Building from Waste, Materializing the Invisible

Nestled under the ETH Zurich Future Garden and Pavilion at Houston and 2nd Avenue, two panels of architects, artists, engineers, and scientists met to discuss art and design, ethical practice, and the future city.  The pavilion was a temporary structure made from a variety of waste-sourced materials, from plastic-bottle blocks to tiles made from coffee grinds.  The panels, organized by AIANY and ETH Zurich in partnership with the New Museum’s IDEAS CITY Festival, explored the festival’s theme “Invisible Cities,” which considered, in particular, the invisible systems, energy, and economies at work in the modern city.  Looking at waste as a culturally invisible and forgotten urban product, the first panel discussed alternative building materials derived from waste as a way to build in harmony with the earth’s available resources.  The second panel turned to broader ideas of how invisible spaces and systems can be made visible through art, design, and technology.  

Moderator Mark Wasiuta, adjunct assistant professor at Columbia GSAPP, invoked Gregory Ain’s 1950 MoMA exhibition “House in the Garden,” which presented not only a spatial organization, but a new set of materials like plastic, Plexiglass, and aluminum. He asked how waste might be appropriated from an abject material to a culturally accepted fabric, and what kind of building ecology waste-as-material might create.  In response, ETH Zurich Associate Professor Phillippe Block was excited about Western architecture created by material restraints, when steel and concrete sand are no longer readily available, touting Ricola’s headquarters in Switzerland, constructed of a globally-available material – mud. In addition, Block emphasized smart engineering, and appealed to interpreting historic structures to unearth methods to minimize building materials. He exemplified this point by discussing the eggshell-thin, unreinforced-concrete domes designed by his firm, BLOCK Research Group.

David Benjamin, principal of The Living and GSAPP assistant professor behind the innovative, mycelium-based structure “Hy-Fi,” winner of the 2014 MoMA PS1 Young Architect Program, delved into the implications of waste as a building material, and the potential uses of biologically-driven architecture.  Working with Earth’s carbon cycle rather than extracting from it linearly, Benjamin explained how the firm was able to build not only with “waste,” but also without creating waste.  Benjamin proposed that along with weight, texture, and color, materials might be categorized by their permanence, arguing that as construction materials take up large swaths of America’s landfills, the impermanence or decompostability of building materials might be seen as a strength, particularly in the face of climate change.

Arguing on behalf of the social and political potential of thoughtful design, Benjamin asserted that “architecture should try to make visible a lot of things that are normally invisible;for example, the amount of energy required to make the materials that make up our city.”  The second panel examined ways in which art, design, and technology can manifest invisibility. The discussion included methods for revealing out-of-sight processes, from imaging technology to artistic ways of interrogating the Anthropocene.  Architect Bradley Samuels, a partner at SITU STUDIO, presented his work, in collaboration with Princeton geologists, to create models of fossils without fully extracting them from rock, resulting in a possible discovery of the oldest fossils yet found.  The imaging process, requiring less time than archaeological extraction, offers a more financially feasible model for fossil study.  Artist Tom Atkins presented the film Deep Time, made in collaboration with Melanie Gilligan, which explores the invisible consequences of economic systems on nature. The film complemented Leah Beeferman’s presentation of collages she constructed from photographs of the Arctic Circle, with abstracted marks playing with concepts of empty space and the invisible hand of all modes of representation and abstraction.

Event: In the Future there Will Be No Waste…
Location: ETH Zurich Future Garden and Pavilion, 05.30.15
Speakers: Dirk Hebel, Assistant Professor, ETH Zurich; Phillippe Block, Associate Professor, ETH Zurich, and BLOCK Research Group; David Benjamin, Principal, The Living, and Assistant Professor, Columbia GSAPP; Mark Wasiuta, Adjunct Assistant Professor, Columbia GSAPP; Melanie Gilligan, Artist; Tom Ackers, Artist; Bradley Samuels, SITU Research; Leah Beeferman, Artist; and Leah Kelly, Research Associate, Rockefeller University

Organized by: Center for Architecture with ETH Zurich, in association with New Museum