Carson Chan Discusses Emerging Ecologies

Sophie Lanigan caught up with Carson Chan, Director of the Emilio Ambasz Institute at MoMA, to chat about their debut exhibition Emerging Ecologies: Architecture and the Rise of Environmentalism. Showcasing an array of architects’ historic responses to the rise of the environmental movement throughout the ’60s and ’70s, Emerging Ecologies presents missed opportunities to integrate passive and responsive design into the built environment.

Sophie Lanigan + Carson Chan

Don Davis, Stanford torus interior view, 1975, acrylic on board, 43.1 × 55.9 cm Commissioned by NASA for Richard D. Johnson and Charles Holbrow, eds., Space Settlements: A Design Study (Washington, DC: NASA Scientific and Technical Information Office, 1977). Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art

SL Thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed, Carson, and congratulations on Emerging Ecologies: Architecture and the Rise of Environmentalism. To foreground the interview for our readers, are you able to provide some context about the Emilio Ambasz Institute at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and your role within it? 

CC The Emilio Ambasz Institute started about two and a half years ago. It is an institute within MoMA’s architecture and design department, so we get to do our own programs, but we are within the umbrella of architecture and design. It’s a platform that allows for and supports discussion, research and discourse on the relationship between the built and natural environment, or, rather, the fraught relationship between the built and natural environment. For the last two and a half years we’ve been conducting several programmes for various audiences, including a discussion series about building materials, a YouTube video series that’s intended for the broader public as well as working with children and early education programmes to help K–12 teachers gain environmental literacy. We’ve also been working a lot with architecture schools doing non-public facing programmes, and talking to studio coordinators from all the universities in the US and Canada about the importance of addressing the climate crisis in design studios. Emerging Ecologies: Architecture in the Rise of Environmentalism is our first exhibition. 

SL Fantastic. So, Emerging Ecologies is currently on show at MoMA and, to me, this exhibition is fascinating because I feel like it addresses a key point of tension for architecture and the climate – which is the differing time scales at which they operate. I was wondering if you could comment on that insofar as the climate crisis is urgent, yet the time it takes to adapt buildings is so long and, historically, we have seen these kinds of exciting projections but they have had very large time scales that seem almost futuristic and less tangible. Could you speak about time and the relationship there?

CC For sure. One thing I’ll add, too, is that part of what we want to do with the Ambasz Institute is redefine how we discuss architecture. This includes redefining space, time and how the public defines architecture when they talk about it. In general, when people talk about architecture, they talk and think of objects – so architecture as ‘buildings’ or ‘building design’. Indeed, MoMA, as an institution, has been pushing that definition of architecture for many decades now. What we aim to do at the Ambasz Institute is change that definition from building as object to building as process. What I mean by that is we must redefine ‘architecture’ to look at everything from resource extraction for building materials and the labour connected to that extraction to the social, political, economic and racial context of buildings. [We emphasise] looking at the aftermath of buildings to ask: what do we do with buildings after we’re done with them? Do we dismantle them for parts, or do we demolish them and put them in landfill? All of that is architecture; the building is, in fact, just one small part of the process. So, in terms of temporality, one way we need to think about buildings differently is acknowledge that they exist in time, and the whole process of making buildings could start a lot earlier than the construction date and the end date of the building. In terms of climate and architecture, I think you’re right that the relation between the two compels people to think in much longer time spans and to recognise projects that take a lot longer as well. Landscape projects come to mind – regarding how they’re planned, how we envision them to operate, and how they emit CO2 decades into the future. It also allows us to think about projects and protagonists that haven’t been thought about before. So again, this goes toward redefining architecture as well.

One project we have in the exhibition is the Orme Dam protest. The original idea was to build a dam east of Phoenix, Arizona, which would have helped with water management in the city, preventing floods and irrigating the surrounding land, but it would have flooded two-thirds of the Yavapai Nation’s land. So they protested, marched, did sit-ins, spoke to the press and eventually got the project scrapped. What’s interesting about this project is that it allows us to expand the definition of architecture to include preventing a structure from being built as being as architecturally sound as building a structure. 

Cambridge Seven Associates, Tsuruhama Rainforest Pavilion, Osaka, Japan, 1993–95, section drawing showing the underground levels and the paths at the forest level, 1994–95, marker and Prismacolour pencil on black-line diazo print, 50.8 × 76.2 cm. Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art

SL I like the notion that architecture is a skill that can prevent projects from being built. Perhaps this approach will allow space for engaging with other protagonists – to ensure that generally marginalised voices within architectural discourse and practice are heard. Are there any specific protagonists you’re hoping to engage with through Emerging Ecologies

CC Definitely. One of the main things we want to do in the exhibition is amplify the voices of people who have been historically marginalised. We’ve also tried very hard to bring a lot of female voices into the exhibition. An early example would be both Eleanor Raymond and Mária Telkes who built the Dover Sun House in 1948 – a very early example of a solar thermal storage house. [The Dover Sun House] could be entirely heated by the sun’s energy, even in the Massachusetts winter, so this technology in the ’40s and ’50s was touted as a technology that would have been as influential, if not more so, than the atomic bomb. And you know, Mária Telkes’ colleagues at MIT had no small part in crushing her career and ensuring it didn’t move forward. Also, oil was found in the Middle East and these kinds of alternative heating schemes were crushed as well.

We’re also really excited to show the work of Carolyn Dry who was one of the leading voices in thinking about architecture as an organic system in the ’70s. [Dry looked at] how architecture and building design can learn from the natural world through phenomena including bone growth, seashell growth and the like, which she considered on a molecular level to inform her architectural designs. Then there’s the work of Beverly Willis who was a path breaker in developing software for environmental analysis. In the early ’70s she was already making software for architects to analyse ecological patterns for design. 

Unknown artist, The Climatron in winter–Shaw’s Garden–Saint Louis, c. 1960, postcard, 10.2 × 20.3 cm. Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art

SL It’s quite empowering to have these untold, amazing women recognised – at long last – in Emerging Ecologies. What about non-human protagonists? For instance, trees and lakes that are beginning to have their rights recognised. Perhaps this notion was discussed at The Third Ecology Conference?

CC Emerging Ecologies is a survey of how architecture responded to the rise of environmentalism in the ’60s and ’70s, but only in the US and among US practitioners – the reason being that we needed to find some way to delimit the show. It can’t be encyclopaedic, it can’t be global. But it’s also because the modern environmental movement started in the US with the publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson in 1962 and then [the first official] Earth Day in 1970. These are moments that helped an entire generation define their relationship with the environment.To expand the exhibition’s ideas beyond the remit of the US, we organised a conference that could address global issues. It was held in Iceland last October and was titled The Third Ecology. We had more than 50 speakers and 170 people meeting from around the world to discuss these important environmental issues. 

SL The conference sounds amazing and a very interesting way to address the delimitation of the show. It strikes me as fitting that the exhibition has a localised quality that addresses the notion of environment and architecture more precisely, in-depth and in relation to particular environments or climates. Using MoMA as the site of the exhibition adds weight to the show because the museum has shown several watershed exhibitions that have pointed architecture in different directions over the past century: the Modern Architecture: International Exhibition in 1932 and Bernard Rudofsky’s Architecture Without Architects in 1964, for instance. Emerging Ecologies however, being the first US survey of the rise of environmentalism within architecture, is really important. Do you see this exhibition ranking among those historic turning points for the discipline? 

CC I guess that’s for the public to decide but looking at the history of MoMA was definitely part of the research for the show. The International Exhibition from 1932 helped define this idea of architecture as building design. Emerging Ecologies is a very conscious response to that training in the way we think about architecture [as ‘building’].

SL I can really see this exhibition as a response to, or in dialogue with, MoMA’s history of shaping how we think about architecture. Back to your original point about how architecture as process is an idea that infrastructure can be built as preventative measure, I’m thinking about the sorts of reefs that are now insured in some parts of Central America because they protect the coast from erosion in very high-value residential areas or for hotels. I noticed the main sponsor of the exhibition was Allianz and I was wondering if the idea of building futureproof space was part of your curation. Can you speak to that at all?

CC No, I wouldn’t say so. I would say that building to ensure a liveable environment for everyone
is kind of the idea. It’s not specifically related to insurance but just the fact that if we don’t start to build differently, none of us will have anywhere to live. The building sector produces about 39% of the world’s total greenhouse gases, making it the most polluting activity on the planet. Part of the aim of the show is to say that there are urgent questions we need to address. Before that, though, we need to observe what came before, and ask: what have been other attempts [to address this]? What have [we] tried to do? How have we failed? How have we succeeded? What are pathways that we abandoned along the way? This is the aim of the show – to look at the many different ideas that have occurred before this moment.

Eugene Tssui, Venturus, wind-generated dwelling for Mr. and Mrs. Peter Cook, Victoria, BC, Canada, 1982, watercolour, Prismacolour pencil, pastel chalk, and coloured ink on paper, 53.3 × 81.3 cm. Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art

SL That comes through clearly in the show, and the catalogue for those unable to attend. As a final question, if someone were to visit the exhibition who wasn’t particularly engaged in architecture or the architectural discipline, what could they take away from the show? In your opinion, can the notions that arise in the exhibition translate to other disciplines in tangible ways? Is there an entry point to engage with the exhibition that extends beyond the industry? 

CC Yeah, definitely. The way we have organised the exhibition is hopefully to address as many different audiences as possible. You’ll find that in showing Ian McHarg’s work, completed in collaboration with his students at UPenn [the University of Pennsylvania]. There are examples of that work which are smaller and monochrome, but for this show we chose the biggest and most colourful drawings. Even if they may be slightly less applicable or slightly less academically precise in terms of what we’re trying to say, the idea is that audiences who may not be versed in architectural thought might look at it for a few more seconds because it’s big and colourful – it might entice them to read the label. Because of this, they might look at [Emerging Ecologies] in a slightly different way and learn something else from it. That’s the joy of making exhibitions at MoMA – we have a huge range of audiences, from scholars to tourists to children to very well-informed cultural observers. Making an exhibition that caters to all those groups in their own way has definitely been the project’s goal from the beginning.

Emerging Ecologies: Architecture and the Rise of Environmentalism continues at MoMA until 20 January 2024.

Emilio Ambas, Prefectural International Hall, Fukuoka, Japan, 1990. Photo: Hiromi Watanabe. Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art

The building sector produces about 39% of the world’s total greenhouse gases, making it the most polluting activity on the planet.

Carson Chan

Even if they may be slightly less applicable or slightly less academically precise in terms of what we’re trying to say, the idea is that audiences who may not be versed in architectural thought might look at it for a few more seconds because it’s big and colourful – it might entice them to read the label.