Research + Teaching

Material World


Every decision planners take in the design process of a project has an impact when implemented, not only on the site of construction but also on the site of extraction and of production. From the window frames of a house to the concrete pillars of a highway bridge, from the wood flooring of a living room to the asphalt of our streets, and from the steel bolts of a door to the tree species of a park, these choices deployed in the materiality of the built environment have a global knock-on effect.

At a staggering scale, capital accumulation and the corresponding brutal and exploitative processes at work in the transfer of raw materials to the built environment have long been perceived as detached from the practice of planning. While claiming an objective approach, design disciplines detach from political commitments and turn a blind eye to the very source of their materialization. Yet, the expansionist global enterprise of extraction spans across all scales. Seemingly isolated construction details are physical artifacts that impact entire regions tectonically: mountains, rivers, forests, populations. What Donna Haraway calls “the appropriation of nature as a resource for the productions of culture” is grounded in historical colonial projects, made visible in the architecture and infrastructure of our cities and settlements—at least, for those who care to look. The translation of the Earth’s resources into the built environment and its economic model of development historically is further mirrored in today’s global neocolonial modes of extraction capitalism. The ramifications of contemporary mining and exploitation are violent, immense, and disastrous, impacting humans and non-humans alike, with racialized populations most affected, through and alongside severely adverse effects on soil, topography, labor, transportation, water, and food systems—with deep territorial political entanglements.

This seminar seeks to establish a broad picture of the ways that design disciplines intersect with extractive and resource exploitation, and of how seemingly irrelevant composition details fit in the global enterprise of “extractive neoliberalism.”
Starting by a detail of a project and tracing the material to its source, the work aims to make visible the global chains of exploitation that translate the Earth resources into our built environment by investigating most prevalent and banal construction materials (i.e. plaster, wood, concrete, brick, steel) and their political economy.

The seminar alternates the following formats: the production of research produced in a video format (work guided across the semester with help of our recurrent guest, film-maker Severin Bärenbold), and a series of lectures on dedicated Mondays (including guests from ETH Zurich and the Architecture of Territory Chair, Prof. Milica Topalovic) which will be prepared with readings. The output of the class is research on global supply chains of construction materials in a video format. More here.

Spring 2021, Ass. Professorship @ Harvard Graduate School of Design
Teaching Assistant: Kathlyn Kao
Guest: Severin Bärenbold

This project is supported by a Harvard Mellon Urban Initiative grant.
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