What is the spatial order of our fossil fuel age? Confronting Carbon Form attempts an answer

Enmeshed Environments

What is the spatial order of our fossil fuel age? Confronting Carbon Form attempts an answer

Confronting Carbon Form, at the Arthur A. Houghton Gallery, The Cooper Union (Tracie Williams)

Confronting Carbon Form
Curated by Elisa Iturbe, Stanley Cho, and Alican Taylan
The Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture
The Cooper Union
7 E 7th Street
New York
Through April 16

Upon arrival to Confronting Carbon Form, an initial wall text proclaims: “A new spatial order was built in the fossil fuel age: new building typologies and urban archetypes… This exhibition offers, for the first time, a working vocabulary of carbon form.”

When defining something, it’s helpful to be specific. This show does the opposite, doling out an array of formal case studies using video, models, prints, books, and drawings, that jump across the globe for the past two centuries. Fortunately, these items are part of a project that is dense with specificity, from the Log 47 lecture series a couple years ago (with the theme of Overcoming Carbon Form, the 2019 issue was guest edited by Elisa Iturbe), guest speakers in Iturbe’s ongoing seminar, the Architectures of Transition series organized by Iturbe, and the Order!: The Spatial Ideologies Of Carbon Modernity symposium that punctuated Confronting Carbon Form’s run on April 1.

Confronting Carbon Form, at the Arthur A. Houghton Gallery, The Cooper Union (Tracie Williams)

Taken together, the collection aims to define carbon form as architectural and urban configurations that have “enmeshed” all parts of our lives into energy-intensive spatial network. Narratives of the talks coax out the durational impact of these forms, like the cyclical hums of hospitals and corporate headquarters in Part 4: The Building from the Log 47 series.

Views of student work from Elisa Iturbe’s seminar To Un-Make and Re-Earth: Designs for Transition, taught at The Cooper Union in Fall 2022 (Tracie Williams)

Within the gallery, however, the expanse of global processes is flattened into glimpses that jump quickly between points in time and space, leaving behind questions about how each case relies on carbon-based materials. The well-done work on view struggles to define the task at hand—which is, finding a way to address architecture’s complicity with the regimes that have created the climate crisis.

After the videos greet viewers in the hallway, a series of wall-mounted, white cityscape models open the show. Le Corbusier’s radiant city is mounted next to Koolhaas and Vriesendorp’s City as a Captive Globe, subtitled as Manhattanism. Through their Superstudio-like mirrored boxes and a dense handout, we glean that they laid an example for urbanized carbon sprawl. Across the way, small models of domestic interiors revolve on top of slide projectors, which cycle through images that show the processes of embodied energy inherent to the model’s objects, like a lamp, chair, or washing machine. Close by, three digital projectors show both domestic and public scenes with the minimal context that they were captured “over the last 15 years.” An airport runway is shown next to someone arranging chairs in what looks like a hotel conference room. Watching a little longer, a corner gas station appears next to an escalator.

A model of The City of the Captive Globe, by Madelon Vriesendorp and Rem Koolhaas. The endless proliferation of skyscrapers is one of five urban archetypes of carbon form presented in the exhibition. Model by Outside Development and Alican Taylan, with MC Love and Dov Diamond, 2023. (Elisa Iturbe)

Abstraction can be a dangerous tactic when defining something. In the middle of the other room, wooden stands with vertical plywood panels at eye level support color block diagrams. In each set, eight to ten block prints have simplified architectural marvels into minimal figure-ground pieces, each group signifying a different fantasy ignited by the carbon age, from infinite expansion and circulation to defying gravity en masse. Text supporting the yellow Against Gravity prints quote Russian cosmist philosopher Nikolai Fedorov—who says earth will be moved not by “gravity but by reason”—as a metaphor for the technological dreams dreamt during the (still ongoing) carbon age. In a figural outline of the Akron Art Museum by Coop Himmelb(l)au, two lighter yellow boxes stretch like wings over darker yellow shapes below. I say abstraction can be dangerous not to denigrate minimal images, but because the variants of carbon form have become so thematically blurry. Moving from the blue figures of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Mile-High Illinois to Zaha Hadid Architect’s Heydar Aliyev Center in the Object Primacy section, I pondered how these works contributed to the carbonification of the built environment.

Part of a larger set of drawings and paintings titled Spatial Concepts of Carbon Form, this series of yellow paintings looks at the fascination with resisting gravity, a distinctly modern phenomenon rarely seen in premodern cultures. Outside Development and Alican Taylan. (Tracie Williams)

The most anchoring part of the exhibition was a series of hanging books and accompanying models from Iturbe’s seminar To Unmake and Re-Earth: Design for Transition, which collected group projects about designing productive landscapes for sites around New York. It was the only place I saw flow diagrams, visualizations created when students designed areas of production less reliant on fossil fuels. Close by, a table and chairs offer a place to review the bibliography that ID’s a long shelf of blue volumes, with titles like Industrial Archeology, Gas Tanks, Grain Elevators, and The Office of Good Intentions, offering a visitor their own archival dive. The adjacent walls host a series of large maps, with the figure-ground of city districts set against nets of highways lines. I had trouble finding the wall tags for these or decoding their analyses.

The physical materials mined, refined, burned, and emitted that have resulted in the climate crisis—and the attendant politics and violence—are hard to find in the exhibition. It seems like the attempt hovers in a vague, apolitical cloud, which is not how the other aforementioned efforts land.

Following Iturbe’s guest-edited issue of Log, Anyone Corporation cohosted an event series with the same curators as the current show: Iturbe, assistant professor at Cooper Union and member of Outside Development, an architecture practice; Stanley Cho, also of Outside Development; and Alican Taylan, a Ph.D. student in Architecture History at Cornell University. The five-part series (seen at the start of the exhibition) brought together scholars to discuss topics ranging from suburban domesticity to the connections between energy and urban form in Texas and Vietnam. The curators are clearly interested in the invisibility of systems that lie outside of form, but the show also demonstrates the difficulty of capturing the complex and temporal media of energy with the tools of architecture. Seen together with the other parts of this ongoing project, the work shapes a dense space that is the beginning of carbon form’s definition.

Types and Histories, in collaboration with The Cooper Union Library, offers a small reference library. Together, these books aim to bring specificity to the definition of carbon form while simultaneously respecting the complexity and vastness of the topic. (Elisa Iturbe)

Still, Confronting Carbon Form’s big idea checks out: The climate crisis should be at the forefront of architectural education today.

Last fall, McKenzie Wark, professor of media and cultural studies at The New School, presented the talk “From Architecture to Kainotecture” for Iturbe’s seminar and series. Wark loosely defined kainotecture as a practice of preparing for the unknowable, offering that that if architecture is built on the assumption of perpetuity, kainotecture is a discipline of temporality. In the spirit of temporality, perhaps a future version of Confronting Carbon Form collects its powerful web of narratives and conversations. Since we are all staring down this thermal hyperobject—that of global warming—confronting carbon form must be something we do together.

Angie Door is a writer and designer who lives in Brooklyn.