Aleksandra Jaeschke is an architect and an Assistant Professor of Architecture and Sustainable Design at The University of Texas at Austin. Jaeschke’s interests range from different approaches to sustainability and notions of ecology, to cross-scalar integrative design strategies, and the role of architects in transdisciplinary projects.
Her doctoral dissertation, Green Apparatus: Ecology of the American House According to Building Codes, investigated how building regulations coupled with green building technologies and incentives shape environmentally driven design and environmental awareness. A book based on her dissertation is forthcoming from Princeton Architectural Press in 2022. Jaeschke was the winner of the Harvard Graduate School of Design’s Wheelwright Prize, a travel-based grant to support investigative approaches to contemporary architecture. Jaeschke’s winning proposal and ongoing research, UNDER WRAPS: Architecture and Culture of Greenhouses, addresses the culture and architecture of greenhouses around the world, focusing on the spatiality of horticultural operations, as well as the interactions between plants and humans across a spectrum of contexts and cultures.
In celebration of Earth Day, we caught up with Jaeschke about her views of sustainability and notions of ecology in architecture, her career, and what she’s been teaching and researching recently.
What initiated your focus on sustainability and notions of ecology in architecture? How has your interest in this discourse transformed over time?
As a student at the Architectural Association in London, I was very attracted to biomimetics and process-driven design thinking. I was fascinated by what we can learn from natural systems—the marvelous structural solutions, water management strategies, and material distribution in organic and inorganic formations—and how forms evolve in nature in response to epigenetic—that is, environmental factors. Gradually, I became interested in systems theory, mainly through the work of Gregory Bateson, so my thinking about our place in the biosphere became more holistic. Eventually, as I started becoming familiar with Alfred North Whitehead’s process-driven philosophy and interested in Eastern systems of thought, it also became more philosophical and spiritual.
Now, I struggle with the term sustainability; it is full of rigid standards that promote frugality while natural systems thrive on flexibility and, often, on well-managed excess. It is important to reduce wastefulness, but it is equally important to learn how to be expansive in beneficial ways. I also think we must pay attention to hierarchies of importance. A relative increase in energetic efficiency, for example, might turn out insignificant if one considers other factors or scales. Yet, we often draw the boundaries of our—architectural—systems too tightly to even see it.
The other issue that is very important to me is how we think about technology in relation to our efforts to achieve higher levels of sustainability. Technology is more than just the artifacts: HVAC systems, solar panels, windows, and insulation foams. We need to pay attention to how various techniques that support the diffusion of these artifacts affect our ways of acting upon the environment. This was the subject of my doctoral research at the Harvard GSD. I inquired into the agendas that had shaped our thinking about sustainability in single-family residential construction by analyzing building and zoning regulations, financial incentives, and mortgage loans; issues that are intricately related to the mechanisms that drive financial speculation and growth-driven economics. These topics are often neglected by architects when they address the unsustainability of buildings.
I am also convinced that we must pay equal attention to what we do and to how we think about what we do. We must reconsider our value systems. We need to recognize that, without compromise, we are part of nature, this mysterious process in constant becoming. Every bit of animate matter, every organism, has the same right to life as we do, and it is in our best interest that these organisms continue to thrive because we all depend on each other. Inanimate matter is equally precious; life depends on it and, in turn, transforms it. Everything is interconnected and we should not think about it as a platitude.
You’re teaching an advanced studio this semester titled Plant Potential. Tell us a bit about what you and your students are exploring and any overarching insights or comments.
Plant Potential is a larger project made possible by the Meadows Fellowship I received in 2019 from our Center for American Architecture and Design. It is a project in which I want to draw students’ attention to the fundamental importance of plants, both in material and in spiritual terms. It is a series of conversations with plant experts happening within the context of the design studio. It will be a conference in the fall, and, eventually, a web-based platform.
In the design studio this semester, my students have been guided by plants. I asked them to explore the life of one native Hawaiian plant – thinking first, like an artist; then like a botanist and an ethnobotanist; and, eventually, like an architect and an activist. The goal is to expand the way students think about the world in which they operate so that they see plants as both a resource and a member of the community. For this project, I have collaborated with the Hawaiian architect Sean Connelly and with Hui Ku Maoli Ola, a native plant nursery based in O’ahu. We’ve also had twelve different plant experts give talks during our studio time including ecologist Stuart Pimm, botanist Stefano Mancuso, ethnobotanist Mark Plotkin, and artist Mark Dion, among others. Students don’t have the opportunity to learn from non-architects in the studio setting very often, and I believe this exposure is very important.
How do you believe that sustainability could be explored further by students in their educational studies?
We need to keep expanding our understanding of the biosphere and reject all forms of dangerous simplifications that isolate us from natural processes. We need to learn how to handle complexity. We must improve our literacy in such fields as ecology, climate science, and economics so we can see the entire picture of our material actions. We must also stop isolating our work and our discourse. Autonomy is a pipe dream.
I also believe that we need to emphasize the importance of coexistence (or, in other words, communion) over the instrumentalization of nature. Economic approaches to nature have failed again and again, and we have not managed to improve the situation by using quantitative methods only. I think that students need to be studying philosophy and the history of ecological action and thought.
How has your residence in several locations throughout your career and studies played a role in your view of the interactions between people and their environment?
The places in which we live have a tremendous impact on how we think about anything! Honestly, I only started thinking in ecological terms when I moved to live and work in Sicily. As an island, natural phenomena are more acutely perceptible there. Sicily is rich in biodiversity, but it is also characterized by harsh landscapes where living organisms have had to adapt to difficult conditions. Humans, other animals, and plants are all very resistant and resilient there. It was in Sicily that I started observing plants in their natural context, I started paying attention to rock formations and water systems, I learned about wind patterns. Suddenly, nature became part of my own life.
Another important but very different period was my time in Los Angeles. There, I had a chance to experience first-hand an artificial ecology and work on it with my students at the Woodbury School of Architecture.
Experiencing the difference between these two places – both located in the Mediterranean climate - could not have been more telling.
Tell us a bit about your Wheelwright Prize-winning proposal UNDER WRAPS: Architecture and Culture of Greenhouses. What are you currently working on, and what do you have planned next?
My Wheelwright proposal was born out of a curiosity about greenhouses. Greenhouses are an architectural expression of our tremendous capacity to subjugate plant life towards our needs. I have a strange mix of feelings towards these spaces. I find them fascinating, but I also have a slight repulsion toward them and what they say about where we are going, so I knew for a while that I wanted to explore them more. Greenhouses are an expression of human ingenuity but also of our arrogance. We can’t completely disconnect ourselves from the biosphere. We can’t recreate it under glass, and, if we can, I think that the future will be very sad.
Last Spring, I started traveling around the world as part of this ongoing project but had to stop due to COVID. During the lockdown, my thinking has evolved as I have pondered these issues from my sofa in Austin. I am still, obviously, fascinated by these spaces, but they have become a proxy to studying a larger issue: understanding the spatial and environmental implications of our relationship with plants that we rely on for food.
Now, it is, of course, complicated. In large part, we rely on food grown in protected environments. Entire communities thrive (although not always happily) because greenhouses allow them to farm in places where farming was once impossible or reduced to subsistence farming. Think of Almeria in Spain, or the Israeli desert. That said, greenhouses are complicit in the injustices surrounding the production of cheap food, by using an underpaid, seasonal workforce. They also contribute to climate destruction through the excessive use of plastic, energy, water, and pesticides. And still, when you enter those spaces, there is often a sense of communion between humans and plants. These humans depend on the plants for their livelihood; they take care of these plants. But that’s becoming rare. Most of the time, we see automated spaces or spaces filled with people who have no stake in those economies – often, illegal immigrants. We are more and more disconnected from the plants that feed us.
Something that fascinates me, in particular, is the greenhouses that help people engage with edible plants and food production through collaborations with chefs. I think that chefs play a fundamental role in showing us how food is produced and how it should be produced to care for the soil, water, air, and the biosphere. Think of Dan Barber’s work, for example. Architects should play a similar role when it comes to educating the public about materials.
A small but interesting nexus that I am starting to explore is how research into the processes and spaces of food production—protected agriculture included—allows seemingly disconnected fields to come together in pursuit of a common cause. While chefs are questioning our relationship with plants by making us aware of the origins and socio-environmental impacts of what we eat (oftentimes working in the very spaces of food production—the greenhouses); landscape architects and gardeners are bringing edible plants into the cities and blurring the boundary between what is an edible resource and what is an ornament; architects should be embracing materials that use agricultural by-products to question the preponderance of minerals or hydrocarbons and embrace plant potential. These are very material ways to engage with plants and with spaces of food production to question and reduce their impacts. Yet, these actions can also create socially and spiritually transformative human and plant-human bonds. They can—transversally—create a new transdisciplinary community. Plants are our connection to the Sun. We depend on them for energy—through food—but plant potential is not just energetic; it can be healing in environmental, social, and spiritual terms as well.