Rendering of Johannesburg in the year 2100, from Envisioning Climate: A Virtual Reality Seminar (ARCH 732-007)
Walter Hood's 'Black Landscapes Matter,' one of the core texts for Environmental Readings (ARCH 685-401)
Drawing by Kiel Moe, from History and Theory of Architecture and Climate (ARCH 718-001)
Workflow drawing from GRO Architects, from Seeing Architecture: Technology, Ecology, Practice (ARCH 736-006)
The ecological wastewater treatment at the Ohiopyle State Park visitor center, from Ecological Architecture-Contemporary Practices (ARCH 734-001)
Spring Architecture Courses Take on Climate Change
The design professions are increasingly preoccupied by the imperatives of climate change, from reducing fossil fuel use to adapting to sea-level rise and extreme weather. So, for architects in training, these considerations are now fundamental. This semester, graduate architecture students at Weitzman are digging in, through coursework that explores the relationships between design, the environment, climate, and the future of the planet.
Envisioning Climate: A Virtual Reality Seminar (ARCH 732-007)
Vanessa Keith & Andrew Homick
“The year is 2100. The U.K. is an archipelago of hilltop islands, Bangladesh has lost a third of its fertile land …” In lecturer Vanessa Keith’s virtual reality seminar, students immerse themselves in, and then create, virtual experiences of the global climate future. The seminar builds on work Keith has done with her firm, Studioteka, in VR based on her book 2100: A Dystopian Utopia – The City After Climate Change, published by Michael Sorkin’s Terreform as part of the Urban Research series. Students blend contemporary data and science with select works of science and climate fiction to represent different cities from the book eight decades in the future, creating “immersive experiences that can spur us to positive change in the here and now.” The course is built on research showing that VR experiences affect people’s behavior more powerfully than other forms of media; people are more likely to conserve paper after they’ve had the virtual experience of cutting down a redwood, for example.
One “huge barrier” to VR use, Keith jokes, is the ‘nerd factor’ when first putting on a headset. But in Keith’s class, taught with assistance from fellow Studioteka designer and VR aficionado Andrew Homick, students push past that quickly into the thrill of exploring this new medium that enables them to experience their design work in an immersive, 1:1 scale.
“The persuasive power of VR will create visualizations that spur us toward not only empathy but action,” she says.
Environmental Readings (ARCH 685-401)
Dean Steiner’s Environmental Readings course builds on the work of Lawrence Buell, a Harvard University literary critic and author of the book Writing for an Endangered World. In the course, students explore what Steiner calls a “profound green thread in American literature.” The course begins with readings from transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller and catches up to contemporary writers like the conservationist Terry Tempest Williams and the novelist Colson Whitehead. Along the way, students read foundational texts in the theory of landscape architecture and city planning from authors like Frederick Law Olmsted and Ian McHarg and influential works on ecology from Charles Darwin, Aldo Leopold, and Rachel Carson.
Cross-listed with the departments of city planning and landscape architecture, the course culminates with a review of the work of contemporary designers like Professor Emeritus James Corner, whose firm designed the High Line in New York, and Walter Hood, who authored the 2020 book Black Landscapes Matter. As a final project, according to the course description, students “build on the readings to develop their own theory for ecological planning or, alternatively, landscape architecture.”
History and Theory of Architecture and Climate (ARCH 718-001)
Lecturer Kiel Moe’s seminar in the History and Theory of Architecture and Climate goes all the way back to “when humans became bipedal.”
“It accelerates once we get into hydrocarbon capitalism,” he says, “but this is what we’ve always done as humans: change climates and react to climates.”
Heavy on reading and group learning, Moe says the course includes many authors from disciplines outside of architecture, including readings in evolutionary biology and political economy. It explores the history of buildings as “mechanisms of climate management” and “the forces seen to condition the development of modern architecture,” according to a course description. Students also investigate visual representations of the relationship between people and climate. Moe, who has worked with Weitzman’s Center for Environmental Building & Design, says he aims to improve students’ energy literacy and facilitate explorations of theories of political change and “cultural anxieties associated with the Anthropocene.”
“Architects have been absolutely shameless about who and what they serve,” he says. “Part of the course is definitely reframing who and what our client is.”
Seeing Architecture: Technology, Ecology, Practice (ARCH 736-006)
New technology has enabled architects to “see” more aspects of the buildings they design, and therefore gives them more control over — and responsibility for — their construction and operation, says Lecturer Richard Garber. Garber’s course, Seeing Architecture, grew out of an early seminar that was based on a volume he edited called Workflows: Expanding Architecture’s Territory in the Design and Delivery of Buildings. The seminar also builds on readings from thinkers like Martin Heidegger, and examines design case studies from Zaha Hadid, SHoP Architects, and UNSTudio. The material promotes “thinking about our buildings as objects, integrating and corresponding with the larger earth as an object itself,” Garber says.
“By ‘seeing’ I mean really understanding the world around us and how the buildings that we do fit into this,” Garber says. “It’s a call for ecological responsibility in terms of … understanding how our work fits into a broader stream of things.”
Ecological Architecture-Contemporary Practices (ARCH 734-001)
Ecological Architecture, a course led by Lecturer Todd Woodward for the last seven years, explores contemporary practices in green building design through an interdisciplinary lens. Focused on building practical knowledge and skills for green design practice, the course features guest lecturers from a range of disciplines like landscape architecture, engineering, and waste management for construction and demolition. Students discuss all aspects of architecture’s role in resource extraction and greenhouse gas emissions, and compare divergent rating systems for sustainable design, like LEED and the Living Building Challenge. But the syllabus encourages them to push past “a design approach that focuses on limits, checklists, negative impacts and being ‘less bad,’” and “aspire to something more.” Often, Woodward says, students—including architecture students, as well as landscape architects, planners and environmental studies majors — build their final projects around work they’re doing in studios or other courses.
“My biggest goals are to allow for a broader appreciation of these issues, and understand that you can bring an ethic of environmental responsibility to any project, almost regardless of what the client or the program is,” Woodward says.