Exhibition Review: Emerging Ecologies
An exhibition at MoMA looks at today’s environmental dilemmas through the lens of architectural imagination.
The building sector accounts for nearly 40 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions: architecture is humanity’s most polluting activity. But, as Emerging Ecologies: Architecture and the Rise of Environmentalism opens at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the entangled relationship between architecture and ecocide somehow feels lush with life.
The exhibition is the first presented by MoMA’s Emilio Ambasz Institute for the Joint Study of the Built and the Natural Environment, directed by New York-based Canadian curator Carson Chan. The show underscores the Ambasz Institute’s expansive definition of architecture: going beyond buildings, the exhibition includes political events, works foregrounding material extraction processes and historical racial and economic conditions, and impressive forms of architectural images. While the anthropogenic climate crisis necessitates a radical rethinking of how we practice architecture today, Emerging Ecologies brings forward exciting ideas for what might be considered as architecture. It’s a smart curatorial move at the MoMA, delivering to new publics the imaginative potential of architectural exhibition.
The 150-some models, drawings, and video works in the show range from the Cambridge Seven Associates’ iconic Tsuruhama Rain Forest Pavilion proposal to the Eames Office’s lesser-known, unbuilt National Fisheries Centre and Aquarium. It also nods to Canada, with fantastic drawings of Solsearch Architects and the New Alchemy Institutes’ Ark for Prince Edward Island. But while the Ark was built in 1976 (and sadly demolished in the 90s), most of the material in the exhibition is highly speculative, rarely involving actual buildings. Sometimes the act of not building is the point: one convincing instance documents a 1981 protest by the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation that ultimately prevented the construction of an environmentally destructive dam project. Can political protest be an act of architectural labour? More broadly, what new territories for productive architectural thinking can emerge when we look beyond architecture as the act of building?
The exhibition tracks dreamy proposals for alternative architectural dimensions. Highlights include drawings of orbital space colonies commissioned by NASA in the 1970s (illustrations by Don Davis and Rick Guidice have arguably been canonized by this show, despite their existing pop-cultural influence) and inter-species habitation experiments (Ant Farm’s Dolphin Embassy, a floating insect wing that the group originally proposed in an essay for an American lifestyle magazine).
The exhibition’s saturated aesthetic sensibility highlights the proliferation of images from late-20th-century American countercultural movements that have since become icons of humanity’s uncertain futures. In Emerging Ecologies, architectural speculation benefits from showy spectacle: the theme of “architecture and the environment” has never looked so cool. Many of the works in the exhibit recall the eco-digital landscapes of 128 bit-era cyber gaming worlds in Final Fantasy and Halo. Emerging Ecologies not only provokes nostalgia for the sixth-extinction-core aesthetic of those uncanny worlds, but also emphasizes the vast cultural impact of radical architectural experimentation.
Emerging Ecologies ultimately uses architectural fantasies of the past to turn towards today’s urgent environmental realities. Architecture’s environmental dilemma is that it falls on both sides of the problem/solution binary—the mentioning of which brings up a complicated mess of questions that seem to always elicit an impulse for actionable architectural activism. But the Ambasz Institute’s inaugural exhibition succeeds in its resistance of the standard fixation on environmental solutions, instead presenting a vibrant and vital articulation of architectural imagination.