How can design reclaim the forms, technologies, economies and logistics of waste streams in the production of urbanism? The collaborative architectural practice Design Earth, led by El Hadi Jazairy and Rania Ghosn, visualizes the geographies of waste systems and charts their material, political, and scalar attributes. This contribution proposes five architectural strategies that engage alternative imaginaries for landfilling, recycling, burning, re-using, dumping and valuing matter.
The production of urbanism rests on the dissociation of the city from the environmental costs of urbanization, relegating responsibility of “dirty” waste products to political and geographic entities beyond city jurisdictions, or to what is referred to as an “externality field, or waste territories that are often unaccounted for, and beyond public and disciplinary scrutiny. Such abstraction of waste systems rests on the management of urban planning principles mobilizing the scientific analogies of metabolism and circulation as key to spatial organization. The modern transformation of the city, highly dependent on the ideology of circulation, likens the city to an organism, including circulator systems that help the body filter and pass waste and maintain overall health
Such scientific analogies might be insufficient to theorize the political attributes of such systems and speculate on their formal and material attributes. The rise of environmentalist constituencies and concerns has brought the public realization that there is
no zone of reality in which we could casually rid ourselves of the consequence of human political, industrial, and economic life
no outside in which the unwanted consequences of consumer actions could disappear from view. Urbanization is rather conceptualized as a process of continuous de-territorialization and re-territorialization of matter, organized through social and physical conduits or networks as well as sites of storage and accumulation that absorb such undesired matters.
If the externalization of trash has placed it outside of design’s environmental agency, can the expansion of design research and speculation to the geographic scale re-inscribe urban technological systems within disciplinary practices and imaginaries? How can design reclaim the forms, technologies, economies and logistics of waste streams in the production of urbanism? DESIGN EARTH has engaged the expanded environmental imagination in a series of projects that make visible the geographies of waste systems and chart their material, political, and scalar attributes. These projects aspire to shift public debates away from their focus on what Bruno Latour calls matters-of-fact: that is, positivist solutions to “garbage crises” that continue to insist that garbage must be kept out of sight as a factually repugnant entity
Latour uses the contrast between “matters of fact” and “matters of concern” to propose changes in the nature of evidence and its operative role. Rather than managing perpetual disappearance, “a matter of concern”, Latour explains,
is what happens to a matter of fact when you add to it its whole scenography, much like you would do by shifting your attention from the stage to the whole machinery of a theatre
DESIGN EARTH seeks to outline such matters-of-concern, i.e. draw projects that accept that trash creates conditions that we must address, yet seeks alternative political and aesthetic propositions. In this venue of work, the book Geographies of Trash charts territories of trash in Michigan to bring to visibility the relations of technology, space and politics across scales The design-research publication also proposes five geographical situated yet typological architectural strategies – Cap, Collect, Contain, Preserve, and Form –, that engage alternative imaginaries for landfilling, recycling, burning, re-using, dumping and valuing matter. Each project addresses issues implicit in the socialization of material excess, such as value, structures of management, formalism, ecology, and the life and afterlife of each of the sites. What form of assembly – of architecture and political accord – does Geographies of Trash bring forth?
Georama of Trash extends the making public agenda of Geographies of Trash to explore the convening power of the large drawing. What spaces could stage a totality of metabolic flows, especially when that whole is opaque, fragmented, contradictory? In Reassembling the Social, Latour outlined the panorama as a historical visual practice and space that stages such a sense of wholeness From the Greek pan- (all) and -rama (spectacle), the panorama is a view of totality. Installed in rotundas, panoramas were immense 360-degree paintings that hermetically surrounded the observer. From a darkened central platform, the observers found themselves completely enveloped in visual illusions illuminated by concealed lighting. These “sight travel machines” transposed the visitors into the image, be it simulations of distant lands, familiar cities, or catastrophes of nature or wars Struck with enchantment in the middle of a magic circle, the spectator is sheltered from unwelcome distractions all while being immersed in a foreign landscape. Latour found these contraptions quite powerful, particularly as they solved the question of staging totality and nesting a range of scales, from the micro to the macro, into one another.
The Georama of Trash large-scale drawing brings together the five speculative projects of Geographies of Trash into one worldview. Such earthen spectacle seeks to make public waste management practices. The georama places the undesired matter of the trash bag and its associated logistics, economics, ecologies at the center of the “Theater of the World.” Beyond a binary of purity and despoilment, Georama of Trash deploys uncomfortable yet oddly constructive relationships with geography’s marginalized externalities. Rather than a technological fix, the drawing immerses the spectator in the spaces of technological systems to engage a public conversation on trash and space with the aspiration to reconfigure the aesthetic and organizational assumptions upon which urbanization rests. The challenge of a geographic imagination is thus not simply to represent these systems and their futures, but to intervene in such representations so as to render visible the inequality between the promises of technological fixes and the distribution of geographic externalities.
CAP formalizes the metrics of landfilling operations into a geographic monument. Landfills have been evicted from city development: they are often located in urban peripheries along major highway arteries, and buried beneath a swath of green carpet. The project rationalizes the process of landfilling – cell construction, material stacking and truck circulation to give form to the components of landfill architecture. Culminating the 20-mile automotive Mound Road Corridor, the ziggurat of trash cells serves as a monument to de-centralizing and wasteful forces of Detroit’s urbanization. By giving visible and monumental form to the landfill, CAP reclaims the infrastructure of waste as an object of civic pride, and disciplinary imaginary.
COLLECT localizes the surplus value of recycling out of the monopoly of vertically integrated corporations and within the scale of the neighborhood. The revenue of recycling waste operators is gained from discerning objects that still hold value from those that are not. Various monopolizing entities in the waste management system have the possibility of extracting value, sometimes several times in the process, for example from charging the thrower for collection fees and then selling again to manufacturers. Can we imagine a process that reclaims the economic value of recycling for residents of the city, particularly at a moment when Detroit is defined by its loss of population, economic revenue and urban services? The project localizes the surplus value of recycling at the urban neighborhood unit, converting the Russell Woods park into a ground for the collection, sorting, and redistribution of solid waste. Away from the scavenger-consumer binaries, the neighborhood waste economy is transformed into the grounds of a collective project.
CONTAIN integrates waste management technologies into forms of building construction at the scale of the block. Trash is hauled over long distances, usually from affluent areas to less privileged ones to displace the associated social costs. The project places limits on the transit of garbage so that each block manages the waste it produces, internalizing composting and burning within the courtyard of perimeter-building types. The project deploys trash management as a redevelopment strategy for the Poletown East neighborhood, which is one of the remaining solid enclaves in Detroit’s shrinking economy. Poletown is rebuilt from the waste it manages. Byproducts of low-tech composting constitute the soft surfaces of communal spaces within the block, such as lawns, fields, and orchards. The bottom ash of high-tech burning is used as aggregate in the construction of hard surfaces for the perimeter housing blocks, such as pavement blocks and concrete. Ultimately, the project eliminates the distinction between waste and resources in the enclave-city.
PRESERVE curates ecologies by engineering the operation and lifecycle of a landfill. Since the 1980s, landfills have been lined with a low permeability synthetic membrane, the same material used to make the plastic trash bag, to keep them from leaking fetid liquids into lakes, streams, and ground water. The life of the membrane extends well beyond the time period for which states are required to maintain and monitor landfills after closures. The project imagines alternative landfill ecologies with different half-lives. In a twist on the image and politics of nature, the project transforms a golf course within the Indian Springs Nature Preserve at the extents of Detroit’s outer city. Within the site, the liner is replaced by decomposition strategies and remediation processes that allow trash to become part of the preserve’s ecology. Such strategy places liability on industrial and chemical operators before toxic waste arrives at the landfill. Preserve attracts bears and a multitude of species that can feed off such waste, not dissimilar from a 1950 study that had found that most cities in the Detroit Metro region employed hogs for disposing of garbage and subsequently compiling it with soil to produce a fertile duff. The project shifts the object of design from post-termination redevelopment strategies to the operating landfill itself as a political-ecological issue.
FORM re-surveys a continuous waste management system for a 2 mile-wide area along the Michigan baseline, an urbanized corridor that extends between Detroit and Chicago. Over sixty percent of the landfills in southeastern Michigan receive out of state waste. The legitimization of garbage as commodity in the North American Free Trade Agreement has favored the flows of waste across political borders to capitalize on Michigan’s location at the geographic center of the Great Lakes Region, abundance of airspace, rock-bottom landfilling prices, low tipping fees, and looser environmental regulations than those mandated in Canada. Over the next two decades, most of the landfills in Michigan’s densest urban areas will have reached their holding capacity. FORM capitalizes on the post-termination potentials of capped landfills all while accounting for the demand for new landfills. Rather than perpetuating a landfill siting logic of the 6-mile township boundaries, the project engages geographical features such as topographical changes, waterways, motorways, forests, towns, etc. to form an archipelago of platforms within a continuous landfill stretching westward from Detroit to Lake Michigan.