There Is No Planet B

A Message from NYU’s Gallatin Global Design Professors – Part 1

December 21, 2015

Peder Anker, Louise Harpman, Mitchell Joachim

This post is part of a series on the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) held in Paris, France, from 30 November to 12 December 2015. Part 2 can be found here. For the latest on the Gallatin professors’ initiatives, be sure to follow Global Design NYU on Twitter.

NYU’s Gallatin Professors Stake Out a New Initiative
Climate change effects pose drastic challenges to the architecture, landscape architecture, and urban design communities. The immediate response has been a turn toward a host of energy-saving technologies or behavior modifications. What has rarely been addressed, however, is the problem of scale. How can the designer ensure that global solutions do not come at the expense of local traditions, cultures, and environments? By placing human coherent, emotional, technological, and social needs at the center of our environmental concerns, we propose a new Global Design initiative.

Global Design NYU gathers talent from the architecture, urban design, ecology, and the history of science communities. Design cannot and should not be compiled into tidy categories defined by scale and size. Our overarching aim is to develop a language of design that can create productive relationships between local problems, individual accountability, and the urgent environmental challenges posed by climate change. We see environmental problems as a crisis of human alienation from the natural world, and our Global Design initiative explores ways in which design can reformat the unfortunate separation. In our plea for proximity between the individual and the global, we explore, in the words of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, design that is “as close to the beyond as to things near” when we evoke “our power to imagine ourselves elsewhere.”

A Call for Architects to Be Agents of Social Change
For the past thirty years, the most celebrated architectural designs have been decadent buildings. Projects of all types have exploited untold resources to craft magnificent displays of power and culture. Regardless of location, these technically driven constructs represent the last bastions of modernity. A stylized international routine that produces beautiful Bilbao-ifications of architecture has proliferated across many borders.

Wherever these artifacts are located, the point is the same: to be recognized as “signature” buildings, as “iconic,” and above all, as globally significant. While some might applaud the beauty or the formal gymnastics of these structures, we challenge the mindless destruction of nature that supports their very existence.

During the same period, we have witnessed an Albert Speer syndrome among a generation of architects disillusioned with the ideologies of the Cold War. A turn toward cynicism has allowed them to design a propaganda television tower for the Chinese government, to take pride in being architects for Saudi dictators, to create signature buildings that shore up the reputations of Russian oligarchs, and to ignore slave labor conditions on building sites in Qatar. These architects and designers have shown disregard for basic human rights and for the environment. They are simply doing what their clients pay them to do. Appalled by their arrogance, a new generation of designers has taken seriously both social and environmental concerns, while advancing a modern design aesthetic. We call on all architects to acknowledge that they are active citizens, not passive consumers or simply hired hands.

Peder Anker
is Associate Professor at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University. He is the author of From Bauhaus to Eco-House: A History of Ecological Design (2010) and Imperial Ecology: Environmental Order in the British Empire, 1895–1945 (2001). He is the co-author of Global Design: Elsewhere Envisioned (2014) together with Louise Harpman and Mitchell Joachim. 

Louise Harpman is an architect and Associate Professor of architecture, urban design, and sustainability at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University. She is the co-author of Global Design: Elsewhere Envisioned (2014) together with Peder Anker and Mitchell Joachim. 

Mitchell Joachim is Associate Professor of Practice at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University. He is the co-author of Super Cells: Building with Biology (2014) with Nina Tandon and Global Design: Elsewhere Envisioned (2014) together with Peder Anker and Louise Harpman. 

Cite as
: Anker, Peder, Louise Harpman, and Mitchell Joachim. 2015. “There Is No Planet B: A Message from NYU’s Gallatin Global Design Professors – Part 1.” EnviroSociety. 21 December.

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