Anthropocene Observatory


I returned on Tuesday from Berlin, where I participated in John Palmesino, Ann-Sofi Ronsskog, Anselm Franke and Armin Linke’s ‘Anthropocene Observatory’ at the House of World Cultures. This two year project in four instalments is investigating and archiving the geneology of the anthropocene. The second instalment, ‘Empire of Calculus’ explored the question: Can the planet be controlled? It was structured as a time line from the 1300’s onwards tracing significant moments in humanity’s attempt to control and plan the planet through modelling, scientific management and spatial planning. Interspersed within this timeline were video interviews with the likes of Bruno Latour (French sociologist), Cesare Marchetti (Italian physicist and systems analyst), Pavel Kabat (Director, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, Austria) and others.

Three observations stood out for me.

Firstly, Bruno Latour’s that the anthropocene happened 200 – 300 years ago, but we have just discovered it. This discovery has transformed everything; science has become natural history, it is co-existent with everything else and it is no longer possible to behave as if nature is a great pacifying unity. This has inaugurated a war in which there is no referee, only models, prediction, counter prediction and politics.

Secondly, Will Stefan, Executive Director of the Australian Climate Change Institute, who gave an analogy to explain climate change  – it is like a canoe, he said. A canoe does not slowly tip over, or stay tipped over; if it tips, it either rights itself, or turns over. The earth acts like this canoe – it is enormously resilient and has, till now always righted itself; there might come a tipping point however, when it will not come back, it will be out of control. He predicts that this will happen if global temperature rises above 4 degrees centigrade.

Thirdly, Jan Zalasiewicz, co-ordinator of the Anthropocene Working Group and a geologist at the University of Leicester. Zalasiewicz’ central question is whether the geological things humans have done is big enough and extensive enough to count as a new geological epoch or period, whether this idea has geological validity and if so, to whom is it useful. He is massing and measuring evidence of how surface morphology has been altered by human activity – beach estuaries where newer layers of mud contain plastic or cadmium; large dams holding sediments back; bottom trawling which has altered the structure of deep sea sediments and the communities living there etc. Echoing Latour, he said that geologists traditionally like to work with strata that build up nicely one on top of the other over long periods of time. Contemporary surface morphology however (which, for Zalasiewicz includes cities and buildings) is not like this at all – it is muddled up, impure, messy. This is altering the very idea of what geologists think of as geological systems and what architects think about as urban systems.

To close this instalment of the Anthropocene Observatory, I took part in a conversation with John Palmesino, Anselm Franke , Armin Linke, Raoul Bunschoten (Professor of Sustainable Urban Planning and Urban Design, TU Berlin) and Gloria Meynen (Chair in Media Theory and Culturla History, Zeppelin University, Friedrichshafen). Picking up on Zalasiewicz in my input, I argued that the anthropocene brings buildings into view as geological agents and cities as metabolic systems.

Buildings mobilise geological matter – earth materials, minerals, water and energy in ways that alter the way the earth system works. While architecture undoubtedly has a sense of itself as part of wider socio-political and cultural systems, it has not, until very recently been that interested in thinking of itself as part of geological systems. This had been highlighted for me on a tour of Templehof airport my students and I had been on two days before.


Templehof is a massive, I.2 km long outcrop of limestone in the middle of Berlin, containing many other geologic materials and strata.




When I asked the excellent architectural historian who conducted our tour where the limestone came from, she could only give a very vague answer: ‘somewhere from the south of Germany’. This simply did not feature as important in her history of the building.



Subsequent research has shown that the stone is middle Triassic limestone from Tengen, a town in Baden-Wurttemberg near the border with Switzerland and the window frames and cornices are a Jurassic limestone from Solnhofen in Bavaria. About 155 million years ago, much of what is now Germany was covered by a warm shallow sea studded with islands. Sponges and corals grew on rises in this sea, forming reefs that divided the sea up into isolated lagoons. Within these lagoons, salinity rose and the water may have become anoxic or toxic. Nothing could survive in them for very long and organisms that were blown or drifted into them were buried in soft carbonate mud. These formed the fine-grained, flat-cleaving limestone known as Solnhofen Limestone that has been quarried since the Stone Age for building purposes. (http>//www/

How can the geologic agency that buildings possess be foreground and integrated into design thinking, and to what ends? How can considerations of a building’s supply chain become part of design thinking? How can we see buildings as agents of geological systems, and able to intervene in those systems?


I have recently been introduced to the work of scientists who are thinking about cities as metabolic systems: Peter Baccini and Paul Brunner, chemists at the ETH in Zurich. They invented the term ‘anthroposphere’ to describe the world inhabited by humans. In their 1991 book ‘Metabolism of the Anthroposphere,’ they developed a method of material flux analysis as a tool for understanding the dynamics of goods and processes in the anthroposphere. This could be optimised to meet environmental quality standards to prevent a collapse, they argued. This book was republished in 2012, updated to take into account the discovery of the anthropocene, and refocused from the analysis towards the design of metabolic regional systems. This way of thinking about cities has recently picked up by Paulo Ferrao (University of Lisbon) and John Fernandez (MIT) in their book ‘Sustainable Urban Metabolism’. This offers a metabolic perspective on urban sustainability (viewing the city as a metabolic system of matter and energy exchange) and uses a systems based approach to enable ecologically informed urban planning.


As an addendum, here is the construction drawing of the Teufelsburg, the mountain of World War II rubble constructed in the Grunewald in Berlin, on which the US had its spy station throughout the Cold War years; photographed on the wall of the spy station when we visited it last Sunday.



4 responses to “Anthropocene Observatory

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