Gaïa-graphy, Mapping the Critical Zones

“Architectural Design at the Time of Anthropocene: A Gaia-graphic Approach to the Critical Zones”

Alexandra Arènes

The University of Manchester, PhD (Supervisor Albena Yaneva), MARG (Manchester Architecture Research Group)

Maps, and more broadly our cosmograms are subordinate to the Cartesian grid applied to the Earth, in the shape of lines of longitude and lines of latitudes. Such cartographic conventions perpetuate a static vision of the Earth. It is not usual to visualise how chemistry shapes a landscape, how geological beings and living beings interact to eventually form the soil. The reason we are concerned with this today is that environmental disturbances caused by human activities are read through these biogeochemical markers: too high a concentration of nitrate that asphyxiates rivers, too much CO2 released into the atmosphere, the creation of a flow of sulphur that acidifies all terrestrial layers and ends up in the ocean, etc. 


This image shows the state of this research, the attempts, more or less fruitful, to design a visualisation of dynamic landscapes reconciled with the geosciences (the geology/life interface), with earth scientists involved in the Critical Zone study. It shows recordings of the instruments of scientists observing these invisible phenomena; diagrams aimed at turning the earth around like a glove so as to place the atmosphere at the centre and trace the geochemical cycles passing through the various circles and strata of the soils; diagrams of an alternative geometric construction of the earth; drawings of the energy forces of the deep earth or the solar energy used by the living to incline the environmental parameters to their advantage. 

The territory is not static; it is full of events. Chemistry redistributes the agents of the territory differently. It is this redistribution that this research aims to understand: Architectural Design at the time of Anthropocene: A Gaia-graphical approach to the Critical Zones.

The “critical zone” is the thin surface layer of the Earth where water, soil, subsoil and the living world interact. This zone has been called “critical” by geochemists because it is the focus of life, human activities, and their resources.


Research Article in The Antropocene Review, Giving depth to the surface: An exercise in the Gaia-graphy of critical zones; with Bruno Latour and Jérôme Gaillardet (OZCAR, French Critical Zone Observatories network & Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris). 

_NESS – Mad World Pictures