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ADS3: Refuse Trespassing Our Bodies – The Right to Breathe

Tutors: Daniel Fernández Pascual & Alon Schwabe

In 2020, the phrase ‘I Can’t Breathe’ galvanised a political movement as never before. Despite its longstanding connection to police brutality, the phrase created global outrage after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, leading to calls for the end of deadly chokehold arrests and, more broadly, systemic racism. I Can’t Breathe mobilised resistance and fight, not only for the right to the city, but also the right to live on this planet. I Can’t Breathe exposed the extreme violence against racialized bodies and the slow violence behind residential segregation, exposure to polluted environments, the Covid-19 pandemic and many other related diseases. This asphyxiating condition is repeated across faraway geographies and landscapes that are shaped by the consequences of extractivism and nature’s encroachment. They manifest in respiratory problems, cancer alleys, off-gassing buildings, hormone–disrupting plastic pipes, iron deficiencies, hypoxia in water bodies and devastating wildfires detonated by exhausted soils. In 2020/21, ADS3 incorporates metabolic thinking into architectural discourse to generate critical spatial interventions that address how we are forced to live with refuse. At the same time, we also refuse to live within the structures and processes that have created the world we now inhale, absorb, lick, sweat, and digest. 

Shane DuBay and Carl Fuldner, Red-headed Woodpeckers from the late 1800s to present day lined up in chronological order to show the difference in black carbon pollution on their feathers. Photo: Tristan Spinski / Audubon
Shane DuBay and Carl Fuldner, Red-headed Woodpeckers from the late 1800s to present day lined up in chronological order to show the difference in black carbon pollution on their feathers. Photo: Tristan Spinski / Audubon

“Is my neighbourhood poisoning me?”, asked a recent article in the UK media. There are many ways to answer this question. Both the affirmative and negative options are clear. But what if we don’t know – or are not sure – about the nearby redevelopment of a gasworks facility? In the case of Southall, the increase of neighbours who feet sick at the arrival of a petrol-like smell in the vicinity was telling. These barely perceptible traces are yet another signal of who is at the forefront of toxicity. As widely reported, living in areas with toxic air is one of the reasons people from ethnic minorities have suffered a disproportionate mortality rate from Covid-19.

London Super Sewer under construction as part of the Thames Tideway project. In the image, a segment of the tunnel under the Thames River, aiming to cope with the 39 million tonnes of sewage that flow into the Thames each year. Photo: The Guardian, 2018
London Super Sewer under construction as part of the Thames Tideway project. In the image, a segment of the tunnel under the Thames River, aiming to cope with the 39 million tonnes of sewage that flow into the Thames each year. Photo: The Guardian, 2018
Ulrich Pinder’s Urine Chart for medical diagnosis of human health through the different shades of yellow, 1506. The development of the printing press popularized uroscopy in Europe, as these colour charts became more accessible. Photo: Atlas Obscura
Ulrich Pinder’s Urine Chart for medical diagnosis of human health through the different shades of yellow, 1506. The development of the printing press popularized uroscopy in Europe, as these colour charts became more accessible. Photo: Atlas Obscura

The proliferation of toxic substances circulating through our bodies is so high that it can be argued our bodies are the ones circulating through chemicals, rather than the other way around. If human metabolism was conceptualised in industrial times through calories and food fueling the human motor – with nutritional science as a means to refine wages and labor – today’s post-industrial metabolism is no longer a factory system, but rather a regulatory zone, which feeds on the assessment and calculation of environmental risks. The planet has evolved from matter passing through organisms, to organisms passing through matter. Unfortunately, the pollutants disrupting our cells and hormones are here to stay, embedded inside our DNA. 

In 2020/21, ADS3 will interrogate the domains of imperceptibility, as formulated by Michelle Murphy in Sick Building Syndrome, exploring how exposure doesn’t usually happen when we can sense a hazard, but rather it colonises the most vulnerable bodies and exists under the most precarious conditions. We live and work in airtight buildings, clad and surrounded by new synthetic materials that leach volatile compounds. This confuses the boundaries between buildings and bodies, making façades as porous and permeable as human skins – ensuring humans, nonhumans and the built environment metabolise each other in endless loops. 

Workers at the Union Carbide Building, New York (SOM, 1957-60). Modernist office spaces began incorporating new synthetic petrochemical materials in their interior design, office staples and printers. Photo: Ezra Stoller / Esto
Workers at the Union Carbide Building, New York (SOM, 1957-60). Modernist office spaces began incorporating new synthetic petrochemical materials in their interior design, office staples and printers. Photo: Ezra Stoller / Esto

This year, we will investigate ways in which the built environment is entangled in biochemical pathways during this era of increasingly obvious human-induced alterations to the global climate. By tracing specific substances and molecules that result from industrial, agricultural, and urban processes, students will explore the spatial implications and circular trajectories of these substances. This will allow a charting of the nonlinear chemical reactions, which shape both the body and the city in an endless chain of causes and affects. This new age of metabolic disorders are 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 that especially affect the disenfranchised, racially and economically discriminated sectors of society. 

Charlotte Toro, Four Yellow Ziggurats (ADS3, RCA 2019/20) traced the 25-ft tall pyramids of sulphur extracted from tar sands in Alberta, Canada. Photo: Gord McKenna
Charlotte Toro, Four Yellow Ziggurats (ADS3, RCA 2019/20) traced the 25-ft tall pyramids of sulphur extracted from tar sands in Alberta, Canada. Photo: Gord McKenna, ADS3
Tonderai Maboreke, The Right To Breathe. Repurposing of caravan homes in England to replace all formaldehyde-based materials contributing to indoor off-gassing (ADS3, RCA 2019/20)
Tonderai Maboreke, The Right To Breathe. Repurposing of caravan homes in England to replace all formaldehyde-based materials contributing to indoor off-gassing (ADS3, RCA 2019/20)

Embedded in questions of environmental racism, ecocide and slow violence, the studio looks at the work of Vanessa Agard-Jones, Elizabeth Hoover, Hannah Landecker, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Kathryn Yusoff, Robert Bullard and Arun Agrawal, among others, to understand this toxic drift. And to unlearn whiteness and the structures supporting it, to decolonise spatial knowledge and become aware of how gendered exposures are intimately connected to non–productive sex, reproductive justice and queer futurity. Plastiglomerates become the new rocks for the foundations of the present.

John Gerrard, Western Flag (Spindletop, Texas), 2017, depicts the site of the 'Lucas Gusher' - the world's first major oil find - in Spindletop, Texas in 1901, now barren and exhausted
John Gerrard, Western Flag (Spindletop, Texas), 2017, depicts the site of the 'Lucas Gusher' - the world's first major oil find - in Spindletop, Texas in 1901, now barren and exhausted

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.

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.

Cyprian Boateng, A Bloom in Disruption (ADS3, RCA 2019/20) investigated cyanobacteria and how synthetic fertiliser discharge is suffocating the Great Lakes. A satellite view of a 2017 harmful algal bloom in Lake Erie. Photo: NASA Earth Observatory
Cyprian Boateng, A Bloom in Disruption (ADS3, RCA 2019/20) investigated cyanobacteria and how synthetic fertiliser discharge is suffocating the Great Lakes. A satellite view of a 2017 harmful algal bloom in Lake Erie. Photo: NASA Earth Observatory
Zina Saro-Wiwa, Karikpo Pipeline (2015). 5-channel video, film still. Performed on the site of both visible and invisible oil infrastructure in the Niger Delta, site of the genocide against the Ogoni, perpetraded since the 1950s to fuel oil demand
Zina Saro-Wiwa, Karikpo Pipeline (2015). 5-channel video, film still. Performed on the site of both visible and invisible oil infrastructure in the Niger Delta, site of the genocide against the Ogoni, perpetraded since the 1950s to fuel oil demand

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.

Rachel Housley’s Osteoconstruction (ADS3, RCA 2019/20) uncovers the timeline of calcium metabolism through the resurgence of rickets in the UK, drawing parallels between calcium formations in the architecture of the cell and the quarry
Rachel Housley’s Osteoconstruction (ADS3, RCA 2019/20) uncovers the timeline of calcium metabolism through the resurgence of rickets in the UK, drawing parallels between calcium formations in the architecture of the cell and the quarry
Mel Chin, Revival Field, 1991-ongoing. Pig's Eye hazardous waste Landfill, near St. Paul, Minnesota, in conjunction with Dr. Rufus Chaney, senior research agronomist, USDA. Photo: Walker Art Center Library and Archives
Mel Chin, Revival Field, 1991-ongoing. Pig's Eye hazardous waste Landfill, near St. Paul, Minnesota, in conjunction with Dr. Rufus Chaney, senior research agronomist, USDA. Photo: Walker Art Center Library and Archives

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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