Figure 1: DESIGN EARTH, After Oil (Das Island, Das Crude), 2016.

Environmental imaginations?


ur current environmental crisis is, for many across the environmental humanities, a crisis of the imagination. For some, the western world is in desperate need of new imaginations of our relations with nature. Our planetary imagination has diminished, both anesthetized by repetitive exposure to the same limited set of images – polar bears and melting ice-bergs for instance – and failing in the face of complex environmental systems, and the often invisible and intangible effects of climate change and extractive practices for many in the Western world.

Imagination is not only part of the problem however; it can also be part of the solution. It has long been recognized that the imagination entwines what is in our heads with the shaping of our worlds- for good and ill. Indeed, the potential of diverse creative practices – from visual arts to novels, films, and architecture – to produce powerful imaginations of the city, the ‘Orient,’ and most recently the environment, has long been recognized.

In an engaging combination of drawings and text, Geostories: Another Architecture for the Environment offers us fourteen inspiring, and often provocative architectural imaginations. The graphic geographies of these ‘geostories’ narrate the pasts, presents and possible futures of pressing issues from extraction to space debris, in locations from the Persian Gulf to geostationary orbit 35000km above Cotopaxi Volcano in Ecuador. Each geostory - or spatial proposition – is told through multiple drawings and short textual passages that make visible what Design Earth, the architectural practice behind the volume, call ‘architecture with externalities’ (p12). As they elaborate these are ‘things, spaces and scales’ (p.12) they consider to be erased from our (Western) geographical imagination. This includes everything from underground trash heaps to the invisible infrastructures of extraction. As well as rendering comprehensible the current crisis, crucially, these stories propose ‘speculative scenarios of technological environments’ (p12).

Rania Ghosn and El Hadi Jazairy – Design Earth’s partners – are clear that their compound ‘geostories’ owes a debt to Latour’s desire for a ‘common geostory,’ which they understand as ‘actively re-imagining a non-anthropocentric world’ (p21). They also note their debt to forms of speculative fiction, and the resonance of their graphic geography with the ideas of Donna Haraway and the writings of Ursula Le Guinn. If familiar Anthropocene theorists offer one set of coordinates for Design Earth’s project, another set is offered by other architectural visions (realized or not). Architects have long been evolving exciting imaginations of our future worlds, and Design Earth situate their projects in a trajectory that includes Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse and Buckminster Fuller and Shoji Sadao’s Tetrahedron City Project. As I want to explore, Design Earth invites us to explore specific imagined futures, consider our imaginations of architecture, and reflect on how our shared spatial consciousness might contribute much to the emerging futures of our current environmental crisis.

Another Architecture for the Environment?

Design Earth describe themselves as a collaborative practice, an architectural office which ‘engages the geographic to open up a range of aesthetic and political concerns for architecture and urbanism’ (Design Earth’s website). Design Earth’s partners and creators have thoroughly interdisciplinary backgrounds. Rania Ghosn is an architect and geographer based at MIT School of Architecture and Planning (with a geography masters from UCL, home of the Urban Lab) and El Hadi Jazairy is an architect based at University of Michigan.

Their organizational form and working practice can be situated as part of the exciting expanded field of architecture. By this I mean an architecture where the practice of designing and building comes to sit in productive dialogue with other spatially-conscious disciplines, including geography. This is a form of architecture that both encompasses and extends the practices of the design and building of structures. Other notable examples might include the research agency Forensic Architecture (Goldsmith’s University, London) whose spatial forensic aesthetics ‘evidence’ a series of war and environmental crimes. We might think too of Unknown Fields Division, an agency whose expeditionary practice celebrates those ‘dislocated’ landscapes which offer the support structures for everyday urban life, but are often distanced from them. Architects Nishat Awan, Tatjana Schneider and Jeremy Till have formed Spatial Agency to explore ‘other ways of doing architecture’, in particular addressing the explicit social engagement that sits at the heart of their expanded practice.  

Architecture is often situated as a medium of hope. Integral to many discussions of architecture in the expanded field is a belief in the potential of the extension and realization of architecture’s basic dream of an aesthetic betterment of the world. Design Earth explicitly seeks ‘another architecture for the Environment,’ inevitably raising the question: ‘other’ than what? Elaborating on their project, they describe it as an exploration of ‘the political and ethical implication of our ecological actions, all while speculating on survival and adaption strategies that invite us to make sense of the Earth, and envision it in ways that generate inquisitive, delightful, and potentially subversive responses’ (p. 15). Countering the potential of such delight to appear frothy or too whimsical, they situate their politics as a politics of representation, a making visible of the Earth as a ‘matter of concern.’  The form of their drawings is integral to this, creating a technical aesthetics which emphasizes the project’s concern to ‘synthesise scientific epistemologies and sensible experience, reason and imagination’ (p15). Such an aesthetics, they continue, “draws on geographic representation to construct world views that bridge disciplinary divides, and on the tropes of story-telling and speculative fiction to render worlds simultaneously comprehensible and fantastic” (p. 15). To explore these geostories further, I want to focus on one, After Oil.

After Oil

Design Earth have selected fourteen of their projects for the volume, grouping these geostories into three geographically organized sections (terrarium, aquarium and planetarium), each of which combines historical sources with future imaginations. The first section we encounter is ‘terrarium.’ A short two side passage situates the drawings that follow in the context of eighteenth century geological cross-sections, deploying these drawn forms to offer sections through subterranean spaces and infrastructures: pipelines, resources, and storage spaces. The geostory I want to focus on here in After Oil is the opening story in this first section.

After Oil offers an imagination of the Persian Gulf Region after fossil fuels, and unfolds across three ‘nodes.’ The first is Das Island, an offshore oil extraction and processing facility which has been pumping oil since the 1950s, and has financed much of the mega-urbanisation of Abu Dahbi and Dubai. The second node, the Strait of Hormuz, is a crucial geopolitical site and transit chokepoint 34 miles wide through which 20% of world oil moves. The third is Bubiyan Island, the site of one of the largest oil ‘spills’ in history. The story begins with a ‘map’. This is admittedly more of an aesthetic object suggestive of intense interconnection than a geographical tool. For example,  land and sea are hard to distinguish without prior knowledge, there are no place names, no north line, and lines radiate from each location like vectors of connection. The geostory unfolds through each of these nodes in term, each one the subject of a short paragraph of description of the location that combines both the location’s history and the agency’s imagination for its future. These are then elaborated through a trio of computer-rendered black and white line drawings, one single page and then a double page spread, nine captioned drawings in all.

Figure 2: DESIGN EARTH, After Oil (Das Island, Das Crude), 2016.  

Das Island, Das Crude’s graphic geographies link together the geohistories of vertical extraction with the aspirations of Emeriti urbanism. The first image of the trio, figure one (above), depicts a vertical column cutting through a stylized set of geological strata. The column playfully, if confusingly, maps extractive practices — deserted oil and gas fields, storage and geothermal stations — against the glassy structures they have funded, including Dubai’s 828 meter tall Burj Khalifa which are stacked one on-top of the other in the hole. The second image of the trio (figure 2 above) imagines new offshore territory, a black island form sits amidst a hatched-in sea, geometric forms marking out its landscape features. The caption reads, ‘The refuse matter of extraction is assembled into an artificial mountain, a landform monument to the age of oil’ (p 32). The final drawing of the trio (figure four below) situates us as viewers above the surface of that new off-shore territory to watch a pair standing on its surface, a telescope aimed down into the hole we saw in the first image.

Figure 3: DESIGN EARTH, After Oil (Das Island, Das Crude), 2016.

In the sea behind them an old-fashioned compass orients us: the Persian Gulf, shipping routes to the UAE, white birds circle over black ship forms, and a city stands in the distance, under white clouds. One of those shipping lanes connects, we can deduce, to the Strait of Hormuz, the second of these nodes (figure 4).

Figure 4: DESIGN EARTH, After Oil (Straitof Hormuz Grand Chessboard), 2016.

In an echo of ‘real life,’ the Strait is portrayed as a geopolitical chessboard, an ‘Oil Futures gameboard where players buy and trade iconic speculative projects,’ the caption tells us. Such a conjuring of the strait as a site of speculative gaming echoes this strategic waterway’s status as a popular site for ‘war games.’ The Strait was a strategic location in the infamous 2002 US Millennium Challenge War Games, as well as more recently in 2019 when Iran held its annual drill in the Strait and then in February 2020 when it was the site for a joint war games exercise launched by China, Russia, and Iran. Rather than current oil-fuelled ‘speculative’ urbanism, the fine-line drawings of structures occupying the chess-board’s squares depict the future visions of Le Corbusier, Kenzo Tange and Buckminster Fuller, as well as ‘undersea highways.’

Figure 5: DESIGN EARTH, After Oil (Bubiyan: There Once Was an Island), 2016.

The final node imagines Bubiyan Island as a nature reserve. The images and text combine to frame the island as the locus of both the spectacular environmental violence of the Gulf War oil spill, as well as the ‘slow violence of fossil fuels’ producing a ‘geography of submerged islands’ (figure five above). An aerial view depicts these islands forming an archipelago of the ‘highest mounds’ whilst the third drawing shows a cross-section of the proposed ‘nabhka’ landscape. Nabhka are usually understood as aeolian dunes formed around vegetation; here, vertical poles - metal vegetation of sorts - are sunk into the largest of the mounds to form artificially stabilized landscapes that they propose will become ‘Edenic islands’ (p. 38).

Drawings sit at the heart of Design Earth’s ‘geostories’, and detouring Donna Haraway, Ghosn and Jazairy suggest that, ‘it matters what drawings we draw to inscribe the earth’ (p. 22). They are right, for as well as the intricacies and specificities of the individual pictures, the volume should also be taken as a whole for the fascinating politics of drawing it forms. In their introduction, Design Earth note, ‘section drawing, for instance, counteracts the abstract Earth of aerial mappings, diagrammatic flows and soft perspectives’ (p. 22). Resonating with Bruce Braun’s discussion of the emergence of vertical territory through the spatial device of the geological cross section, they argue of other drawings, their ‘orthographic projection plan produces the vertical territory’ (p. 22). As well as technical drawing, illustrative practices from natural history get a mention. They note the value of the split level view (also known as the aquarium view) for showing ‘domains both above and below the surface of the water and the ground’ (p. 22). Alexander Von Humboldt’s drawings also get a mention, and those of us who pour over his seventeenth century geo-infographics might recognize Humboldt’s distinctive vertical imagination including his annotations of changing vegetation. These rich combinations ensure that each project balances the specific and highly imaginary, the whimsical and the technical, enabling many of them to chart a course between reality and maybe possible.

Many of the drawings on the volume have multiple lives – embedded in rich histories of visual depiction of the earth – from geological cross sections, to the more immersive forms of the georama. As such, many of the images don’t appear to have been originally conceived for a volume of this scale. Thus whilst most drawings have their own page, reproduced at the scale of the book detail and text can become obscured. After Oil’s drawings, for example, had a previous life as nine 60cm x 60cm drawings in the Kuwait Pavilion at the 2016 Venice Biennale. Here they were accompanied by three models each 150 cm x 150cm x 15cms. Other drawings have become carpets and screens, architectural models, and even a georama in which a 200cm x 500cm drawing is reproduced in the form of that popular nineteenth century way to depict the globe, on a truncated cylinder you could walk around. Photographs of some of these forms installed in exhibition spaces appear in a selection of images collected into a section of the volume entitled ‘Assemblies’ which has been inserted after the final of the three sections, planetarium. The volume closes with three short essays by architects and architectural critics offering critical commentary.

Geostories perhaps functions as an artist’s book, rather than a catalogue of projects (an important distinction). It is thus perhaps somewhat churlish of me to wish that the rich lives of these drawings and their incorporation into other forms of visual device had found their way into the volume. I would have welcomed such an elaboration on Design Earth’s graphic geographies, and I am keen to explore how these other exhibitionary experiences might evolve the visual politics of Geostories through a recasting of the histories of the visual device and its role in the geographical imagination.

What do imaginations do?

What then of the work of the imagination in Geostories? These projects are highly speculative, fantastical. The text situates these visions alongside other fantastical projects, some realized, others not — such as the 1950s plan of a Saudi Prince to tow an iceberg into the Gulf, recognizing the commodity value of fresh water. The point of these architectural visions is less perhaps their realizability, but rather the injunction they suggest: to imagine.

Architecture drawings and images have been the subject of much recent critique. Not least by Neil Leach, whose self-described polemic ‘Anaesthetics of Architecture’ (1999) draws on Walter Benjamin amongst others to argue that architectural cultures have become so saturated by images that they have become anaesthetized from the social and political realities of everyday life, dulling our senses and restricting much needed imaginations. Yet Design Earth’s visual politics realized in their combination of multiple image-making forms with varied perspectives, might shake us out of this duller perspective, through both rendering comprehensible our current situation and recouping the potential of images to suggest fantastic futures. The architectural imaginations of this volume encompass both the specificities of the geostories, as well as the potential of architecture’s expanded spatial consciousness. It is a timely reminder to those of us working in other spatial disciplines of the points of connection and intersection we share, and of the potential for architectural imaginations to work alongside geographical imaginations to help forge much needed Earth futures.


Design Earth, Ghosn, R. and El Hadi, J. (2018) Geostories -Another Architecture for the Environment. Actar: New York, Barcelona.
Leach, N. (1999) Anaesthetics of Architecture. MIT Press: Boston.
Till, J., Awan, N. and Scheider, T. (2011) Spatial Agency: Other ways of Doing Architecture. Routledge, London.

Harriet Hawkins works on the geographies of art, including ideas of aesthetics, creativity and the imagination. She is a Professor of GeoHumanities at Royal Holloway, University of London where she is currently working on a five year project about the arts of subterranean spaces.