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Rania Ghosn, El Hadi Jazairy, Geostories: Another Architecture for the Environment | Fred Scharmen, Space Settlements

New York - Barcelona, Actar Publishing, 231 pp. - 2018 | New York, Columbia University Press, 208 pp. - 2019
Sara Dean
p. 229-231
Bibliographical reference

Rania Ghosn, El Hadi Jazairy, Geostories: Another Architecture for the Environment, New York - Barcelona, Actar Publishing, 231 pp. - 2018, Paperback: - € 33,98 - ISBN: 978-1945150791 | Fred Scharmen, Space Settlements, New York, Columbia University Press, 208 pp. - 2019, Paperback: $ 24,00 - ISBN: 978-1941332498

Full text

1“Is the surface of a planet really the right place for an expanding technological civilization?”

2Gerard O’Neill

3Geostories is a collection of fantastical proposals for a world run amok. The book posits proposals that harvest Antarctic ice, occupy emptied oil reserves, and make monuments of landfills. These interventions are developed through a blend of disciplinary representational mashups and meticulous craft in drawing, with Easter eggs and winks to past utopian projects, and imagining future developments at the scale of cities and planets. Through these technical and imaginative images, as well as their grand scale, they harken to past government infrastructural projects and global network economies. As interventions, they operate as situated analogies–ways of seeing, more than anything–the vast and abstract systems that have constructed our current crisis, and imagine them past their present functions. The proposals make visible, through allegory, what Saskia Sassen calls the ‘expulsions’–systematic brutalities across economic, environmental, and political realms. Through their visual language and systems-orientations, they connect singular events and present-day configurations with deep time, and site provocations of technological and architectural solution-making. The drawings are unbelievably concise and complex, to a point of fetish, and the book should come with a dome magnifier as each image seems to operate on scales unnoticeable to the viewer.

4Space Settlements is also, in essence, a project described through a series of global-scale interventions explored through renderings, this time from the 1970s and in gouache, commissioned in large part by a research project led by Gerard O’Neill at Princeton University and funded by Steward Brand. The renderings are explorations of imagined architecture and life on space colonies. In the book, they are contextualized through the trends and threats of the moment they are responding to–the 1970s inclination for exoplanetary habitation and assumption of expanding past Earth’s planetary limits. These inclinations were built in part on the anticipation of nuclear annihilation, oil depletion, and population explosion. Space habitation was seen by some as the perfect solution, an architecture that was simultaneously ecologically and technologically driven, and worked towards planetary healing and symbiotic life.

5These two books together exemplify the roles of architecture to build futures, envision utopian ideals, and contextualize the contemporary moment. In particular, they demonstrate the use of architectural drawing to think through details and scenarios, the role of technology (both known and anticipated) to play the role of savior or antagonist in these scenarios, and the mega-scale proposal to encapsulate global, ecological, and political externalities of their formation.

6The architect works in the future-tense, considering the material details and social implications of things that don’t exist. This ability extends to things that are improbable, or never even meant to get built. The dichotomy between paper and built architecture is a fallacy in this way. To create futures, and inhabit them in order to better understand their implications, is to make architecture. In that way, also, I’m unconcerned with whether the renderings of banded torus habitats floating in deep space were expected to be built (they were), or whether they were thought experiments. The ability to think through conceptual futures–through rotational speeds, interior qualities, and social dynamics–is the point. And whether these particular futures were built, they never-the-less have implications in the future we imagine, and build towards, through our collective understanding of the shape and form it might ultimately take. These two books explore the power of representation to create futures and build alternative worlds.

7Many of the images in Geostories make visual reference to utopian architecture from around the same time that Buckminster Fuller was advocated for covering Manhattan with a geodesic dome: Superstudio’s Continuous Monument levees controlled Antarctic melt, Archigram’s tethered blimp makes a rainforest delivery, Fuller’s Dymaxion Map graphs water capacities. This is apt. These projects represent a moment when architecture was projective–a form of urbanist science fiction. The faith we had in the built environment, and the discipline of architecture, to imagine new evolutions of technology, cities, and society seems to have been lost in the 50 years since. As Space Settlements points out, the formal cues of this time have shown up more recently as corporate gestures of future-orientation–the Torus at the Apple Headquarters, the Geodesic Dome at Facebook’s new campus. What were meant as social utopias have been co-opted in late-capitalism into a tech branding exercise. The use of these recognizable projects in Geostories feels like both an elucidation of the optimism of these architectures, as well as a reclaiming of them within the discipline, in our new context of climate chaos and a moment when global corporations otherwise own our futuristic dreams.

8At the same time, Geostories is constructing a future from a present that valorizes the geologic as a technological force of remediation–the Earth as the ultimate technology. Using representational tropes from geology, from astrophysics, from astronomy, and from life sciences, they consider architecture that is in dialogue with planetary rotation, asteroids, and core temperatures rather than humans. There are very few people in their drawings; these projects are human wonderments, infrastructural monuments, but not really built for humans. They don’t even seem built for the scale of a human lifespan. These drawings have the effect, taken together, of watching the ruins of the Earth through the portal of an escape pod spaceship, understanding our shortsightedness too late.

9The looming crises of the 20th century created design interventions of enclosure, escape, and autonomy. Space settlements are the epitome of this–survival from a planet that was becoming too small, or in anticipation of its annihilation. The designs of space habitats show our faith in technology to save us–a breezy afternoon picnic in the park surrounded by the void of space. The encapsulation of civilization, calculated in gravitational orbits, breathable air, and acceleration speeds. The optimism of these renderings is not just in the peace and leisure they depict, but in the normalcy the architecture allows. No sacrifice or change, or even alien environment, was needed for the transition, so complete was our confidence in our ability to remake Earth in a bubble.

10“The [space settlement] images are terms within larger systems: not only political, architectural, landscape, and urban systems but also cultural systems, including ideas about science fiction and utopian speculation on the future. They mediate anxieties about the American city, about technology, and about the changing role of human beings within space and architecture more generally.” From “Introduction,” Space Settlements (p19)

11The belief in technology to save us is part of our contemporary crisis moment as well, though this time it is seen as remediation, repurposing, retrofitting. Geostories thinks through scales of technology about the design of encapsulation, redistribution, property allocation, and preservation at scales of planetary infrastructure. Unlike the 20th century version, these technologies revel in the complexities of ecology, property, and economics. NASA capital is replaced with private speculation or opportunistic schemes. In the same way that leisure and nature is unquestioned in the space-life renderings, national advantageousness and competitive strategies is the unexamined backdrop of the Design Earth propositions. This feels very true to this moment to me, in the same way that the space colonies of today would be positioned as Amazon outposts or Bechtel mines.

12The futures we construct, in architecture as in literature, are, more than anything, representations of the present. The solutions proposed reflect our current crises more than solutions to them. But at a moment when we once again find ourselves considering space habitats and escape pods as a way out of our constructed crisis, it’s important to posit new relationships we can have to our planet, and new roles that architecture can play in the imagination of these scenarios. If there is a path to inhabiting the planet that accounts for political and environmental externality, and valorizes qualities beyond profit and capital, we will have to imagine it before we can build it.

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Bibliographical reference

Sara Dean, “Rania Ghosn, El Hadi Jazairy, Geostories: Another Architecture for the Environment | Fred Scharmen, Space SettlementsArdeth, 5 | 2019, 229-231.

Electronic reference

Sara Dean, “Rania Ghosn, El Hadi Jazairy, Geostories: Another Architecture for the Environment | Fred Scharmen, Space SettlementsArdeth [Online], 5 | 2019, Online since 01 May 2020, connection on 26 October 2021. URL:

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About the author

Sara Dean

California College of the Arts

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