Research

In terms of research, laba maintains a broad, pluristic research base, drawing on experience gained from specific design locations where a new urban or territorial condition is manifested.

Specific research themes investigate the relationship between architecture & urban design and dynamic phenomena influencing the built environment. laba is particularly interested in design as mediator of the urban context and digital tools and their influence on the design and production of architecture.

 

INDUSTRIAL EARTH: AESTHETICS OF ARTIFICIAL ENVIRONMENTS

We live in an urban-industrialized civilization but at the same time pretend to ourselves that our real home is in the wilderness, in that “Nature” with a capital N. The trouble with this belief is that the aesthetics of Nature – rolling hills and unspoiled greenery – is precisely what hides the fact that Earth in the age of the Anthropocene has become globally dominated by industrial exploitation. Artificiality is now a precondition of life on industrial Earth: a world of domesticated nature and wild urbanisation in the uncanny era when human history collided with geological time.

Modernism has been the history of Western culture’s progressive path toward abstraction, and correspondingly, modern industrial society has also been the process through which the formal city has disintegrated into the abstract process of urbanization, the generic habitat of absolute individualism based on the ideology of incommensurability and infinite growth propelled by constant movement and production. Abstraction – the aesthetic of industrialization – emerged from the loss of referentials after the disappearance of the city/countryside dichotomy, the artificial-versus-natural world order. It is a by-product of the end of nature and the total pervasiveness of the urban. It is a symptom of artificiality. From a pessimistic viewpoint, it encourages a removal of the sense of place and its specific meaning, memory or message. But viewed positively, its indeterminacy can suggest a sense of openness and flexibility that allows other non-human points of view to be acknowledged. When perceived as an “open work”, abstraction can be the device that turns architecture into a background, causing it to switch places with “nature” and thereby reveal the non-human world. In this process, one may find an aesthetic that causes domesticated design objects to abdicate their role as significant anthropocentric landmarks or symbols of human colonization in order to become minimalist background sculptures that enhance and interact with the geological designs of mountains, glaciers, valleys, fields and other such earthly things.

Industrial Earth is a project that searches for kind of environmental aesthetic that does not tell us about our special place in the world and does not foster a sense of familiarity, on the contrary, it is ambiguous, it eludes, it raises questions. It is backed up by a series of four year-long master studios focused on four critical case studies – Iceland, Venice, Israel and Los Angeles – and it aims to pinpoint the fundamental aesthetic characteristics of environments shaped by Western industrial capitalism, the driving force behind the advent of the Great Acceleration, the Athropocene, and the total artificialization of planet Earth.

Industrial Landscape, Iceland: The Industrial Appropriation of Nature, 2014–15
Must human industry and nature remain eternal enemies? The Industrial Revolution was rooted in the premise that nature was perpetually regenerative, a constant flow and recycling of resources that could be eternally exploited. This idea has lingered, even though the past century has shown that human agency has come to impact all corners of the planet, and we now find ourselves in a position of responsibility as the caretakers and designers of our environment. Iceland seems to be one of the last places on Earth that are still wild, unspoiled and innocent, offering an ideal setting for a critical restaging of the old clash between lush landscape and voracious industry.

Industrial Nostalgia, Venice: The Industrial Production of Simulated Heritage, 2015–16
The recent trajectory of tourism-oriented heritage preservation in Venice does not content itself with systematically displacing the city’s local livelihood. Because it depends on the “historic brand” to remain attractive, it needs to artificially reenact the traditions it constantly displaces, thus producing a simulated heritage. Adding to this paradoxical state of revivalism is a very concrete state of emergency: slow-motion drowning. So despite all attempts at preserving Venice for post-mortem contemplation, self-destruction is still stubbornly imminent, likely anticipating realities to come in the global age of the Anthropocene. Venetian nostalgia has become uncanny.

Industrial Arcadia, Israel: The Industrial Design of Water and Soil, 2016–17
The extent of Israeli efforts to engineer its shift to the South, is actualizing the biblical injunction “Make the Desert Bloom!” Since 1948, Israel has planted thousands of hectares of forests in a strategy to make the Near East climate of the Negev Desert “more European.” These forests dissimulate the Palestinian villages evicted and destroyed during the Nakba and work as a means of coercion against the nomad Bedouin people. The climatic threshold thus advances and recedes in response to colonization, cultivation, displacement, urbanization, and, most recently, climate change, as the desert reclaims some of its lost ground.

 

SUSTAINABLE BUILT ENVIRONMENTS – HOLCIM FOUNDATION FORUM 

Since 2013 Harry Gugger is Board Member of the Academic Committee of the LafargeHolcim Foundation, which conducts research on sustainable built environments.