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A Case for a More Literal Architecture

By moving away from processes of abstraction, writes Kiel Moe, we might arrive at a clearer picture of the terrestrial web of life that supports architecture.

Courtesy Kiel Moe

Abstraction has long been celebrated in modern architecture. Indeed, it has been one of architectural design’s central enabling tenets. Whether it is the seemingly cool objectivity of a Modernist facade’s formal composition, a star architect’s aloof detachment from politics, or even the demand for technomanagerial simulations of carbon emissions, architecture seems to persist—even thrive—through its abstractions. Abstractions upon abstractions.

In my view this routine of abstraction has mainly begotten many of architecture’s current ecological, social, and political blind spots. Whether it is climate change, the geopolitics that underlie contemporary construction, or questions of labor and other qualities of life for those involved in building, unquestioned loyalty to abstraction has detached architecture from many of the salient concerns of this century. Architecture thus creates a convenient fiction for itself, one that obscures many actual processes—and potentials—of what occurs when we build. When the world is abstracted in this glib way, very real places and people are too often marginalized, degraded, and damaged.

How might we avoid these enabling fictions of architecture? Even if just as a counterpoint, consider architecture in much more literal, less abstract terms. Building and by extension urbanization are irrefutably terrestrial phenomena. Through their design, humans interact with the thin crust of the planet in specific ways. In doing so, they unavoidably reorganize ecological, social, and political relationships. These designed transformations may be destructive, benign, or regenerative, but they are all best grasped and assessed in direct, literal terms. To comprehend what we actually do as terrestrials, we need to follow—literally—the flow of materials, fuels, labor, and dollars that inhere through building and urbanization. Only then might we understand how decisions made in one part of architecture’s terrestrial systems affect another.

In this regard, all architecture is first geological because all building materials are geological. Concrete, steel, masonry, glass, plastics, and even timber are transformations of architecture’s telluric substrate. A literal description of building and urbanization would begin with this telluric substrate and our share of solar inputs. But a literal description would also include all the human-driven transformations of those materials. In short, a literal view of architecture would capture the complex web of planetary processes attached to building and urbanization, and would engender a reciprocal understanding of this terrestrial web. Architects could then design meaningful instances of building as well as the terrestrial processes that produce them.

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More literal descriptions of architecture could help elucidate the terrestrial basis of building, as well as the disparities inherent in it. The Seagram Building, for example, represents an extreme concentration of human and material resources, explains Kiel Moe in Unless: The Seagram Building Construction Ecology (Actar)—underdevelopment in its periphery and over development of global capital in a global capital. Courtesy Kiel Moe

To achieve this reciprocal understanding in my design research and practice, I in part use ecosystem science methods to more explicitly describe the web of life that supports architecture as an art and a science. On the one hand, I trace in detail building’s bio-geophysical basis. Ecologist Howard T. Odum’s ecosystem methods, in my view, are our best pedagogy for understanding building’s terrestrial content: a map of where it all comes from, and how it either damages or might positively reinforce the places and processes otherwise abstracted through traditional descriptions of architecture, such as architectural history or criticism. Odum offered us the most comprehensive means of describing the dynamics of terrestrial systems. On the other hand, this detailed map of the flows that converge through building also inevitably describes the traditionally abstracted social and political interactions that shape it. Together they form a more literal description of building with a mix of world-system studies, political ecology, and urbanization theory.

In other words, what is at stake in a more literal description of architecture is a reconsideration of architecture’s constitution. By constitution I refer to the physical constitution of building: what, exactly, is involved ecologically in extracting building from mines, forests, and factories. By studying the material geography and construction ecology of building, we can in turn more properly describe the political constitution of architecture.

Take, for example, the unequal ecological and economic exchanges that tend to accumulate resources in global capitals through architecture, always at the cost of extractive hinterlands and peoples. We can describe how building in one part of the world literally displaces environmental loads to other parts. In that way, we can be newly mindful of how people and places around the world become structurally underdeveloped as global capitals become arguably overdeveloped. These unequal systems and exchanges need to be not only described but also designed before architects, engineers, ecologists, or clients hazard any claim about sustainability, resilience, or environmental justice, or contemplate any Green New Deals. Otherwise, today’s vertiginous physical and political disparities will only be perpetuated and exacerbated through our tradition of abstraction in architectural design. If we blindly follow that tradition, we will continue to make the future a colony of the present.

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Though the brass enclosure of the Seagram Building accounts for less than 2 percent of the building’s mass, it accounts for nearly half of its emergy, the ecosystem science term for the bio-geophysical resources required to produce the building. This stark disparity indicates a range of unequal ecological and economic exchanges and environmental load displacements. Courtesy Kiel Moe

Looking back can help us look forward in this regard. I have done this in provisional ways through studies of the Empire State Building and the Toledo Museum of Art Glass Pavilion. More recently I have developed a literal description of the Seagram Building. The latter building is a paragon of Modernist abstraction, canonized as such in architectural histories. So it is an apt specimen to describe in much more literal terms: not as an abstract formal object but as a terrestrial phenomenon. For example, consider what architectural historians describe as its “bronze” facade. Although the building enclosure appears to be made from bronze, the material is actually brass, stained to resemble bronze. This is not a minor semantic distinction but one that carries consequential geological implications that shape everything from the building’s material geography to its specific labor to its annual maintenance regimen. Likewise, though the Seagram Building has been described as “the most splendid monument to the idea of standardization in architecture,” a literal description of its extraction, transportation, processing, production, testing, installation, and maintenance reveals a much more idiosyncratic history. Throughout these terrestrial processes of building, unequal economic and ecological exchanges occur in such a way that various forms of wealth accumulate and concentrate in one part of a world system (midtown Manhattan), while its hinterlands are depleted and underdeveloped.

Another example of this inequality is the Seagram Building’s famous whiskey-colored plate glass. This glass is, again, not a product of standardized design. Rather, its hue and other specifications required a highly customized production process. Only one manufacturer, Franklin Glass of Butler, Pennsylvania, was willing to produce the glass, which required a rather premodern casting method. The labor and material costs of the exchange ultimately set the fate of the company and its factory: Rather than upgrading its infrastructure for new float glass processes, the Seagram job fettered Franklin Glass to outmoded processes. The company thus went bankrupt not long after Seagram and closed its factory—then the primary employer in Butler. This triggered the town’s rust-belt decline, a prime example of under-development advanced through unequal exchange. The result is a trophy building in New York and atrophy on its terrestrial periphery.

The point of a literal description of architecture is not merely to explicate the unequal exchanges, environmental load displacements, and regimes of underdevelopment that occur through architectural production. The purpose of looking back is to look forward in new ways, with a new set of eyes. Through more literal descriptions of architecture, architects, designers, researchers, and historians can come to see the terrestrial basis of building. Further, by refraining from abstracting those myriad processes, they can start to reason and imagine designs that better engage our terrestrial realities. Architects can thus begin to reciprocally design the forest, mine, factory, and worker as much as a facade or plan. That is, architects can finally come to understand that to design a plan is much bigger than a given floor plan. Literal architecture is nothing less than the generator of our collective terrestrial life.

I am interested in literal descriptions of architecture because they afford us new ways of understanding what architecture is, and what it does, as a terrestrial phenomenon. As a citizen of this planet’s thin crust, I am interested in the novelty of literal descriptions because novelty devoid of social and ecological hope signals only hollow, empty ambition. In this regard, before any promising new architecture emerges in the coming decades, we will ipso facto first need promising new ways of describing architecture to ourselves in much more literal ways.

You may also enjoy “When a Building Comes Down, Where Do Its Materials Go?

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