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Studio 1: The Lithium Triangle

MA Environmental Architecture

Architectural Strategies for Changing Environments

In the context of the global transition from fossil fuels to 'clean' energy, the Lithium Triangle Research Studio will explore architecture’s contribution to new environmental futures. As models of sustainable urbanism in developed countries promote the transition away from oil and towards electric power, the production networks and global commodity chains that support this trend severely damage territories and ecosystems in the global south. This project will focus on the political and ecological tensions that characterise processes of lithium extraction across Chile, Argentina and Bolivia – an area also known as the 'lithium triangle' – with a focus on the disputes between indigenous populations and global mining corporations. Characteristic of the Lithium Triangle are two key topics in contemporary environmental research: the development of carbon-free technologies and the importance of non-western environmental concepts. In 2018/19 the Lithium Triangle Research Studio will ask: how can these two come together to inform the practice of environmental architecture?


Rockwood lithium mining facilities, Salar de Atacama, Chile
Rockwood lithium mining facilities, Salar de Atacama, Chile
Through collaborative research methods and partnerships with organisations on the ground, this studio will explore what can be the role of architecture and design in reconfiguring environmental disputes, both by engaged research, live projects, and the development of speculative design propositions.

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. All climate change adaptation and mitigation pathways set out by the IPCC depend on decarbonisation to achieve their goal. Reducing emissions is necessary to attain the objectives of the Paris Accord and 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, storage capacity is becoming a central issue, both in terms of technological innovation, political economy and geopolitical antagonism. 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.

Seventy 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 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 evaporation ponds, 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.

The extraction of lithium has destabilised the social and ecological systems within which it is embedded. The 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. Brine is rich in water while containing only traces of lithium. This means that in average, for each ton of lithium are required 500,000 gallons of water. However, 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. When a lagoon dries out as a result of lithium mining, it's not just a fragile ecosystem with unique biodiversity that disappears, but also a series of associated rituals and modes of living. 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-extraction 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 10 millimetres per year, and with an expected reduction of water streaming from mountains, due melting glaciers as a result of global climate change.

Environmental Disputes

Dried out lagoons, Salar de Atacama
Dried out lagoons, Salar de Atacama, 2018

The Lithium Triangle is a unique case globally, both for its geo-climatic conditions as for exemplifying the multiscalar dimensions of planetary development, revealing the real costs of 'green', technologies. But the Lithium Triangle is also a contested site, at the interception of different models of development, between global networks, regional alliances, national and local projects. It is a site where radically opposing ideas of environmental development are being fought for, something that becomes particularly evident when contrasting the global transition to green/clean technologies, with ideas of post-development promoted by Andean indigenous communities. In fact, it is not a coincidence that 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 environmentalists these and many other communities are fighting not only against water appropriation and the destruction of ecosystems, but more importantly for the right to forms of development based on their ancestral understanding of territory as coexistence (ayllu) and of reciprocity (ayni). Such moves are particularly relevant in a contemporary context where indigenous-based forms of environmental management are becoming increasingly explored (in face of failed western paradigms of nature protection); as well as in the context of decolonising modes of knowledge production underpinning environmental sciences, towards an intercultural perspective that recognises the knowledges emerging from indigenous practices. For these reasons, the Lithium Triangle is not so much a site where resistance to resource extraction is taking place, as it is a site where new alliances between so-far opposing forms of environmental thinking and practice are being fostered.


Research meeting with Rolando Humire, S Pedro Atacama
Research meeting with Rolando Humire, S Pedro Atacama, 2018

It is within this very context that the Lithium Triangle Research Studio sets out to intervene. At stake is the opportunity for unexpected alliances between research and practice, towards the imagination of new environmental futures. Now in its 2nd year, the Lithium Triangle is a four-year research project that aims at producing a decisive contribution to the field of environmental architecture. This is a design-based research studio, which means that design is not seen as an end result, but a mechanism of investigating environmental relations, and of asking new and unexpected questions. 

Students are asked to work collaboratively across a broad range of analytical and representational tools, from mapping and remote-sensing, to model-making, photography, film or animation. Students are asked to use design as a way of speculating on strategies and scenarios and to work towards the development of pilots of possible interventions. This is also a studio that relies heavily on collaborations with non-academic partners and organisations. As part of its ethics of knowledge-exchange, a component of the research produced by students will always be returned to partners on the ground, edited according to the given context and necessity of potential end-users.

In 2018/19 we will be focusing in particular on the following issues:

  • The contribution of Andean environmental concepts to current environmental thinking and architecture.
  • The role of geometry in spatializing forms of environmental coexistence.
  • The encounter between new technologies and indigenous practices.
  • The role of digital and data management platforms in supporting forms of social organisation at the scale of Lithium Triangle.

Chug Chug Geoglyphs, Atacama Desert
Chug Chug Geoglyphs, Atacama Desert


Dr Alonso Barros: Lawyer (PUCCh) and PhD (University of Cambridge) with two decades of experience in advocacy and anthropology involving projects affecting indigenous peoples territories in Latin America. Since 2013, he works as a researcher and litigation lawyer, mediator and arbiter on behalf of indigenous peoples and communities involved with the extractive industry in the Atacama desert.

Dr Gonzalo Pimentel: Social Anthropologist and Archeologist, he is the Director of the Atacama Desert Foundation, Chile, with a long track record of working with and supporting indigenous communities in their environmental disputes against mining companies.

Rolando Humire: Biochemist and Indigenous Leader. Was the President of the Consejo de Pueblos Atacameños, and in that position led the negotiations with the Chilean government for the regulation of lithium extraction facilities in the Atacama Salt Flat.