v4: Prisons, Plantations, and Rare Earth Frontiers in Greenland, Appalachia, and the Mississippi Delta

Studio Context

This studio is part of a multi-year sequence titled “Designing a Green New Deal.” The first iteration (2019) focused on how the abstract, national-scale ambitions of the Green New Deal (GND) might be translated into real projects and where the state could/should prioritize investments in deep decarbonization and climate adaptation. The second iteration expanded on those efforts, focused on identifying a set of communities in the Midwest, Mississippi Delta, and Appalachia at the frontlines of the climate crisis to develop real projects—with a particular focus on decommissioning and repurposing carceral, fossil fuel, and industrial agricultural infrastructure. In its third iteration, this studio focused on developing a set of climate fictions around those sites—USP Big Sandy, Letcher, and McCreary in Appalachia (three of the world’s largest prisons, all built atop abandoned coalfields); and Angola Farm, Parchman Farm, and LaFourche Correctional in the Delta (the two largest prison farms on Earth and one of the largest youth correctional facilities in Louisiana, all built atop former plantations).

In some ways, your studio will once again pick up where previous efforts left off—you’ll be back in Appalachia (expanded to include Northern Virginia alongside Eastern Kentucky) and the Delta. But you’ll also take on a new geography–the rare earth frontiers of Greenland, sites where the materials at the core of the energy transition are being mined, processed, and distributed through a global supply matrix to build, among other things, the batteries, data centers, wind turbines, solar PVs, and other key elements of a post-carbon society. Through support from the Internet Society Foundation, we will visit both Greenland and Northern Virginia (in two groups) to meet those at the forefront of rare earth extraction and production and to see how radically it’s transforming the landscapes and built environment of places like Kvanefjeld and Ashburn alike. Rather than producing a set of beautiful buildings or object-oriented images, this studio will focus on making the reciprocal relationships between these sites of extraction (Greenland) and deposition or disposal (the Delta and Appalachia) legible and actionable for those at the frontlines of the struggle for climate justice.

Your major deliverables will be: (1) a field guide to extraction and the energy transition in each region, cataloguing the raw materials, landscapes, technologies, and other land development-related dimensions of building a new world through the framework of a Green New Deal; and (2) a set of climate fictions illustrating and narrating the kinds of lives that such a world might make possible.

Your challenge will be to make these pernicious forces legible, to situate your work in both the realm of the built environment and the broader public imagination, and to then develop credible, compelling stories from/for the future, informed by the various movements for justice organizing around each industry in each region. The central aim of this studio is to continue forging new alliances with these movement leaders through the tools at designers and planners’ disposal. So, while you may at times be asked to simply illustrate the often-abstract, non-spatial demands of, say, the climate justice movement, by giving form and aesthetic and spatial dimensions to their work, by landing their ideas in real sites through real projects, and by elucidating the various state instruments (legal, regulatory, financial) imbricated in the fossil fuel, carceral, and agriculture industries of each region, you will be, in some ways, attempting to make their visions for the future seem more pragmatic, more tangible, and more desirable than they might otherwise.

The model for the course will be roughly as follows: (1) quasi-seminars involving close reading and discussion, long before any plans or ideas are developed, to help situate our work in the broader social, historical, and political context of planning and design; (2) production of regional field guides to spatialize and narrate those various forces over time within the context of rare earth minerals and the energy transition; (3) developing climate fictions that help readers see and understand the kind of world in which the projects you’ll propose are possible; and (4) curating a pop-up exhibit (location TBD, likely at the Boston Public Library) of your work for guests to peruse.

Some of the interventions themselves, however far from the foreground of design culture, will not necessarily be novel—prisons, pipelines, and industrial-scale mining operations have all been decommissioned and repurposed before. What will set this work apart is the rationale you develop for how you intervene and where; how you think through these investments as ways to restructure power and for whom; how you think about aligning your work with movements; and how you think about communicating your ideas to an audience beyond planning and design.

Method + Seminar

This studio incorporates close reading and discussion—something like a quasi-seminar module—on key texts related to: the Green New Deal and climate policy broadly, the New Deal’s built environment legacies, and the political and economic frameworks at the core of the energy transition to renewables. It may take us longer to draw, map, and otherwise produce design work than you’re accustomed to and that’s OK—this course is intentionally challenging some of the conventions of studio work.

These seminars will often include guest lectures from authors on our reading list and will shape the general progression of this fall’s studio work: moving us from histories of power and theories of change to a set of concrete design and policy proposals that can carry this work beyond the aesthetic or faux-ecological focus of so much studio work and into a set of projects focused on liberation and justice through a shared understanding of how the political economy shapes our (architectural) work and the broader built environment.

Like the previous iteration of this studio, you will be asked to move through geographic scales as you go: beginning at the regional level through the development of the atlas project to the site or territorial scale in which you attempt to translate movement demands into a concrete, materialist suite of interventions.

Our method will follow that of policy development and applied research teams in government, industry, think-tanks, and campaigns—to read and engage deeply with new material and stakeholders, to think and discuss the ideas critically and collegially as a group, to draw or design or otherwise apply these ideas to our work, and to repeat. We will engage with some of the most complex, wicked problems the world has to offer. You won’t be expected to solve any of them. But you will—or rather, we will—be challenged to sit with those problems, to struggle with them, and to use that struggle to imagine a new, better world designed through the Green New Deal.