Could sustainability depend on e-waste-eating fungus and towing icebergs to the Persian Gulf?

(Lea Bertucci)

A hollowed-out mountain brimming with rapacious microorganisms that digest electronic waste. An iceberg from Antarctica chilling in a Persian Gulf port, providing cool, clean drinking water to the populace.

These are some of the dreamlike projects in “Geostories,” a new exhibit at New York’s Cooper Union exploring speculative solutions to planetary woes like climate change, pollution, and deep-seas mining. Rania Ghosn and El Hadi Jazairy, architectural specialists at MIT, have stocked the show with selections from their “Design Earth” series, which posits large-scale environmental interventions that reference visionaries like Buckminster Fuller and Étienne-Louis Boullée.

To say Jazairy and Ghosn’s creations are strange is an understatement. But they often contain kernels of truth—microorganisms are used in the remediation of wastes such as soil toxins, and many people have built cases over the years for hauling icebergs from the frozen poles to cities.

“Geostories” is meant to “create a new world vision that forces us to confront our global reality and rethink nature, the city, and our part in both,” according to Ghosn. The architects recently took the time to discuss a few of their concepts with CityLab, beginning with…

“Trash Peaks”

Jazairy and Ghosn have devised six hypothetical facilities to deal with garbage in Korea, such as a hulking, conical structure they call an “E-Fungi Volcano.” This edifice uses various fungal species to extract rare-earth metals from e-waste flowing from Seoul’s Yongsan Electronics Market. Here’s a cross-section:

(Rania Ghosn/El Hadi Jazairy/Design Earth)

“This is in response to the current battle in the e-waste industry,” says Ghosn. “Korea is a major producer of electronics, and in this case the electronic waste is usually exported to some place in Africa where it becomes an issue of its own. We’re trying to figure out if there’s a way we can flip our relationship between waste and resource and think of extending the lifecycle of a commodity, maybe by extracting further value from within it.”

“In the future, we’ll need to enhance our sense of responsibility,” says Jazairy. That could mean “making recycling a very noble activity and maybe transforming the facility into a monument that will be visible in the city, and not hidden somewhere or put as far as possible from urbanization.” This structure “will need to be very present and visible as a pedagogical tool, to allow people to exact some pride from this process.”

Then there are half-buried orbs that look like planetariums riddled by machine-gun fire:

These orbs are filtration devices. (Rania Ghosn/El Hadi Jazairy/Design Earth)

These curious imaginary structures are “Leachate Cenotaphs” sitting atop the decommissioned Sudokwon Landfill. The purpose of the big orbs is to filter leachate, liquids that have flowed through the old dump and become contaminated with organic pollutants and ammonia compounds. The design is an homage to Étienne-Louis Boullée’s 18th-century cenotaph to Isaac Newton, though it has a provincial reference, too. “We want to echo the local architectural vocabulary,” says Jazairy. “So these forms that appear like half-domes from outside, these domes appear also at local cemeteries in Seoul.”

“Of Oil and Ice”

Why not put an iceberg in a body of water in the Gulf? (Rania Ghosn/El Hadi Jazairy/Design Earth)

In the 1970s, the Saudi Arabian prince Mohammed al Faisal weighed two facts about his perennially drought-stressed homeland: Building desalination plants was very expensive, and, far away, there were tons of clean water in icebergs just melting away into the ocean. His solution was to form Iceberg Transport International, a forward-thinking venture devoted to towing an Antarctic iceberg thousands of miles to Mecca.

As with most iceberg-dragging projects, the initiative never bore fruit. But Ghosn and Jazairy imagine it had, or even will, given the need for drinking water around the world. The exhibition includes intriguing drawings of a globe-trotting ‘berg. They picture an ice block’s journey from the beginning—pulled from its frigid home by a fleet of ships—to the end, dissolving in warm Gulf waters to replenish the region’s aquifers that have become depleted due to heavy agricultural activity. If you’re wondering why the iceberg looks like it has a blacktop surface in the rendering, it’s because it’s covered with a solar-heat-resistant material to protect it during its ocean-spanning trip.

As icebergs melt, drink up! (Rania Ghosn/El Hadi Jazairy/Design Earth)

“Pacific Aquarium”

(Rania Ghosn/El Hadi Jazairy/Design Earth)

The Clarion-Clipperton Zone is a vast area in the eastern Pacific that harbors all sorts of deep-sea weirdos like lizardfish, cusk eels, and creatures with plates for eyes. It also happens to be loaded with rare-earth minerals and valuable metals, making it a prime target for the burgeoning deep-sea-mining industry. “This site until now belongs to the common heritage of mankind, but there is an agreement to change the status of the site to allow private corporations and countries to exploit some of the resources like rare minerals,” says Jazairy.

To mitigate the potential defilement of the seabed, the architects adapt an idea from Buckminster Fuller, who in the 1960s proposed encapsulating Midtown Manhattan with a 2-mile-wide hemisphere that blocks lung-choking pollution. Their version of the dome would rest on the ocean floor and collect noxious pollution from mining activities, funneling it into tubes that connect, in a surreal twist, with skyscrapers bobbing upside-down on the waves. The contaminants are “sucked up through all these conduits,” Jazairy explains, “and they are cleaned and brought back to a level of reusability when they come to the upper part of the ocean.”

Because sea levels continue to rise, erasing coasts and islands and threatening species, the duo also conceive of fabricating artificial, floating habitats for animals. Below is one such pad for marine critters—a so-called “Parliament of Refugees” anchored to an underwater volcano—that buzzes with pinnipeds, birds, plantlife, sea turtles, and what appears to be a roaring polar bear.

(Rania Ghosn/El Hadi Jazairy/Design Earth)

Geostories” is on view until December 2 at The Cooper Union’s Arthur A. Houghton Jr. Gallery in New York City.

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