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ADS3: Refuse Trespassing Our Bodies: Metabolising the Built Environment

Tutors: Daniel Fernández Pascual & Alon Schwabe

We are pollutants. Since the Industrial Revolution, countless synthetic substances have started floating, flowing, melting, infecting, disrupting or dwelling within and around us. These pollutants did not exist before and will not now disappear. Quite the opposite. There is a pressing need to map these pollutants in order to understand the roles of modernity and urbanisation in disseminating them across the Earth. Even if ‘recycling’ processes are meant to make ‘dirty’ matter ‘clean,’ most of these chemical compounds are indestructible and will continue to circulate across rivers, soil, groundwater, air, cities, buildings, factories and human and non-human matter. To name but a few of these compounds: carbon dioxide, nitrogen monoxide, arsenic, petroleum, glass fibres, PCBs, DDTs, asbestos, cement, hormones, food colourings, flame retardants, antioxidants and microplastics. In 2019/20, ADS3 will examine these pollutants as a point of departure for understanding how we metabolise the built environment. These substances are not only constructing new environments, but also challenging the boundaries of the spaces and skins we thought we were inhabiting. 

Alaskans Stand With Standing Rock #NoDAPL protest, 2016. Photo: Brenda Norrell/Alaska's Big Village Network/Center for Biological Diversity
Alaskans Stand With Standing Rock #NoDAPL protest, 2016. Photo: Brenda Norrell/Alaska's Big Village Network/Center for Biological Diversity


This year, ADS3 begins a new thematic strand that focuses on incorporating metabolic thinking into architectural discourse. The studio will investigate ways in which the built environment is entangled in biochemical pathways during an era of increasingly evident man-induced alterations to the global climate. By investigating specific substances that result from industrial, agricultural, and urban processes, students will explore the spatial implications and circular trajectories of these substances, following scholarly work by Hannah Landecker, Paul B. Preciado and Elizabeth Hoover, among others. Nonlinear chemical reactions shape both the city and body in a chain of causes and effects. A new age of metabolic disorders has emerged. These disorders manifest in ‘cancer alleys’, new and ever-increasing types of allergies, diseases provoked by the production or use of certain building materials, endocrine disruptors and leaking landfills. These conditions expose the new ‘chronicities of modernity.’

Cancer Alley Louisiana. Photo: Jonathan Belin (CC BY-NC 2.0) / Quartz
Cancer Alley Louisiana. Photo: Jonathan Belin (CC BY-NC 2.0) / Quartz

As formulated in the nineteenth century, the Marxist notion of the ‘metabolic rift’ situates this fracturing of the Earth in the origins of soil exhaustion, when the unequal exchange of guano led to the overuse of chemical fertiliser. Together with air pollution from burning fossil fuels and chemicals discharged in waterways from industrial fabrication processes, this race for ever greater productivity has, paradoxically, resulted in a contemporary crisis of infertility. All of the substances that factories, cities and fields have excreted are now manifesting in dropping sperm counts, the ‘feminisation’ of fish and poisoned breast milk across all species. Hormone-disrupting chemicals and synthetic materials are a factor eroding human health, undermining intelligence and reducing reproductive capacity. More than that, much of the body’s chemical messaging system is vulnerable to disruption by the new chemical compounds that humans have synthesised and released into the environment. This raises the question of how do we inhabit such pollutant flows?


Water set on fire due to high concentration of methane linked to the destabilization of water wells as a result of fracking. Photo: Melanie Stetson Freeman, Getty Images
Water set on fire due to high concentration of methane linked to the destabilization of water wells as a result of fracking. Photo: Melanie Stetson Freeman, Getty Images


The architecture of containment and infrastructure for recycling are well-established processes that have proliferated around the globe. The former often aims to seal and conceal pollution at places that are in close proximity to disadvantaged and minority communities. The latter tends to clean waste while recirculating chemicals and substances into subsidiary economies. In 2019/20, ADS3 will challenge the forms of spatial containment and recycling that have become the preferred ‘solutions’ to the spread of toxicity. Instead we will investigate how refuse cannot stop travelling, moving through an endless series of metabolic relations between humans and more-than-humans. The outcome of the studio aims to challenge the idea of externality and replace it with questions around embodiment of toxic substances trespassing skins, tissues and cells of all shapes and kinds.

Iván Argote, Altruism, 2011 (1’) Film still. Shot in Parisian public transport, where the subway bar is probably one of the objects that people find more disgusting as it is touched by thousands and thousands of unknowns daily
Iván Argote, Altruism, 2011 (1’) Film still. Shot in Parisian public transport, where the subway bar is probably one of the objects that people find more disgusting as it is touched by thousands and thousands of unknowns daily

Following the nuclear annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the unprecedented release of radioactive matter into the earth's atmosphere, the techno-utopian architecture movement of the Metabolists emerged in Japan. This group not only saw architecture as a tool to interact with nature, but also as a means to protect against nature. Yet their postwar visions of techno-nature futures, heavily influenced by mass production and automation, did not see beyond what can be seen by the naked eye. Several decades later, we are confronted with a new understanding of urban metabolic processes, one that expands beyond the organicism of the city as a living body. Perhaps in a more dystopian understanding of urban conglomerates, the aesthetics of refuse – or how we look at refuse without seeing it – have pushed these processes to the edge. To the margins of the less-visible, ugly industries and their workers, rubbish and waste facilities; and disenfranchised sectors of the population. As opposed to the notion of the picturesque urban scenery, these citizens are forced to remain off-scene.

The Radiant, The Otolith Group, 2012. Film still. This film essay represents the invisible aftermath of nuclear fallout in Japan's illuminated cities and evacuated villages in the months immediately following the Fukushima disaster
The Radiant, The Otolith Group, 2012. Film still. This film essay represents the invisible aftermath of nuclear fallout in Japan's illuminated cities and evacuated villages in the months immediately following the Fukushima disaster

ADS3 will generate critical spatial typologies from the point of view of ‘refuse’, including those who are refused and that which is ‘refused.’ Substances build their own political systems as they move, exposing the violence of environmental racism in those places where they are most present. Metabolised through our bodies, the studio will question how we live with refuse? While, at the same time, refusing to live with the structures and processes that created the world we now inhale, absorb, lick and digest.

Women painting alarm clock faces, Ingersoll factory, January 1932. Known as the ‘Radium Girls,’ these workers were putting their health at risk by lip-pointing the brush and ingesting radioactive radium. Photo: Daily Herald Archive/SSPL via Getty Images
Women painting alarm clock faces, Ingersoll factory, January 1932. Known as the ‘Radium Girls,’ these workers were putting their health at risk by lip-pointing the brush and ingesting radioactive radium. Photo: Daily Herald Archive/SSPL via Getty Images


Process and Outcome

Led by student research and inquiry, each ADS3 project will revolve around a specific substance that has been extracted, released, or manufactured by human actions. The aim is to understand how this substance has been absorbed by different bodies and, as a result, changed the ecologies in and around us. Following its chemical and metabolic pathways, these substances – such as testosterone, arsenic, cadmium, or nitrogen – will be studied, mapped and transformed into a site-specific project and intervention. ADS3 also considers juridical frameworks and the tremendous potential of the law as a field for critical spatial practice and action.

Working across mixed media, transdisciplinary collaborations will also be established to help develop the work. As part of the design process, students will set up collaborations with other RCA departments to produce projects in metal, video, ceramic, glass, wood, textile, performance and installation. The intention is to incorporate diverse media as a means to rethink the built environment and challenge dwelling processes, which constantly metabolise toxic environments and climatic changes. These can also open ways to shape and construct social bodies differently, while further contributing to design frameworks of legal resistance.

William Heath, Monster soup commonly called Thames water, being a correct representation of that precious stuff doled out to us!!!, 1828. Image: British Museum
William Heath, Monster soup commonly called Thames water, being a correct representation of that precious stuff doled out to us!!!, 1828. Image: British Museum

Supports & Structure

In 2019/20, the studio begins with a live project. Formulated during an intensive three-week exercise, the live project will critically address the circularities of how polluting substances travel across space and bodies. It will include extensive mapping and design proposals that rethink water systems and other urban ecologies by looking at human and more-than-human networks. Students will use the collective live project to identify specific synthetic substances through which they can investigate multiple sites in the UK and beyond. These investigations will serve as a base to develop a series of interventions for individual projects. Working on various locations and multiple scales, students will create an all-encompassing set of interdisciplinary design tools that support their design agenda.

Throughout the year, the studio will provide a diverse set of skills to guide and support students on how to establish an independent/collective professional practice – through 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 projects and provide an insight into possible forms of practice after graduation.


Tutors

Daniel Fernández Pascual holds an MArch from ETSA Madrid, MSc Urban Design from TU Berlin, MArch from Tongji University Shanghai and a PhD from the Centre for Research Architecture, Goldsmiths University. He has run Cooking Sections with Alon Schwabe since 2013.

Alon Schwabe holds an MA (Hons) in Research Architecture from Goldsmiths University. He has a background in theatre, performance and architecture. He has run  Cooking Sections with Daniel Fernández Pascual since 2013.

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