Design Earth’s Drawings Play With Iconic Designs While Pushing Architecture to New Scales

The firm's "Geostories" exhibition, which infuses architecture with geographic scales and ecological ideas, is on view at The Cooper Union.
Design Earth Geostories exhibition Cooper Union

Below the Water Towers, from Pacific Aquarium, 2016. Courtesy Design Earth

Buckminster Fuller’s Manhattan dome has been repurposed to protect the ocean floor from contamination. Hans Hollein’s aircraft carrier now floats in a freshwater reservoir created by melting icebergs. Superstudio’s walls, Tatlin’s Tower, even Boullée’s Cenotaph for Newton—these all make cameo appearances in Design Earth’s new Geostories exhibition at The Cooper Union’s Foundation Building. But, ironically, these canonical projects have been enlisted to question the traditional disciplinary bounds of architecture.

Design Earth, which is based in Ann Arbor, Michigan and Cambridge, Massachusetts, is led by El Hadi Jazairy and Rania Ghosn. The pair teaches at the University of Michigan and MIT, respectively. (They were also recently tapped for the upcoming U.S. Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.) And while the firm’s name suggests an ecological focus, its Geostories proposals are hardly “green” in the usual sense. Instead, they’re what the architects call “geographic fictions”: the drawings aim to provoke architects to see the built environment at whole new scales. “We really want to say that it’s time to revise the existing canons of urban design and urban planning…to include some additional responsibilities vis-a-vis the Earth and all the silent partners,” Jazairy told Metropolis. As the Earth faces increased resource extraction, trash production, and water shortages (to name a few crises), “we are really hoping these stories encourage people to think in a more responsible way.”

Design Earth Geostories exhibition Cooper Union

Frozen Record, from Of Oil and Ice, 2017. Courtesy Design Earth

The fictions do truly operate on massive scales. Of Oil and Ice, a 2017 project from a recent biennial in the U.A.E., illustrates a seriously-considered solution to the Gulf Region’s water shortage: tow an iceberg to the Gulf and create new infrastructure to harvest its fresh water. Trash Peaks, from the Seoul Biennale, showcases numerous designs for waste management in the South Korean capital, such as a multilayered, volcano-shaped facility that uses fungi to mine rare earth metals from electronic waste. Pacific Aquarium, from the recent Olso Architecture Triennale, looks at resource extraction under the Pacific Ocean. Its Below the Water Towers project (the first image in this article) sees Fuller’s Manhattan dome transposed to the sea floor where, instead of protecting New York City’s air, it stops mining operations from spewing contaminants into the ocean. The pollution is instead piped to Manhattan skyscraper–shaped reservoirs that filter the contaminants. Drawings like these aren’t serious proposals but instead seek to build awareness of where resources originate and what happens once they become trash. “Maybe the sustainability discourse needs a dose of humor [to expand] beyond what seems to be a closed toolset of approaches,” says Ghosn.

While the projects’ fictions are sure to provoke a reaction, Design Earth’s drawing style may also generate surprise. Jazairy and Ghosn are fascinated by 18th-century geographic illustrations. That period’s illustrations, says Jazairy, are not about color, perspective, or hyperrealism: they are about straightforward “didactic visual information.” Adopting that approach, Design Earth’s drawings emphasize visual clarity, even featuring the monochrome and distinctive shading lines of old engraving techniques.

Design Earth Geostories exhibition Cooper Union

Geostories exhibition Courtesy Lea Bertucci

If you’re not a fan of the Design Earth’s boundary-pushing architecture, Ghosn says, “at the end of the day, they’re also stories, so if you’re not willing to embrace any of these projects’ own pragmatic, geographic sense, maybe you’ll still be able to enjoy some exquisite drawings.”

The reception for Geostories is Tuesday, October 17th, from 6:30 PM to 8:30 PM. (Event details here.) The discussion will include Felipe Correa, an associate professor at the Harvard GSD, as well as Franco Purini, an Italian architect whose drawings are also being exhibited at the Foundation Building. Geostories and Franco Purini: Selected Works are on view through Saturday, December 2, 2017.

You may also enjoy “Why Architectural Collage is Important to These Three Chicago Architecture Biennial Participants.”

Categories: Architecture, Ideas, Landscape, Planning

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