Courtesy Dan Bradica

Finding Beauty in Climate Futures

Five recent exhibitions, books, and initiatives highlight utopian visions of design that leaves a positive impact on the environment. 

“What if climate adaptation is beautiful? What if we act as if we love the future? What if we look to nature for solutions?” These are just some of the questions ecologist and climate policy expert Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson posed in her latest exhibition, Climate Futurism, hosted at Brooklyn’s Pioneer Works last December. In anticipation of her forthcoming book, What if We Get It Right? Visions of Climate Futures (Random House, 2024), Dr. Johnson commissioned three artists to fill the galleries of the Gowanus, Brooklyn–based arts institution with optimistic visions for the future. The artists Erica Deeman, Denice Frohman, and Olalekan Jeyifous created works inspired by Dr. Johnson’s book, exploring topics such as decolonization, Jamaican and Puerto Rican diasporas, and the potential for regenerative food systems in a utopian vision of Brooklyn.

“If we can’t imagine possible climate futures, we can’t create them. This is design’s time to shine.”

Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson

The show hoped to bypass the gloom and doom that often accompanies visions of Earth’s future. Dr. Johnson said in a recent panel discussion at Pioneer Works: “If we can’t imagine possible climate futures, we can’t create them. This is design’s time to shine.” The following exhibitions, initiatives, and books do just that.

Transform! Designing the Future of Energy  

A current Vitra Design Museum exhibition curated by Jochen Eisenbrand, Transform! Designing the Future of Energy explores how design can assist us in our transition to renewable energy sources while reducing our energy consumption. The show highlights innovative products, graphic and speculative design, as well as architectural prototypes, scale models, and films made especially for the exhibition, from Bell Labs’ first photovoltaic cell to advances in turbine technology. 

Spanning four thematic galleries, the themes of the show include the individual’s role within the political tapestry of energy, the devices that shape our interactions with power, and design solutions for sustainable buildings and transportation. One gallery, titled “Future Energyscapes,” presents visionary designs from Carlo Ratti’s Hot Heart concept for Helsinki to Honglin Li and XTU Architects’ X Land proposal for turning offshore oil platforms into holiday resorts or ocean plastic waste incineration plants. Overall, the exhibition aims to challenge perceptions of what a just energy transition might look like, inviting visitors to ponder solar artist Marjan van Aubel’s query, “Why can’t energy be beautiful too?“ 

Rendering of proposal for resort on former offshore oil platform
This rendering from 2020 shows Honglin Li and XTU Architects’ X_Land, a proposal for turning offshore oil platforms into holiday resorts or ocean plastic waste incineration plants. Image courtesy © XTU Architects.

Climate Inheritance

Research practice DESIGN EARTH’s recent book Climate Inheritance (Actar, 2023) opens with a quote from Superstudio: “To salvage in order to destroy; to destroy in order to save yourself—in times of apocalypse, extremes meet, and opposites equalize.” Alongside a photomontage of a flooded Florence Duomo, DESIGN EARTH founders Rania Ghosn and El Hadi Jazairy familiarize the reader with Superstudio’s 1972 “Salvages of Italian Historic Centers,” in which the Italian radical design collective proposed a “strategic sabotage” of six iconic Italian cities, mining disaster and destruction to access other architectural possibilities. It is within this context that Ghosn and Jazairy’s book analyzes various climate risks—from rising sea levels to community displacement—by visualizing how each would affect World Heritage Sites. 

Climate Inheritance is filled with evocative collages that illustrate how “paper architecture can draw out the speculative opportunities of heritage as an architectural figure of recursive thinking.” The volume also features thought-provoking essays by scholars David Gissen, Lucia Allais, Colin Sterling, and Rodney Harrison. By considering heritage sites as narratives of collective memory, Ghosn proposes, “A World Heritage site could, for the time of a story, stand for the world, which itself stands for all that is being destroyed by the changes in the climate.” 

Through speculative design research, DESIGN EARTH’s recent publication Climate Inheritance portrays the vulnerabilities of World Heritage sites. Image courtesy Actar.
The publication weaves together compelling narratives of climate crises, extractivism, racism, and settler colonialism, with the hope to shift attention to our shared future. Image courtesy Actar.

Future Station Project

As of 2020, there were 4,848 gas stations in New York State. The state also has a goal to reach 850,000 zero-emission vehicles by 2025. What will happen to gas stations once the state successfully transitions to all-electric cars? Architect and filmmaker Michael Glen Woods is set to find out. Funded by a grant from the Architectural League of New York and the New York State Council on the Arts, Woods just completed the Future Station Project. This yearlong speculative design project reimagines urban, suburban, and rural gas stations in New York. Woods illustrates his research through a website, a short film, and nine innovative station prototypes that function as “mobility hubs, resilience hubs, and micro freight hubs” around the state while maintaining applications beyond New York. For Woods, the project not only informs the public about a just energy transition but also demonstrates the value of adaptive reuse and promotes equitable landscapes. 

Rendering of reimagined gas station
“Reimagining gas stations offers a unique opportunity to address long-standing inequities,” Woods says. “Individuals with limited financial resources face far greater challenges in replacing their cars with EVs and often rely heavily on public transportation or ride-sharing services. It is critical that social justice be at the center of this ongoing transformation.” Image courtesy Michael Glen Woods.

Energetic: The Board Game

Developed by design nonprofit City Atlas, Energetic is a collaborative game in which four to six players work as a team to decarbonize New York City while, according to the instructions, “managing the region’s public opinion, grid stability, and money.” In the original version, the goal was to build 16 gigawatts of carbon-neutral energy by 2050. In the Green New Deal version, that goal is set for 2035. Action Cards familiarize users with the types of infrastructure, policies, research, and campaigns that can help one build a new energy system in NYC. Each player chooses a role: Activist, Politician, Entrepreneur, Engineer, Regulator, or Journalist, with each role having a Special Ability, Superpower, and Constraint that affects play. 

“Many of us are concerned about the climate crisis but don’t yet have a clear picture of what concrete options are available to meaningfully address it,” the creators write in their Educator’s Guide. “Our objective is to give players a quick grounding in what solving climate change actually means, in a physical and social sense, based on the demand for energy that can supply 8 million New Yorkers.” 

Climate change–themed board game
Energetic: The Board Game is a simple and fun way to illustrate and help people understand the complex intersecting issues surrounding climate change. The game is now part of class curricula at Bronx Science, Hunter College High School, and ten other high schools in New York City. It has also been used in classes at Yale, Brown, and Harvard. Here’s to playing our cards right. Photo courtesy City Atlas.

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