Book: The Neri Oxman Material Ecology Catalogue, edited by Emily Hall and Jennifer Liese

The Neri Oxman Material Ecology Catalogue
edited by Emily Hall and Jennifer Liese
published by The Museum of Modern Art, NY (MoMA)

Art exhibitions are a special sort of book, and I was excited to obtain this one after having missed the exhibit at MoMA (because: COVID).

The curator’s essay notes that architecture has its movements and manifestos, and that Speculative Critical Design, which could include Oxman and her lab’s practice, “has featured earnest but inconsequential exercises and clichéd storytelling,” which could honestly be a summary of nearly every architectural movement/manifesto (I could stop the sentence here) that hasn’t delivered a robust body of work. Oxman’s written philosophical content can provide insights, but appears intended to produce a shell of theory for the practical purposes of funding an experimental practice. You can gloss over it, admire the design of the catalog itself (modeled in tribute to Stuart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog), and then look at the interesting experiments and models that Oxman and her teams have produced.

Oxman produces attractive art objects that show off the potential of experimental, available natural materials. To utilize these materials, different fabrication methods involving both showy robots and insects are attractively documented, so that the processes behind the forming of materials is clear.

There is a tiny caption in an image “the shellfish industry produces more than 1 million tons of chitin-based waste per year,” and suddenly the context of the many forms and pieces involving chitin is clear. We have abundant supplies of materials that are the byproduct of other industries, which could offer opportunities to escape our petroleum and plastic-based problems.

The emphases on responsible material use, experimental manufacturing, and artistically documented processes interest and please me. Displays of models and experiments charm me (in a way similar to Studio Olafur Eliasson’s geometric model shop), though these models often have forms suggesting industrious insects made them, or perhaps volcanic springs formed them over time – and I mean that as a compliment. There are a few pieces that aren’t as tightly conceptualized to appeal to me (the death masks, for example), but the results are attractive, and they aren’t here to please me alone, so I won’t complain.

This is an attractive, well-designed catalog that shows off intelligent and attractive materials engineering experiments. I appreciate Oxman’s innovative work and overall practice, which is very STEAMY (in the putting the Art back into STEM way).

Book: Eco Living Japan: Sustainable Ideas for Living Green, by Deanna MacDonald

How is that for a cool cover?

Eco Living Japan: Sustainable Ideas for Living Green
by Deanna MacDonald
published by Tuttle, Rutland, Vermont

This is a beautifully illustrated survey of Japanese building projects which show a commitment to environmental sustainability.

This book grabbed me right away by immediately explaining something that had always confused me: why are homes made with renewable, traditional materials so rare? The answer that explains it all: insurance companies won’t insure old houses. One MUST tear down and rebuild to new codes every 30 years to get insurance. And so houses are basically disposable, and less sustainable materials can be cheaper, faster, less flammable, or more fashionable.

Some of the edgy, innovative Japanese house books I’ve seen are now so easily explained: no one is building for the long term, so being over-specific for a point in time, or taking risks, and being daring makes more sense – you won’t have to grow old in what you build! (Even in the recent Japanese fiction I’ve been reading, families tear down buildings to sell an empty lot – this seems to be considered the best choice almost always…)

This book profiles a range of projects from architects with a range of attitudes and credentials about environmentally sustainable building. It is a buffet of different eco-emphases: some projects focus on energy use, some on thermal insulation, some on traditional wood treatments (like charring to protect against insects), some on attempting to preserve the natural features of a landscape by resting on smaller foundations (which involves using a lot of steel, however), and all result in a range of reasonably conventional homes that wouldn’t jump out as eco-friendly without some explanation.

By showing a diversity of approaches and solutions, the book provides a good survey of concerns that CAN be addressed and SHOULD be considered. You CAN have a normal-looking house while making better choices!

As with all architecture books, I get a better sense for how living in the spaces could be when they have signs of human life in them, such as art or furnishings, so I am relieved that several of the homes are furnished, at least minimally. While a few of the homes are absolutely palatial (the vast, full floor height, insulated windows in some of these projects alone probably cost more than my entire house), there are some modest / practical ones in the mix. I also appreciate the interludes to cover topics such as the use of landscaping, and kit homes (hello, Muji!), and the inclusion of some international projects to tie what is happening in Japan to global trends.

Overall, this is an attractive, nicely presented book showing how many potential approaches there are to improve the sustainability of residential construction, especially in the climate and circumstances found in Japan. I enjoyed it.

Book: No One Is Too Small to Make A Difference by Greta Thunberg

Cover of Greta Thunberg's Book

No One is Too Small To Make A Difference
by Greta Thunberg
published by Penguin Random House UK

This pocket-sized book contains the English text of many of Greta’s recent speeches, in which she consistently tells world & business leaders to listen to scientists and reduce carbon emissions immediately. Because world & business leaders do not listen, she has said this in a variety of very clear, concise ways.

She caught on very quickly to the various arguments used by the not listening camp, which can be summarized by me like this:

Naysayer: you are not the right person to listen to, because
you are young (so you aren’t wise),
old (so you have no longer term future),
from the developed world (and I don’t believe you would give something up),
from the developing world (and you want to live like the developed world),
do have a plan (but I don’t like it),
don’t have a plan (so what are you expecting of me),
– are not the right person (but I won’t listen to the right people),

She breaks through that with a message that we must act, we must all act, and we must all act now. It isn’t about her, no matter how you try to make it about her, and she isn’t having it.

We talk about our children’s future, while destroying it in the same breath.

Also: what the hell is wrong with adults?

This is a quick read, and her speeches are very clear – perfect for our short-attention-span age, and our need to excerpt tiny snippets for the evening news. Ms. Thunberg is admirable, though she would prefer we just snap out of our stupor and DO something rather than admire her.