Jazairy: Speculating on a Changing Environment and an Uncertain Future

As a field, architecture is often concerned with questions of space — how to create it, how to shape it, how it makes human beings feel. But El Hadi Jazairy, an associate professor of architecture at Taubman College, takes that to a whole other level. In his recent projects, he has turned his gaze toward outer space.

“It’s this idea of the cosmos as a frontier, as a space of exploration — but also a space that has already been urbanized,” Jazairy says. “If you look at satellite technologies, the International Space Station, and the exploration of the cosmos in general, we have left a very significant footprint in space already.”

Jazairy, along with Rania Ghosn, an associate professor of architecture and urbanism at MIT, is a founding partner of the multiple prize-winning practice Design Earth. The duo and their collaborators explore human footprints on our planet and beyond, imagining a future altered by climate change, pollution, and the excesses of throwaway culture — as well as by human ingenuity and adaptation.

“A lot of the projects we do start with a research investigation and move quickly into speculative design, storytelling, and cautionary tales,” he explains of the detailed architectural renderings, imaginative maps, sci-fi narratives, and models that Design Earth has exhibited in venues around the world — including at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where the partnership’s project “After Oil” is in the permanent collection.

“Cosmorama” by Design Earth for the United States Pavilion at the 2018 Venice Biennale. Photo credit: Tom Harris

Design Earth created “After Oil” for the Kuwait Pavilion at the 2016 Venice Biennale, a prestigious international art and design exhibition. In 2018, Jazairy, Ghosn, and their collaborators contributed to the Biennale for a second time, when Design Earth was one of seven studios selected to explore the broader meanings of citizenship for the United States Pavilion.

“The pavilion was divided into various scales — the region, the continent — and they asked us to think about citizenship at the scale of the planet,” Jazairy says. Design Earth took as its inspiration the United States Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015, legislation that aimed to facilitate the development of a private-sector space industry. “It meant that for the first time, a private company in the United States could explore outer space and eventually bring back resources,” Jazairy says. “We were interested in looking at all of those companies that had developed because of this new regulation.”

The resulting project, “Cosmorama,” presented a series of stories that, as The Architectural Review put it in a glowing critique, “shift imperceptibly between dread-inducing fact and delicious fabulation” as they imagine a solar system populated with asteroid-mining robots and endangered animals tended by astronauts in an orbiting nature sanctuary.

“Cosmorama” was in keeping with other recent Design Earth projects, including “Neck of the Moon,” the 2015 winner of the Jacques Rougerie Foundations’ International Architecture Competition, which envisions a second moon constructed out of Earth’s orbital debris, and a 2018 book, Geostories: Another Architecture for the Environment, which Jazairy and Ghosn call “a manifesto for the environmental imagination.” The fantasies spun by Design Earth are a long way from Jazairy’s early career, which he spent as a practicing architect, designing buildings and urban spaces for a firm in Brussels. Over time, he says, “I became more and more convinced that it’s important for the discipline to speculate, not only to resolve existing questions, but to think about opening new questions.”

Chief among those questions is the role of architecture in a changing environment and an uncertain future. “We are really thinking about the fate of the planet, the future of the environment, and how we can maintain a certain quality of life without altering ecological systems,” Jazairy says. “We have to shift our way of seeing.”

For 2020, Design Earth was again invited to participate in the Venice Biennale, but the event was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. That gives Jazairy and his colleagues, including some of his graduate students, a chance to continue working on their contribution, which speculates on what Earth might look like after climate change and the geoengineering that may be necessary to stave off its worst effects. Working with architecture students on a forward-thinking project like this is one way to change the profession from the inside, Jazairy says.

“I think what is important is that we teach future architects to think, and not simply to respond,” he says. “We also have to be critical of the discipline itself, to hold ourselves accountable for what we are doing. The context in which we live today needs critical, active thinkers who are engaged in society. It’s about offering ways to evolve, as we imagine the future and what it might mean to live there.”

— Amy Crawford