Energyscapes

“From the point of view of Physycs, right now we don’t know what energy really is. We have no evidence that energy comes in small quantities, like drops. What we do know is that all matter is energy in repose and that energy is manifested in lots of forms that are interrelated by numerous mechanisms of conservation.”

Richard P. Feynman, Feynman lectures on physics [1963]

We are all concerned about energy. But when trying to understand all the implications of the energy in our daily life, we rarely go beyond our spending on electricity bills. If you are an architect or engineer it is possible that you pay special attention to this subject while adapting your projects to current standards.

That’s why it’is interesting how started his book quoting Feynman’s lecture written almost fifty years ago, and making evident that we still know so little about energy. After this statement you will find the information contained on this book as an useful start point to realize where we are and where we want to go in terms of energy.

The book is part of Gustavo Gili’s Land&Scape Series, which is aimed to present issues related with landscape “in the widest sense of the word”, as they describe the collection. According to this approach, what we can find here goes beyond of a compendium or a technical book. It takes us through the history of energy –utopias included– but always related on the ways that energy infrastructures affects the territory.

Starting with “The Geographies of Energy”, we can read about many interrelated topics, as so ambitious projects that wasn’t unable to be developed, like the Atlantropa project, a gigantic engineering and colonization project devised by the German architect Herman Sörgel in the 1920s. We found really interesting the idea of start some study cases with this utopic one, as it was a project of great popularity in the late 1920s and early 1930s, but soon disappeared from general discourse again after Sörgel’s death and now, with no much information about it available beyond some specialized books.

How can we relate this megaproject with our current reality?

It is a well known fact that, as Ivančić points, “urban settlements have changed over time according to the availability of energy”. It that sense, it seems that now the idea of self sufficient megacities is still alive and we can travel in time from Atlantropa and its several dams and new ports on the Mediterranean, to Masdar and its solar power plants; just to find a similar idea behind the complexity of design.

torresol energy plant for Abu Dhabi. Source: Masdar website
proposed new locks at the Gibraltar Dam. Atlantropa

The book analyses all the different ways of producing energy, from fossil fuel resources to electric power plants. Going from the beginnings of electrification during the last two decades of the 19th century, invented by Thomas A. Edison to the decision in 1893 of build the hydroelectric power station at Niagara Falls and the need of transporting all this energy to different places using wireless transmission, we can easily understand the size and scope of certain projects and the fact that it is bound to affect the environment and the landscape.

After so may years with energy production focused on hydroelectrics, we can read on the book that in the 1960s, nuclear energy was the big promise of developmentalist and consumerist currents and it was then when the Nuplex [Nuclear desalination complexes] concept was devised. This kind of desalination complexes are able to generate electricity while, at the same time, they form industrial clusters, mostly all of them focused in the agroalimentary industry, feeding industrial and agricultural activities with water and energy. The implementation of the Nuplex complexes have deeply transformed the landscape, as they were conceived for the coast of arid or desert areas and if in 2001, there were 12,451 desalination plants worldwide, the history ended soon due to the cost of nuclear energy.

After learning about “The Geographies of Energy”, the history of energy passes through the chapter on “Artefacts”, which includes:

  • search and extraction
  • transformation
  • processing
  • transportation and storage

Knowing that the development of society, like that of any living organism, is clearly linked to the availability of energy, we can understand the importance of each one of these steps pointed on the chapter. When we talk about “search and extraction” obviously the first tough is focused on mines and oil platforms. Maybe two of the most remarkable kind of infrastructures when we talk about energy. But there are some newer and larger infrastructures that are used to transform natural resources of energy into electricity while they are also transforming our landscapes, the wind farms and the solar farms. But what happens when we need to transport all the energy that we get from this farms? The architecture behind this landscape infrastructures is a need to take energy from one point to another and is full of examples on large scale projects like oil pipelines such as the Conveyor Belt for the Dead Sea, which also includes, among the pipeline, bridges, earthworks and pylons.

But at this point, in the middle of many huge projects that we can’t imagine “on movement”, Aleksandar Ivančić points that we should not forget about the discontinuous transport and mobile storage, because even if it seems that they don’t affect landscape as much as other infrastructures, surely they do: they only work within large transportation infrastructures which create new urban landscapes. Another example are the Panamax, the tankers that go through the Panama Canal, that due to their large size, they require big infrastructures because of their reduced capacity for manoeuvre.

When all of the steps on production, transportation and storage has been described, it is necessary to think what happens with these huge infrastructures, towers [such as the ones introduced by Vladimir Shukhov in the 19th Century] and tankers once they’re not working anymore. Is in this moment when Ivančić reminds us about the second law of thermodynamics and the word “Graveyard” come as an important part of the book. Ivančić just told us that what comes to his mind when talking about this issue, are Burtynsky’s oil tankers graveyard in Bangladesh, and we think that this is the perfect metaphor of the obsolescence of humanised space. And he ask, “what happens with energyscapes when they [energy infrsatructures] are obsolete?”

“In order to remain active, any system require flows whose components undergo an effect of degradation. This dynamic condition, in which all organisms live in physiological terms, and which is often extensible to object or spaces, follows a trajectory of no return and leads more or less rapidly to a change of state and/or isolation and abandonment of a portion of typological fragment of a system that makes its obsolescence obvious vis-à-vis the whole.”

The chapter of Graveyards goes deeper on this issue and is also illustrated with cases of disaster, as the well known Chernobyl accident in 1986 or the cases of so many ruins around the world, like abandoned oil rigs or ghost towns like Gunkanjima, one of among 505 uninhabited islands in the Nagasaki Prefecture, that was populated from 1887 to 1974 as a coal mining facility.

But Aleksandar Ivančić is optimistic and the best way to end this amazing research is by pointing out some case studies on the final chapters “Recycling” and “Promises?”.

With cases that shows how to recycle the artefacts of the industrial heritage, Ivančić makes us reflect on the possibility of reusing not only single infrastructures, but complete regions and territories. We can read for example, about the IBA Emscher Park, a project which intends to encourage the ecological, economic, and urban revitalization of the Ruhr Valley and the Emscher River, once one of the most polluted and devastated region of the world, due to its steel and coal industries. Or we can talk also about Ferropolis, a place with five disused bucket wheel excavators, each up to 130 meters long and 30 meters high which is now an open museum of old huge industrial machines in Gräfenhainichen, a city near Dessau, in Germany.

But besides recycling abandoned spaces, what about speculating on the energy models of the future?. Will they undergo through colonisation of the sea and the desert? By nuclear fusion or energetic algae? or will they be an hibridisation of all of them?

As Ivančić conclude, we will go on needing huge amounts of energy at our disposal and, consequently, enormous centres of of generation to be able to feed the “hard” parts of the urbanised system and we will have to learn how to integrate them in our surroundings… creating more friendly and respectful energyscapes.

Author: Aleksandar Ivančić
First Edition: 2010
Language: English/Spanish
Publisher: Editorial Gustavo Gili

Cite: Baraona Pohl, Ethel. "Energyscapes" 11 Mar 2011. ArchDaily. Accessed 02 Sep 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=118503>

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