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ADS0: Babel – Portraying Cities, Landscapes, Architecture & Machines in the Face of Catastrophe

Tutors: Steve Salembier (Bildraum) & Paul Sheppeard, with Maria Paez Gonzalez

Portraying Babel

The Tower of Babel. Pieter Brueghel the Elder, 1563
The Tower of Babel. Pieter Brueghel the Elder, 1563

In Pieter Brueghel the Elder's famous painting, The Tower of Babel (1563), we are confronted with multiple visions: a portrait of a city; a marvellous city-object under construction; a mountain-like-building; an urban monolith reminiscent of Rome's colosseum, but even greater and more daring in its complexity; a dazzling project by humanity striving for greatness; Nimrod aspiring to stardom through the construction of a world-class landmark; and a dream for ambitious architects. A closer viewing brings us back to the biblical moral of Genesis, Chapter 11, Verses 1–9. Here, as a counterweight to our first impressions, the tower is depicted as a less heroic achievement, even as a true recipe for disaster with a plain message – big is bad – as greatness is the personal privilege of God. In other words, as humans constantly overestimate our ability to reshape the world to our desires, ‘hybris’ is definitely one of our biggest flaws. In the case of Babel, God punished us for our overarching architectural ambitions by making us speak different languages. It then became impossible to collaborate, construction works came to a halt and the tower fell into ruins. Some even say it was instantly destroyed by the bad breath of God. Since that moment, mankind has been left to wander across the face of the Earth – Exit Eden Phase 2.0 B.C.

The City of Eridu, Iraq, 5400-600 BC, is an urban mirage in the Iraqi desert
The City of Eridu, Iraq, 5400-600 BC, is an urban mirage in the Iraqi desert

Plots of Disaster & Catastrophe 

When we examine the vast history of once-thriving ancient cultures – such as the Sumerians, Assyrians, Egyptians, Romans, Mayas or Incas – we are confronted with urban infrastructures, which fell into downward spirals of decline and were eventually abandoned. The remnants of their achievements remain silent witnesses of how everything can go wrong, showing us that catastrophe and disaster is unavoidable and reoccurring. It appears each of these cultures had some kind of tipping point where it reached its limits for growth and was forced to reconsider its own organisation, infrastructure and machinery, but failed to do so. In this light, the history of urbanity does not present itself as one of success, but rather, as a collection of plots of disaster and catastrophe, which speak of the inability of humans and their infrastructures to effectively adapt to sudden, cataclysmic, natural changes, or recover from human-created catastrophes. 

Many of the histories about the decline and disappearance of urban cultures have similar causes – floods, storms, droughts, famines, epidemics, earthquakes, fires, volcanic eruptions, climate change, ecosystem destruction, warfare, genocide, economic conflict, pollution, overconsumption, exhaustion of natural resources, overpopulation, poverty, mass-migration and so on. It is striking how many of these causes are occurring today. Therefore, it is tempting to see the global environmental crisis as a final plot for genuine catastrophe – Exit Eden Phase 2.1 A.D. 

The Cultivated Wilderness 

The Cultivated Wilderness, Paul Shepheard, 1997
The Cultivated Wilderness, Paul Shepheard, 1997

In his book, The Cultivated Wilderness (1997), Paul Shepheard describes ‘wilderness’ as the state of the world before humans arrived and ‘cultivated’ as how we have transformed that wilderness. For Shepheard, the idea of landscape is fundamental because it encompasses the strategies through which we have attempted to ‘shape the land’ to our needs and desires. The current, prevailing strategies for shaping the landscape and economically exploiting our planet have reached a tipping point. After centuries of searching for, but never finding, appropriate ways of treating the landscape, the strategy of turning land to profit is now under review. However, our global capitalist culture – with its focus on growth and progress – likes to keep ‘business as usual’ and is not so keen on reviewing its strategies. Facing the environmental crisis requires structural changes in terms of land use that are no longer based on measures of compensation. Today, we live in a situation in which we are simultaneously promoting eco-friendly developments with solar panels in one region, while allowing the mass pollution of others. Our prevailing, modernist, positivist notions about architecture and urbanism keep us within a comfort-zone of denial. It appears that wilderness is striking back.

Oxford Tire Piles #9, Westley, California. Edward Burtynsky, 1999
Oxford Tire Piles #9, Westley, California. Edward Burtynsky, 1999


Self–inflicted Catastrophes and the Non-negotiable Forces of Wilderness

In light of recent dramatic events – such as the 1986 nuclear meltdown in Chernobyl, 2004 tsunami in Thailand, 2005 floods in New Orleans, 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima, 2017 Grenfell fire in London and 2019 fires in the Amazon rainforest – we are faced with the non-negotiable forces of wilderness and the flaws in our attempts to cultivate it. It appears our current forms of cultivating the landscape are never truly able to overrule or exclude destructive powers. As climate change will accelerate such destructive events, this forces us to reconsider how we organise our cultivation of the wilderness in the immediate future.

1986 nuclear accident at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, Pripyat, Ukraine
1986 nuclear accident at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, Pripyat, Ukraine

In 2019/20, ADS0 will examine catastrophe and disaster as extreme conditions that question all existing notions about architecture, cities and landscapes. By accepting the conditions of catastrophe and disaster, our cultivation of the landscape – architecture and urbanism – can no longer be about compensation and restoration, but rather about acceptance and a genuine adaptation to the terms of this new wilderness.

Portraying Architecture, Cities & Landscape in the Face of Catastrophe

Atelier Bildraum, In Between Violet & Green, 2017. Photo: Kurt Van der Elst
Atelier Bildraum, In Between Violet & Green, 2017. Photo: Kurt Van der Elst

Atelier Bildraum, In Between Violet & Green, 2017. Photo: Kurt Van der Elst
Atelier Bildraum, In Between Violet & Green, 2017. Photo: Kurt Van der Elst

As a studio, ADS0 is framed by the work of AtelierBildraum – the interdisciplinary practice of artist, performer, director and architect Steve Salembier. Founded in 2014, Atelier Bildraum creates and directs performances, installations and exhibitions at the edges of visual and performative arts – architecture, photography, video, music, performance, scenography and theatre. For Atelier Bildraum each project constitutes an artistic research into the narrative or emotional capacities of space and the relationships between spatial experience and its representation in imagery and sound.

ADS0 research on catastrophe will be developed through techniques of documentary filmmaking and scriptwriting, enabling students to develop a personal language that is distinct from typical forms of architectural representation. Paul Shepheard will lead the theoretical research on catastrophe, which will comprise the mapping of typologies and machineries of disaster in order to critical reposition architecture. This investigation will be organised along two tracks that run simultaneously – the explorative, artistic gaze; and the critical, journalistic, writerly and detective gaze. The first track will begin with a short intensive workshop, ‘worlds without w’, which is an audio-visual exploration of those worlds in which humanity is no longer present. The second begins as a series of screenings, presentations and debates on catastrophe and disaster. Using this process of research, students will define their projects within the thematic context of the studio.

Tutors

Steve Salembier is an artist, performer, director and architect and founding partner of Atelier Bildraum. Founded in 2014, Atelier Bildraum creates and directs performances, installations and exhibitions at the edges of visual and performative arts – architecture, photography, video, music, performance, scenography and theatre. The work of Atelier Bildraum has been exhibited and published.

Paul Shepheard is a writer living in London, England. He is qualified as an architect but since the publication of What is Architecture? by the MIT Press in 1994 has gradually shifted the emphasis of his activities to writing and lecturing. He has two other books with the MIT Press, The Cultivated Wilderness, about landscape, 1997, and Artificial Love about architecture and machines, 2003.  How To Like Everything, a utopia, was published by Zero Books in July 2013. Buildings: Between Living Time and Rocky Space, was published by CIRCA Press in October 2016. He has taught at the Architectural Association in London, the University of Texas at Austin, the Academie Van Bouwkunst in Amsterdam and Artesis, Antwerp. 

Maria Paez Gonzalez is a PhD candidate at the Royal College of Art. Her research studies the Corporate Campus in Silicon Valley, using a historical and biopolitical framework to advance an architectural critique and design possibilities for this expanding working class. Maria is also a founding member of Foundation HCGB, which aims to preserve historical art forms in Santa Ana of Coro, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and an Associate Partner at Foster + Partners, London.

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