Acting responsibly in an era of climate change often requires choosing among worthy options: organic or local? Build a log cabin or move to a high-rise? Write to your Senator or stage a sit-in? For designers, the choices tend to be bound by measures to cut costs, save watts, or earn LEED points rather than informed by a deep understanding of the political, economic and social positions embedded within each choice. Choices about how to act must begin with analysis of the positions behind them. And Underdome, a project recently launched by Janette Kim and Erik Carver, performs that analysis: distilling each position it identifies to its essence, classifying each into broad themes – territory, power, lifestyle and risk – and then diagramming the relationships between positions, clusters of positions and themes. These themes provide the organizing framework for a series of panel discussions that Underdome is convening this month at Studio-X (you can read a little more about last night’s inaugural session at the bottom of this post). The next three discussions promise to advance the dialogue about energy, architecture and public life by linking it to examples of provocative interdisciplinary work while uncovering some of the overlooked narratives that influence thought and action around energy. Join the conversation this Thursday and again next week. But first, find out more about how Kim and Carver conceptualized and realized this ambitious project in the interview below.– C.S.
Underdome is an architect’s guide to contending energy agendas. The project maps debates and classifies positions on energy in an effort to explore their implications for public life and the built environment. You could think of it as part architect’s handbook and part voter’s guide: it connects users to ideas by exposing them to writings, projects, and interviews about the use and distribution of energy.
You could also think of it as a catalog of approaches to reforming energy use. While it is put together by architects for architects, Underdome looks at work from a number of disciplines, including economics, environmentalism, community advocacy, political science, policy, planning, and design. It’s launching with a website and a series of panel discussions this month.
Last year, the stimulus bill (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) — and the attendant buzz of large projects and actual energy reform — provided a great opportunity to rethink the relationship of sustainability and public space. With the combination of the financial crisis and the ensuing atmosphere in which political realities seemed suddenly up for grabs, we saw how energy reform could work not just incrementally but instantly, and that inspired us to ask the question, what kind of disciplinary blinders have we as architects been wearing all along? We started off looking at the limits of architectural practice; is tweaking the efficiency in today’s buildings the best way to achieve energy goals?
Sometimes it seems that the role of the architect, when it comes to saving energy, is to source the right product or to calculate LEED points — as though the engineers and the bureaucrats alone can find the right way to minimize our energy usage. Or sometimes we push for design strategies — self-sustaining cities, locavore farms, town center densification — without interrogating some of the assumptions and belief systems behind them.
But when two contending approaches to energy are compared side-by-side, bigger issues emerge. Should we invest in market-based development of efficient products or support direct government investment in new infrastructures? Should we build zero-emissions cities in the desert, or revise the distribution networks of today? Should we buy better or consume less?
We started framing the project with the support of the Van Alen Institute’s New York Prize Fellowship in Systems and Ecology this spring and began a long research process which included interviewing energy experts and working with a team of excellent research assistants with backgrounds in architecture, political science and planning to develop the guide. Then came the exercise of classifying the positions and assumptions that emerged and organizing the information along the lines of a voter’s guide.
If you go to the front page of the website, you’ll see a playful city map which charts out energy agendas as a series of architectural icons — small cartoon buildings representing the positions in the database. These icons are arrayed along four sets of axes which attempt to spatialize the agendas, almost like a structuralist game board.
The map on the front page can be read in a couple different ways: it imagines the built environment as a place in which various camps have created their own vision of how things should be. We’ve drawn a mini-Utopia to raise questions about the spaces and architectures that align with each position.
Clicking on one of the icons takes you to a page with quotes and images from thinkers, agencies, and policies advocating that agenda; as well as commentary and debate. From there, you can browse opposing positions, jump to advocates or commentators to see other positions that they address, or join in the discussion.
We strongly encourage users to make comments on these pages to contribute their own evaluation of these positions, or alternate interpretations of the issues outlined here. The guide can also be used to study the work of individual experts, policies, and projects, which can be found by clicking on the names of these examples in the policy pages or on the site map. And the guide also provides a bibliography and link resource for future reference.
The guide’s taxonomy covers the political, spatial, and cultural dimensions of energy, and revolves around four main topics: “Power” asks how governments, corporations, organizations and individuals have the potential to restructure energy performance. “Territory” asks how energy transforms and is transformed by the changing networks of today’s metropolis. “Lifestyle” asks what kind of norms and behavior energy performance schemes imagine. And lastly, “Risk,” as a kind of meta-category that cuts across these other fields, asks how we weigh priorities among a diverse set of interests and contingencies.
Each of these categories is populated by a number of clashing positions. If you look at the “Power” topic, for example, positions are tested against a individual-centralized axis and a socialized-free market axis. Approaches that call for a strong state investing in energy-related improvements tend to cluster along the centralized axis, while those supporting grass-roots organization or individual responsibility (as different as those approaches may be) fall on the individual end of the spectrum.
Similarly, approaches that emphasize a redistribution of resources can be compared to corporate-based models of investment and development along the socialized-free market axis. In this way, friends and foes are drawn on the map itself.
Many positions, of course, do not fit squarely within any matrix. At times examples challenge our very thinking about power. (Does the humanitarian non-profit fit under a socialized model because it is directing resources to the disadvantaged, or is it based on a free-market model through its financial relationship with companies?) Nonetheless, we hope that this kind of matrix can pose questions that might eventually rearrange these alliances and form new positions. And we invite users to use the comments section and, eventually, submit work that challenges and tests these viewpoints further.
Our interest in the legacy of Buckminster Fuller’s work stems from his desire to to synthesize social reform, technology and architecture in his far-reaching visions of a better world. It was exactly 50 years ago that Fuller and Shoji Sadao proposed a 2-mile dome over midtown Manhattan, which was intended to centralize climate control and quickly pay for itself in energy saved. It’s a perfect image for showing how reimagining building and infrastructure while hewing to an efficiency imperative could mean radical experimentation and the expression of new urban collectives.
The dome is often used as a symbol of the overreaching aspirations of grand Utopian schemes — and while this certainly warrants critique, what’s really interesting about the project to us is the way it rewrites equations of efficiency in relationship to a new public space of the city.
The official voter’s guide became a model for us of something that could condense a lot of complex information into something accessible and democratic. Of course, it has a meta-politics, a way of indexing political information that contains its own biases and assumptions, but this is something we were interested in taking on. Plus we just like voters’ guides.
Voters’ guides are an example of a way to lay out the issues without taking sides. They focus debate on certain issues and invite their users to make informed decisions. But the voter’s guide isn’t enough – of course the democratic process expands far beyond the polling station.
For architects, this question of how we vote is critical. Architects make their political and environmental priorities known in so many ways: by designing, writing, raising questions, framing research, promoting ideas, forming clients and educating them all at the same time.
It’s clear that energy and the environment are the topics of our generation. There is a lot of work being done on these problems, with competing and sometimes oppositional claims. Therefore, acknowledging the different political and social lenses that are informing agendas on energy use is important. Exploring an expanded spectrum of agendas might be a first step towards connecting them with architectural priorities. Because evaluating these programs in terms of dollar and carbon savings doesn’t get to the real questions: What city do we imagine for ourselves? What forms of political representation and authority work best, and who do they work for? What kind of lifestyles do we want to encourage?
And so, to explore these questions, we are using the strategy of debate. The process of testing agendas against their counterpoints asks you to articulate why you stand for one approach in the face of all other priorities. It defines what’s at stake. There is no clear answer to any of these issues, but through debate we publicly get to weigh the options, set priorities, and ultimately, take a stand.
We hope the site will help users think about energy as an ongoing conversation which has a history and connects with ideas about how the world is and should be, not just a list of products to buy or no-no’s to avoid. For architects, this could mean interrogating our assumptions about what is within our power, what the point of efficiency is, what the buildings we work on are saying and doing. For users in general, it might mean diversifying ideas of what sustainability could be, getting beyond skepticism, or confirming already-held suspicions. Hopefully, people will find it informative, go on to learn more about something we posted, and have more arguments with their friends.
For me, this project opens up some questions about how design can operate in the political field of energy. At hand are questions about how we research, relate, and weigh different models of efficiency in relationship to an ever-expanding range of criteria. I’ve taught several studios to architecture students using this guide as a basis: students were asked to research a given position, make a design proposal based on that position and then to argue it with their classmates. Through this process, some students found new hybrid positions, some developed projects that embodied debates, while others held their ground. My hope is that the guide will encourage designers and users to take positions. And, because climate change is an unpredictable threat, we begin to design for contingencies we might normally overlook, and anticipate broader constituencies that will maintain and monitor new spaces for years to come — models that might need to move beyond the traditional architect-client model.
Last night was the first of the Underdome Sessions, a series of public panel discussions that are an integral part of the project. The first theme to be discussed was Territory, and featured presentations by Petra Todorovich of the Regional Plan Association; June Williamson, co-author of Retrofitting Suburbia; Denise Hoffman-Brandt, a landscape architect whose work focuses on landscape design as a means for environmental sustainability; and Laura Kurgan, who teaches architecture at the Graduate School of Architecture, Preservation, and Planning at Columbia University, where she is Co-Director of the Spatial Information Design Lab (SIDL) and the Director of Visual Studies. Georgeen Theodore, principal of Interboro, moderated. The discussion began with the question of how energy performance re-frames the networks of the contemporary metropolitan region. It soon expanded to address the variety of scales of investigation and intervention — from micro-ecosystems on urban streets to strategies for improving the performance of the suburban landscape, and from the cohesiveness of the metropolitan region to global flows of capital and migration. What emerged from the diversity of perspectives and precedents discussed was a passionate call to think holistically and systemically at every scale. The next three discussions promise to be equally provocative, so mark your calendars: on Thursday, October 14th at 6:30 is the Power discussion, featuring Moshe Adler, James Gallagher, Laurie Kerr and Reinhold Martin. Next Tuesday the 19th at 7pm is the Lifestyle discussion, with Sarah Beatty, Jonathan Massey, Jerilyn Perine, Heather Rogers and Meredith Tenhoor. And next Thursday the 21st at 6:30 is the Risk discussion, with Scott Holladay, Cary Krosinsky, Jonathan Levy, Michael Osman and Rae Zimmerman.
Underdome is produced by Erik Carver and Janette Kim, Project Manager Leah Meisterlin, and Research Assistants Momo Araki, Kyle Hovenkotter, Standish Lee, Jake Matatyaou, Simon McGown, Parker Seybold, George Valdes, and Benjamin Weinryb-Grohsgal. It is supported by the Van Alen Institute New York Prize Fellowship 2010, the Urban Landscape Lab at Columbia University, and Columbia University Studio-X New York, a downtown extension of the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.