Ian Quate at the opening of the summit. (Photo: John Parman)

Invisible Urbanism

How do you make yourself at home in a cauldron filled with demons? I’m quoting the founder of Soto Zen, but the question was also posed at a recent San Francisco summit.


In late October, San Francisco’s StoreFrontLab hosted an summit, “Invisible Urbanism,” and an exhibit, “I Love Extremophiles,” both organized by Colleen Tuite and Ian Quate of the New York City-based experimental landscape studio, GRNASFCK. In post-event notes, Tuite wrote that they see extremophiles, organisms that flourish under extreme conditions, as a model for how we might thrive “within an ecologically destabilized future.” In this contingency, hyper-adaptability and site-specificity become “compatible design tools,” which the summit explored across a range of scales and disciplines. Here’s what stood out for me:


Murphy Stein, a futurist and robotics developer at Google, led off by asking if it’s possible to simulate buildings or settings at their real scale in order, as he explains in a blog post, to manipulate them in a more direct way—using virtual-reality headsets, for example—rather than at the “remove” of conventional three-dimensional and orthogonal representation.


San Francisco landscape architect David Fletcher talked about his work with brownfield sites as a process of “collaborating with catastrophe.” A designer who mixes real and speculative projects, he described work as a fellow at the Headlands Center, considering entropy as an element of the built and natural landscape. (Another speculative project, a proposal to turn the Bay Bridge’s old east span into an agglomeration of “data and cannabis farms,” may be why CalTrans lost no time slicing it up to make it unusable.)


Nicholas Korody’s image on the screen. He participated by Skype. Murphy Stein is on the the left and Colleen Tuite on the right.(Photo: John Parman)



The Los Angeles-based writer Nicholas Korody, who participated in the summit by Skype, sent me this post-facto summary of his talk: “The primary idea I worked off of is if we are to learn how to design infrastructure as a coping mechanism for environmental disaster, then first we must learn to cope with architecture. That is to say, buildings currently consume some 50 percent of energy just to maintain; the construction of new buildings is a violently destructive aspect of contemporary capitalism that actively contributes to global warming as well as other forms of environmental degradation. I asked what it means to cope with this current situation as well as the historical concatenation of thought that produced the present. I believe I used a metaphor of waking from a great dream to realize that not only had you overslept but also you had sleepwalked. And set your house on fire while sleepwalking. I believe my assertion was that we must learn to grieve, to be vulnerable, to admit our own fear and ignorance as a reactive negation of the determinist ideologies of modernism that led us to our current situation.”


Two other panelists talked about dealing with environmental degradation. Andrew Cal, a biologist at Mango Materials, described how “industrial-scale” colonies of microbes with specific attributes, like digesting methane, are harnessed to clean up contaminated sites. This biologically intelligent process not only closes the loop on a natural system, but the microbes’ feast results in a renewable, biodegradable plastic with the potential to replace the dead-end materials that still plague the built environment.


Geneva Travis, a water specialist at Arcadis, discussed a superfund site in Garfield, NJ, that has high levels of hexavalent chromium. The problem, she said, is that “it’s a lot to expect people to educate themselves about brownfield sites,” especially if they’re living near them. Public fears of toxicity can lead to counterproductive official measures, she noted. For example, the residents are bought out of their houses and relocated to new neighborhoods where the concentration of contaminants may actually be worse.


Travis’s presentation led the Marin County-based environmental consultant Robert Gelardin to comment that the tools and heuristics being discussed were, to him, “a shortcut to fluency in populations where fear rules.” When I was 30, the air in Los Angeles was like Shanghai’s today, and rivers in America’s industrial heartland were catching fire. Extremophiles didn’t turn this around unbidden, although that might have happened eventually. What changed was people’s consciousness on the ground, reinforced by an enforced regime that made ending Dystopias like this its explicit aim.



Summit participants at StoreFrontLab. (Photo: Jacob Palmer)



Behind the metaphor of the extremophile, Tuite explained, is the idea of organisms “colonizing postindustrial and contaminated sites, slowly but surely metabolizing petrochemicals and introduced toxins.” It means dealing, here and now, with what surrounds us. As humans, we can adapt up to a point, but we really make headway by calming down and gaining a new fluency that renders visible and solvable the demons that confront us. “Invisible Urbanism” fired the imagination about tools we might use, but it’s critical to take them up and confront Dystopia when you see it.


(Arianne Gelardin contributed to this. Curator of StoreFrontLab’s Season 2 City Making Series, she’s a landscape architect and partner with Jacob Palmer in the Bay Area creative collective, This Moment Again and Again.)

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