Rania Ghosn &
El Hadi Jazairy
With their research practice, Design Earth, Rania Ghosn and El Hadi Jazairy investigate the role of architecture in the context of the climate crisis and an uncertain future to produce stories that enable us to differently experience our relationship to the planet.
The transatlantic video call starts with a slight delay—the authentication service to dial into Zoom was due for a password change. Rania Ghosn opens the conversation with a joke when her partner in life and work, El Hadi Jazairy, quickly confirms they are ready: When he says ‘we’, she says, laughing, he is using the royal ‘we’, referring actually to himself…Yet she is the one to launch the conversation into personal and engaged dialogue about their studio, Design Earth, and it becomes clear that they are a well-rehearsed team. Every time Ghosn pauses Jazairy joins in, and vice versa, complementing and amending each other’s views and weaving a dense account of their shared practice.
The architects are in front of their screen at home in Somerville, Massachusetts, where they live with their six-year-old son and have their studio on one floor. Both juggle Design Earth work with their respective teaching commitments, with Ghosn holding a professorship in architecture and urbanism at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Jazairy in architecture at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he also directs the Urban Design programme. Because of this decentralised setup, they explain, a significant amount of work is resolved ‘after hours’—during meal preparation, house chores and weekend hikes. Still, in this moment they are united, framed by two windows and leafy plants. Behind them is a tight row of books, evidently well-read, with bookmarks indicating passages to be returned to. Their love for ideas in print is evident, and when talking about their work, they credit contemporary voices from philosophy and science such as Donna Haraway, Isabelle Stengers or Bruno Latour as inspiration, all of them influential thinkers who work towards a new understanding of the relation between nature and culture as a way to address the climate crisis. This is the heart of Design Earth’s work, only that they face this concern from the view of their own discipline, architecture.
The architects’ practice explores how architecture and its tools of representation shape our lives on the planet and the planet itself, and how they can respond to the changing conditions of our livelihoods and endangered existence on Earth. In doing so, they have exhibited at many international museums and institutions including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Bauhaus Museum Dessau and the Venice Architecture Biennale, and they have received prestigious commissions and awards, most recently the United States Artists Fellowship.
Design Earth started from a discontent with what goes unnoticed in their profession or is taken for granted, namely the material flows, energy networks and technological infrastructures which form the backbone of our homes and cities and make them function in the first place: The problem is, says Jazairy, that we are blind to certain effects of urbanisation of the environment. And this also goes for the disciplines themselves which do not consider them worthy of interest. Through our work, we would like to bring attention to the things that design and urbanism rely on and, in turn, produce. In response to this lack of acknowledgement, Ghosn and Jazairy investigate the technologies and processes behind waste management, fossil fuel extraction, rare-earth mining, carbon storage, space missions and more, to make visible their role in transforming our environment. And by environment, they extend their scope far beyond the immediate urban surroundings to other planetary scales and territories—under the ground, on the ocean floor, up in the sky and in outer space—based on the recognition that these technologies’ externalities are distributed across the planet, its geological strata and its atmosphere.
The questions they address have become more prominent with the rising recognition that growth-oriented systems of production and consumption are unsustainable on a planet with finite resources, and yet they remain uneasy and unresolved. We think that climate change is not only a crisis of the physical environment, says Jazairy, but also a crisis of the cultural environment and of the systems of representation through which we make sense of our presence on the planet. We may have plenty of information on resource extraction, air pollution, ocean acidification and other anthropogenic effects on the environment, but this information is expert-driven and largely abstract and, as Ghosn suggests, it may be overwhelming and frightening to deal with these questions in analytical description. They have thus set out to explore alternative representations and narratives which might spotlight these issues by localising them right here on the planet and within the spaces we inhabit.
Thus, in the twelve years since Ghosn and Jazairy founded Design Earth, they have created a reservoir of fables, realised in the medium of speculative architecture and released as publications, installations and drawings, which allow us to see and experience our lives on Earth differently. And while the scenarios—whether Trash Peaks, After Oil, Pacific Aquarium, Planet After Geoengineering or Elephant in the Room, to name but a few—often confront us with what seems to be a bleak scenery at first, they are not necessarily dystopian. Their cautionary tales for the Anthropocene are worlds apart from the bright futures that architecture commonly proposes, and yet they are hopeful in that they are starting to develop an understanding of what it means to care for the planet and encourage a conversation about the world we would like to inhabit tomorrow.