We are the engineers of our own decay. In altering the environment to sustain ourselves – our food, our refuse, the air we breathe – we have introduced a host of new frailties to the human body. Imperfect Health at Carnegie Mellon University’s Miller Gallery attempts to do more than elucidate the details of this unfortunate situation. The exhibition presents solutions drafted by architects and designers, sometimes questioning whether these ideas might do more harm than good. Each floor of the Miller Gallery addresses one of three broad problems of industrialized society: food production and disease control, atmospheric pollution, and the accommodation of a growing elderly population.
This is not an art show, per se. Reams of data, research, and blueprints spread across walls and tables on all three floors of the gallery reflect a clinical, quantitative mood. Key terms and phrases on the show’s informational placards are highlighted in a manner resembling hyperlinks. Theoretical plans and proposals abound. Q-City by Front Studio Architects imagines the creation of a parallel infrastructure for use by functional citizens placed in quarantine, in doing so discussing the problematic idea of quarantine as segregation. Pig City by MVRDV outlines a solution for livestock raising in overcrowded regions through vertical urban animal husbandry – while pointing out that more people could simply switch to vegetarianism. Medicalized architecture is shown to be a powerful management tool for the symptoms, if not the causes
Art acts as a corollary to this, rather than the main attraction, reinforcing just how much our current architecture does not take our health into account. Bas Princen’s Mokattan Ridge (Garbage City) depicts vast piles of garbage bags spread across one of Cairo, Egypt’s neighborhoods. It is telling that the pigs that feed on this garbage are hard to differentiate from the garbage itself. Speleotherapy by Kirill Kuletsky dreamily captures the winding corridors of a salt mine, filled with people sleeping on beds. The air of the mine is used to treat severe asthma. These works provide an emotional anchor in an exhibition that, due to information overload, can be fatiguing.
Imperfect Health does not suggest that architecture will save the world. Instead, it is a way to channel our environment into something better than what we have now. With luck, some of the theoretical proposals the exhibition presents will be channeled into practical implementation, leaving us healthier for the experience.