8 ways architects and artists are fighting climate change

Published 8th December 2017
Amager Bakke Waste-to-Energy Plant, Copenhagen -- Not only will this progressive plant include a ski slope, but it will also pump out 30-meter-wide rings of smoke to remind visitors of the impact of over-consumption.
Credit: BIG Architects
8 ways architects and artists are fighting climate change
Written by Beatrice Galilee
Beatrice Galilee is the Daniel Brodsky Associate Curator of Architecture and Design at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
We are living in unstable times. Our epoch -- the Anthropocene -- is defined by the presence of humans on earth. Since the 18th century our planet has been purposefully shaped by our hands alone. Technological advancements, from the steam engine to industrialized agriculture, have given rise to new landscapes of globalization and capital: mass urbanization, pollution and extreme weather conditions.
In my work I find it intriguing to see how architects and artists, in their roles as thinkers and producers, are absorbing and reacting to these changing environments. I see architects working with rocket scientists to invent new types of power plants, and artists collaborating with NASA to take spectacular photographs of fast-melting ice caps.
Others are using the air itself to create new spaces, or seeking out the unknown fields where precious metals that power our mobile technologies are mined. These architects and artists are offering poetic and captivating alternatives to the image of climate change or environmental news as presented by scientists, politicians or screenwriters. We explore some of the best examples.

Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) - Amager Bakke Waste-to-Energy Plant

The damage of Hurricane Sandy in 2008 brought the concept of climate change home hard to New Yorkers. One of the city's most prominent architects, Bjarke Ingels of BIG, is part of a task force to provide buttressing against future impact to the island with a project, the Big U, that intends to blend a protective wall with playful and much needed public spaces for the city.
Inside Bjarke Ingels' ski slope power plant
This continues Ingels' tradition of using buildings as opportunities to make statements and solve problems. One extraordinary example is a hybrid power plant-ski slope-art project under construction in Demark. Ingels transformed the traditionally bulky and blank exterior of the Amager Bakke power station into a public ski slope, and, working with a team of engineers and scientists, has hacked its chimney too. What once was an icon of industrial waste will now billow out a single smoke ring for every ton of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, creating a visible symbol of the plant's environmental footprint while raising awareness among citizens of the levels of carbon dioxide being emitted.

John Gerrard - 'Western Flag (Spindletop, Texas)'

John Gerrard's has depicted the now barren and depleted site of the Lucas Gusher, the world's first major oil find, discovered in Spindletop, Texas in 1901. The site is recreated as a digital simulation with a pole bearing a flag of perpetually renewing pressurized black smoke.
The artist's ambitions echo the thoughts of earlier architects: "One of the greatest legacies of the 20th century is not just population explosion or better living standards, but vastly raised carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. This flag gives this invisible gas, this international risk, an image, a way to represent itself," he wrote on the project's website.

Philippe Rahm Architectes - Jade Eco Park

For Paris-based Philippe Rahm, the Anthropocene offers an exhilarating challenge. In his view, architecture does not need to be a matter of designing with bricks and mortar. It can extend to designing the air and working with the atmosphere itself. In Jade Eco Park, a 70-acre landscape in Taiwan, Rahm designed 11 micro-climates, assigning each to various activities according to climatic suitability. He then used computer software to identify the areas of the park that need certain types of plants and fauna, and will generate new types of spatial experiences that do far more that provide shade and shelter.

Marshmallow Laser Feast - 'Treehugger: Wawona'

In a playful effort to connect with the planet, Marshmallow Laser Feast has designed a vast sculpture of a giant redwood tree in virtual reality. The viewer dons a VR headset, places their head into the tree's knot and is transported into its secret inner world. The longer someone hugs the tree, the deeper they drift into "treetime," a hidden dimension that lies just beyond the limit of our senses.
Barney Steel, MLF's co-founder and creative director, believes virtual reality could be the key to fostering better understanding and empathy with the environment: "What if we could shift our perception of the world, accelerate time, see microscopic detail or even see through solid objects? Well, now we can. VR makes this possible by making the invisible visible whilst distorting time and space to transform our perception of the world around us," he said in a statement.

Unknown Fields Division - Rare Earthenware

Unknown Fields Division's ventures into the unknown. This nomadic studio travels the world in search of messages to send home: stories of the making of the contemporary city. Among their many stops have been the lithium fields of Bolivia, a spectacular scenography of serene green and blue pools that the locals describe as "the metal sea," made of the main component of our smartphone batteries.
For the Rare Earthenware project, the expedition traced the rare metal elements used to make iPhones and laptops to their origins in Mongolia. The team were so moved by the vast, empty landscapes of toxic waste generated by the mining that they worked with a potter to make three vases out of the radioactive waste.

Justin Brice Guariglia - 'After Ice'

Brooklyn-based artist Justin Brice Guariglia has taken part in an actual NASA scientific mission over Greenland, taking photographs from 40,000 feet above to document the polar ice caps melting. He also created a playfully depressing app called After Ice that allows people to find out how far underwater their location will be in 2080.

Mishka Henner - 'Feedlots' (2012-13)

Cities dominate our idea of the 21st century, but 40% of the Earth's total land is used for industrial agriculture, compared to less than 3% for urban areas. Artist Mishka Henner's series "Feedlots" graphically shows how the land is used through publicly available satellite images of farms across America.
At first glance the photographs seem abstract, but on closer inspection they depict an intimate view of cattle farms and the oozing pools of colour show toxic lagoons of manure.

Design Earth - 'Of Oil and Ice'

This fictional project was spawned from an observation by Prince Mohammed Al Faisal of Saudi Arabia, who, responding to the growth of desalination plants in a dry region with high water demands, said: "An Iceberg project is a better enterprise than oil." In a whiff of dark ecology, the project imagines melting the ice caps in Greenland to fill the rising water demands of the Gulf.
"In Our Time: A Year of Architecture in a Day," a symposium devoted to the most exciting and critical spatial projects of 2017, takes place the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Dec. 9, 2017.