This past August, a group of climate activists blocked the two-lane road to Burning Man, the annual get-together rooted in an expired countercultural cause. The blockade induced a mile-long, bumper-to-bumper bottleneck of mostly gas-powered cars and recreational vehicles. The Pyramid Lake Paiute tribal police shut down the climate protest, and if this doesn’t muddle the environmental case enough, an enraged Burner grumbled to a journalist: “I have solar panels installed on my RV!” Contemporary environmental politics manifests itself in ideological confusion.
Emerging Ecologies: Architecture and the Rise of Environmentalism, a sprawling exhibition organized by the Emilio Ambasz Institute’s Carson Chan, Matthew Wagstaffe, Dewi Tan, and Eva Lavranou at the Museum of Modern Art, is a timely retrospective spotlighting the historical contexts in which North American environmental consciousness developed in relation to how its various tenets registered in “the built and natural environment.” Recognizing “architecture itself as an environmental discipline,” as Chan suggests in his catalog essay, the exhibition lays out a heterogeneous array of practices and projects in an attempt to define “environmental architecture” in the postwar United States.
Invoking Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in its wall text, Emerging Ecologies calibrates its curatorial frame to a tradition of eco-critical literature that accounts for the detrimental effect industries and technologies have had on nature. Unsettling a simplified opposition between the two, however, the exhibition attempts to delve into a more complex historical conjunction in which technology and the environment, as we might know them, have mutually articulated each other.
On the right wall near the entrance hangs the reproduction of a suite of drawings. “Computer Drawn,” as they read, dots, arrows, numbers, and colored patches crisply plotted on gridded surfaces by CARLA (Computerized Approach to Residential Land Analysis). Developed by architect Beverly Willis in the early 1970s, it was a computational design program tasked with algorithmically suggesting optimal planning solutions for land development projects. This statistical matrix was among many concurrent architectural works that exploited then-newly available informational technologies to represent the “environment” as an aggregate of spatial data points, from trees to elevations and water flows to soils.
Also on view are the almost flamboyant cartographic scrolls from Ian McHarg’s Estuary Design studio at the University of Pennsylvania and a curious Rubik’s Cube-shaped model of sectional mapping by Howard T. Fisher’s Laboratory for Computer Graphics at Harvard University. The amorphous, indistinct contours of the environment began to be delineated by an emerging assemblage of techniques, making certain ecological agencies calculable in the looming technological administration of the environment.
But it’s not until the glaring projection of Buckminster Fuller’s World Game at the center of the gallery that the quantitative impulse of “environmental architecture” culminates. The flickering Dymaxion maps exemplify the postnatural dream of total informatization of the environment — where a control room with a real-time, infospheric view of spaceship Earth orchestrates flows of planetary resources: geological materials and processes become logistical. The sweeping techno-optimism characteristic of the time is further heightened by a host of speculative, extraterrestrial landscapes pulled from popular culture, from the orbital, planetary suburbia of the NASA-commissioned space art by Rick Guidice and Don Davis to the outer-space eco-colony from the sci-fi feature Silent Running by Douglas Trumbull with illustrator George Akimoto.
Next to the cheerful pictures of science’s green-tinted, technocratic fantasies, however, are a spread of archival documents, photographs, and films that sought a different relationship with the environment. In Anna and Lawrence Halprin’s Experiments in Environment workshops and the New Alchemy Institute’s self-sufficient ark, two experimental practices that the exhibition draws from what has been known as the counterculture, a rawer, more immediate environmental politics was expressed; technologies were reconfigured in driftwood bonfires, south-facing greenhouses, circular farming systems, and psychedelic trips in each of their experimental, communal spaces. If scientism technologized the environment into commensurable objects for control, technology was rendered environmentally ambient, at least momentarily again, in a culture of “turn on, tune in, drop out.” On the other end of the gallery is Ant Farm’s entry: its member Curtis Schreier’s 1975 color-pencil drawings Dolon EMB (Dolphin Embassy) muses on an architecture of human-cetacean communication and interspecies diplomacy. Never defined by naïveté or solutionism, the transdisciplinary collective’s operations were as rhetorical as they were architectural, supplying wry smiles in the face of a ludicrous drama between modernity and an idea of the Nature it produces.
“A necessarily selective survey,” as Chan acknowledges, MoMA’s representation of “environmental architecture” is compromised by “the irretrievable loss of ecological knowledge developed for millennia before European settlers colonized this land.” Transfixed by the Anglo-American milieu of the 1960s and 70s (a spacetime saturated by recent architectural research), the exhibition diligently hints at, when possible, leakages in its inevitable insulation within a settler colonial framework. Yet, when other subjects do appear in the exhibition, they are hung as pictures of resistance insofar as they perform the work of discursive correction and legitimacy. Framed as a salient defense of indigenous sovereignty through documentary photographs and news clippings, for instance, Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation’s decade-long legal battle against a land-effacing dam, which established precedent for resistance through the legislative system, might indicate openings in a remedial framework of environmental institutionalism; however, it also suggests a dismal outlook where any refuge of a world worth living from capitalist development’s ruination machine is left up to the arbitration by its own green governances, bureaucracies, and deals.
What is left unclear in recycling the historical emergence of particular environmental politics — which may have already been bankrupt — is how these sporadic, if individualistic, episodes connected to the larger political ecologies at the time. In his recent book Scorched Earth, Jonathan Crary identifies the tragic negligence, if not dismissal, of many prescient ecological accounts in anti-systemic struggles erupting in advanced capitalist countries in the 1960s and 70s, when environmentalism failed to gain political momentum with broader liberation, anti-war, and student movements. One way to engage with Emerging Ecologies is to identify a sprawling yet patchy field of past praxis from which we may salvage architecture and its history’s political purchase in the environment, only to take it apart to forge new, enduring webs of solidarity with struggles of the many systemic violences of our time, spectacular or slow.