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ADS7: Something in the Air – Politics of the Atmosphere

Michael McMahon

Michael McMahon is a researcher based at the Royal College of Art. He is a descendant of the Bundjalung people of North-East New South Wales, Australia and his current research investigates how Indigenous ontologies of land can inform the built environment. Michael was part of the curatorial team for Rights of Future Generations, the inaugural edition of the Sharjah Architecture Triennial. His curatorial research examined how indigenous expressions of co-existence might challenge dominant western perspectives. Michael completed an undergraduate degree of architecture at RMIT in Melbourne and is currently studying a Masters of Arts in Architecture at the Royal College of Art as a Roberta Sykes Scholar. Before commencing his studies at the RCA Michael worked in practice and was a director of Indigenous Architecture and Design Victoria (IADV), a not-for-profit organisation that aims to strengthen Indigenous culture within the built environment. Michael’s research and design work for ADS7, led by Elise Hunchuck and Marco Ferrari and Jingru (Cyan) Cheng, will be featured in Sky River, a digital and physical installation, part of Critical Zones: Observatories for Earthly Politics. Curated by Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel with Martin Guinard and Bettina Korintenberg, it will be on display at ZKM | Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe, Germany, until February 28, 2021.


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Degree Details

School of Architecture

ADS7: Something in the Air – Politics of the Atmosphere

ADS 7: Something in the Air — Politics of the Atmosphere has given me the framework and support to explore questions around Indigenous connections to land, ecology, entanglement, conservation and access as a decolonisation tool. 

Wetlands as Entangled Space — In 1971, the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance was tabled as an international treaty for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands. The treaty defines wetlands as: Areas where water is the primary factor controlling the environment and the associated plant and animal life. Wetlands perform many vital functions, including water storage; storm protection; drought buffering; erosion control; groundwater recharge and discharge; water purification; retention of nutrients, sediments, and pollutants; and the stabilization of local climate conditions, particularly rainfall and temperature.

The Tibetan Plateau: The Water Tower of Asia — The Tibetan Plateau is referred to as the water tower of Asia as the Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Irrawaddy, Salween, Mekong, Yangtze and Yellow Rivers all begin on the plateau. The plateaus wetlands, glaciers and springs fill these rivers to provide water for more than 2 billion people.

The Hydrology of the Yellow River Basin — The Yellow River in Northern China provides water for at least 190 million people. At its upper reaches, it passes through the Ruoergai Wetland. The wetland is the largest alpine wetland in the world, and in the dry season, it releases 30% of all the water in the Yellow River.

States of Wetness — The wetland essentially serves as a large sponge, with peat soaking up, storing and releasing water depending on its depth. In this drawing, the darkest areas indicate the wettest parts of the wetland.

Hydrological Function of The Ruoergai Wetland — In this alpine environment, peat is created over thousands of years by the breaking down of Sedge grasses, shrubs, moss and lichen. At the deepest section of the wetland, the peat build-up is 10m.

Change in the Ruoergai Wetland — Since the colonisation of Tibet in 1953, hundreds of kilometres of canals, sedentary communities for indigenous populations and ecological exclusion zones have been constructed within the wetland. Within the wetland, there is an existing culture of conservation. Tibetan rangers fill canals with sandbags and observe, track and record animals and plants. By doing this, they are caring for their culture and the water that millions depend on. Using conservation as a tool for decolonisation, a new practice of architecture, informed by the rights of human and non-human stakeholders, is proposed.

Rights to Wet Ground Declaration — At least 190 million people depend on the water provided by the wetland. However, there are human and non-human stakeholders who have a more direct relationship with it, such as black neck cranes, conservation rangers and sedge grasses, to name a few. Secondary stakeholders include residents in surrounding towns, coal power generation in Lanzhou and the agricultural industry. The Rights to Wet Ground declaration was drafted to better understand the rights and perspectives of all of these entangled stakeholders.

Stakeholder Relationships — When thinking of rights, inevitably there will be contradictions and tensions between stakeholders. Granting a conservation rangers right to access may impede on the habitat of the black neck crane. Or granting sedge grasses right to grow might damage a building. The inner-circle represents primary stakeholders, while the outer circle represents secondary stakeholders. The images have been scaled to reflect the hierarchy of stakeholders in my project. The peat and water are centred, while the conservation rangers are larger than the Tibetan Gazelle and the tourist, for example.

Access Network Detail Principles — Detail principles have been developed in response to the Rights to Wet Ground declaration. The first principle is to position rangers to record and make visible conflicts and breaches to the declaration. The second principle is to expose joints and junctions to provide space for non-human stakeholders. The third principle is the use of materials that can be manually constructed, repaired, removed and sorted. The fourth principle is to use materials, sealants and fixings that decay without releasing harmful toxins, pollutants and contaminants. As things decay, they create new spatial temporalities at various scales for various stakeholders.

Access Network Plan — The access network is designed to bring human and non-human stakeholders close to each other. Different temporalities and relationships between human and non-human, wet and dry, inside and out, open and closed and sky and ground are created through a combination of paths, platforms, walls, canopies and enclosures.

Critical Perspective: Peat — The network is designed to provide different experiences of the wetland at different times of the year. In spring and autumn, the lowest platform is submerged and becomes a marker for the wetlands water level and its hydrological health. As part of the network becomes submerged in the wetter months of the year, it becomes habitat for fish and other marine life. The architecture is a negotiation — between the rights of rangers to access the wetland, and the rights of marine life and birds to inhabit it.

Rights to Wet Ground: Decay as Spatial Temporality — Cycles of animal and plant growth and death alongside changing water levels will decay the structure to the point where humans can no longer access this part of the wetland. Non-human stakeholders interactions and habitation will increase, while rangers will need to move to another part of the wetland. Lichen and fungi will grow on timber beams where animals will nest. These key indicators of wetland health will then be visually monitored and surveyed by rangers — from a distance. In providing space for different stakeholders at different scales and times, the architecture gradually becomes a part of this entangled world of peat, water, plants and animals.
Wetlands are entangled ecosystems of global importance, with billions of humans and non-humans depending on their hydrological, ecological and cultural functions. A new practice of architecture, informed by the rights of human and non-human stakeholders, has been developed to respect the soils, water, plants and animals that enable these vital functions.

Since the colonisation of Tibet by China in 1953, Tibetans have been systematically removed from their ancestral lands. In response, and using conservation as a tool for decolonisation, a network of paths, platforms, walls, canopies and enclosures has been designed within the Ruoergai wetland. Over time, the architecture dissolves into the wetland, creating different temporalities between human and non-human, wet and dry, inside and out, open and closed and sky and ground. Birds nest, fungi grow, and conservation rangers observe as the architecture becomes part of this entangled world of water, peat, grass, carbon and sun.

If we look at architecture from a multi perspectival position, we can understand that something might look positive from one perspective and negative from another. In this case, decaying timber beams benefit animals, plants, bacteria and insects but will have a negative effect from the rangers perspective.

Understanding architecture from a multi perspectival position is to question: what becomes of our materials at different scales and times? During their lifecycle, from creation to decay, who's rights will be supported and who's rights will be breached? How long will it take for architecture to become peat? What becomes of a bamboo screen? Does something ever decay completely? How much of our bodies, our soil and our water are our buildings?

By recognising the rights of human and non-human stakeholders, Rights to Wet Ground proposes a methodology for designing in vital and oftentimes fragile ecosystems.

Roberta Sykes Foundation

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