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Studio Descriptors 2017/18

Environmental Architecture

Live Project-based studio work forms the core of learning in the MA Environmental Architecture programme; collaboration with external partners and knowledge exchange are central to our pedagogical model. 

Each Studio will develop collaborative design-led research around a unique case study. Studios work on the same case for a four-year period. As the programme grows, each new Studio will introduce a new case study. Read on for information on our current studio.

Studio 1: Environmental Futures

Architecture and green technologies in the lithium triangle

In a context of transition from fossil fuels to 'clean' energy, the MA in Environmental Architecture will explore the role that architecture can have in promoting new environmental futures. As models of sustainable urbanism in the developed countries promote the transition away from oil and towards electric power, the global production networks and global commodity chains that support this trend through the exploitation of new resource bases, reconfigure severely extensive territories in the global south. This project will particularly focus on the social and ecological tensions that characterise processes of lithium extraction across Chile, Argentina and Bolivia - an area also known as the 'lithium triangle' – highlighting the disputes between indigenous populations and global mining corporations.


Recent decades have witnessed a shift from an energy paradigm based on the extraction of fossil fuels to one based on the development of sustainable or 'green' technologies. Reducing emissions, for instance, is necessary to attain the objectives of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). In this context, sustainable development models are increasingly focusing on low-carbon, renewable and clean energy consumption. As electric power is being presented as the common thread of various clean technologies, the storage capacity question is becoming a central issue, both in terms of technological innovation, political economy and geopolitical antagonism. With the transition away from fossil fuels, extractivism is not superseded, but rather reinvented in new forms that are accompanied by new modes of territorial organisation and social and ecological tensions. 

Evaporation ponds, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia (David Mercado/Reuters).
Evaporation ponds, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
© (David Mercado/Reuters).


Within this context, lithium has become a unique commodity. From solar panels, to wind farms, laptops, cell-phones or electrical vehicles, most green technologies are electricity-based and dependent on the use of high-performance lithium-ion batteries for storing energy. Because of that, in the last two decades the demand for lithium has drastically risen. Lithium use in rechargeable batteries increased from 0 per cent of the market share in 1991 to 80 per cent in 2007 and the European Commission has stated that the tonnage of lithium used in portable batteries could increase ten-fold between 2010 and 2020.[1] It could be argued that lithium is the new oil.


At the same time, the global reserves of lithium are characterised by an extreme geographic specificity, which is naturally followed by the global extraction industry: 70 per cent of the world's exploitable reserves of lithium are located in the 'lithium triangle' made by salt flats of Uyuni in Bolivia, Atacama in Chile and Hombre Muerto in Argentina. Salt flats can be described as dried lake beds with underground reservoirs that contain high concentrations of dissolved salts, such as lithium, potassium, and sodium. The extraction process requires holes to be drilled into the salt flats and brine to be pumped to the surface, where it is left to evaporate in ponds. This allows lithium carbonate to be extracted through a chemical process. The Salar (salt-flat) de Atacama in Chile, containing 27 per cent of the world's lithium reserve base, is the world's largest and purest active source of lithium. As of 2008, it provided almost 30 per cent of the world's lithium carbonate supply. There are two main companies extracting in the salt-flat: Sociedad Quimica y Minera de Chile S.A, and Rockwood Holdings. Together they have set hundreds of evaporation ponds, recovery plants, processing infrastructures, kilometres of access roads and connections to highways, water storage tanks, admin areas, canteens, parking lots, etc. In doing so, they continue the long history of extraction in the Atacama, starting with the colonial quest for gold, later superseded by the extraction of nitrates, which in turn gave way to the extraction of copper, for which Chile is still the leading global exporter.


Following closely to its precedents, the extraction of lithium has destabilised the social and ecological systems within which it is embedded. On the one hand, the process of extraction and the development of associated infrastructures have affected watercourses, aquifers, soil flora and fauna. Water depletion, water and soil contamination, or air pollution are the most common problems. On the other hand, the salt-flats are at the centre of complex social ecologies. As oases in the desert, they are essential for indigenous peoples, as their marshes, water and pasture are needed for agro-pastoral activities. The disruptive nature of lithium extraction is particularly evident in the areas surrounding the Salar de Atacama in Chile or around the Salar de Hombre Muerto in Argentina where several cases of water over-consumption and contamination have been reported. The effects of this are magnified by the fact that the Atacama Desert is the driest place on earth, with average precipitations of only 15 millimetres per year. 

At the same time, the changing organic composition of labour in the mining sector, with operations become more capital intensive and the proliferation of automation and specialisation, raises important questions in relation to labour issues, both for the indigenous displaced populations, and the migrant workers. The overall disruption of the social fabric, and its sensitive relation to ecological resources and commons, has started to create considerable tensions. In recent years, local indigenous organisations have started to mobilise against lithium extraction, such as the Board of the Communities of the Guayatayoc y Salinas Grandes Basin in Argentina or the Consejo de Pueblos Atacamenõs in Chile. Working in collaboration with lawyers and environmentalist NGOs these communities are fighting for the right for their views to be taken into consideration before the approval of new development plans. At stake is both water – a rare and precious commodity in desert areas - but more importantly the potential for alternative models of development. 


The lithium triangle is a unique case globally, both for its geo-climatic conditions, and for its unique location at the interception of different models of development. It exemplifies the multiscalar and interconnected processes of planetary urbanisation, revealing the real costs of 'green', economies. To a significant degree, this new commodity frontier is connected with emerging forms of uneven development, social and ecological. The more cities, regions and in general major agglomerations in the developing world adopt clean, electric power solutions for sustainable development, the more pressure is added to the major extractive operational landscapes in the periphery. Only by taking into consideration these 'external', extreme ends of commodity frontiers, can questions of sustainable development be addressed meaningfully and holistically. It is within this very context that the MA Environmental Architecture programme sets out to intervene. At stake is the opportunity for unexpected alliances between research and practice, towards the imagination of new environmental futures.

Research Partners

Dr Alonso Barros, Director, Atacama Desert Foundation

Dr Jorge Vergara-Castro, Université Paris III

Indigenous Peoples March, Salta
Indigenous Peoples March, Salta