The Climate Imaginary

Leire Asensio Villoria & David Mah


An emphasis on sustainability and resilience has been a long-standing focus within the design fields. In research and practice, there has been a general understanding of the imperative for problem-solving, mandating a technical and technological emphasis. Designers working on addressing climate change have largely operated through this mindset.

Conversely, it would also be fair to say that for design researchers and practitioners committed to progressing cultural and creative agendas, sustainability remained one of its major blind spots until relatively recently. This exacerbated the impression amongst designers that an engagement with environmental concerns occurred primarily within the technical domain, to be solved with science and technology. Unfortunately, this awkward division between the technical and creative has been unproductive for the design world.

With the tangible effects of the climate emergency dominating our collective consciousness, there is now an emerging urgency and collective mandate within the design field associated with this common concern. As a growing critical mass of designers focus on addressing climate change, there has also been a corresponding widening of the spectrum of design research in this area.

Part of this emerging body of work has also involved a more speculative approach, encompassing explicitly cultural, political and aesthetic emphases. It has become increasingly apparent that an over reliance on a technical approach alone to engage with the climate emergency, risks an oversimplification of the issues at play. If the scales of change and disruption associated with these environmental crises prove to be as significant as have been projected, many designers have argued that a wider view will be needed to design for the social, political and cultural transformations that will likely follow. In many ways, designers are well placed to engage with these wicked problems.

Inaki Abalos and Renata Sentkiewicz have dedicated a sustained research and creative practice aimed at bridging deep technical knowledge with traditional architectural disciplinary concerns for many years. They have pursued an agenda of “thermodynamic beauty”, pushing for a cultural, social and aesthetic focus that bridges to their rigorous technical research on thermodynamic performance in buildings. For Abalos and Sentkiewicz, designing for energy flows between building and environments has a strong impact on the kinds of forms, organizations and materiality of architecture and hence a major factor in formulating a thermodynamic aesthetic. By questioning Modern architecture’s tendency to favor hermetically sealed buildings, Abalos and Sentkiewicz advocate for buildings that are not only open and interact with its environments at a thermodynamic level but also affect an openness at a cultural level.

The Office for Urbanization at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, led by Professor Charles Waldheim operates with a similar ambition of locating deliberately cultural, political and communicative capacities in cities designed in response to climate challenges. There is also a commitment to technical practice but tempered by a search for compelling visions of how urbanism may be enhanced by a deliberate engagement with the climate emergency. Their projects offer compelling visions of how urbanism may enrich the lives of citizens, human and non-human, when responding to sea-level rise, designing for climate and reconsidering agricultural settlement patterns.

At another scale, Ecosistema Urbano, led by Belinda Tato and Jose Luis Vallejo focus on the definition of public spaces that account for the climate challenges of the future. Their projects are defined by an understanding of the public realm as environments and micro-climates, where they deliberately expand the conventions of urban design into an explicitly climatic focus. Their innovative public spaces leverage new technologies and digital networks to build engaging novel public and social environments, widening the ways in which urban design is practiced and theorized.

Terraform ONE is a non-profit architecture and urban design research group led by the New York-based architect and NYU academic: Mitchell Joachim. While their design research spans many scales, some of their most compelling proposals have been in the development of innovative infrastructures that operate as synthetic ecologies and habitats. These artificial urban habitats are proposed to help safeguard the survival of threatened species such as their proposal for the monarch sanctuary. Alternatively, their proposal for the cricket shelter touches on one of our most cultural of practices: eating. The cricket shelter operates as a compact and distributed insect cultivation infrastructure, offering a model of food production that significantly reduces the footprint of protein-based food production. Its novelty also helps to communicate and engage the general public on a significant transformation of our most long-standing cultural norms.

Op/AL also offers us a vision of the new typologies that may be imagined in a future where our food insecurity may call for extreme measures. At once extraordinary and bizarre, their New Agronon is part visionary proposal for a future urban innovation and part critical commentary. As with all the best visionary proposals, these are equally compelling as they are disquieting.

Other design researchers such as Design Earth in the United States and B+W+ in Australia use their capacity for image production to convey critical reflections on the damage that our conventions have on the environment. They use images to uncover and make explicit the impact of our default practices, such as the ways in which we map our cities or the hidden impacts of our beloved cultural institutions. Through the poetics of imagery, they help to provide the public with another way of seeing things that we take for granted.

Lydia Kallipoliti with Youngbin Shin’s project on hacking domestic machines reflects on the acutely felt importance of our homes during the pandemic. Their proposal for transforming our everyday life-practices into environmental transforming acts via the agency of hacked domestic appliances offers us a vision of a curious private world. An internal world that may gain even more prevalence in a climate changed future. As many of us in Australia remember well, our homes became the environments that we took refuge in to escape the enveloping intrusion of toxic bushfire smoke in our cities.

Many designers have sought to restructure Melbourne’s suburbs in a way that offers a more sustainably dense urbanization yet jealously safeguarding a way of living. Studio Edwards’ deft use of a light prefabricated structure to expand an inner-city townhouse with a vertical garden provides us with tangible strategies for how density may not negate having a “backyard” of sorts. LLDS architects’ proposal for an urban infill terrace house also provides us with a novel typology for the city. Expanding this impulse to a larger scale, asensio mah offer new codes for an incremental transformation of these neighborhoods to reclaim the garden in our suburbs.

Wowowa’s competition winning proposal to transform the remarkable South lawn carpark on the University of Melbourne’s Parkville campus could not be more symbolic of a transformation of Modern ideals. The stunning structural system devised by √©migr√© engineer Jan van der Molen already hints at a sophisticated synthesis between landscape and Modern engineering. However, this ingenuity also helped to place the automobile at the heart of the campus. Wowowa’s proposal to transform this space into a “living laboratory” for student life and learning, while repopulating this cavernous interior with landscape and social spaces, jettisons the car away from the campus heart.

When considering the possibility of actualizing the visions offered by the climate imaginary, the question arises of whether we look to the future, such as in Fadi Masoud’s intelligent transformations of urban codes through digital processes, the upgrading of craft with advanced manufacturing of LLDS, the use of simulations to model dynamic urbanization done by appareil and ecologic studio. Or do we learn from traditions and the vernacular in the ways that C+ Arquitectas and the Center for Civilization suggest in their practice and research?

Finally, design studio teaching can also be a fertile forum for cultivating the climate imaginary. At the MSD, a number of Masters-level studios have been structured around a design-led engagement with the challenges of the climate emergency. These can allow students to provide us with the most unburdened images of future architecture and cities such as those developed in the MSD Studios 4, 5 and 21. Another series of studios focuses on defining Melbourne’s hydrosphere. The challenge that students in the studio are tasked with involves a critical and creative reconsideration of the urban waterfront and the ways that it may be designed to address climate challenges while also enhancing our urban lifestyles. They are asked to consider how the interface between city and our water landscapes can be reevaluated, evading some of the conventions of Modern thinking on civil engineering and urban design. The students are invited to consider how this contested and dynamic space may need to be reconfigured to face the possibility of a highly volatile future.

This emerging body of work and novel design knowledge helps to expand the focus on the climate emergency to the complex and multi-level challenge that it is. It also helps us to reframe the engagement with this global and wicked crisis as a creative act, one that may require us to transform conventions and imagine other possible futures.

Read more about the exhibition on Pursuit: Designing liveable cities for our future climate.

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