Installation view: Spatial Concepts of Carbon Form, Against Gravity

To confront carbon form, one must first be able to identify its spatial and formal attributes. However, the typical tools of classification used in architecture are of little use, for the formal and aesthetic commonalities of carbon form are not rooted in style or geometry but rather in the expression of specific spatial concepts unique to the carbon age. The process of making these drawings and paintings began with a selection of seminal architectural precedents, each of which embodies one of the above spatial concepts. Once selected, each precedent was submitted to a process of abstraction. By emptying the image of its historical and stylistic specificity, the resulting painting underscores both the formal characteristics of each project and the representational choices made by the drawings’ original authors. In so doing, the ideological undercurrents of each project are more easily read. An aerial one-point perspective is no longer a neutral compositional choice, but a reflection of carbon modernity’s penchant for expansion and growth. A cantilever is not just a benign expression of artistic intent, but the inheritance of a modern aesthetic that celebrates industrial achievement and the resistance to natural forces. Together, the paintings unmask specific spatial concepts that are either taken for granted today or considered benign due to their lack of affiliation with a specific style or period. However, as basic tenets of carbon form, these concepts reveal architecture’s allegiance to the project of industrialization that must now be overcome. In this sense, they might be referred to as spatial ideologies, for they tacitly carry the values and priorities of carbon modernity within their form. Although there are many more, the paintings shown here depict the following five spatial concepts: Infinite Territorial Expansion, Against Gravity, Object Primacy, Circulation as Form, The Reduction of Ecological Space

INFINITE TERRITORIAL EXPANSION is the tendency towards endless growth, especially at the urban scale. The energy density of hydrocarbons, harnessed by machines, obliterated topographical barriers and reduced distances. For the first time, humanity began to imagine vast interconnected networks of production, distribution, and settlement. Architects were particularly captivated by this possibility in the twentieth century, inventing new urban configurations that formally mimicked the logic of industry and celebrated the extensive socio-spatial restructuring of human settlement patterns under the guise of modernization. When architectural discourse turned its attention to other matters at the end of the century, expansion and growth nonetheless remained within the architectural imagination, although largely taken for granted as the given conditions of the contemporary city.

The (Red) drawings in this series depict the following projects:

Theoretical Design for a City of Setback Skyscrapers. Louis Sullivan, 1891.
Proposal for the Planning of Magnitogorsk, competition drawings. Ivan Leonidov, 1929. (depicted below, 01)
Hochhausstadt, North-South Street View. Ludwig Hilberseimer, 1924. (depicted, 02)
Chicago Federal Center. Mies van der Rohe, 1964.
La Prima Città. Adolfo Natalini and Superstudio, 1965.
Linear City. Peter Eisenman and Michael Graves, 1965. (depicted, 03)
Arrival of the Floating Pool. Madelon Vriesendorp and Rem Koolhaas, 1978. (depicted, 04)
Shenzhen Bay Master Plan. Leeser Architecture, 2018.

AGAINST GRAVITY is the resistance to the forces of nature, expressed both structurally and aesthetically. At the end of the nineteenth century, Russian philosopher Nikolai Fedorov wrote, “The earth will be the first star in heaven to be moved not by the blind force of gravity but by reason, which will have countered and prevented gravity and death.”(i) Fedorov was a member of the Cosmists, a subset of Russian thinkers active at the turn of the nineteenth century. Their view, however, was not unique. The unbridled energy of fossil fuels, combined with the machines that harnessed them, captured the imagination of modern society, which began to behave as though biological and natural constraints would lose their definitive power over humankind. The fossil fuel age would be characterized by defiance, for scientific reasoning, backed by carbon energy, would know no obstacles or limits.

For the Cosmists, overcoming gravity was of particular interest. Fedorov even hoped that humans could push the earth out of its orbit as an act of ultimate freedom. In architecture, the defiance of gravity has not always been paired with such an outsized ambition, but nonetheless, modernity and modern materials injected the architectural imagination with dreams of weightlessness—an aesthetic principle rarely found in premodern culture. These drawings attest to a continued affinity for defiance, present in all stages of carbon modernity.

The (Yellow) drawings in this series depict the following projects:

King’s Cross Station. Lewis Cubitt, 1850–1852.
Parking Garage over the Seine. Konstantin Melnikov, 1925. (depicted, 05)
Havana Radically Reconstructed. Lebbeus Woods, 1994. (depicted, 06)
Akron Art Museum. Coop Himmelb(l)au, 2001. (depicted, 07)
Petersschule. Hannes Meyer, 1926.
Suspended Restaurant. Student work, Nicolai Ladovsky workshop, 1922. (depicted, 08)
Drawing of the exhibition hall with floating levels. Conrad Roland, 1963.
Miami Produce Center. BIG, 2018.

(i) George M. Young. The Russian Cosmists: The Esoteric Futurism of Nikolai Fedorov and His Followers. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 81.

OBJECT PRIMACY is the separation of architectural objects from their context, often paired with a neutralization of that context. In Collage City, Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter published Le Corbusier’s project for Sant-Dié, France, alongside an urban plan of Parma, Italy. Both were drawn as figure-ground plans to note a striking contrast: “one is almost all white, the other almost all black; the one an accumulation of solids in a largely unmanipulated void, the other an accumulation of voids in largely unmanipulated solid; and in both cases, the fundamental ground promotes an entirely different category of figure—in the one, object, in the other, space.”(i) While they were not thinking through the lens of energy, this spatial inversion that defined the transition into modern space is nonetheless a very important characteristic of twentieth and twenty-first century carbon form.

When industrial centers began to grow at an unprecedented pace in the nineteenth century, they came into direct conflict with the spatial structures of the pre-modern city. The result was congestion, pollution, and a general lack of hygiene. Modernist urban treatises are critical, rightly, of these conditions, but not of industry itself. Much of the modern project was dedicated to inventing new building types in conjunction with new circulatory patterns. These were the instruments for a new socio-spatial restructuring that would allow industrial society to flourish. Object primacy was part of this strategy. Le Corbusier’s towers in the park are the most well-known archetype, but low-rise housing, civic complexes, corporate parks, and ultimately, suburbs, followed this logic as well. As Rowe and Koetter identified, after a certain point in time, the raw substrate of the city was no longer conceived as a mass to be carved, but as a void, while architecture would no longer accumulate into an urban fabric, but would instead be arrayed as objects in empty space.

The (Blue) drawings in this series depict the following projects:

Tlatelolco Site Plan. Mario Pani, 1964. (depicted, 09)
Berlin, capital city. Le Corbusier, 1957–1958. (depicted, 10)
23 de Enero. Carlos Raúl Villanueva, 1955. (depicted, 11)
Galesburg Country Homes. Frank Lloyd Wright, 1946–1949. (depicted, 12)
Skyscraper rising against a Parisian sky. Still from Pierre Chenal’s Architecture d’aujourd’hui, 1930.
The Mile-High Illinois. Frank Lloyd Wright, 1957.
Heydar Aliyev Center. Zaha Hadid Architects, 2007–2012.
US Olympic and Paralympic Museum. Diller Scofidio + Renfro, 2017–2020.

(i) Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter, Collage City. (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1983), 62-63.

CIRCULATION AS FORM is the belief that vehicular networks should be the primary form-giving element for the city. The notion of traffic circulation on differentiated roads goes back at least to Leonardo da Vinci, but it is not until the widespread use of fossil fuels that the form of the modern city starts to follow the demands of mechanized locomotion.(i) One of the first to theorize this link between form and circulation was Ildefonso Cerdà, a Spanish engineer who fundamentally reimagined the role that streets play in urban design. In his view, street networks should operate as the primary structural element of urban form, since a modern industrial society was characterized by a need for unobstructed mobility.(ii) Although radical in the mid-nineteenth century, the speed and pace at which objects and people now circulate through the city have made this seem like a generic condition of urban life. A history of carbon form reveals that these ideas are anything but generic or neutral, but instead part of the spatial order specific to the fossil fuel age.

The (White over Dark Blue) drawings in this series depict the following projects (all depicted, 13-16):

Ciudad Lineal. Arturo Soria y Mata, 1882.
Cité Industrielle. Tony Garnier, 1917.
Ville Radieuse. Le Corbusier, 1930.
Tokyo Bay. Kenzo Tange, 1960.

(i) Piero Bottoni, Urbanistica, (Milan, U. Hoepli, 1938), 133.
(ii) Ross Exo Adams, Circulation and Urbanization, (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 2018), 74.

REDUCTION OF ECOLOGICAL SPACE is the prioritizing of spatial systems such as private property and circulation over the ecological dynamics of land and ecosystems. The term “reduction of ecological space” is borrowed from environmental historian Bathsheba Demuth, whose history of the Bering Strait narrates the energetic, ecological, and spatial restructuring that occurred in the Arctic with the arrival of the capitalist whaling enterprise. She refers to commercial whaling as “the reduction of an ecological space, in all its complexity, to a source of commodities."(i) That reduction, or flattening, is itself a spatial concept, one prevalent in the architectural and urban thought of the carbon age. This is in part due to the nature of fossil fuels, which are a dense form of energy excavated from a very distant past: millions of years ago, when organic matter became trapped in sediment, buried, and compressed. Fossil fuels offer a source of energy that exists outside of the living biosphere, and as such, create the illusion of autonomy from humankind’s immediate ecological dependencies.

This set of drawings explores how the ecological underpinnings of human life are excluded from the spatial priorities of carbon form, where the demands of industry and industrial class relations are given precedence over the dynamics of land and ecosystems. The drawings focus on carbon form’s tendency to separate and compartmentalize space. At the domestic scale, this is legible in the Henry Roberts House, a housing model for industrial workers that crystallized the nuclear family as well as worker-capitalist relations into a clear spatial diagram.(ii) Within a factory, production demands a high degree of spatial specificity in combination with a generic space where people and machines can move freely. Together, this creates the logic of the factory floor, which is bounded and crystallized both as a building and diagram.(iii) Lastly, the reduction of ecological space can be read in the very concept of an urban park. While this may seem counterintuitive at first, given the importance of parks for ecosystem and human health in an urban setting, the history of carbon form nonetheless reveals that twentieth century urban thought conceived of nature as one of many urban programs that could be inserted into the urban grid, rather than the broader ecological context within which all life unfolds. In this sense, the logic of the urban park replicates the subjugation of nature, where urban dynamics are given primacy over ecosystems and land.

The (Green) drawings in this series depict the following projects (all depicted, 17-19):

Prospect Park. Frederick Law Olmsted, 1858­–1873; Greenwood Cemetery. David Bates Douglass, 1838.
Ford Highland Park Plant. Albert Kahn, 1908-26.
Henry Roberts House. Henry Roberts, 1850.

(i) Bathsheba Demuth, Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2019), 6-7.
(ii) Maria S. Giudici, “Counter-Planning from the Kitchen: For a Feminist Critique of Type.” The Journal of Architecture 23, no. 7–8 (2018): 1203–29.
(iii) Francesco Marullo, “The Typical Plan as Index of the Generic,” in Pier Vittorio Aureli, ed., The City as a Project (New York: Ruby Press, 2013): 216–60.