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Modernity's Waste Spaces


  • Credit value: 30 credits at Level 7
  • Convenor and tutor: Tom Wilkinson
  • Assessment: a 5000-word essay (100%)

Module description

Waste is a central problem in contemporary culture, including the realm of architecture: it is estimated that 11% of global carbon emissions are caused by construction. What can be done about this, and how has architecture been complicit in the production of waste? Has waste shaped modern architecture in turn? And has it offered any solutions to these questions?

In this module we will re-examine the canon of modern architecture through the lens of waste, unpicking the way that designers, builders and theorists have produced, responded to and in some cases resolved this issue. We will focus on buildings, texts and sites from around the world, from famous modernist works such as Bruno Taut's housing estates in Berlin, the Isokon Building in London and the villas of Le Corbusier, to waste spaces such as sewers, slums, dumps and camps. The latter spaces are the by-products and repositories of modernity's wasteful processes, but they were also the necessary conditions for these: in other words, it is the argument of this module that, just as modernity produced these waste spaces, they also helped produce modernity. We will also consider more recent works such as the highly regarded projects of Lacaton and Vassal, which are widely seen as offering a solution to the problem of architectural wastefulness. We will thereby develop a picture of modern architecture that foregrounds its ecological and social entanglements.

Indicative module syllabus

  • Waste, and its relationship to modernist architecture (using Zygmunt Bauman’s theory of late capitalism’s ‘wasted lives’)
  • The rag-picker as a key figure in modernist discourse
  • Slums and their replacement by modernist estates, with a focus on 1920s Berlin
  • Dumps, with a focus on Rio in the late twentieth century
  • Sewers, focusing on Hausmann’s Paris and the concept of ‘metabolic rift’
  • Modernist villas and the place of servants within them
  • Camps, and their relationship to formal urban centres (and Agamben’s theory of the camp)
  • The city as waste: ‘rust-belts’ and the ruination of cities via globalisation (with a focus on Detroit)
  • Recycling architecture (focus on recent work by Wang Shu and Lacaton and Vassal)

Learning objectives

By the end of this module, you will be able to:

  • demonstrate knowledge and understanding, at an appropriate level, of architectural modernism
  • demonstrate an awareness of current approaches and debates in architecture, especially with regards to waste
  • demonstrate an understanding of the specific cultural contexts of selected case studies
  • critically analyse visual and textual sources related to modern architecture.