Revisiting Utopia: Bio-Based Megastructures in the Texas Desert [M2]

The social and political tumult of the 1960s prompted a resurgence of utopian architecture. Rising fuel prices, a growing dependence on technology and, in particular, the television, the international space race, and the Cold War unleased a variety of direct and indirect challenges to mainstream architecture with grand visions for alternative ways of living in a future with diminished resources, including Superstudio, Archigram, Haus Rucker Co., Global Tools, and others.  And, over time, a variety of maverick figures such as Yona Friedman, Paolo Soleri and Simone Swan championed their own, at times even questionable, solutions to societal ills—from mobile architecture, to extreme density, and the economic and environmental benefits of building with adobe. The social and environmental problems of the 1960s have largely been exacerbated in the intervening five decades or more. Today, the threat of climate change is no longer a fringe issue, and the affordable housing crisis is worldwide. Can or, even, should recent scientific and technological advancements bring the visions of the 1960s avant-garde to life? Are more recent supposedly utopian projects like NEOM’s The Line” in Saudi Arabia or “Telosa,” an American billionaire’s answer to creating a more equitable and sustainable city, realistic or even desirable solutions to the climate and housing crises?

This studio takes the extreme climate of Texas and in particular the desert of Presidio County where Simone Swan developed her rammed-earth prototypes as its site. From 1980 to 2020, the state experienced 273 weather and climate-related events resulting in substantial losses of life and property. At the same time, the prospect of remote work has enabled towns in Texas to offer cash incentives, attracting residents seeking affordable housing. By the 2040s, Texas is projected to surpass California in population due to economic diversification, a lower cost of living, and ample land for expansion. The state leads not only in oil and gas but also in renewable energy sources like wind and solar power.

The core question of the studio will be: How large scale can bio-based construction go? With what type of structures? With which materials? At what density? In which typologies? For what kind of program? Students will be asked to think critically about their own vision of a desert utopia and experimental megastructures (with all their inherent contradictions) and to explore the adaptability and scalability of emerging bio-based materials as the basis for their vision. Recognizing that a module studio is a focused architectural investigation rather than a full project design, the studio will operate as a kind of seminar with weekly guest lecturers on such topics as land art and material innovations. Using a range of representational and narratives strategies such as models and collages like those of the 1960s avant-garde as well as written statements and/or hypothetical guidebooks or catalogues that articulate each student’s vision of utopia, the studio also explores of how architecture and storytelling co-exist in the creative process.