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From Mine to Mine, a territory in transition
A confrontation between our understanding of architecture and emergent contexts of data transmission and resource extraction.

Every day, a detonation loosens ore from the grounds of the Chilean Atacama desert. Copper, the material underlying any digital connection, is mined to construct ourcommunication infrastructures while the mining industry destructs and contaminates a whole territory. In a time of copper depletion, this project looks at three separate sites that have been widely affected by the extraction of copper and attempts to convert them into new “mines”, productive instead of destructive. By applying the method of transition design, current economic, ecologic and material dependencies are turned around, empowering the miner’s labouring body and giving agency to the house that gives shelter to it.

The project "From Mine to Mine" was developed by Lauritz Bohne, Lea Scherer and Edward Zammit at TU Delft.

KOOZ What prompted the project?

LB | LS | EZ The project is rooted in our shared fascination for the spatial implications of data, its effect on the environment and the relation of material and virtual “connectivity”. As such, it tries to find ways in which architecture can get engaged with data, its apparatuses and materials, its infrastructural spaces and its scale. We started off by gaining an understanding of how our houses have progressively become a mediascape and how the increasing conquest of the house with sensing technologies has continuously embedded it in an expanding field of information, infrastructures and repetitive elements. We looked at the smallest digital objects inhabiting our homes to understand their technical and material properties and started to unpack their larger planetary implications touching on questions of resource scarcity and labour.

The project tries to find ways in which architecture can get engaged with data, its apparatuses and materials, its infrastructural spaces and its scale.

KOOZ What informed your specific interest into the extraction of copper from the Chilean Atacama Desert?

LB | LS | EZ In Chile’s Antofagasta region we can find the world’s biggest open pit mine for the extraction of copper in the middle of the Atacama desert: the Chuquicamta Mine. There, the global pressing demand for more copper is leading to the imminent automation of mining processes, drastically changing the role of the miner. Whereas the Chilean miner once physically dug out raw ore from the depths of the mines, they are now starting to work remotely, from the safety of specialised machines. In this emerging context, specifically in the miner’s city of Calama and the nearby mine of Chuquicamata, we came across an amusing dichotomy that eventually influenced the rest of the design process. The expected regional transition to remote labour starts to address copper even more directly: the required infrastructure to support this shift would need great amounts of the metal. In this speculative context the intangibility of the labour behind mining starts to take on the physicality of copper itself.

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KOOZ To what extent is the use of copper pervasive throughout our worldwide digital infrastructure? What alternatives are there to the reliance and subsequent extraction of this material?

LB | LS | EZ Due to its high electrical conductivity copper plays a key role in worldwide information and communication technologies, manifesting itself in the wires and antennas that crisscross our homes, houses and landscapes. Hidden behind plastic, behind walls and underground, copper is everywhere yet rarely seen. Decommissioned telegraph cables from the 1850s lie next to newly laid out internet cables across the colonial routes of the transatlantic, which extend into an infrastructure of on-land cables, antennas and routers, all relying on copper. Since the advent of telecommunications the metal has been molten and reshaped, changing in state and adapting in size, thickness and form to the medium of the signal that it transmits. What is specific about copper is that it does not lose any of its properties through recycling, either from raw state or from technological devices. It is estimated that as much as 80% of the metal ever mined is still in use, and yet the demand rises and natural deposits diminish. Building on this fact, the project tries to focus and specialize the use of copper instead of looking for material alternatives. Our third design chapter therefore, taps into the city as a copper deposit and extracts and reuses the material from applications where it is not used for its very property of electrical conductivity - whereas the first two design chapters try to shift Chile’s economic dependence on copper to alternate resources, gained by restoring the natural environment that has suffered under copper extraction.

Hidden behind plastic, behind walls and underground, copper is everywhere yet rarely seen.

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KOOZ The project explores the conversion of mining and the mines into a productive rather than destructive practice. How is this achieved? What do you see as the most significant implications?

LB | LS | EZ From an economic point of view, the productivity of mining copper in the Atacama Desert has continuously increased since the copper boom in the 1970s. Technological advancement in both detecting and extracting copper has ensured the material’s full depletion by 2060.

As the industry marks the most important economic sector in the whole Antofagasta region, mining copper not only brings financial stability but also has become an important part of the cultural identity. To say that mining is only destructive is wrong as it constructs the basis and conditions people are living in.

However, from an ecological point of view mining copper is highly destructive as it enormously constrains the land’s capacities by contamination. You can see for example how rivers are drying out due to the enormous water consumption by the industry while simultaneously the agricultural sector is recessive due to the shortage and pollution of water. If no one takes action the toxic melange of economic and ecologic dependencies will lead to the doom of the region after the full depletion of copper, being left without industry in an uninhabitable land.

The project rethinks the existing copper infrastructures and tries to develop alternative industries resolving the economic dependency on copper after 2060.

While understanding these constraints, the project rethinks the existing copper infrastructures and tries to develop alternative industries resolving the economic dependency on copper after 2060 by creating conditions for new ecologies to thrive. In this case, we think the most significant implication of our project is that we designed processes that are not meant to restore an original state of the landscape but acknowledge our anthropogenic actions as irreversible and consequential.

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KOOZ How necessary is it to rethink and redesign our current economic, ecologic and material dependencies in light of our contemporary environmental and social crisis?

LB | LS | EZ Tremendously. We are about to pay the bill for our short-term thinking. Too often the motivation for human action is purely financial and too often the ecological and, thus, societal consequences are not taken into account. Economic mechanisms need to be developed that reward long-term ecological actions. In theory, the formula should be simple: Diverse ecosystems equal diverse social systems. Diverse social systems equal diverse economic opportunities. Creating economic opportunities should mean creating diverse ecosystems and so on. In practice that is, of course, far more complex. Nevertheless, we believe that such dependencies and interrelations can and, actually, should be designed. Therefore, we think that we have to overcome an architecture of pure forms and aesthetics to produce an architecture of processes that in-form over time.

The formula should be simple: Diverse ecosystems equal diverse social systems. Diverse social systems equal diverse economic opportunities.

Taking our second design chapter “Baquedano Oasis” as an example we can see that we did not focus on the shape or form of the oasis. Instead, we designed the conditions for the oasis to exist: We designed low-energy intensive desalination processes to lead to an overproduction of fresh water that eventually feeds the desert’s soil and creates new possibilities: ecologically, economically and culturally. It is the designed process that in-forms the oasis’ appearance.

KOOZ What is for you the potential of architecture as a practice which repairs and regenerates our environment?

LB | LS | EZ If architecture as a discipline hopes to respond to emerging global urgencies, it should not consider itself as separate from other ongoing processes but should rather engage with them directly. Much like the crux of the project; the miner’s house that has its material origins encoded in the three separate “mines”, the buildings we design should be allowed to adapt and respond to ongoing economic, ecological and material forces. Perhaps this would mean considering aesthetics and composition as secondary concerns and rather, letting architectural form become a spatial articulation of interdisciplinary actions. In this sense, a reparative architecture’s most vital trait would be an extensive sensitivity and awareness to whatever it is part of.

Bio

Lauritz Bohne, Lea Scherer and Edward Zammit are recent Architecture graduates from TU Delft, NL, where they collaborated on numerous academic projects including their master thesis From Mine to Mine. During their studies, they developed a focused interest in architecture at the intersection of materiality and technology. Their recent research project Meta Office - Behind The Screens of Amazon Mechanical Turks explores the hidden human labour behind Artificial Intelligence and will be part of the ‘Datapolis’ publication issued by Nai010 publishers. The work is also currently shown in the exhibition series and online publication ‘Image Capital’ by photographer Armin Linke and media historian Estelle Blaschke, displayed at Folkwang Museum, Essen (09.11.22 - 11.12.23), Fondazione MAST, Bologna (22.09.22 - 08.01.23) and Centre Pompidou, Paris (end of 2023). Based in Rotterdam, NL, the three continue to collaborate under the name ‘Meta Office’ while pursuing their individual careers. Edward works with multiple studios and designers around the Netherlands, engaging in projects that range from exhibition design to material research. Lauritz and Lea explore the potential of architecture within the current energy crisis. Working in the energy sector, they develop spatial strategies to create alternative energy grids focusing on the capacities of hydrogen.

Interviewer
Published
25 Feb 2023
Reading time
10 minutes
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