“It’s design against extinction.”
Interview with Mitchell Joachim, the co-founder of Terreform ONE, about questions of resilience, the imaginative power and designers-as-inventors.
The futures of building are now, and architects across the world are contributing to it. One of them is Mitchell Joachim, the co-founder of Terreform ONE, a nonprofit architectural research group, and Associate Professor of Practice at NYU. The architect and urban designer with degrees from Harvard and Columbia Universities and a PhD in computation from MIT received numerous awards and fellowships, such as the Architizer A+ Award and Time magazine’s Best Invention with MIT Smart Cities Car. He began his career at the offices of Frank Gehry and I.M. Pei, and his design work has been exhibited at MoMA and the Venice Biennale. Topos spoke with him about his practice and his approach to architectural design, questions of resilience, the imaginative power of Science Fiction and designers-as-inventors.
Topos: Hello Mitchell Joachim, great to have you in Munich! There are a couple of things you’re working on that I’d like to talk about. I had a look at your website, and it seems all things future …
Mitchell Joachim: Websites, they seem to be sprawling …
Websites! All things future, the term resilience, and what the outlook of the architectural and urban design profession is are things I’d like to talk to you about. What do architecture and urban design need to do to move forward? What you would like to achieve with your practice?
We’ve had a thirteen year run so far, which is pretty good. I don’t know what that makes me, mid-career, starting to become something more senior, I don’t know. But we did have a retreat recently, our board of directors, our partners, our cofounders, our executive director. We went someplace Upstate New York and we decided that we need to push ourselves further. There are a lot of folks working on environmental issues in architecture. There are a lot of folks doing sustainability. And that is a good thing. However, we decided that we have to change the game a little bit and be more responsible. We looked at this survey of how we do green in the United States, Europe, and Asia. There is a point system in place, LEED, BREEAM, Living Building Challenge, Energy Star. If you add them all up, and there is a group that did this in Copenhagen, less than 5 percent of those points that you get for being green go towards biodiversity. So, less than 5 percent goes to anything else, any other species or any other part of the landscape. It doesn’t mean it’s bad to get points for using a green facade system. That’s a really good thing. But if you’re killing a lizard or butterfly or if you’re complicit in wiping out some kind of fox or whatever is out there, that’s not good. Especially if you don’t even get points for it. Some of the systems don’t even give points. So, to be more effective in what we’re so passionate about, we decided to change our basic mode of operation. It’s going to be design against extinction. Everything we do serves to stop the destruction of some kind of creature. We looked at the statistics, the stats are sickening. We’ll lose a million of these species by the end of the decade. That’s like every other fish, bird, insect on the planet. We’re apparently in the middle of an insect apocalypse. Development does that. That includes people in real estate, people in planning, people who work in cities and outside of cities and in the suburbs, and not least, architects. We’re all part of this game that is fragmenting territories and destroying creatures. Every seven minutes – by the time we’re done with this interview – six or seven species will be wiped off the face of the earth for good. So, my kids will never see some of these beautiful creatures, even we won’t. We are destroying the world for the next generation. I think if we’re going to fight for something, let’s fight for something specific, the right to life. For other things and beings that don’t have voices. So we retooled our game, not just to work in the environment, that’s already a good thing, but to really focus on how it affects other species. Let’s do something different.
“We decided to change our basic mode of operation. It’s going to be design against extinction.”
If you would have to pick out something material and particular and architecture-related that affects practice as we know it thus far, in which way would what you do be specifically different?
We do everything kind of differently.
As part of a comprehensive approach?
Yes. Concrete, glass, steel pretty much had its century or two. Organic architects like Frank Lloyd Wright – I’ll just pick on the American [laughter] – he thought he was doing organic architecture, but it was really decorative. There are ideas about inside and outside, there were ideas about landscape. Certainly brilliant, part of the “American Sublime”. But it’s not organic. So, we want to use materials that are either grown in a lab, that are living in the first place or that are bits of nature without much modification whatsoever. As they are, tuned or tweaked for human programmatic use. So, whether it’s grafting woody plants into specific geometries, or working with complex maps out of e-coli, or projects that we’re doing with mycelium or fungus … we are working with crickets as a form of protein consumption. We’re always using some kind of living organism and rethinking the actual material. Biomaterials is the term. It’s not biomimicry. If anyone says I’m a biomimicrist …
You’ll get angry!
I’ll get angry. [laughter] I mean, biomimicry is OK, it’s good, it’s better than not doing biomimicry. But we’re not here to copy nature. It’s not mimesis. We’re using actual nature in order to learn from and with it. We’re doing a project that is about co-building with bees. So, bees are integrated in the construction process. It’s fascinating, because no computer can do that. I have a PhD in computation, and I can tell you, they don’t do that.
And you ought to know!
I would think so. [laughter] But then again, maybe the kids are smarter these days.
That’s fair enough.
And that is what made Gehry special. Computation would do one thing, but then he would mess it up with his hands. The hand is one of the greatest instruments for computation imaginable.
As seen in the Simpsons episode! [laughter]
That’s actually one of his, Frank’s, only things he has in his office. A hockey jersey of the Toronto Maple Leafs that has his name on it and a Simpsons image of him as a Simpsons character. All his other awards don’t mean as much to him.
And that is something one can be really be proud of! Thinking about what you said, it seems to me what you’re aiming at is a non-mortality oriented architecture?
That’s good, non-mortality oriented …
A non-deadly architecture?
It’s been coined here!
I tend to be a sloganizer, that’s kind of my secret superpower.
You’re good! [laughter]
Thank you very much, it’s much appreciated! I’m also getting an idea of how you might understand resilience. How do you understand it, and what do you think are the greatest inhibitors to achieving resilience?
Resilience in regenerative, also socio-ecological design thinking are very similar camps and they’re all extremely good. The challenge is a capricious public, especially in the United States. They’re not sure, they don’t understand it fully, the economics behind it haven’t been worked out long enough as to make a true commitment or turn in order to change the game. Neither is political leadership on board. If you want to get policy in place for some of these things, they want to have more science, more case studies, more examples before they’re going to vote for something that no one else is supporting. So, it’s the human factor. This silo mentality is the biggest inhibitor. Not the engineering, not the science, not the authorship of the design. Those communities are really hellbent on doing something. And more of such projects are being realized. Not fast enough and certainly not enough of it, anywhere, but we have to go there. Also, before you get to resilience in design, you may want to consider whether we should build anything at all – reduction in the first place is probably an even better principle. This is more standard to what happens in Europe than what happens in the United States. It’s so easy to build on virgin green land in the US. The idea that you do adaptive reuse is problematic, its just more expensive. And it’s really hard to convince a client to use a product like bamboo flooring if it’s three times the cost. They don’t have a hundred years of research compared to oak or some kind of stone where they know if they spill something on it or if they use a wax or some kind of cleaning material, it’s not going to damage the flooring or they even have to replace their floor. They want to stick with the things that have been in use in the building trades for a long time. And that, in itself, represents a certain form of resilience, but the amount of carbon required to create any of those materials is unacceptable.
“It’s up to design to offer products or a kind of a system change that people can choose to be a part of.”
So, essentially, one factor is people, the other is politics?
Yes. That might be obvious bromide, but it’s a bromide that’s not easy to change. We’re also not used to changing behaviors. Some of this is really hard to do. I think it’s up to design to offer products or a kind of a system change that people can choose to be a part of.
Where does the inspiration come from for these approaches?
There was this exciting moment under Kennedy, the NASA program, which is a part of our typeface, where the United States said, let’s do something amazing – for the entire world. We went from Kitty Hawk, the first flights, in what, fifty years? to the Apollo missions. So, that’s embedded in our typeface. Not so much in terms of “let’s return to that nostalgia”, but a general “oh my gosh! let’s be visionary, let’s change the game and let’s do it” mentality.
How does this mindset inform you projects?
Through optimism. In that time period, also, coming from the 70s, when I was born, that culture I grew up in, it was just amazing. That’s when Science Fiction exploded …
Star Wars …
Star Wars is amazing. It’s becoming a myth equivalent to something like the Bible.
“Without these fictional narratives, we wouldn’t have the architecture that we have today.”
Yeah, which is scary!
Which is scary … [laughter] Without these fictional narratives, we wouldn’t have the architecture that we have today. We wouldn’t have iPhones. We wouldn’t have the world that we live in. It’s the scenarios that people comprehend, together, universally, like Mr. Spock’s tricorder. It’s amazing! As a kid, I never thought I’d have all the bits of information in this tool, talk to a ship in outer space or anybody on the planet while looking at plants and be able to find out what type of species they are. It’s basically Google, it’s everything in one. And that’s what an iPhone is, what these handheld technologies are. And we’ve accepted that. At first we thought it would be impossible, but this super-popular narrative in Science Fiction got us there. If you’re not inspired by Science Fiction, then you shouldn’t be in design.
That’s very inspiring, I would wholeheartedly agree with that!
Science Fiction is so powerful in architecture. And, of course, it also comes from the culture of architecture. A lot of people I graduated with went off to work on movies like Batman and Judge Dredd and make all the city scenes in Star Trek and Star Wars. It’s delivered by film, yet sculpted by architects.
In my view there is a disconnect between the futuristic potential on the one hand and the aesthetics of some products on the other – meaning that the final product can still have aesthetics that don’t immediately connect to being overtly futuristic.
So it won’t look like metropolis?
So it doesn’t look like metropolis, and instead, it’ll look like a typical Cape Cod house or whatever.
That’s actually a really good point. Having a classical Cape Cod house or an English Tudor or Spanish Colonial and the entire inside is a web of smart infrastructure, that’s where we’re headed. All the major corporations are doing that. Amazon is already in our homes, Google is in our homes, we use smart metering and thermostat systems to anything that controls TV and stereo systems. Technology such as engineered lumber is becoming super-sophisticated. So, it looks like the same stick-build from the 50s, but is actually a lot smarter and certainly heavily engineered. It could be pre-assembled, etc. So, it’s getting a lot better. The reason for the aesthetics that you point out is that banks loan money for houses that sell. And houses that sell look like what mom’s and dad’s house and grandpa’s house looked like. That still sticks. It’s always harder to sell a modern-looking house than something more traditional. I don’t know when that’s going to change, but that’s probably a 50 or 100 year shift. It doesn’t mean that it’s a bad thing or a good thing.
It’s just seems that’s the way it is. Buildings and architecture are perceived by and recognized by the consumer, so if the consumer has a problem recognizing the product, the person who produces it has a problem, too. In terms of cars, I recall this one case where the former head designer of BMW, Chris Bangle, designed the new 7 model, and there was an uproar because that wasn’t what buyers considered a BMW 7 to be. The company redesigned it in ways that were more familiar to the customer.
And that’s a car, too. [laughter] So, I was actually in the car group at MIT, and we did a lot of design research.
We had cars designed that were soft and made out of materials that were incredibly lightweight, that were skinned over parametrically controlled ribs and other systems. And we tested how they responded aerodynamically. These cars were aerodynamic in more than one direction. When turning the wind force doesn’t have the same effect as it does over a stiff body. So we looked at vehicles that could change dynamics. The F1 racers did that with fins and other carefully calibrated parts. We researched suitable materials such as super thin carbon fibre. But there is brand messaging too, and BMW obviously has that. You don’t really have that with houses, unless you’re a starchitect. You make a BMW look like something you’ve never seen before … and actually, I love BMWs, the i8 is amazing.
“I’m sorry, but Rem Koolhaas didn’t do all those things by himself.”
Speaking of starchitects, it seems we’re moving in the exact opposite direction. Are they slowly fading away?
Yes. So, a really good friend, Bjarke Ingels, I’ve known him since before he was Bjarke Ingels … [laughter] He’s a sweetheart, he’s great. I think he’s going to be the last of his kind. I think working in teams that are more anonymous, that recognize that collaboration in teams gets projects done, is the future. I’m sorry, but Rem Koolhaas didn’t do all those things by himself.
He didn’t have to!
He didn’t have to. I think architects want to move, shift, work in ways which aren’t necessarily corporate, but in small, tight groups that have names that don’t necessarily celebrate one or two figureheads. It’s an ongoing trend. I support it completely. It’s something I can’t predict entirely, but I don’t see a great future in starchitecture. The term itself is derogatory. But people still want that messaging. Heatherwick gets building commissions, so people can say, “I have a Heatherwick.” So, the more these developers need it, that will be what they’re doing. They also pay a premium price for that.
“I don’t need to design for the super-wealthy to make the world a better place.”
Since you’re also teaching, what would your advice be to students?
Architecture is the best field on the planet and deploys the most powerful thing we have, which is the imagination. The most powerful tool humans have is our creative power, our imagination. Architecture is probably the best profession, probably art as well, but more so architecture, where you can learn to rationally move through a process and get things executed on a totally different scale. Meet your own messaging and your own kind of idiosyncratic selfish ideas, fine. But also make the world a better place and have a dialog which will last for centuries. Confront the work of people who worked a hundred years ago and do work that projects 100 years into the future. I think students can allow themselves to be inventors. I don’t’ think we really recognize that design is a form of invention. The designer-as-inventor-category, that’s where I fit in, a lot of my colleagues fit in. When you look at real-world problems and you work very hard to come up with solutions that are only limited by the power of the information you have access to and your own understanding of your imagination. Developing something that could work for almost no money and changes the game. When you design for the other 99 percent. I love that. I don’t need to design for the super-wealthy to make the world a better place. By using the power of invention and do products like the Life Straw or the Hippo Roller for women who carry water 8 miles every day, a barrel with a push stick, that comes out of the realm of design.
From what I’m seeing there is a lot more sensitivity with regards to issues of socially responsible design. Instead of people coming in and saying, “this is what we’re going to do”, employing a model where we say, “let’s ask the people who are involved.” Because in that case a product becomes more sustainable, where everybody can agree it is something that benefits those involved, and is not imposed from the outside or above.
At NYU, where I’m teaching, Decolonization is huge. Basically everything we have been teaching students thus far is “white men with beards”. From Socrates to Shakespeare to Foucault.
Also, when trying to listen to the voices that have something to say, sometimes they’re not the loudest voices.
That is totally true. I absolutely agree. We do have a “West is best” mentality. We have to, as much as possible, decolonize that and think about what is possible in a different context. I like doing the work I do, I like keeping it in New York, because I know New York. It’s a global city. It also depends on how woke you are. I don’t know if you have that term in German …
Yes we do! We have a different word for it though. [laughter]
Both: WOHK! [laughter]
Excellent! Thank you very much!
It’s good to be here.
Mitchell Joachim, Maria Aiolova and Terreform ONE recently published “Design with Life”. The book presents essays and projects featuring new approaches in socio-ecological design thinking that intersect with architecture, urban systems and synthetic biology. “Design with Life” includes numerous contributions by guest authors.
Mitchell Joachim, Maria Aiolova, Terreform ONE (2020): Design with Life. Biotech Architecture and Resilient Cities. Actar Publishers (420 pages).