29 January 2009

We Are The Environment

plug us in, connect us to the earth and we might start to get it

Jonah Humphrey
We are altering the chemistry and biology of our world: human endeavours are not just limited to the local, but now operate at the scale of the globe itself.
The earth, spatially and temporally, is immense. We fear that our alteration of life-supporting processes will be irreversible and uncontrollable. However, when combatting environmental changes, we often react against natural transformations such as floods, earthquakes and hurricanes. Our fear and uncertainty wants a kind of permanence. We try to prevent 'natural processes' from changing and evolving.
We must reconcile our own personal spatial interactions with the new global connectivity that exists between technology, the material products of our cultures, and the natural environment. Global connectivity was a twentieth century concept —Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Marshall McLuhan and Buckminster Fuller each saw a coming hybridisation of technology and nature in new spheres of global interconnections.
Teilhard de Chardin believed that our capacity to generate complex systems and technologies of interaction mimics the evolutionary and biological development of consciousness. After the geosphere, and the biosphere, comes the nöosphere – a sphere of thought that now surrounds the earth. McLuhan saw this connectivity as driven by global media to the point that systems of sound and video will be so inter-linked as to form our environment entirely. Fuller demonstrated technological and biological interconnectivity in a geodesic dome, a geoscope, the interior of which was lined with aerial images simultaneously displaying flows of economic and natural resources: a control centre for the earth's cultural and ecological processes. Link the world wide web to contemporary theories of global ecology and we experience the earth as an enormous entity of organic, fluid and artificial system interwoven in a network of physical and virtual space.

Why then, with such powers of transformation, do we have a fundamental fear of altering the environment?
We need a better understanding of the inherent forms of feedback that already exist between the world and us. As we adapt to drastic environmental change, we can measure the perceptions and preconceptions we hold of ourselves compared to the environment's own character, state and nature.

Land|Scope, a theoretical project, addresses some of these things. It defines landscape as a combined realm of ecology and culture borrowing ideas from Fuller's Geoscope to find new applications for responsive technologies – systems embedded in structures that allow them to sense, think and act within the environment. Whereas Fuller's proposal was an enclosed, spatially separated global system of control, Land|Scope is an integrated landscape of interaction, offering a place for interpretation and reconciliation with the environment.
This project is sited at the Canada Centre for Inland Waters (CCIW), home of the National Water Research Institute (NWRI), which researches and tests natural and man-made water-based systems. CCIW sits on Hamilton Harbour beside the Skyway Bridge that connects Burlington to Hamilton – a site between suburban development, industrial lands, remediated wetlands and the open waters of Lake Ontario; a site quite literally at the centre of many of Canada's leading environmental concerns, including the state, the natural environment, industrial production and pollution, and fresh water reserves. The NWRI houses Canada's Global Environmental Monitoring System for freshwater (GEMS/WATER), part of the United Nations Environment Programme.
It is precisely this monitoring that Land|Scope aims to use as a basis for interpretation and response. the current monitoring done at the NWRI, as well as monitoring of new systems in a hybrid natural/industrial landscape surrounding the site, will be brought into the architectural component of the project – a monitoring centre where our interactions with the local ecology can be publicly accessed, showing the connectivity between the wetlands surrounding the facility, Hamilton Harbour and the biosphere.
Responsive architectures – whole environments of connection – have the potential to free us from the rigid ideas that we currently use to define our environment. Within new hybrid environments, we might better understand phenomena present in nature and technology alike, reacting and adapting accordingly as both the living creatures and the cultural beings we are.

I would like to extend my thanks to Michael Forbes, Science Liason Officer for Environment Canada, and the NWRI, for allowing me to tour the facilities, and providing me with the information to make my research and design work possible.

Humphrey, Jonah. 'We are the Environment'
On Site review, no. 17 Spring/Summer 2007
©Jonah Humphrey and On Site review

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