Meet the 2019 Loeb Fellows: Michiel van Iersel

Meet the 2019 Loeb Fellows: Michiel van Iersel

But let me start by saying that
I’m equally blessed to be here and to be surrounded by such
magnificent fellow fellows, and to be accepted by
this wonderful community here at the GSD. And I’ve been here
only two weeks now, and it has been quite
humbling, I have to say. So while going through
my portfolio, which I had to submit for
the application, I’ve been working as a
curator, as a critic, making exhibitions, doing
all kinds of projects that involve a lot of people. And I’m not going to
mention any of them. And I’m actually not
going to talk about humans so much today. What I want to focus on
is the other, everything but the human. I want to talk about that what
was formerly known as nature. And I want to start with a
project that I’m showing here. It’s an exhibition
which still going on in the Dutch city of
Leeuwarden, which was– which still is the
European cultural capital. And as part of that, I was
asked to make an exhibition with a whole team of people. And in that, we tried to imagine
what the Netherlands could look like and can look
like in the future if we take nature
into account, if we kind of try to re-root ourselves
in the soil from which we grew. So it’s an attempt–
the exhibition is there. I don’t think many of you will
have a chance to go there. But just a glimpse here. One important part
of it is that we allow visitors to take off
their shoes, to climb down these stairs. And then you end
up in the basement of a building where we
recreated the Wadden Sea, which is a UNESCO World Heritage
site in the Netherlands in the north. It’s an actual sea. But obviously, it’s
under pressure. It’s shrinking. There’s mass tourism that
is partly destroying it. They’re drilling for oil there. So what we try to do
here is to rehabilitate it to celebrate
that fantastic site, and also to give people an
idea of maybe what nature will be like in the future,
that it can only survive in artificial surroundings. And upon my arrival here, and
I guess you also sit in cars, and you look out of your window,
and you stare at the city, and this was upon my
arrival here in Boston. And I had to think back on
that exhibition and working with people in that
part of the Netherlands that are so strongly
attached to the soil still. And I was looking for
the natural elements. I was looking for a way out. But I found myself lost
in a concrete jungle. And this feeling of being
lost in architecture, in urban surroundings,
is actually the topic of my inquiry here. And I came up with
a name for it. And to illustrate it, I put
up this picture of the marble quarry in Carrara in Italy. And at this point in time,
we’re literally decapitating mountains to build cities. To build, for example,
here the medical school of Harvard, which was partly
made from this very marble that you see here. So we’re reshaping
the environment. And architecture plays an
important role in that. And I would like
to call that we’re living in the Archipocene. So this is the starting
point for my stay here. I want to look into that. What does it mean? What is the impact
that architecture and the construction industry
have on our environment? And obviously, this word
derives from another word, namely the Anthropocene,
which you’re probably familiar with by now. What it comes down is that
human life on this planet has a geological impact. So we’re leaving
irreversible traces on the surface of this planet. And a good example of that is
Dubai, of course, in many ways. But you’re probably
familiar with this building in the background that is
shaped like a sailboat. It’s made from the same
marble that I just showed you. And not only that, the sand
that you see here on the beach is enriched with the
marble from Carrara to make it look more white. So this is how far we got. So what I want to look at
is this human layer that sits on top of what was
formerly known as nature, which we could call
the Anthropocene, in this very bad
drawing here by me. So I’m not the first
one to claim this, but I think right now we
are a geological force with our presence
on this planet. We’re leaving traces. We’re leveling mountains. It’s happening all
around the world. But this is a striking
example in Mecca, where literally whole hills
have been removed to make place for new development. We’re greening deserts. You’re probably familiar
with these images, but each time I look
at them I’m struck, like, what are you thinking? Why would you want to build
Las Vegas in one of the most arid parts of the US? So this is Las Vegas. And we’re making land. We went on this
bus tour of Boston. And I think 3/4 of that tour we
were actually on invented land, on newly created
land, reclaimed land. It’s magical, but it’s
also highly disturbing. So we’re wrapping the
world with architecture, with plastic in this case. These are the greenhouses
in the south of Spain. And where is this taking us? Is this the end of nature,
as I was suggesting? Since everything has been
affected by human presence, is it maybe even
the end of humanity? Is it that catastrophic? You’re probably familiar
with these stones that they put up in
Japan to warn people not to build below a certain line in
case a tsunami would hit again. And obviously, they
weren’t paying attention. So whole cities were
swallowed by the tidal wave. And so they build a new stone
to commemorate the last tsunami. Or to have an even more
dystopian world view, is this the end of the world? Will everything fall apart? Is there no way back? If you look at the media, you
kind of start believing it, right? So this was recently
in The New Yorker, “The World is
Running out of Sand.” We knew about deforestation,
but even sand? I mean, that’s so omnipresent. How can we run out of sand? And sand, obviously, is
used to make concrete. And cement, as is stated
here in the LA Times, is producing 5% to 10% of
total CO2 emissions worldwide. There’s even a name for this
layer, this artificial layer that we’ve wrapped
around the world, coined by some scientists. It’s the Technosphere. And it consists of
all these things that you see listed here. And I’m completely lost when
I look at these figures. They don’t say anything to me. But the bottom
line is that we’re in problems, in deep problems. We’re lost in the
mesh, so to speak. So you can no longer
distinguish between what’s natural, what’s artificial,
what’s human, what’s non-human. Everything is kind of
colliding and blurring. And architecture is
not outside of that. And architects neither. It’s not something that you
can observe and you can say, I’m coming to the rescue,
I’m going to solve this. I think, in a way, we’re
all complicit in this. So maybe architecture is
even at the core of it for its physicality, but
also for its symbolic value, that it represents capital
and many other things. So I’m asking myself,
should we stop building? Should we stop designing? No more architecture. Should we draw a strict boundary
between what’s already there, and what’s left of what was
formerly known as nature? Or, should we just go beyond it
and accept that in the future, we will be having plastic trees? What’s wrong with plastic trees
if they have the same qualities and characteristics
as actual trees? Why can’t buildings be trees? So I was a bit cynical. So let me take one
step back, and take you to my hometown of Amsterdam,
and find some reason there. This is my street. I live in the building you
see in the left-hand side. So we have no
plastic trees there. And I care very much
about living organisms. So I’m looking out onto
the zoo of Amsterdam, which has some of the
oldest trees in the city. At the same time,
the name Amsterdam refers to human
interference in nature. We build a dam in the
river Amstel, which blocked the river from flowing,
which enabled our forefathers to start a city there. So it’s already
embedded in the name. And you probably know that
large parts of the Netherlands are built below sea level. So “Hol-land,” the hollow
land, the Netherlands. It’s true. On a massive scale,
we’ve reclaimed land. We’ve put up massive dikes. Some parts are as low as 7
meters 21 feet below sea level, with sea levels rising. So I live in a completely
artificial environment. And this is no Photoshop. This is an actual scene
that you can experience when you drive down the highway. And we took our ingenuity
to this part of the world. As you probably know, New
York was named New Amsterdam after the Dutch arrived. And look at what we
ended up with in the end. And it could have
been so different. There was so much
already there that we could have learned from. How the indigenous
people back then, how they organized themselves,
even from an urbanist or from an architectural
perspective, using materials that
were light weight, that were biodegradable, that were
locally sourced, et cetera. But we ignored it. So this is where we are now. And there doesn’t seem
to be an end to it. It keeps on sprawling. It keeps on growing. This apparently is the
boundary of Las Vegas today, but as you can see in
the bottom left corner, there is already new
construction on the way. And if you also consider this,
it’s from the Census Bureau, that in a matter of 40
years the average size of an American home
has almost doubled. And it keeps growing. And also like I,
upon my arrival, I’ve been reading in the
news, and I found out about these plans,
like a $1 trillion investment plan to upgrade
infrastructure here. So there will be a huge pressure
on the environment in the US. So it is only a disaster? Is there no way back? Are all roads
leading towards what already happened in the past? Will there be another
collapse, not of modernism, but of postmodernism,
or post-humanism? I don’t think so. In the end, I’m
positive I believe in something I would like
to call productive dystopia. I’m one of the people behind
an online platform called “Failed Architecture,”
and we really like to learn from failures or
kind of rehabilitate buildings that are misrepresented or
wrongly perceived as failures, such as Pruitt-Igoe. So I believe in the
ability to have a restart. So this is the site
of Pruitt-Igoe, where currently there are
trees that are being cut down. There will be new development. But I mean, with the
downfall of Pruitt-Igoe, there was also a space
opened up for renewal and for a new future. This is actually around the
corner from here in Austin, where Harvard is
active as a developer, making an entirely
new neighborhood. I think there’s an opportunity
there, even for Harvard and for those that are
involved, to really rethink what architecture can
be in that environment, so close to the river
and close to all kinds of communities around it. I think there is
also possibility to have architecture
that is regenerative. So this is a great
example, I think, of a sand bowl, that are
based in London, that used the rubble and the
dust from an abandoned site to make an actual
new structure that was used for temporary events. And I think it’s also an
opportunity now to reunite. This is obviously the protests
against the Dakota X pipeline that brought people
together, using the same tepees or
the traditional houses to kind of show that
there is an alternative. And keeping in mind that the
average lifespan of buildings keeps decreasing, and given the
fact that a lot of buildings will only survive
for a few decades, but that they will remain
a source of material, I think there is a
whole world to explore. So that’s why I’m here. And that’s what I want to learn
from you as a non-architect, as a failed architect. That’s where you come in. So for example, what I
want to look into is, like, what are
buildings made from, like, down to the
smallest details. What kind of materials. Where do they come from. So also geographically,
can we trace them back to their original place,
and can we rethink this supply chain of materials. Can we look more closely at
locally-sourced materials. I want to look at
projects that kind of help us to understand it. So this is [inaudible],,
who put the building materials of the space she
was showing inside that space. So it gives you an
understanding of what it takes to actually
create that environment. I want to look at
materials or products that are showing alternative
ways of building, such as this biodegradable
concrete that was developed by students in London. And I want to look at practices. These are people from Brussels
that I really admire, Rotor. You might know them from their
Venice Biennale contribution a few years ago,
where they put pieces from the most
buildings on the wall as if they were art pieces,
showing the wear and tear, and pointing out
the beauty of decay. And they recently started a
new branch of their company which is called deconstruction. That is what they do. So they salvage materials. They build a huge
database and a warehouse. And you can go online and
find materials and get it. So it’s repurposed
or reused materials, in the most radical sense. And I want to go to places
to learn and to understand. And not only look
at architecture, but also look at natural
phenomenon like this beaver dam, like how is it being
constructed, how do beavers– where do they find
their materials, how do they reuse materials. And I want to start
right here, because I think this is a fascinating
place that has a lot of promise to it. So there’s the Zero House
just across the park here that apparently is autarkic. And I really want
to dive into that and see whether that
is actually true, and what can be learned
from it, and what might be open for improvement. And I want to start with you. So I’m inviting all of you
to advise me, to help me, to join me in finding
these examples, finding some answers to
some of the questions that I’m posing here. Because I think we’re all
in the same mess in a way. This is a scene we encountered
on our very first day when some of you were
moving into your dorms here. And this is just the
result of one day of unpacking new
interior items, and put outside and on big
piles of waste. So what can we do
with that waste? How can we prevent ourselves
from creating the waste in the beginning? So please join me. I started this little
Instagram thing where I’m collecting examples
of things that fascinate me, things that annoy me. Please leave comments
or make suggestions. So thank you.

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