Inhabiting the Anthropocene

  • Publish On 2 January 2017
  • Philippe Chiambaretta

The architect is located at the heart of urban challenges whose solutions will allow a city to adapt to profound changes in the global age of the Anthropocene. He must be able to go beyond traditional knowledge and overcome the obsession with form and the idea of a solitary creator. Philippe Chiambaretta strives to synthesize these factors and the challenges of the current radical paradigm shift with the collapse of the modern Western worldview. Based on an understanding of the Anthropocene era, he seeks the foundations of a new vision of architecture based on an open and collaborative approach to creation. His view is not blinded by the promises of technology, but is one in which the city exists in a continuum with the biosphere.

Philippe Chiambaretta graduated from the École des Ponts et Chaussées of Paris and MIT in Boston. He is the founder and director of PCA-STREAM.

Largely unaware, we are the witnesses of a global change so profound that it will retrospectively appear as a slow-motion explosion, just like the slow-motion disaster of global warming. Between 1950 and 2050, our generations will have experienced a turning point of a magnitude beyond that of the history of humankind to the much larger one of the planet.

The building of cities has never been more central to history, not as the metaphor of an ideal world or a utopia as it once was, but rather as the practical challenge of preserving our conditions of existence. Building, inhabiting, and conceiving the world in the twenty-first century has become a fundamental issue that requires a renewed approach to architecture—not to fantasize about its sheer power, but to awaken the sense of a progressive and political commitment by architects as protagonists of urban reality and to put an end to the cynicism of its passive—and, in part, voluntary—manipulation by global capitalism and show business. Our everyday practice cannot continue without an exploration of the current situation and an inventory of ongoing changes.

The first revolution is demographic: after millennia of relative stability, from 1950 onwards the global human population has increased dramatically. My generation, born in the 1960s, has experienced an unprecedented increase in its life expectancy that will enable it to bear witness by the age of ninety to the three-fold increase of the global population, from three billion people in 1960 to a projected nine billion in 2050Based upon UNO Projections.. This demographic growth is causing an urban boom on a mind-boggling scale: in 2050 two-thirds of all buildings will have been built after the year 2000, and it is estimated that every day, a surface equivalent to that of inner Paris is constructed throughout the worldAccording to the Commissariat général au développement durable (CGDD), the French agency in charge of the government’s sustainable development strategy..

Generalized urbanization underlies and feeds economic globalization. For the anthropologist Marc Augé, “urbanization and globalization are changing the very definition of what humanity is.” This geopolitical upheaval corresponds to a third industrial revolution, which is characterized by the shift from a Fordist model of production to a “hyperindustrial” era; an economy of intangibles that favors a grid model based on open systems, sharing patterns, and hybrid cooperative forms. This new capitalism of knowledge is matched by a novel organizational paradigmDévelopped in Stream 2, “After Office,” 2012.:economic efficiency depends less on the productivity of operations than on the quality of relations between participants, bringing about a gradual upheaval of methods of governance. Since the beginning of the century, the terms “liquid modernity” and “hypertext society” have been coined by sociologists and anthropologists in an effort to elucidate this third stage of modernity that continuously evolves in response to technological innovationsSee Zygmunt Bauman and François Asher..

These economic factors foster increased competition between global megacities that are now concentrating wealth and talent within a supranational archipelago, at the expense of the hinterlandsRefer to our interview with Pierre Veltz p. 43.. This spatial-economic organization defines the new borders of economic segregation in a world beset by significant inequalities between winners and losers of the ultraliberal order—a glaring and increasing imbalance that threatens our democraciesSee Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Picketty..The divisions in society are now taking form in the major metropolises, world cities where both the full spectrum of diversity but also of partitions can be found. Marc Augé predicts a three-tiered organization for humanity, with an oligarchy that wields both economic power and knowledge, a passive stratum of consumers, and finally a class of marginalized people who are excluded from knowledge and consumptionSee Marc Augé, “Anthropologue dans un monde global: conférence enregistrée au Salon de lecture Jacques Kerchache,” Musée de Quai Branly, 15 June 2013..

Yet the major development of these past forty years, and the most critical for our future, remains the threat to our environment. Already in 1972, the Limits to Growth reportPublished by the Club of Rome. set out the consequences of the marked intensification of human activity on the environmental balance of the planet (pollution, the depletion of natural resources, and threats to biodiversity). Nevertheless, it was only in the middle of the 2000s, when global warming became startlingly clear, that environmental issues started to register in the public awareness and become a major political issue. The environmental footprint of human activity —a concept developed in 1992A tool developed by the Global Footprint Network that enables measurement of the pressure exerted by hummankind on nature, as defined by WWF Global.—was still less than the biophysical capacities of the planet in 1950, but is set to exceed them by a factor of 1.5 in 2014According to the studies published by the Global Footprint Network.. If humanity continues to develop according to present trends, by 2050 it will use up twice what the planet can afford. We are clearly in a deadlock. The convergence of these changes requires a completely new form of representation, conception, and management of the planet.

The End of the Modern Project

Taking stock of the symbolic and philosophical scope of these changes has now become the necessary preamble to action. The dominant Western worldview, which derives from Christian monotheism, is collapsing. Now in crisis is the project of the conquest of nature that stemmed from the rationalist school of thought of Galileo, Bacon, and Descartes in the seventeenth century, and which has led to the development of science and technology. The myth of progress that has inspired these past two centuries has fallen apart in just a few decades, leaving us only with a techno-science without conscience, disconnected from our collective psyche and even further from a shared dream. Society’s blind trust in science has been replaced by generalized suspicion. The future as the object of an imaginary projection has disappeared, leaving us petrified in a permanent present; a “suspended historical time,” to use François Hartog’s expression. Acting today consists in waging a determined campaign against this sterile “presentism.”

Our relationship to time and space—the raw material of architecture and our relationship to the world—has also been substantially modified by new technologies. We are shifting from classical Euclidian time to a new metric: augmented space, multispatiality, or “chronotopia.” A complex and fragmented form of time that is intimately linked with creativity lies at the very heart of the “halo” conceptualized by Yann Moulier-Boutang: we have shifted from the era of materiality, the restricted area of production, to that of intangibles—trust, care, and/or intelligence, that is, what cannot be codified.

Modern, rational, and quantitative science expelled imagination and meaning in favor of functionality, planning, and organization. Yet the contemporary world marks the triumph of uncertainty, of the unexpected: it isn’t relevant to reason based on averages when there is no standard behavior—such is the black swan syndrome identified by Nassim TalebWriter and philosopher, specialized inthe epistemology of probabilities., the occurrence of an unexpected and unthinkable event that upsets our condition. The method used by conventional science is to divide, to simplify, and to isolate, so as to reduce what is complex into something that is complicated but intelligible by means of the tools it has available. Knowledge would carve reality up into compartmentalized domains, and humanities would be opposed to life sciences. The increasing global interaction of millions of variables has ushered in an era of complexity and uncertainty.

The Anthropocene Era

Many thinkers have taken interest in the scientific concept of the Anthropocene, put forward in 2000 by the winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Paul Crutzen, which formulates the hypothesis that human action is now the dominant force affecting the geology of the planet. Even though this scientific theory has yet to be validated by geologists, the concept of the Anthropocene has the potential to bring together the whole set of paradigm shifts and changes in theoretical frameworks that we have just described.

For Bruno Latour, such a theory proves that “we have never been modern” and that the separation between nature and society, posited as a foundation of our modern condition, must be abolished. Contemporary philosophy for the most part considers the conception of nature as a pure, organic, untouched, and balanced entity, threatened only by human exploitation, as being completely obsolete. Most of the planet has been modified by mankind and yet this myth persists. The phantom of nature acting as the pure, green, kind, and happy counterpart of our obscene, dangerous, gray, and destructive society haunts the debate.

There is therefore a new vision to imagine going beyond this conception of nature, inherited from the moderns. Latour suggests developing a constitution in which nature and society would no longer be two distinct poles but the same output of successive states. This activity in the philosophical field around the question of a new relationship between culture and nature, especially the recent movement of speculative realism, is similar to a trend seen in contemporary art. For the critic and curator Nicolas Bourriaud, “the relation between living things and inert objects seems to be the main tension today within contemporary culture. . . . The great acceleration also lies within this process of the naturalization of capitalism: now it has become both organic and universal, it is the natural law of the Anthropocene; its main instrument is the algorithm, on which the global economy is now founded.”Program for the Taipei Biennal of October 2014 entitled The Great Acceleration.

This observation echoes the concerns of a part of experimental architecture, gathered in the ArchiLab 2013 exhibition entitled Naturaliser l’architecture by Frédéric Migayrou and Marie-Ange Brayer:

The naturalixation of architecture is about addressing nature in a different way, no longer as an opposition between the natural and man-made, but in a new sort of hybrid relationship. . . . Here, architecture brings together the biological and the computational, leading to a fusion of . . . “natural and synthetic systems.” These creators claim to have stopped designing architectural objects, instead producing “a process that generates objects.” . . . Through the use of modeling software, architecture aligns itself with living systems—systems equipped with a “metamorphic” nature and distinguished by their transformability and adaptability in response to their environment. . . The task at hand is no longer one of imitating nature, reproducing its external forms as was the case with biomorphism, but to simulate it through a generative approachSee the article of Marie-Ange Brayer p.124..

Architecture in the Age of the Anthropocene

The Anthropocene is therefore key to establishing the foundations of a new relationship to nature that is revolutionizing our architectural practices. We have recalled the significant urban challenge for the future, the consequences of which will only be able to be faced in the context of a form of global governance. Will the concept of the Anthropocene carry enough weight to mobilize public opinion and to put an end to the debate between climate change deniers and radical environmentalists? By portending the eclipse of Cartesian modernity, it has the merit of sweeping away the debate between modern and postmodern approaches in architecture. It also functions as a call to imagine the theoretical foundations of a vision of urban realities that stem from a new alliance between society and nature, the dissolution of modern subject/object categories—and all that in an emergency situation. This line of thought brings about a profound transformation of the operational function of design (by artists, designers, and/or architects), which departs from a top-down approach that proved to be too-tightly linked to a vision of creation within a modernist, assertive, universally prescriptive framework due to its typical focus on (mono)-functionalism.

On the contrary, it explores an open and generative approach that seeks to establish the conditions of the emergence and growth of a hybrid form by means of a collaborative and participative bottom-up style of approach. The idea is to operate as an incubator, equipped with the instruments of a new conception of knowledge and assuming the ethical positions of researchers and/or doctors rather than the obsolete one of solitary creator-geniuses. We can see how closer ties between humanities and life sciences will prove necessary to the formulation of such thinking, which will beget a renewed vision for architecture. The digital revolution makes these ties easier to establish by articulating the fields of knowledge: from nanotechnologies to biology, from material analysis to architecture, there is now a cross-disciplinary and trans-scalar continuity.

Arising from this conception of a metabolic urban reality is the issue of analytical scale, between the building, its immediate vicinity, its neighborhood, the city or the metropolis, and the regionSee the work of John E. Fernandez, from MIT, p.243.. It bases itself on a continuous vision that ranges from the building to the urban scale as different biological degrees, and from the cell to the organism, with no distinction between what is living and what is not. It is like a layout of hybrid beings that all play a part in the balance of the meta-organism called Earth. There is therefore an organic relationship with the biosphere to which it belongs, acting as a continuum in a world of artifacts and hybrids. Awareness of such a systemic aspect of the environment brings up the issue of the scale of analysis and action, but also of the identification of extremely different urban pathologies from a geographical and historical point of view, from European centers, sprawling American conurbations, Asia’s new megacities, and the informal urban forms of the Global South.

These essential typological differences are already being scientifically investigated, in particular, through the analyses of big data that suggest a variety of sustainable scenarios and which lay out the foundations of metabolic urbanism. Further research on the multidimensional modeling of urban regions will have to be carried out to refine this classification of pathologies and the preparation of specific remedies that will be just as varied. Tomorrow’s urban planners shall base their reflections on information generated in real-time by digital cities, and the computational power to regulate the effects of the actions that are carried out over time. Digital urban reality is therefore the new fundamental reality of our era. Personally, I am tempted to believe that computational architecture, which is at present mostly experimental, could, in the near future, enter the field of constructive reality. Such a hypothesis is particularly convincing given the extent to which computational architecture addresses a genuine scientific issue, and given the emergence of the technical requirements that would enable such a situation

The increasing pressure on environmental policies will foster the rapid development of methods of design, evaluation, and management which will offer adequate guarantees of objectivity. The economic stakes are so high that major consulting, technical services, and technology firms are actively developing models of smart cities.

The rise of a vision inspired by neocybernetics, from “smart objects” to “smart cities,” seems highly probable, even though it represents a rather dangerous approach. This desire to have a rational and deterministic control on things, which is reinforced by the insurance industry, with the precautionary principle, and the search for a solvent city (because it is less risky), is an attempt to counter the shift towards a society of uncertainty and unexpectedness which we shall nevertheless have to embrace. Smart cities are an avatar of the ideology of modern rationalist control, which stands in contradiction with the complex, varied, and diverse nature that is at the very heart of the creativity and resilience of urbanity. The need for diversity is not only a social view but also a requirement of an ecology of the city, as the works of sociologists such as Saskia Sassen and Richard Sennett have demonstratedSee our interview p. 19..

On the contrary, the notion of complexity, which is intrinsic to our times, encourages us to move towards forms of modeling that make use of data in indirect ways, through a form of self-regulation. Such forms are inspired by the open source model, by development by crowd design, and are closer to the original philosophy of the Internet. They are open to a sociological and artistic approach of informality, uncertainty, desire, and imagination. Whether on the scale of the building, the neighborhood, or the city, this dimension of imperfection, randomness, and difference that is intrinsic to creation remains. This innovation must also be clearly found in the design method.

The new conditions for living in the world lead to new uses of space and time, in directions that are still difficult to define and whose impact in terms of designing and managing urban reality is still unknown. It is nevertheless important to demand that architects, as well as the other participants in project design, question themselves more on functions, programs, and imaginary constructs before considering the issue of form.

This more sensitive and intuitive approach to our ways of life is already being extensively researched by sociologists, creators, and forward-thinking protagonists. The modifications to our relationship with space and time which are brought about every day by new technologies are numerous and difficult to anticipate. They make it possible to augment our experiences and uses of space; to enter a “hyper-spatiality.” Architecture shall find itself at the intersection of these two dimensions, spaces and spatialities, in the construction of a malleable citySee Luc Gwiazdzinski, p. 52.. that continuously adapts itself, directed by the rhythm of events and temporary structures. In this constantly evolving urban space, the user regains a central position by offering feedback on events, by producing information and by benefiting from the outcome. Such is life in a temporary urban reality where urban systems and individual microsystems intersect at the meeting point of physical and digital networks, enabling a new intensification of cities.

The primary anxiety of architects confronted with these fundamental changes is naturally that of form: how it is possible to apply this paradigm shift in practical terms? What physical form should be given to this malleable, evolving city; this city of uncertainty, at the crossroads of constantly evolving technologies and a new relationship to the biosphere? As we have seen, the conclusion of the necessary study of the conditions and changes of our times leads us to the idea that it is less a matter of metamorphosis than of changing the approach to and the methods of architecture.

We are now beyond the obsession with form, with “starchitects,” free icons, and selfish or mercantile signatures. Architecture bears a responsibility that is not new but that is at last asserted. Although form remains because buildings necessarily have a physical reality, it emerges as the result of collaborative work and eventually leads to the establishment of a platform and protocols that make it possible to adapt construction to variety and uncertainty. Form is not planned or controlled anymore, but rather, it is attended to and chaperoned in its evolutionary changes thanks to the generative adaptabilities of digital means, understood in terms of its open meaning and not in its dimension of cybernetic security. Technical constraints, in terms of materials and systems—especially those linked to energy efficiency—indeed exist, but we should not allow ourselves to be blinded by this single quest for performance, as we have been by the first forms of revegetation, the ending fad for cosmetic greenness, and decorative biomorphism.

Like politics, architecture is inextricably both an act and a symbol, and its function in the ontological change of the shift to the era of the Anthropocene—beyond the practical or technical solutions it brings forward—is to narrate this paradigm change; to symbolize and to stage our new position in the biosphere so as to better help it unfold collectively. The immediate forms that it shall take on will always be different, but the idea is no longer to simply create a style but to express an urban/biosphere continuum that has finally been made possible by a completely unprecedented joint technical and philosophical approach.

(This article was published in Stream 03 in 2014.)





Urban Metabolisms: Combining Complex Approaches

Beyond the debates surrounding the Anthropocene—dating it, taking responsibility—the need to combat the disastrous effects of human development on the planet is beyond doubt. Acknowledging that these consequences are specifically incarnated in cities, architect Philippe Chiambaretta points toward a paradigm shift—moving from a mechanical vision of the world to an idea centered on the living—that reactivates the notion of a metabolism. The concept of the living allows us to go beyond the dualism and anthropocentrism introduced by modernity, driving us toward a symbolic and practical idea of the city as an urban metabolism and pointing toward an approach that takes the ecological challenge into account in order to “manage” the city. Flying in the face of the formal pride of the architect, the figure of metabolic planner emerges, able to combine complex visions and approaches, notably by moving beyond the traditional rifts between urban protagonists, working toward an intense diversity of uses, opening up temporal dynamics, and by reintegrating the living.


STREAM : a research opus founded 14 years ago

Stream is a transdisciplinary magazine founded by Philippe Chiambaretta in 2009. By bringing together philosophers, sociologists, artists, engineers, biologists, economists and architects, it crystallizes a kaleidoscopic, forward-looking vision of the urban issues it tackles. It’s a way of doing research, by confronting expertise, at the crossroads of knowledge!


Sustainable Materialities in Construction

In France, the construction sector accounts for one third of the country’s CO2 emissions. Materials, which are partly responsible for this ratio, are extracted, transported, processed, poured or placed, dumped or incinerated… All these steps are opportunities to work on limiting impacts, involving architects, among other things, in deploying a new aesthetic.