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Photography, Climate Change and Architecture: A Sea Change in Design

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The roller coaster from the boardwalk in Seaside Heights, New Jersey partially submerged in the ocean after Hurricane Sandy. | © Stephen Wilkes courtesy of Peter Fetterman Gallery.

Upon entering the Annenberg Space for Photography's exhibition "Sink or Swim: Designing for a Sea Change," four significant scenes meet the viewer: a darkened aerial view of Manhattan post-"super" storm Sandy, a television consumed by a barren sand bar after hurricane Katrina's storm surge dropped it there, a floating liquor store dislodged from its bearings by the 2011 tsunami in Japan, and street traffic in Dhaka, Bangladesh with flood waters rising. In the foreground of the Dhaka image, atop a three-wheeled passenger cart, sits one well-dressed man -- dry above the rising surge, chatting on his phone while the boy pulling his cart negotiates the thigh-deep water. The passenger looks off blankly, presumably indifferent to the chaos around him.

With this image, by Norwegian photo-journalist Jonas Bendiksen, "Sink or Swim" launches a broader conversation about our human instinct to adapt to rising sea levels, and asserts that we ought not be chattering away on our phones, but instead should recognize our tenuous relationship with the world's increasingly unpredictable waters. The exhibition pairs images like Bendiksen's along side design proposals for housing developments, water-retention infrastructure and wetland rehabilitation, coalescing what a growing cacophony of engineers, architects, politicians and communities already know -- that innovation and a consortium with (not against) water will allow us to navigate the changing landscape, while simultaneously providing new avenues for spectacular design.

Arambagh, Dhaka, Bangladesh, 2009. After a night of heavy rain, Dhaka experienced widespread flooding around the city. | © Jonas Bendiksen.
Arambagh, Dhaka, Bangladesh, 2009. After a night of heavy rain, Dhaka experienced widespread flooding around the city. | © Jonas Bendiksen.

Moving further into the space, visitors encounter projects like architect Kunle Adeyemi's elegant floating school -- a breezy, open-air A-frame structure (in Makoko, off the coast of Lagos, Nigeria) that riffs on the area's floating stilt homes. Also featured is artist Anish Kapoor and architect Arata Isozaki's inflatable, deep-violet-hued bubble theater, which provided a much-needed temporary distraction for survivors in the aftermath of the Japanese tsunami in Matsushima. Architect Manuel de Sola-Morales' seawall in the Hague, Netherlands, offers a large-scale intervention in which a 12-foot-tall seawall steps back from the waterfront gradually, allowing for public places and urban amenities in between its curving stairways and broad plazas.

Across the back wall a quote by Japanese architect Toyo Ito reads: "Our way of life is still based on twentieth-century ideas, specifically a modernist philosophy that assumes we can use science and technology to conquer nature."

"I think that's the best quote of the show," says "Sink or Swim's" curator Frances Anderton, architecture writer and host of KCRW's design program "DnA." "What connects every project seen here is this sense of shared convergence, that we can't concretize ourselves out of this problem."

Stilt houses, Ganvie, Benin. Commissioned photograph for the exhibition. | Photo: Iwan Baan.
Stilt houses, Ganvie, Benin. Commissioned photograph for the exhibition. | Photo: Iwan Baan.

Design methodology in the 1950s onward was borne of a systems analysis approach -- the belief that engineers and scientists could solve large-scale systemic environmental and social problems with technologies developed during World War II by the military in concert with private industries.This thinking brought standardization to the construction industry (think prefabrication and material technologies like plastics), and also gave us the first digital computer, the internet and the Atomic bomb. Ubiquitous and assuredly confident, it was thought the best way to problem-solve any predicament, no matter the scale. Unfortunately, neither nature, nor community usually played any part in the thrust forward.

Seawalls don't work." says Anderton, "In fact, in most cases they make things worse. To reject that 'modern philosophy' as Ito says, is a sea change in design thinking."

What's most significant about "Sink or Swim's" prompt is its optimistic stance connecting recent successes in resilient architecture back to communities and the vernacular design from which they've been realized. Its as if to say, that without people, neighbors, community engagement, and public places of refuge and gathering, design won't be successful, and won't provide as great a means to traverse the wild convulsions of our changing landscape.

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"I see, I feel, hence I notice, I observe and I think," wrote Roland Barthes of the "disturbance" a photograph stirs in the viewer. "That faint uneasiness," he explained, "when I look at 'myself' on a piece of paper."

The five photographers featured in "Sink or Swim" harness this uneasiness with compelling acuity. In images of bewildered families after a disaster, the exhaustingly long clean up, the creeping panic of evacuation; "Sink or Swim" communicates, without a doubt, our personal implication in the unfolding story of the world's rising waters.

"We definitely didn't want to do an architecture coffee table book." says Anderton, highlighting the different photographers in the show, "Monica [Nouwens] is a street photographer, and gets these wonderful candid shots. Paula [Bronstein] goes in and shoots as the rafters are falling down around people, and Stephen [Wilkes] waits for two months and goes in for the aftermath. Iwan Baan is the most architectural of the photographers featured, but with an angle towards communities within the built environment."

Ganvie, Benin. Commissioned photograph for the exhibition. | Photo: Iwan Baan.
Ganvie, Benin. Commissioned photograph for the exhibition. | Photo: Iwan Baan.

Modern architectural master Philip Johnson was notoriously critical of "do-gooder" architecture -- projects with an altruistic concern for social problems over functional design, and limp in critical or formal exploration. Others have been critical of design's more recent superficial sustainability or "greenwashing" too for similar reasons. A cynical mind might even suspect climate-friendly projects by "radical-chic" offices like OMA and Bjarke Ingels Group (all included in "Sink or Swim") are promotionally motivated and incongruous with their more pressing goals of pleasing clients the likes of Prada or the Chinese government.

But Anderton insists resilient architecture can absolutely also be iconic design for the ages. "The dichotomy that architects must either be 'starchitects' or humanitarians is rubbish," she says, then asks, "What did the Romans say? They said architecture is three things: durable, useful and beautiful." Referring to built projects in "Sink or Swim," she adds, "In Makoko, in Japan, the Netherlands, in my eyes all have a fundamental concern towards proportion, appropriateness for use, suitability for environment, and the harmonic."


Further Reading about Climate Change from Artbound:

Who Makes Art About Climate Change?
A collection of Southern California artists are addressing climate change through art.

 

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