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Mitchell Joachim is a Co-Founder at Terrefuge and Terreform ONE. Currently he is faculty at Columbia University and Parsons. Formerly an architect at Gehry Partners, and Pei Cobb Freed. He[…]

Big Think sits down with the Columbia and Parsons professor and cofounder of Terraform One.

My name is Doctor Mitchell Joachim.

I’m a professor at Columbia University and Parsons The New School for Design. I’m cofounder of the nonprofit, philanthropic organization Terraform One, here in Brooklyn, New York.


Question: How is Terre Form rethinking New York City?

Mitchell Joachim:Well, one of the many projects we’re working on in Terraform, Terraform One, is to rethink New York City. To look at New York City as if it was 100 percent self sufficient. New York City with no inputs or outputs. Imagine this place where the only thing that would come and go would be something like culture but waste, water, energy, food would all be produced inside the confines of New York City proper with inside its geopolitical boundaries.

So what would the reification of this city look like? Can you imagine a future where everything that needs to happen in New York City, especially when it relates to its sufficiency, happens in its own boundaries? So you’d be producing food here in New York City in something like a vertical farm. There’s a project that my colleague at Columbia, Dickson Despommier, often promotes. So we would change the landscape, for instance, of Central Park to have some of these vertical farms which are towers that contain lots of food, dwarf wheat, dwarf corn, that could feed 30,000 to 80,000 people per tower.

We also look at New York City being self sufficient when it comes to energy. If we were to, for instance, fill up all of Staten Island and about 18 percent of the surface area of Brooklyn with solar panels, we would power New York City just like a solar calculator. We would need no other power sources. All of those **** **** with storage and batteries running at around 20 to 23 percent efficiency and costing $46 billion adjusted for 2007, would power New York from the sun.

Of course, this is not exactly what we’re proposing. There’s around 3,000 acres of unshaded roof space in the city of New York City. So instead of covering Brooklyn and all of Staten Island with solar panels, we propose putting them on roof tops. And logically, integrating them with other kinds of renewable sources to produce energy, newer technology such as – or renewable technology such as wind turbines or wave harvesting, etcetera.

The idea here is to think about New York in a provocative like design or urban design statement. Not that Mayor Bloomberg’s plan isn’t good. His plan is fairly green. A lot of his principles are hard to argue with. Everyone in New York, for instance, needs to be a ten minute walk from a park. That is something he plans on doing with PLANYC. We’re thinking of an approach that is much more provocative. That’s a grander solution to the largest problem we’ve encountered.

That is this global problem of climate change. So we want to propose larger answers that meet this criteria, the solution, that just spans all sorts of issues. So having a prototype city, like New York, being completely self sufficient, especially when it comes to its energy, waste, food, etcetera, would be a salient example so that others could get the idea of how to do it and do it right and do it green.

W when we’re thinking about making New York City completely self sufficient, it’s really a theoretical proposition. The actual changing of a city takes an incredible amount of time. For instance, if you think of telecommunications technology, the cell phone takes about five to seven years before everyone starts to buy into this new technology.

Landlines were replaced with cell phone in about five to seven years. The technology ramped it up really quick and leap frogged the prior technology because it wasn’t as good. Vehicle design, car design, takes about 15 to 20 years before we see a paradigm shift in vehicles themselves, in those objects. The scales of economy are a lot larger than telecommunications so, of course, the time it takes to get everyone buying these new kind of vehicles takes a bit longer.

Architectural technologies take even longer than cars, that’s about at least 40 years before you see a massive shift in building technology that’s ubiquitous in every city. These reason for that is when a landlord, or a building owner, purchases or creates a building, they expect the roof to last 20 years. They expect the windows to last 20, 40 years. They don’t expect the building to fall down right away. So they’re not inclined to create or purchase a new technology, even green ones, right off the bat, right away, so buildings will take a much longer time.

And the city, as a project, takes the longest time to change. So we think of telecommunications to automobiles to buildings and finally to the city, the largest scale, takes about 100 to 150 years to see these kinds of effects fully implemented in cities. So this project about thinking of a self sufficient Manhattan is a 100 year thought. It’s actually a polemic and kind of a greater primordial soup of polemics so that others on the table can input their ideas and we can have a very long lasting discussion about the implications of having a truly and provocatively green and sustainable New York

Yeah, how can architecture be humanitarian? Well, we started off with kind of the same question. Terraform One is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, meaning that we’re not interested in private clients. We’re not interested in developers or developer interests. We’re not interested, necessarily, in direct corporate relationships. We have clients that don’t necessarily speak for themselves, like communities that can’t afford elite architects, planners, and urban designers or elements of the environment that have absolutely no voice; things like water, trees, air, etcetera.

So our projects we work on privilege these individuals and these elements so that we create environments that are actually fitted in the metabolism of the local ecosystem and are fitted to the communities at large to provide a choice. So that if you’re confronting a plan, let’s say you’re a community in Harlem and you have to confront Columbia University’s expansion into Harlem, you don’t actually have a choice. It’s not easy for you to go out and redraw their designs, to rethink their plans. You’ve got a lot of other things on your mind.

But if you’re given a choice provided by a nonprofit agency, a nonprofit group like ourselves and you could see a difference between their plan and our plan you could start pointing out things that you like, pointing out desire lines or approaches that are more amiable to your community’s happiness. And you could make that argument and you could make it visually with drawings that we’ll provide. So we often take unsolicited projects, sometimes unfeasible projects, and go for it. And we publish them in every possible venue and create what we think is a healthy dialogue.

It’s very activist like so in that sense it is similar to humanitarian aid. We’re going out there and we’re performing acts of architecture and urban planning for what we believe is for the greater good. But admittingly, we are a bit selfish. We get our jollies from doing this stuff. We just love design and we’re not interested in being constrained by the folks like, I don’t know, Donald Trump, who have their own kind of vision and need to get a return on equity and that’s not something that floats our boat.


What is the Future of Suburbia?

Mitchell Joachim: So if you think about the future of suburbia, there is no future. Sprawl is kind of a failed pattern so we don’t want to throw good money after bad. We want to rethink the future of America’s infrastructure alongside its existing arteries of mobility, its existing highways, for instance. Alongside the interstates there is ample opportunity to fit out these interstates with new types of renewable technologies.

Things like geothermal, algae energy systems, solar based systems and certainly wind turbine systems, etcetera. If we were to move along those existing arteries we could easily retool our infrastructure; make it smarter and renewable. And one of the things, in our opinion at Terraform, we don’t actually want the suburbs to continue. We’d rather see them just rot or kind of return to nature. And a few of those elements could be kind of preserved in some fashion and become mobile.

America has always been a country on wheels. So one of our propositions and it’s forcibly out there and it’s awfully provocative, is to pick up some of those suburbs, some of those houses in the suburbs, put them on some kind of a movement device, anything possible, it doesn’t matter, a tractor, a low bed, a combine, and place it along side America’s highways, which would be expanded, getting slightly larger. And you’d dwell on the fly. Everyday you’d be moving, kind of like a new kind of trailer park I guess, between city core to city core. You could stay in one place alongside these highways and stay there for six months when the weather’s nice and then go to Florida if it gets too cold. And you move at 13 miles an hour or 30 miles an hour but you move very slowly. But you never have to be permanently in one location.

The idea here is that you are right next to this smart infrastructure. You’re right next to this food production zone, this energy production zone and your refuse zone. So the suburbs kind of become a line. A kind of linear city that attaches itself kind of like two ends to a barbell to these city centers that already exist. So that’s our reconception of the suburbs, is put America on wheels and connect them to a smart and renewable grid.


Question: What is the problem with the term “sustainability?”

Mitchell Joachim: Yeah the term sustainability, I have a slight issue with. There are many others that have a similar issue with that term. Richard **** at Columbia often says that if you ask ten scientists what sustainability means, you’ll get ten separate and different answers. Bill McDonough also doesn’t like the term sustainability. He thinks it’s not provocative enough. It’s a little bit too status quo. When I think of sustainability, I think of baseball.

But not really good baseball, I think of a team like the Chicago Cubs. A team that is sustaining itself, a team that can play in the major leagues but it doesn’t really win any games. It doesn’t win so much. It doesn’t evolve, doesn’t change, doesn’t have too many heroes. It’s not a breathing, growing, constantly nurturing, beautiful organism. It’s just kind of a group that gets by. It gets by to the next game and the next game and the next game and it’s not enough.

If you think of the New York Yankees, that’s a team that is evolving, growing, powerful, nurturing, intelligent, filled with heroes. It’s kind of a winning, a strikingly winning, team. And you would never associate the New York Yankees with being a sustainable baseball team. So I would think, if we’re going to call the movement sustainability, it’s a little too dry. So I think, the choice that I would often use is socioecological. And yes, it’s a mouthful but I think it describes the problem in two major sectors.

One, it’s about social justice and the policies associated with it and two, it’s about ecological science. Because if these are big problems that we’re trying to answer, we need to look to some specific sets of science that could help us solve them. I don’t think a term like sustainability does that so well. It’s more of a philosophy as well as a science as well as a kind of attitude and it’s really an umbrella for too much.

While ecology is a very specific science that looks at areas in the landscape, looks at flora and fauna, and makes decisions or has some serious research and proposals and suppositions that are much clearer answers. Socioecological, the terms mixed together, allows you to accept the fact that science is never going to be the answer. Science is not a silver bullet.

You’ll need human activity and the kind of a culture associated with how we live on this Earth and the governments that work with us to accept that change is going to happen. But it’s going to happen through many different characters and actors and agents working together. And so socioecological design would describe the field that I work in.


Topic: Are you comfortable with being called a futurist?

Mitchell Joachim: I’ve been called a futurist by many folks out there. I’m comfortable with the label. I think that as an architect and an urban designer it’s our job to be clairvoyant. It’s our job to propose something that doesn’t exist. It’s the amount of time, or the scale of time, that that proposal situates itself in maybe makes me a futurist more than just an architect.


Question: How do you feel about Obama placing an architect as director of the HUD?

Mitchell Joachim: The Obama administration is putting has put in charge a director that is an architect or I guess formally an architect, and is it a good idea to put architects in politics? I think so. I think they’re certainly trained to be jacks of all trades that can handle multiple problems, multitask and think in many scales. I’m not really familiar directly with this individual personally that Obama’s put in charge for HUD. I think that our – if you look at our past administration’s successes, or I should say failures, it’s been pretty miserable.

The issue in New Orleans and I don’t know how many years it’s been that we’ve failed to make some kind of contribution to the people in New Orleans, kind of return them to a state of conviviality and lifestyle that they were used to or even just house these folks is appalling. I think putting an architect in charge of the problems, especially one with urban design skills, would almost be a fantasy and I’m glad the Obama administration is looking towards some architects to think about this. I wish we can make it happen even faster.

I’m surprised that something like the Beijing Olympics that seemingly happened overnight, just a few years, they went from zero to 1,000 and impressed the world with a grand, munificent display of architecture and culture and yet America can’t really solve its housing crisis. So architects have been, and that’s all across the globe, have been working on this problem for a good century and I don’t think we still have the right answer. But to keep us off the front lines like many of past administrations was the wrong answer.

God, I think, if I was to see Barack in an elevator some place in D.C., I think that the advice I would give him is to maybe but put more folks like architects in charge of some major problems that are out there. I think that we can actually reify them, visually show what those solutions might be in many different camps. They certainly wouldn’t put us in charge of the military but I think we can help retool Detroit a lot better than the folks there. And I think that we’re fitted to accept that.

There was a talk before the – you know, before this happened between the McCain camp and the Obama camp about what they should be promoting in their elections and there, I guess, the big issue was Detroit. And thinking about what we can do to save Detroit. And I had two separate answers for that. I think for the McCain camp, it would be the military can save Detroit and there are some serious reasons why. And for the Obama camp, there’s going to be science and innovation, maybe, and put some big thinkers in architecture involved for retooling Detroit. But for the McCain camp, if you think about it, getting to an all electric infrastructure, an all electric mobile infrastructure because DARPA and those folks in the military could make a decision like that. And that decision could be, let’s make tanks run on electric drives. Let’s make Jeeps run on electric drives. And let’s do that because those engines have almost no moving parts so they are very easy to fix. They make no sound and I think military folks like stealth. It’s a pretty good thing.

They are a switchable fabric, in other words, the component can be taken out of the tank and put into the Jeep very easily. Come out of the Jeep and put it into a helicopter. And they’re hard to knock out. Batteries could be laced inside all of these vehicles, helicopters, Jeeps, tanks. So that if you hit a certain part of that tank and knock out a section of the battery power, all of the power is not destroyed, it’s distributed throughout the vehicle. So it actually makes a more robust tank plus with electric systems it goes from zero to 100 instantly.

There’s no throttling that you’d find in gasoline powered systems or diesel powered systems so there’s a lot of reasons to use electric drive trains in our military vehicles. The biggest one is because we want to wean ourselves off of oil. We probably can source that electricity through a heavy amount of investment in renewable. And then we’d have a military that was completely independent and very powerful and once the military can do that, it certainly can show Detroit the trail. It can give them a direction.


Topic: Mitchell Joachim’s Soft Car

Mitchell Joachim: Well at MIT part of my dissertation was to rethink automobiles. In fact, we were charged with making the car of the future. We thought that was a bit boring and we knew that in about five years it would be a really anachronistic object. Every car of the future becomes really dull as time goes by. Instead, we thought of thinking of many discreet inventions that would fit into vehicles in the future. That would rethink mobility in the future through many concepts or kind of a lexicon of ideas.

If you think of the airbag, which was also invented at MIT, the airbag doesn’t belong to any one company or any one model of vehicle. It goes in every kind of car that wouldn’t necessarily belong to every kind of company or any company. So one umbrella thought was changing the bodies of vehicles to soft materials. Materials that were more social, materials that were scuffable, self healing, and more about pleasured motion and spaces of event instead of what we have today which is shiny, metal, precious boxes, which say don’t touch me when I’m in one. Don’t look at me.

These things get really hot and I’m stuck in traffic and there you go. We were thinking that when we’re in the future when we have about 2.4 billion [new] people on this Earth, coming in about 30 years, cities are going to be awfully congested. So we want to think of a gentle congestion. Vehicles where people could move in dense packs or herds or flocks of smart vehicles linked to an intelligent network where the body of the car accepts occasional bumping; accepts an occasional chow, how’re you doing? I’m in a Nerf-like automobile.

These are concepts that you would be fired if you were an engineer at General Motors and produced something like this. But they came, the soft car, came from the principle that no one will ever die in a car accident again. So let’s rethink everything we can think about the car to make sure that no one could possibly get hurt in them. So we had to slow them down. We had to certainly change their materials. Then we had to think of many layers of safety from brakes that replaced the contact patch with the actual belly of the car to thinking of the streets themselves in constant communication with the vehicles and the wheels and the cars behind them. So we rethought the entire system based on this principle of not only would it be good for the environment but no one will ever die in a car accident again. And that’s kind of how the soft car reified itself. That’s how it came about.


Topic: Terre Form 1’s Fab Tree Hab Project

Mitchell Joachim: There’s a project called the Fab Tree Hab which is thinking about a home that fits itself into every aspect of our local ecosystems. That becomes a part of the ecosystems metabolism. It’s’ not a compromise. It’s actually a dwelling that is holistically considering the landscape. We decided well what does that mean? And we looked to a technology that’s been around for 2,500 years and it’s called pleaching. And pleaching is a gardening technique where you graft pieces of inosculate matter, pieces of woody plants, together to form one vascular system.

So you graft essentially trees or woody plants together to form one tree. And we decide that’s fantastic but can we control that computationally? And we could. So in the computer we produced a geometry. A geometry that would predict where we wanted our trees and woody plants to grow. We made some scaffolds from that geometry and then weaved plants, woody plants, and trees into those scaffolds and trained them, and maybe almost torture them, into a specific direction, a very specific direction; so that they could triangulate their structures and be self stabilized and still be healthy.

So that let to this project called the Fab Tree Hab which is a house made of entirely living organisms, living trees. And what’s great about a concept like this is you can build, or should I say grow, one million of these homes on the planet Earth with not a zero consequence. Right? Not an efficient kind of consequence but a positive contribution to our environment. Right? So that these things are actually fitting into our Earth. They are absorbing carbon. They are part of the world as we know it. And there’s no, well, no compromise. So we were looking at a very active and provocative solution to our housing crisis. And it’s very difficult to grow one of these things.

There’s a lot of folks, or there’s a lot of things in our current system, that find it – that we find it hard to change. Insurance companies are not interested in bonding a contractor who assembles one of these homes. Banks find it very difficult to give loans for these homes. They question the resale, etcetera. Clients are pretty worried about insects which is actually not a problem. A simple modicum of maintenance just like your normal house would keep pests away. Planning boards have problems with these homes because they are really trees, not homes. So you can’t set zoning heights on these homes.

Trees will continuously grow larger. But we are wrestling with these issues every day. The bottom line is that the technology is there, it’s feasible. We contributed one new component to it which is controlling the growth of trees through scaffolds that we make. And controlling them into a geometry that provides homes. And it looks like something out of a J.R. Tolkien book, or Lord of the Rings and we know that. At least, as far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing wrong with elves.


Question: Are abstract and long-term based projects inherently impractical?

Mitchell Joachim:Is the work we’re doing impractical? I would say no because it’s based on current problems. It’s based on real world, every day, issues. They’re big issues and I think because they’re big issues, there’s a kind of fear about making big moves or gestures to solve them. So when I hear that our work is impractical, I often paraphrase John F. Kennedy. And he said, if man created problems, man can solve them. So if this problem is really big, our energy crisis, climate change, etcetera, we are going to need solutions that match that scale.

So I don’t think we’re being impractical. I just think we’re putting as many ideas out there that we can and concepts that are hopefully grounded and off the shelf technologies or proven thoughts from some time ago. That could make this change happen. If I was to talk about a practical answer to dealing with our energy crisis in the United States, I would agree with the Obama administration. I would say every American should just change the light bulbs and weatherize some buildings.

If we started weatherizing buildings for heating or cooling, you know, very cheap to do with weather strips, etcetera, rubber strips, or changing light bulbs to compact fluorescents despite the issues of mercury which isn’t exactly right, we would save say 40 percent of the energy in the United States. This doesn’t take a rocket scientists to figure out. This we have known for about 30 years give or take. The signal of this intention has been communicated by our government, by our scientists, by our designers, by the everyday person. We have long understood that solving problems with the way we live today when it comes to the environment is pretty easy to do. So the average American, Homer Simpson, hasn’t invested in this compact fluorescent light bulbs, not really interested so far. So I think right now we have about a five year limit to get on board with this plan otherwise there will be some penalties. I wouldn’t be so concerned with the governmental penalties as I would the penalties the Earth will return to us.


September 11, 2009