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Can a house sustain itself by eating its own tail? Can the body plug into the computer? Can you nourish a duck, 15 goldfish, an apple tree sapling, an apricot tree plantlet, and a small rhododendron plant exclusively from household effluent?
These are some of the questions architects, engineers, and designers posed in the 20th century, when scientific and creative communities around the world increasingly grappled with the challenge of creating self-sustaining environments on land, under water, and in space. Their experiments are revisited in Closed Worlds, an exhibition at the Storefront of Art and Architecture that guides visitors through a history of humanity’s quest to find alternative and often greener ways to live.
Many projects focused on constructing entire spaces — from Jacques Cousteau’s “Conshelf” in the 1960s, which explored human habitation under the sea, to the New Alchemy Institute‘s 1976 Ark for Cape Cod, a still-existing bioshelter that attempted to function with little reliance on the outside world. Other trials honed in on objects that sought to improve specific parts of our lifestyles, such as the Clivus Multrum, a composting toilet first developed in 1939 by a Swedish art teacher, or Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory’s wearable exoskeleton of motorized muscles and limbs, developed to amplify humans’ natural mechanical performance. Then there’s experimental group Ant Farm’s Clean Air Pod, which hovered between object and space: staged as an artistic intervention on the streets of Berkeley, the 40-by-40-foot pneumatic bubble was intended to draw awareness to air pollution. Passersby were invited to enter the inflated space and seal themselves from the toxic world, thus taking control of their environments; those declining entry were handed death consent forms to sign.
There’s a lot to take in here: Closed Worlds, curated by architect Lydia Kallipoliti, is extensively researched and features 41 historical prototypes conceived over the last century, as well as one virtual reality experience that constructs their 3D counterparts. Such a survey could be exhausting, but the display, designed by Pentagram, is clever and engaging, offering new perspectives on past experiments. A timeline summarizes the selected projects, categorizing them by type while using color to show their ecological footprints. Suspended cylinders, each one dedicated to a prototype, fill Storefront’s narrow space. Questions such as those mentioned earlier stamp the outer surfaces; if one stokes your curiosity, you can duck into the cylinder (entering a closed world of sorts) to read summaries of the project, accompanied by related historical images as well as colorful diagrams by Tope Olujobi that present new analysis: these “feedback drawings” illustrate how each prototype would cycle resources, including moments of failure, which suggest the idealism of realizing autonomous regeneration systems.
That first house-eating-tail question, for instance, refers to architect Dennis Holloway‘s Ouroboros Project from the early 1970s. Conceived as a self-sufficient house, Holloway’s system attempted to sustain itself by recycling its own waste and featured natural ventilation, a sod roof for insulation, and a wind-powered electricity generator, among other innovative elements. Like many of the prototypes on view, the Ouroboros Project increasingly struggled to meet its goal of full autonomy. Holloway’s model did not adapt well to changing temperatures, for instance. Other challenges many of these resource regeneration systems faced included conserving heat, supplying water and energy, and properly treating waste while considering living comforts. For many projects based in space and under water, getting there in the first place was a major obstacle to overcome, as was working with human limits to the physical conditions of the sites. Biosphere II — perhaps the largest and most well known manmade closed ecological system, which is composed of five artificial biomes — ultimately failed due to conflicts that arose among the participating scientists.
Testing the limits of human endurance in unfamiliar settings, many of these prototypes emphasize the myriad ways past visionaries were contemplating man’s relationship to and impact on the natural world. Most were not able to negotiate problems that emerged over time, and the concept of the self-sustaining environment remains a utopian dream. The most recent project Closed Worlds explores is Masdar City, the ambitious project in Abu Dhabi originally conceived in 2008 as the world’s most sustainable city, producing net-zero waste. City planners had projected completion this year, but not only is it far from close to completion, but authorities have also altered its projected greenhouse gas emissions from 0 to 50% of the norm. Like many other projects presented in the exhibition, Masdar City exemplifies the unpredictable nature of synthetic habitats, even though they seem to be entirely under our control. Its vision may be more eager and more demanding than the smaller and more focused projects of decades ago, but that lofty purpose only emphasizes the urgency of getting as close as possible to net-zero living before another century goes by.