This month, the Museum of Modern Art in New York debuts the exhibition Emerging Ecologies: Architecture and the Rise of Environmentalism, on view from Sept. 17 to Jan. 20, 2024. Curated by Carson Chan, the director of MoMA’s Emilio Ambasz Institute for the Joint Study of the Built and the Natural Environment, the exhibition will feature more than 150 realized and conceptual works from the 1930s through the 1990s that speak to the rise of the environmental movement in the U.S. and its impact on architecture. Curious about the show and the accompanying catalog, ARCHITECT interviewed Chan about the exhibition and what we can learn about the history of sustainability.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Your upcoming exhibition and catalog on environmental design provide an alternative narrative to the conventional MoMA design exhibitions, which—with a few exceptions—haven’t focused on this topic. What are some revelations in your research?
Broadly speaking, the aim of the show is about the emergent ecologies as a survey of how architecture as a discipline in the United States responded to the rise of environmentalism in the 1960s and 1970s. For this exhibition, I wanted to expand the definition of architecture but also propose that “environmental architecture” is a counter movement or an anti-movement to architectural Modernism. We can expand the definition of architecture by seeing what types of environmental projects we can include that are not traditionally within the Modernist canon. For example, we’re insisting that “preventing” a structure from being built is as architectural as building the structure, and so we’re exhibiting documentation from protests by the Yavapai Nation against the building of the Orme Dam in Phoenix, which would have flooded two-thirds of the Yavapai’s land. In 1981, they succeeded in getting the dam project scrapped. The protest, which is not a building, had profound spatial, environmental, and, yes, architectural effects.
Many revelations came from researching the history of the concept of environment for the show. The word “environment” was defined in many different ways. During the 1950s, it meant “surroundings.” Later in the 1960s and 1970s, it took on a more ecological dimension. For example, Phyllis Birkby, who co-founded the Women’s School of Planning and Architecture, organized the Women’s Environmental Fantasies workshops and challenged women to think of what it would be like if we had environments designed by women. We opened up a different dimension to the word “environment” in this exhibition.
In putting the exhibition together, did you use many items from MoMA’s permanent collection, or did you acquire or borrow them for the show?
It’s a mix. Some objects are from our collection, but other material came directly from the archives of architects. For example, it’s exciting to show the work of Glen Small, AIA emeritus, one of the founders of SCI-Arc, who has been working on his own quietly for several decades. Carolyn Dry is another architect who has dedicated her career to devising ways of building that mirror natural systems. For example, she has been looking at how corals operate and create self-healing concrete.
It’s exciting to see that this exhibition includes a number of female practitioners such as architect Eleanor Raymond and solar engineer Mária Telkes, who collaborated on the design of a solar house.
Their work was groundbreaking. We also included Beverly Willis, FAIA emeritus, who in the 1970s developed one of the first computer software programs that analyzes the environment. Another point about this exhibition is that because architecture historically has excluded a lot of women and people of color, we tried try to find stories that have been hidden. People like Eugene Tssui, a Chinese American architect whose architecture is inspired by the forms of nature, are good examples.
You also included paintings from a 1975 project Don Davis did for NASA, which show what look like spaceships straight out of sci-fi movies like Elysium or Interstellar.
The work he did for a federal agency like NASA is interesting because it was done at a time when thinking about the environment was a question of the survival of the species. Dreaming up new kinds of off-planet living conditions was a serious proposition. The images of space colonies that he created have been so important in the Western cultural imagination and how we define the environment.
We're also showing the work of aerospace engineer Dandridge Cole and illustrator Roy Scarfo, who proposed a number of innovative schemes for space travel and colonization—like having humans living inside an asteroid—a decade before Davis and NASA. Those came just a few short years after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring book, which pointed out how we're destroying the planet. Some seemed intent on an escape plan.
How do you hope people will respond to this exhibition?
The aim is to change the way society speaks about architecture. Architecture and the building sector is the most polluting human activity. As a species, we urgently need to address this and, as a discipline, architecture can’t ignore its environmental impact. I hope people realize that architecture is and has been an environmental discipline, and that good thinking has been done to change the fraught relationship between the built and natural environments.
This article first appeared in the September 2023 issue of ARCHITECT.