Can you imagine a world without waste? A world where the leftovers of today are easily turned into a delicious dinner tomorrow? Can such a world be designed? Such was the premise and the promise of the symposium Wasted: Design for the End of Material as We Know It, held at Cornell University’s College of Architecture, Art, and Planning on March 8 and 9.
The event’s organizer, Caroline O’Donnell, challenged practitioners, educators, and students not to wait until the end of a product’s life to passively recycle it. Instead, the entire lifecycle of materials could and should be accounted for at the beginning of the design process. In response to this prompt, the audience was treated to a wide variety of methods for reducing the production and consumption of new architectural resources. These were often framed and diagramed in the context of a “circular economy,” a system of exchange where the refuse of one practice becomes the raw material or capital for the next project or investment.
Some proposals echoed the efficient forms and goals of modernism; Peter Van Assche, Sabine Rau-Oberhuber, and Billie Faircloth showed projects where the disassembly and reuse of building components were integral to the design. These schemes recalled the logic and the style of the Eames House, and of Walter Gropius’s General Panel Corporation from the 1940s. Juliette Spertus’s investigations into a faster, cleaner mode of moving garbage in cities via pneumatic tubes directly updated the systems approach to planning of the 1960s. Even Michael Ghyoot and The Living’s David Benjamin references to spolia, the ancient practice of mining elements from otherwise obsolete buildings, was positioned via the optimizing framework of digital cataloguing techniques.
Other examples, like Meredith Miller’s “Post-Rock” project, presented a more playful if not more menacing vision of what living in a world made out of other people’s garbage might be like. Similarly, the strange, slumped, and bio-degradable designs shown by Maria Aiolova and David Benjamin offered an uncanny version of planned obsolescence, one that challenged the architectural myths of stability and perpetuity. The mycelium-based materials they have developed are designed to disappear back into the earth, literally nurturing it rather than defiling it.
All present seemed to agree that what needs to be thrown away is the idea of waste as an inevitable byproduct of the design and construction process. Instead, waste was consistently repositioned as a resource to be creatively used. Clearly, there are many ways of designing with waste; some ways can make do with DIY tools and software, while others will need large capital investments. Also shared was the ethos of not taking no for an answer—not from city planners, or industrial and material engineers, or from business managers and consultants. Changing the status quo requires the development of even more optimistic acts of architectural disobedience. Surely, more of these can be imagined and designed.