Environmental Futures

From left to right, Geoff Manaugh, Bruce Sterling, and Mark Smout discuss Environmental Futures.

Photo by David Stentiford.

“The Ecotopians must be positively allergic to paint,” observes foreign correspondent William Weston, “They build with rock, adobe, weathered boards.” These earthen structures are an early view of the built environment we encounter in Ernest Callenbach’s 1975 speculative novel Ecotopia: homes covered in vines and bushes, the built and the natural visibly interconnected.

Ecology is likewise entangled with edifice in the models and images of Landscape Futures: Instruments, Devices, and Architectural Inventions, the show guest-curated by Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG for the Art + Environment Season at the Nevada Museum of Art. The view of the future here, however, is vibrant, colorful, and gleaming. Polychrome wiring hangs in coils and replaces those creeping plants on the walls.

Landscape Futures was also the visual and conceptual touchstone for a discussion on “Designing Architectures for Environmental Changes” that concluded the first full day of presentations at the Art + Environment Conference. Moderated by futurist Bruce Sterling, the conversation included Manaugh, alongside David Benjamin of The Living, Mark Smout of Smout Allen, and Liam Young of Tomorrow’s Thoughts Today, all contributors to the show.

It’s helpful to begin with literature here because fictional architecture and design builds with narrative as much as it does with any other material. And the overarching story told by the show and in conversation was how architecture and technology have the capacity to become active in the environment. Benjamin and Smout illustrated ways data-gathering technology can amass and give visual expression to public environmental interest, the presence or absence of natural resources, and ecological quality in general.

“Envirographic instruments” is how Smout describes, for example, his mobile “sniffers” and “tasters” that record ambient conditions of a site and produce tangible records through environmental science.  There are other fictions as well. Unsettling stories of a hybrid robot nature are narrated by Young’s model landscape of a future Galapagos, a now brushy mountainous archipelago, stripped of its color by critters part fauna, part robot. To be sure, Landscape Futures blurs the boundaries between the natural and artificial, but more is at stake.

Image 2_Surface TensionInstallation view of envirographic instruments from Surface Tension by Smout Allen: Mark Smout and Laura Allen, 2011.

Photo by Jamie Kingham

Landscape Futures is different from much environmental art in that it isn’t predominantly concerned with the human mark on the land. In Manaugh’s view, even plate tectonics and climate change are designers of landscape futures in their “terrestrial agency” on the planet. So, it’s about how change is coming, no matter what; it’s also about how that change can be better engineered.

To understand what Landscape Futures does as a thought experiment, it’s essential to see it in contrast. These projects do not imagine architectures of Arcadia where building yields to the processes of nature to establish ecological connectedness. The linkages are more utopian (or even dystopian) in their engineering, the dominance of the built over the natural. But to stop here I think is to miss the point. A greater intervention is at stake in this work. Landscape Futures isn’t simply a new ecotopia either. Instead, the exhibition and conversations make an effort to posit architecture in dialogue—in a conversation of information, data, and change—that goes both ways. The landscape—its active and passive roles in environmental change—is given voice. Active and adaptive designs—active and adaptive landscapes: all in dialogue.

In presenting his work, Benjamin discussed his collaboration with Soo-in Yang in their project, The Gray Rush, which takes the old technology of chromatography and re-imagines its purpose by designing a tool to test for lithium in a resource-depleted world. The device is a tube, like a core sampler at first glace, and the data is a separation of color along a spectrum. Wound paper is unfurled to show graph-like mountain topography of mineral readings.

Why visit these far-flung landscapes of the mind or model designs with no clear application today? While famine is here now, and future environmental problems may be starker, more human, and closer to home—feeding and providing water for growing urban populations is, perhaps, the greatest environmental problem on the horizon—why turn to fictional architecture? The purpose behind the tools, stories, and images offered by Benjamin and Yang provide one answer.

Image 3_The Gray RushInstallation view of The Gray Rush by The Living: David Benjamin and Soo-in Yang, 2011.

Photo by Jamie Kingham.

Landscape Futures is a speculative project analogous to the important work of ecological scientists best demonstrated in the UN-mandated Millennium Ecosystems Assessment (MA) from the 2000s. After aggregating most of what science knew about ecosystems, their degradation, and the services they provide, the project also proposed several future environmental scenarios, incorporating climate change and technological advancement, to survey the unforeseen. The purpose, to me, seems like the drive behind Landscape Futures. As the MA describes it:  “Scenario development is a way to explore possibilities for the future that cannot be predicted by extrapolation of past and current trends.”

It feels appropriate that William Weston, before crossing the border to report from the new nation of Ecotopia on the Pacific coast, flew into Reno and had a look around.  In my next post from the conference, I’ll consider the implication of more work like this, and other ideas about design, architecture, and landscape, specifically examining how aesthetics may play a role in this broader conversation.

David Stentiford teaches composition at the University of Nevada, Reno where he recently earned an MA in Literature and Environment.

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