Elizabeth Yarina

Designer and researcher with the MIT Urban Risk Lab—Massachusetts, USA

[Q] Question
[EY] Elizabeth Yarina

Within a changing climate, to map, draw and build is a political act within itself. As architects, the tools and methods we enact onto the world have extended ripple effects that transgress beyond our discipline, and beyond our spatial knowledge. How can the field of architecture cultivate a deeper understanding of the ecological world in order to address its urgent needs? What forms of expertise, disciplines and knowledge do we need to engage with in order to build and live differently? In this interview we speak with Elizabeth Yarina about the necessity of interdisciplinary efforts in overcoming the limitations of architecture in addressing the current climate crisis.
One of the major limitations we’ve found within our architectural education is the disconnection between the topics, tools and methods that we’re taught in university and the urgent issues that are unfolding around us. The Act of Mapping1 Elizabeth Yarina (2018).
Agency of Mapping. University of Technology Sydney.
workshop you ran at UTS had a strong focus on architectural research and its capacity to respond to (current and ongoing) multi-scalar geopolitical issues, through using cartography as a critical methodology for design and intervention. How have the limitations within your own education influenced the way you ran this workshop?

Something that had always interested me in studying architecture was the capacity for your studio project to question the rules of the way things worked. However, once I started working, I quickly realised that I wasn’t equipt enough to implement such thinking into the way architecture is currently being practised. Not much from what I learned from architecture school felt relevant. But I thought, if I'm interested in changing the built environment and the ways that people use and interact with space, and if I really wanted to address all of the social, economic and political environmental issues that are essential in practice, then I need to cultivate the tools to do so elsewhere. That’s when I decided to enrol in an urban planning program. It was an opportunity to cross-pollinate and learn things that I felt were missing from my design education. Being both in planning and in architecture, gave me the space where I could still learn more about design, but also learn more about why I was disappointed with it. It made me realise that there is a kind of rule system within which we are doing architecture. I don't like those rules. I’d like to change them.

The education system is designed to fit within the conventional forms of practice that we have now. How you're educated usually shapes and moulds the way you practice. It's probably going to be very hard to find the tools within the school of architecture, as it stands, that will allow us to discover new forms of practice; because everyone you're learning from now was also taught in this Bauhaus-ian idea of architecture—old white men in a black turtleneck idea of what good design in. A lot of teachers are still entrenched within those legacies...

What I found productive as a student was putting one foot into different departments that had different ideological constructs. For example, when I was in architecture school everyone was like, 'oh, Le Corbusier! He's the best!' but then you take one class in planning and they're like, 'oh, he was the worst! '. For me, that was a way of recognising and being critical of the architectural culture that had been constructed around me. Having a group of people who have an entirely different baseline for 'good practice', is a really productive and helpful tool in building perspective and relationships with neighbouring disciplines.

I’m particularly interested in how representation operates in the world. The plans, the images, the documents. What are they actually doing? ... Proposing something to be built or something to be transformed is very much a political act in itself.
A lot of the work you do pushes research and other disciplinary methods as a form of architectural practice and that’s something that is not so common in Australia. Research studios within the university face backlash and critique as it does not fit within the traditional structures of an architectural studio. How have you used research as a tool to break away from the rule systems around conventional architecture?

To contextualise my current status, I'm currently working on a PhD. in the planning department at MIT. It is a fully research-based program that is heavily influenced by the social sciences. This comes with its own set of norms and expectations of how research should work. However, I—like a lot of qualitative researchers—often question whether human society and their relationships with the material world should be studied as though they were a scientific question. The focus area of my PhD is centred on climate change adaptation. I'm interested in the current status of science and the many ways that different disciplines have sought to deal with environmental risks over time. There is a long legacy of hazards research, political ecology and other fields that have come together to put forth proposals for how we're going to live with a climate that's changing. Part of what I do is interrogate how these kinds of projects are getting made in the world and who is deciding what projects are happening. A lot of the propositions that I have seen getting proposed, don't have much of a relationship to what was happening in the material world.

In one case for example, a group of international engineering consultants were putting forward ideas on how to resolve the sinking deltas in Southeast Asia. I thought, are these the best people to solve this problem? How come their ideas are being adopted and not someone else's? Yes they're engineers, but they're also dealing with really complex sociopolitical issues as part of the issue. Therefore, how are they pulling the strings to reshape the socio-material world? We all must ask, how are they the ones leveraging scientific models to propose what they think should happen in the world? How are they positioning their expertise relative to the people that they're working with or working for or even working on? Where is the funding going? Where is it coming from? Who is benefiting from it? Who's losing out? Is anyone paying attention to who's losing out and at what spatial scale? And so I'm really interested in the potential cross-pollination between research like this, which is more invested in being in the space and with the people for a long time.

Within my work, I try to look at the tools I have learnt in my 10 years of being in architecture and question how they could be utilised and adapted in a way that someone who just came from anthropology or a policy-oriented planning program could not. I’m particularly interested in how representation operates in the world. The plans, the images, the documents. What are they actually doing? Do you make a picture of something and then it happens, or you make a picture of something and that's a tool for convincing people of things you want? Proposing something to be built or something to be transformed is very much a political act in itself. That’s part of how I use my research as a space to interrogate our tools as architects and what they are doing in the world.

How can emerging architects and designers be conscious of the accountability and responsibility embedded within our tools? As you discussed, it’s easy to neglect their implications when navigating the very real and material spaces of practice.

You should always begin by questioning why you are doing a project. Who are you doing it for? What is the end game? Where is this going to go in the world? At times you do projects that are exercises for a studio and it's ok to bracket out some of the accountability that would come with it, just for the sake of training. However, throughout the course of your design education, so many things get bracketed out for so long that you almost forget that there is some other context in which design is operating in.

When you leave school things start to have different effects and implications, yet you're still stuck in the same mentality you had when you were at school. For example, there were a few buildings that were built near a housing complex and it was a very prestigious project that had Maya Lin, Michael Van Valkenburg and others. In the process of getting the project approved, the architects had produced a rendered image that showed three buildings surrounding a central courtyard. In the first images, it looked as though it was a totally open space; anyone would walk through at any time. Later on, the architect started to render it with these tiny little lines. Once the project was built, the courtyard was surrounded by gates with a card reader on them. The reality was that it was not a space that anyone can walk into at any time. I really related to this because I was the person in my architecture firm that was in charge of photoshopping and I could imagine my boss saying 'can we just make the fence look a little less intense? We don't want people to think that we're keeping out the people in the housing project behind it'.

I bring up this example to show how the architect creates a space that not only defines which versions of the public are allowed to access it, but also how this is made legible or palatable to the public, such that it can get through the regulatory review process without too many hiccups. As an architect you always need to think, what are the tools you're using? Who are you trying to serve when you use those tools? Because producing representations of the world is not just reflecting on how this building is going to look. When using our toolset, there are always decisions being made and those decisions shape how things are received, they shape what's happening in the world. Students need to understand this from a very early stage in their career.

However, throughout the course of your design education, so many things get bracketed out for so long that you almost forget that there is some other context in which design is operating in.
The structures of our education do not allow us the space to be critical and reflective of the architectural toolset—the plan, the section, the render. In reality, every line you draw builds a wall or even a border. In your mode of teaching, how do you instil those practices of care and accountability in students to recognize that whatever they put on a page has a legacy and an implication that goes beyond the A1? Especially when we’re entering a discipline that is one of the biggest players contributing to the climate crisis.

This is one of the ways I tried to frame the Act of Mapping workshop. When you map, draw or build something—that has impacts in the world in many ways. A simple example, building a house. It's made out of wood and stone. Where did those trees come from? Who cut them down? Who dug that rock out of a quarry and who had to carry it here? Now that that tree's not in its spot, what's there? I've built this thing, what's going to happen to it in five years or 10 years or 100 years? By focusing so much on architecture as a kind of surface or phenomenological artefact or a system of parametricism, you end up disregarding the significant environmental impact caused by the act of reshaping the material world. You want to put a solar panel on it, that's fine, but you also need to understand the embodied energy and everything else that you put in the project. You need to understand where the batteries for the solar panel came from to begin with. Are you just adding it on top so that you can feel better about the fact that you've designed something in a world that needs to have air conditioning all the time? Is that the right way or place to design that thing for that context? In architecture school and practice, these questions become so distant. They tend to only address the physical, material aspect of building. Everything else seems to have been bracketed out of our work in architecture.

I don’t necessarily mean that we need to understand all of these things ourselves, but working and living in a changing climate means we have to understand that many forms of expertise are needed to build and live differently. It will come from recognising different ways of knowing and understanding the world. None of us are going to know all this on our own.

I want to turn the question around. I'm curious how this project you’re involved in has been received? It seems like you're producing some friction in your department in terms of calling into question the way you're being taught in the studio. How was the reception of all this and what kind of conversations has it produced in your own department?

You're not going to get anywhere if you don't produce some friction.
Most of the issues that have been raised by us and other students were met with a certain level of defensiveness. There is definitely resistance to any form of critique or discourse that insinuates that the school needs to change. We’re all currently trying to navigate this tension and trying to explore possibilities for transforming the school despite all these bodies of power resisting us. We always question, why do architecture and design schools respond so poorly to institutional critique when they are supposedly making space for this kind of friction?

You're not going to get anywhere if you don't produce some friction.

There's a certain blindness to existing issues within faculties. Even in my department, we were assigned a reading list for our exams and it was predominantly dead white men. The only way to diversify your reading list is to do the labour of transforming it yourself and then hope that the next generation of students will also do the same, and keep expanding what type of people we want to be in conversation with. A full transformation isn't going to come until people like us--like all of you--are the ones that are leading the institutions, and perhaps even reimagining what the institutions are. That’s why I would definitely try to support people in your department who are your allies. Another key thing is producing your own forums within the department for the kinds of conversations that you want to see because people in power who are really stuck are never going to change, so it's a matter of figuring out how to get around them, unfortunately. I know that's not a very radical worldview but bureaucracy is very real.