Book Review — From Bauhaus to Ecohouse: A History of Ecological Design

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After Nazi pressures led to the closure of the Bauhaus in 1933, leading members reestablished their lives and work outside of Germany, first in London and ultimately in the United States. During this pivotal moment of displacement, Bauhaus thinking also made a turn toward ecological design. By incorporating biological thinking about form and connectedness into their design philosophies, theories, and practices, Walter Gropius, László Moholy-Nagy, and Herbert Bayer sought a unity between art and science that would place the biological needs and conditions of the human at the center of design’s purpose and effects. Peder Anker’s latest book immerses readers in the social history of the Bauhaus outside of Germany and thus green architecture’s war-time precursors and origins.

In the first half of the book, Anker encourages readers to reconsider how the humanist projects of this period—often criticized for placing human needs above environmental considerations—have done much to expand and develop the way we debate environmental issues. The book follows the Bauhaus to the United States as its leading members widely dispersed these ideas. They did this through institutions such as the Harvard School of Design, The Chicago Institute of Design, and the Aspen Institute; through images, such as Bayer’s war-time recycling posters and his World Geo-Graphic Atlas: A Composite of Man’s Environment; and through the influential writing of Moholy-Nagy regarding “bio-technique,” an idea which intended to transform mass production by mimicking the forms and processes of nature.

The second half of the book tracks the Bauhaus visionaries’ design legacy through the cold war, analyzing what Anker calls the “second generation of Bauhaus thinking” as it now responded to ecological crisis. In these later chapters, Anker examines the life and work of Richard Buckminster Fuller, the history of planned ecological space colonization, and finally its earthly trial runs in enclosed “space cabins,” most notably Biosphere 2, completed in Arizona in 1991. Anker’s argument in this section is more critical as he suggests that the biocentric concerns of such designs came at the cost of a humanist tradition: “Human social, political, moral, and historical space,” writes Anker, “was invaded by ecological science aimed at reordering ill-treated human environments according to the managerial ideals of the astronaut’s life in the space colony” (6). Essentially, from minding the laws of ecology to envisioning humans living like astronauts, the ideal unification of art and science that environmental designers strove for radically changed in this cold war period to embrace technological idealism at the loss of historical, cultural, and perhaps ethical functions of design.

From Bauhaus to Ecohouse’s intended audience is historians of design, architecture, science, and environmentalism, but Anker’s narrative approach provides a highly readable text that will likely appeal to a much wider audience, including anyone in the field of green building. From my point of view as a student of environmental art and literature, I found the most provocative ideas in Anker’s attention to human-made closed ecosystems, their imperialist connections, and their influence on today’s environmental architecture. Imbedded in this history is a perceived rift, it would seem, between working with ecology and engineering ecosystems. Negotiating this debate no doubt will continue to affect how we decide to dwell in the future. And Anker’s history keenly reminds us: we are more human than we’d like to admit; we are more biologically animal than we’d like to admit—and our new designs will need to attend to this conundrum.

Chris Drury’s Carbon Sink: A Marker of Western Realities

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Visit the official Wyoming state tourism website and you will be greeted with promises of “untouched” beauty. Nature is a crucial part of the state’s public image, packed within the “Forever West” campaign that greets visitors on billboards, websites and television advertisements. The message could hardly be any clearer: Wyoming’s greatest cultural resource is its land, wide open spaces and natural wonders. And lest you feel the need to hurry, don’t, the west is forever, limitless, like its sight lines. Yet drive any of the state’s roads and in addition to uninterrupted western views, you will find numerous oil derricks, energy plants and windmill farms looming large on the horizon. Of course none of these visions fit into the tidy packaging of “Wyoming: Forever West,” and despite the attempt to sell Wyoming as the land of inexhaustible natural wonders, it is virtually impossible to live in the state without acknowledging the financial debt owed to the energy industry, and members of the industry are quick to remind the public of the role their money plays at the University of Wyoming in Laramie.

In this environment the University of Wyoming Art Museum director Susan Moldenhauer has undertaken a program of public sculpture, Sculpture: A Wyoming Invitational which stretches across Laramie. On July 23, 2011 I drove to Laramie to see the most recent addition, British artist Chris Drury’s installation Carbon Sink: What Goes Around Comes Around. With Drury’s commission the University received a new level of publicity, with coverage in both the New York Times and the London Guardian. The discussion was not an examination of the merits of the sculpture or its place in a larger program of public art, however, but reportage of the controversy surrounding what Jim Robbins described as a “coal-themed sculpture.” (i)

Both the New York Times and The Guardian picked up on the Casper Star-Tribune’s article entitled “University of Wyoming sculpture blasts fossil fuels,” in which Jeremy Pelzer elicits comments from Wyoming Mining Association executive director Marion Loomis, who seemed to take Drury’s work as both a personal attack and an attack on the energy industry, suggesting the installation of a sculpture honoring coal. As the story gained traction Wyoming representative Tom Lubnau used the Gillette News-Record to casually threaten the University saying that the occasion afforded him an opportunity to “educate some of the folks at the University of Wyoming about where their paychecks come from.(ii)” Despite the controversy, Moldenhauer and Drury held firm to the position that Carbon Sink is not a didactic piece, not a targeted attack on big coal. Still, Carbon Sink has neither been examined as an important part of Drury’s oeuvre nor as a nuanced consideration of the reality of the contemporary American West.

Early in his career, Drury accompanied British artist Hamish Fulton on a 1975 walk in the Canadian Rockies. Drury cites this mountain walk as an integral point in his artistic development, noting the impulse to make site interventions as both shelter and marker. Broadly, he describes his work in terms of microcosm/macrocosm, of working around the globe but ever conscious of patterns (such as the vortex) that appear in the smallest fragments of cells. His practice has taken him from Antarctica to Sussex and, in 2008, the Nevada Museum of Art.

CHRIS DRURY: MUSHROOMS | CLOUDS saw the artist install works both within the museum walls and in site specific locations outside, weaving together a consideration of regeneration and the state’s history of nuclear testing, while allowing for views of the expansive western sky through a rooftop cloud chamber. Looking back from the perspective of Carbon Sink, MUSHROOMS | CLOUDS reveals Drury to be an artist un-swayed by the romance of the West, sensitive to its often difficult realities.

When commissioned to create a piece for Sculpture: A Wyoming Invitational, Drury traveled to Laramie to explore concepts. During a conversation with Jeffrey Lockwood, Professor of Natural Sciences and Humanities at the University of Wyoming, Drury became aware of the spate of dead trees in the Rocky Mountain region. The culprit is the pine beetle, an insect native to the region but typically killed by freezing winters. As Western winters have warmed, the beetles have thrived. Lockwood observes that while people notice this change, no one has connected Wyoming’s financial success, gained primarily through the energy industry, to these beetle-killed trees. This relationship, of livelihoods and energy with earth and insects coalesced perfectly with Drury’s interest in life and death cycles (as in the mushroom at Nevada) and the vortex form he had been exploring, as a naturally occurring pattern.

So when Drury returned to Laramie in July, the campus was treated to a new sculpture, one that consisted of a vortex of charred, beetle-killed pine logs and Wyoming coal, swirling into a hole dug into the ground. Drury had previously worked with both wood and coal, and was fascinated by their intertwined fates. As a resident of the first industrialized country, Drury is particularly fascinated by coal and had previously used it to construct a chamber in the crypt of St. James Church, Piccadilly, London. In that case, the coal not only acted as a shelter for the human body, but was itself sheltered by the architecture of the capital city. In the case of Carbon Sink, the Wyoming coal is exposed not just to the eyes of passing pedestrians, but to the elements. And rather than offering the idea of shelter, Drury conceptualized the form to pull people down into the sink, which it demonstrably does. Perhaps it is the fact that coal is extracted from beneath the ground, hidden away for most of its life, which allows us to consume it so voraciously. In Wyoming, the visual impact of its extraction is relegated to mining sites; however, the pine trees that stretch across the Rocky Mountain region are not only highly visible, but an integral part of the natural beauty that Wyoming is so eager to promote. Carbon Sink connects the cycle of tree to coal, and joins what happens below ground to the landscape captured in family vacation.

Carbon Sink detail

Wyoming state tourism website <http://www.wyomingtourism.org/>

Sculpture: A Wyoming Invitational <http://www.uwyo.edu/artmuseum/explore/outdoor-sculpture/index.html>

(i)< http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/07/21/coal-themed-sculpture-annoys-lawmakers/>

New York Times <http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/07/21/coal-themed-sculpture-annoys-lawmakers/>

the Guardian <http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/jul/22/wyoming-university-coal-chris-drury>

Casper Star-Tribune’s article <http://trib.com/news/state-and-regional/article_82943c8e-c869-5ffd-9874-8730df510368.html

(ii) <http://www.gillettenewsrecord.com/stories/Criticism-of-Carbon-Sink-art-at-UW-generates-heat,59941?content_source=&category_id=&search_filter=Tom+Lubnau&event_mode=&event_ts_from=&list_type=&order_by=&order_sort=&content_class=&sub_type=stories&town_id=>

Nevada Museum of Art < https://www.nevadaart.org/exhibitions/detail?eid=121>.

CHRIS DRURY: MUSHROOMS | CLOUDS < http://www.colum.edu/CCCPress/books/mushroomsclouds.php>