Jorge Otero-Pailos Redefines Architecture

Jorge Otero-Pailos

Jorge Otero-Pailos during his lecture in the Abby and Howard Milstein Auditorium. William Staffeld / AAP

October 22, 2015

Where does architecture begin and end? For Jorge Otero-Pailos (B.Arch. '94, M.Arch. '95), the boundaries of architecture are not the lot lines of buildings but a broader perspective that includes the pollution those structures create.

Otero-Pailos, an associate professor of architecture, planning, and preservation at Columbia University, began to rethink the definition of architecture after he started examining historical photos of cities from the 19th century. Pittsburgh, for example, was so smoky from the early to mid-1900s, he notes, that photos of the city looked like nighttime even in the middle of the day.

"What really interested me is what would architecture look like if we think about the air the architecture makes — not the air around it — but the air it produces as part of architecture," Otero-Pailos said at an October 14 lecture titled "From Monuments to Pollution" at Milstein Hall.

An artist, architect, and historian, Otero-Pailos is known for creating installations that focus on the pollution buildings generate. His work has been displayed in major museums throughout the world — one of his most recent projects, The Ethics of Dust: Trajan's Column, shown at the Victoria and Albert Museum earlier this year, revealed the elements of pollution associated with a replica of Trajan's Column, a triumphal Roman marble structure, installed in the London museum.

When the replica was moved from Rome to the museum in the mid-19th century, the structure was so tall that it was cut in two and wrapped around the museum's chimney. To create his installation, Otero-Pailos applied liquid conservation latex to the inner curved wall of the chimney, removed the plastic fabric, and then suspended it in the museum next to the original plaster copy.

"We did a single cast of the whole column and moved it outside and presented it with all the pollution so people could see the inside and the outside at the same time," Otero-Pailos said. "They could see pollution as part of the museum and part of the culture."

Author of Architecture's Historical Turn: Phenomenology and the Rise of the Postmodern (University of Minnesota Press, 2010), Otero-Pailos believes that architecture needs to be viewed within a cultural context if issues such as climate change are going to be addressed, because, he argued, technology alone won't solve the problem.

"We need to be part of that equation, and we need to think about culture as the driving force or the solution to climate change and enter in the discussion in that way," he said. "That is why I've tried to make the case that pollution should be considered a cultural product, and if we begin to consider it that way, we will be able to designate it as something that can be changed."

"From Monuments to Pollution" was part of the Glanzer-Curtis Family Lecture Series.

By Sherrie Negrea

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