• MOMA curator Paola Antonelli presented “Broken Nature: Design Takes on Human Survival,” highlighting a range of international architecture and design projects that underscore the concept of restorative design. - photo by Gianluca Di Ioia, courtesy The World Around

The World Around Summit
Organized by Beatrice Galilee
Times Center, New York City
January 25

Imagine the world around you. What comes to mind? Might it be the space around the couch or desk from where you’re reading this? The trees and buildings surrounding your home or office? Or are you already on board a trip from the microscopic scale of the bacteria in your hands to that of the Milky Way galaxy, as in the film “Powers of Ten”? What role does architecture play in that world?   

Following this thread, British curator Beatrice Galilee organized a gathering of global voices to discuss the “now, near, and next of architecture” under the rubric “The World Around.” Inheriting the quick-fire presentation format of “A Year of Architecture in a Day,” which she hosted at The Met during her tenure as the museum’s associate curator of architecture and design, the re-christened event took place at the Times Center in New York on January 25. The buildings, films, publications, exhibitions, and installations presented on stage, all completed in 2019, promise to “reconfigure our relations to architecture … and propose ways of working and living that are full of promise and optimism.” That is, at least, what the handout says. “Thank God it is not going to be a whole day in the dark!” my neighbors in the audience observed. “What a surprise to find natural light and a view to the street inside an auditorium!” — referring to the venue’s layout, designed by Renzo Piano. 

MoMA architecture and design curator Paola Antonelli shot the starting pistol. “When things break,” she argued, “they’re never the same again.” Her last exhibition, “Broken Nature,” explores what architects and designers could do to remake the world. Sparing us from the growing shopping list of dreadful catastrophes we’re getting used to seeing in the news, she recited the full catalog of ships that participated at her armada in Milan: Birdsongs, fatbergs, cyborg landscapes, robot baristas, lithopias, plastiglomerates, siphonophore manifestos, and octopi interacting with long-extinct shells set the tone for a conference that was only beginning. Following Antonelli’s litany, artist Michael Wang brought us back to Manhattan with his installation “Extinct in New York.” His show, a catalog of flora and fauna known historically from the natural environments of the city, is presented in a space not dissimilar to an intensive care unit. The natural environment Henry Hudson had encountered while searching for the Northwest Passage to the Orient no longer exists outside a museum. What is nature, then, if it cannot thrive without human scaffolding?

Australian designer and environmentalist Julia Watson suggested looking at non-industrialized cultures for answers. From the sawah tambak aquafarming system that cultivates both rice and fish in East Java to the waru waru raised terraces and canals that increase soil fertility at Lake Titicaca, Watson discovers techniques and philosophies from all around the world that help us “identify as one with nature.” There’s plenty to learn from Traditional Ecological Knowledge, or “Lo—TEK,” as Watson has branded her research. But beware: Adopting the knowledge of indigenous communities without engaging in their struggles for survival borders on cultural appropriation. Not irrelevantly, the namesake book, recently launched by big print-run publisher TASCHEN, is already a top bestseller in the categories “individual architects” and “sustainability and green design.”  

From Watson’s antipodes, Bruce Mau vilified those who think the times were better in the past. In his opinion, we should be designing Eden instead. “If we are in trouble, it is because we succeeded,” and, quoting Hans Rosling, he continued: “We failed where we failed to design.” Unfortunately, Mau failed to give any illustrative example on stage of his own harvest, though his new book, whose cover arrived just in time for the presentation, was announced as available for pre-order from Amazon. The World Around started to smell like a book fair. 

Activist and journalist Caroline Criado-Perez doubted the power of design as long as it is done solely by men. While apologizing for her PowerPoint presentation, which did not match the aesthetic refinement of the previous speaker, she gave several examples of how design typically benefits males more than females. In a car crash, women are 47 percent more likely to get badly injured, and 17 percent more prone to be killed. More women die of heart attacks than men, since an emergency Google search for symptoms or first aid will prioritize results for males. So much for the promise of design. 

On the other hand, the idea that nature is broken and needs to be fixed “is a colonial one,” believes video-game developer David OReilly. What needs to be fixed instead is our failure of attention. For this purpose, OReilly has created “Everything,” an interactive documentary, creative sandbox, nature simulation, and video game where playing the role of God will help you identify with nature and pay more attention to the limits of your perception. You will definitely find there is no such thing as harmony in the environment when you look through the eyes of an ant. 

Despite the view over the commotion around the Port Authority Bus Terminal beyond the stage, courtyard, and lobby of the New York Times tower (Renzo Piano definitely must have read Jane Jacobs), the audience was bereft of new stimuli to keep awake after a long session of talks. Smart scheduling finally took us for a ride through 20,000 satellite images over the U.S.-Mexico border, assembled by Josh Begley in his film, “Best of Luck with the Wall.” Afterwards, with borders still in mind and Brexit Day around the corner, Eva Franch i Gilabert pattered about her mission as the new dean of London’s Architectural Association School of Architecture, “home to students and staff from 81 different nationalities bringing with them a whole world of their own.” Building on that great cultural resource, she presented “Architecture in Translation,” a project that will study the use of different languages in the production of architecture. Alas, the institutional tone sounded as mechanical as a ballerina music box designed by Oskar Schlemmer — a reminder that successful choreography can actually prevent you from being identified by artificial intelligence-equipped CCTV cameras, as we learned later in Liam Young’s film “Where the City Can’t See.” Unfortunately, though, you will not go unnoticed by human beings following guidance from the Ministry of Silly Walks.

Dystopia permeated the symposium’s only debate, in which art curator Shumon Basar and Caroline Criado-Perez warned about the dangers of technopatriarchs feeding racial and gender bias into machine learning as part of an ongoing battle for hegemony. Also on the panel, Gilabert desired to end her commercial with hope, but Basar blatantly cut her short. In the age of the “extreme self,” in the age of earthquakes, in the age of Australian bushfires and the Chinese (now global) coronavirus, and definitely in the age of Brexit, there’s no such thing as hope, he replied. Meanwhile, moderator Nick Axel never abandoned his “electric friends.” At this point, some of you might even wonder if the event had anything to do with architecture. Wait no more: The afternoon was entirely committed to buildings. 

Having discovered the psychedelic work of Bolivian architect Freddy Mamani during Galilee’s event last year at The Met, I personally expected to encounter new voices challenging the aesthetic regime of the Swiss, Belgian, and Japanese architects who currently dominate the global scene. I was left wanting. Apart from Emmanuel Pratt’s humble interventions in Chicago, and the timid rural projects of Chinese practice DnA presented by Xu Tiantian, which involved some sort of community engagement or programmatic design, most of the brick-and-mortar projects that followed were just that: brick and mortar — or, more precisely, concrete and glass. 

The umpteenth new Victoria and Albert Museum promises a sublime experience to East Londoners, shuffling them into the midst of the collection’s warehouse; Diller and Scofidio test here the post-curatorial approach they employed in The Shed. In a faraway island (where vehicles nevertheless also keep to the left), the Art Biotop replaces a forest which previously replaced a paddy field that itself had a long time before replaced meadowlands. Trees jump to an adjacent empty lot, freeing space for small, interconnected water ponds clustered among the remaining trees. The ponds house waterlilies in spring, reflect the blue sky and tree canopies during summer, clog with leaves in autumn, and freeze during winter. Junya Ishigami augments reality here with no need for an app. The garden reads like a piece of Japanese poetry that laments a world that we’re about to destroy. Right in the middle of the European continent, the Tanzhaus Zürich behaves like a good Swiss neighbor. The recycled concrete structure sits quietly on the banks of the Limmat River as if it had always been there; with its hanging gardens, it looks like a ruin in a postindustrial landscape. Barozzi Veiga shaped it so carefully that its raw walls deflect sound without the need for phono-absorbing materials — a lesson on simplicity, on doing more with less. Miles away to the south, raw concrete is also used to bring new life to Cecilia Puga’s Palacio Pereira in Chile, and to the old pearl city of Muharraq in Bahrain. In the latter, Head of Architectural Affairs Noura Al-Sayeh is stringing a necklace of buildings, public squares, and a bridge along the Pearling Trail. An abstract hypostyle hall welcomes visitors and protects the ruins of a UNESCO World Heritage site where the structure performs shadow puppets through cut-out shapes in its roof — a folk music hall dresses and undresses itself for the job. The walls of the 2015 Bahrain Pavilion at the Milan Expo rose again as a botanical garden nearby. The architects seem to be chosen by their shade of concrete: Swiss Red (Valerio Olgiati), Belgium Grey (OFFICE), and Hollandaise White (Anne Holtrop). Back in New York, OMA plays catch-and-hide with SANAA at the New Museum.   

And yet, beside all their qualities (which are plenty, don’t get me wrong), these buildings feel dated. None of them embodies the zeitgeist described by the earlier presentations. Monumentality, public space, sculptural forms, adaptive reuse, and béton brut are all well-known tools from the profession’s top hat. If you’re looking for an example of cutting-edge technology — or, for that matter, an example of new, imaginative ways of using traditional techniques (stone, timber, and mud, for example) that could help bring carbon emissions down or improve indoor air quality — you have to search elsewhere. Architects usually take shelter in blaming clients for their lack of interest in research and development strategies when not for the failure of design altogether. If that is the case, architects should instead redesign how projects get funded. There is no lack of examples of how architectural excellence has taken advantage of alternative ways of sponsorship, from crowdsourcing to participatory budgeting. Cooperative housing, as executed by Kraftwerk in Zürich or Lacol in Barcelona, are just a couple of illustrations of how bringing architects in earlier and closer to the table of decision-makers has generated new solutions at economic, social, technological, and formal levels. Nonetheless, being earlier to the table also challenges the concept of authorship, something that few architects on the stage of The World Around would probably consent to. 

Overall, despite the organization’s global ambition — and the pervasive British accent signaling its curator’s origins — the event made clear the schizophrenia in which architects operate in the United States. Those working in the art world or academia feel satisfied rendering visible the contradictions of the profession or pursuing effete conversations about style and form, for which a complete autonomy from the building site is necessary. A world apart, those complacent building Domains of Arnheim take any questioning of their job as an accusation that they are destroying the world. It doesn’t need to be that way.

In her most recent book, architecture historian Beatriz Colomina explains how tuberculosis, which at its peak was killing one out of three in cities like Paris, made modern architecture possible. In her thesis, the quest for hygiene got rid of dusty ornamentation, brought sunlight inside buildings — and saved lives. The current spread of COVID-19 should serve as a reminder of architects’ genuine responsibilities, and act as a catalyst for an architecture beyond Byzantine discussions of style. It is praiseworthy that Galilee shared her vision of the world with the help of investors, real-estate developers, and the likes of Facebook: decision-makers expecting architects to act as trusted advisers. We can only hope that future editions of The World Around force them to put more flesh on the bones. As Fredric Jameson argues in his last book: “The glory of the Anthropocene … has been to show us that we can really change the world. Now it would be intelligent to terraform it.”

Ibai Rigby is a trained architect and editor at urbanNext.net. He lives in Austin.

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