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Waste, its management and its disposal, infects every aspect of our lives, from racialised and gendered labour to art, activism and architecture
One of the most famous renditions of a trash heap must surely be that which grows ever higher, piling ‘wreckage upon wreckage’, before the wide, horrified eyes of Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History. Benjamin is much enjoyed by architectural theorists and historians, with his eyes always open to the underside of things. His Angel, characterised in his ninth thesis on the philosophy of history, is a widely cited aesthetic figure, but it’s the pile of waste and its socio-spatial and material implications that I’m interested in here. Hidden in the waste are a great many architectural stories to dig up – whole cities, even. As Deborah Bird Rose remarks, the figure of the Angel flung blindly backwards into the future still speaks vividly to us of waste, refuse, trash, wreckage and how these have been produced as a result of ‘what we call progress’, as Benjamin puts it so simply. When we consider waste – its management, how it is both revealed and hidden, which labouring bodies are wasted away in the process, and how it is present not only in the construction phase, but all the way through to demolition – we see that the progress of architecture is inextricably tied up with the production of waste.
This is the most crucial formula of waste: waste is the inevitable entropic outcome of what we call progress. Benjamin, who also spent time writing about ragpickers and whose own Arcades Project might be said to be composed of leftovers and scraps, is writing just before the devastations of the Second World War. Had he not killed himself in desperation, while attempting to escape across the border of France into Spain, he would have borne witness to the piles of postwar wreckage that his Angel appears to anticipate: the debris of stone, timber, glass and concrete that once composed the architecture of cities, scraped and heaped into ungainly piles. Today, Schuttberg (rubble mountains), grassed and forested hills disguised as urban parks, found close to many of the urban centres of Germany, hide in their secret cross-sections the material wrack and ruin of war-devastated towns. The parklands around Frei Otto and Behnisch & Partners’ Munich Olympic stadium, called Olympiaberg, are one excellent example, where the devastations of war have been settled down to become parklands – the aftermath of waste producing the topography of the landscape.
Whether dramatised in environmental thrillers like Dark Waters (2019), which depicts the deathly impact of chemical contaminants associated with the production of Teflon, or famously narrativised in Don Delillo’s novel Underworld, in the looming mountains of garbage at the Fresh Kills site on Staten Island, New York, waste is not out on the edge of town, but on full display with a wreck of seabirds calling overhead, part and parcel of our constructed environments. It is worth remembering that Fresh Kills was reopened in the aftermath of the fall of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, to accommodate the half a million tonnes of waste that resulted from that act of terror. Yet in the toleration of the garbage heap – now we see it, now we don’t – a kind of gestalt switch allows a comfortable assumption to take hold, that waste is under control and not leaking its poisons.
Waste is banal and insidious, contaminating all relations, firmly entrenched in everyday life, albeit usually just out of view of more privileged people. We don’t need the drama of war to produce waste, but we do need new imaginaries for architecture which can take into account and document not just heroic heaps, but the evil banality of ruinous piles. With the explosion of discourse around the Anthropocene thesis, the increased urgency of work undertaken in the environmental humanities, and the emergence of such material-semiotic paradigms as ‘extractivism’, with its infrastructural rhythm of dig and dump, waste has taken on a new valence. There is even a dedicated research platform, discardstudies.com, dedicated to its rumination. It intrudes into the foreground, leaking its contaminants everywhere, making a mess of humankind’s best laid plans. Waste, furthermore, includes in its filthy list of ingredients us, the collective species-being that is the human. Whether in sweatshops or as sanitation workers, whether as domestic or commercial cleaners, whether as mine workers or communities gathered in the vicinity of chemical plants owned by companies like DuPont, the laying waste of collective human bodies can be witnessed. To these bodies might be added the multitude who risk long journeys to escape from violence and environmental devastation, seeking out refuge, new lives. That the bare life of human individuals and communities could be so easily deemed dispensable should arouse the privileged classes from their – from our – comfortable slumbers.
In more humble accounts of staying close to the ground and coping with the ubiquity of waste, a feminist ethos is stressed. Architectural philosopher Peg Rawes uses a former dump site at Battery Park, New York, as a primary location to discuss what she calls relational architectural ecologies. She tells of Agnes Denes’ performance art in the project Wheatfield – A Confrontation (1982). In a collective act of care and remediation with her collaborators, Denes plants and tends a wheatfield in sight of New York City, where the Twin Towers can still be seen in the background of the photographs that document her slow, laborious gestures of care. The improbability of a wheatfield as source of nutrition, even urban farming, raised on trash, is juxtaposed with a dense, energy-hungry and waste-producing urban context. This site-specific work shows the relational ecologies connecting life in the city with agricultural sites of food production as well as with sites where waste is accumulated. Like a vast and complex alimentary canal, the city is never a discrete entity but tied up in regional and global flows, carrying waste from one location to the next.
Then there are essays in critical care by thinker-activists like Françoise Vergès, where waste is profoundly connected to gendered and racialised, Black and Brown bodies. Exhausted bodies perform the everyday work of waste management, cleaning and care, through undervalued, underpaid, precarious and usually invisible acts, and offer crucial contributions to the maintenance of both domestic and civic spaces. Waste management is an intersectional issue, cutting a cross-section through gender, sex, race and class. Waste becomes a composite thing around which a politics can emerge, a Dingpolitik, as Bruno Latour would call it. Once we direct our attention to its ubiquity and the way that it touches all – not just some – of us, we must recognise our involvement. We should be concerned, we must all care. Expressions of solidarity are needed to acknowledge that a reflection upon waste is equally a reflection on the way we organise ourselves socially and politically. Furthermore, thinking with waste can help us see how far mental, social and environmental registers are interconnected.
‘Could it be that in our desperate drive for progress and innovation, we trash defunct material systems and forget valuable modes of critical thinking too?’
What do we learn when we handle waste intimately? We really need to start conceptualising architecture from the vantage point of the constant cleaning and maintenance that sustains constructed environments. There is knowledge to be gleaned from the embodied practices involved in dealing with dirt, and it doesn’t have to remain tacit. If you haven’t attended to the grout between bathroom tiles, the space behind the toilet bowl, the skirting board, the cornice, then your knowledge of architectural detailing remains merely academic. I hasten to add urgently that this observation is in no way meant to suggest an apt means of resolving the dire working conditions of those who have gained such knowledge, rather to draw attention to the ways in which knowledge might be achieved through unexpected and undervalued modes of spatial practice, such as cleaning. Back in 1975 Silvia Federici famously enunciated the revolutionary call for ‘Wages for Housework’, recompense for what has been so successfully hidden under naturalised assumptions about the gendered division of labour. There are lessons here too for architects who identify their work as a labour of love, thereby undercutting reasonable payment for their intellectual labour.
Intimate particularities of waste are met at the other end of the spectrum with their generalised distribution. Rania Ghosn and El Hadi Jazairy of Design Earth are fascinated by geographies of waste and explore what happens when spatial thinkers imagine waste managed and networked at a planetary scale. Using dangerously charming illustrations, they render vivid an aesthetics of waste, thereby making waste visible and available as a subject for discussion and debate. The illustrations are dangerous in that they lure the observer in with innocent pastels and strangely familiar forms lifted from a near-contemporary history of design. There is a hint of Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International, and a suggestion of the Kunsthaus in Graz designed by Colin Fournier and Peter Cook as referent projects, associating a history of architecture with so much trash. What could this mean for these projects, discovered out of their urban context amid the stylised refuse? Design Earth’s Trash Peaks was a project presented at the Seoul Biennale in 2017, with the collaboration of Reid Fellenbaum, Victor Lee, Monica Britt Hutton and Beth Savrann. Its visual language recalls children’s storybooks, but the deceptive innocence of its expression carries an important message, that of architecture’s fundamental entanglement with waste products and how its own material constitution suffers an inevitable decomposition over time. Concomitant with the gradual weathering, the wear and tear, of construction materials, there is the disposal of the ideologies that have been embodied in architecture’s concrete expression. In the end, the very stuff of architecture is relegated to the trash heaps of history. Could it be that in our desperate drive for progress and innovation, we not only trash what are deemed defunct material systems, but forget valuable modes of critical thinking too?
‘We need new imaginaries for architecture which can take into account and document not just heroic heaps, but the evil banality of ruinous piles’
As is well known, architecture and its affiliated industries, specifically the construction industry, are responsible for 38 per cent of global CO2 emissions. The chemical reactions associated with the smelting of steel, the manufacturing of concrete, the aftermath of deforestation as a result of demand for tropical timbers, all produce CO2, which in turn produces global climatic and environmental devastation. As fast and as furiously as we construct urban conglomerates, as speedily as we lay waste to our environments,
as earnestly as we attempt to clean up, organise and innovate amid our urban-environment worlds, we rapidly make things worse. Then there is the sheer mass of material redistributions of the stuff that composes Planet Earth’s lithosphere, massive terraforming adventures creating mass disturbances. This planetary graffiti writ large has been a driving force behind the geological moniker that is the Anthropocene and its thought experiments, accompanied by a concatenation of clanging companions, the Capitalocene, the Anthrobscene, the Plantationocene, the Plasticene, to which can be added the Wasteocene. And what is the thought experiment that so often attends this primary geopolitical concept that describes waste distributed at a planetary scale? Paul Crutzen and Christian Schwägerl narrate the scenario of a witness projected into the future some 200 years. This imaginary future alien or future version of our human selves, on encountering the aftermath of the waste we have lain, will wonder how we managed to make such a mess of things, and how we could have been so insensible as to have ransacked our own home. You see, it is all a matter of perspective and point of view. The moral of the tale is that we are challenged in terms of our capacity to imagine other ways of managing our collective waste.
One final thought-image of a waste heap is required. In my book Dirty Theory: Troubling Architecture (2019), I refer to Immanuel Kant’s island of truth, beyond which the fogs of illusion, fantasy and madness prevail. Enlightenment thinking is associated with the exceptionalism of ‘man’ and ‘his’ right to the resources ‘nature’ has provided him; it directs us towards the logic of untrammelled growth, of progress and innovation for their own sake. Kant recommends not venturing too far from the shore of the island of truth. But what is this island of truth, based on tenets of reason observed in the light of day (no darkness, no hint of dragons), if not a mounting pile of debris composed not so much of reasonable claims for the inevitable and necessary march of progress and development at all costs? Kant’s island of reason turns out to be a trash heap, but like any midden, there may be lessons learnt by picking with care through the debris.
Lead image: In Julian Trevelyan’s painting Rubbish May be Shot Here from 1937, factory chimneys and cotton mills, sites of working-class labour, pump out smoke over the chaotic ground of printed images of pots and pans, household furniture, vegetables and cut-out heads, mostly from newspaper photographs of the recent coronation. Credit: Tate
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