Architecture must stop thinking just in terms of providing shelter to humans: «animal, plants and the environment should be your clients just as well»
Lampoon review: Planetary – Not the Blue Marble
The first artwork of the Australian landscape architect Richard Weller, titled Not the Blue Marble, is an exact one-to-one replica of the one of the doors of the Apollo XXI seen from the inside. Not the one which led the astronauts on the moon, but the one they had to open to get back on Earth: «the reason why this is the main symbol of the artwork is that, as French philosopher Bruno Latour claims, the thing to do now is coming back to Earth, and it’s a difficult thing». Part of the solution to make our planet greener would be stopping exploring Space to find answers on how to build our future and return to focus on Earth. In a metaphorical way this is what the Apollo XXI door stands for. There’s more to that though: inside the door window is a simulation of the Earth, «it could be a long way in the future, when the planet has dehydrated: it’s a climate-changed planet». The artwork invites viewers to «imagine going back to the Earth that’s in the picture, sometime in the future, when the ecosystem is no longer inhabitable». In the Earth portrayed, which is mostly white to symbolize dryland, there are still some bits of green: those are the existing environmentally protected areas, «places where life could regenerate and start again». Needless to say, these are way too few. «On the door is a set of instruction» on the same spot where they were on the original door, but the text is changed: the new instructions are advice on «how you might go back to this new world and start to cultivate it». The first artwork also serves as a tool to build an imagery to read the two following pieces. Not the Blue Moon sheds light on the projects currently in place to protect areas of our planet and underlines that this is not enough. We need to build more and above all connect them.
As One Planet exhibition at the 17th International Architecture Venice Biennale
For the 17th International Architecture Venice Biennale the curator Hashim Sarkis asked the participants to submit projects trying to answer the question ‘How Will We Live Together?’ which is also the exhibition title. The question was taken a step forward by landscape architect Richard Weller, professor and chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture at the Weitzman School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania and adjunct professor at UNSW and UWA in Australia. As part of the As One Planet exhibition at the central pavilion Weller started from a deeper question, which gives the title to the three pieces on show: What Can’t We Live Without? «We cannot live without biodiversity and yet we are perpetrating the 6th extinction». It’s all about pushing ourselves to think bigger, not as if the world was designed only for humans, but considering all other living species as well: «without healthy ecosystems there can be no healthy society». The project is the result of eight years of research Weller carried out together with his students. «It is a design problem» according to Weller, of how to design cities so that they are more in tune with the ecosystem upon which they depend: that’s the challenge for the rest of the Twenty-first century. Cities are facing an ecological problem. Weller speaks of the need to include other species in our way to look at the world: «what do you mean by ‘how will we live together?’ Is it just humans again?». We must understand and embrace all other living beings, that, although «humans are the primary species» we still need to have and account for in order to survive. The artwork is articulated through three different scales: planetary, national and local.
National: The World Park project
The World Park is a project Richard Weller is carrying out, working with the United Nations among other partners: «it concerns trying to take the idea of national parks further». The idea of national parks was born in America in the nineteenth century but it is also a problematic concept: in many cases, in order to build national parks, indigenous populations have been evicted and «it entails a cynic idea of nature» as something for humans to consume. In the Twentieth century protected areas were born building on the idea of national parks, and which «have a conservation agenda». Richard Weller argues that «in the Twenty-first century we need a new kind of planetary landscape that we can share and look after». This is the idea behind World Park. After developing the idea «one of the first questions was where should this park be?». According to Richard Weller, one of the problems that we have at the moment is that when we protect little bits of land, they are all isolated fragments, and as the climate changes the species that are in those fragments can’t move and that’s a death sentence. Even if protected areas will last longer, «they will die eventually if they are trapped in those isolated fragments, so what you need to do is try and connect these protected areas into larger systems, so the genetics are able to migrate over time». World Park aims at connecting nineteen biodiversity hotspots, fifty-five nations and securing a hundred and sixty-three thousand square meters of habitat for all species to share. It is created to preserve nature and «invites humans to participate in its restoration». The plan is to create three walking trails with associated landscape restoration: from Alaska to Patagonia in the north-south direction; from Australia to Morocco in the east-west; and a last one going from Namibia to the heart of Africa going up to Turkey. The project would coincide with the United Nations’ Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. The whole idea signifies the ancient motto «Solvitur Amulando, » which translates in English as «it is solved by walking». The principle is well-rooted in culture: «From Diogenes to Lewis Carroll, Saint Augustine to Bruce Chatwin it has been used as motto, a solution and a way of life» the World Park project can now turn this into practice. In order to reach this goal, explains Richard Weller, «we can’t just buy all this land, we have to get the governments of fifty-five nations on board»: it’s about more than just a project, it’s about getting people actively involved. The landscape around the planned trail at the moment «has very little ecological value, » it needs to be restored which, should governments get on board, would also mean providing new jobs, especially for young people. As for the funds, according to Richard Weller, it would be enough for institutions to direct all, or a large part, their funding for the climate, which they are now spending on many different and disconnected projects, towards this one bigger plan.
The third artwork investigates the local level: «we’ve looked into the world’s biodiversity hotspots, where you have the most threatened and most valuable species, and at the way the cities in those regions are behaving and how they are growing». Most of those cities are growing at a fast speed, and in a way «that is destructive of the ecosystem around them». The team put together a series of maps of the thirty-three most rapidly growing cities; red dots on the maps represent the areas where «the growth of the city is predicted to be in direct conflict with endangered species by 2050». The species at risk are listed and carved on the artwork’s wooden panels, along with chicken bones. The choice of hanging chicken bones is all but arbitrary: «chickens are not a natural part of biodiversity, they are a part of human culture that we mass-produce» explains Richard Weller, «it is thought that one of the signature elements of the Anthropocene will be chicken bones and they will be found in the geological layers in the future as an indicator of human activity». In a graphic way, this third artwork wants the viewer to reconsider the city, and to realize that rapid and irresponsible expansion will end up destroying us, possibly along with all living beings.
What can architects do?
We are accustomed to think of architecture as the discipline of building for the only use and domain of humans: this needs to change. «Any building» according to Richard Weller, «can do more than just look after humans. Architecture is like an organism, and if you think about a building as having to provide habitat and facilitate other forms of life, from microbial life to insects, birds and all other species then the building can do its part». That is just the building: «in architecture everything that makes a building is a material that comes from somewhere». Architects should look at how the lifecycle of all materials used is going to affect the environment and the life of the species that inhabit it. Carrying out responsible projects costs more money, there is no way around it: «what it’s required is a redefinition of economics» in order to factor in the true cost of products, which is the environmental cost. This does not mean that everything is going to be more expensive, «it may be that we can still make affordable products, but we have to do it with responsibility».
Richard Weller is the Meyerson Chair of Urbanism and Professor and Chair of Landscape Architecture and co-executive director of the McHarg Center at the Weitzman School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania.
At Weitzman he teaches subjects in the history of ideas of nature, contemporary urbanism and advanced design studios. In both 2017 and 2018 he was voted by the Design Intelligence Survey as one of North America’s “most admired” teachers and in 2020 he was inducted to the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture’s (CELA) Academy of Fellows.