Advance Copy

Designing Against Extinction with Mitchell Joachim

03.09.20, USA

This conversation is available to enjoy on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

We are pleased to welcome Mitchell Joachim: Architect, Urban Designer, Co-Founder of Terreform ONE and Associate Professor of Practice at NYU. Mitchell is a big-picture thinker whom we’ve invited to reflect on the state of retail architecture, the indignity of consumerism, ‘monster’ branding and designing against extinction.

Advance Copy: Mitchell thank you so much for joining us. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on the future of retail architecture and designing against extinction. We are talking during the pandemic, with most brands and store owners facing a lot of uncertainty so today’s conversation will be a moment to reflect on our ideas of what retail is or was.   

Mitchell: I think we are all on this very difficult page in our lives. I don’t think anyone anywhere on earth will forget these times. We’ll use this as a universal marker, it’s a clear line of demarcation: there is pre-Covid and post-Covid, or now during-Covid. And we may never get something that is post this virus. But we will all remember the initial stages of when we were locked down together because it will kill anybody, it doesn’t matter what race, religion, income class or nationality you are, it’s based on one biology. And we will all remember this moment: what did we do? How did we change? How did we adapt? And what can we appreciate about our past lives that we no longer have access to? That future is uncertain, this is one of the most defining moments for our generation and for anyone in this moment. The old ways of doing things are getting a good kick in the ass, if it doesn’t have robustness or resilience it’s likely not to make it in the near future. Fashion is certainly one of those industries that I think is on very shaky ground which is both a good thing and a bad thing. I think a lot of things are on this cusp of change. Of course, I will come in with a big caveat: I am not a professional clairvoyant. I do not promise a future, I have ideas about that and these ideas existed in many other forms certainly as a supposition before this crisis, I was heading there for different reasons. But now that we have this crisis I think that the opportunity for change is tremendous. It’s time to act and we don’t have much of a choice. If we do get over it, I think we will have a new lease on life and we will appreciate things a lot more. I’m more on the positive side, I have faith in humanity. We will see our better side once this thing starts to disappear.   

Every seven minutes, a species goes extinct – into oblivion. What does that mean for us as architects and designers?”

AC: You come from the world of architecture, do you mind giving us a snapshot of your career and your 39-page CV?   

Mitchell: There are a lot of failures that are not on that CV. It is probably 500 pages of things I did not get did not achieve or worked hard for but did not make the mark. Maybe if I start with this idea of a resume of failures which is: to be successful or to achieve anything in life you have to realise that there are many other people out there trying to do the same thing. It’s usually competitive or even super competitive. My philosophical approach to architecture is that you’ve got to be committed and you’ve got to be energised and you’ve got to do a lot of hard work. So much of what I have done has been nonstop commitment to the field and to making an original contribution to human knowledge, in this case, culture and architecture. I get motivated every day to do the things that I do. 

What is it that I do? I’m an architect and an urban designer, co-Founder of the Terreform ONE in the Brooklyn Navy Yards we’ve been around for about 15 years and work on socio-ecological design. We have a motto which is a single overriding predicate that influences exactly how we approach our work and we call that ‘design against extinction’. We are absolutely unsatisfied with the amount of destruction to biodiversity on this planet because of human activities. Humans didn’t intend to do this but we are wiping out every kind of insect, mammal, fish, bird, coral. Every seven minutes, a species goes extinct – into oblivion. What does that mean for us as architects and designers? It means that regardless of the field we’re creating in – whether you’re designing a bicycle or a pair of jeans – you have an impact on the environment and at some point that is killing something else. Not just killing it but killing everything it has ever known until it’s all gone. I can’t think of anything scarier than that. If that happened to humans I imagine that we would stop immediately. Some might argue that our species too is going extinct, we just can’t fathom it. 

I’m also a professor at New York University where I teach courses on ideas about the environment, infrastructure, sustainability and thinking. And this fits into my research that’s about designing against extinction because I think we need very big ideas to solve these very big problems.

“Whether you’re designing a bicycle or a pair of jeans – you have an impact on the environment and at some point that is killing something else.”

AC: What are your thoughts on the state of retail architecture pre-pandemic? What do you think was going right and what factors needed fixing?

Mitchell: So many major companies are on the verge of bankruptcy and were like this long before Covid. Dead malls were a major topic ten years ago, this is nothing new. We’ve been seeing the shrinking space as a necessity for retail for a long time. I think as we’ll get into 5G and networks will get insanely fast more ubiquitous and cheaper – if not free – we are going to see retail collapse into new forms.

I was a fan of improv retail, such as pop-up stores, because in some ways they deal with the local community and are very much about local commerce. They are more exciting and have more opportunity to be radical. There are also ideas about sliver spaces: retail spaces that are essentially facade elements that contain a few of what we call ‘blanks’ where you try on a generic pair of sneakers that takes your measurements and it helps you understand the material and the feel on your body. Technology there is overwhelmingly possible and is becoming more available.  

The biological side is also a big opportunity: why even try to find out the size of your foot to then produce an industrial artefact? If it’s biological, you essentially grow your sneakers around your foot and they work for two or three years before returning to the earth. These things work in a lab but we are not ready for prime time. [They are] the edge of what we can do in synthetic biology and biotech. It meets those big problems: retail distribution issues, wastefulness and the enormous amount of solutions from products grown in the lab that fit with the earth’s metabolism and fight climate change.  

“If you are pedlars of things that are meant to be discarded, then what does that say about you?”

AC: Do you think retail will shift to completely serve e-commerce? In that case, what would happen with retail spaces that are making up our cities and high streets? 

Mitchell: Shopping as we know, especially from the variants produced in the 80s – ideas of the trickle-down economy and what it really means to keep our massive industrial forces going – is not sustainable. Annie Leonard, CEO of Green Peace, wrote The Story of Stuff which mentions the idea that we are consumers and our job is to shop because we do not feel good about ourselves. It’s an activity that we can do because others have gone away and this is the easiest thing to do that helps build our economy. By purchasing things that we don’t need as much only to purchase more things that we don’t need just to keep everyone working. It just seems so incredibly wrong. We design things to be obsolete and the retail environments that sell them are also technically designed to be obsolete. Most of the things that we purchase today are designed to fail and they’re engineered to do that intentionally. And if it is not engineered to physically fail, whether it’s an iPhone or a pair of jeans, it will be designed to fail at the form of perception. Perceived obsolescence is probably even worse which means that the iPhone you have still works, that pair of jeans you’ve got are fine but they’re out of fashion so the branding aspect of it died and was replaced by some other monster branding idea. And that was needed to keep pumping consumers and consumerism into this market to purchase and discard in this vicious cycle. I don’t subscribe to that. We are citizens of this planet – we’re not consumers, when anyone refers to me or others as a ‘consumer’ I’m surprised they don’t find it offensive. We have to get out of this idea that things are made to be temporary and breakable and that will affect how retail in itself is treated because if you are pedlars of things that are meant to be discarded, then what does that say about you? This idea of a disposable universe of every possible product that’s out there, that mentality is without a shadow of a doubt unsustainable and is crushing people that do not benefit directly from that economy. I would like to see that form of enslavement disappear I don’t find it acceptable, who does? 

We are citizens of this planet…when anyone refers to me or others as a ‘consumer’ I’m surprised they don’t find it offensive.”

AC: Do you think it’s possible to convince people to invest in quality artisanal products after having had access to, and being accustomed to, mediocre products?    

Mitchell: I think that that the artisanal effect works when it’s more available and more people have access to it. There will be this two-pronged approach which is either getting something that is so optimized and phenomenally made on a universal super-modern scale, and delivered to me with incredible efficiency. But then, instead of shopping for global brands, I may want to go to a place that’s local and meet people that are producing garments that are tailored to their design expectations and also meet my expectations on something that is beautiful, provocative and powerful. An amazing piece of clothing that I would want to spend more money on to own and to support that business. I think there is a chance for those extremes to become even more extreme. So there would be more hunkering down on the local designer-maker and then more highly optimized efficient clothing products that discard the middleman as much as possible, including retail environments. And everywhere on that chain it uses less water more automation and it’s probably accountable for all the carbon that is involved in making it, and it gets to me with a minimal footprint. It’s also something that’s made well enough that I don’t have the desire to discard it.

“Now is the time to start building biodiversity into our built environments as much as possible.”

AC: Let’s turn to the work of Terreform ONE, the Brooklyn urban think tank you co-founded which focuses on designing against extinction. Representing nature in retail environments most often comes down to using potted plants or green walls which – considering everything we’ve spoken about – feels like an inferior step to helping protect ecology. Can we do anything more to invite nature into retail spaces?  

Mitchell: There are many things that one can do especially when it comes to conversion or retrofitting. We have a system in place called a Biotope Mosaic, or simply put it’s a modular element that sticks on your façade. It’s a double skin system that holds a specific biotope for other organisms. These facade additions are designed for an organism at the edge of oblivion, whether it’s red-listed or endangered. What retail can do is add these elements so instead of a storefront that says ‘sale’ the entire facade itself can be designed to save, for example, a butterfly. We have done something like this with Monarch [butterflies] that we called Monarch Sanctuary and it is a sanctuary for one of the most beautiful butterflies in North America that’s becoming extinct. It’s fascinating to look inside, to see milkweed, caterpillars, butterflies in chrysalis stages and of course adult butterflies moving around and feeding. Everything inside that system is designed so they can mate, get nurtured and increase their populations. You look out of your window and you see this butterfly garden. We create systems that go on the inside of buildings, attached on the outside, pollinator gardens on rooftops spaces like courtyards and atriums that also cater to other organisms. We build habitats, or what is known as a biotope mosaic, inside your physical space. Now is the time to start building biodiversity into our built environments as much as possible. And that’s something that would be great: for a retail store owner to say we are selling clothing but we are also jumpstarting this life form which was about to disappear forever. It’s evocative, if not absolutely beautiful to look at. 

“Instead of trying to use every inch of space to sell you something we try really hard to not sell you a thing.”

AC: Another factor that we overlook is that stores are public places and can provide opportunities for people to congregate in more meaningful ways. What kind of community aspects could a store owner consider to shift their focus from purely selling? Have you seen positive examples of this?  

Mitchell: Some groups have got that down and have worked hard to achieve that to enormous success. Something like Starbucks: it is a public space even though it’s a retail environment, most of that environment is just open to the public. That might be a big shift for anybody in retail, to say this whole space is going to be for public function and on the periphery I’m going to sell products, and because of this exceptional atmosphere, people will casually have an interest in my products. That is a kind of trans programming: to alter retail space and to concentrate on the amenities that benefit the public and the mixing of the public. We can get more creative and open up more of our territory so instead of trying to use every inch of space to sell you something we try really hard to not sell you a thing. Knowing that most of the things that you want to purchase are going to be online. That’s the reality of every kind of store today. The entire function of that retail environment is actually to the benefit of the major online retail distributors, you are supplying them with customers. So you might as well realize it’s already happened and devote the rest of your space to allowing the public to be there and do that but then the link to the point of purchase is connected to your specific store. The New World has already hit us especially in retail so rethink that physical space entirely to be a social mixer.