Anthropocene Masterpiece(s)

Anthropocene Masterpiece(s)

Reversing the logic from the pieces to the masteries

Architectural buildings and infrastructures are main factors of the human impact on the environment. As such, they shape the current agenda for architecture. By critically rethinking architecture’s environmental impact, the mastery of teaching, designing, and making architecture is shifting from the products towards multiple fields of processes.

Focusing on the procedural essence of architectural agency, the concept of “masterpiece” appears at first glance as somewhat obsolete. At closer inspection, however, “masterpiece” reveals itself as a multi-layered concept. On the one hand, a master “piece” is an exemplary object, a produced work. On the other hand, the mastery that has generated the product is a skill, a knowing how, a type of tacit knowledge that cannot be separated from the process of making. In this latter sense, mastery is not only a generic operative attitude, but a shaping knowledge that is implicit in operations, practices, and things. The piece can also be seen not just as the product of a master but as an act of participation, of sharing, in which operative knowledge allows things to have a different kind of agency. Through practices, the products of mastery broaden the field of competency in which they are located. Mastery cannot be separated from rituals. A case in point are the so-called Wanderjahre, or journeymen years, a tradition that began in the Middle Ages and is still practised in Germany. After having completed their training in a given craft, apprentices undertake a three-year journey to unknown places in order to continue their path of learning. This notion is at the heart of becoming a master. It consists in taking one’s art on the road, rediscovering it, recontextualizing it in the network of masteries, practices, and material objects. The aim is to adapt and transform them through a destabilising experience that requires the apprentice to explore faraway places and to slow down radically. Mastery thus arises from an experiential attitude that rewrites operative knowledge itself as a shared life practice.

Like “masterpiece”, the Anthropocene, too, is a multi-layered concept. On the one hand, it was introduced to denote the current geological epoch as shaped by human activity. On the other hand, it is precisely the inherent anthropocentrism that is called into question by this concept. The Anthropocene implies a critique of an appropriative view of humanity with respect to planet Earth – questioning human positionality, a view that philosophy had long put to the test (we need think only of Helmuth Plessner and Maurice Merleau-Ponty). Notions such as the Capitalocene and the Chthulucene have highlighted more specific political, scientific, economic, and cultural aspects, starting from the critique of the anthropocentrism implied in the concept of the Anthropocene. Donna Haraway’s reflections mark a critical advance in the debate. Beyond a merely catastrophic or reparative perspective, Haraway poses the question of developing different narratives of the relationship between humans and non-humans, opening up a different approach to life. In this context, she introduces the notion of “making kin” as the need for new modes of relationality.

The Anthropocene, as a scientific and discursive field of negotiation generates a need for new forms of inhabitation and worlding. The Anthropocene definitively undermines the idea of a radically individual and authorial imagination and destabilizes the concept of the masterpiece as an isolated reality. From this perspective, the master-piece – or even better, the piece – is not a mere product, but it is situated within fields of practices, of a certain making of the world. In the context of the Anthropocene, this ability can play a fundamental role as an attitude of worlding, exploring, relating, and slowing down in order to reposition the effects of action in relation to Earth. This repositioning is the opening of a field of practices in which knowledge constitutes a collaborative and situated space of inclusion. The masterpiece-vision is replaced by a collective, multiple agenda with which to rethink given practices, first and foremost those of an appropriating science (see Edmund Husserl and, more recently, Hans-Jörg Rheinberger). A representational paradigm is countered by a performative paradigm that outlines the generative path of media practices in the analysis and transformation of environmental matters (see Karen Barad’s conception of performativity). The environment is a contaminated place in which material processes are grasped within an operative field of practices, which involves a specific mastery. Focusing on mastery as a particular capacity to structure a field of practices transforms the masterpiece into a space of grounded imagination and mediation (see Bruno Latour’s conception of mediators). Specifically, design practices are adapted and transformed to shape what is not directly given by the senses, but what produces a field of sensitivity. This field overcomes disciplinary boundaries, embedding and mixing different types of knowledge from the natural sciences, humanities, applied sciences and legal regulations of the making. In this context design practices are not merely creative in the production of “new” artefacts; on the contrary, they are fields of negotiation in which environmental and legal constraints also play an ever greater role by determining architectural practice. The Anthropocene confronts us with radical questions: Can a novel normative space inaugurate an aesthetic space? How can constraints be regulative but not prescriptive practices? How can environmental and legislative constraints become spaces of possibility? These questions also involve architecture as that aesthetic space in which constraints, rules, and laws are an integral part of the design and construction process, re-positioning architecture as environmental practice.

There is no single Anthropocene masterpiece; in fact, there are many – and their values are part of the mastery they embed. In this short text, philosophical and literal pieces address certain dimensions of Anthropocene masterpieces. Some provocative theoretical roots, already in early times, reflected on some of the basic ideas of the environmental constitution of which human beings are a part. These textual fragments suggest five types of knowledge (factual, transcalar, environmental, explorative, material), with which five architectural masteries, described through projects, are juxtaposed.

1. Factual Knowledge

In the second century AD, Epictetus used the example of the architect to criticise the figure of the intellectual who learns the principles of philosophy, but does not put them into practice: “The architect does not come forward and say ‘Listen to me deliver a discourse about the art of building’; but he takes a contract for a house, builds it, and thereby proves that he possesses the art” (Discourses, Harvard University Press 1952, III, 21, 4, p. 125). The intellectual disposition, by contrast, undermines the principles of an active life, as Arendt would later put it. From this perspective, Epictetus understands philosophy not as an abstract art but as a radically practical one, which, starting from decisions, becomes attitude, conduct, and action. This vision of abstract thought, rooted in everyday life, implies coherence and, at the same time, the responsibility of constructive action as that space of realisation incorporates knowledge and gives shape to it. Today, this conception of an intrinsic relationship between theoretical and practical knowledge confronts us with the need to translate theoretical and scientific knowledge (for example with respect to climate data). This existing practice of translation has long since reversed the relationship between the human and the non-human into real, decision-making knowledge upon which to act at the local level and to offer concrete solutions related to the intertwining of environments. In this way, a space of imagination is inaugurated in which theory is not mere discourse, but generates practical and tangible transformations.

Based on a study of environmental transformations and the construction of flat-pack homes in the coastal region of Bangladesh, Marina Tabassum Architects has developed a simple construction system called Khudi Bari. These structures can accommodate a family of four and can be built by the inhabitants themselves using local materials. Beyond a merely theoretical, technical, and bureaucratic vision of architecture, the Anthropocene masterpiece implies a practical attitude, based on the observation of local practices and the adaptation of experimental and shared architectural knowledge regarding techniques and materials such as timber and clay. Thus, it goes beyond the conventional conception of the vernacular.

2. Transcalar Knowledge

The novella Micromégas, written by Voltaire (1752), features a giant who comes from another planet and has almost one thousand senses. He arrives on Earth, where humans, with their bodies and material and immaterial thoughts, are merely tiny beings to him. Micromega, who is first and foremost an observer capable of looking at the world from different perspectives, finds and adapts tools to fit his environment, in an attempt to communicate with the inhabitants of a territory that he initially finds chaotic. He converts material objects for his purposes: a small diamond from his necklace becomes a lens; fingernail clippings first become a funnel and then a megaphone with which to listen to the voices of Earth’s small inhabitants.

The undermining of anthropocentrism is a crossing of scales that can only be perceived through senses and sensors, i.e., design practices that are able to explore spatial scalar complexity and then bring perception and collected data back to a different scale. Design practices constitute a field of perception in which it is possible to establish hidden relations between environments and transcalar phenomena. Drawing is in this respect not only a design medium in the sense of form-creation, but a device for spatial exploration and emergent criticism.

In the work of DESIGN EARTH, which is a research practice founded in 2010 by Rania Ghosn and El Hadi Jazairy, drawing becomes a medium of sensitivity and at the same time of critical construction. It aims at analysing and disseminating the origins and multi-layered processes of the climate crisis. The architectural project assumes a “speculative” dimension in this regard that connects and crosses several spatial scales of geological and geographical externalities. Drawing becomes a medium of sensitivity and at the same time of critical construction.

The work of Territorial Agency, founded in 2007 by John Palmesino and Ann-Sofi Rönnskog, dealing with the ocean as “sensorium” operates with this critical perspective of environmental constitution. This Anthropocene masterpiece implies an architectural practice that reveals the constructive criticality of the environment and the multi-layered effects of its exploitation.

3. Environmental Knowledge

In his letters to Madame Delessert (1771), Jean-Jacques Rousseau wonders how to pass on the knowledge he has acquired through studying and observing what he calls in Émile the ‘book of nature’: “You see that this is no longer a simple work of memory, but a study of observations and facts, truly worthy of a naturalist” (The Collected Writings, Vol. 8, University Press of New England 2000, p. 133). To do this, it is not enough merely to memorize the images of plants and to know their nomenclature; it is necessary to discover the generative value of natural observation, to find structural principles, and, based on these, to know the constitution of plants. The plant thus takes us back to the very genealogy of the experience it embodies.

Baracco + Wright Architects’ Garden House (2013 ongoing) is an architecture that emerges from the soil and the knowledge it incorporates, calibrating light and humidity to sustain the vegetation growth which is usually denied by an opaque roof and sealed ground. It does not take possession of the land, but creates a dimension of coexistence by respecting the flow of water and not sealing off the site, as well as by studying the endemic vegetation intrinsic to the soil and hydrology, of which the house not only takes care, but which it makes visible. The Anthropocene masterpiece in this case is an operation of knowledge with respect to species; it is a design practice of coexistence in which architectural practice is a hybrid of natural observation, artificial materials, and care for the land.

4. Explorative Knowledge

Georges Simenon recounts what to others seems an impossible journey – travelling to the Arctic Ocean in winter in 1933: “This proves that you should never inquire in advance about the feasibility of a trip. You can always find what you need on site. When I told them in the middle of winter that I wanted to go on a trip to the Arctic Ocean and Lapland, they all looked at me with concern and thought I had gone mad. ‘But the sea will be frozen,’ they exclaimed. I’m not talking about friends. I’m talking about the lavishly furnished agencies that are there specifically to provide information to travellers. After leafing through all the timetables and guidebooks, they told me with absolute certainty: ‘There are no ships. And since there are no trains in Lapland…’. […] Anyway, I went to Hamburg. From there, a good ship took me to Bergen. And from there…” (Pays du froid, in: À la recherche de l’homme nu, Union Générale d’ Éd 1976, p. 108, my translation). Simenon tells of a journey involving the mastery to accept that the feasibility of a journey is not clear in advance, but it involves to make the direct experience of the environmental conditions – human and non-human – that are different from those of departure. It is an impossible journey if it is governed by information and certainties provided in advance, all of which are experienced in the name of foresight. It is a journey that is necessarily a discovery, which is not that of controlled spectacle but of exposure.

Unavailability is a temporary shelter designed by the architecture studio Gartnerfuglen in 2012. It is completely portable and can be built in a couple of minutes by one or two people. It is designed as a mobile fisherman’s hut. The timber structure, clad with chicken wire, fills with water to create walls of ice. It can provide protection for a single inhabitant. The Anthropocene masterpiece is a form of assemblage that functions as a place of critical relationality with the environment, even at the ultimate extreme, in a less liveable and less predictable environment. This attitude toward exposure, which will increasingly mark human life in the climate emergency, is a reduction of safe space but at the same time a new way of accessing and temporarily appropriating places.

5. Material Knowledge

Donna Haraway describes sympoiesis as an attitude of participation, inclusion, and a critique of the self-sufficient view of organisms: “Sympoiesis is a simple word; it means ‘making-with.’ Nothing makes itself; nothing is really autopoietic or self-organising. […] Sympoiesis is a word proper to complex, dynamic, responsive, situated, historical systems. It is a word for worlding-with, in company. Sympoiesis enfolds autopoiesis and generatively unfurls and extends it” (Staying with the Trouble. Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Duke University Press 2016, p. 58). Sympoiesis is an attempt to develop a model of relationality in which the experience of the world is like weaving, understood as a “cosmological performance, knotting proper relationality and connectedness into the warp and weft of the fabric” (p. 91). In order to be part of the material world we need a sympoietic approach. Such an approach consists in developing new models through which to understand the phenomena that make up the world. It helps to discover their relationships and genealogies, to understand their urgencies and critical areas, and at the same time to act on them by making them manifest and trying to respond to them with concrete actions.

In the work of Experimental Architecture and the research project Living Architecture (LIAR), Rachel Armstrong has developed an “alternative portfolio of tools for the production of architectural spaces that includes ecological apparatuses such as dynamic droplets” (Routledge 2020, p. 53). Metabolic and environmental substrates become dynamic materiality in which living and mechanical strategies are combined. The living brick, for instance, uses the structural constitution of the brick combined with the metabolic capacity of a microbial fuel cell. The Anthropocene masterpiece implies a fundamental shift in the worlding process by revealing the transformative force of materials as living matter: “conceptualising the role of a building as continuous with ecosystems that sustain us creates the context in which inhabitants are not simply consumers of their surroundings, but also producers of natural resources that seamlessly contribute to a regenerative ‘circular’ economy” (p. 57).

In conclusion, Anthropocene masterpieces are modes of shifting boundaries, of exploration, and of morphogenesis. Their driven force is to conceive space beyond disciplinary frameworks, extending knowledge fields and encompassing the gathered information into a material practice. The masteries are not scared of repositioning human agency in relation to the much broader agency of the environment. At the same time, they do not become practices of mere immersion, but through media and technological practices they bring such knowledge back into a critical space. In this way they turn architectural practice into an experimental space, which becomes a design media language for a novel environmental dwelling. Their potential to achieve and extend the transformative effects of theory, pedagogy, design, and construction is the challenging task of architectural mastery.

Lidia Gasperoni is a Research and Teaching Associate at the Department of Architectural Theory of the Institute of Architecture at the Technical University Berlin. She studied philosophy in Rome, Freiburg, Breisgau, and Berlin and obtained her PhD from the TU Berlin. She teaches architectural theory and philosophy with a focus on media philosophy, Anthropocene theories, and aesthetics at the TU Berlin, and previously at the UdK Berlin and the University of Kassel. Her publications include: Versinnlichung (De Gruyter, 2016); Media Agency, with Christophe Barlieb (transcript, 2020); Site of Coexistence (IQD, 2021); and Construction and Design Manual: Experimental Diagrams (DOM publishers 2022).