Essays

Repairing a Broken Planet Through Optimism and Design

Could you empathize better with a blade of grass if it had an email address? What about the entire ecosystem?

Antón García-Abril and Débora Mesa, Ensamble Studio, “Petrified River” (2018–19) in the garden of Cooper-Hewitt (photo by Zachary Small)

Linda Tegg wants you to empathize better with nature. She’s thought about assigning email addresses to every blade of grass in her home city of Melbourne. Why not? Trees in the Australian city already have unique ID numbers and email addresses for reporting problems like dangerous branches or vandalism. Tegg, a photographer and filmmaker, learned that people were using these email addresses to write directly to the trees themselves: love letters, existential questions.

Tegg wonders whether this type of correspondence might help heal humanity’s stilted, emotionally disconnected relationships with our leafy brethren. “I doubt that caring for a plant conveniently scales up to knowing how to relate to and care for an entire natural system,” Tegg says in an interview for Critical Care — Architecture and Urbanism for a Broken Planet, an anthology published by Architekturzentrum Wien and MIT Press. “I’ve become increasingly interested in how our care of the environment shifts from the individual to the collective.”

Joan C. Tronto, a professor of political science at the University of Minnesota, would likely agree with the artist. “Western thought has done a good job of thinking about production as the center of human life,” she writes in an essay for the same book. “If care only means protecting the interests of the wealthy, it will result in a different architecture than one designed to repair the world.”

For decades, though, that’s exactly what’s happened. Neoliberalism has become a pox on problem-solving, shifting the burden of remedying systemic ills onto individuals instead of the governments and institutions responsible for safeguarding the public. Healthcare has become “self-care,” education has become “self-improvement,” and business has become “self-interest.” Technology has become the machinery that underwrites this iniquitous regime, platforming these hazardous pathologies online while providing the means of production for industrialists to produce pollution and waste by the metric ton. Under this economic system, what might motivate the rich to finance a new architecture that cared more about the world than personal gain?

Katharina Mischer, Thomas Traxler, and mischler-traxler studio, “Curiosity Cloud” (2015–19) (photo by Matt Flynn, image courtesy Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, © Smithsonian Institution)

Thinkers like Tegg and Tronto would argue that we must bridge the empathy gap to reverse this backslide into the ecological abyss. That’s also the overarching message of Nature — Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial, an exhibition unrelated to the book, co-organized by Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City and the Cube Design Museum in Kerkrade, Netherlands.

Compelled by a sense of urgency, the exhibition assembles artists, architects, and designers who have used technology to augment nature’s prevalence and power. The results are as intellectually dense as they are aesthetically vibrant, revitalizing reams of ecological and biological data into solution-engineering for a dying world.

Shifting between microscopic and macroscopic scales has some unintentionally humorous side effects. For example, exhibition visitors can explore a visualization of the cosmic web (information gathered from 24,000 galaxies), then troll through an equally vast list of organisms found within an infant’s gut.

Neri Oxman and MIT Media Lab Mediated Matter Group, “Aguahoja II” (2017–19) (photo by Matt Flynn, image courtesy Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, © Smithsonian Institution)

On that microbial note, Charles Reilly, an artist working with the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University, brings a four-minute video called “Choreography of Life” (2019). It visualizes an enzyme called adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which moves energy within cells. Doused in a magnificent spectrum of colors, we see nearly 500,000 atoms moving at a rate of femtoseconds (1 millionth of a 1 billionth of a second), attracting and repelling their neighbors in a give-and-take of biological energy. Batteries behind the building blocks of life, these biological components build an infinitesimal architecture of writhing parts; the video offers a reminder that nature — especially at the microscopic level — is caught in a seemingly endless, tireless loop of exchanges and remediations.

By contrast, the landmass sculpture that sits inside the museum’s garden indexes the entirety of Manhattan. For most of history, ecological change occurred relatively slowly — until humans sped up the process with industrialization and urbanization. “Petrified River” (2018–19), by Antonio García-Abril and Débora Mesa with Ensamble Studio, represents the transformation of this island from forestlands into cityscape. The architects have simplified the area’s topography into three simple categories — hill, river, and pond — terraforming their massive boulders made of reinforced concrete into an abstract symbol of the island. I interpret this work as an homage to erosion, both the natural kind and what comes with pollution. Inverting those hills into haunches, “Petrified River” envisages the waterways of Manhattan as an abject wasteland: arid riverbeds and an empty water basin.

Marked by perpetual cycles between life and death, nature has always had its morbid qualities, but there are some objects within the exhibition that flirt with the downright fatalistic. “Curiosity Cloud” (2015–19) looks like a whimsical installation at first glance. The Austrian designers Katharina Mischer and Thomas Traxler have set dozens of artificial handmade insects abuzz inside glass bulbs that hang from the ceiling. Activated by passersby, the bugs make irregular circles, bumping into the glass like moths attracted to a light. But many of the species represented here are from New York and qualify as endangered or extinct. Accordingly, it’s a confrontation between the viewer and her own backyard, a memorial for insects that have faced an astronomical decline in numbers and variety over the last fifty years.

Installation view of “Infinity Burial Suit” (2008–ongoing) by Coei Inc., Jae Rhim Lee, and Daniel Silverstein with “Mourn” (2017–ongoing) in the foreground by Nienke Hoogvliet (photo by Zachary Small)
Fernando Laposse, “Totomoxtle” (2017–ongoing) (photo by Zachary Small)

Death becomes a source of innovation for other exhibitors. Shrimp shells and fallen leaves build the body of “Aguahoja II” (2017–19), an amber cellulose exoskeleton robotically manufactured by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology lab and designed by Neri Oxman. “Totomoxtle” (2017–ongoing), a marquetry material by Fernando Laposse, draws its hexagonal tiles from the husks of heirloom corn native to Mexico. Shades of purple, red, and orange lend decorative appeal to a project that attempts to revive traditional agricultural practices in the country by employing Mexico’s vulnerable indigenous Mixte people, who grow corn in the southwestern state of Puebla. In a global economy that urges farmers to plant cash crops above all else for survival, Laposse is incentivizing a return to this historical ecology.

Corpses become fungible — and filled with fungi — when wearing “Infinity Burial Suit,” an ongoing project by Coeio Inc., Jae Rhim Lee, and Daniel Silverstein. The human-sized suit’s creators claim that it offers an alternative to current funerary options, such as cremation and casket burial. The cotton suit contains a variety of fungal threads that will absorb and eliminate toxins from a decomposing body, which is a nice way of saying that these mushrooms will essentially “eat” your dead body.

However grim these projects sound, the curators have made optimism an imperative of the exhibition; in the show’s supporting literature, they consider how humans might coexist with nature and the biosphere. They discuss caring for the environment as a grassroots effort led by a network of scientists and creatives who can harness design philosophy for the greater planetary good. Notably absent from this ecological justice league are the governments and industries who control the flow of such innovations into the public sphere. Nature suggests that salvation is just beyond the horizon, but never explains how we might reach it. The exhibition elicits empathy for the environment, but always presents solutions that feel just out of reach to viewers, failing to satisfyingly explain how all these clever inventions might stave off environmental catastrophe.

That is the $125 trillion question, and it’s not necessarily fair to arrive at a museum expecting an exhibition to solve something as incoherently complex as environmental armageddon. Still, my nagging suspicion is that real change must begin in educational spaces like museums, arenas in which the public can learn to question and care about their relationships with nature.

It’s from that notion that I return to the words of Tronto. “Caring for is the phase of care that concerns the acceptance and allocation of responsibility. Once one has noticed a caring need, someone needs to step up and claim responsibility for it, or determine who else might be responsible,” she writes. “Deciding to act and to take on these unmet needs is another critical aspect of caring.”

Nature dares to envision a more equitable relationship between people and the planet, but who’s going to turn that vision into a reality?

Installation view of the exhibition (photo by Matt Flynn, image courtesy Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, © Smithsonian Institution)
Installation view of the exhibition (photo by Matt Flynn, image courtesy Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, © Smithsonian Institution)

Nature — Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial continues through January 20, 2020 at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum (2 East 91st Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) and Cube Design Museum (Museumplein 2, Kerkrade, Netherlands).

The exhibition is curated by teams including Cooper Hewitt’s Caitlin Condell, associate curator and head of Drawings, Prints & Graphic Design; Andrea Lipps, assistant curator of contemporary design; and, Matilda McQuaid, deputy director of curatorial and head of Textiles; and Cube’s Gene Bertrand, program and development director; and Hans Gubbels, director of Cube.

Critical Care — Architecture and Urbanism for a Broken Planet, edited by Angelika Fritz and Elke Krasny, is published by Architekturzentrum Wien and MIT Press and is available on Amazon and other online retailers.

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