Toward an Anamorphic Architecture: A reflection on teaching the politics of architecture and climate change

The following is a paper I presented in the 2019 annual ACSA conference in Pittsburgh. This paper was part of a panel organized by Margot Lystra and Erin Putalik called ‘Climate, Environment, and Control: Challenging Narratives and Norms’, .

Installation, Kane Hassebrock and Jake Spangler, Fall 2017

Architectural Pedagogy in the Age of Climate Change

There are interesting contradictions that emerge when teaching across both history & theory and design studio. Even more so when one concerns oneself with architecture’s engagement with climate change. In a way, the problem presents itself as an opposition: in the context of a seminar, it is impossible to discuss climate change without a historical lens; indeed, its appearance in the present is by definition an accumulation of decades-old environmental transformations which, themselves, are tied to even older human processes that we might be inclined to call ‘History’ itself.[1]To speak about climate change means of course that our grand notions of history must learn to speak in the material ontologies of geological histories just as much as it must reckon with the human histories that it has ignored or erased. Thus, to grasp the social and political dimensions of climate change that reside in architectural production today, we need to encounter many histories typically seen as outside the architectural canon: histories of extraction, capitalism, labor and development; indigenous cosmologies; histories of science and of empire, coloniality, the body, race and gender, to name just a few.

But of course when we enter into the studio with an agenda to think climate change through design, the demands for production, the constraints of time, as well as the need to produce work that’s legible within professional criteria, all tend to resist the complexity and intersectionality that something as vast as climate change otherwise names.

So, in grappling with climate change and its relationship to architecture, I’ve become convinced that our discipline needs new modalities to approach climate change. As such, I’ve developed a studio that attempts to open a different way of conceiving and practicing architectural design. I’ve called it ‘Museum for the Histories of Nature: Toward an Anamorphic Architecture’ and, as its title suggests, it takes the question of the histories of nature as the core object of architectural thought by conceptually inverting the mandate of the museum of natural history; and, in so doing, it repositions the politics of climate change as a specifically architectural problem.

Louis Ernest Barrias, Nature Unveiling Herself to Science, 1899, Source: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Histories of Nature for the Present

So how can a history of nature open up new modes and strategies of design in the present? As a way to think through this problem, we might dwell on the temporalities that accompany nature in the age of climate change and how this has in turn translated into architectural practices more generally. 

We can start by noting that climate change, for design, seems to have no history.[2]With the centering of climate change in architectural knowledge, we have seen not only how a certain set of expectations for architecture has ossified in practice and discourse (e.g. ‘green architecture’, ’sustainability’, ‘resilience’), but how such practices assist in reproducing an emergent, non-modern temporality of perpetual presents and endless futures: climate change appears as a problem of the immediate present to solve—a set of known environmental tendencies for which architecture is called upon to counter through an endless parade of future scenarios. Nature, now erratic and unpredictable, inscribes its externality to the human condition yet again, while nevertheless offering itself as the object of architectural design in so-called ‘nature-based solutions’ and ‘green infrastructures’.Nature, we might say, still appears as an ahistorical category, and thus something given over to its design.

And if nature in the realm of design has no history, its characterization as such is not specific to design knowledge: when we look to the very institutions in society that help to constitute popular imaginaries of nature and climate change—in particular, the museum of natural history—we find that we are perhaps not much better off. Overshadowed by processes such as evolutionor measurable (and often misleading) qualities like biodiversity, nature seems to consistently gain a sense of truth only by sitting outside of the human world, excluding its master narrator whose role, in turn, seems to remain one of conquest, discovery and uncovering it’s secrets. Nature, in the museum of natural history, is a realm knowable through its measurable quantities and effects, captured in periodized sequences or described through the frame of a system. In this light, nature is afforded such a broad, transhistorical constancy that it becomes an insignificant site of inquiry in its own right, directing our point of inquiry away from the thickness and density of the human histories that have been responsible for making something like ‘nature’ visible in the first place.

If nature resides as a category external to the human condition, it’s no surprise that climate change, too, often appears as a phenomenon without history, even when we acknowledge its human origin. Instead, it seems to dwell in the innocence of a long-lost past whose consistency cannot possibly be interrogated, and whose persistence today is displaced by the same innocence and carefree enjoyment that animates the ‘cruel optimism’[3] of an ecologically reformed world. All the while, a certain genealogy of nature, extending from its depiction as an enslaved female figure, exposing herself to Science, to standing reserve, to anthropological machine right up to today’s portrayal as erratic climate, rests safely beyond critical inquiry, obscuring its attendant histories of capitalism, extraction, coloniality and the production of race, gender and class. By coming to grips with more difficult histories of nature, we can reveal how its shifting ontologies neatly reflect the shifts, developments and, most importantly, the continuations of these systems into the present day:[4] a moment in which our systems and structures which have exhausted the Earth’s capacity for sustaining life are revalidated in the projection of ‘resilient’, ‘sustainable’ futures whose achievement is made possible by a commitment to smarter technologies, altered habits and behaviors and the intoxicating lure of professional enlightenment. Indeed, despite appearances, our approach to nature in the age of climate change has changed remarkably little.

Running now for three years, my studio has been an experiment to consider how architecture can intervene in a crucial moment in the changing discourse of nature. By conceptualizing an institute that explores nature as a historically plastic and culturally produced category, and by establishing clear, critical positions toward this, our practice seeks to open new understandings of nature as a political category through which, in turn, to formulate agendas for action in the struggles that climate change continues to present. As such, this studio aims to deconstruct the museum typology, repositioning it as an institution of public discourse concerning climate change. If we are to invent new ways in which knowledge can be challenged and publicly debated, the nineteenth century museum, where knowledge is presented as ‘curated truths’ to be passively consumed, will no longer suffice.

Museum for the Cultures of the Body, Megan Zeien, Jessica Laughridge, Fall 2017

Unsettling Nature, Unsettling Architecture’s Commonsense: Anamorphic Architecture

Our studio starts with the contention that histories of nature can be told through competing and contested archives. Our first project attempts to unsettle nature by archiving the ways in which nature is constantly mediated—from films to popular media depictions of climate change to the architectural mediation of natural history institutions. By confronting multiple interpretations of nature, we make a group installation that unsettles the category of nature by revealing that it is always multiple, situated and historically entangled.

While the task of unsettling nature might give us new ways to perceive climate change as a political condition of our present, how might we come to understand architecture in a more meaningful way to respond to this condition? A key ambition of this studio is to explore how we can extricate architecture from the dominant techno-scientific/global governance paradigms of nature-as-ecosystem that inevitably prefigure a set of architectural responses. This is not to reject technology, science or forms of global governance, nor is it to dismiss ecology as a legitimate framework through which to understand nature. Rather, if what is at stake is the way we collectively know nature, then we ask: how can architecture open a space for counter narratives of nature as a political category? Or, to paraphrase T.J. Demos, how can architecture provide new perceptions and affects through which life might be reinvented?[5]

We see architecture as a perfect site from which to counter the immobilizing depictions of climate-in-crisis, just as much as we reject the meager ‘bottom-up’ moralism in which political action is domesticated and our responses made private. Here, political philosopher Jodi Dean’s notion of an “anamorphic” approach to climate change helps us to strategize a renewed agenda for architecture. As she writes: 

“‘Anamorphosis’ designates an image or object that seems distorted when we look at it head on, but that appears clearly from another perspective. […] Apprehending what is significant, then, may require…adopting another perspective—a partial or partisan perspective, the perspective of a part. From this partisan perspective, the whole will not appear as a whole. It will appear with a hole. The perspective from which the hole appears is that of the subject, which is to say of the gap opened up by the shift to a partisan perspective.”[6]

Not the receiver of a global protocols translated into normative apparatuses applied universally (‘top-down’), nor the cybernetic machine of behavioral modulation (‘bottom-up’), we idealize architecture instead as always already ‘anamorphic’ in its ability to expose networks of power, discourses and ideas in which it is already entangled ‘from the side’. Architecture is precisely, as Dean calls it, a ‘hole’: a crack or opening within an otherwise totalizing continuum of climate change technocracy, one in which new situated, partial realities, collectives and possibilities can and must emerge.

For us, imagining an anamorphic architecture starts by reimagining the notion ofsite: typically a cleared, unproblematic parcel of land on which students are meant to creatively invent a unique ‘solution’. In contrast, our sites are major convention centers.[7]These commercial and cultural infrastructures, hosting major fairs, events and exhibitions and fostering relations between capital and government, provide a perfect opportunity to experiment with an anamorphic architecture in the age of climate change: Because there are no obvious problems to solve in this context, an architectural intervention in a convention center asks students a different set of questions: not how can architecture improve a site, it asks how architecture disrupts, subverts, redirects and reorients the complexities of its site to other ends.

Rather than reproducing a universalist approach to the questions of nature in the age of climate change, where, it is hoped, facts and information will ‘set free’ those who passively consume it, our approach require staking a clear position toward the stakes in such questions today. Thus, by taking convention centers as our sites, our institutions aim not simply at ‘presenting’ our histories of nature universally, nor staging an institutional critique, but rather at strategically operating in the flows of power that smoothly circulate within one of the key sites of the hermetically sealed and mediated spaces of global capital today. A museum for the histories of nature in this context is necessarily a disruption; yet at the same time, it also doubles as a site in which to build upon and mobilize the latent struggles and polarities that nonetheless persist unspoken and unaccounted for within the masses of people who pass through these spaces. It therefore asks its participants to see architecture not as an environmental technology, but instead as a situated cultural site and social technology in which to test radical new ways of destabilizing, pluralizing, undermining or subtly hijacking the dominant perceptions of nature that otherwise debilitate us from speaking about climate change differently—an institute that can host new collective forms of discourse and common agendas about climate justice from within a precise networks of capital exchange and governmental deliberation.

Museum of Second Nature, Yue Yuan and Yongrui Ge, 2016

Conclusion: Histories of the present

These processes outline the initial exercises of this studio, which, as with all studios, always quickly takes on a life of its own. Surely a first step in reimagining contemporary architecture as a political practice, the projects and ideas that have come out of this studio have opened inspiring, but often difficult, discussions and debates, in part because we have been tenacious in our efforts to unsettle architecture. But, this difficulty points to gaps in our language—voids in our imaginary—that prohibit us from speaking to the complexity, injustice and intersectionality that climate change represents. Bringing questions of history into contact with the intellectual practice of design paradoxically reveals worlds and imaginaries that cut across and undermine the commonsense of our world today precisely because they confront us with the historical conditions of our present—a moment of radical upheaval and existential self-awareness. Yet it is precisely this imaginary that we ironically assist in concealing with the reassuring images we produce of a perpetually optimized present. Both daunting and electrifying, however, we might do well to apprehend our present as nothing more than an invitation to see the world anamorphically.

Museum of Trade, Jake Spangler and Kane Hassebrock, 2017

[1]or, more precisely, the capitalocene, plantationocene, ‘colonial sphere’, etc.

[2]from which I mean to distinguish something like ‘information’: of course we have copious amounts of data that explain climate change as a set of chronological, temporally-situated events and anomalies (CO2atmospheric concentrations, storms, subsidence rates, ice cap melting, temperature spikes, etc), but this is not ‘history’ in the sense that it does not, in itself, offer interpretation, narrative, intersections or relations. Vilém Flusser anticipated this condition in 1983, which he called ‘post-history’. See Flusser, V., 2013, Post-History, Minneapolis: Univocal. 

[3]Here I refer to Lauren Berlant’s assessment of contemporary liberal democracy in Berlant, L., 2011, Cruel Optimism, Durham: Duke University Press.

[4]For example, the work of Silvia Federici has consistently underscored the historical relationships of the witch trials of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to contemporary processes of capitalism and its inherent sexism, racism and ageism through the notion of ‘enclosure’, which she sees not as a historical event, but as an ongoing process in the present.

[5]Demos, T.J., 2017, ‘The Great Transition: The Arts, and Radical System Change,’ e-flux Architecture, April 12.

[6]Dean, J., 2016, ‘The Anamorphic Politics of Climate Change,’e-flux journal, no. 69, January,

[7]Piers 92-94 in NYC, the Miami Beach Convention Center, and, most recently, the Centro Citibanamex Convention Center, Mexico City