ADS3 Banking Nature: Speculation on Disappearing Spaces

Daniel Fernández Pascual & Alon Schwabe

Under a growing demand for governments and institutions to respond to climate change, economic transactions between nature and the built environment are increasingly negotiated. This studio investigates the ways in which speculation on the disappearance of natural spaces is entangled with global financial flows, mitigation of environmental damage and the making of speculative urban forms. Architectural practice has to intervene in current negotiations around the design of wildlands in order to re-imagine other forms of inhabiting the space affected by the drainage of wetlands, the risk along floodable coastal zones, the trading of carbon emissions through offshore wind farms or the devaluation of properties above areas where underground fracking is taking place. 

Since the late 1980s, and increasingly after the collapse of the housing market in 2007, a number of international investors have shifted their activity from real estate speculation to trading natural capital. Amongst them, Mark R. Tercek, former managing director and Partner at Goldman Sachs, converted himself into a green guru and founded The Nature Conservancy as a new enterprise to speculate on ‘environmental services.’ That one of the world leaders in circulating real estate value started to invest in non-human beings is in itself paradigmatic and opens a new field of power relations for architecture. The invention of natural capital is not only devising financial assets associated to the environment, but it is also playing a crucial role in the construction of landscape and the urbanisation of wildlands. According to the ‘No Net Loss’ policy, the development of any housing complex, piece of infrastructure, military complex, urban settlement or tourist resort that destroys landscape has to be mitigated by restoring an ‘equivalent’ amount of landscape elsewhere in the country. Hence, the total net amount of biodiversity after urbanisation arguably remains the same in terms of surface, quality or quantity. To such an extent that a new suburb built on a millenary wetland in Florida can be environmentally compensated by recreating the same amount of destroyed wetland elsewhere in California. Architecture seems to acquire the legitimate agency to destroy, displace and replicate natural landscape miles away off the original site.

Natural capital has led to the emergence of mitigation banking in the US and habitat banking in Europe as ways to provide financial and legal tools to subcontract the economic implications of losing unique landscapes in the hands of urban and social development. But what does ‘no net loss’ mean within a context of climate change and man-induced geological transformations? Can we think of patterns of inhabitation based on destruction? Real estate speculation is a process that ties the built and the natural environment together, as the construction of housing and living space is inseparable from affecting wilderness. 

European policymakers, investors, developers and environmentalists have not managed to sign common international standards to quantify the value of biodiversity. Despite the EU’s commitment to reach such agreement by 2015, controversies around how and whether to assign value to landscape – which measuring units can monetise space – are still at stake. Speculation on the definition of natural capital has to be put at the core of the architectural discipline. How can we challenge the construction of value around boundaries between the natural/built environment from a critical spatial approach?

Urbanisation of a fabricated coastline, Benidorm, Spain
Urbanisation of a fabricated coastline, Benidorm, Spain, 2013

The natural environment is increasingly built, as the limit between both is ceasing to exist. Afforestation projects by Scandinavian and Dutch banks supporting the greening of Mozambique have exposed how the innocent act of planting trees displaces local villagers and exhausts their agricultural soil to only profit green-investing timber companies. The extraction of fertilisers from the Dead Sea in order to boost global food production by making fields hyper-fertile is generating over 5,000 sinkholes along its shores that make human inhabitation unsustainable and puts villages at the verge of political and geological collapse.

Some of these paradoxes are being approached through pieces of multi-scalar infrastructure that redesign the contemporary imbalances of the environment. For instance, the recent construction of mussel, oysters and seaweed farms in the Hudson Bay, off the coast of New York, aim to purify polluted waters and the living space of the entire harbour through the natural breathing of maritime plants or bivalves. The planting of the Great Green Wall of Africa as a 9-mile wide buffer strip of drought-resistant trees is redesigning the advance of the Sahara desert across the countries that signed a pan-African alliance to slow down desertification. And yet, are the value and the agency generated by the mussel or the drought-resistant tree being incorporated in the making of buildings around them? How are sinkholes, afforested hills, or offshore wind farms shaping territory through the resulting infrastructure of global capital?

Sinkholes along the Dead Sea are a byproduct of the exhaustion of underground water resources  and the over-extraction of minerals for fertilisers used in global food production. 2015
Sinkholes along the Dead Sea are a byproduct of the exhaustion of underground water resources and the over-extraction of minerals for fertilisers used in global food production. 2015
Dead Sea Works extraction plant. 2015
Dead Sea Works extraction plant. 2015


Students will develop research and design tools to operate and produce spatial objects on multiple scales. They will first research, map and detect a landscape of opportunity to convey a critical agenda towards the notion of natural capital at a territorial scale. They will then design a specific policy loophole, a landscape tactic, a mobile building/infrastructure, a construction detail, and an energy concept that all together introduce a new scenario to contest or unmake speculative approaches to nature. As speculation is deeply reliant on circumventing regulations, students will have to learn how to ‘cheat’ in a neoliberal architecture world. Looking at existing laws, planning policies and current masterplans, they will design a proposal to intervene in spatial structures by operating within blurry zones of legal ambiguity. Different scenarios of economic or environmental uncertainty and instability will have to be incorporated in the long-term scope of the designed object.

Students will have to create an all encompassing set of interdisciplinary design tools to convey their agenda, ranging from drawing, to maps, models, audiovisual materials, and performative presentations, incorporating digital platforms and social media as key conceptual elements of the project. The final format of each student’s proposal will have to be coherent with the speculative agenda that the project aims to put forward in order to overcome abusive speculation agendas.

Throughout the year and based on each one’s approach, this studio will provide a diverse set of skills to guide and support students on how to establish an independent/collective professional practice: self-initiating a project, establishing resource development and funding tactics, applying to different opportunities or open calls, etc. As part of the working methodology, there will be a series of arranged visits to independent practitioner’s studios in London, exhibitions and relevant institutions that relate to the different students’ projects and can provide an insight into possible forms of practice after graduation.


Taught by Daniel Fernández Pascual & Alon Schwabe