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

Maria Barnes

 Maria is a London based Architectural Designer, who completed her BSc in Architecture at the University of Bath in 2017. She achieved a First-Class Honours and was short-listed for the Basil Spence Award. (2016 - Final Year Group Project)

On her year out she worked at BDP (Birmingham) and began exploring other interests, including digital fashion illustrations (@rb.drawdaily); the project’s highlight was being featured on the British Vogue’s Website. (2018)  

This year in ADS0 she began experimenting with film and animation to stage her work, based on investigating the position of Architecture in Toxic Post-Human Landscapes. 

Maria is passionate about the natural environment and has continuously studied the human-nature relationship through her projects; from studying Eco-Feminism, to ’The Paradox of Preserving Nature.’ In the future, she is looking for a career which is thoroughly entwined with the natural environment.   


Toxic Urbanism - Project Portfolio

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Degree Details

School of Architecture

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

Toxic Urbanism investigates the position of Architecture within 'toxic post-human landscapes' and fights for the value of the Wilderness. 

The project uses the role of the Architect as a mediator to negotiate between economic, social and ecological pressures on the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone; with the primary goal to protects it’s new found biodiversity since the catastrophe in 1986.  

The project tests extreme (and potentially controversial) mechanisms; such as proposing to strengthen the boarders of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, to reinforce its state of human exclusion from the site. 

The project suggests that maybe extreme tactics, such a mass ‘exclusion zone’, are what is necessary to protect nature from the current attitude towards the human-nature relationship.  

Special thank you to Dr Peter Martin and his team from the University of Bristol for sharing their data collected from the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, which provided incredible context for the project. Radiological Mapping of Post-disaster Nuclear Environments Using Fixed-wing Unmanned Aerial Systems: A Study from Chernobyl 

Found Footage - Modelled Reconstruction Chernobyl Radioactive Plume
Geopolitical Mapping - The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone within the Wider Context — The Soviets began work in the 70s on the ‘Largest Nuclear Power Station in the World’ which supplied 10% of Ukraine’s energy, along with the supporting development, Pryp’yat; the ‘City of the Future,’ which was situated in the ‘Polisie’ (which translates to ‘in the forest’) and is the largest wetland forest of the continent. Today it is home to the ‘Exclusion Zone.’
Satellite Imagery — Satellite imagery technology was used as a necessary tool for long-term perspective on the environments slow, deep change.
Palimpsestic Mapping - Layered mappings of the landscape between 1985 - 2017.
Drone Footage taken in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone by the University of Bristol

Building/Modelling Spacial Understanding

Palimpsestic Collage

Data Collection recording the changes in population of Animals and Humans between 1966 - 2020

Site Paradoxes — Labels describing the zone include ‘Zone of Alienation,’ ‘Forbidden Zone’ and the ‘Dead Zone.’ The evacuation of humans inadvertently created a refuge for nature, as fauna seek to avoid the visible threat of human activity.

Radioactive State — In areas of higher radiation, deformed organisms reveal their radioactive state, but a new found biodiversity is reclaiming the area and the majority of flora and fauna ‘appears’ to be ‘thriving’ or maybe just adapting.

The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone was created as a result of the catastrophic atomic fallout from the explosion at the Nuclear Power Plant in 1986 and is used by the project as a case study to test how architecture can intervene in spaces dominated by engineering and science.

The ideology of 'Exclusion Zones' will become more frequently encountered in the future; scientists have predicted nuclear disasters may occur every ten to twenty years. The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone has generated unique environmental conditions which force us to reconsider and adapt how we 'cultivate' and value the wilderness.

As a virtual visitor to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone the project engages with mediated information; personal accounts, evidence, predictions, myths, imagery and language. These accumulated perceptions build up layers of paradoxes associated with the Exclusion Zone, for example, labels used to describe the zone include 'Zone of Alienation', 'The Forbidden Zone' and the 'Dead Zone.' In reality, the Exclusion Zone has become a destination attracting nature, (legal) tourists, (legal) scientists, (legal) film producers, (illegal) poachers, (illegal) timber fellers, (illegal) video game fans etc.

Currently, the government is investigating decreasing the size of the Exclusion Zone to reflect the declining radiation. This, as well as the human activity, is threatening the new found Wilderness which 'appears' to be thriving in the absence of humans. Paradoxically, the new biodiversity is simultaneously being destroyed and protected by the site's toxicity.


Mapping, Drawing, Animation


One Year
Developing the Exclusion Zone

The Edge — The Edge responds to different contexts and offers social and economic opportunities due to its low land prices and its proximity to Kiev and Minsk.

Future Toxic Sites - A Radiation Containment Blueprint — Scientists have estimated nuclear disasters occur every 10-20 years. Therefore these toxic sites are going to become more frequently encountered. The Radiation Containment Blueprint considers architectures of extremities where the scale of the building could capture entire forests; to contain the spread of dust and water and paradoxically, preserves nature. The architecture becomes a means to maintain the space, by controlling ventilation, humidity, temperature etc. The Blueprint could be adapted for the next toxic landscape, to increase the speed of toxic containment and creates time to consider how to handle the space; then action can be taken within the structure to continue protecting the wider ecosystem.

Autotomy — Autotomy describes the process when an animal sacrifices a body part to save itself under threat. Radiation concentrates in river and lake sediments. If sediments become exposed and dry out, then radiation spreads via the dispersal of dust. Radioactive water bodies are currently emptying due to the draining of the cooling pond and the impact of the river floodplain control system.

Autotomy - Detailed Edge Section — 'Autotomy' has been designed to reduce the water’s contact with wind and heat. Large vegetation, rushes and reeds are planted to create wind blocks, and floating aquatic plants, such as Duckweed are used to cover the water's surface and act as a 'natural filter’ The cooling pond is 23 square kilometres. Floating photovoltaics are used to protect the water surface, the water also creates natural cooling which improves the energy harvesting efficiency. Autotomy sacrifices the ecosystem but contains the radiation and generates enough power for 250,000 homes relieving some of the economic pressures on the site. Combining the energy generation with the storage systems on The Edge {project 1} creates a reliable renewable energy resource for Belarus, and for the Ukraine, it helps their national interest to become energy independent from Russia.

Toxic Gardening — The act of ‘gardening’ is simultaneously a form of destruction and creation. 'Toxic Gardening' encases highly radioactive ecosystems, eradicating them to protect the surrounding environment. Hotspots range from micro to macro scale due to the radiation's dispersal via wind, as well as the Soviet’s decontamination process.

Toxic Gardening - Detailed Edge Section — The Hotspot is bulldozed and compacted. Then, using the principles of Near-Surface Nuclear Disposal Facilities, the radiation is permanently contained with protective layers; including intrusion barriers, membranes and clay linings. To compensate for the loss of the cooling pond's ecosystem, the top surface is created into a shallow wetland and integrated into the flooding cycle of the Pryp’yat river, using a series of pumps and drains. A mixture of local aquatic vegetation are introduced to encourage biodiversity.

Transformable Knowledge — Some of the radiation in the site has over 10,000 year half-lives. Due to this, the Exclusion Zone is one of the rare spaces on Earth where long-term perspectives are forcibly taken. This image depicts how the ‘far future may look, showing a hard landscaping which covers the area where the Nuclear Power Station once stood. The cooling pond's footprint can be read through changes of ecosystems from forest to wetland.

A Speculative Future Archeological Mappings of the Exclusion Zone — Toxic Urbanism investigates designing for longevity through materiality, altering topography, engineering principles etc. The drawing maps the relationships between the interventions, which will leave a lasting footprint of interconnected signals for generations to come of the once radioactive state of the zone.

The project, 'Toxic Urbanism', designs a mechanism to protect the Wilderness, primarily through retaining its state of exclusion. A series of interventions tackle issues regarding the containment of radiation (such as wildfires and water evaporation) and uses these as opportunities to 'develop’ the Exclusion Zone to unlock new values that aim to satisfy economic, social and ecological pressures.The project utilises the role of the Architect as a mediator, who negotiates a network of relationships, within and beyond the borders of the Exclusion Zone.

Similar to architectural typologies of containment, such as the Sea Dykes of the Netherlands and The Tomb, Bikini Atoll (Radiation Waste Containment), 'Toxic Urbanism' protects and sustains Urbanism from the Wilderness, but also fights to protect the Wilderness from Urbanism.

The designs and representation have involved an iterative process to push boundaries and test discomforts. The non-human perspective of a bird's-eye view has been utilised to illustrate the vast scale of the interventions created in response to the mass spreading of radioactive fall-out. Infrastructures of such vast scale bring forth unseen, intangible aspects of spatiality, in this case, radiation.


Mapping, Drawing, Animation


One Year

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