The Wood Eternal: Environment, Architecture, and the Peréz Art Museum Miami
Editor’s note: Richard Haden wrote the following piece on PAMM and its environmental implications prior to the much-discussed smashing of one of Ai Weiwei’s works at the exhibit currently on view at the museum, wherein a Miami artist named Maximo Caminero picked up a vase, was told to put it down, then dropped it in a “spontaneous act of protest,” (supposedly) mimicking Ai Weiwei’s own destruction of a Han Dynasty pot. Weiwei’s action was one of dissent against the moral claims of Tradition, a middle finger to an authoritarian Chinese regime that seeks absolute power over its populace and which practices a ruthless capitalism.
Caminero says he did it for all the Miami artists not shown in museums here. Hardly holds a candle to Ai’s original gesture.
So, while the Editor here agrees that Caminero’s reasoning for smashing the pot is inane (seems like more a temper tantrum than an act of protest), the “smash heard ’round the world” has also created a space for critical engagement with several subjects raised in its wake: issues of property, consumption, and the actual struggles against the exploitative destruction of habitats, cultures, peoples, pottery, etc. We hope this essay helps to redirect the energy being fed into the pot-smashing spectacle and towards more pressing concerns.
This article is a critique of overdevelopment, not a cynical critique of the newly completed Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM). I’ll begin by taking a microcosmic view of PAMM’s architecture, in order to to gain perspective of how the Museum’s structure–specifically, the modern, minimalist wooden adornments–is positioned amongst an accelerated, environmentally harmful development scheme.
Next, from an imagined bird’s eye view, I hope to take a macrocosmic view of Miami and South Florida to interrogate the influencing role that pro-growth protagonists play in profiting off the myth that conspicuous condo and infrastructure development is a sustainable practice, as well as the denial that contributes to South Florida’s history of environmental degradation.
Here we are once again witnessing the resurgence of luxury condo development in South Florida–spurred on by a small group of private property developers who not only contribute to environmental degradation, but also profit directly by selling an artfully commodified simulacrum of environmentalism to consumers of culture. It is through this reproduction of environmental jargon that denial and passivity is nurtured by the instrumental commodification of art and architecture, whose content often includes mixed messages through which environmental issues are packaged and dispersed through social relationships and monumental installations that are fed to hyper-consuming liberal/progressive consumers. This article alludes to the denial and blatant hypocrisy, that surrounds environmental issues embedded in the so called liberal / progressive arts community, its institutions, and in the pro-growth community, here in Miami as well as throughout the global arts community.
That said, I sincerely support the new version of the Miami Art Museum at PAMM and hope for the best as an ongoing visitor and member.
To anyone who has participated in the arts, as a viewer or cultural producer, one already understands that every object, situational event, temporal work, architectural work, and so on, carries with it a history of ideas. Even a palmetto bug running across the gallery floor can be potentially pregnant with multiple meanings. Every work of art, whether it be performed, installed, set upon a pedestal, set in time, or built to shelter it all, is always loaded with intentional and unintentional meaning. Semiotic baggage is part of any human endeavor. So PAMM, formerly the Miami Art Museum located downtown, offers much curbside baggage packed in crates that can be pried open and deconstructed.
Bear with me while I unpack a few.
On or about December third, I arrived at the Museum and managed to walk past the PAMM sign with less irritation than I anticipated. Still, I considered what it signified to me: a tribute to the concentration of wealth, the chronic avarice of self-serving promotion hidden behind the ethics of gifting (for tax breaks), all in the name of philanthropy. The font flaunted a monumental advertising scheme, illuminating a megalomaniacal real-estate developer’s concept of billionaire affirmative action. It signaled that non-cultural capital has finally leveraged its name on top of a public art institution by taking advantage of MAM’s less-than-satisfactory fundraising base.
However, upon entering the grounds and passing through the Museum’s wooden doors, a much anticipated satisfaction hit me–the open expanse reveals a new, wonderful building. The feeling is warm, almost mood-neutral. It’s a complex where art will dominate the voluminous-but-easily navigable space; smartly designed to move large amounts of people seamlessly without bumping shoulders.
Its exhibition spaces are numerous and its auditorium serves as a hangout and transition between the first and second floor. This ascending and descending, a structural minimal work of art in its own right, serves the positive potential for creating a place of conviviality. Frank Lloyd Wright would most likely envy the architects’ outside/inside presence, designed strategically to inform the interiority on many levels (However, until more outside vegetation emerges, we are stuck looking at cruise ships parked on distant sea walls–which almost brags of the colossal, floating, environmentally polluting machines).
The new MAM will without a doubt serve the arts community well. It will also offer the best view in town–through enormous panels of hurricane-resistant windows–of the monumental pro-growth mania that preceded and emerges alongside the PAMM at Miami’s Museum Park (formerly Bicentennial Park) and beyond. Overdevelopment is the name of the game here in Miami, and the overuse of natural resources, as well as the displacement of the natural environment, has plagued the history of construction in South Florida.
Today, the construction of tourist destinations has given way to the building of Trophy/Luxury Condos, part and parcel of what contributes to environmental degradation and to the scarcity of natural resources. And it’s precisely that scarcity that ironically becomes part of the baggage served up by the well-intentioned Pérez Art Museum Miami, a project seeking LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification no less.
After a quick observation of the new PAMM, the abundance of wood throughout the new building creates the warm and familiar atmosphere for a nostalgic mood. It’s a bit overwhelming considering the pronounced amount of white Oak flooring; the pricey plantation teak used for wall accents, exterior cladding, doors, decking, cabinets and rails; the reclaimed Ipe for decking and planters; and greenheart for roof purlins–not to mention the wood hidden away in offices and other rooms throughout the museum.
All in all, it is a comforting modernist use of wood translated from an anachronistic aesthetic, yet it remains discomforting to a 21st century environmentalist. One reason is that the woods were milled using quarter or rift sawn lumbering, cutting methods which reveal a higher number of closely spaced growth rings, thus creating the more aesthetically pleasing, natural look. These methods, while giving the wood more stability, also create a lot of wood waste. Such is the price for the look.
The conspicuous use of a wood in PAMM is relatively large for one building, not unlike the the millions of board-feet used in hundreds of luxury condos that litter the South Florida waterfront. The use of thick solid wood for flooring and larger-sized beams as ornamental roof purlins highlights the the lack of concern for a dwindling natural resource. Woods, as a commodity increasing in scarcity, has resulted in forests reaching critical scarcity. This was already true decades ago–and as the retreat of natural forests continues, so does greater environmental degradation in the form of global warming.
The world’s forests are one of the Earth’s great carbon sinks–a natural reservoir for carbon sequestration, the process by which carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere (a leading cause of accelerated global climate change). Natural forests have been shrinking due to human population expansion and exploitation for centuries, but the process has escalated more so in the last 100 years.
“Scarcity of natural resources has been of concern to industrial societies since Malthus developed his theory of population growth and resource use in the late 18th century. Barnett and Morse, in 1963, tested the widely held premise that natural resource commodities are becoming more economically scarce. They concluded that of all major natural resource commodities—agricultural, mineral, and timber—only timber commodities were increasing in economic scarcity. In particular, sawlogs have shown consistent increases in economic scarcity since the late 1800’s.” (Kenneth Skog, Trends in Economic Scarcity of U.S. Timber Commodities, U.S. Department of Agriculture)
This issue is inadvertently on display at the debut at the new PAMM–highlighted not only by the structure itself, but also commented on further by two exhibitions inside. All three ironically share a common antagonistic curatorial subtext: that this institution’s claim to be an environmentally friendly building is a bit dubious.
A wooden Panel truck, by Mark Dion, and an exhibition by Ai Weiwei, join the architectural work of Herzog & de Meuron in fulfilling the sub-curatorial role not mentioned in the brochures. However, it is precisely this issue that mirrors the history of Miami and all of South Florida: for South Florida was built by draining swamps and deforestation.
The irony begins on the first floor. The first installation speaks volumes as a self-mocking statement, a most ill-conceived centerpiece for the opening exhibit of a new Museum that touts LEEDs success. The installation–owned by PAMM–is titled South Florida Wildlife Rescue Unit, created in 2006 by Mark Dion. The work “focuses on human interaction with the Everglades and the South Florida ecosystem. Interweaving the diverse disciplines of art, science, ecology, history, and archeology, Dion’s project tells the story of different mentalities and motivations that have determined our history with Florida’s wilderness.”
It’s an emergency truck that could be used to save threatened species, complete with safari-like clothing and equipment. This work comments on urban sprawl, deforestation, water depletion and a myriad of other negative man-made causes that threatens the natural environment and its species.
Moving on up to the next floor, I encounter an exhibition of work by the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, titled “According To What?” This is the first major touring international survey of this artist’s multi-disciplined artistic oeuvre. Although Ai Weiwei’s work over the decades has solidified his relevance as an artist, this exhibition, like others of his, runs the risk of turning his work into a clichéd version of itself.
Since his highly-publicized arrest for political dissidence (and subsequent release), the work now reduces political dissidence into platitudes–deflating a once potently expressive impresario who provoked the authoritarian Chinese state. This, after all, is the fate for most if not all political content in the arts when confronted by market forces, which commodify once radical narratives into salient art market investments.
Ai Weiwei’s inclusion in this premier museum event may have much to do with his previous collaboration with Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, since Ai worked as an artistic consultant on the Beijing National Stadium for the 2008 Olympics. As such, Ai Weiwei’s prestige inadvertently echoes the theme of this article, as well the contradictions inherent in flaunting the LEED certification.
The particular work of Ai Weiwei’s that is relevant to this article is titled Moon Crest. This work speaks the same outlandish paradoxes central to the Herzog & de Meuron designed PAMM building. The contradictions are integral to the same deforesting practices that exist in China, which unequivocally mirror a commonality commensurate between Western and Eastern market-driven environmental exploitation. In this respect and others, our Western neoliberal capitalism shares a common denominator with Chinese state-driven capitalism–both are spurred by profitable environmental over-exploitation of timber and other natural resources. We see this in both the artist’s exhibition and in the architectural display that is the Pérez Art Museum Miami.
Weiwei’s Moon Crest consists of wooden cabinets. They were made out of Huanghuali wood, (or Huali), a rare tree endemic to China. Moon Crest counters another work in the exhibit, titled Kippe, 2006, made from Tieli wood (iron wood) recycled from dismantled temples of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). However, Moon Crest is not fabricated from recycled wood, it’s constructed from a shrinking supply of a protected species, which in itself speaks of the clout that Ai has as an artist in China.
The crate-like boxes that form “Moon Crest” were crafted with the skill of a collaborating master wood joiner (a joiner is a type of wood worker that cuts and fits Joints in wood without the use of nails, screws or other metal fasteners). Huanghuali trees are threatened by over-exploitation. The wood has become very scarce and is under state protection because it is close to extinction. Huanghuali is one of the few hardwoods that have been used over the centuries to make royal furniture. These cabinets by Ai have holes in them to allow the viewer to see all the phases of the moon (one phase equals one month). To put that into perspective: it would take about 1,200 moon cycles for a single Huaghuali tree to mature, or 100 years.
Is this radical art mixed with radical politics, or is this art that celebrates Political Kitsch merely bolstered by radical politics? By mixing political content (and denial) with scarce or recycled exotic wood and other ready made materials, it’s clear that Ai is aware of the materials and means which are available to him.
PAMM’s major contribution to environmental degradation is the conspicuous use of hundreds of thousands of feet of wood, both North American timber as well as other tropical species. PAMM’s high profile opening tries to position itself as environmentally friendly, but also exhibits its complicity in the (de)foresting practices of today.
In preplanning the proposal for the new PAMM the architects focused their attention on the material history of Miami, which evokes a nostalgia for a time when the term “sustainable” meant little or nothing in the local vernacular. “Jacques [Herzog] had an awareness of the fact that, historically, Florida was a wooden architecture place, an architecture of piers, causeways,” Riley says. The scheme they eventually presented to the trustees “fossilized the characteristics of wood architecture, meaning long, slender plank-like pieces, and made it more monumental. We loved this discussion.”
The problem with this approach is that it is in complete denial of what erased all of South Florida’s natural forest from the get-go. It’s the same approach that led to the National Park Service playing the role as curator of a huge natural history museum, or in today’s vernacular, a “Park”: a commodified version of what should naturally need no protection. The Big Cypress Swamp and the Everglades National Forest, for now, are the last growing stand of natural Cypress and other wood and plant species, as well as freshwater and other terrestrial ecosystems left in Florida.
Originally Florida had an estimated 27 million acres of original old growth forest, but by the turn of the 20th century, approximately 15 million acres of original growth forest were left. Now, virtually all of Florida’s natural and original growth forest are gone: it had been logged and cleared out by the mid-20th century. However, thanks to replanting, Florida now has over 16 million acres of managed forests (Industrial Tree Plantations), representing nearly half of the state’s land area. Forests in Florida are managed to produce a variety of wood and fiber products, with about 650 million cubic feet of roundwood harvested annually.
However, Industrial Tree Plantations are no more than a utilitarian activity that results in pro-growth strategies, creating a rebound effect that escalates even faster timber extraction and exploitation. Industrial tree plantations have exacerbated the problem: by and large, they create wood monocultures that replace the biodiversity of a natural forest with a much smaller fraction of the original.
Old growth forests are important carbon sinks because they store carbon for centuries, which helps counter the anthropological cause of global warming and climate change. However, since the invention of industrial tree plantations, the thinking that tree plantations serve the same purpose as old growth forest has been revealed as flawed, if not completely false. The forestry industry would like it both ways–to grow trees that produce a sustainable monoculture timber, while making the bogus claims that tree plantations are a qualitative substitute for natural forests as optimal carbon sinks.
“Tree plantations are not forests. A plantation is a highly uniform agricultural system that replaces natural ecosystems and their rich biodiversity,” says Sandy Gauntlett, a member of the Pacific Indigenous Peoples Environment Coalition. “The trees planted are geared to the production of a single raw material, whether it is timber, pulp, rubber, palm oil or others.”
Sources of denial concerning the growing scarcity of timber is mostly created by the Forestry industry itself by selling mixed message. At various times, the Forestry industry promotes contradictory claims; on the one hand, it’s argued for years that tree plantations should receive carbon credits for being carbon sinks, while also claiming that old growth forests are carbon neutral or even net emitters of carbon dioxide.
Commercialization of nature has become a catalyst for the widespread, delusional optimism that timber production is sustainable, that an industrial tree plantation qualifies as an environmentally sustainable goal. While it’s true that the growth of industrial tree plantations can sustain a quantitative supply of timber for commercial and societal growth, it’s another matter when one claims that these plantations offer a solution for sustaining a healthy environment. In this regard, commercializing of the term “Sustainable” has become appropriated by creative marketers so that they may preach the status quo.
The “Wood Eternal” has for many generations played a similar role as the term sustainable does today. An uncanny meme is embedded in both terms. Both “sustainable” and the “Wood Eternal” imply a sense of the eternal or permanence, ad infinitum.
The “Wood Eternal” is a nickname given to cypress because, like the cedar, cypress is naturally resistant to rot and insects. But unlike cedar, cyprus grows in fresh water. Cypress also contains a natural preservative called cypressene which prevents the growth of fungi that causes decay. Today, in relation to the history of ideas, the moniker “Wood Eternal” contains a cypressene-like meme that perpetuates and preserves the concept of the “Wood Eternal”. It’s not too much a stretch to assert that this meme has emerged into the modern version of that moniker: Sustainable.
The concept of a sustainable forest is not a delusional concept at all, nor is the idea and practice of maintaining a sustainable forest impossible to resuscitate. Far from it. For instance, indigenous people who live in remote regions of the Amazon display a realistic, skilled approach to maintaining a high quality of life within a healthy canopy. As well, “many of the affected communities have recently lived traditional and sustainable lifestyles for centuries before industrial plantations upset their way of life. All of them depended on the land for their livelihood.”
Isaac Rojas, of Friends of the Earth International, adds, “On the lands currently occupied by plantations, there used to be or could be agricultural crops that would help ensure the people’s food sovereignty, managed by peasant communities. Or these communities and indigenous peoples could use the land for sustainable activities that would improve their quality of life, such as community forest management.”
The indigenous people were for the most part “Possession Regimes,” the original curators of the forest and other terrestrial ecosystems. Unfortunately, Possession Regimes gave way to the colonizing power of “property regimes” (the spanish conquistadors for example), whose greater technologies and greater war capabilities privatized the forest and the commons for the few.
Sustainability in this original respect was not a utopian dream, it was a way of life. The desire for the sustainable is not just a nostalgic desire that can be satisfied by the latest environmental fad promoting a return to a simpler time. For environmental jargon is just that, jargon, and once we re-realize the mania behind most pro-growth expansion is not for the sake of community but for the sake of profit, only then we can start to see that the best investment lies in sustaining the environment instead of the developers’ bottom line.
In conclusion, I want to stress that growth is not always the answer, for even MAM could have stayed where it was; for de-growth is a growing alternative and by renovating existing space, MAM or any other institution could have sustained an expanded program[.]
This post was contributed by Richard Haden.