At the Chicago Architecture Biennial, Somatic Collaborative extrapolates landscapes of extraction into sites of habitation.
By Zach Mortice
For an exhibit focused on extractive industries, Beyond the City: The South American Hinterland in the Soils of the 21st Century is mercifully short on aerial photos of strip mines and oil derricks. Instead, the installation by Somatic Collaborative now at the 2019 Chicago Architecture Biennial focuses on the human settlements that serve resource extraction industries.
Beyond the City catalogs five South American cities established or expanded because of the growth of heavy industry from the late 19th century to the mid-20th century. The five case studies are spread across three nations and several extraction, or at least exceptionally invasive, industries: gold mines in Belo Horizonte, Brazil; nitrate mines in María Elena, Chile; oil drilling in Judibana, Venezuela; iron mining in Ciudad Guayana, Venezuela; and the production of hydropower in Vila Piloto, Brazil. Each of the cities shares “a very strong national or state government that was pushing forward a project that they believed would advance a larger greater good,” says Somatic Collaborative cofounder Felipe Correa, the chair of the architecture school at the University of Virginia (UVA). These public–private partnerships sought to develop housing and working environments for a white-collar managerial class that would guide populist infrastructure expansions harvested from this land. “Industry had a social project,” Correa says. “If you look at what oil companies are doing in the middle of the Amazon today, they’re completely devoid of a social project.” Beyond the City presents historical evidence on how this mandate was introduced, but the exhibition trails off once each town left its designers’ hands.
The installation, completed with the assistance of the Princeton University architecture student Jonah Coe-Scharff and the UVA architecture students Katie LaRose and Andre Grospe, consists of maps, diagrams, and photographs from the case studies. These are arranged in vitrines wrapped in white, semitransparent curtains that partially obscure them. On the curtains are illustrations of foodstuffs, processed resources, and building materials. These pictures are interspersed with drawings of cavernous cracks in the earth, the most direct hint at extraction violence you find. Each case study also focuses on the networks of global capital this infrastructure services, presented in dense map overlays that trace trade routes of oil, iron, nitrates, and more.
The towns are rigidly plotted in helical or grid-based plans, with sharp separations of residential and industrial functions. It’s an imported modernist technocracy that came with all the trappings of the mid-20th-century good life. There are photos and drawings of suburban lawns, wide streets, plazas, and leafy office parks at Judibana, Venezuela, designed in 1946 by the architects at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM). This town included what is said to be the first supermarket and bowling alley in the nation, built at the behest of Creole Petroleum, then one of the world’s largest oil producers. But next door in the industrial park hinterland, there’s no ameliorative engagement with the landscapes being degraded for oil drilling. In each settlement, landscapes are a superficial layer of public and private space, mostly disconnected from the ecological systems each industry was consuming. Ciudad Guayana, founded in 1961, was the most ambitious central planning project in Venezuela’s history, yet it was wholly a product of American academia, growing from a studio project at MIT and Harvard’s Joint Center for Urban Studies.
“The projects were well within this era of developmentalist planning, which is focused around the idea of the master plan, and was rooted in the idea that cities are directly related to their territory,” says Somatic Collaborative’s Devin Dobrowolski, who is also an assistant architecture professor at UVA. Beyond the City examines planning in the context of quasi-colonialist company towns, before the emphasis shifted from top-down master planning to systems thinking, informed by geographic, cartographic, and landscape knowledge. These methodologies “give designers new tools to ask very important questions about where design has agency to intervene,” Dobrowolski says.
The tabula rasa urbanism depicted in Beyond the City was as awkward a fit for residents as it was for environmental systems. “What’s interesting about this [exhibition] is looking at the ways the models and the infrastructure get appropriated differently,” Dobrowolski says. At Vila Piloto, suburban yards were reused for any number of off-the-books economic uses (auto repair shops, restaurants, convenience stores), though its circular street plan remains. At Ciudad Guayana, a monumental axis meant to accommodate large institutional buildings never filled in, but was retained as a frame for informal housing.
These stories of reuse are not present in the exhibit itself, which loses power when we don’t see Harvard and MIT’s immaculate drawings juxtaposed with the messier adaptations that took root. Beyond the City is a snapshot of an era when one could credibly advance a social mandate for urban planning without an explicit connection to the environmental impacts, but some of this sentiment is lost when we take the planners of these towns at their word and view their work when it was pristine. The exhibition already covers a lot of ground, but tracking change over time would have offered a richer set of critiques of past planning modes and, most important, offered clues as to whether the social mandate for these towns was fulfilled.