At its most basic, architecture is an intermediary between the natural environment and humans, who are not particularly well equipped to survive in the world without shelter. “Emerging Ecologies: Architecture and the Rise of Environmentalism,” an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (which continues through January 20), is a dip into the history of how American architecture responded in the 1960s and 1970s to the escalating environmental crisis through design—both built and theoretical. It’s sort of a “greatest hits” of design with nature in mind, but it’s timidly mute about what’s been accomplished in the past from the 1990s onward, as the planet’s degradation has escalated and architecture’s focus on designing with the environment has sharpened.
The exhibit is the debut effort of MoMA’s Emilio Ambasz Institute for the Joint Study of the Built and the Natural Environment, founded in 2020. Within the exhibit’s context, ecology is defined, according to Carson Chan (the institute’s director and the exhibit’s curator) as “both the totality of interconnected relationships between various organisms and their physical environment and the branch of science devoted to the study of these connections.” Emerging ecologies, according to Chan, consider the history of how humans live, shelter themselves, and modify their surroundings. That’s a mouthful, and an extremely ambitious charge for an exhibition about architecture and environmentalism.
Chan describes the show as a “selective survey” of landmarks in “the history of environmental thinking” in U.S. architecture, but the exhibition’s domestic focus is misguided. One could argue that this country has not been a leader in environmental thinking—the U.S. has yet to ratify the Kyoto Protocol to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, instituted nearly 30 years ago. Societies in other parts of the world, with far fewer natural resources than the U.S., have been far more inventive in addressing the environmental mess. The assault on the environment is a global threat, and an exhibition about architecture’s response likewise must be global in its perspective.
“Emerging Ecologies” is organized along five themes, with projects (some built, most not) that illustrate these concepts. In roughly chronological order, they are:
- Environmental Enclosures: designs that attempt to create ecologies within a carefully controlled environmental controlled by manmade systems, like interplanetary space stations.
- Environment as Information: efforts to map natural systems to make the environment “knowable” through metrics and digital analytical tools.
- Countercultural Experiments: several are inspired by Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome structures—think of 1960s Drop City in Colorado, and such examples as the New Alchemy Institute’s “ark” projects that were off the grid and ecologically self-contained to provide food and housing.
- Multispecies Design: theoretical projects such as Ant Farm’s “Dolphin Embassy,” which envisioned sharing designed environments between humans and other species.
- Green Poetics: architecture whose aesthetic or conceptual expression incorporates the natural environment, such as James Wines’ “Forest Building” of 1978 in Richmond, Virginia, which had trees and other plants erupting behind its facade, and Ambasz’s Fukuoka Prefecture building of 1990, with its heavily planted, stepped terraces that cascade into a public park.
In its design and layout, the exhibition doesn’t make these themes obvious, and several of the captivating models on display are not clearly identified. You might miss the show’s helpful timeline of the rise of environmentalism and corresponding architectural works, as it is tucked away in the back (near an elevator bank) and not near the show’s entry off the third-floor lobby, where it would provide a chronological orientation to the more than 150 works on display.
While the exhibition’s intro uses Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring—which raised awareness about pollution and the danger of pesticides—as a starting point for the environmental movement in the U.S., it’s clear from the earliest works shown that architects were addressing environmental impacts way before that. A detailed model of Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1934 design for Fallingwater, prominently displayed near the wall text about Carson, suggests that architectural landmarks that meld with nature and celebrate it were present a generation before. Even more forward-thinking than Fallingwater, in the late 1940s architect Eleanor Raymond and biophysicist and inventor Mária Telkes (an early pioneer of solar energy) conceived and built the “Sun House” in Dover, Massachusetts. (There’s a great model and drawings showing its technical attributes.) And in 1947, James Marston Fitch’s pivotal book American Building: The Forces that Shape It cast the history of architecture as a search for accommodation with the natural environment.
Two design approaches emerge from the exhibition. The first is to design indoor environments that are modified mechanically (heated, cooled, illuminated) and might also employ passive responses (such as massing and natural ventilation). Fuller’s idea for the 1960 “Climatron” in St. Louis (realized by his firm Synergetics and architects Murphy & Mackey) used a geodesic structure to enclose and simulate a variety of natural environments (from deserts to tropical forests) controlled by a central computer to adjust ventilation, shading, and more. High humidity levels took a toll on the aluminum and plexiglass structure. Also shown is an image of Fuller’s ultimate geodesic ecosystem: his 1960 fantasia (with Shoji Sadao) for a dome over Manhattan. Other megascale fantasies—such as architect Glen Small’s Biomorphic Biosphere, which would contain modified natural environments—blossomed in the following decades, along with ambitious theoretical proposals to colonize space. (Elon Musk should pay a visit to the show.)
The second approach is to design with nature, using its principles to create architecture that blends with the natural environment instead of sealing it off, or using the structure and processes of organisms as design inspiration. Architect Carolyn Dry did a series of designs for military ports in the 1970s and ’80s modeled on the natural growth observed in mollusk shells using seawater and abundant, naturally occurring minerals to “grow” a building. Dry’s ideas are provocative, and her drawings beautiful; in her work, she prefigures the rise of architectural biomimicry in the 1990s.
The exhibition’s presentation of inspired designs by architects such as Eugene Tssui is thought-provoking and will introduce most viewers to the works of talented designers who operate under the “starchitect” radar. Tssui’s architecture is a blend of Wright and Bruce Goff (who studied under Wright), but with a difference: his approach is to meld his buildings with the surrounding environment in order to permeate architecture’s typically “closed system,” which has “very little, if any, exchange and response to other systems like air currents, sun movement, temperature changes, and climatic shifts.” He envisions a dynamic architecture, one in active partnership with adjacent ecologies.
This idea suggests that architecture needs a closer connection with indigenous buildings, the “native genius” (to use Sybil Moholy-Nagy’s term) of vernacular structures that had traditionally been attuned to their environmental context. The book produced for the current show mentions Bernard Rudofsky’s pivotal 1964 MoMA exhibition, “Architecture Without Architects,” but Moholy-Nagy’s book Native Genius in Anonymous Architecture appeared in 1957, extolling the sensitivity and compatibility of traditional building with its surrounding natural environment. The proliferation of mechanically regulated buildings, constructed of materials often extracted and fabricated thousands of miles away, changed all that. That proliferation tracked the rise of environmentalism, but this exhibition doesn’t draw the connection.
Incongruously, “Emerging Ecologies” closes in the 20th century, noting that the apex of architectural environmentalism was the 1970s. Really? This doesn’t jibe with the fact that the oil crisis of that decade focused more attention on architecture’s environmental impacts, resulting years later with the BREEAM rating system in the UK (1990), the start of AIA’s Committee on the Environment (1990) and the COTE Top Ten (1997), the founding of the U.S. Green Building Council (1993), and the first LEED standard (1994), among other initiatives to design and promote architecture more in tune with the environment.
While I was working on this review, a New York Times story noted that the planet had just emerged from the hottest August ever, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s 174-year-old records, and it followed the hottest June and July globally. Wildfires rage around the world, air quality is imperiled, floods wipe out communities. What is architecture’s response globally? How can it make a difference? Or is it too late?
Alas, you won’t find any answers at MoMA.
Featured image: Installation view of Emerging Ecologies: Architecture and the Rise of Environmentalism, on view at The Museum of Modern Art through January 20, 2024. Photo: Jonathan Dorado.