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ADS0: Babel; architecture and landscapes in the face of catastrophe

Benjamin Mehigan

Originally from Nottingham and having completed his undergraduate studies at the Bartlett School of Architecture, Ben's professional practice has been in the design and delivery of permanent and temporary gallery spaces for museums across the UK and worldwide. Whilst working at Nissen Richards Studio, the design of Life in the Dark for the Natural History Museum, London was awarded the Design Week Best Exhibition Design for 2019. 

Within Ben's personal practice, his interests bridge the intersection of film, photography, technology and urbanism, addressing how the prevailing image culture is affecting the manner in which we construct, navigate and understand the built environment.




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School of Architecture

ADS0: Babel; architecture and landscapes in the face of catastrophe

Ecological breakdown, manifesting as increasingly frequent and larger wildfires is forcing the State of California to readjust its present relationship to its landscape through a complex network of aesthetic, scientific, political and cultural terms. Contrary to the facsimile version of its landscape canonized by its iconic media output, a reading of the present day California is to understand its wilderness as both property and resource, a political space produced by intersecting forces of capital, labour and technology. 

Paying homage to the medium of the photo book, a series of images are produced in which to document the present condition of nature while engaging with it creatively and critically in the context of pre and post-wildfire adaptation. The mobilisation of the ‘still’ image into a disrupted sequence is an attempt to rupture the familiarity of a scene played out in order and to scatter thoughts and images into different linkages or new alignments. The is no single readable prose but rather a multiplicity of layers that intersect and overlap, representing and critiquing the State and it’s ecological crisis as a complex catastrophe of systematic subtexts: insufficient governance; inappropriate policy; dangerous material culture and architectural indulgence. 

(L-R) Implementation, Vernacular, Insurance, Western — A culturally commodified nature, the California landscape is framed and objectified by a declining urbanism composed of billboards, motels and diners. Consumed by the expanding city, the definition between the built, the unbuilt, the tame and the un-tamed, the natural and the manmade is increasingly blurred. Defensible space, cleared vegetation and exterior hardening are all preventative measures found within Chapter 7A of the California Building Code to protect homes against their volatile surroundings. Aesthetically consequential, non-mandatory and fraught with inefficiencies, the idealised suburban vernacular is caught in a moment of reflection with its flammable self.


(L-R) Image, Assembly, Building Codes, Modernism — The cathartic exercise of reconstruction offers on opportunity for environmental and aesthetic reconciliation. Decisions are to be made in which to challenge the inefficient building codes and address vernacular traditions regarding materiality, form, openness and the relationships with the landscape. With modernist aesthetics being defined by exclusion and simulation, picture window houses formed by and for the production of images are afforded the luxury of borrowing nature for consumption. For a post-wildfire modernity, the uncertain, untamable qualities of the wilderness are to be respectfully reinstated as architectural principals, reverting back to a sustainable relationship with nature’s sublimity.


(L-R) Stewardship, Marketing, Firefighting, Boundaries — Attempts in which to negotiate the boundaries and volition of the wild are personified by the gated communities that remain protected by private firefighting forces. Inequalities across the State’s complicated zoning, parkland and privatised responsibilities has generated a patchwork landscape of fire prevention and fire-fighting responsibility. Proven to be poor stewards of the land, politicians and bureaucrats are to hand stewardship of nature back to its inhabitants. Instrumentalising the picket fence momentum for keeping up appearances, a new publicly owned and managed infrastructure becomes a collective source for a productive neighbourly co-operation and softens the borders which have presently been inscribed on the landscape.

Ceremony — No singular act of heroism can be appropriated for a suburbia in crisis. Instead a layered assembly of new technologies, infrastructure, aesthetics and policy that ties into those unshakable American subtexts of: liberty, self-reliance and idealism, will harbour a regenerative collective attitude towards, nature, fire, and their place amongst it.

As an architectural practice, the staging of the built environment for the production of critical photographic imagery is a mechanism in which to interrogate the present dominant wildfire image; expose the fallacy of the city’s relationship to its landscape but also develop a method to see how in both thought and practice the natural, the social and the built can sustainably melt into one another.
ArchitectureCaliforniaClimate crisisEcologyEnvironmentLandscapeNaturePhotographyPoliticsSpeculativeSuburbiaWildfire

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