Ghosts of the Future

Sasa Zivkovic is the principal of HANNAH, a multidisciplinary design practice based in the U.S. and Germany. HANNAH works on projects at various scales — ranging from buildings to installations — and internationally collaborates on projects and competitions in a network with other emerging young architectural practices in Asia and the U.S. Zivkovic is currently a visiting assistant professor at Cornell University, where he teaches design studios and seminar classes.
Architecture in the Anthropocene

By the time Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’s famous “spectre of communism”1 began haunting Europe in 1848, as a product of substantial social inequality caused by a rapidly developing industrialized society, a far more powerful, all-encompassing specter had already initiated a process of large-scale global metamorphosis directly rooted in the effects of the Industrial Revolution. 2 Constituting a paradigm shift of unimaginable scale — the transition from former supposedly “natural” to future allegedly “man-made” geological epochs — we are currently witnessing a progression from the Holocene toward the Anthropocene. 3 Within this paradigm shift, the Anthropocene encompasses all the ephemeral, invisible, and unknowable past as well as the future effects and consequences of human enterprise on Earth. It is no exaggeration to claim that the Anthropocene and its associated unpredictable futures along with rather vague pasts outline a transformation of truly epic and uncertain proportions. In essence, Marx and Engel’s specter portrayed a moment of political, social, environmental, and economic uncertainty at the beginning of the Anthropocene epoch that maintains its relevance to this day.

Climate change is perhaps the most common example of the anthropocenic ghost. The uncertainty produced by human intervention in natural cycles is colossal, as pointed out by atmospheric chemists Will Steffen and Paul Crutzen: In geological terms, “[...] climate change is only the tip of the iceberg. In addition to the carbon cycle, humans are signi cantly altering several other biogeochemical, or element cycles, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulphur, that are fundamental to life on the Earth; strongly modifying the terrestrial water cycle by intercepting river ow from uplands to the sea and, through land-cover change, altering the water vapor ow from the land to the atmosphere; and likely driving the sixth major extinction event in Earth history. Taken together, these trends are strong evidence that humankind, our own species, has become so large and active that it now rivals some of the great forces of Nature in its impact on the functioning of the Earth system.”4

Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, there have been unprecedented new signifiers delineating the repercussions of a global change of scale in human economic operations. For Marx and Engels, the emerging early traces of the ghosts of the anthropocene were already noticeable in the massive amounts of smoke discharged from chimneys and furnaces of industrial complexes in London at that time, the evident shift from a rural society toward urban industrialized centers, or the vast change in socioeconomic relations during the times of the Industrial Revolution. While their writings and observations mainly focused on the issue of class struggle, they also observed an industrialized society equipped to alter its physical environment:

“The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of Nature’s forces to man, machinery, application to chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation,
canalisation of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground―what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labor.”5 Since Marx and Engels, the anthropocenic effects of industrialization and globalization have multiplied, resulting in an immense increase in global population, water use, fertilizer consumption, McDonald’s restaurants, carbon dioxide concentration, great floods, ocean fishery, motor vehicles, foreign direct investment, or eradicated species. 6

Reappropriating Marx and Engels’s conclusion to the current state of architecture in the anthropocene in a figurative sense, one can make the claim that the aftermath of the above-mentioned “forces of man” now slumber in the lap of architecture in a strangely perverted manner.

Today, the anthropocene is arguably neither latent nor invisible; its disguise is its omnipresence, for better or worse fueled by collective suppression. We are fully immersed in the new geological epoch, to the point that it has become our only modus operandi. In geology, the anthropocene can be de ned through actual measurable chemical effects in the atmosphere and in other systems. However, in architecture, the anthropocene might be better understood and characterized as a multiplicity of factors and effects of uncertainty generated by the ghosts of the anthropocene. Those ghosts are a direct consequence and reaction to issues raised by the anthropocene’s formation, either consciously or unconsciously addressed by our discipline.

Entering a realm of scientific uncertainty 7 the conceptualization of the anthropocene yields the promise to summarize and critique a whole number of recent influential paradigm shifts and theoretical frameworks in architecture whose uncertainties haunt architecture as a discipline. This includes — but is not limited to — contemporary turns and returns toward biology, linguistics, cybernetics, chemistry, landscape, nature, sustainability, meteorology, environment, or ecology. In the face of the new geological age, past assumptions and ideologies need to be questioned in order to develop the necessary adjustments to architectural strategies able to address the still largely unfamiliar anthropogenic mechanisms. The biased list of uncertainties question select tendencies in architecture, primarily those concerned with issues surrounding “the natural.” Critically analyzing our response to the ghosts of the anthropocene might allow for the development of―and speculation about―an alternate modus operandi for architecture in the new geological epoch.

The Myth of Nature

While there seems to be consensus that most places on this planet are impacted by human agency in some way or another, the “Myth of Nature” — the idealization of nature as a pristine and balanced entity — endures. The myth that nature is the pure, green, good, and happy counterpart to our obscene, dangerous, gray, and destructive society unwaveringly persists. Slavoj Zizek labels this quasi-religious obsession with a fictitious image of nature a “mystified, false, and dangerous ideology of ecology.”8 Zizek is not alone with his assessment that ideas about nature have taken the wrong turn — the French philosopher Bruno Latour has long declared the death of nature: “When the most frenetic of the ecologists cry out, quaking: ‘Nature is going to die,’ they do not know how right they are. Thank God, nature is going to die. Yes, the great Pan is dead. After the death of God and the death of man, nature, too, had to give up the ghost.”9

A mythical reading of ecology and nature has contaminated contemporary debate in architectural practice and academia. The disciplines’ mainstream reactions to climate change and global warming are based on a backward ideology of natural preservation. Falling into the trap of natural preservation are “feel-good basics,” such as sustainable design, environmental friendliness, LEED Platinum certificates, or elaborate energy concepts created by sophisticated engineering rms. The problem here lies in the initial assumption that Nature — the mythical kind with a capital N — has to be preserved and protected in all its pristine greatness. However, the belief in a pristine and great Nature constitutes a fallacy — such nature does not exist;

it never has existed anywhere other than in our collective constructed mythology. There is a new common ground; we have to break away from past nature-ideology. In architectural discourse, decontamination of past nature-ideologies is beginning to gain traction. Architects and theoreticians alike are dismantling Nature on all fronts: from Mark Jarzombek’s cultural critique Eco-Pop,10 to David Gissen’s catalog of Subnatures,11 nature and the ideology of ecology are under close scrutiny.

In “We Have Never Been Modern,”12 Bruno Latour places the split between nature and society at the core of what he calls the modern constitution. According to Latour, the base for all moderns is an absolute distinction between Nature (“Even though we construct Nature, Nature is as if we did not construct it”13) and Society (“Even though we do not construct Society, Society is as if we did construct it”14). Living comfortably with this divide was possible until suddenly, “[...] we find ourselves invaded by frozen embryos, expert systems, digital machines, sensor equipped robots, hybrid corn, data banks, psychotropic drugs, whales outfitted with radar sounding devices, gene synthesizers, audience analyzers, and so on, when our daily newspapers display all these monsters on page after page, and when none of these chimera can be properly on the object side or on the subject side, or even in between, something has to be done.”15

Latour suggests the development of a new constitution in which “Nature and Society are not two distinct poles, but one and the same production of successive states of societies-natures, of collectives.”16 This idea takes into account that vast amounts of politics are in fact constructed in science and technology, while vast amounts of nature are de facto constructed in societies. In the end, nature is not only dead, it is replaced by a collective society-nature, a hybrid, in which everything natural comes equipped with the matching cultural — and vice versa. Nature-culture hybrids like Gage Clemenceau’s Bio-prosthetics, Liam Young’s Specimens of an Unnatural History, or R&Sie(n)’s Mosquito Bottleneck have triggered debates about collectives. In contemporary practice, the interest in hybrids parallels the rise and advancement of digital technology, making it easier to simulate natural complexity and to blur the distinction between synthetic and organic organizations. Developing an architectural strategy to address nature-culture hybrids seems imperative.

The Uncertainty of Toxicity

Toxicity is causing a paradigm shift away from mythical natures toward Anthropocene territories. Notably, since the Industrial Revolution, toxicity has become a natural part of our environment to the point that “for the first time in the history of the world, every human being is now subjected to contact with dangerous chemicals, from the moment of conception until death.”17 The myth of nature has long been disenchanted by pollution. This process of disenchantment allows for a redefinition of society-nature collectives. Bridging the social and the natural-toxic, Ulrich Beck recognized the broader social implication of pollution when he made the claim that “poverty is hierarchic, [but] smog is democratic.”18

In that sense, pollution can be understood as the new uni er of our Anthropocene’s “Risk Society.”19 “Dust” covers queens, factory workers, prime ministers, bums, presidents, prostitutes, movie stars, and dictators. Toxic territories are potentially democratic territories.

However, historically, pollution tended to work the other way: as Sanford Kwinter has written: “ideas of contamination, [...] are by all accounts endemic to human societies since their earliest beginnings.”20 Kwinter refers to the idea of social impurity and symbolic realities in the context of dirtiness and contamination. According to Kwinter, conceptually, contamination serves to “maintain moral and social order.”21 Hence, in the social context, contamination constitutes the foundation of an antidemocratic, hierarchic caste society. However, dirt is also “a disorder that threatens an existing or even emerging pattern, a formlessness that threatens form.”22 In this sense, dirt is a potential catalyst for rebellion. It is “matter out of place”23 with the potential to deterritorialize existing orders and organizations. This is true for both, architectural organizations as well as sociopolitical orders. A misreading of pollution (rather than the urge to get rid of it altogether) might be a more productive way to architecturally engage the uncertainty of toxicity.

The Anxiety of Contamination

Freud wrote that “dirt of any kind seems to us incompatible with civilization; we extend our demands for cleanness to the human body also, and are amazed to hear what an objectionable odor emanated from the person of the Roi Soleil.”24 In the most extreme case, the rejection of dirtiness can lead to a complex fear of contamination. Howard Hughes, for example, suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) was unable to leave his house, concealing himself in a germ-free environment, avoiding contact with anything or anyone. The social and physical fear of contamination is a strong subconscious influence in how we approach toxic territories. In Warped Space, Anthony Vidler describes fear, anxiety, estrangement, and their psychological counterparts — anxiety, neuroses, and phobias — as a fundamental part of the “aesthetics of space throughout the modern period.”25

The aesthetics of anxiety and contamination have a tendency to carry military-industrial-dystopian notions. Embracing contamination seems to generate its own extreme form of aesthetics. Empowered by the advancement of digital modeling techniques, the work of practices such as R&Sie(n) or Terraform One have embraced a dystopian aesthetic of contamination in the form of biomorphic, spikey buildings or landscapes reminiscent of wastelands and war zones. The question needs to be raised: Does a critique of the Anthropocene call for dystopian formal design strategies?

The Myth of Zero Impact

In Terror from the Air, Peter Sloterdijk discusses the emergence of an environmental awareness at the beginning of the 20th century, when society started to question the release of toxic substances into homes as part of “demothization” strategies for eradicating pests: “After [...] the development of environmental awareness, zones emerged in which the relationship between the surrounding air and the contaminated air zone became inverted. In other words, artificially created — or we might now say: the air conditioned — zones emerged which provided privileged air conditions relative to the general surroundings. [...]”26 Today, architecture is facing an even more complex contamination paradox evolving around the question of conditioned environments. In the not too distant past, buildings only needed to ensure that their interiors did not get heavily “contaminated” by surrounding environmental factors such as air, wind, cold, or sun.

Today, we face a paradigm shift in architecture, putting the emphasis on buildings that attempt to minimize contamination of their exterior environment through the use of either environmentally friendly materials or building technology. A building now needs to perform both ways, still protecting from exterior environmental contamination but also protecting the environment from contamination caused by the building’s mere existence. This logic has put an enormous pressure on the design of the building envelope. In the attempt to weaken the effects of the Anthropocene, the envelope has turned into a zone of high energy efficiency and ideally zero environmental impact. In its most extreme manifestation, the Myth of Zero Impact, has produced the “passive house,” a hermetically sealed bunker whose only actual connection to its exterior is entailed by its mission to avoid having any impact on its surroundings whatsoever.

... Toward the Anthropocene!

In the Anthropocene, ideas and concepts regarding the relationship between architecture and its environment have to be reevaluated. In systems that are inextricably intertwined, separation between humans and nature seems to become increasingly impossible, and one has to raise the question of why some of us still think that trying to establish boundaries for the sake of protecting a status quo is a good idea. What is the status quo anyway? Slavoj Zizek outlines the dilemma: “Nature on Earth is already adapted to human intervention to such an extent — human pollution being already deeply implicated in the shakey and fragile equilibrium of natural reproduction on Earth — that its cessation would cause cataclysmic imbalance.”27

Manifesting a singular, uni ed architectural anthropocene destiny in this context is as naive as hoping that other forms of organizing environments, ecologies, or territories can guarantee that the Ghosts of the Anthropocene stop haunting us. Yet, acknowledging a significant new change of principle — the paradigm shift toward the Anthropocene — might lead to embracing, as opposed to battling, the paradoxes presented by its ghosts. Coming to terms with unpredictable futures and an uncertain past is imperative. In the end, the best strategy to approach the Ghosts of the Anthropocene might be the same strategy recommended for approaching any ghosts, specters, or spirits: Stop being afraid.

All images by Sasa Zivkovic, 2011–2012.


1 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (Boston: Bedford / St. Martin’s, 1999), 63.

2 The exact starting point for the Anthropocene is still being discussed within those geologicalcircles who support the idea that we have entered a new geological epoch. There are two mainopposing schemes at the time. Some advocate for acknowledging the Industrial Revolutionaround the year 1800 A.D. as a starting point for the Anthropocene, others see proof thatthe Anthropcene dates back to the Neolothic Revolution around 6000 B.C.; see Will Steffen,Jacques Grinevald, Paul Crutzen, and JohnMcNeil, “The Anthropocene: Conceptualand Historical Perspectives,” PhilosophicalTransactions of the Royal Society A 369 (January31, 2011, 847–849.

3 One can claim that due to its definite starting pointin the past, the Anthropocene is essentiallya retroactive condition and no novelty at all.For all we know at this point, the transition fromone geological epoch to the another might alreadybe complete.

4 Will Steffen, Jacques Grinevald, Paul Crutzen,and John McNeil, “The Anthropocene: Conceptualand Historical Perspectives” PhilosophicalTransactions of the Royal Society A 369 (January31, 2011), 843.

5 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The CommunistManifesto (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999),70.

6 Will Steffen, Jacques Grinevald, Paul Crutzen,and John McNeil, “The Anthropocene: Conceptualand Historical Perspectives,” PhilosophicalTransactions of the Royal Society A 369 (January31, 2011), 850–851.

7 Currently, the Anthropocene is still an informal“term [which] has yet to be accepted formally asa new geological epoch or era in Earth history.”See Will Steffen, Jacques Grinevald, Paul Crutzen,and John McNeil, “The Anthropocene: Conceptualand Historical Perspectives,” PhilosophicalTransactions of the Royal Society A 369 (January31, 2011), 842.

8 Slavoj Zizek, “Living in the End Times accordingto Slavoj Zizek,” last modified March 11, 2010,

9 Slavoj Zizek, “Living in the End Times accordingto Slavoj Zizek,” last modified March 11, 2010,

10 Mark Jarzombek, “Eco-Pop,” Cornell Journal ofArchitecture 8: RE (2011).

11 David Gissen, Subnature: Architecture’s OtherEnvironments (New York: Princeton ArchitecturalPress, 2009).

12 Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993).13 Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993),32.

14 Ibid.

15 Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern(Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1993),49 – 50.

16 Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern(Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1993),139.

17 Lawrence Buell, “Toxic Discourse,” CriticalInquiry 24, no. 3) (1998), 648.

18 Ulrich Beck, Risk Society: Towards a NewModernity (London, Sage Publications, 1992), 36.

19 Ulrich Beck, Risk Society: Towards a NewModernity (London, Sage Publications, 1992).20 Sanford Kwinter, “Notes on Abnominable Things,”Log 10 (2007).

21 Ibid.

22 Ibid.

23 Ibid.

24 Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents(Mansfield Centre, UK: Martino Publishing, 2010),55.

25 Anthony Vidler, Warped Space: Art, Architecture,and Anxiety in Modern Culture (Cambridge, MA:MIT Press, 2007), 210 –211.

26 Peter Sloterdijk, Terror from the Air (Los Angeles,CA: Semiotext(e), 2009), 34.

27 Slavoj Zizek, Living in the End Times (London:Verso, 2010), 80.

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