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“Do you understand? Everything we see is impermanent. Whole cities can vanish in a day of warfare. It’s this idea that the Japanese believe in, not the outward form … But what’s important here is that we conceive of our tradition and philosophy as invisible, which is very different from Europeans.” —Kisho Kurokawa, Project Japan (p. 385)
“… the idea of keeping architecture permanently is hypocritical, whereas considering architecture as temporary is authentic. Perhaps our desire of imprinting the ground with something imperishable is a manifestation of gross civilization.” —Munesuke Mita, Project Japan (p.656)
“People think of Metabolist architecture growing and changing, but it has to grow and change perfectly. It has to be beautiful … perfect as a constantly changing process. Impermanent beauty, immaterial beauty. So we found a new theory. European beauty was supposed to be eternal, but perhaps we could discover a new aesthetic based on movement. We thought we could make moving architecture.”—Kisho Kurokawa, Project Japan (p.383)
In our spare time this summer we’ve been reading Rem Koolhas and Hans Ulrich Olbrist’s spectacular Project Japan. Metabolism Talks…. The book includes nine interviews with Japanese architects and designers who were in some way related to the Metabolist movement in Japan. The book traces the movement across geographies, cultural and economic upheavals, bubbles, busts, and re-births. It’s a graphic treasure trove of ephemera, architectural plans, and highlighted quotes that disclose vital asides and insights into the characters that gave form to the “group.” By the time we finished the tome, we understood that Metabolism was more a nascent, yet powerful concept than it was an established collective. Various personalities seemed to revolve around Metabolist ideas and projects like satellites. They were always in relation to one another, while also simultaneously pursing quite different and individual projects, ambitions, connections, directions, and styles. The concept of Metabolism seems to have worked best as leverage for gaining notice for a group Japanese architects who were otherwise overlooked by the West. But the movement itself didn’t gel into a solid, orchestrated, or defined effort—and perhaps that is the most potent and visionary asset that it offers to architectural history.
“The Metabolists” were wildly different from one another. But they each embraced change, movement and ephemerality. Kisho Kurokawa was said to have once proposed a building that would contain dynamite inside to ensure its “extinction” after 30 years. Industrial designer Kenji Ekuan stood in the wreckage of Hiroshima and said, ”there, in a world where there was nothing left at all, I felt the call of all things man-made.” So much so, that he left his inherited right to become a monk at the family temple to convey the teachings of Buddha “through the world of things.” Echoing Ekuan, Kurokawa, who also witnessed the aftermath of World War II, said: ”I grew up in the center of Nagoya, but during the war we fled to the suburbs. One night, two or three hundred bombers flew over the city and nothing remained. Nagoya’s population of 1.5 million and its 230-year history disappeared overnight. I was shocked. Standing amidst the rubble, my father said, “Now we must build the city from scratch.” I thought, we can build a city? Unbelievable! At the time, I didn’t believe in architecture—I though architecture and cities would just disappear.“
Embedded within the story of the Metabolist movement are insights about Japanese designers’ and architects’ relationships to materiality. And these relationships have become most interesting to us. The volume reveals a relationship to materiality that appears to be intrinsic, and particular, to Japanese culture. It is a sensibility that seems to have escaped being overtly codified as philosophy, and instead, has been internalized—and aestheticized—into ways of being, cultural traditions, langauge and daily life practices.
Take for example, comments by Hidetoshi Kato found in the margin of Kenji Ekuan’s interview, under a caption entitled “spirit:” “I believe in the lives of many things—not only living animals, flowers and so forth, but also a small cup, your camera, your watch, your shoes… everything has its own life. It was born somewhere, and it will be worn out and reborn. In Kyoto you find a very interesting tomb called fudezuka. It’s a tombstone for old pens. Once you use your pens, you cannot put them in the garbage, you have to preform a ritual.”
fudezuka mound in Kyoto, image toranosuke
Many of the Metabolist architects also mention, sometimes with great significance, the Ise shrine. The Grand Shrine at Ise has been (re)built exactly to plan, the same plan, every 20 years since 690 CE—with new materials. Noboru Kawazoe eloquently describes Ise’s philosophical influence, “The Japanese thought that life becomes eternal by being absorbed into the great stream of Nature. For them, it was not a case of ‘life is short, art eternal.’ They only had to look at the Ise Shrine—ever new, yet ever unchanging—to know that it is art, in truth, that is short and life that is eternal … It comes from an awareness that, just as Ise Shrine was reborn from parent to child, then from child to grandchild in a continuous line, so did our ancestors live from one generation to the next and to the next, and now we stand at the end of that continuous line …”
Here in New York, and in the present tense, we toured the recently opened September 11 memorial in lower Manhattan. Perhaps one of the most profound contributions to this highly contested tract of land is 4 World Trade Center, designed by Metabolist Fumihiko Maki’s Maki and Associates. The structure, which will be 72 stories tall, is practically invisible at certain times of day. Designing a structure capable of essentially disappearing, while existing within one of the most emotionally charged zones in America, is a remarkable architectural feat. An insightful article about the building appeared last June in the New York Times under the title, ”A 977-Foot Tower You May Not See, Assuming You’ve Even Heard of It.” Osamu Sassa, the project architect for the Maki firm, was quoted in the piece as saying: “We like the idea of the building dematerializing.”
The events of March 2011 ushered in entirely new tumultuous, material upheavals to Japanese life. The tsunami and earthquake erased entire cities and villages. The Fukushima Daiichi disaster continues to require unprecedented vigilance for the clean-up and ongoing attempts to contain radioactive materials.
The themes that accumulate at the core of Project Japan left us thinking that contemporary Japanese people might be some of the best prepared for navigating—and enacting— profoundly new materialist directions in the immediate future. Having escaped extended colonization and, over the past several millennia, having been able to refine the ability to maneuver deftly beyond the tragic losses of war, typhoons, earthquakes, landslides and tsunamis, there is little Japanese people haven’t already overcome, materially, in their daily lives. Adaptation and appropriation have become central attributes of Japanese cultural identity—along with a deeply embedded respect for and awareness of ephemerality.
The Postcript of Project Japan, by Toyo Ito, was especially inspiring. His words echo our sense that there is much to learn from Japanese designers and architects as they become some of the first to reorient themselves (once again) towards an unknowable and constantly changing future that we all face:
“The reported scene of a fishing village in Sanriku devoured in seconds by the tsunami struck me and made me wonder what Japan’s 60 years of modernization since the war was all about. I am amazed by the fragile state of things despite all the economic and technological “strength” Japan has been so proud of… Was our achievement of the past several decades a house of cards? The media often uses the phrase “beyond assumption” for the disaster, meaning that its force was beyond architectural requirements. But I can’t help sensing a more fundamental disruption between our norm and the reality. I think we design things in a mechanical manner…we do not engage with the natural environment as something constantly affected by the varying forces of the ground, sea, or wind. I think our task now is to rethink how we “assume” design conditions, rather than reviewing the conditions. We need to start by questioning the way we relate to nature… Any proposal for tackling this issue, however visionary, should be an encouragement for the towns and villages reconstructing with the possibility of natural disaster always looming. And we architects should find it an invaluable opportunity to work on such a proposal, where we can question the norm of modernism that is so embedded within us. I think now is a good moment for us architects to break away from this mode and regain a viable relationship with nature.” —Toyo Ito (p.697)
Kenzaburo Tange, the man closest to the “core” of Metabolism, aptly asked decades ago, ”What are the things that join us with the future?”
tsunami debris, image CC Yuichi Shiraishi
Oirase tsunami gate, image CC Richard Masoner
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Saturday night FOP had the pleasure of attending a public talk by Matt Coolidge, director of the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI), at Studio-X. There, Matt announced CLUI’s latest project on New Jersey’s Meadowlands. Free copies of CLUI’s interpretive Meadowlands maps were distributed at the talk, and they can be downloaded free from the project webpage.
CLUI describes the Meadowlands as, “the closest open landscape to the architectural mass of Manhattan, just two miles away. Covering around 35 square miles, the Meadowlands are similar in size, and orientation, to their urban doppelganger. Unlike the highly designed and managed space of the city however, the modern Meadowlands formed more by incident, accident, and happenstance.”
Matt’s presentation at Studio-X last night took on a new cadence and tenor compared to previous CLUI presentations we’ve attended. In the 90 minute slide show, Matt intoned a mesmerizing litany of roads and buildings, illustrated by images that glided past our eyes in a smooth and regular succession. It seemed as if the string of urban, suburban and industrial landscape photos, some aerial, some from ground level, could unfurl forever. Matt’s voice offered a calm, evenly pitched recitation of what he described as “personal” expeditions into the Meadowlands over the past couple of years, requiring countless of hours of driving and resulting in piles of research.
Today, in the light of a new day, we had the opportunity to take to the road and traverse the Meadowlands landscape in CLUI’s 15-person rental van. Matt’s voice provided the day’s soundtrack, fed through the van’s speaker system via a hands-free head-set. Not unlike the presentation the night before, today’s tour was swamp-like in form, possibly modeled after the landscape we toured. Spontaneously we became urban archaeologists seeking disappeared buildings and traces of the past that have been absorbed into the muck of the Meadowlands. The entire day had the feel of a blurry meditation, one continuous transit without any specific destination. We couldn’t really track where we were from inside the van. There were streams of indecipherable exit ramps, clover-leaf loops, fenced off zones, dead ends, and banal industrial strips. It seems you can’t really “arrive” at the Meadowlands. It’s everywhere and nowhere all at once. Many of the buildings and views were eclipsed by window glares and truncated by our constant movement—past guard rails, traffic, trees and waving grasses of invasive species. The sheer quantity of buildings and sites (more than 75) noted on the newly released map makes it impossible to take in the Meadowlands-according-to-CLUI’s “points of interest” in one drive through. Empty industrial and infrastructural megastructures, sprawling parking lots, and abandoned shopping malls populated the horizon.
As the day wore on, we sunk deeper into the swampy geologic and biologic realities of the subsiding landscape, to the tune of a cascade of closed diners, big box stores, data parks, superfund sites, power plants, junk mail dispatch centers, and outdated garbage technologies. Garbage, waste, and trash are literally embedded within the soil of the Meadowlands—and the ever-growing human-made hills of trash have become tall enough to obscure the views between here and there, New Jersey and Manhattan. A nine-minute ride from Penn Station, the Meadowlands is a world apart that runs parallel to New York City, and is materially bound to it, primarily through refuse.
Mid-way through the day, we found ourselves at an unremarkable cemetery on the West Side of the Meadowlands. Here, we stepped out of the van and stood before the grave of Robert Smithson, one of the most significant artists in the Land Art movement of the 1970s. His gravestone is humble and remarkably devoid of any feature that might invoke his obsession with the particularities of the geologic. Smithson’s work is a mighty precursor to so much of the contemporary art being made today, a direct catalyst for Land Use Interpretation—as well as for the geologic interests of FOP.
In 1967, Smithson wrote, in “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey:”
“That zero panorama seemed to contain ruins in reverse, that is—all the new construction that would eventually be built. This is the opposite of the ‘romantic ruin’ because the buildings don’t fall into ruin after they are built but rather rise into ruin before they are built.”
This insight continues to ring true today in complicated ways, as the types and varieties of ruins have only proliferated. Smithson gave us eyes to see them as ruins at all.
By the end of the day we were struck with a feeling that, taken together, Matt’s Studio-X ruminations, the day-long interpretive tour, and CLUI’s investment and time in this place compose a eulogy of sorts, for Robert Smithson and for the remarkable unremarkableness of this “overlooked” place.
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“In the mid-19th century, Henry David Thoreau walked the Atlantic coastline of Cape Cod, recording his adventures in his narrative Cape Cod. To literally follow in Thoreau’s footsteps today would require scuba gear. Cape Cod’s Outer Beach sees an average erosion rate of close to 4 feet per year.” - Cape Cod National Seashore website
What kind of structure should be built on a stretch of land that will inevitably disappear, whose grounds are in a constant state of drifting elsewhere? What kind of design must be invented for a place where geologic change doesn’t unfold in centuries, but in days, or mere hours on the occasion of a major storm?
Erosion is the norm on Cape Cod, a sandy arm of glacial till that was dumped after the last ice age and has been swirling into place ever since. At a wildly popular destination named Herring Cove, the geologic realities of Cape Cod meet the human reality that here, the more than 850,000 visitors a year need a public bathhouse.
After years of deliberation and years of witnessing the beach change in dramatic and irrevocable ways, it appears that architects, engineers, scientists, public officials and the citizens of Provincetown have come up with a design they support and sense can navigate the shifting terrain.
The original Herring Cove bathhouse was developed in the 1950s as a state park headquarters with public bathrooms, dressing rooms, a lifeguard station, a snack bar and a boathouse. Some have described this modernist fortress as a “sand-colored Cold War bunker.” It seems that the architects of this bathhouse were hoping that its bunker-like design would allow it to valiantly outlast the sea it faced. But, 60 years later, the building is in need of top to bottom repair.
FOP recently spent time on the Cape and learned that the continuing erosion of the shoreline has made the existing three buildings in the area unstable. A storm last winter wreaked havoc on a revetment that was built in 1940. The storm also collapsed a tract of the parking lot. According to the Provincetown Banner, the result was “dangling asphalt precipices” and a “steep, crumbling drop-off.”
The historic bathhouse will be torn down in early November of this year. It will be replaced by a more energy-efficient set of structures that have been described as being “light on [their] feet”—agile and responsive to the surrounding environs. The new buildings will take the form of five bungalows surrounding a shaded pavilion, set on pilings and linked to the beach by raised board walks. Each structure will serve a single and specific purpose such as changing room or concessions. The raised pilings and board walks will allow sand and vegetation to move freely beneath the structures and reduce damaging foot traffic through the dunes. And, as the beach continues its predicted erosion, the bungalows can be moved further inland, without requiring a new building to be constructed in their place.
Long-term planning by the National Seashore and the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies includes studying currents near the shoreline and the ongoing, natural movement of sand along the beach. Provincetown Conservation Commission chairman Dennis Minsky has stated that, ”The ultimate problem is that you have hard revetment, armored protection of a coastal beach, which is inappropriate for the forces operating out there … long-term, there’s no future for that area … The bathhouse itself is going to be replaced by a modular structure that is movable, one that’s going to be much smaller and simpler, and able to be moved in response to the changing shoreline. Ultimately, all that macadam, nature will remove it.”
When we toured the bathhouse last week, we were struck by the sheer proximity of the ocean to the bathhouse’s blocky cement walls and front steps. Surprisingly, nested within the seemingly hardened exterior, were open air changing rooms that directly invite wind, sand, and rain into the structure’s interior. These spaces were desolate and crumbling, yet beautiful and quiet. The sound proofing delivered by the concrete and the framed aperture onto the changing Cape sky and light created a chamber that made us think of the work of James Turrell.
The design of Herring Cove’s new bathhouse, like many others being implemented in communities around the world, assists humans as they grapple with how and what to construct in response to rapidly changing landscapes. Instead of steeling itself against the elements, the new bathhouse will be responsive to them, and move (out of the way). A welcome side effect of structures that stay open and responsive to the environments they reside within, is that they enable humans passing through them to more fully experience where they are.
Local Provincetown artists will stage a 10-day (September 28-October 7th, 2012) creative response to the old bathhouse before it is torn down called Ten Days that Shook the World: The Centennial Decade. There is open call for proposals until August 25th. More information can be found at TendaysofArt.com. The project will involve the screening of films, live performances and site-responsive works.
* unless otherwise noted, all images this page, FOP, July 2012
* Images of the new bathhouse design can be found at Bargmann Hendrie + Archetype.
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smudge studio, from the Feasibility Project (Rachel, NV), 2009
Eighteen months after we first announced the call, via this blog, we’re ready to announce that our co-edited collection of essays, Making the Geologic Now: Responses to Material Conditions of Contemporary Life will be released by Punctum Books later this fall. We have designed this book in the tradition of a broadside or pamphlet—a timely “calling out” of a shift in cultural sensibility and practice. Its publication by Punctum Books as downloadable file, bound book, and interactive website will make it readily and widely accessible, portable, and easily shared and exchanged. We hope that these forms will encourage it to move through culture the way a “geologic turn” is now propagating through contemporary consciousness and practice.
Making the Geologic Now offers early sightings of an increasingly widespread turn toward the geologic as source of explanation, motivation, and inspiration for creative responses to conditions of the present moment. As a signal from edges of feasibility, this edited collection circulates images and short essays from over 40 artists, designers, architects, scholars, and journalists who are actively exploring and creatively responding to the geologic depth of “now.”
Contributors’ ideas and works are drawn from architecture, design, contemporary philosophy and art. They are offered as test sites for what might become thinkable or possible if humans were to collectively take up the geologic as our instructive co-designer—as a partner in designing thoughts, objects, systems, and experiences.
Recent natural and human-made events triggered by or triggering the geologic have made volatile earth forces sense-able and relevant with new levels of intensity. As a condition of contemporary life in 2012, the geologic “now” is lived as a cascade of events. Humans and what we build participate in their unfolding. Today, the geologic counts as “the environment” and invites us to extend our active awareness of inhabitation out to the cosmos and down to the Earth’s iron core.
A new cultural sensibility is emerging. As we struggle to understand and meet new material realities of earth and life on earth, it becomes increasingly obvious that the geologic is not just about rocks. We now cohabit with the geologic in unprecedented ways, in teeming assemblages of exchange and interaction among geologic materials and forces and the bio, cosmo, socio, political, legal, economic, strategic, and imaginary.
Contributors include: Matt Baker, Jarrod Beck, Stephen Becker, Brooke Belisle, Jane Bennett, David Benque, Canary Project (Susannah Sayler, Edward Morris), Center for Land Use Interpretation, Brian Davis, Seth Denizen, Anthony Easton, Elizabeth Ellsworth, Valeria Federighi, William L. Fox, David Gersten, Bill Gilbert, Oliver Goodhall, John Gordon, Ilana Halperin, Lisa Hirmer, Rob Holmes, Katie Holten, Jane Hutton, Julia Kagen, Wade Kavanaugh, Oliver Kellhammer, Elizabeth Kolbert, Janike Kampevold Larsen, Jamie Kruse, William Lamson, Tim Maly, Geoff Manaugh, Don McKay, Rachel McRae, Brett Milligan, Christian MilNeil, Laura Moriarity, Stephen Nguyen, Erika Osborne, Trevor Paglen, Anne Reeve, Victoria Sambunaris, Paul Lloyd Sargent, Antonio Stoppani, Rachel Sussman, Shimpei Takeda, Chris Taylor, Ryan Thompson, Etienne Turpin, Nicola Twilley, Bryan M. Wilson.
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Arizona wildfire, May 2012, image Melissa Hincha-Ownby
Wildfires have been making headline news across New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Michigan and Colorado since late May. These fires have disrupted daily life, recreation and commerce across thousand of miles. Just over a year ago, we detailed our encounter with the enormous and rapidly spreading Las Conchas fire outside Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. At that time, the Las Conchas was the largest fire recorded in New Mexican history (burning more than 150,000 acres). Now, the Whitewater-Baldy Complex blaze has taken the title as the largest fire in state history, scorching over a quarter of a million acres.
There appears to be an escalating intensity to the annual wildfire season. The Waldo Canyon fire near Colorado Springs, presently 55% contained, is described as the most destructive in state history. Last week 32,000 people were evacuated from the area and 350 homes have been destroyed.
Colorado Springs, June 2012, images daisyelaine
Anthropogenic reasons for the fires are hard to deny. A recent NY Times article cited policies that began in the early 1900s that lead to more trees than are healthy or natural in forests. These policies, coupled with fire suppression and overgrazing by livestock, have set the stage for the unprecedented fires to-date. In the past decade, long periods of dry weather, as a result of climate change, have led to fires that are fundamentally different from those of years prior. Recent fires, instead of assisting in forest regeneration, have not kept to forest floors, where they simply clear accumulated ground cover. The latest fires instead have ascended trees and burned entire forests, irrevocably devastating surrounding soil and eco-systems. Growing data suggest these fires are not within the scale of the naturally balanced carbon cycle, which means that they can exacerbate climate change even further, likely inducing an even more vicious fire cycle in the future.
Dr. Allen, a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, said that the fires in New Mexico this year have wiped out entire forests of juniper and piñon. These are species that won’t be able to regenerate, especially as annual temperatures continue to rise (NOAA’s May “State of the Climate” report data details that May 2012 was the second warmest May in recorded history). Plants that can grow in the wake of such fires, primarily grasses and shrubs, will not remotely resemble the forests that existed previously. Dr. Allen suggests that there is no way to preserve what is being erased by these fires—adaptation to the new conditions is the only option.
The resulting, continent-wide changes rippling through human lives and landscapes are of acute interest to us here at FOP. Plants, animals and humans are in the midst of confronting unprecedented scales of change. Forests that have been a constant presence for centuries suddenly no longer exist.
In this new environment, configuration appears to be of growing consequence. Borders between “wilderness” and “residential” appear ever more slippery. Where to build? How soon will the “next” event of this magnitude take place? What species can thrive in what becomes of “here”? What tools do we need to navigate this new territory?
We will continue to track these fires. There is much to learn from how various species will reconfigure their lives and systems in response to such unpredictable events of change.
maps of fires currently in-progress as of July 2, 2012, image Google
heat wave map June 17-24, 2012, image via NASA
In related news, a new satellite device for tracking global deforestation was recently released at the Rio+20 sustainability conference.
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“If one leaves the material as it is, presenting it just as material, then it starts to tell us something and speaks with a mighty voice.” - Gutai Manifesto, 1956
Over the past several weeks, we’ve followed a flurry of dispatches in the news, blogosphere, and from friends that, for us, signal urgent design challenges. Speaking with the mighty voice heard by the writers of the Gutai Manifesto, the materials involved in nuclear power generation are posing an unanswered question: How might humans co-exist with the nuclear’s most potent and “vibrant” materiality capable of dramatically re-shaping our daily lives, landscapes, and livelihoods?
We at FOP have been attempting to invent ways to address nuclear material “as it is,” “just as material,” to see what it might tell us. What might the mighty voice of nuclear material say to artists and designers about the necessity of building life-friendly ways to live and work alongside its potency?
The recent litany of reports concerning “the nuclear” cuts across and links far flung geographic locations and disparate public policies, notions of citizenship, infrastructural designs, historical memories, and cultural sensibilities. Here in the United States, news includes last month’s resignation of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) chairman, Gregory Jaczko, which resulted, in part, from his ill-received post-Fukushima push for stricter regulations for U.S. reactors. His likely replacement is Allison MacFarlane, a member of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future whom we first referenced in March, 2011. This past week also brought stories about Kristin Iverson’s new book on the widespread radioactive contamination at Rocky Flats in Colorado that resulted from a largely undocumented fire in 1957. She also reports that, for more than four decades, Rocky Flats has been unable to account for some three tons of plutonium. And, notable for us here at FOP, on the heels of completing our Repository project came news that a federal appeals court rejected the NRC’s conclusion that nuclear power plants across the country could store spent fuel on-site indefinitely.
Across the Pacific, challenges for designers of infrastructures for “the nuclear” are even more daunting. In early May, after several months of transitioning nuclear reactors in the country to offline status, all of Japan’s reactors were offline for the first time since 1970. Now, two reactors at the Ohi power station near Osaka have been approved to go back online by mid-July. This decision was arrived at through coordinated efforts of industry executives and selected public officials, primarily spearheaded on a national governmental level—in stark opposition to public opinion. The day before Japanese Prime Minister Noda gave the order to restart the reactors, he received a petition that called for the abolition of nuclear power. It was signed by more than 7.5 million people, and delivered by Kenzaburo Ōe, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994. Oe’s Hiroshima Notes features interviews with hibakusha (survivors of the bombing). It appears that Fukushima is becoming more and more closely linked in the Japanese psyche with Hirsoshima and Nagasaki. For many in Japan, the status quo of the nuclear industry is no longer acceptable. This week, Japanese friends shared videos with us of heated confrontations between officials and Japanese people who attempted to block the incineration of radioactive tsunami debris in country’s southern prefectures. The bass beat to these reports, in Japan and the United States, is the ongoing instability at the Fukushima Dai-ichi, where the status of spent fuel pools and reactor vessels is riddled with uncertainty, especially at #4 reactor.
low-level radioactive waste, Nevada Test Site, image wikicommons
Collectively, these tales underscore a seemingly irresolvable design question: how might humans contain materials whose potency outscales the human? For Timothy Morton, such materials constitute what he has termed “hyperobjects,” which he describes as:
“… real objects that are massively distributed in time and space. Hyperobjects are so vast, so long-lasting, that they defy human time and spatial scales … take Plutonium 239, for example. No self-interest theory yet devised can cope with building the right storage to house deadly radioactive materials for the 24,100 years they take to decay. Instead, we shall need to design without a view to look after Number 1, or Number 2, or even Number 1 million, because no one meaningfully related to me, not even by the craziest distance imaginable, will be alive 24,100 years from now. Yet everyone alive then will be affected by decisions we make regarding Plutonium 239.”
- “Zero Landscapes in the Time of Hyperobjects,” Graz Architecture Magazine 7 (2011)
What we design and live in relation to when we speak of “the nuclear,” is vibrant matter—in this case, a particularly active, potent, and long-lived version of material force that needs to be contained, for millennia to come, by built environments that are incredibly complex and expensive.
Cold War era designs for containing spent or discarded nuclear materials have failed. The growing amounts and intense potencies of nuclear waste from power plants and dismantled weapons now create design situations and specifications unimagined during the Cold War. Contemporary realities of “the nuclear” are radically different from those of the era that coined terms such as “nuclear waste” and policies such as “temporary on-site storage.” When we continue to use relatively innocuous language such as “waste” or “burial” to describe and design for the forceful materials and hyperobjects generated by “the nuclear,” we run the risk of working with antiquated terms and assumptions that predetermine how conversations or design “solutions” might develop from here.
We need new ways of thinking and talking about contemporary situations of “the nuclear” now being signaled, almost daily, in the news. Our Repository project is an experiment in inventing ways to perceive and communicate the reality that nuclear materials are vibrant, and are in constant motion. Repository attempts to give aesthetic expression to the idea that design for nuclear “waste” is design for and with the fluid dynamics of the world we inhabit: ever-shifting forces of hydrology, wind, aquifer levels, erosion, human inhabitation, tectonic movement, and climate change. It is a call to design and discuss in response to what nuclear materials have been telling us about themselves since 1945, namely, that they are events. For the rest of the human species’ time on earth, nuclear materials will engage in potent acts of free-ranging, errantry, outscaling, and cooling. And for the rest of the human species’ time on earth, designers will be following their lead, generating interminable next iterations of shuffling, landfilling, protoscaping, and cycling,
inside the core of Idaho National Laboratory’s Advanced Test Reactor (ATR), image wikicommons
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We are excited to announce the launch of Repository: A Typological Guide to America’s Ephemeral Nuclear Infrastructure, June 28th, 2012, 8 p.m. at Proteus Gowanus as part of the gallery’s programming related to Future Migrations. In the same breath, we’d like to share the news that we are grateful recipients of a 2012 Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts grant, which will support the next phase of this project.
Virtually all of our nation’s nuclear waste has nowhere to go. And yet, it’s always going somewhere, either under its own power or in a vibrant assemblage with other things such as water, air, soil, bacteria or human commerce. Repository graphically depicts this material reality through a deck of 42 cards designed to help you spot and identify today’s temporary solutions for the storage of radioactive waste, as you pass by them on the highway, or as they pass by you.
In late 2012, the Graham Foundation grant will support our field-based research at several of the sites included in the deck. We will generate photo/video based documentation of the sites and processes we encounter, and invent aesthetic interpretations of this complex topic capable of communicating about them in new ways and to broader audiences.
At Proteus Gowanus, we will launch Repository with a presentation of the cards and stories from the project. The deck chronicles “temporary” infrastructures designed (or simply used) to contain nuclear waste until more enduring facilities can be researched and constructed. Some of the cards feature structures that take notably unique approaches to storage. Others exemplify common infrastructural forms or approaches that run through multiple facilities, or function as mobile infrastructures for transporting radioactive waste between sites. As with other FOP projects, we invite audiences to expand their capacities to imagine the monumental time spans required to contain and monitor nuclear materials, and to consider the extraordinary challenges that they present to designers, architects and engineers.
Repository views nuclear infrastructures, storage canisters, and cooling pools as ongoing events. This is because no permanent storage options for our nation’s high-level waste are expected to be available for the next 100-300 years. And, in 2004, the EPA determined that high-level radioactive wastes will remain dangerous to humans for 1 million years. They stipulated that any repository for high level waste will have to meet the unprecedentedly long-term safety goal of 1000 millennia. As of 2011, about 66,000 metric tons of spent fuel were being held, in structures intended to be temporary, at power reactor sites in 33 states. Each year, this amount increases by another 2,000 metric tons. So, we (and generations of people after us) are going to be designing and living in relation to these materials for unimaginably long spans of time to come.
With Repository, we are less interested in questions of what human activities generate nuclear materials, or why. Instead, we focus on the potent material realities of nuclear waste and the unprecedented design challenges that they pose today and into the far future.
We’d like to imagine that Repository offers audiences a few “footholds” within the “mobile and shifting nature” of the phenomenon of nuclear waste. In the sense described by Sanford Kwitner in Architectures of Time, we see the cards as a navigational aid for negotiating life within America’s nuclear infrastructure, as we go about:
“. . . engaging systems at certain specific and local points along their lines of deployment or unfolding. It is as if today one were forced into a new type of intellectual or cultural warfare, forced to accept the mobile and shifting nature of the phenomena that make up our social and political world, and by this same token forced to discover within this slippery glacis of largely indistinct swells and flows, all the lodges, footholds, friction points—in short, all the subtle asperities that would permit us to navigate, and negotiate life, within it.”
Stay tuned for more info about the field research this fall. And we hope to see you at Proteus Gowanus for the launch, where you will be able to pick up a pack of cards, and begin spotting some of the local points and lines of deployment that make up America’s ephemeral nuclear infrastructure.
Repository card sets can be pre-ordered via our website as of today (June 2, 2012), shipping on June 29th.