Experiencing Anxious Climate

A new exhibit examines the gritty side of sustainability

The French architecture firm R&Sie knows a lot about mosquitoes. While developing a design concept for a private home in Trinidad, the firm had to contend with a site infested with the pesky insects. Rather than ignore the prevailing nature of the location, they decided to capture it. Literally. Their 2003 Mosquito Bottleneck project includes a skin for the home that actually attracts and moves mosquitoes through the building, while keeping them separate from the occupants. Even the buzzing of the bugs can be heard, creating a sort of lulling, white noise effect.

When curator and architecture professor David Gissen first saw the renderings for Mosquito Bottleneck, he was enthralled. “I had always thought of buildings as being a refuge from the forms of nature that we find abject, like mosquitoes, pigeons, and mice,” Gissen says. “And here was an architect building a building in an infested site and he wanted that to be considered part of the context.”

Gissen, a former curator at the National Building Museum in D.C. and currently a professor at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco, has gathered several examples of progressive architecture in a new exhibit titled Anxious Climate: Architecture at the Edge of Environment, running through March 4 at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. The exhibit focuses on three firms—R&Sie of Paris, Philippe Rahm of Lausanne and Paris, and Amid [Cero 9] of Madrid—and uses examples of their work to explore what can happen when nature and buildings interact in a more intimate way.

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Gissen sees this exhibit, in part, as a reaction to prevailing trends in green design today. “There is a kind of lurking Victorianism in some aspects of green design that’s all about making the city clean and right and manicured,” Gissen says. “What’s nice about the architects in this exhibit is that they reach out to things that aren’t always reached out to—humidity, a yak, roses, dust.”

Work by architect Philippe Rahm reconsiders how we organize our buildings in the first place. His Archimedes House inverts the traditional blueprint of the home in order to capitalize on natural ventilation and the energy of the earth. The house, which is set in the countryside, opens to the earth, where a geothermal heating system creates energy for the home. The structure emphasizes the way air moves through a building—the chimney effect—to help heat and cool the residence. Rahm then ordered the living quarters according to how the heat and humidity naturally flow. “It’s a very powerful notion of where nature orientation of a building might be, particularly now as people are thinking about how buildings metabolize nature,” Gissen says. “This is a house that suggests that we look down deep into the earth for a kind of nature in a country house.”

Whereas modernism “brought the outdoors in” through a carefully regimented program—think of the modern glass house, where you can look out upon nature in climate-controlled comfort—the architects in this exhibit are taking that concept to a more literal level. Rather than divorce the building from the elements, these architects make the building an active part of the nature around it, and they do not try to eliminate the ugly or the profane. Gissen refers to this as “minor nature.”

“Historically, the images that we know well in architecture have been concerned with what I call a major nature: sunlight, trees, the air,” Gissen explains. “It’s all about relating to a major nature and dismissing what I’m calling a minor nature—things like dust, dirt, mud, and insects.”

Gissen is writing a book on the topic of minor nature for the Princeton Architectural Press due out early next year and he is exploring the concepts raised in this exhibition with his students at the CCA. “Architecture students today want to be involved in rethinking how buildings and nature interact, but I think that they are a little frustrated by the treatment of nature as a pre-existing category with which architecture must better relate to,” Gissen says. “They want to bring their own experiences and ideas about what the future might be through architecture, something that goes way beyond LEED rating a building.”

“The most environmentally engaged architects were traditionally some of the most conservative figures in terms of the future of the architectural discipline, particularly in the 1970’s,” Gissen adds. “The avant-garde wing and the environmentalist wing were pretty much at odds with one another. But I think that’s changing. We can work to develop a progressive vision for architecture that engages more with nature.”

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