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The sixth mass extinction – Architectural Review

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A feral architecture, designed for multiple species, can memorialise the animals that humans have driven to extinction

Environmental philosopher Timothy Morton suggests we replace the term ‘climate change’ with a term more concretely embedded in its effects: ‘mass extinction’. With the anthropocene comes evidence of Earth’s sixth mass extinction, which sees up to a million species of plants and animals under threat of extinction at significantly higher than the ‘background’ rate, due to human activity causing habitat loss and environmental degradation. An insect apocalypse undermines the very foundations of the terrestrial food web while afforestation and urbanisation eliminate habitat. Of the 1.9 million species that have been identified on our planet (with an estimate of up to 10 million as yet unidentified), one million are under threat of extinction. 

 Architecture apparently can fix all of this with the aid of affiliated disciplines in landscape and science. The naive (or cynical) optimism of what is being called ‘post?anthropocene architecture’ suggests that a new phase of solutioneering is under way as we interrogate the construct that is the ‘human’. Posthuman and post?anthropocene discourses offer ways to question the anthropocentric bias of architecture, especially in seeking for architecture an activist role in confronting the nexus of climate and social injustice. In invoking that past as ‘post’, these discourses also obscure the settler colonialism and constructions of race and gender that remain intact, by means of their relative invisibility, in the construction of the human, the animal and the architectural envelope maintaining their charged and constitutive distance. Zakiyyah Iman Jackson powerfully demonstrates how such terms gloss over systemic racism and animalisation of Indigenous and Afro-descended humans in Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in an Antiblack World (2020), pointing to expressive and disruptive works of visual art and literature as a potential form of redress: ‘art can be a remedy and may be a means of setting right a wrong’.

In RIP Charles Island Tortoise: After Ernst Haeckel, 1904/2014, Brandon Ballengée cuts out the extinct animal to make its loss felt. The cuttings were later burned, and the ashes scattered in memory.

Credit:Brandon Ballengée, RIP Charles Island Tortoise: After Ernst Haeckel

It is time to reckon with the losses. It is time to face the effects of our contemporary carbon-heavy formats of inhabitation and their attendant biopolitics on all lives. And it is certainly time to excavate the racial and racist underpinnings of the thinking that maintains low ethical regard for the lives of humans and other animals. 

Environmental grief is an emergent topic, prompted as much by climate change’s devastation as by the political shredding of community fabric, certainly in the US, where the efforts to combat human suffering and environmental exploitation meet political blocks on what feels like a daily basis. Our vocabularies remain too thin to express the overwhelming sense of loss. Fatigue from climate and health crises echoes the more cynical approach to suffering generated by enslavement, genocide and exploitation. We need to include terms such as ‘solastalgia’, to describe a type of grief over the loss of a thriving ecosystem, as well as new grief rituals. Mourning has a critical consciousness and an ambivalent, or Janus?faced, temporality: evoking past and future losses in the present. Structures of mourning have operated as disciplinary markers, in Adolf Loos’s memorable formulation: ‘Only a very small part of architecture belongs to art: the tomb and the monument.’ 

Architecture has been focused on designing the habitats of one species with disregard for the loss of life among so many other species. An architecture for multiple species could develop not only new habitats but also new formats to visualise and acknowledge loss. Ferality can create an architecture for multiple species that inscribes loss in its surfaces.

In RIP Eastern Wood Bison: After Mark Catesby (Urn), 1755/2015, Ballengée memorialises the cuttings of a paper eastern wood bison in a funerary urn

Credit:Brandon Ballengée, RIP Eastern Wood Bison: After Mark Catesby (Urn)

The term ‘feral’ refers to animals that are wild or untamed, yet in the etymology of this word lies another meaning: funerary, or belonging to the dead. In one word, we find animal, wildness, funerary and the dead – tangling together to evoke the global threats to pollinators from the polluted atmosphere, habitat devastation, agricultural intensification and planetary urbanisation. In the funerary meaning of feral lies an opening for intimacy. Victorian funerary rites establish intimacy with the dead in the wearing of a bracelet or necklace woven of a lost one’s hair, the crafting of objects from the remains, or the positioning of a corpse in commemorative photographs. This handling of the dead makes mourning a relational process that can be seen as establishing a communication with a state that is other, a process not focused on ‘moving on’ as much as seeking to move with the memory. An aesthetic object – a bracelet or wreath – transforms loss from alien presence into companionable other. Presence is literally braided into the materiality of the object: its surfaces are conceptually (and literally from a DNA perspective) inhabited by the presence of others. The feral offers this kind of mourning jewellery as architecture. The feral aesthetic draws on cultures of mourning to incite our empathy and understand something that we are about to lose in our environment: a reminder, a landscape or urban-scaled memento mori, a punctum that rather than memorialising the wound of the real as a photographic image, instead pierces perception with an actual, uncanny presence.

If feral architecture proposes a visual manifestation of ‘other’ in the form of other-than-human presences, its effect is not only symbolic but also programmatic, inviting other-than-human animals as inhabitants to demonstrate their continued, if enfeebled, existences among us. It is ironic that historical commemorative architecture for humans – chapels and mausolea – offers a foothold for creatures we consider feral in the wild sense; the craggy surfaces and deep niches of neo-gothic memorials, for example, are replete with birds and insects. In the urban imaginary, from Piranesi’s ruins of Italian cities – ruins that shelter animals and beggars – to the graphic novel city of Gotham, with its bat-winged guardian perched high above, there is a feral ecosystem: the surfaces of the city teem with other-than-human animals. Consider the translation of wormed-wood into vermiculated stone by Renaissance and Revival buildings that range from the Pavillon Denon at the Louvre to a Brooklyn example in Williamsburg’s former Kings County Savings Bank. These deploy the ornamental motif as a type of petrified memento mori; even the stone of what seem to be solid institutions will, in time, become worm-fodder. Spattered, oozing and moist surfaces counter the paranoid flatness of modernist aesthetics. The patterning, the texture of the wall, the rooftop or window ledge, is where the feral aesthetic historically lies. The same intricate working housing the animals in the building surface, in its facade, is where the intentional critical act of architecture is read. Surfaces mirror the erosion of the environment from which we have evolved and offer footholds for even precarious existence.

You can argue that the inhabited surface serves merely a decorative function, and yet again applies what was formerly called nature to the surface of a building, but, like Victorian hair jewellery, its decorative capacity is complicated by the inscribed presence of the absent (or soon to be extinct).

Lead image: Mark Dion, Collection Florence & Daniel Guerlain, Paris & Galerie In Situ – Fabienne Leclerc, Grand Paris, Photo: Marc Domage

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