A Sort of Ambition: in Conversation with Elisa Iturbe


Volume 5, Issue 10
December 12, 2019

Elisa Iturbe is a critic at the Yale School of Architecture, a member of Outside Development, and editor of Log 47: Overcoming Carbon Form. This past Fall she taught the seminar, The City and Carbon Modernity, which examines the ways our current carbon-intensive energy paradigm generates architectural and urban form. Interview conducted on November 20, 2019.

Paprika! OK. So I was wondering if we could start by talking about the underlying motivations for starting the course. Where did your interest in the topic of carbon form come from in the first place?

Elisa I think that in some ways the starting point was as early as just having done the dual degree program with YSoA and FES. I was taking a lot of the social science courses at FES and started looking more at the origins of the climate crisis rather than the way in which it manifests itself. And so that was a really profound influence on my way of thinking about the environment. 

I have a friend who works in renewable energy, and he has an architecture background. He graduated with me from YSoA but then started working on a renewable energy project. As we were discussing this technology that he was working on, I started to think about the relationship between the energy grid and urban form. Then last year I had a visiting professorship at the Cooper Union, and they asked me to teach their environments course, which was a new required course for second years. The term carbon form and carbon modernity emerged as I was writing the syllabus, because I was trying to think about the spatial expression of energy transition. I started to understand that there is a correlation between the energy paradigm and the spatial paradigm that we were living in.

And then, of course, there was the opportunity to work on Log 47; so all of these ideas came together by the time I started planning for this seminar. 

P! One of the things that has come up in the class is the idea of thinking architecturally past sustainability or technocratic solutions; could you characterize the difference in thinking of energy solutions in more specifically spatial terms?

Elisa For me, focusing on the performative aspect of buildings seemed limited because of the way that you could use it as a means to continue to perpetuate the spatial paradigm of carbon energy. I see so many examples where solar panels are just a means to sustain the status quo or to continue to build in the same way. They would be declared technical victories but, at the same time, the architecture might still be embedded in the neoliberal processes that are encouraging the kind of economic growth that we know is a huge part of the problem.That’s when I started to turn more to the way a building is embedded into the city and to understand that the spatial disposition of the city affects how it grows, and how it grows is part of the issue. 

So in my mind, turning to more spatial aspects is a way of actually trying to use the way of thinking of an architect to understand how buildings are embedded into the city itself and into specific social forms and economic dynamics. Performativity, I think, continues to be limited to the individual building and denies the kind of syntactical potential of architecture. And the relationship between architecture and the city is something that has to continue to be theorized, especially as cities begin to change. 

In the Italian context with Aldo Rossi’s writing, they talk about architecture as a mode of knowledge, which is simply a way of saying that architecture can, through its own terms, become a way of knowing the world. I already see that in the way that the term carbon form has emerged in the class, in the way that we’ve used it. We’ve used it to read projects, and they have helped us see specific social, political, and economic dynamics. I think that we can understand the spatial disposition of certain things. In class we’ve talked about the spatial disposition of the energy grid. That’s not how people who work in the energy sector think about it, but that’s a way that architects might think about it. And that’s a way in which we might start to project how distributed energy can change ways of life, because we understand that it has a different spatial disposition. So, you know, most industrial processes are linear, right? We understand that they are extracted and deployed and then eventually thrown away. We can understand that spatially. And so we can start to say, rather than having a linear disposition of productive cycles, we should have a circular one. What does that mean in space? And so in that sense, architectural knowledge is not by definition inward facing, because it can simply be a way to see and a way to understand what’s in front of us.

P! It seems there’s an opportunity to think of this new energy paradigm as an architectural project that might also invoke historical grand projects. I’m wondering what are the differences between what we need now architecturally versus historical examples of utopian projects.

Elisa I think it’s a really important question. You know, I’ve mentioned in the class that I don’t want to be accused of a Modernist hubris. Even as I say that, cities have to be totally reinvented. But I think that we have to recognize that there is a difference between architectural vision and ego. To say that architecture can have large ambitions does not necessarily mean the same thing that it meant in the modern period. It doesn’t mean a tabula rasa, and it can mean that part of having architectural ambition now means looking past the typical boundaries of the practice towards a larger understanding of the social, political, and economic dynamics that affect specific communities. And I think that we also have to recognize that the way in which architecture is made right now is so subservient to the financial mechanisms of development that what normally happens is that you’re given a parcel, you’re told what it has to be on the parcel, and you design without an ability to question what that thing could be. And to me, that is an enormous obstacle for architecture to take on its full capacity as a social good, as a social benefit. 

We also have to recognize that the financial mechanisms that create gentrification and that displace entire communities are forces to be reckoned with within the city. And as architects, I think it’s exceedingly important to be critical of them. Architecture has the capacity, I think, to be critical of the hegemonic structures that organize society.  If we continue to accept this condition where architecture just remains bound to the parcel that’s given to you by the developer, architecture already cedes some of its critical capacity. So for me, ambition isn’t about Robert Moses-like thinking. It’s about accepting that architecture can be critical of our dominant social power structures. And to me, to not have that ambition relegates architecture to just building, right? It’s just like following instructions and someone tells you ‘build here’. OK. I’ll build there. I would say that the utopian vision and the grand project doesn’t have to be what it has always been. The inheritance of the 20th century avant garde has limited our conceptions of what is new and what is transgressive. The 20th century avant garde created a model where transgressive architecture immediately rejected what came before. In that way, it was new. But I think that’s a very limited sense of what transgression is and what avant garde is and what utopia is. Architecture has to redefine its terms of how it can be critical, because in every given moment the social conditions are slightly different. And so I think that what we have to take on right now is the neoliberal project – gentrification is a project. Those are projects that are having so much influence on the city. And they don’t have one master thinker but they are societal projects that are completely turning over populations in cities. I would say that if we shy away from saying that architecture can’t do more, then we obscure architecture, and it’s further embedded into those processes. And that’s what I’m afraid of. That’s where I say that we should demand more. 

I talked about this with Rihanna Gunn-Wright who is a policy lead on the Green New Deal. I interviewed her for Log 47. I asked her how she felt about having what we could call a grand vision at the federal level, and I explained to her that we as architects have some trauma around, you know, large scale Modernist vision. She said it was really hard but what she explained was that even though the policy aims as far as possible in terms of its ambition, its execution relies on going out to communities, talking to experts, talking to people in different sectors, talking to academics in order to hear all the voices that need to be heard. And so that’s ambition, too, right? I think ambition isn’t just about how big of a project can I build. Ambition is finding the best version of architecture.

P! I’m wondering if you could speak about how we as architects maintain criticality when also dealing with the more mundane concerns of architects, such as maintaining a practice. How those two can still work together?

Elisa Yeah, I think that’s an important question. And I mean, I can only speak to what I’ve been trying to do. I’m working with Stanley Cho who graduated with me from YSoA. We have a little practice called Outside Development. And one thing we started to talk about early on was precisely this, how do we make work that aligns with what we want for architecture. And I think in many cases, given the way commissions are awarded, you don’t really have a choice as to what you get to build. And so we started to look for opportunities to consult with organizations that are looking to build. We’re working with a nonprofit in San Diego that wants to start a community land trust. They have an empty lot that they know they want to build on. They hired us to put together a document that consults on what form the community land trust can take. And given the community land trust, what becomes possible for that site? We didn’t make any drawings. We didn’t make any renders. But we did start to say, OK, given this alternative land ownership model, this is the type of housing that becomes possible on this land. And given that kind of housing that you want to have on this land – let’s say you want a solar project – these are the different options. With that project, we are trying to get to the table earlier on so that we can use architectural knowledge positively to shape what the project can be. And so hopefully, if all goes well, we’ll continue working with them, and they’ll hire us to actually design the building.

I think it will be very different to have been there from the onset. And to understand the needs as a community as we continue to speak with them about what the updates are – how the community land trust formation is going, what the scale of the land trust will be. Will it start purely on that lot, or can they include other sites from the get go? We start to think, OK, are we thinking about just one parcel? Are we starting to project the possibility of the parcel next to it eventually getting brought into the land trust? What does that mean for the spatial disposition of the thing that we’ve put on there? Could we foresee that eventually the site next to it will also have something built on it? How does that change the design? Being there from the onset changes what we can do as architects. So, that’s sort of an unusual model but I think that, for us, it has been important to find the right kind of people that are looking for buildings that don’t necessarily conform to the commodification of space that we find problematic. So, I mean, that’s a very specific answer; but, in our small practice, we’re trying to find a different way of getting a commission.

P! And in that regard, how did you cultivate that relationship? Almost rewriting the conventional dynamic of architect and client. What was it like to get in touch with a client that meets your own project vision?

Elisa I think that it was a bit of luck in our case. With this particular nonprofit, a friend introduced me to the people who are working on it. But I also started to work on Community Land Trusts when I was in grad school. I just started to go to conferences and events where people were talking about alternative land ownership models. So the first time I ever heard about a land trust was because I went to a New Economy Coalition conference. I’m trying to embed myself in this conversation and understand who’s doing what around alternative land ownership and commoning projects and where are they. And doing my best to meet those people. I don’t think it’s really that different from getting a client in the normal sense. Like, you know, you go to a party, and you schmooze and see if any person wants a house built for them. I don’t know – I’ve never done that personally [laughs].

P! We hear about it from our professors, and it makes us anxious. We don’t want to do that [laughs].

Elisa I don’t want to do it either! So, being my nerdy self, I will go to conferences about land trusts and go meet people there.

P! Sounds like a great way to do it.

Elisa Yeah.

P! And then in terms of meeting these urgent needs, where do you see pedagogy needing to change? Or even, as students, how do we need to rethink our own pedagogy to meet these challenges?

Elisa One of the first things that I would recommend is a deep understanding of urban history and urban theory, because in order to make a change to the city, you have to understand what the city is and what the city has been. And the more we understand the urban dynamics that have already been in place, the more you can learn from mistakes – but also the less we have to feel like we have to reinvent the wheel. And I think there have been moments in cities where a certain sense of publicness was achieved or models of housing have been achieved that are equitable or successful in other places. I think the less we understand those histories, the more susceptible we are to accepting the current modes of production of architecture. 

In this moment where we have to change so many things about how cities work and what cities are, I think it’s equally important to ask ourselves what has to be left behind. And, you know, that’s a big thrust in my mind about understanding carbon form, because we have to cease to replicate these spatial models that are, we know now, so damaging. So that’s one of the reasons why I think understanding history and understanding precedent is so important, because we have to be able to build a critique of the current modes of production of architecture, the kind of urban dynamics that perpetuate the hegemonic structures that are leading to climate change. 

I think that if we were to be asked tomorrow as a discipline and as a practice, ‘what is the built environment we need for climate change?’ I’m not convinced that architecture as a whole has enough of an answer to that yet. But history and theory are essential for that, because then when it comes time to sit at the table with the people who are writing the Green New Deal, we can have a better sense of what is needed. And so we go back to this question of ambition. What is the most ambitious vision for the way architecture can embed itself into society, and how can architecture perpetuate new modes of life that start to curtail the dynamics of carbon modernity? I don’t think we know how to do that yet. 

P! Having now taught this class once. What do you think you’d change for a second iteration if you were to offer it again?

Elisa So I was telling you that I have this document on my computer that every week I write little notes to myself as to what I would do differently. And I was looking back at it the other day, and I had this really extreme note to myself from five weeks ago that was like, ‘rearrange everything! Change order of all things!’ And, of course, five or six weeks later, I think that note is totally insane. 

One thing I might do is to think about pre-carbon form before analyzing carbon form itself. Because we spent so much energy analyzing carbon form – and since a lot of it is the contemporary urban form that we know – it becomes difficult to imagine what an alternative could be. I think that by looking at non-carbon form we can increase what the vocabulary is for alternatives. We started to look at solar energy and renewable energy and then alternative land ownership models pretty late. I think integrating that stuff a little bit more, having maybe fewer presentations, having students team up so that we can bring that stuff up earlier, and introducing some non carbon form from the onset I think would be two things that I might do. But overall, I think that the concept of carbon form has been working well in the context of the seminar. I feel like we’re having really good conversations about the built environment. And I think that it’s helping us see. That was my goal for this term so I’m excited about that.

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Volume 5, Issue 10
December 12, 2019

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