The Fitch Colloquia are named for the architect and preservationist James Marston Fitch (1909–2000), who in 1964 was one of the founders of the Historic Preservation Program at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. Since 2000, speakers, students, and guests coordinate a day of activities addressing the urgencies, possibilities, and state of the art of preservation. The 2023 Fitch Preservation Colloquium “Atmospheric Heritage: Experimental Preservation Approaches between Art and Science” is organised by Jorge Otero-Pailos, Professor and Director of the Historic Preservation Program at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation.
What are the relationships between architectural preservation, the current environmental crisis and debate, and the atmosphere?
What are the relationships between architectural preservation, the current environmental crisis and debate, and the atmosphere? During World War II, James Marston Fitch — namesake of the annual assembly at GSAPP — served in the Meteorology Division of the US Army. This experience strongly affected his approach to architecture and preservation, making him among the first to understand the need to adapt architecture to climate. Today, the burgeoning climate crisis places increasing pressure on the need to rethink architecture’s relationship with the environment. The 2023 Fitch Colloquium, therefore, questions our relationship with the atmosphere: how we see it, how we relate ourselves and the built environment to it. As departmental director and Professor Jorge Otero-Pailos pointed out, everything acts in the atmosphere: it is a “collective project” shaped by the contributions of many generations. Buildings too contribute to the atmosphere's status and health. That’s why the relationship between “preservation” and the “atmosphere” needs to be investigated; such investigations, as Otero-Pailos points out, are not just scientific but also ethical.
Credits: Lindsey Wikstrom
Everything acts in the atmosphere: it is a “collective project” shaped by the contributions of many generations.
This year’s iteration brought together architects, artists, scientists, preservationists, critics, and curators, channelling a multidisciplinary discourse into three panels, each presenting different approaches and strategies for dealing with the atmosphere, the natural and the built environment.
In the first panel, “Atmospheric Imperatives: scaling-up imaginations,” producer Michael Morris presented the art program World Weather Network; environmental physicist and isotope geochemist Gisela Winckler talked about dust; and architect Lindsey Wikstrom about plant-based materials. The discussion that followed was moderated by Andrés Jaque, Dean of Columbia GSAPP, who asked about “solution-oriented” approaches to the environmental crisis. As all agreed, any such approach would have to be plural, coming from different voices, involving artists and scientists but also lawyers or social movements; it needs to investigate in different directions, being pragmatic but practical, as Morris highlighted. Many environmental phenomena are not linear and have no evident cause-effect explanation. We live in a time when we don’t need simple actions but to acknowledge complexities, Andrés Jaque pointed out, because this is a very different paradigm, and we are not trained to understand all the phenomena.
We live in a time when we don’t need simple actions but to acknowledge complexities.
During the second panel, “Atmospheric sightings: evidence, values and publics,” physical scientist Sharolyn Anderson presented her work to preserve night skies in national parks; David Gissen, author, designer, and Professor of Architecture and Urban History, talked about the relation between the built environment and climate warming; Anna Lea Albright, a postdoctoral researcher, showed her research on pollution perception and pictorial representation and Nerea Calvillo, architect and scholar presented her interdisciplinary approach to investigate air and air pollution. Jorge Otero-Pailos opened the ensuing debate, emphasising the public nature of things, whether in the human or nonhuman realm, and their public perception and evaluation. We are often driven by an eugenic approach towards everything alive or not, but what we evaluate as good or bad, according to functional parameters, cannot be rejected because it is classified as not beneficial to the world — especially if this is aligned with a binary way of judging, as David Gissen remarked. In this system, observation is crucial to understanding the world, as Otero-Pailos noted; this is precisely how artists, according to Anna Lea Albright, have acted — highlighting environmental aspects that we usually don’t perceive and turning them into pieces of evidence. But as Nerea Calvillo pointed out, metrics are necessary to measure achievement, and measurements are targeted to specific forms of understanding, framing what we look for. Consequently, Calvillo pointed to all the things left out of measurements — an issue related, for example, to toxic and polluting elements. What gathers all the panelists’ positions is the effort to clarify a set of questions about how to preserve the atmosphere more than finding solutions.
observation is crucial to understanding the world, this is precisely how artists have acted — highlighting environmental aspects that we usually don’t perceive and turning them into pieces of evidence.
The final panel, “Atmospheric expressions: air rights, responsibilities and creativities,” includes Shona Illingworth, artist and Professor in Art, Film and Media, talking about the military and industrial exploitation of air; founder-director of Invisible Dust, Alice Sharp; Mark Wasiuta, architect, writer, curator, co-director of Critical, Curatorial, and Conceptual Practices program at GSAPP, on air-control; and Giuliana Bruno, cultural theorist, Professor of Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard University, on the conceptualisation of atmosphere itself. Professor and Dean Emerita at Columbia University School of the Arts Carol Becker initiated proceedings by reflecting on the role of artists, who are expanding and redefining their practice and their thinking about the world. There are huge questions about governance, how the climate crisis is not reflecting national borders or geopolitical boundaries; as Alice Sharp points out, the key lies in the fact that artists can connect different areas and disciplines; they can use humour, feelings or imagination very differently than scientists; they can bring these things out from people.
It is essential to bring up different disciplines to build new forms of imagination and narrations, to be productive regarding the environment or atmosphere, to cross boundaries, and to be cross-disciplinary.
Giuliana Bruno added the consideration of theory, another creative form of imagination. It is crucial, speakers agreed, not to idolise a moment when everything was good and beautiful because such an idealised moment did not exist. To achieve this shift in understanding and change mentalities towards the atmosphere, it is essential to bring up different disciplines to build new forms of imagination and narrations, Mark Wasiuta concluded: to be productive regarding the environment or atmosphere, to cross boundaries, and to be cross-disciplinary.
No finite answers were provided; rather the illustrious panels questioned the practice and the theory of different disciplines to understand the potential reframing of the climate crisis, prompting creative responses. The “solution” as such is not singular, but rather comes from a plurality of voices overimposing, interlacing, and interfering with each other.
Valerio Franzone is the Managing Editor at KoozArch. He is a Ph.D. Architect (Università IUAV di Venezia), and his work focuses on the relationships between architecture, humanity, and nature. A founding partner of 2A+P and 2A+P Architettura, he later established Valerio Franzone Architect. His projects have been awarded in various international competitions, and shown in several exhibitions as the 7th, 11th, and 14th International Architecture Exhibition - La Biennale di Venezia. His projects and texts appear in international magazines such as Domus, A10, Abitare, Volume, and AD Architectural Design.