Critical Zone Sensor


Alexandra Arènes

The environmental crisis significantly changes the daily practices of architects at the time of the Anthropocene, renewing attention to the planetary scale, or simply the earth (see for example the architects Design Earth[1] 1 - See Design Earth (2018) Geostories: Another Architecture for the Environment, authors Rania Ghosn and El Hadi Jazairy. Actar and their website :, and theoretically the architecture scholar Tyszczuk[2] 2 - Tyszczuk R. (2018) Provisional cities. Cautionary tales for the Anthropocene, Routledge.). This Earth is either taken as a whole or as a composite of granular elements such as chemicals, soils, nutrients, water, winds, fungi, etc., recognizing that the habitability of our planet depends on these various entities and their entanglement (See Feral Atlas[3] 3 - Feral Atlas (2021), Curated and Edited by Anna L. Tsing, Jennifer Deger, Alder Keleman Saxena and Feifei Zhou. Stanford University Press. Website: In any case, the field of architecture is gradually becoming interested in monitoring the environment, either by creating its own observatories (see for example Italian Limes, with the Alpine border monitoring[4] 4 - or by relying on existing ones (see for example Territorial Agency with the ocean maps[5] 5 - The project presented in this issue of Modi operandi is part of this trend. I myself became interested in environmental monitoring during my practice as an architect, and then during my PhD[6] 6 - Arènes A. (2022) Design at the time of the Anthropocene: reporting from the Critical Zone. PhD thesis., aiming to bring a new understanding of nature to better cope with climate change. In order to understand this trend related to observatories, I undertook empirical fieldwork using ethnographic methods, following scientists from a specific branch of earth sciences called the critical zone (CZ). During my fieldwork, I followed geoscientists in their laboratories but especially in their field. I will contribute to this essay with this field experience, having spent several months in critical zone observatories (CZOs), mainly in France and the West Indies, but also in laboratories, as close as possible to scientific practices, having followed the network of scientists and conducted several interviews during this work. I will also draw on my experience of creating an installation in a museum for the exhibition Critical Zones. Observatories for Earthly Politics[7] 7 - See the catalog of the exhibition with several essays on the critical zone by earth scientists and scholars in the humanities. ZKM catalogue Critical Zones. The Science and Politics of Landing on Earth. Publisher: MIT Press. Editors: Bruno Latour & Peter Weibel. 2020, which aimed at reproducing an observatory with the landscape of instruments[8] 8 - “Critical Zone Observatory Space”, installation by SOC at ZKM Center for Art and Media, Karlsruhe, in Critical Zones. Observatories for Earthly Politics, curated by Peter Wiebel and Bruno Latour. May 2020 – January 2022. A description of the installation is published here: Arènes A. (2022) The Critical Zone observatory space, in Infrastructural Love: Caring for Our Architectural Support Systems, edited by A.Carbonell, H.Frichot, H.Frykolm, and S.Karami. Birkhäuser.. In this essay I will try to reduce the gap between these scientific practices and the architectural proposal of this issue.

In my research work, I bridge the critical zone and territorial landscape architecture with the design of alternative cartographies[9] 9 - It is a matter to grasp the complexity of the composition of the critical zone, shifting the anthropocentric view (which divides the territory as a surface to be constructed), to a cosmopolitical view (a view from the inside that takes into account the depth of the ground and the cycles). The overall objective is to provide a more nuanced knowledge of what is called “nature” through visual tools and the production of meticulous cosmograms[10] 10 - John Tresch, historian of sciences, coined this term. Tresch, J. (2005) Cosmogram. In Cosmogram, edited by Jean-Christophe Royoux Melik Ohanian, 67-76. New York: Sternberg. Tresch, J. (2007). Technological World-Pictures: Cosmic Things and Cosmograms. Isis, 98 (1), 84-94. Tresch J. (2020) Around the Pluriverse in Eight Objects: Cosmograms for the Critical Zone. Critical Zones. The Science and Politics of Landing on Earth. MIT Press. linked to the scientific object Critical Zone[11] 11 - For cosmograms attempts of the critical zone, see: Arènes A., Latour B., Gaillardet J. (2018) Giving Depth to the Surface – an Exercise in the Gaia-graphy of Critical Zones, The Anthropocene Review, volume 5, no 2, 2018, p. 120-135. And: Aït-Touati F., Arènes A., Grégoire A. (2022) Terra Forma. A book of speculative maps. MIT press.. This better understanding of the dimensions of this critical zone may bring a new understanding of landscapes and thus impact on architectural practice and its transformative agency in the New Climate Regime[12] 12 - The origin of the term ‘New Climatic Regime’ comes from Bruno Latour. Latour, B. (2018) Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime, Polity Press.. The project presented here by architect Menno Brouwer has taken a different turn, designing a different framework from the one found in the critical zone, I believe. Thus, in this essay, I will not comment on the architectural project itself but will extend the empirical knowledge on the notion of the critical zone, as the project passes quickly over it, which is quite understandable since it is not a research work on scientific practices but a frame of inspiration. However, I think it is important to provide some research on the critical zone and then to present an approach to what it could bring to the field of architecture.



TU Delft / Faculty of Architecture