Doctors often talk about disease in terms of cities: Cancer cells are rogue factories, while parasites are invaders. Likewise, urban planners and architects have long talked about design in relationship to medicine and disease. The two professions share uncanny similarities, and their relationship is the basis for Imperfect Health, a fascinating exhibition curated by the Canadian Center for Architecture and on view at Carnegie Mellon University’s Miller Gallery this winter.
Throughout history, the city was seen as a major hazard to human health. In fact, that belief (often correct!) is what gave rise to some of the very first modern architecture, designed to be safer and more hygienic. Yet as the curators of Imperfect Health are quick to note, architects are not doctors. "On the contrary," write curators Giovanna Borasi and Mirko Zardini, "[Imperfect Health] highlights uncertainties and contradictions present in the ideas of health that are emerging in Western countries today, particularly in Europe and North America."
Though they seem complementary, architecture and medicine are inherently mismatched: One is dependent upon the market, the other is based on science and the certainty of statistics. As Borasi and Zardini show us, the contradiction has played out in some fascinating ways. The work on display at the Miller Gallery includes failures, scams, and downright fantastical hypotheses about how design can improve everything from asthma to obesity.
It also includes plenty of successes—for example, In the Air, a project that maps and visualizes contaminants in Santiago’s air in real time. Similarly, architects and planners can’t always predict the complexity of the metropolis. One image in the exhibition shows us the trash-littered rooftops of Manshiyat naser, or Garbage City, a neighborhood in Cairo that enjoys a bustling economy based around the collection and recycling of the city’s garbage.
Pig City, a project by MVRDV on display, sums up the thesis of Imperfect Health pretty well. The 2000 proposal imagined a series of vertical farms where pigs—the source of the world’s most consumed meat—would be bred and processed, preventing the spread of disease. But as MVRDV wrote, Pig City was actually meant to point out a much simpler, less expensive solution: vegetarianism. So, is architecture supposed to cure us of our health problems or change the very behavior causing them? Unfortunately, the two are hard to separate.
Imperfect Health is on view until February 24.