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Emerging Ecologies

Architecture and the Rise of Environmentalism


New Alchemy Institute (American, 1969–1991), Solsearch Architects (American, 1974–c.1985). Prince Edward Island Ark, Prince Edward Island, Canada. 1976. Exterior southeast view, with David Bergmark and Ole Hammarlund of Solsearch Architects in foreground. Collection Solsearch Architects. Photograph: Fausta Hammarlund

The New Alchemy Institute, an environmental research organization based out of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, was founded by biologist John Todd, writer Nancy Jack Todd, and aquatic ecologist Bill McLarney. Viewing large-scale industrial infrastructures as environmentally destructive and enabling a passive, consumerist way of life, the New Alchemists developed community-run food and energy production systems on their Cape Cod compound that they believed would encourage an ecological ethic and meaningful, democratic participation in the provisioning of humanity’s needs. In the context of the 1973 oil crisis, this vision of energy self-sufficiency proved appealing to the Canadian government, and the group received a grant to construct a house on the remote province of Prince Edward Island to demonstrate the applicability of their technological experiments to the domestic sphere.

Collaborating with Solsearch Architects, the New Alchemists designed a structure informed by the need to efficiently gather and store the sun’s energy and distribute it among the house’s plant, human, and animal inhabitants; the long, horizontal building’s southern face, for example, was given over entirely to solar collectors and a massive greenhouse. Although a number of the building’s design strategies and technologies have since become mainstream aspects of “green” design, the more radical social arrangements the New Alchemists hoped these technologies would engender have still yet to come into being.


Solsearch Architects (United States, 1974–c. 1985). Promotional poster for the Ark for Prince Edward Island. c. 1976. Two-color offset print. 30 × 22” (76.2 × 55.9 cm). Courtesy Confederation Centre Art Gallery, Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Canada, from their 2016–17 exhibition Living Lightly on the Earth: Building an Art for Prince Edward Island, 1974–76, curated by Steven Mannell


New Alchemy Institute (United States, 1969–1991), Solsearch Architects (United States, 1974–c. 1985). Prince Edward Island Ark, Prince Edward Island, Canada 1976. Interior view looking east from the balcony in the commercial greenhouse. Collection Solsearch Architects


Michael Reynolds (American, born 1945). A basic building block of steel beer and soft drink cans used in experimental housing being built near Taos, New Mexico. 1972. United States National Archives and Records Administration. Photograph: David Hiser

For architect Michael Reynolds, the tragedy of mounting garbage also presented an opportunity: in an early example of upcycling, he produced a design for a brick made from steel beer cans—a material, he notes, that is in effect “indigenous” to all heavily populated areas on the planet. In 1972 he constructed a house made from this innovative building unit. He soon added the earth-rammed automobile tire to his recycled-materials arsenal and began to design houses with passive heating and cooling systems, gray-water recycling units, and food-producing greenhouses. Calling these low-energy, self-sufficient houses Earthships, Reynolds, like a modern-day Noah, has been building communities of these homes in the Taos, New Mexico, area, with the aim of saving us from the environmentally harmful effects of traditional housing.

In 1956, Lloyd Stouffer, the editor of Modern Packaging, infamously proclaimed that “the future of plastics is in the trash can.” Recognizing that durability had the negative consequence of limiting the number of times a customer would purchase a given product, Stouffer through this declaration signaled the then-novel attempt by plastics and other manufacturers to shift from long-lasting to single-use products, thereby ensuring a never-ending revolving door of purchases for their goods—and thus a never-ending stream of trash.


Beer Can House (c. 1972) Michael Reynolds Michael Reynolds (American, born 1945). A basic building block of steel beer and soft drink cans used in experimental housing being built near Taos, New Mexico. 1972. United States National Archives and Records Administration. Photograph: David Hiser

Emerging Ecologies: Architecture and the Rise of Environmentalism explores how architects in the US responded to the environmental crisis of the 1960s and 1970s, when concern with rising pollution and runaway resource use spurred widespread activism on behalf of the natural world. Explore these works and more on Floor 3, 3 North.


The good news is that you don't need to be an architect to advocate for the environment. By simply returning your reusable to a Re:Dish bin after use, you are playing an active role in ensuring a more sustainable future. Last month's number of missing containers dropped to 639 - but we can do better!

When everyone returns, we make a big impact!

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MoMA's impact to date:


cars taken off the road for a day

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bathtubs of water saved

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