On Ash Clouds and Snow Storms

I’ve discovered this new electronic technique that creates new speech out of stuff that’s already there.
Brian Eno

Iceland is volcanically and geologically active. The interior mainly consists of a plateau characterised by sand fields, mountains and glaciers, while many glacial rivers flow to the sea through the lowlands. In this context, Eyjafjallajökull is one of the Iceland’s smaller ice caps located in the far south of the island. It covers the caldera of a volcano 1,666 metres [5,466 ft] in height that has erupted relatively frequently since the last ice age. Eyjafjallajokull most recent eruptions in 2010 were the cause of huge disruption to air travel across western and northern Europe and also caused big impact on farming, harvesting or grazing livestock. We can also read that samples of volcanic ash collected near the eruption showed a silica concentration of 58%—much higher than in the lava flows.

Interesting context for an architecture and landscape course, isn’t it?

Focused on understanding the complex reality of nonbuilt environments beyond poetic contemplation or scientific analysis, The Collector, On Ash Clouds is a course at the Master in Landscape Design Program from Harvard GSD with Paisajes Emergentes as visiting professors, which aims to register, interpret and draw weather and natural phenomenon with the intention of use the generated archive as raw material for the design process of any landscape project.

The course was divided into three major bodies of research*, which was done between a visited site [USA] and a non visited place [Iceland]:

[1] Weather and atmosphere
Natural phenomena are the raw materials used to generate a projected landscape. In this way architecture is not separated from Phenomena, it doesn’t resist them or reject them, it lets them interact. When a given site has no expressive natural phenomena, or none that are appealing to us, we should consider the possibility of de-contextualizing a foreign phenomenon and artificially relocating it.

[2] Emerging Landscapes
Architecture reacts to sites. But we are not interested in poetic, pictorial or nostalgic relationships with locations; instead we look for its emerging qualities to make visible what lies somehow unseen to the public. Our projects want to become systems by which what is concealed becomes manifested. Those manifestations may end up being violent, wild, slow, or may not happen at all. We acknowledge architecture’s limitations in predicting the behavior of nature over time and we accept the risk involved, and make it part of the project.

[3] Drawings and photography
As we conceive them, pictures aren’t just means to represent projects; actually they are design tools at early stages. They permit intuitive speculation on the sceneries the project might face. Sometimes they are precise sketches, others raw collages pointing at interesting aspects. Photography has been a core element to our work, as it lets us document places that we later decontextualize to be used as raw material for design. You could say some projects are just like those images we produced while traveling: collages of things one has seen or wants to see. In addition, photography has allowed us to bridge limitations of architecture’s typical products since weather, deterioration or atmosphere may be otherwise difficult to draw.

The course lasted one week [in January 2011] during some of the most intense days of Boston’s winter. Within that week, the students did a quick exercise of research and then proposed an observatory project, working with unpredictable and violent natural phenomenon as the core of the research. As the instructors Luis Callejas and Sebastian Mejía [from Paisajes Emergentes] pointed: “It can be difficult to determine the boundaries of a complex natural system. The decision is ultimately made by the observer.”

Luis Callejas also told us via e-mail:

We chose Iceland because it is a very special place… I was there a year ago. The island acts as an observatory. As an island, its environmental conditions are defined by its geological position and all the natural phenomena seems to be amplified. As if geologic time somehow goes faster than human activity in a place with about 300,000 inhabitants.

Working with the ash cloud generated by 2010 eruptions of Eyjafjallajökull volcano, the group studied the conditions and effects that emerged due to this event, and its relation with issues like air navigation, the phenomenon of turbulence, and the possible effects on the island’s ecosystem, among others.

Eyjafjallajökull volcanic ash composite. Source: wiki

The idea of analyzing and working with issues like storms and islands also reminds us the Glacier/Island/Storm studio at Columbia GSAPP by Geoff Manaugh. As Rob Holmes pointed on mammoth:

A possibility: glaciers, islands, and storms are as much events as they are objects; as events, they are primarily composed of processes of accretion and erosion. A storm is a relatively brief event, a glacier is a very long event, and an island is an even longer event [emphasize ours]; yet all are, on a geological time scale, ephemeral.

From statements as “Building is not always edifying: designing with what is already there“, the students have worked on the perspective of investigative landscape design and its important role in history, architecture and imaginative creation. The result is a powerful intensification of emerging landscape conditions as possible solutions to design problems. If Brian Eno once said “For the world to be interesting, you have to be manipulating it all the time.”, now we’re going to visualize geologic time by looking into the past as a way to look into the future, through the student’s eyes and their proposals to “manipulate the world”.

And such as a long event as an island is, we’re going to analyze and write here a series of five post [this, the first one] to talk, using the student’s projects as study cases, about all the possibilities that are contained in the research of this kind of natural phenomena and how they can affect our architectural thinking and our response to environmental crises.

* Text of the three main corps of the studio taken from the course presentation.
– All images, except those specified, by Luis Callejas. Taken on Iceland in August 2010

Harvard GSD Course. Master in Landscape Architecture
Visiting professors: Paisajes Emergentes. January 2011

Alexander Arroyo, Siobhan Aitchison, Erik Andersen, Kunkook Bae, Senta Burton, Sherry Chen, Rachel Cleveland, Tracie Curry, Heather Dunbar, Lauren Elachi, Michael Easler, Katie Hotchkiss, David Knugi, Kara Lam, Jack McGrath, Connie Migliazzo, Emely Milliman, Madeleine Murphy, Chris Myers, Eunsae Park, Andrew Leonard, Michael Luegering, Lindsey Nelson, Mia Scharphie, Erika Schwarz, Kate Smaby, Heather Sullivan, Xiaowei Wang, Yuyu Wang, Anne Weber, Yizhou Xu, Xin You, Jeongmin Yu, Chuhan Zhang

Instructors: Luis Callejas, Sebastián Mejía, Lukas Pauer

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