There Is No Planet B

A Message from NYU’s Gallatin Global Design Professors – Part 2

December 22, 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 1 can be found here. For the latest on the Gallatin professors’ initiatives, be sure to follow Global Design NYU on Twitter.

In advocating Global Design, we do not regard the periphery as our antagonist. The periphery is defined by boundaries—disciplinal and spatial, as well as intellectual. What we propose is to collapse the global and the local, since environmental problems are not limited to a particular location. We call on all practitioners of architecture, the related design disciplines, and all the actors and agents who imagine their practices scaling to address different aspects of the environment to become active agents of social change.

We accept that the term “global” is elusive, even problematic, because we can only know intimately our own locale. It is hard to have a complete understanding of the city beyond one’s neighborhood and beyond the things that are connected viscerally to one’s daily life. Thus, the vision of the global—the vision of saving the earth—always seems to collapse into local issues. It is hard to create something global since the local pulls you back. That is a good thing—something we embrace. If you follow the social networks, the money, and the materials, they will always point back to the local setting—the person or community group who needs that building or that park for that location, the materials that can resist that type of weather, the bulk and uses that are appropriate for those zoning regulations. Local knowledge is deep and abiding, but it can’t be used to dull our responses to larger issues.

We are already seeing bridging and breaking of disciplinary boundaries, where design problems demand greater fluidity and design research is one way to blur those boundaries. With Global Design, we are promoting a new type of education that is informed by both local and global concerns, to teach design but also history, ecology, anthropology, geography, economics, and entrepreneurship. To address the increasing complexity of building in this interconnected world, architects and designers can rarely avoid engaging large corporations, politics, and the finance industry. Architects are trained to understand and operate within an “open set” of conditions, but this training needs to extend beyond “accreditation” and “life safety” requirements. As the design disciplines expand to embrace other areas of knowledge, it is our hope that the design process—which promotes research, innovation, experimentation—will bring its methodology and rigor to these “other” determinants of built form.

Global movements in architecture are, of course, nothing new. The difference is that today they move at a hyperbolic pace. Currently, from concepts to ideas, architectural expression is found within a milieu of radically diverse cultural inputs simultaneously configured. A blog post with a rendering of a new Japanese office tower influences designers in Egypt before people in New York are even awake. Design and critical reactions soar across political and geographical boundaries every hour, in a near-continual feedback loop. Forms morph with instantaneity in direct response to published webzine images of speculative structures any place on Earth. Architectural manifestos, movements, and isms rise and fall within the space of a few days or weeks. In the early part of the twentieth century, it took Le Corbusier and the International Congresses of Modern Architecture (CIAM) founders decades to establish themselves and disseminate their views. Today architecture exists in the concomitant and ever-shifting present and needs to reconcile itself against a global platform. To work in isolation is nearly impossible and almost certainly the demise of any firm. Design is relevant everywhere all at once. And if our connected civilization is truly global, each building matters, especially its resource inputs and waste streams. What then can we say of globalized architecture in the context of our planet’s declining ecological health and climate change?

We need to remember the inevitability of constant interactions between the global and the local with regard to worldwide challenges. The invasive process of fracking for shale gas, for example, is deeply problematic on a local level, but it is not actually the problem. The problem is the insatiable global demand for cheap hydrocarbons. Many fields need to act in unison to solve issues of this magnitude. Thus, we look at the global picture and attempt to operate on it through a local lens. It becomes very difficult to address the dynamic set of interrelated problems because so much of current global thinking claims to represent all people, all places, and all times. But designers are not astronauts, looking at Earth from outer space. Instead, we need to understand our human condition as integrated within the environment.

The Google Earth view that zooms in on nature is a dominant trend in current understandings of design—a trend we try to avoid. This view privileges an elevated, empowered, and distinctly human perspective that reduces nature to an abstract visual database. Because it is photographic, it is literally a surface treatment of the planet. Though the view of Earth as a whole from outer space may look beautiful and innocent at first sight, it enables a type of planning and design that not only is insensitive to local environmental conditions and cultures but also alienates humans from themselves. This view mobilizes narrow managerial rationalities at the expense of a more widely defined human condition.

The disasters at Chernobyl and Fukushima have demonstrated their long-reaching influences on worldwide environmental health, migration, and ultimately on global financial markets. Effects of scale are transferred constantly between the minute and the colossal, where small changes ramify into massive results and vice versa. Global Design posits that we must try to operate at several scales simultaneously without privileging one format, as thinking and working inside strict categories of scale are both outdated and counterintuitive.

Charles and Ray Eames provided an important case study forty years ago, which is still relevant today. Illustrated in their film Powers of Ten, scale is conveniently defined in neat square-shaped frames. Their animation bridges different perceptions of scale along a continuum, as they seek to empower viewers to see the environment from multiple but nested points of view. Unfortunately, some viewers also interpret this to mean designers ought to bracket places and things in specific scales—this is a common misconception of the Powers of Ten message. Nothing happens in only one frame of space and time. Framing can help to study a phenomenon at a particular moment, but nothing is static. Moreover, artificially binding a place to a numerical scale is to some extent arbitrary. Design cannot and should not be compiled into tidy categories defined by scale and size.

The overarching aim of our Global Design initiative 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 initiative explores ways design can reformat this unfortunate separation. In our plea for proximity between the local 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.”

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 2.” EnviroSociety. 22 December.

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