Interview: Mitchell Joachim

Erik Jaques meets the founder of Terreform ONE

Mitchell Joachim is excited. The rabble-rousing architectural, ecological and urban design magus is on the cusp of shedding his non-profit skin - and he's intent on making an impression.

If Joachim stays true, the modus operandi of New York-based Terreform ONE - his New York-based non-profit "do-tank" collective that promotes green city design through polemical statements, exhibitions, teaching, prototyping, cellular tampering, and conceptual wizardry - that won't be much of a stretch.

"Love slaves are really useful," he says with confident Big Apple brio, adding that the new venture will be an addendum to his other duties, which include Terreform ONE and a post as an associate professor at New York University.

"But sometimes you need somebody that is earning a serious paycheck that can devote 40+ hours a week to getting an operation done.

"If you're wearing the cape like we're doing now and trying to do the superhero thing, you have to recognise we can try the same process in a profit-driven model and it might get us better results."

Terreform ONE's vision is certainly striking: a synaptic shock of future vistas and hardcore ecological aspiration, all shot through with a surprisingly sense of practicality.

"It is all based on off-the-shelf, available materials, ideas, concepts and technologies," Joachim explains.

With a design portfolio that reads like the set and prop manual for the greatest Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster never made, this is a remarkable, and incredibly exciting, claim.

Prominent ideas include the Fab Tree Hab, which uses prefabricated computer numeric controlled reusable scaffolds to graft trees into homes, and the in vitro Meat Habitat, a house made out of 3D printed extruded pig cells (mixed with collagen powder, xanthan gum, mannitol, cochineal, sodium pyrophosphate, and recycled PET plastic scaffold) to form "real organic dwellings".

Mitchell and co have been conducting laboratory tests for the latter via BioWorks, a joint venture with a molecular cell biologist. "Something that was pure science fiction 50 years ago is boutique biology today," he says proudly.

On a larger scale, Joachim pre-empted Disney's Wall-E with the notion of automated robot 3D printers that can modify and process trash to extend New York City using its own landfill, whereas Urbaneering Brooklyn is currently wowing punters at the Center of Contemporary Art in Prague with a staggeringly realised plan to bend the titular New York borough to a radical ecological blueprint.

In a Terreform ONE city you can also expect to encounter some seriously nifty kit - from soft, stackable death-proof cars to blimp buses that scoop passengers up ski-lift style. Oh, and jet packs.

"Jet packs have been invented, it is actually a pretty robust system," says Joachim excitedly.

"If I was a kid growing up today I would not want to work for America's train companies - horrible grandfather business models - I'd much rather get into the new jetpack company.

"It's about the safety mechanisms that go into them. Are they greener? And what are the benefits and constraints of moving around? And who thinks about this stuff? We do, and we have done. And we don't just think about them, we design them and draw them and model them."

Also to be filed under the 'oh my god' file are the Future North Ecotarium, floating urban platforms engineered to migrate millions towards colder climes in apocalyptic climate change scenarios, and Homeway, wheeled dwellings that enable residents to flock towards downtown city cores and back, transforming static suburbs into a "dynamic and deployable flow".

Don't call any of this stuff sustainable though. "Sustainability in America is just a philosophy," Joachim sighs. "It's like the words eco- friendly. Eco-friendly and sustainability do not mean anything on a legal or scientific level.

"You ask ten scientists what sustainability is and you'll get ten different answers. I find that truly ineffective. It is such a wishy-washy term - anyone can put a stamp on their projects and say they are doing something sustainable.

"Sustainable is an absolutely weak term," he continues, warming to his tirade.

"It represents the status quo, you certainly don't want your favourite sports team to be sustainable. You want them to win, evolve, grow, nurture, change, to make a radical contribution to environment or the world, not just keep it going."

Joachim and Terreform ONE are all about "socio-ecological development", putting the "funk in functionalism".

"It's got to be something people are excited about, something people think is fabulous, something that is visually enticing," he explains.

There's certainly no denying Joachim captures the imagination. Rolling Stone magazine named him as one of the 100 People Who Are Changing America, Wired magazine included him in its Smart List as one of the 15 People the Next President Should Listen To, and he was recently interviewed on political satire's show of the moment (alongside the The Daily Show), The Colbert Report.

Joachim is under no illusions that many of his proffered visions will transpire in his lifetime, but refuses to be cowed by critics , of which there are many in the blogosphere, that tag his work as pointlessly conceived fantasy.

"I know what we contribute, I've got nothing to prove to [the critics]," he says.

"If you were to look back at major figures like Jules Verne, they have contributed enormously to science and society. He imagined man going to the moon, to do something that was completely unfeasible, totally impossible in his time. He said there were some technologies out there, some directions and put together a narrative about going to the moon, which is the exact narrative that was used when JFK challenged NASA, challenged America to get to the moon.

"The bottom line is that the beauty of Jules Verne was in the hearts and minds and imagination. It was central to the success in that mission."

He pauses. "We aren't promisary. We just leap into the narrative, into the description and produce a culture if one of those objects or technologies were to exist. Those contributions are extremely important. They are vital for the success of a society."

When Joachim launches the as yet unnamed for-profit arm (with six other partners, including Terreform ONE co-founder Maria Aiolova), the initial output will be less grand in scale than the designs that have made him famous, though it will certainly not lack imagination or be environmentally compromised.

Among the putative early money-spinners are a software design package (because Joachim couldn't find software that did what he wanted), and the Willow Ball, mini tree lodges composed of prefabricated pleached structures that can be used as individual pods like tents or clustered together to create an interlinked habitat.

As for bigger build, Joachim would love to get his hands on a meaty project like an aquarium, and has submitted some proposals for building one in Brooklyn ("We would do the best god-damn aquarium they've ever seen.")
He is in no rush though, citing Daniel Liebskind's career arc as one worthy of emulation - years of research, experience and training before his first building, the Jewish Museum in Berlin, was built when he was into his fifties.

"The reality is most architects make brick lumps," says Joachim pointedly.

"And they make brick lumps by having conversations on the phone all day long with bricklayers, plumbers, electricians and go to site and check on these things, and they produce vacuous, uninteresting works as opposed to real, original contributions to the field of architecture.

"We're going to hold off until we get all the right pieces in play."

Joachim was born in New Jersey "somewhere between Bon Jovi and Bruce Springsteen" but spent most of his formative years in New York.

After being discouraged by his father to become a painter, he chased architecture with rare intensity, landing his first job at the age of 14 as a draughtsman for Carl Hesse before going on to rack up an impressive scholastic CV at MIT, Harvard, Columbia, and the University of Buffalo.

His desire to create projects with benign or even positive environmental impacts was borne of rebellion, kicking against the deconstructionist philosophies cluttering his education in the mid- Nineties.

"It was completely abstract, very dark, incredibly maudlin and dour, and we would produce projects that were fragmented and distorted with language that was fragmented and distorted to critics that were using fragmented and distorted language back at us because nobody really understood what we were doing.Everyone wore a lot of black and we were pretty creepy."

Taking cues from Austrian architect Christopher Alexander and the philosophies of great American thinkers Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, Joachim came to the conclusion that for all the rampant theorising and intellectual preening, very little effort was being made to solve actual problems.

"It wasn't architecture that was helping society, it was architects with their heads deep up their own asses, thinking about philosophy and high notions," he recalls.

"I started to realise. The problem is climate change, the problem is the environment."

Joachim's talent quickly secured work with Gehry Partners, and Pei Cobb Freed, and an impressive architectural career beckoned, but satisfaction was in short supply and, after a while, the corporate atmosphere inevitably became intellectually stifling.

Terreform ONE was formed as an escape, a pure outlet where the thoughts of like-minded architects and innovators from the arts and sciences could bounce off each without inhibition and ask the crucial question, 'why not?', over and over. It is not, nor has it ever been, about getting rich.

"Look, I'm different to Donald Trump," he says wrly. "I don't really know what drives that guy but I think it is money, and maybe hairpieces and ego. But I get my jollies from making some drawings and doing some serious engineering and design work. We do things for the environment, for communities, and selfishly we do it for ourselves as it excites us."


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