Still from 'Remastering Eden,' 2021
Still from 'In Plain Sight,' 2018
Q&A: Robert Gerard Pietrusko, Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture
This semester, Robert Gerard Pietrusko joined the standing faculty of the Department of Landscape Architecture as an associate professor, following a decade on the landscape architecture faculty at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. His design work, which is produced under the name of his studio, WARNING OFFICE, has been exhibited in more than 15 countries, and he a fellow at the American Academy in Rome in 2021. An inveterate polymath, Pietrusko earned a Bachelor of Music in Music Synthesis from the Berklee College of Music, a Master of Science in Electrical Engineering from Villanova University, and a Master of Architecture from the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University.
Your undergraduate degree is in music. Were you initially a musician who moved into other fields? How would you describe your trajectory from music to landscape architecture?
I can locate it to a single summer, actually. In 2000, I did a fellowship in Paris in the lab of Iannis Xenakis, who famously was both an engineer and a composer. As part of Le Corbusier’s atelier, he designed the fanciful Phillips Pavilion for the 1958 World’s Fair, which was a multimedia environment combining film, spatialized audio, and architecture. I was already in love with that piece and how sound, space, and images came together. That summer, in the Pompidou library, I also encountered books about Superstudio and Buckminster Fuller. These all resonated with me as possibly being a single way of working. I felt that one could create compositions proposing future relationships among cities, landscapes, and music. It was an operatic ambition. At the time, I didn’t know what it meant. Maybe I still don’t. I just knew I wanted my work to be immersive, embodied, and multimedia. I don’t think I’ve ever moved away from that ambition.
Tell us about your experience at the American Academy in Rome. What was it like being a Fellow during the pandemic?
When we got to Rome, it was clear that we weren’t going to have the experience that most other Fellows have had. Because of quarantine, there wasn’t a ton of social interaction at first. What we did find, however, was that we got to experience Rome in an exceptional way, which I don’t think will ever be possible again. The museums and the churches were open, but the boundaries to the region were closed to the people who live outside of Lazio. We had the Sistine Chapel to ourselves, except for the guards. Just us. This was our experience of all of Rome–drifting through it, as if we were ghosts. It was the most magical thing I can describe. The pandemic was obviously terrible in so many ways, but it also gave us life-changing access to the most beautiful city.
This semester you’re teaching a landscape architecture studio called Conspiracy as Method, which looks at a number of natural disasters that have been attributed to climate change, like the Day Zero water crisis in Cape Town, South Africa in 2018. What are students are working on in the studio?
I've been engaged in a larger research project over the last two or three years about conspiracy theories as a type of world building. I have been looking at how conspiracy theorists represent the world and I see a real speculative creativity. When arguing that there are hidden actors manging the planet, they are imagining complex and sometimes very clever connections. It reminded me, of course, of the ways that paranoid styles of reasoning had already been used in design. Specifically Rem Koolhaas’s use of the paranoid critical method when writing Delirious New York. I wanted to explore that overlap as a bit of an opportunity.
It's a difficult tightrope to walk because I don't want to give any oxygen to conspiracy theories in general—some are of course reprehensible—but I do want to acknowledge that a vast amount of people actually believe in at least some conspiracy theories. It suggests that a conspiratorial style of thoughts is a common human trait. It’s a continuum. The most fanciful theories encapsulate the whole planet and there is an irony in that. When conspiracy theorists imagine, with cynicism, that there are all these major institutions and actors that collectively manage the world, well, that's actually a rather optimistic view of what society is capable of. Do we as designers have this same optimism? Hoping that we might, I took all of these pieces as prompts to ask: Can we explore the relationship between design thinking and conspiratorial reasoning to, in a positive way, imagine how the world could be governed in the face of climate change?
Right now, students are exploring four different “natural disasters.” First, they are unpacking these events with a critical lens to uncover the social, technical, and political factors that added up to the disaster happening. This relies on the idea, coming from geographers like Neil Smith, that there are no natural disasters, there are social and political disasters. Then, for the second half of the semester, the students will design their own conspiracy theories that explain the natural disaster as something that was intentionally created. Finally, they will turn their theories upside down and imagine, in a positive way, how those actors and agencies could become a form of governance that is beneficial to the biosphere.
In 2021, you completed a project called Remastering Eden, which looked at the ways that archival footage of landscapes can show signs of the impact of climate change, while at the same time using that footage to find clues that could lead to regenerative solutions. How does that work relate to your interest in conspiracy theories?
As a society, we collect a ton of media and in the process, we are often unintentionally also documenting nature. Any theory about what the world is, or what the world could be, requires us to assemble some subset of media evidence and then stitch a narrative onto it. That narrative might be a conspiracy theory, or it might be a beautiful way to imagine the future. I made Remastering Eden in collaboration with my friend and filmmaker, Courtney Stephens. We watched hours and hours of former Soviet educational and propaganda films and extracted numerous clips that featured the landscape, regardless of their original filmic context. There was a bit of a sci-fi idea here—we imagined some future institution that recognized the significance of old nature films, and realized that they are some of the best evidence of the way the world used to be. So Remastering Eden exists in a post-climate-crisis world where you have this institution recovering environmental evidence that was left behind in films and video and then trying to use that to reconstruct nature after nature is gone.
Can you tell us about In Plain Sight (2018), which will be included in Worlds of Networks at the Pompidou Center [on view February 23 – April 25]? This is the same work that was included Designs for Different Futures at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is that right?
That's right. It was originally commissioned for the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale for the U.S. Pavilion. The curators invited several design teams to imagine citizenship at a variety of spatial scales. My team included Elizabeth Diller and Laura Kurgan and we were assigned the global scale.
It has always struck me that it is impossible to think about global citizenship outside of the representations of the globe, so the piece begins by looking at different representations of the globe and how these connect to narratives of citizenship. It begins with the Blue Marble and how that supports narratives of Spaceship Earth and global stewardship. This is then compared with NASA’s nighttime lights imagery which seems to support neoliberal narratives of borderless, frictionless, free-flowing intercourse all over the world. The piece tried to challenge that narrative. Within the nighttime lights images of the Earth there are many other stories of citizenship that are actually hidden in the dark pixels rather than the bright ones. The piece offers a taxonomy of why certain places on earth might be dark and then tries to tell stories of the political ecology of those places.
You are part of the newly-formed Environmental Modeling Lab (EMLab) at The Ian L. McHarg Center for Urbanism and Ecology, which has a virtual conference opening February 15. How does your work relate to the analysis, simulation, and visualization of environmental systems?
The work that we’ve talk about so far have been about the relationship between media, data, and storytelling. But part of that is also the use of modeling. Some of my work has been on creating agent-based models and dynamic systems models. I don’t imagine these as a way of representing the world as it is, but as a way to help us think of new spatiotemporal patterns in a speculative mode - a way of imagining different futures and different relationships between society and the environment.
For a lot of people, data and modeling are about establishing a representational correspondence to the world and wrestling with questions of accuracy. This is an important aspect of the sciences obviously. As an architect though, what can I contribute that isn’t just undercooked science? For me, models are not primarily representational; they are primarily rhetorical. I think they actually produce a productive opacity. There is a representational gap. The relationship between models and what they correspond to is highly uncertain. In that gap, there are an infinite number of stories we can tell about the meaning of data and how they helps us think about the future. I'm really excited about that potential.