Architect Indy Johar: “The magnitude of what we are about to face is completely underestimated”
The thing about dark matter is you can’t see it. Even the most sophisticated machines cannot detect it. Yet it constitutes about 27% of everything in the universe. It is, one might think, the opposite of architecture, the most tangible of the arts; solid, visible and essential. Which I guess is exactly why architect Indy Johar chose the name Dark Matter Labs, a very unusual, interesting, and influential non-profit architecture firm that few people seem to have heard of.
Johar is jovial, persuasive, engaging and visionary, dressed in a turban, gingham shirt and waistcoat. His salt-and-pepper beard and lush mustache cover a mouth that forms words a little too fast for my brain. Johar won the Design Innovation Medal at the London Design Fair this year, a rare moment of recognition for an architect whose practice is so diffuse and perhaps, like dark matter itself, difficult to understand.
“The magnitude of what we are about to face is completely underestimated,” Johar tells me. “I think we are going to have to rethink everything around us, our clothes, our food, our furniture, what we value, how much goods cost, who owns the material, how we value sustainability and resilience, how do we move to an immaterial economy rather than a material economy?
“The economic geography of our places and our way of life are fundamentally changing,” he continues. “The structure of society, our theory of working in a machine-assisted environment is changing and at the same time we have to transform the relationship to energy, so we are in a structural transition of just about everything around us . It’s something no civilization has ever faced before, a class of challenge that can only be solved on a planetary scale.
To make these issues less abstract, Johar suggests we turn to something more tangible. “That feeling of planetary entanglement,” he says, “could show up in a house.”
He explains: “Where do the materials come from? Where is the embodied carbon? Who owns end-of-life material waste? Who owns the butterflies in your garden? This is the big design transition.
Owning butterflies may seem fleeting, but that may be precisely the point. Johar suggests that everything be reassessed down to the smallest detail. It’s a very identifiable form of architectural thought, the ability to focus on detail and see, simultaneously, the micro and macro scales of world-building. But, despite receiving this award, he is uncomfortable being at the center of any story.
“To me, it’s not about a designer, it’s about the fundamental deep reimagining of our world. We live in a 400-year-old view of our world based on Newtonian physics and Cartesian logic, based on the separation of object and subject. Now we are beginning to see the world in terms of entanglements, interdependencies, externalities, a re-entanglement of the world at philosophical, material, social levels, responsibilities and costs.
There is no single way Dark Matter Labs attempts to solve these planetary problems. Over the years, a multitude of proposals and models have emerged, each using advances in technology to understand possible futures. With a previous organization, 00, Johar was a co-founder of WikiHouse, an open-source digital manufacturing system that enables people to build low-carbon homes. He has worked with companies and cities, he works with start-ups and accelerators but also criticizes models of corporate capitalism. His understanding of the world may be planetary, but his concerns are with bureaucracy, rules of engagement, and what he calls a “boring revolution.”
Johar is an architect who does not arrive with seductive designs or visionary drawings, but rather a set of proposals to reimagine our institutions and our toolkits for different kinds of economy and relationships. And that’s no post-college oddity: Dark Matter Labs is a 60-person office with bases in Canada, the Netherlands, South Korea and Sweden as well as London.
It favors techniques derived from technology. If financial markets are now largely run by computers communicating with each other at blazing speeds over tiny transactions, why couldn’t that apply to this new set of relationships? While much thinking about the green economy, zero carbon and a post-capitalist utopia seems hazy and naive, his claims work within trading systems, using their capacity for complexity, technology and markets to integrate real costs.
Dark Matter Labs is currently working on a range of designs which may present models for the future. Johar cites a program for a canopy of trees in Glasgow, greenery designed as infrastructure. Trees are currently seen as costs rather than assets, he suggests. “Yet trees have been shown to reduce temperatures by up to 12 degrees, and there are savings in reduced road maintenance, health impacts, reduced asthma levels, flood risk reduction. . . ”
Even the greatest of ideas can be reduced to a single seed. And Johar is committed to big ideas. “We might think the Lights meet the Entanglement. Quantum physics recognizes this entanglement. There are also parallels with indigenous ways of thinking, how we live with the land.
If Earth is about to pass judgment on the brief Anthropocene experiment, we better buckle up. Johar’s proposals are not the seat belt or the airbag but the brakes, the mechanisms to reduce our speed towards this destiny. Broad and fascinating, he is perhaps the architect who could have the biggest impact on how we understand our trading systems, exposing the true costs of things. With barely a building in sight.
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