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    Glacier/Island/Storm pt 1: Design to Fail

    Nick Sowers
    Feb 22, '10 1:12 PM EST

    This is the first of two posts which are part of Geoff Manaugh’s “Glacier/Island/Storm” studio underway this Spring at Columbia University. Be sure to follow the online conversation as it unfolds this week! I have been invited by Geoff to write something in response to the studio brief, which asks:

    “How can we take relatively large-scale natural processes and approach them from the standpoint of architectural redesign?”

    The idea that architects should be designing processes to produce glaciers and even alter the weather is both wonderful and preposterous. You have to take a step back and really ask: “What, in that case, is architecture?”

    Architecture happens when all else fails. When the normative modes of building for the purpose of providing shelter or other basic social needs prove inadequate, we turn to architects to imagine our future anew. If one takes this definition of architecture to the extreme, however, then there are actually very few architects in the world. Most architecture functions under normative modes of building, producing designs that fit into standard capitalist equations (newness=attention=money). But design produced in the face of adversity yields new paradigms of space—true innovation—and concomitantly new definitions of what an architect is and what an architect can do.

    Climate change, in particular, presents a unique driving factor, generating both normative capitalist opportunities (LEED, green products, etc.) but also a brand new set of emerging challenges on a scale so large that nations—and their militaries—might yet have to get involved. But who is to lead this effort? As designers, the most basic question of who the client is forms a large part of our design research; and I think we have to assume a military intervention when it comes to designing for climate change. Given the already documented history of military climate-engineering, as laid out by James Fleming in his article “The Climate Engineers” published in the Wilson Quarterly, Spring 2007, this seems a very safe bet. (It is also worth noting that climate change has been identified by the Pentagon as a national security threat.)

    Seldom are architects called in to resolve a crisis, but, for better or worse, frequently the military is called in. (Observe the recent scenario in Haiti where spy drones were deployed to survey the earthquake damage and troops are on the ground.) Architecture for Humanity stresses the fact that in the aftermath of a crisis what is needed first are funds to support the most immediate problems, such as sanitary water and food supply. The architect’s role only comes much later, if at all. But while this might be true for unexpected disasters like Haiti, and even foreseeable disasters like Katrina, what about a disaster slowly unfolding, one against which we still have time to dream up plans and test their efficacy before it’s too late? Could an architect be involved in this process—and, if so, what is the exact nature of the “expertise” offered by a designer?

    If we are going to seriously consider building new islands or redesigning the weather, then we should quietly assume that our projects are going to fail. The military understands this principle very well—it’s called contingency . They even have an acronym for it: COP, or Contingency Operation Plan. The wild designs one might dream up for reversing climate change—like launching mirrors into space to reflect the sun’s rays away from the shrinking Arctic ice cap—can and should fail in interesting ways.

    What, then, are the fringe benefits to these colossal—and doomed—interventions? The military might imagine using such a mirror system as a weapon, of course, but what civilian uses could an architect foresee? What other unintended, but perhaps beneficial, by-products might result? Imagining this post-failure reclamation process is the true design task for those trying to grapple with large-scale natural phenomena.

    In my own thesis here at UC-Berkeley, I am interested in exploiting military structures not as functioning elements but rather as shells left behind. I am interested in the husk of forms designed with nearly unlimited budgets for an incredibly specific purpose.

    Red Sands Maunsell Fort
    [These anti-aircraft towers built off the coast of England during WWII beckon for re-purposing by Bunker Recycling Services].

    Consider the network of Cold War missile silos across the U.S. that we never used, a network that, nonetheless, was perceived as essential to our survival. These silos comprise a spatial resource that has been reclaimed to serve as domestic housing and functioning mushroom farms. Re-use was not built into the design of these structures, but here in the 21st century, I argue that we have to think differently when it comes to massive infrastructures and design for their obsolescence.

    In a similar vein, I am studying the detritus and social cost of military endeavors. An interesting crossover between what the Glacier/Island/Storm studio has been investigating and my own research interests is the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. From June 30, 1946, to August 18, 1958, the United States conducted 67 nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands. The detonation of Bravo on March 1st, 1954, was 1,300 times the strength of Hiroshima. Jane Dibblin writes in Day of Two Suns that the bomb was designed to produce a lethal fallout, depositing one and a half inches of a pale powder formed when Bikini’s coral reef “melted in the intesnse heat of the bomb and was sucked up and scattered for miles.” Islanders on Rongelap are estimated to have received 175 rem of radiation, 350 times the maximum recommended dose in a year.

    [The concrete-domed radioactive landfill of Runit Island via Pruned]

    What impact did nuclear testing have on the particular climate and ecosystem of the Bikini Atoll? Populations were displaced prior to the bombing and afterwards. The United States left behind a radiological legacy that is very hard to be proud of. “Downwinders” are still seeking reparations for health effects from the fallout clouds. There is a tremendous cost to the entire Pacific Proving Ground which is still being ascertained and paid for today. While the Glacier/Island/Storm studio isn’t designing atomic bombs per se, the lessons learned from that experiment to radically alter our atmosphere are prescient of 21st century possibilities. As amazing solutions are proposed to fix the weather, the social cost and potential fallout from these solutions must also be accounted for, in detail and at every level of these design projects.

    Continuing to focus on the Western Pacific, a specific region with a history of massive military intervention, I would like to draw attention to the island of Guam, an unincorporated territory of the United States. Occupied by the Japanese during WWII, the battle to reclaim this island rendered large swaths of its landscape barren, and therefore susceptible to erosion. The military then tree-bombed the island, dropping seeds—from B-52 bombers—of a non-native, rapidly growing tree called the tangan tangan.

    [Image source:]

    The tree, native to tropical Latin America and first brought over by the colonizing Spaniards, forever altered the physical makeup of the island. With a $15 billion future military buildup now on the boards, Guam is likely to undergo even more permanent changes at the hands of the U.S. military. Could the militarized reshaping of the island’s landscape also work to augment its ecology and even grapple with an issue related to climate change?

    Take super-typhoons, for example. When I was on Andersen Air Base on Guam this past November, I learned that the Air Force has to fly their planes off the island when a typhoon threatens to hit. The last super-typhoon to rip through Guam, Pongsona (a name contributed by North Korea), did over $600 million in damage and was the costliest U.S. disaster in 2002. It seems inevitable that the military should like to take measures to reduce the impact of super-typhoons. That solves who the client is, a kind of carte-blanche for the designer/climate-engineer, in service of the military, to alter the weather so long as it is not “hostile” as defined in Article 1 of United Nations Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques.

    [Super-typhoon Pongsona, photo by Rodger Springsteen]

    Imagine, then, the sort of infrastructure you’d need to bring down a super-typhoon, to halt it, to deflect it (imagine the liability, as well!). Architects can provide the means to synthesize the efforts of the engineers who would actually run the calculations. Does that mean that architecture is a by-product of such an effort?

    [The eye of Pongsona approaches Guam, image from Guam is outlined in black, measuring thirty miles from north to south.]

    My real interest here is not how much scientific evidence one can amass in order to support a specific design project (although the more, the better). Rather, I am interested in the flexibility and intrigue that emerges from a project deemed to be of no use. I am interested in the by-products of failure. Under this mode of thinking, architecture oscillates between an intentional form and an empty shell, and the role of the designer is to guide that process.

    Your design might try to save the planet, to be sure, but in the meantime, it still has to do x, y, and z. In my following post, I will outline the design for a super-typhoon wall, exploring the ulterior motives and latent potentials for such an improbable infrastructure.


    • Talya Kahane

      "The idea that architects should be designing processes to produce glaciers and even alter the weather is both wonderful and preposterous."

      My thoughts exactly. I have been grappling with this since the studio began. While it is an exciting proposition, it is also quite presumptions. The responsibility of altering weather and the possible ramifications can be significant. Climate control and alteration is a science which is extremely underdeveloped and untested. What if, in the end, it does more harm then good?
      Because of the speculative nature of these projects, I appreciated what you said about assuming failure and thinking about the fringe benefits of an infrastructure that is left behind. If we can look at these massive structures/landscapes as having some benefit beyond its initial purpose, it allows for more experimental freedom in the process.

      Feb 25, 10 11:00 pm  · 

      Thanks Talya for posting--cool to have one of the students from the studio reading this blog!

      I wonder, though, if you mean that you want more "experimental freedom" out of this design-to-fail process, when the premise of the studio already permits so much freedom... Or, what might help more is to think about ways to restrict what you should and should not do: a road map of architectural ethics as it pertains to designing the sky. You have less freedom this way but more direction, if that makes sense.

      Feb 27, 10 8:30 pm  · 
      Talya Kahane

      I agree that the premise of the studio allows a tremendous amount of freedom and I am very excited about the project. I have been grappling with my own feeling of needing to justify my project - being that it is dealing with some untested ideas. So reading your blog and beginning to think about the form as something that can exist outside of its initial intention has allowed me to move forward with less conflict.

      Feb 28, 10 11:27 pm  · 

      glad that I could help!

      Mar 1, 10 2:07 pm  · 

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