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Holy waste: Michael Reynolds’ sustainable architecture

“My firm was involved in waste. We were waste handlers, waste traders, cosmologists of waste. […] Waste is a religious thing. We entomb contaminated waste with a sense of reverence and dread. It is necessary to respect what we discard. […] The Jesuits taught me to examine things for second meanings and deeper connections. Were they thinking about waste? We were waste managers, waste giants, we processed universal waste. Waste has a solemn aura now, an aspect of untouchability. White containers of plutonium waste with yellow caution tags. Handle carefully. Even the lowest household trash is closely observed. People look at their garbage differently now, seeing every bottle and crushed carton in a planetary context.”¹


The highly topical novel Underworld – 1997 masterpiece by Don DeLillo – offers some new considerations about the role of waste, a bulky and almost holy presence within the whole work. The act of waste entombment is described as a religious rite, a ceremony which conceals the risk awareness of a new contamination or an environmental disaster. Don DeLillo seems to suggest that waste must be recovered precisely from the “underworld” to which the title refers – an explicit metaphor of post-war American collective subconscious². This breaks the life-death linearity of objects, which is typical of the capitalistic society, in favour of a virtuous circularity. By revealing its obsession with reuse, the novel looks like a warning to not ignore waste. On one side, cities – neurotic centres of economic and commercial frenzy – are the place of constant flowing of goods marked by the imperative of “new”; on the other, suburbs are the final destination, which do not define the end of objects, but their rebirth and enhancement.

In today’s society, the waste image has become sadly natural, especially with the intensification of the debate on climate change. Earth and oceans are suffocating under the growing weight of waste, causing the death of living beings and modifying the appearance and the morphology of urban space and global geography. The decomposition process of recyclable waste’s organic materials in landfills releases large quantities of methane. This gas – together with the carbon dioxide generated by several combustion processes of human activities – seriously affects global warming. Alarming data show that waste generation is increasing too quickly, and this can’t go hand in hand with economic growth and the improvement in living standards.

In order to stop this correlation, the concept of landfilling – often confined to the suburbs of the world – should be replaced with the concept of reusing. For this to happen, a real revolution is needed, and it has to lead to a growing awareness: waste generated by consumption and production represents a source of wealth, a resource. Linear economy should evolve into a circular model which creates recycled aggregates that can be reused for components and materials production.

This sense of urgency inspired the American architect Michael Reynolds – who defines himself a “biotech” – to use his own creativity to project fully self-sufficient sustainable buildings made of salvages in order to reduce environmental effect. In the late of 1970s, when television started to denounce the waste problem and the lack of sustainable disposal facilities, Reynolds conceived Earthships, environmentally friendly houses made of waste materials with a bizarre Gaudì-inspired aesthetics. This ambitious and innovative project became reality in 1972 with the first self-sustaining home, called Thumb House. This building is made of raw earth mixed with recycled materials, such as beer cans, plastic bottles, aluminium and old tires. During the years, the project started drawing public attention, but also criticism over manufacturing defects. For this reason, the State Architects Board of New Mexico stripped Reynolds of his credentials and construction license. But in the meantime, the “garbage architect” has kept honing his project. After 17 years, Reynolds’ architect’s license was reinstated, and he resumed building Earthships. He came up with Phoenix, a self-sufficient, sustainable house: it was built in 2004 after Indonesia tsunami with the aim of resisting cataclysms.

Today, the Earthship Biotecture project is a worldwide known sustainable construction company. It’s a pioneering, revolutionary building concept which provides everything for its inhabitants to survive. Michael Reynolds works with his team on projects designed for countries which are victims of environmental disasters. He adapts his construction techniques to every climate and teaches how to live in harmony with the planet. His Earthships – built with renewable resources and waste and recycled materials – are able to store winter sun’s heat and cool down in summer thanks to an ingenious ventilation system. Rainwater is collected within big cisterns and filtered, making it suitable for family to reuse it. Electrical energy is harvested from the sun and wind, and self-contained sewage treatment allows to grow food within an indoor greenhouse. These principles underlie Reynolds’ view of architecture for the planet and are applied not only to houses, but also to public buildings, such as self-sufficient schools in Uruguay (2016) and Argentina (2018).

These buildings are just one of the many sides of the fight against climate change. In this fight, reusing waste turns into an act of protest against fierce consumerism and a strategy to limit greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere and environmental damage. In this race against time, we can almost detect Don DeLillo’s warning signal to use waste “with a sense of reverence and dread”, recognizing it as an inexhaustible source of wealth.

Translated into English by Giada D’Elia.

¹ Don DeLillo, Underworld, New York, Scribner, 1997.
² Cecilia Cruccolini, La resistenza abita ai margini. Il riuso dei rifiuti in Underworld, Allegoria, Palumbo Editore, 2018.

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She was born in Milan in 1992. She studied languages and graduated in literary translation. It feeds on stories and loves storytelling in all its forms, from literature to photography, from painting to cinema. She does not miss an opportunity to learn new things and believes in the power of beauty. She writes to bring order to the chaos that surrounds her.
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