Andrés Jaque / The Editors

October 28, 2022

Andrés Jaque is an architect, writer, and curator whose work considers how architecture shapes our societies. In 2003 he founded the Office for Political Innovation, an architectural firm operating at the crossroads of research, design, and ecological studies to foster debate around the wider ramifications of human intervention into the landscape.

These projects frequently address the literal and figurative “transparency” of buildings. When commissioned in 2002 to design a hoarding that would hide the construction of the Cidade da Cultura de Galicia from view, for instance, Jaque proposed “twelve actions to make Peter Eisenman transparent.” Arguing that the site was “already concealed because it could hardly be understood by anyone not directly involved in its management,” he instead invited the public in to discuss its economic, environmental, and political impacts.

Jaque's 2012 intervention into Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich’s Barcelona Pavilion foregrounded the contributions of water lilies and cats to a modernist masterpiece; commissioned by the 2021 Performa Biennale, Being Silica reproduced a fracking site in a Manhattan skyscraper. Now director of the Advanced Architectural Design Program at Columbia University, Jaque was co-curator of Manifesta 12 and chief curator of the 13th Shanghai Biennale. This interview is part of the “Ecological turns” series, commissioned in collaboration with Filipa Ramos, which considers how contemporary culture is informed by our changing understanding of human entanglements in nature.

Editors: You’ve written about how you relate to a city through color, which is something we rarely see an architect doing. Where does this disposition, this perceptive mode come from?

Andrés Jaque: Contemporary power is encapsulated in a very limited range of color. It is shocking, when you collect images from other historical periods, to see that the spectrum of natural light in urban areas was radically different to ours. Since 2008, there has been a coordination of many different forms of architecture to create a realm of “ultra-clearness,” which can be identified by looking at the architectures that enact power: Apple stores, high-end apartment buildings, luxury hotels, corporate buildings. They all share this very particular light and atmosphere, which is produced by the way they control the air around them and the materials in which they are constructed.

When you look at independent movies set in New York in the 1980s or ’90s, for instance, you see a city with a yellowish sky and richer gradients of color. When you look at contemporary films in the same city, they depict a whiteish-blue atmosphere. This is because the nitrous oxide is being removed from the city’s air. This is a consequence of Mike Bloomberg’s “NYC Clean Heat” project, which incentivized landlords to switch from oil to gas boilers. But it’s also an aesthetic matter, and that’s the context for ultra-clear glass. This is a low-iron glass produced with white silica that can only be found in very specific locations around the world. A pane of ultra-clear glass has a white edge, unlike the green edge that denotes the presence of iron oxide. Since 2008, its production has grown to the point that it has become the language—almost the hegemonic language—of power.

What for me is very critical is that the production of ultra-clear glass entails huge ecological and societal transformations, which are not making nitrous oxide pollution disappear but simply relocating it to areas distant from the centers of major global cities.

Eds: So the pollution in centers of power is simply displaced onto distant populations.

AJ: Yes, and that in itself is a project of the Bloomberg age. Financial power used pseudo-ecological arguments to redesign cities. For example, Bloomberg promoted the C40 “resilient cities”1 and the Clean Heat project in New York while Andrew Cuomo, as governor, banned horizonal fracking in New York State.

The problem is that, broadly speaking, gas pollutes at the point of extraction whereas oil pollutes at the place where it is burned. So this shift has consequences for how pollution is distributed across the United States and across the world. As the air quality increased in New York City, so the levels of nitrates in Susquehanna Valley, in Pennsylvania, where natural gas is now extracted through fracking, has increased. These policies, perceived as beneficial and ecologically sensitive in New York, have not made pollution disappear. Rather they have displaced New York’s pollution onto the poor of Susquehanna.

We can now identify power as the domain of ultra-clearness. This is the end of a huge mobilization of resources to produce inequality and environmental difference. And what is incredibly uncomfortable is that the locations where the white silica is extracted, to make this ultra-clear glass, are often those in which First Nations communities had constructed and were maintaining ecosystems, places like Ottawa and Illinois. These are biodiverse ecosystems in which practices of selective hunting and harvesting had established sustainable relationships between species.

Eds: Do you think of this as a phenomenon particular to New York and American culture, or as something that can be applied to all cities of a certain scale?

AJ: We have to understand the phenomenon as trans-territorial, so connected to realities that are happening in distant locations across the world that are tangled into each other. It forces us to rethink geography as something other than the study of isolated patches of land. Instead we need to develop a new vocabulary and way of thinking, so that we can relate to these distributed realities or even sense them.

There’s also a need to make our bodies evolve so that we can fill those territories, those extensions, those entanglements. What is interesting is that there are many humans already capable of doing this. Over the past two years, I’ve been working with Sioux members who live more than 20 miles from a fracking site in the Susquehanna Valley but can still feel its vibrations. We have asked them to describe in detail what they feel, and their accounts are consistent with the seismographic record of new wells being drilled. It may be that city-dwelling humans have lost the ability to use their bodies as critical devices to relate and connect to the land. For me, architecture is about mediating and making it possible for bodies to be critically accounting.

Another way to answer your question is to say that globalization is based on the possibility of creating bubbles that minimize the environmental cost of massive extraction. That’s a project that, even though it’s failing, continues to unfold. When I talk about the C40 “resilient cities” project to clean up city centers, that comes at the expense of the areas outside those city centers, to where pollution is displaced.

Eds: As a practicing architect, how do you resolve these complex relationships between social injustice, extraction, and the material practice of architecture?

AJ: This is the crucial question. From an ecological perspective, architecture is always about rearticulation. Architectural practices never construct anything new; what they do instead is intervene in existing networks of relationships. From that, it follows that research, activism, and design go hand by hand. I'll give you an example: From 2010 to 2013, we worked on this project in Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich’s Barcelona Pavilion that was very pragmatic. We looked at the pavilion from an ecological perspective.

By “ecological” I don’t necessarily mean related to wildlife, but rather acknowledging that the pavilion was constructed through the association and interactions of many different entities, whether through collaboration or physical solidarity, or whatever. Entities like Niebla, the cat who lived in the pavilion’s basement, or the water lilies that were removed from the pond, where they were originally. By introducing these elements into the conversation, the pavilion becomes something else, it becomes ideas and conversations and accounts and perceptions.

Ten years later, the water lilies were re-introduced. That in itself becomes an experimental project, because some of the lilies aren’t growing while others are growing very well. That reflects what Barcelona is going through now, with pollution in the water and heatwaves. So I think architecture might be a way of identifying, feeling, sensing, discussing, and bringing into conversation those different entities in the way that reality is articulated.

Design now is about recomposition and rearticulation, not about doing something new. It’s naïve to believe that you can construct anything from scratch.

Eds: What you are saying also relates to your research into verticality and the construction of intimacy. Simply put, the higher up you are, the more you can allow yourself to live in a place of pure transparency, because you are protected from contact with others. Perhaps you could share your ideas on the association of luxury and wealth with transparency and verticality, and the forms of disclosure and intimacy that arise from it?

AJ: Yes, it’s one of the things that is so ingrained in our society that we never discuss it, this possibility of detaching ourselves from the ground. It’s fetishized in a society that is reaching the limits of capitalism and destruction and the culture of abstraction. If you look at the history of modern architecture, the effort to detach architecture from the ground, to do it offshore, to place it as high as possible in the sky, is a fantasy served by architects who are supposed to occupy very different political positions.

If you go into the details of these histories, of course they are shaped by racism, extractivism, segregation, classism, and the uneven distribution of the environmental cost of development. In the 1930s in New York, Clarence Samuel Stein proposed that apartments for non-affluent dwellers, mostly African American and Caribbean populations, should be closer to the ground. Elevators would be reserved for white residents.2 That remains in the DNA of capitalism and real estate markets that segregate society. It’s the logic of colonialism and capitalism: de-grounding, segregating things from their context, as a way to set them in circulation.

Even as a real estate product, luxury towers are not working. Hudson Yards is 40 percent unoccupied, which is a massive failure purely in terms of prime premium real estate.3 At the same time, new cultures, politics, and forms of activism are growing from the ground up and embracing the possibilities of re-grounding.

Eds: What you are saying echoes the association, in Western cosmologies, of the divine as existing at an elevation into the sky—in the ontological penthouse, you might say—while lower beings, animals, exist at ground level. It’s interesting that the ideology of constant growth is combined, in architecture, with this desire to reach upwards towards the divine and to be separated from the ground.

At a talk you gave a few years ago at the Royal College of Art in London, you discussed mining the imaginaries of cinema, of advertising, for material about how these fantasies inform each other. 4

AJ: Yes, and that comes through the representation of architecture but also through the actual design. For instance, I was shocked to see the conceptual image produced for one of these high-end towers in New York, 432 Park Avenue. It was an image of a flamboyant man, sitting on a Mies van der Rohe chair, looking at the landscape through a floating piece of ultra-clear glass. It seemed to say that if you sat in this apartment, in this position of power, you would effectively own what is on the other side of the glass.

This was something that I discussed with a number of experts on architectural renderings. And they acknowledge that there is a genre of renderings which depicts people in interiors, looking through the windows, projecting their ownership onto what is beyond. This is everywhere in high-end real estate promotion.

So, whereas in the past the most difficult part of developing software for renderings was how to imitate reflections on a surface, investment in the last decade has gone into calibrating the color light of an interior with the color light of an exterior. The reason for this is that the mission of the renderers is to convey the feeling that the interior expands onto the landscape. So that if you buy the apartment, you get the landscape.

This is what cities do. They provide tax exemptions so that money can be allocated to real estate properties. They are making the environment around these properties clean and green, but at the expenses of other territories. So we’re seeing a coordination of different technologies and political and ecological actions to make it possible for the power constructed in interiors to expand into other scales of territorial construction. No one ever states explicitly that this is what they are doing.

Eds: The same could be said of art history and its objects. In her film Quarry (2015) artist Amie Siegel presents a parallel study of the physical extraction of marble from a quarry and the luxury kitchens and bathrooms that it goes on to furnish. Not only does it illustrate the points you make about the displacement of ecological destruction, but when the marble is being sold, the auctioneer makes a point of saying that it comes from the same quarry that Michelangelo used. Art history becomes a financial dispositif.

It seems that the discourse of art history and architecture are entangled here. These imaginaries add value and create material hierarchies, so that marble becomes a “noble” material, irrespective of its environmental cost. We need to be critical of these positions and to formulate a different logic. That seems to me to be what you are doing in your practice.

AJ: And it says a lot about the societies we’re in that these fundamental questions, these fundamental ecological projects that we’re all participating in, are neither stated nor discussed. This calls for a transformation in the way that architecture as a discipline produces discourse.

To read other pieces in the “ecological turns” series, which is co-commissioned by art-agenda with the writer and curator Filipa Ramos, click here.


Founded in London in 2005, the C40 initiative describes itself as a “global network of mayors taking urgent action to confront the climate crisis and create a future where everyone can thrive.”


Richard Plunz, A History of Housing in New York City (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), 224.


Asking is “This the Neighborhood New York Deserves?”, in 2019, architecture critic Michael Kimmelman described the 28-acre real estate development Hudson Yards as “Manhattan’s Biggest, Newest, Slickest Gated Community (which offers) 14 acres of public open space in return for privatizing the last precious undeveloped parcel of significant size in Manhattan”, New York Times (March 14, 2019), https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/03/14/arts/design/hudson-yards-nyc.html).


Earthbound Lecture Series: Transcalarities, Niebla the Cat and Other Forms of Material Dissidence, Royal College of Art, London, February 13, 2020.

Nature & Ecology, Posthumanism
Climate change, Environment

Andrés Jaque is the founder of the Office for Political Innovation, a Madrid/New York based practice that brings inclusivity into daily life through architecture.

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