all of them have to do with designing with nature. I think my favorite ones are the taking up CO2 into concrete and your product in that case helps the environment for others because you’re taking up CO2.
Meredith Gaglio: My name is Meredith Gaglio. I am an assistant professor of architecture at Louisiana State University. I think history has a large part to play in helping students make connections with the possibilities for the future, but looking towards the past. That deeper history really does need to be introduced in history curricula, otherwise it’s difficult to expect or hard to expect architecture studio professors to integrate this into all of their material or for students to figure this out on their own. Recognizing the history of sustainable design, of vernacular architecture, of ecologically friendly architecture through time can help us find new technologies today.
Having knowledge of interconnected systems can help us as we move forward in the future, recognize that our actions, no matter how small we feel they are, do have implications for the future. And if we move forward with an understanding of our power on ecosystems and go forward with a deep understanding of the ecology where we are building or designing or living, I think it’ll help us to create more generative designs in the future. I’d like to see architecture move forward. And from an educational sort of perspective, encouraging collaboration between schools, encouraging collaboration among students, that’s certainly part of it, because we want to start recognizing the importance of a more holistic approach from an early age.
Jeanne Gang: I’m Jeanne Gang and I’m the founder and lead designer of Studio Gang in Chicago, New York, San Francisco, and Paris. We really need to rethink the way we build. But I don’t believe in rejecting everything that’s gone before. I think that there’s intelligence within that and we need to harvest that intelligence, put it together with new ways of understanding building that could save materials or could save harm during extraction and things like that and combine those for that is innovation to me.
We’ve already figured out how to reduce energy a lot, and now we have to reduce embodied carbon and embodied energy. And so I think those are the things that have to happen. We have to really drill down onto the resource use, the materials. How did you get the materials? What were the extraction methods?
We’re in a time where we have to think of it more like an ecologist. And this dominance, this idea that humans are exceptional, different from the rest of the living planet. It’s kind of backward and we really need to move forward and we need everyone focused on technologies that will preserve our climate and stop global warming. How do we build up a change based on small, incremental and widespread changes? So it’s more like a patchwork, and we really need to think about how the change gets implemented. And that’s what I’m so interested in, architecture is about setting up these relationships between us, between people, how we relate, but then how we connect between ourselves to our environment.
Mae-Ling Lokko: My name is Mae-Ling Lokko and I’m an architectural scientist. I think architects and designers have occupied a very specific place in this ecosystem. And that’s somewhere between sitting between the owners of these production enterprises. I think if architects are able to position themselves in other parts of this framework, especially on the underbelly of this where one is working with byproduct materials, is working with a new emerging 21st-century community enterprises or corporations that are trying to do the right thing, or with farmers or producer communities that may not be, are sort of excluded from that value framework, I think that opens up an expansive role for what the material future or the role of the architect can be.
From an education standpoint, that requires really rethinking what goes into architectural education. We’ve been entrenched in learning, particularly from a technological standpoint around the physics of a building. Very little has paid attention to chemistry and biology, and those are the fundamentals of seeing our buildings as living organisms. That also helps us actually become able to reconstitute the DNA of how we design materials. So I’d love to see those types of interdisciplinary convergence opportunities, but largely I think a lot of the work we have to do is within.
And so how do we shift our cultural affiliations that we have with materials that has a lot to do with our comfort, with being who we are, where we’re from, connecting with what’s around us, figuring out what our own identities are rather than this sort of globalized consumer identity that we’ve bought into? And that cuts across every facet of our lives. Our food, our clothes, and everything. So it’s a universal problem, but until that internal cultural mindset shifts, we may not see the kind of demand that is needed to normalize these ways of living and these ways of working with our material resources. So those cultural forces, I think, are going to be some of the most important ones in inoculating a different architecture.
Charlotte Malterre-Barthes: Hi, I’m Charlotte Malterre-Barthes. I’m assistant professor of Urban Design at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, where I lead the laboratory RIOT. I draw inspiration of course from the term critical spatial practice. I’m interested in the way that we can, as architects, planners, designers, engage in more activist forms of practice. So from very early onwards complaining about the lack of representation of female architects across academia, for instance, as teacher or as references, expanding very rapidly these to understand that it’s not only about the lack of representation of women architects, but the lack of representation of all the architects that are outside of the cannon and by extension of all potentially spatial practices that are not even considered to be valid architecture.
I think that architects, for instance, find themselves really at the threshold of everything. They understand how things are being financed, they talk to the clients, they have a good literacy of rules, urban codes, construction codes, permits, all these questions.On the other hand, there is the question of education. How much are we equipping the new generation to really face the urgencies? We thought we were doing great in terms of sustainability, but we were not. And the kind of critique of technological enthusiasm that comes hand in hand with sustainability I think is here really important to acknowledge.
I would like to see a non extractive architecture emerge. To propose an architecture that is aware of its harm generating practice. And that addresses that. So decarbonize, depatriachalize, decolonize the discipline at all levels.
Emerging Ecologies: Architecture and the Rise of Environmentalism is on view at MoMA through January 20, 2024.
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