Now open at the New York Museum of Modern Art, Emerging Ecologies: Architecture and the Rise of Environmentalism ushers the cause of “environmental architecture” into the halls of one of the most pre-eminent cultural institutions in the Western hemisphere. But for curator Carson Chan, it was important that the accompanying catalog break with the rote authoritativeness of MoMA publications. At a recent talk co-sponsored by the design bookstore Head Hi and NYRA, Chan and co-author Matt Wagstaffe grasped for subversive labels: The non-catalog was a “repositioning,” a “field guide” and a “critical tool to catalyze the future.”
But the limits of this framing became evident when Head Hi’s Alexandra Hodkowski tried to steer the conversation toward contemporary climate policy. Chan was quick to underscore that the narrative covered by both book and show ends in the 1990s, when “the relationship between architecture and environment is [resolutely] codified”—a sideways admission, perhaps, that the impact of any museum exhibit on public life is indirect, at best. (At the same time, MoMA’s Emilio Ambasz Institute, which produced Emerging Ecologies, distributed activity sheets related to the exhibition to more than 5000 schools in the New York City area.) If Chan positioned “architecture as material manifestation of a body of knowledge” so as to emphasize the significance of process over unduly fetishized objects, some audience members felt called to defend the profession’s cultural and technical specificity, as enshrined in both building(s) and professional licensure. So, we might further qualify Chan and Wagstaffe’s own disclaimer: The book can only become a field guide to the future if it informs the restructuring of said field—both for ourselves and the broader public—such that architects have a seat at the table.