Mess-Mate Co-Designers

The place of human-kind is in a precarious state these days. The human link in the web of life is daily being gently eroded by developments in science, animal-studies and by thinkers and philosophers such as Donna Haraway, quoted above. This is not necessarily a problem or bad thing, but simply a change, an opportunity.
image credit: The Starn Brothers

Recently, it was announced that Animal Architecture founder and editor Edward (Ned) Dodington had been selected to attend as a presenter at the 101st ACSA conference (March 21-24, 2013, San Francisco). He will be sitting on the panel titled Architecture’s Next Companion Species, organized by Mason White (University of Toronto). Joining him on the panel with Matthew Spremuli and Fei-Ling Tseng (University of Toronto), Ariane Lourie Harrison (Yale University), and Joyce Hwang (University at Buffalo, SUNY).

A preview of the paper he will present is included below.

More details about the conference can be found here.

“To be one is always to become with many.[i]

The place of human-kind is in a precarious state these days. The human link in the web of life is daily being gently eroded by developments in science, animal-studies and by thinkers and philosophers such as Donna Haraway, quoted above. This is not necessarily a problem or bad thing, but simply a change, an opportunity.

Our species-wide transition is being played out, not without some distress, across our current ecological, biological, theoretical, metaphysical and stylistic worlds often with the same resounding conclusion: “to be one is to become with many.” To paraphrase, we are no longer singularly humans but something more, something multiple.  For Haraway to be come with many is an awareness of the reality of our convoluted, messy, “knotted” existence with a whole host of other sometimes smaller sometimes larger animals. These are the animals that live in and around us, bacteria for example, that make our human lives possible and without whom we could not be. In practice this translates into increased respect for animal life, a greater appreciation for our connectedness to the webs of life around us and a holistic appreciation for our own bodies.

To become with many suggests a radical paradigm shift in design. In light of Haraway’s quote above, past and current architecture appears to be part of an outdated human-centric mindset where “to be one is always to be different from others.” This is no-longer the case. That period is over.

Through this paper we will be introduced to several architectural projects that, though wildly different in almost every way, show us how as designers, architects and humans we can more actively engage our mess-mate codesigners to produce rich and diverse habitats for all. We will see that to become with many in the built world is no different from the biological – and that infact there is no space separating the two. We will see however that while architecturally, the biophilic sentiments remain the same the practice is perhaps a bit more confounding. And lastly, the projects collected here will remind us that outside of the world of Mathematics there is no singularity. We are always enmeshed in the lives of others and always becoming with many. Isn’t it time we built this way?

But to redirect the momentum of thousands of years of human-centric design is no small task. One of the central assumptions of this body of research is that architecture has had a historically negative relationship to non-human life. Each project discussed here-in, in some way or another, takes this assumption as the first point of departure and progress is measured according to the reversal, exposure or confounding of this trend.

To engage in extra-human design proposals is to engage in a redefinition of the very essence of architectural production itself.  From its early beginnings, evolving out of the agrarian huts of early human societies, architecture has been complicit in a type of speciesist regime – preferencing some species over others (these animals inside, those animals outside) and as a tool for agriculture and husbandry (pens, barns, coops, and slaughterhouses). Eventually this strain of agro-architecture has evolved into a complicit bystander, if not active participant in the mass-slaughter of factory farmed animals and as an all too mute participant in the rampant development of mass-produced suburban housing. So, whether it has been acknowledged as such or not, architecture has always had a role in mediating the relationship between human-life and animal-life. Moreover, the history of this lineage is an essential component to architecture per se. It is, we might say, a dominant strand in the DNA of architectural production — and now, perhaps seen as an unfortunate one.

Regardless of its past however, there is a deep connection between architecture, humans and our myriad companion species. In fact, despite the concerted efforts of hard-working exterminators and pest-controllers, many of these species currently play a very active role in the shaping, planning and maintenance of our structures. So one might correctly say that many of the structures that currently stand are in a way already engaged in a process of becoming with many – however it’s most likely not quite what we had in mind.

The good news is that Architecture, literal architecture, is for better or worse, at its core, an extension of the earth and therefore already connected to the life around it. It is literally and figuratively at its foundation connected to and engaged in a relationship with our synanthropic friends. The question now is how to shape and improve the quality, color and caliber of that relationship. Architects and designers will debate this point, but if we speak honestly about architecture we are talking about a kind of materiality – an objectness that under any circumstance will ultimately be manifest in material and therefore of the earth. It is this rootedness in an earthly materiality that can provide a common point of connection across species, invite cross-species collaborations and bring our mess-mate codesigners to the table. Afterall we are all part of life together.


to be continued…

 [i] Donna Haraway, When Species Meet, 4.

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