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Design Earth: ‘a drawing is an argument about the world’

In the face of unthinkable, catastrophic climate change, Design Earth’s speculative architecture means to tell new stories, to render our environmental future sensible, or legible to the senses

Storms are brewing. Sea levels rise. As climate projections grow ever more cataclysmic, ever more incalculable, our relationship to Earth grows increasingly dissonant – the gravity of our environmental reality posing such an existential threat that it is easier left unthought. 

Bombarded by an aestheticisation of climactic catastrophe, guilt-laden photographs of polar bears on scrappy, melting ice, the distance between our environmental knowledge and our collective environmental action yawns. I even find the word ‘knowledge’ to be difficult here, as it implies some embodied connection, some reciprocity with the information we consistently receive but fail to internalise. The projections are overwhelming, and depressing, their consideration more likely to incur nihilistic lassitude than to inspire action.

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Cosmorama (2018), Design Earth

Cosmorama (2018) speculates on the expansion of the US empire and private-industry interests into the ‘province of all mankind’ with Pacific Cemetery, Mining the Sky (shown above) and Planetary Ark

For Design Earth, an escape from the death-grip of inertia lies in the narration of new ecologies; ‘another architecture for the environment’, tales of technological design for life coming from (and after) the Anthropocene. Led by Rania Ghosn and El Hadi Jazairy, Design Earth disseminate their speculative architectures through exhibition and publication, recently exhibiting as part of Dimensions of Citizenship, the United States’ Pavilion at the 2018 Venice Biennale. This year, they also published Geostories, a collection of works, which they have called their ‘manifesto for the environmental imagination’.

Geostories means to render our environment sensible, ‘legible to the senses’, each story presented with a politically charged text set against wonder-filled and frequently ludic drawings. The first images of Earth from space historically introduced a collective imagination of a planetary whole but, for Design Earth, the Blue Marble ‘symbolises an objective, holistic, impersonal Earth’, a representation that is only remotely relational. In response, Design Earth’s drawings address the challenge of planetary scale with suggestive vignettes that break through the smooth surface of an inaccessible whole, that evoke an expansive world. 

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Blue Marble Circus (2017), Design Earth

A camera obscura globe held by a 1:10 miniature of the Pantheon, Blue Marble Circus (2017) is an invitation to re-learn, like Atlas, how to carry the world and all there is above it on our shoulders

Germinating from existing environmental threats, investments or legislative realities, the stories shift imperceptibly between dread-inducing fact and delicious fabulation: Mining the Sky shows an array of near-Earth asteroids, robotic arms mining the surface to carve out the faces of the gods of the New Space Age; Of Oil and Ice speculates on alternatives to unsustainable desalination practices in the Arabian gulf, depicting a dam holding the meltwater of icebergs towed from Antarctica to the Strait of Hormuz.

The drawings follow Alexander von Humboldt’s notion of a ‘microcosm on one page’, in a scalar performance that is reproduced in the structure of the book. Arranged around the figuration of terrarium, aquarium and planetarium – devices created for the apprehension of a planetary totality – these potted worlds each make a section cut; whether making visible the rubbish-filled geological strata of a polluted Earth’s crust, or plotting the movement of celestial bodies, they produce some revelation of invisible or intangible knowledge. 

The section cut recurs, appearing alongside the axonometric in many of the drawings and tethering them to a specifically architectural language. The drawings are not so technical that they require architectural training to read but, recalling that Geostories is considered a manifesto, the question of audience is still raised. Iconic architectural forms also frequently surface: the Pantheon, Tatlin’s Tower, Superstudio’s Continuous Monument – they gesture towards an architectural legacy. This move is analogous to an architectural tradition of precedent and an academic notion of bibliography, and it speaks to the practice’s position between architecture and academia. It also relies on a ground of shared knowledge to be effective. 

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Planetary Ark (2018), Design earth

Planetary Ark follows the last survivors of each endangered species as they head for the International Space Station, to 10,000 years later as their descendant plots a return to Earth

Design Earth explain that the role of the drawing as an ‘annotated bibliography’ is intended to engage the architectural profession with its role in shaping our environment, and making it liveable. They position their argument directly in relation to architects, and their methodologies rely principally on academic means. Still, their stories survive translation outside architecture or academia, their images and imaginaries remain accessible and enticing.

Representation is, itself, not just aesthetic but a political tool. With Donna Haraway, Design Earth understand that storytelling is significant, that how we tell stories and what we choose to tell matters: ‘Haraway reminds us that we are clusters of stories. We are made of stories; the way we move the way we behave is linked to the kinds of stories we have been told about the world’. Representation becomes re-presentation; presenting again and anew, to ‘engage possibilities of life in the shadow of environmental ruins’. Geostories works in furthering a psychic state in which environmental questions are allowed to come to the fore – in which action becomes possible.

All images courtesy of Design Earth

This piece is featured in the AR December 2018/January 2019 Book issue – click here to purchase your copy today