Nobody appointed Doug Michaels to serve as an ambassador of the human race. But the position, which he assumed in 1977, promised to have far greater significance than ambassadorships to China or the Soviet Union. He and co-ambassadors Alexandra Morphett and Robert Perry proposed nothing less than to develop diplomatic relations with a nonhuman species. Their seaborne embassy sought direct communication with dolphins.
The embassy was first conjured in the pages of Esquire, where the avant-garde art collective Ant Farm – of which Michaels was a founding member – presented architectural drawings of a triangular vessel propelled by a sail with underwater passageways where dolphins and people could meet. The mode of interspecies communication remained open to discussion. Inspired by the 1960s scientific experiments of John C. Lilly and Margaret Howe Lovatt, who unsuccessfully attempted to decode dolphins clicks and blows in an oceanside laboratory, the ambassadors envisioned the two species learning from one another by spending time together. (This being the ‘70s, they also didn’t rule out telepathy.)
Although the embassy was never built, and the ambassadors never established a line of communication with “delphic civilization”, the project initiated by Ant Farm and developed with Morphett and Perry is recognized today as an important expansion of environmentalism to consider more-than-human perspectives. Artifacts of the Dolphin Embassy are a highlight of Emerging Ecologies, a multifaceted survey of American architectural responses to the environmental movement at the Museum of Modern Art.
In the words of the curators, the exhibition seeks to reveal “new ways of living on this planet”, especially those suggested by “daring, inclusive, and… disruptive architectural proposals of the past.” Unsurprisingly, few are as overtly daring as the Dolphin Embassy. Many are quite practically focused on energy conservation and reduction of waste. They might even appear mundane.
For instance, the exhibition includes several attempts to moderate the effects of intemperate weather through passive cooling and heating. Architects including Ralph Knowles developed methods for determining the optimal position of buildings based on the path traveled by the sun through the seasons. The principles are still applicable to city planning.
Other designers focused on maximizing thermal inertia in housing. Seeking to improve upon the heat retention of thick walls, Mária Telkes and Eleanor Raymond invented a solar-powered radiator loaded with phase-changing salts. Although their “heat bin” burned bright in the media, it failed to ignite interest in the construction industry.
At the most extreme, artificial homeostasis was proposed for entire cities and nations, most notoriously by Buckminster Fuller. His transparent Dome Over Manhattan inspired optimism in some and fear in others, anticipating the debate about geoengineering by more than half a century.
Controlling the environment, whether at the scale of individual homes or the whole planet, is a familiar topic for environmentalists, all the more pertinent as climate change accelerates. The human body can withstand only so much heat. Air conditioning takes energy, often in the form of fossil fuels that accelerate the process of global warming. Passive cooling decreases the required amount of energy, but insulation from the elements and the promise of ever more innovation may inspire passivity in people, who may feel less need to address the causes of the climate crisis. Artificial homeostasis is paradoxically increasingly necessary and increasingly vexing.
A younger generation of architects shows some sensitivity to this paradox, and some skepticism about the technocratic utopias of the past. Within the MoMA exhibition, the work of Eugene Tssui stands out.
Beyond the formal audacity of his architecture, which takes aesthetic inspiration from creatures including the cholla cactus and the tardigrade, Tssui considers biomimicry on a functional level. Understanding the natural world as an interconnected “system alive with information, energy and matter”, he seeks to create buildings and cities that have a dynamic relationship with external conditions, opening up to the elements whenever possible. The effect is not only to minimize energy usage but equally to ensure that people remain integrated in the living systems of planet Earth.
Biomimicry isn’t new. (Buckminster Fuller claimed to pioneer biomimetic design in the early 20th century with a three-wheeled car inspired by fish, though myriad examples of biomimicry predate him by centuries if not millennia.) More important, most biomimicry of the past and present is merely superficial. (Fuller’s Dymaxion Car was a self-contained invention, not part of a living system such as an ocean.) What Tssui exemplifies is an approach to biomimicry that attempts to communicate with the larger ecology, and that does so with an open-endedness equivalent to Doug Michaels’ approach to communication with dolphinkind.
Buildings such as Tssui’s have the potential to become ecological embassies, inviting those living within to become human ambassadors to the biosphere. If climate change is to be meaningfully addressed, these relations need to be significantly improved. The ambassadorship envisioned by Ant Farm must become ubiquitous.