From Living Tree Bridges to AI Systems: A Design Catalogue of Optimism and Resilience for a More Livable Future

In the summer of 1948, Black Mountain College informed a class of students that the star architect whose class they had signed up to take had cancelled; he was to be replaced by a Harvard dropout who had never taught before.

What neither the students nor the college knew is that Buckminster Fuller was lucky to be alive at all. A quarter century earlier, when his business went into bankruptcy and his four-year-old daughter died of meningitis, he had almost taken his own life, surviving the hollowing meaninglessness only by finding meaning in a single devotion: to benefit humanity. He would come to think of himself as “Astronaut of Spaceship Earth”; the world could come to think of him as the Leonardo da Vinci of the twentieth century.

Buckminster Fuller at his Black Mountain College studio.

Amid the wreckage of the WWII aftermath, the geodesic dome he designed with his Black Mountain students provided shelter and self-sufficiency to people who had lost everything; it also provided a model for how design — that golden mean of passionate imagination and practical ingenuity — can transform lives by broadening the landscape of the possible, even amid the most impossible of circumstances.

Generations and world-crises later, Paola Antonelli and Alice Rawsthorn celebrate this spirit in Design Emergency: Building a Better Future (public library) — a labor of love that began as an Instagram feed of life-allaying solutions during the pandemic and bloomed into an atemporal celebration of human optimism, ingenuity, and passion at their most practical and most buoyant.

The Makoko Floating School in Nigeria — a prototype floating structure by the architecture firm NLÉ, built to serve the historic Lagos lagoon water community.

With the clarity that only a survivor’s hindsight confers upon history, it is easy to see how COVID-19 exposed ecological and economic collapse, social unrest over injustice and inequality — thorns in humanity’s safety and sanity predating the pandemic, many by centuries, but suddenly rendered sharper, larger, and more imminent by the magnifying lens of mortality and uncertainty. These projects — ranging from a simple hygiene PSA that helped New Zealand attain the lowest pandemic death rate in the world to the Great Green Wall belting Africa with biodiversity to artificial intelligence amending the blind spots of human bias to — bring a deeper level of clarity about what the future asks of us.

Thoughtfully curated to constellate a larger whole, they broaden the narrow mainstream understanding of design from handsome overpriced objects to systems, practices, ways of seeing, and life-magnifying solutions to the problem of living, often dreamt up and made real by people who do not think of themselves as designers. Punctuating them are interviews with some of these visionaries — architects and engineers, artists and astrophysicists — many of whom never anticipated to make the miniature revolutions they made.

Anatomy of an AI System by artist and investigative artificial intelligence cartographer Kate Crawford, decoding the ecosystem of an Amazon Echo.

Reflecting on how the onset of the pandemic illuminated the role of design as a life-force of resilience, Paola writes in her opening essay:

Life as most knew it changed overnight, and as is the case when change happens, design went into overdrive to reconceive all spheres of life. Any emergency is also a design emergency.

[…]

Design is the enzyme that helps people face and metabolize change, adapt to circumstances, overcome hardships, and leap beyond the crisis and forward toward a better future, both at the individual and at the collective level.

Emerging from the selections is a real-life analogue to David Byrne’s dreamy illustrated vision for the future — a catalogue of optimism and resilience, bridging the ecological and the economic, the futuristic and the historical, the social and the scientific.

Meghalaya’s living root bridges, known as iing kieng jri.

One of the loveliest examples comes from one of the wettest places on Earth and one of the most ancient cultures — the Jaintia Hills of the Meghalaya region of Northern India, where during the monsoon season severe rains transform the hills into hunchback islands rising from the flood.

To traverse this Venice of the rainforest, generations of local Khasi people have developed a system of astonishing living bridges, made by training the aerial roots of the native rubber fig tree (Ficus elastica) along the trunk of a betel nut palm tree (Areca catechu) laid across the ravine.

The living bridges are a valiant antidote to instant gratification: It takes a decade of tending before a bridge can support human weight at all. But within a generation, by a slow-blooming miracle of growth, gravity, and devotion, each bridge can carry as many as fifty people at once. With every passing year, with every new generation trained in training the trees, the bridge grows stronger and stronger, its lifespan stretching into centuries, far outliving the first human hands that twined the first rubber fig roots.

Satellite image of a stretch of the Great Green Wall of Africa running through Senegal, The Gambia, and Guinea-Bissau, depicting the stark contrast between the revitalized vegetation and the desertification surrounding it.

In another example from the long history of design solutions to environmental challenges and emergencies, Alice Rawsthorn points to the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont in Northeast Paris — a onetime dump and quarry atop a “bald mountain,” where the bodies of criminals were publicly displayed after execution and where the soil turned so toxic that no plant could survive.

Today — after thousands of workers toiled for two years in the 1860 to remove the rubble and reconstruct the landscape by digging out a five-acre lake around the hill, with a special railway built to transport new topsoil to the site — the park is a thriving wilderness lush with thousands of trees, grasses, and flowering plants swarmed by birds and pollinators, a haven beloved by locals as the “people’s park.”

Video still from a film by Italian investigative designer duo Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin for the research project and exhibition Cambio at the Serpentine in London in 2020, created by manipulating a LiDAR scan of an oak forest in Virginia — a new technology the timber industry is using to be able to log trees selectively.

Design Emergency: Building a Better Future is one of those invaluable records of what is best and brightest in us — the kind that restores your faith in humanity and rekindles your fiercest devotion to a more possible future. For a kindred counterpart from a different realm of resilience, complement it with poet Ross Gay’s life-magnifying catalogue of delights.





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