New Exhibition and Daylong Symposium Explore Relationship between Energy and Architectural Form

POSTED ON: March 16, 2023

Outside Development

The endless repetition of skyscrapers, celebrated by Rem Koolhaas in his coining of the term Manhattanism, is no less entangled in the fossil economy than suburban settlement patterns. Serving as a model for growth and consumption, it is central to understanding contemporary carbon form. Outside Development and Alican Taylan, with MC Love and Dov Diamond, 2023.

The concept of “carbon form,” as articulated by the architect, critic, and The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art Assistant Professor Elisa Iturbe, studies the relationship between the built environment and fossil fuel combustion. The abundance of energy in the fossil fuel age has led to the emergence of new building typologies and urban archetypes, making possible new architectural and infrastructural configurations such as factories, office towers, apartment buildings, skyscrapers, strip malls, highways, and airports. Confronting Carbon Form, an exhibition presented by Cooper Union’s The Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture and co-curated by Iturbe alongside Stanley Cho and Alican Taylan, seeks to bring a deeper understanding of this architectural and cultural legacy, which in turn aims to reveal the spatial roots of the current ecological crisis.

On view from March 21 through April 16, 2023, in the Arthur A. Houghton Jr. Gallery, Confronting Carbon Form repositions architecture’s relationship to energy, implicating architectural and urban form’s role in the creation and perpetuation of the anthropogenic climate crisis in a way that looks beyond the immediate quantification of a carbon footprint. The exhibition examines history and precedent to assess the archetypes, typologies, and concepts that must now be transformed—an undertaking that is just as important for understanding architecture’s complicity in the climate crisis as it is for locating a fruitful terrain for climate action.

Confronting Carbon Form synthesizes five years of research into the relationship between energy, power, and form,” says Assistant Professor Iturbe. “There is eagerness within the architecture field to address climate and work towards change, however the typical frameworks used that focus solely on efficiency are ignoring a more fundamental problem: the way we organize space is part of the problem. In order to address the climate crisis, we have to look at space and form, and do so differently than we have thus far in our discipline.”

The exhibition features original works by Iturbe, Cho, and Taylan that give an overview of the theoretical roots of carbon form. To do so, the works use drawing and model to interpret precedents that are emblematic of this spatial order. One hand-painted suite of drawings re-draws canonical architectural projects in a way that reveals underlying spatial concepts that characterize carbon form. A suite of models identifies specific urban archetypes, such as those conceived by Ildefonso Cerda, Le Corbusier, Ludwig Hilberseimer, Rem Koolhaas, and Victor Gruen, to demonstrate how Modern and contemporary conceptions of cities are rooted in the realities of an industrial carbon economy. Another suite of drawings studies patterns of movement within settlement patterns of different densities. Presented together, the works on view offer a working definition of carbon form, and viewers are invited to imagine new organizational foundations for the oncoming transitions in energy and form.

“This important exhibition underscores architecture’s significant role in defining the outcome of this increasingly uncertain phase of human and planetary history,” says Hayley Eber, Acting Dean of The Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture. “We are at a moment that requires a renewed focus on transformative design pedagogies and practices that address the climate emergency.”

The exhibition is complemented by Order!: The Spatial Ideologies of Carbon Modernity, a daylong symposium on April 1 held in-person in The Frederick P. Rose Auditorium and accessible via Zoom. This event gathers architects, designers, scholars, historians, and theorists, including Esra Akcan, Ross Exo Adams, Matthew Soules, Ana María Durán, Catherine Ingraham, Kathi Weeks, and David Wengrow, among many others, to identify and explore specific spatial concepts of carbon modernity.

The exhibition is supported by Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, and by Independent Projects, a partnership program of the New York State Council on the Arts and The Architectural League of New York. Independent Project grants are made possible with public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, with the support of the Office of the Governor and the New York State Legislature.

  • Founded by inventor, industrialist and philanthropist Peter Cooper in 1859, The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art offers education in art, architecture and engineering, as well as courses in the humanities and social sciences.

  • “My feelings, my desires, my hopes, embrace humanity throughout the world,” Peter Cooper proclaimed in a speech in 1853. He looked forward to a time when, “knowledge shall cover the earth as waters cover the great deep.”

  • From its beginnings, Cooper Union was a unique institution, dedicated to founder Peter Cooper's proposition that education is the key not only to personal prosperity but to civic virtue and harmony.

  • Peter Cooper wanted his graduates to acquire the technical mastery and entrepreneurial skills, enrich their intellects and spark their creativity, and develop a sense of social justice that would translate into action.