Friday, April 24, 2009

Book Review: Fuel

Fuel edited by John Knechtel
MIT Press, 2008
Hardcover, 320 pages

Alphabet City "is a series of annual hardcover anthologies originating from Toronto, Canada. Each volume in the series addresses a one-word topic of global concern and draws on the diverse perspectives of writers and artists from many cultures and disciplines." Previous books focused on Food and Trash, with Water forthcoming. These monickers point towards substances and processes that are threatened by humanity, or problems created by the same. One could argue that Fuel, namely oil in this case, while naturally available, is primarily a problem (in the name of climage change, pollutions, habitat destruction, etc.) created by humanity via its exploitation of the substance in sometimes questionable ways. (Do we really need to drive ourselves two hours back and forth to work every day?) This book, small in stature (just over 4x6") but large in ambition, proposes energy pluralism, the reworking of infrastructure and the rethinking of Fuel towards opening up unforseen possibilities.

The contributions fall into two broad categories: descriptions and analyses of existing conditions and proposals for future scenarios. Photography comprises much of the former, such as Edward Burtynsky's well-known documentation of scarring created by excess and George Osodi's disheartening images of the oil-rich (not people-rich) Niger Delta. Essays, like Mason White's analysis of the Barents Sea and Dubai, yield greater understanding of areas relatively unknown and hyped beyond belief.

The proposals range from small to XXL, from a parasitic residential unit (A.I.R. by Lateral Architecture and Sarah Graham) to a long-term plan for occupying the Caspian Sea by Maya Przybylski. These indirectly touch on the paradox of addressing environmental and other problems, namely if solutions should be small- or large-scale. The answer most likely is both, but the resources required by the latter may preclude many ideas from being implemented, like RVTR's design for pumping up the bandwidth of highways, in which elevated trains and median wind farms would make the highway itself pale in scope and expense, a trait shared by Chris Hardwicke's elevated Velo-City bike lanes. The proposals are carefully crafted, and a number of them have every intention of being realized to some extent, but more than likely the designs will provoke and inspire rather than find themselves in production.

Most unsettling is the disconnect between the photographs of Burtynsky and Osodi and these proposals. Will the latter improve the conditions of the former, or will exploitation reign over those not fortunate enough to find themselves cycling in an elevated bike lane in Toronto? The relationship is not addressed, except for Kelly Doran's proposal for bringing North Alberta's Tar Sands back from a point of no return. Not surprisingly, here the focus is on native soil. Even though it is clear from the photographs and essays of the first category that local decisions affect remote places, it's a difficult fact to address. Yet is one that might find a voice in future books in the series.