Eco-Surrealism in the Lesser Antilles

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“If at first an idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it”
-Albert Einstein

Question: How many Surrealists does it take to change a lightbulb?
Answer: A fish

Introduction

The past several years has brought into blinding global focus the broken systems of human living that have, to most, been rather visible for decades-including issues of global susceptibility to the spread of disease, vast social, racial and economic inequalities, the defacing of reality, resource depletion, political animus, and ecological crisis. The reason so little action has been taken to fix these systems is that the people most capable of fixing them are the ones who most benefit from them staying in their existing states, either consciously or unconsciously. As such, these individual problems go largely unacknowledged until they reach a tipping point that causes catastrophic effects on such a dramatic scale that they can no longer be ignored. It could be argued that the last two years have largely been defined by the simultaneous hitting of several such tipping points. The future of humanity as a species, however, will largely be defined by one above all others– the nature, timing, and effects, of the impending tipping point of ecological crisis. Realizing that the design of a single building, no matter how virtuous the intent, will have no effect on whether this tipping point occurs or not, this studio will not be focused on stopping it from happening (i.e. sustainability) as much as imagining how it’s very existence might change humanity’s relationship to ecology- through architecture.

This studio will begin by imagining an architecture that emerges from, or rallies against, the uniquely 21st century human sentiments of ecological pathos and existential alienation brought about by living in a world that is seemingly in a perpetual, if not losing, battle against ecological crisis. Interdisciplinary tools for understanding these global mental states have recently emerged to assist us, including discourses on Ecological Surrealism, Catastrophism, Collapsology and Dark Ecology. Architecture is uniquely suited to engage these subjects through design as it has historically been a key boundary for defining what was considered “nature” and what was considered “artifice.” However, as the clarifying ease of these distinctions has nearly entirely eroded in past decades- literally and conceptually-so too must a new architecture emerge that anticipates responses to this newly unfolding set of human concerns. In short, we need more vision regarding how we fuse the formerly architectural with the formerly ecological into some new and broader context. Each project in the studio will therefore not only be for the design of a building, but will also and perhaps more importantly, be a vehicle to explode apart our culturally calcified ideas of what constitutes architecture, art, nature, human vs. non-human, landscape and ecology. This is not a sustainability studio but rather a studio that will, through design, explore the dissolution of these categories in favor of finding new directions for architecture. As such students might, for instance, use their projects as an antidote to such pathos, and produce the happiest, most joyful and floral architecture the world has ever seen, or they may revel in pathos directly through experiments with the darker subjects of decay, patina, rot, ruination, and Freud’s “aesthetics of melancholy.” Or they may do both. Or neither. The point is that students’ projects will respond to these larger metaphysical themes rather than only addressing the need to produce a functioning and sustainable building.

Given the above, we find ourselves in a very surreal moment in time, facing a situation also eerily encountered by humanity almost exactly a century ago as it emerged from the combined global traumas of WWI and their own pandemic, the Spanish Flu, which together killed between 50-70 million people from roughly 1914-1920. One of the artistic and ideological responses to this staggering global trauma at that time was the emergence of Surrealism, a movement that questioned the very nature of human reality and the possibility of other forms of living and consciousness. Surrealism, literally meaning “beyond realism” (from sur-“beyond” + réalisme-“realism”) emerged as not only an artistic practice, but a political and ideological force that challenged the systems of human living through exploring other possible realities. Our current situation seems primed for a New Surrealism, an Eco Surrealism, that addresses the ecological crisis at hand by inventing new modes of thought and design that break down existing boundaries to help us imagine the role of architecture in the, or as the, global ecology of tomorrow.

To immediately prompt new ways of thinking about fusions of architecture and ecology through Surrealism we will visit the MET museum in New York to view the current Surrealism without Borders exhibition. This will be a starting point for addressing Eco-Surrealism, a creative movement that borrows tactics for defamiliarization to see beyond the paralysis of current preconceived notions of the arts, architecture, politics, urbanism, nature, ecology, and questions of affect. From Eco-surrealism we will migrate to other intellectual sites of opportunity including concepts of utopia vs, arcadia, new ideas about “the picturesque” in the age of social media, exploring rewilding and the de-familiarization of nature, flat ontologies, and discussing Charles Darwin’s lesser known “null-hypotheses” about the role of aesthetics in natural selection. Other figures both historic and contemporary whose work we will be addressing include, to name only a few, Frantz Fanon, Georges Bataille, Donna Haraway, Comte de Lautreamont, Reza Negrasanti, Timothy Morton, Richard Prum, Roger Rothman, E.M. Cioran and Rosalind Krauss.

Program

The program vehicle for these investigations will be a secretariat building or complex of buildings for the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) located on one of the small island nations which it currently represents. While the United Nations provides a comprehensive umbrella organization for dialogue between its 193 member nations, smaller, more nimble supra-national organizations are increasingly having a greater impact on international relations in political, economic, and more recently, ecological registers. Supra-nationals include well-known historic players such as NATO and the European Union, but also UN-recognized, but perhaps less prominent, institutions such as The Pacific Islands Forum, The Economic Community of Central African States, The Parliamentary Assembly of the Mediterranean, and the organization of interest to our studio, AOSIS. AOSIS includes 37 island nation members that are dispersed widely between the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans. While these member nations, individually, exert very little power on the world stage given their small sizes and limited economies, as a combined voice through AOSIS they represent 20% of the United Nations total voting membership. The aim of AOSIS is to capitalize on this unusually outsized political weight and amplify the voices of its members by collaborating on shared interests related to climate change, sustainable development, and ocean conservation. Members of AOSIS are among the nations least responsible for climate change, having contributed less than one percent to the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, but they are, by far, the most vulnerable to its destructive effects-with some member nations, such as Vanuatu, facing total erasure from the Earth as their land masses disappear under rising ocean levels. The vulnerability of these countries, however, is not limited to them alone as other, more powerful, global locations are similarly in danger, including London, the Netherlands, Venice, Singapore, and Houston, to name only a few. Therefore, what soon happens to AOSIS countries, will shortly be followed by similar effects in these other locations.

More specifically, the program for this studio will be a secretariat building for AOSIS consisting of a primary, single volume for meetings between heads of state—the general assembly room—linked to limited administrative offices. In addition to designing the building as a whole, the assembly room interior will be designed in greater detail than is typically addressed in a design studio as will the ecological ‘context,’ meaning that students might consider not only typical architectural materials for use in their projects, but also biological matter such as lichens, mosses, flowers and other botanical elements, but also other non-human life forms that may participate in the project in various capacities. Public-facing programs may be added by students depending on their selected locations and interests, and might include exhibition spaces, an education center, or presentation theaters that engage the tourism industry, or other yet to be determined programs. The estimated program square footage is 25,000-40,000 sq. ft.

Site

While the studio will be visiting the three islands of St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands on our trip, students will be selecting potential project sites on any of the nearby eight small island nations of the Lesser Antilles that are members of AOSIS. The criteria for site selection are up to the students and might be economic, political, aesthetic, geological or for some entirely other reason- but there must be a reason. The islands students choose as sites for their projects, although sharing proximity and many ecological characteristics, are also quite different. For instance, while St. Lucia is nearly the same distance from the nation of Dominica as New York City is to New Haven—the ecological conditions in the countries could not be more different. St. Lucia is largely untouched by the majority of hurricane activity, while Dominica finds itself in some of the most dangerous weather conditions on the planet. In fact, in 2013 Hurricane Maria destroyed 90% of all building structures in Dominica—leading the government to rebuild with a new ambition to be the world’s first “hurricane-proof country.” As such Dominica has instituted new regulations that require substantially stronger forms of construction and ecological interventions in the service of weather protection. This same storm left neighboring St. Lucia largely unscathed. In fact, St. Lucia is at about the same level of risk as New York City with regards to hurricanes. As such, students who select Dominica as a site may be engaging in a more defensive form of architectural construction to resist such weather, whereas students who select St. Lucia may be taking a political stance that holds that certain areas more prone to climate destruction should, perhaps, not continue to be occupied to the extent they may have been in the past. These debates extend beyond the studio and are questions being asked globally as numerous nations balance the desire to continue to inhabit historically and culturally important land areas with the realization that the resource expenditure required to maintain their habitability may continue to increase. There are no wrong answers to these questions, and the studio will directly, but respectfully, engage in such debates about how architecture responds to not only the ecological conditions of the climate crisis in these small-island contexts, but the political, cultural, historical, and humanitarian issues that accompany them. The list of Lesser Antilles AOSIS island nations where students may choose to locate their projects are: Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, or Trinidad and Tobago.

Travel

Despite pandemic limitations the studio will still be able to travel to the Lesser Antilles and visit the islands of St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix, which collectively constitute the whole of the U.S. Virgin Islands. The studio will explore the climate vulnerabilities, cultural life, ecology, and geology of the islands in numerous ways including guided ocean and coastline tours via catamaran, SUV’s tours on land, peripatetic walking discussions through nature, and casual group and free-time explorations through rainforests, along coastlines, and up geological spires as a way to immerse ourselves in the conditions of small island ecology and cultural life.

Technology

Digital modeling and rendering tutorials with experts will be made available to students to provide them with a wider range of formal and representational options than they may have experienced in studios past. Students will also have the optional opportunity to explore the use of artificial-intelligence based design techniques such as GANs style-transfers, and photogrammetry, as they seek unexplored formal and performative directions that may be appropriate to their projects.

Group and Individual Work

As AOSIS is a collaborative endeavor requiring the input of multiple nations, students will similarly work in groups to encourage lively discussion and the exchange of both ideas and skills, at least until the midterm reviews—after which they will be encouraged, but not required, to do paired or group projects for the final.

The Studio Environment

As a way to start to rethink juxtapositions of ecological vs. architectural matter, as well as learn about the behaviors and growing patterns of plant species native to the regions studied, our studio space in Rudolph Hall will, for this semester, become a live-sized tropical plant (and architecture student) terrarium- or as close as can be produced in New Haven. Students will each receive a small budget to purchase numerous plants of various sizes that will remain at their desks for the term and be used for physical study. Students will be responsible for keeping their plants alive, and dead plants may result in lower grades. (Not really).


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