Student Award of Excellence: Enthalpy of Empty Space

Student Michael Barton, University of British Columbia

Location Northern Pacific Ocean

Every year we produce some 60 billion tons of plastic, and much of it is intended for a single use, like packaging. Recent studies show that an enormous amount of this plastic waste ends up in the ocean. Due to the confluence of currents in the Pacific Ocean, a great deal of this plastic is drawn together into a multi-million-squarekilometre area known as the Northern Pacific Gyre.

The plastic pieces float on the ocean currents, gathering barnacles until they become too heavy to float. They then sink to the bottom of the ocean, leaving a carpet of plastic dust kilometres below. Smaller pieces are often mistaken for food by surface creatures, and the animals are unable to digest the plastic, inevitably dying from injury. Some parts of the gyre have a plastic-to-plankton ratio as high as 48:1. This awful density of waste has led some to describe the gyre as “an island of garbage twice the size of Texas.”

This proposal intends to gather the plastic from the ocean and (following the impulse of the architect) build with it to moderate the negative effects of the current condition. Initial efforts focused around the farming of plastic, but in due course the project’s focus shifted towards the construction of a synthetic land commodity. The site provides the peculiar condition of being an almost totally stable oasis of calm in an otherwise raging ocean. This provides conditions that can accommodate building. Using raw materials gathered from the site, a self-contained building operation is undertaken.

The construction of the building is only the beginning of the project. The manufactured land mass attracts life to its structures above and below the surface of the water, both human and wild. The interdependent nature of the ecosystems above and below suspends the island in tension as both systems seek to flourish and grow. Over time, natural and human processes will alter the built form.

The project thus explores three core values of the architect: honour the impulse to build; recycle and reuse materials; and remediate and regenerate natural systems. However, the project invites the possibility of absurd or contradictory outcomes–seeking to embed them in the project as stimulus for discourse, rather than pursuing the hubris of a perfect solution. In this sense, the project has a tragic rather than comic narrative trajectory, giving it a certain ability to entice critics to explore the appeal and contradictions of the core themes.

At the heart of the project is a concern for the unchecked human impulse towards growth and expansion, and the role of the architect is in part to build to accommodate that impulse for growth. The project seeks to reveal and question prevalent assumptions about the inherent benefits of sustainability strategies in the context of that impulse.

Hariri: I like the way this project completely rethinks the role of the architect and also that the whole nature of site is being challenged. I think this student is doing a marvellous job in achieving a thought-provoking, interesting, and beautiful project. The strength of the student work begs the question of where is the daring in architectural practice? It is brave new thinking for a brave new world.

Macy: This is probably the most visionary project that we’ve looked at. In a way, it’s a project that has no real relationship to the real world. On the other hand, it deals with problems that are very much part of the real world, and there has always been a place for visionary architecture in architectural discussions. We are attracted to the breadth of thinking surrounding the huge problem of waste in both the ocean and on land. This student thought of something from the ground up that might be improbable but which is extremely thought-provoking. A pseudo-continent out of a Polynesian archipelago. Where do I place my buildings? It’s a brownfield reclamation of the ocean. It’s fantastic.

Thom: This student is asking, “Where is my site?” and has determined that it’s the whole globe. This is a huge project reduced to a very simple set of ideas.