He’s not a typical architect, and he is certainly not a typical academic. With several degrees, he also has tremendous pop cred, having appeared on the Colbert Report and last year showing up in Rollingstone’s list of 100 People Changing America, Wired Magazine’s list of 15 People the Next President Should Listen To, and most recently presented at the TED conference in Long Beach, CA. Mitchell Joachim, PhD has effectively set out to redesign, or re-imagine, nearly everything about the way our cities work.
Big problems require big solutions, and Joachim has developed proposals that, even if they’re never implemented within the next hundred years, open up a dialogue about what the future will look like and offer plausible strategies for how to get there. If we can’t live without the car, at least let us live with the model Joachim helped develop at MIT: a soft, omni-directional, shared-ownership vehicle that collapses to take up the space of a shopping cart when parked. If we’re not going to build houses in pristine green fields, at least let them contribute to the ecosystem. Joachim’s Terreform ONE studio has developed a “Fab Tree Hab,” a single-family dwelling that will operate within a frame of living, breathing tree branches. His solution for suburban sprawl involves the creation of a “linear burb,” where highways are equipped with infrastructure to support nomadic homes on wheels that drift slowly between communities where they might “park” for any length of time.
Prominent architects are increasingly getting involved with the social, environmental, economic, and political processes operating beyond the bricks-and-mortar of the buildings themselves. The Obama administration has named an architect as head of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, for example. For Joachim, the title “Architect” is a proud one, yet his work reflects his capacity as a mechanical and civil engineer, urban planner, arborist, and philanthropist even with forays into military strategy. Maybe Mitchell Joachim is the Architect of the future.
Sarah Rafson: So, what do you do for a living?
Mitchell Joachim: I am an architect and urban designer and I am cofounder of a non-profit organization called Terreform ONE in Brooklyn, NY. And essentially what we do is come up with plans for people, communities, and environments that can’t afford access to elite architects and designers to do that. I also teach, I am currently the Frank Gehry Chair at the University of Toronto, but I also teach at Syracuse.
SR: Why did you found your non-profit Terreform ONE?
MJ: When I graduated MIT, I formed an organization that would give me the freedom to think about concerns, and I’m being a bit selfish, about the environment without any client limitations. I didn’t want to work as a normal architect where I have a client and they have a specific project and I work like a seal and jump through flaming hoops and catch fish with my mouth. I wanted to work on projects where there were no limitations, and respond to specific needs of the environment or a community and to do that I went non-profit.
SR: In terms of the humanitarian capacity of an architect, do you ever feel powerless?
MJ: There’s only so much that you can design, the rest depends on being linked up with other systems or organizations.
I see what you’re getting at, and I do think that architects are the good guys. I think that unfortunately we have to work with developers and contractors that have more of an economic motivation and a return on investment that drives them while architects are more arbitrators that point out things in the context in which they’re building, i.e., the needs of the local constituency or the needs of the flora and fauna in the area. Usually that is the case, although in the larger firms, the mega architecture firms, those filters of reason dissipate quickly. You get projects that are large glass and steel buildings with little concern for those aspects that I just mentioned. They’re all about the bottom line, the dollar.
SR: But that’s not an architect’s fault, right?
MJ: Exactly. That’s right. Architects are usually on the side of helping. They understand the large issues that are motivating to make sure that the positive side of those issues get through. However, at an academic level, architects aren’t really trained to be humanitarians per se. One can make the argument that architecture school is learning how to be a plastic surgeon, not a triage doctor. It seems like we do specialize in the beauty and fetishize the culture and the affective posture of image and form over solving problems with the appropriate means as a triage doctor would over a plastic surgeon.
(Image from Joachim’s Terreform ONE and Terrefuge)
SR: So now that you’re a visiting professor here at the University of Toronto, how do you put that philosophy into practice? How do you encourage students to overcome the “plastic surgeon” mentality?
MJ: I teach a studio and a seminar and in the seminar we do just that, we question what it means to be a plastic surgeon as an architect. We look at the historical figures that have been responsible for large thoughts in urbanism and environmental design and we hearken back to the 19th century and we bring it all the way back to today. So we look at figures like Patrick Geddes, who invented the regional planning and the concept of bioregionalism and the effects of man as actor and agent on the environment. And take it it all the way to someone like Al Gore, who is the contemporary version of Patrick Geddes, and his effects on architects and cities and development and infrastructure. Certainly this is extremely relevant today because Obama has made a point of putting out a call for rethinking the American smart-grid. Rethinking infrastructure in the United States is extremely important. He’s reviving what’s called the WPA [Works Progress Association], to have architects on board to remake America, or to rethink America and reform it from its previously terrible over-consumerist and industrial practices.
SR: So much of the environmental change we need to cope with impending environmental crisis can’t be designed per se. What good is it to redesign plastic containers if consumer habits don’t change? How much of the designer’s work is compensating for social problems?
MJ: It’s a people problem, because plastic containers don’t design themselves, they don’t purchase themselves. So people design the plastic containers, and the first signal of human intention is in the design. That’s where the power comes from. So if you design something to be disposed of, it’s essentially a human fault. It’s also the value system that exists. If people are interested in purchasing this, that could be because they don’t have the option of purchasing anything else, or they enjoy the convenience, or there’s no educational system in place to tell you what alternatives are available, then they’re also part of the system. But it’s definitely not the fault of the plastic container in and of itself. Maybe that’s too obvious of a statement, but it’s coming from both directions; bottom-up and the top-down. It’s the machines feeding the machine. And we all know better, it’s just that at some point, to break out of the cycle, it takes a lot of inertia. And that inertia’s here. The green revolution is done. It’s now a mainstream thought. It’s very hard to argue with its principles. I mean “save the earth, keep it for the children, think about future generations, and stop polluting the atmosphere,” it’s just a clear way to go. Who wants to die? I think the inertia is just now happening with our generation. Thank God, actually. We can head on. It seems to be the problem of the times.
(Image from Joachim’s Terreform ONE and Terrefuge)
SR: A lot of your propositions, although feasible, seem like they would be difficult to implement. Soft stackable cars, nomadic suburban homes, houses out of grafted trees, to name a few. Have any been produced yet? Or which ones would be the first to enter the market?
MJ: Two answers to that one: one is about architectural technologies, and the other is mobility technologies. The car ideas that I had, for instance the soft car, it’s not meant to be built by any one manufacturer, it’s meant to be in every vehical everywhere. Like the airbag. The airbag is just a good idea. It doesn’t belong per se to any one company in particular. Part of what I do is create a lexicon of ideas that all car manufacturers can use to rethink their vehicles. The soft car has already seen reification from BMW in a car they call the Gina, the Gina is a car that came out post the architecture of the soft car, it’s absolutely beautiful and made out of flexible material.
It’s still not soft in the sense that we were talking about soft, it’s still a shiny metal box, the material is really taut like cloth wrapped around a metal frame, but it’s almost there. And it appeared on the market by demand. Jeep came out with an omni-directional armature system that we designed. We didn’t lay claim to it, but I don’t really care about who does what, these are things that benefit all of society.
The architectural answer to your question is that I’m not in a rush. Daniel Libeskind, the guy who did the ROM, was 61 years old before he built his first building, which was the Jewish Museum in Berlin, and it was a masterpiece. So if I had the choice between being an architect that designs 400 schlocky brick boxes for his whole life, or do a lot of theory, practice, and research, and by the time I get the perfect client, the perfect city to do the perfect building and create a masterpiece, I would choose that direction. Obama would be a pretty good client … if he actually had any power.
SR: Have you met with him yet? According to Wired Magazine, you are one of the 15 people he should be listening to right now.
MJ: No, I was just at the TED talks so I had the chance to meet Al Gore. I haven’t met Obama yet. I had the chance to meet the McCain folks. That was during the election, so a very different time. I did get to talk to the Obama administration at the American Foundation in Washington, DC. Still haven’t met Obama yet, but eventually it will happen.