Thursday, January 31, 2008

Anxious Climate

Dusty Relief, 2002

More often than not, the conversation about sustainable and green design is based on the concept of cleaning something dirty—air , water, soil. It's about removing harmful elements—toxins, volatile organic compounds—and creating a cleaner, more efficient system (see yesterday's post about the bright and "clean-scrubbed" housing project in Santa Monica).

An exhibit called Anxious Climate: Architecture at the Edge of Environment opens tonight at the Maryland Institute College of Art. It's curated by David Gissen, who recently left his post at Penn State and his home in Baltimore for a teaching position at California College of the Arts in San Francisco. I talked with David a bit about the show.

"The thing that really frightens me about some green design is that it’s very Victorian," he says. "It’s about cleaning and filtering. Everyone is so embarrassed. And in the name of environmentalism, we're doing it again. Dirt will always be there, and the buildings in this exhibition try to reach out to it."

David set out to find experimental architects looking at environment and the built form in new ways. Anxious Climate highlights three: France's R&Sie, Madrid's Amid [Cero 9], and Swiss/French designer Phillipe Rahm.

In Dusty Relief, the firm R&Sie developed a concept museum that considers the role of the “white box” gallery within a very polluted city, in this case, Singapore.

Inside, the gallery is your normal white box. But outside, the architects placed an electromagnetic skin to attract the dirt and pollution from the air in the city. The process renders the pollution visible, making it a furry, dirty layer of hair on the exterior. "This project reveals the corrupted environment of a city known for its high degree of environmental control and enables us to see how the experience of art and culture often occurs in an artificially 'cleansed' environment within pollution-ridden cities," Gissen writes in a pamphlet about the exhibit.

The Archimedes House floor plan, 2005

In Phillipe Rahm's case, the architect inverted the traditional blueprint of the house in order to capitalize on natural ventilation. Most everyone knows that heat rises, that the first floor of a building is often the coolest, the top level the warmest. With his Archimedes House design, Rahm emphasized the way air moves through a building—the chimney effect—to help heat and cool a residence. He then put the cooler activities, like sleeping, on the first floor, and the warmer activities on top.

Amid [Cero 9] examined how architecture could produce new forms of nature. In their project The Magic Mountain (pictured in a series of shots below, courtesy of their website) the architects "proposed harnessing the latent heat emitted from a power generator in Ames, Iowa, to create an environment for a garden of flowers that would festoon the industrial site," Gissen writes. "The goals were to reconsider the appearance of nature in the city, advance the emergence of nature in unusual contexts, and introduce natural sensations—from robust odors to color—into the urban infrastructure."

The architects refer to it as an "Ecosystem Mask."

"What’s nice about these architects is that they reach out to things that aren’t always reached out to—humidity, a yak, roses, dust," Gissen says.

The exhibit runs through March 9 in MICA's Meyerhoff Gallery.