EXPLORING THE WATER WORLD OF RACHEL CARSON

by Rachel Hahn

Photograph by Ryan Lowry.

Though the marine biologist, author, and conservationist Rachel Carson is mostly remembered for her 1962 book Silent Spring (a watershed in the environmental movement that exposed the adverse effects of synthetic pesticides), she best communicated her uniquely sensitive perspective on the biosphere in her three ocean volumes: Under the Sea-Wind (1941), The Sea Around Us (1951), and The Edge of the Sea (1955). In Carson’s water-world, volcanoes and coral reefs are the “chief architects” responsible for 1,000-mile chains of sea-floor mountains and massifs of jagged coral rock. Though man cannot control or subdue the ocean in contrast to “the artificial world of cities and towns, [where] he often forgets the true nature of his planet and the long vistas of its history,” metropolises do exist in her universe — if you wait until the tide falls below the rockweeds, you will see “cities of mussels” at the shore. Humans and the built environment are mostly absent from Under the Sea-Wind; instead Carson follows characters like Scomber, a mackerel born 70 miles south of Long Island who started life as “a tiny globule no larger than a poppy seed.” Within the span of a few pages, Scomber narrowly avoids a comb jelly’s tentacles before slipping out of his egg sac to confront a world of which he knew little, where “whales [drive] open-mouthed through … swarms of mollusks,” 500-pound tunas attack, and shrimps with luminous organs appear like “swimming starlets of light.” But, to the fisherman on the deck of a seiner, the sea at first lies “in black anonymity — a blank negation of life,” until he wonders, “What had the eyes of the mackerel seen?”


His line of questioning acts as a stand-in for the empathy and boundless curiosity that are the foundations of Carson’s loving portrait of the ocean and the interconnected web of life it sustains. In Under the Sea-Wind, she patches together the story of Scomber and other sea creatures to give full subjectivity to the ocean itself — she once wrote to her editor at Simon & Schuster that this approach allowed her to remove any “human bias,” a stark contrast to the first-person authorial narratives that characterized much of nature writing at the time. Her follow-up, The Sea Around Us, tells grander stories of the planet’s waters in more explicitly scientific terms, from the moment the ocean’s basins “were sculpted out of the surface of the Earth in darkness,” to the patterns of the tides. In the trilogy’s finale, The Edge of the Sea, she sets her sights on the ocean’s shorelines, where tubeworms are the “architects of tide pools,” to craft a narrativized guide to the Eastern seaboard.


It’s easy to overlook Carson’s passing architectural metaphors with reference to agency of the natural world, but if we take the ocean on its own terms, as Carson wants us to, there’s a deep wellspring of holistic, adaptable, and ecocentric principles that architects and designers can borrow from. In Undersea, an essay she published in 1937 in The Atlantic, she says that to gain an understanding of the ocean and its creatures, “we must shed our human perceptions of length and breadth of time and place, and enter vicariously into a universe of all-pervading water. For to the sea’s children nothing is so important as the fluidity of their world.” To take an oceanic perspective, as Carson does, flexibility is key, as every little thing influences another in an endless chain reaction.


The ocean has long been home to utopian architectural projects, many of which have attempted to take Carson’s flexibility to heart and open up new frontiers for urbanization that attempt to solve some of the terrestrial issues — overpopulation, overdevelopment — that impact our environment. In 1966, in response to a request for a residential tower from Japanese media mogul Matsutaro Shoriki, Buckminster Fuller proposed a floating city for Tokyo Bay as a way to skirt around the high cost of real estate — “Floating cities pay no rent to landlords,” as Fuller later put it in his 1981 book Critical Path. With architect Shoji Sadao, he sketched out the pyramidal Tetrahedron City, intended to accommodate one-million people in 300,000 apartment units organized around an interior harbor. Shortly after, Fuller scaled down his design for the

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development: Triton City, an anchored “organic” community of 100,000 people, would be connected by bridges to the mainland and desalinate and recirculate water. Though it passed U.S. Navy stability calculations, it was never built. In 1969, NASA paralleled Fuller’s interest in marine urbanization with Tektite, a study of aquanauts living 43 feet below the surface of the waters around the U.S. Virgin Islands. Scholar James Merle called it a fusion of “Modernist architecture and design, visionary scientific thinking, and experimental psychology.” Each of these projects pushes the limits of human perception, to borrow a phrase from Carson, in navigating a world in which we might all live more closely with the ocean.


But Carson’s almost posthuman framing of time, space, and nature resonates most profoundly in the designs of Japanese architect Kiyonori Kikutake, and in the tenets of Metabolism, the architectural movement he was associated with. Renewal and fluidity are central to Metabolism, which borrowed from the logic of natural systems and biology to treat cities and buildings as living organisms. Kikutake took inspiration from water lilies, buoys, and sea creatures such as jellyfish in his (mostly speculative) designs for floating cities, an obsession of his for over 50 years — “I have held fast to the dream of making a residential environment upon the splendor of the sea,” he wrote in 1995 about the origins of his Marine City, which he first proposed in 1959. Kikutake’s early designs for these ocean settlements were large circular platforms floating on the sea’s surface, intended to be “moveable, autonomous, and climate controlled,” and able to resist waves of any size — an important consideration given Japan’s vulnerability to earthquakes and therefore to tsunamis. In 1960, he envisioned high-density, high-rise ocean housing for 30,000 people: as well as harbors for submarines and flying boats, it would be equipped with facilities for cultivating seafood and for generating electricity from the sun and the waves. If necessary, the city could propagate itself or split off into a new community — just like cell division.


In Metabolism in Architecture (1977), Kisho Kurokawa, one of the movement’s founders, discusses the importance of wood in Japanese society, in contrast to the Western reliance on stone. “Wood is regarded less as an architectural material than as a part of the world of nature,” he wrote, a perspective that extended to other materials too. “When the bronze fittings have acquired a patina, and the thatch roofs have become speckled with moss, then they acquire special value because these alterations reveal continuity and unity with nature.” It is only through this natural chain reaction that these materials gain architectural value, a belief that gets to the heart of what Carson found so fascinating about the ocean. “Nowhere on the shore is the relation of a creature to its surroundings a matter of a single cause and effect,” she wrote. “Each living thing is bound to its world by many threads, weaving the intricate design of the fabric of life.” Carson’s ocean books underline how much the flow of our natural world relies on change — something to keep in mind as we build on it.