The Latest from MoMA: Emerging Ecologies

Like many people with a lot of books, I keep track of my library with an app/website, tagging books with keywords to better filter and find them. The tags I use move from general terms like "architecture" (the most) and "fiction" (the least) to specific terms that reflect a high number of books by a particular author ("frampton," as in Kenneth) or maybe about a certain architect ("wright," Frank Lloyd). One of the oft-used tags on the specific end of the spectrum is "moma," which includes books published by the Museum of Modern Art, be it Robert Venturi's Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture or exhibition catalogs, as well as books actually about MoMA, like Terence Riley's The International Style: Exhibition 15 and The Museum of Modern Art. As of today, I have 34 books tagged "moma" in my library, spanning from The International Style in 1932 (the 1990s reprint, mind you, not the first edition) to Emerging Ecologies: Architecture and the Rise of Environmentalism, the catalog to the exhibition of the same name that opened yesterday at MoMA.
In between the books from 1932 and 2023 are catalogs for MoMA exhibitions I attended and wrote about; exhibitions I wish I would have seen in person; and exhibitions, many of them seminal, held well before my time. The value of exhibition catalogs is evident in the latter two: they enable people who did not see an exhibition to be exposed to what the curators put together, often with the added input of scholars on the subject. One could even go further and say the catalogs are more important than the exhibitions themselves, since they have longevity, serving as archives of the exhibitions well after they've been demounted and destroyed. While I don't fully agree with such a statement, since exhibitions benefit from being spatial experiences and often — and increasingly — feature films and other media that can't be replicated in books, the value of catalogs is undeniable.
Emerging Ecologies: Architecture and the Rise of Environmentalism edited by Carson Chan and Matthew Wagstaffe, published by the Museum of Modern Art, September 2023 (Amazon / Bookshop)

How does Emerging Ecologies compare to previous catalogs from MoMA exhibitions on architecture? Based on my exposure to them, I would group MoMA's architecture catalogs into two broad types: printed companions to the drawings, models, and other artifacts on display in the galleries; and scholarly essays on the exhibition's subject. Often these two strands are combined, with essays prefacing plates of the works on display. But if we go all the way back to MoMA's first architecture exhibition — Modern Architecture: International Exhibition, curated by Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcok in 1932 — we find these two types in two separate publications: a companion catalog (PDF link) and the more familiar, polemical book by Johnson and Hitchcock (sans Lewis Mumford's contribution on housing from the exhibition/catalog) that "defined 'the International Style'" at the time and in the decades to come. Emerging Ecologies, as edited by Carson Chan and Matthew Wagstaffe, falls into the "printed companion" camp.
Visitors to Emerging Ecologies between now and its closing on January 24, 2023, will approach the third-floor architecture galleries in one of two ways. Stepping out of an elevator, they will be confronted by a timeline of relevant events and dates for the artifacts in the exhibition, while those arriving via escalators and the bridge next to the atrium will see the yellow wall pictured at the top of this post and then go either left or right into the exhibition's two galleries. The various exhibits are laid out thematically, but when I previewed the exhibition last week, I found the layout and presentation fairly laid back, conducive to a leisurely stroll through the numerous colorful projects comprising "the first expansive survey of the history of environmental thinking in architecture," spanning primarily the 1960s and 70s. The exhibition is also the first from MoMA's Emilio Ambasz Institute for the Joint Study of the Built and the Natural Environment, which was created in 2020 and helmed by Chan the following year.
In lieu of a thematic organization following from the layout of the exhibition (e.g., "Prehistory of Environmental Architecture," "Enclosed Ecologies," "Life Forms," etc.) or one following the timeline visitors see by the elevators, the book is in alphabetical order by the names of the architects or other authors of the works in the exhibition (there is an expanded timeline in the back matter). While this results in putting Emilio Ambasz first among the more than thirty names, it more broadly puts an emphasis on the personalities behind environmental thinking, rather than the works themselves. Like other surveys, be they exhibitions or not, the structure allows comparisons to be made based on quantities: the number of pages given to each name helps signal their importance. So who is most important in Emerging Ecologies? No contest it's R. Buckminster Fuller, not only because he earns sixteen pages while most others have four or six, but because the "pathbreaking architect, writer, designer, inventor, and philosopher" (per the book) infiltrates other names in the book. Cambridge Seven Associates built one of Fuller's geodesic domes for Expo 67 and Murphy & Mackey built one at Missouri Botanical Garden; these are just the most direct permutations of Fuller elsewhere in the book.

Architecture exhibitions at MoMA are, by virtue of their setting, geared to general audiences. As such, the catalogs are where the curators expend the effort in digging deeper, usually in more scholarly ways. That isn't the case with this "field guide," as Chan and Wagstaffe label it, but that doesn't mean architects and others with prior knowledge of environmentalism in the 1960s and 70s will not find something new, or new perspectives on the subject, in the book. Beyond names like Fuller, there are such groups as the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation and Warren County Citizens Concerned about PCB that capture today's emphasis on equity and citizen engagement. It's not all hero worship, in other words. For me, a big fan of buildings merging with landscapes, I was pleased to learn about Malcolm Wells, who pivoted his practice from "conventional" to "earth-sheltered," sticking to his beliefs from the mid-1906s to his death in 2009. I was also surprised that I hadn't known about him earlier. Surely, I won't be alone in making such discoveries in Emerging Ecologies, a rich survey of a period with obvious relevance today.