A new territory beckons organic architecture that helps mitigate climate change. It is an uncertain terrain beyond biomimicry and landscape urbanism—or so a new book, Ambiguous Territory: Architecture, Landscape, and the Postnatural (Actar Publishers, 2022) would have us believe. The result of a traveling exhibition, symposia, and ongoing debates among the participants—characterized by the organizers as a modern version of an 18th-century literary salon—the volume presents itself as both a manifesto and a body of design that seeks to prove the manifesto’s points. It assembles and calls for architecture that recognizes the breaches in the walls between the human and the animal, the organic and the artificial, and the real and the fictional, as well as the need for such hybrids in a world of imminent ecological disaster. Written with great passion, Ambiguous Territory is better as a description of the terrain it evokes than as a compendium of projects surveying or being designed for that landscape.
The editors of the book—Cathryn Dwyre, Chris Perry, David Salomon, and Kathy Velikov—are very clear about one thing: ambiguity. Both they and the various other critics they invited to contribute essays all agree that this lack of definition, whether in theory or in practice, is a good thing. One of the book’s essay authors (Sean Lally) even quotes as prophetic Donald Rumsfeld’s evocation of the “unknown unknowns.” If nothing else, the book serves as a stake through the false debates between organic or biophilic and rational and referential architecture.
This fence-sitting is essential to both our times and to the work at hand, the editors say, from both a theoretical and a practical standpoint. Climate change and the advent of the so-called Anthropocene, a term that implies that human beings are shaping not just a place within nature, but nature itself, mean that we can no longer define or predict where we are or where we’re going. That, in turn, means that planning for the future at any scale or any duration, as architects pretend to do when they lay out their plans, is difficult. What is a safe building when a hundred-year flood zone is really a yearly flood area? What are “honest” building materials when we are now finding coalesced mixtures of rocks and plastic? What is, as architect and theoretician Liam Young asks, the architecture of the giant warehouses, data banks, and worldwide webs of energy-devouring computation that is not inhabited by any human beings?
The answer is that there is no clear answer. As the editors state in their introductory essay, “At a time when old dualities—including nature/culture, animal/human, art/technology, biotic/synthetic—are dissolving, ambiguity’s ability to hold multiple, sometimes contradictory ideas together simultaneously makes it a productive mode of critical intellectual and aesthetic inquiry, and a fertile source of novel relations and knowledge… Ambiguity resists the imposition of authority precisely through its indeterminacy, thereby remaining open-ended and characterized by potential.”
So what is to be done in and with ambiguity? Not provide solutions. Instead, the editors say, “it is the task of creative practices such as art, architecture, and landscape architecture to help visualize its transformative effects and develop new sensibilities, and, ultimately, new forms of engagement with a world estranged from itself.”
Those attempts at visualization make up the bulk of the book and are far-ranging. They are also, on the whole, not very convincing. They run the gamut from science experiments presented as architecture (Office of Outdoor Research’s project for Owens Lake) to R&D and mapping projects on specific sites (Bradley Cantrell's Cyborg Ecologies) to architecture presented as speculative science or material research (Ellie Abrons's Biologic Mediations). Leafing through the book shows you the kinds of things you might see at a—albeit progressive—natural history museum or a convention center, as well as the kind of science-fiction forms presented as either utopia or dystopia and dominated by technological gadgets that have been the escapist hobbies of architects since the 18th century.
This is not to say the assembled projects do not have compelling moments. Ariane Lourie Harrison’s experiments with buildings with enough holes to attract other species to nest in them, thus creating a hybrid between human and natural habitation, track weirdly and appropriately with NaJa & deOstos’s floating hybrids between palaces and aircraft carriers. Rania Ghosn and El Hadi Jazairy come close to mixing real world occurrences, speculative science, utopian imagery, and ideas for a fantastic architecture in their elaboration of a 1976 proposal to tow an iceberg to Saudi Arabia to provide fresh water for that rich desert kingdom.
On a concrete level, the O’Donnell Miller Group has prototyped shelters that are both intricate in their design and evocative of the tradition of the primitive hut, while also being envisioned to decay over time back into the landscape from which they were woven. At the other end of the spectrum, Perry Kulper uses his representational wizardry to evoke a quasi-utopian inhabitation not for future human beings, but for today’s birds. Perhaps the architecture that comes closest to being both speculative and seductive in its aesthetic comes in the form of Philip Beesley’s decades-old installations that envelop viewers in clouds of plastic gadgets animated by their own piezoelectric energy.
What is missing, however, is any kind of convincing story or argument, whether as an actual narrative or as evocative imagery. The editors themselves give the model for such a mode of presentation: the picturesque, which they say “holds the capacity for looser design frameworks” that can still involve us through the seductive mixture of the artificial and the natural in complex and convoluted perspectives spiraling through fanciful landscapes. As an alternative, the critic Catherine Ingraham offers the “toxic sublime,” a certain fascination with the very terror and ugliness of our environmental crimes against the planet, which both she and the editors show through the work of the photographer Edward Burtynsky.
There lies the problem: There is no good picturesque work in this book. Burtynsky’s very large photographs of industrial sites and mines, often photographed from the air and pumped up in their color saturation, work because they are easy to understand and overwhelming in the scale at which they are presented in galleries. They are not effective as postage stamp pictures in a book, where their facileness and monotony comes out. The editors apparently are not familiar with the tradition started by diverse photographers—ranging from Robert Misrach to Sebastião Salgado and now being pursued by countless artists around the world—who actually learn from the picturesque and baroque to present the terrible beauty and horrible brilliance of the structures we are making out of and on the earth.
Ambiguous Territories is, in other words, both a manifesto in search of actions, and an encyclopedia of possible current tactics in search of an aesthetic. Perhaps that is appropriate: Rather than offering a how-to guide that might have worked for us in more certain times, they present us with a printed Pinterest board of possible images of a future that might have already started. I hope architects will use these to create better, more evocative structures that might both shelter us and allow us to act today.
The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.
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