The Optimist

One way to ensure a better future for our planet? Give people something to look forward to.

WE HAVE SEEN HOW THE WORLD as we know it is supposed to end. Public service announcements, Hollywood blockbusters, and even animated children’s movies preview the coming environmental apocalypse: the fish die, the air becomes unbreathable, the polar ice caps melt and wash humanity away.

That’s not the future Maria Aiolova, AET ’94, ARC ’96, sees. In her vision, we make it. But there are radical changes: Cars are a shared utility, stacked like shopping carts on city streets. Our homes are living things, built with intertwined trees and walls of vegetation. Cities are self-reliant ecosystems, producing their own energy and food—spaces designed to accommodate the will of nature first and human consumption second.

These are the kind of fantastical ecological solutions to extreme environmental problems proposed by Terreform ONE, the New York City design nonprofit Aiolova cofounded in 2006. They are big, dramatic ideas, meant to offer hope rather than instill fear. “Our goal is to set up this positive vision for the future,” she says. “We want to convince people that it is going to be wonderful.”

INSIDE THE TERREFORM ONE OFFICES in downtown Brooklyn, Aiolova is growing a brick. Right now, it is a soupy chocolate brown paste in a plastic bowl, but after the addition of some mushroom spores and 10 days of growth, it will be a nontoxic, moisture-resistant, fully compostable building material stronger than concrete. “We’ve run some numbers, and you can make these bricks for less than a quarter of a penny,” says Aiolova. “For the developing world, where construction materials are very scarce and expensive, you can start manufacturing these with a micro-loan of five hundred dollars.” And there’s no cost to the Earth—no mining for minerals, no cutting down trees. It’s the kind of project that is typical of Terreform ONE: pragmatic solutions to real problems that at first glance seem to be too fantastical, too futuristic—buildings made of mushrooms?—to be real.

And that is one of their more conservative ideas. Terreform ONE has drawn up plans for impact-absorbing soft cars that will end automobile fatalities; mass transit systems using blimps with hanging chairs; water taxis with on-board gyms whose treadmills and stationary bikes power its locomotion. In 2006, the group took home The History Channel’s City of the Future award with an ecological vision of Manhattan in 2106 that favored pedestrians over automobiles and was completely self-sustainable; they completed a similar vision of Brooklyn last year.

Typical urban-design and architecture firms are too focused on client needs to come up with these kinds of big ideas. So Aiolova and her partner made sure her firm wasn’t typical. “When [cofounder Mitchell Joachim and I] got together, we wanted Terreform ONE to be a nonprofit, because we were much more interested in research than development and construction,” she s

ays. The group’s model has also allowed Aiolova, a one-time Wentworth adjunct faculty member and current professor at Pratt Institute and Parsons New School of Design, to realize a longtime dream of starting her own school.

In addition to mentoring interns, Terreform ONE hosts a summer educational program for college students. For the past two years, it focused on experimental work in the green space on their building’s roof (see cover). This summer’s program will center on hands-on biodesign projects like growing the mushroom bricks as well as seminars on synthetic biology and workshops on topics like environmental remediation of pollution. “I think we are at a pivotal point where we can rethink the profession of architecture,” says Aiolova. Challenging the orthodoxy means making space for biology in buildings. “Architecture tends to reject all the things that came before,” says Aiolova. “In science, it is a different approach—you take what was there before.”

Like their Fab Tree Hab proposal—the home made of living trees. It employs a popular Medieval-era technique called “pleaching” to bend and graft branches together to form specific structures. “She is part of a new breed who are reinventing the profession,” says John Ellis, chair of Wentworth’s architecture department, who taught Aiolova and can still recall her student projects. “It’s being talked about everywhere: ‘What is the future?’ And it’s people like Maria and her group that make that happen. They are forming a new direction.”

Maria Aiolova, AET ’94, ARC ’96, in Terreform ONE's rooftop farm in Brooklyn

NOT ALL OF AIOLOVA’S PROJECTS are set in the distant future. She and Joachim are part of a recently launched for-profit firm called Planetary ONE, which she describes as a mix of like-minded designers who want to “tackle bigger projects.” One of their first ventures is working with a development group to build a whole new city in Brazil from scratch using ecological principles. She is also working closely with New York City’s planning commissioner on Terreform ONE’s second annual urban design competition, ONEPrize, which invites designers to create a “sixth borough” using the city’s waterways. “We’ve had great conversations with the administration, and we think New York City is primed to really experiment and implement these ideas so that other cities learn from it,” she says.

The opportunity to redefine cities is especially meaningful to Aiolova. She was raised in Bulgaria by her grandparents, who instilled in her an almost magical ideal of the United States as the “new world”—a place of untold opportunity. Wars and politics kept her grandparents from leaving, but Aiolova sees her success as the fulfillment of their dream. “The freedom to create something of your own and get the support, both politically and from academic institutions—I think that would be hard to do anywhere else,” she says. “So, yeah, I still hold on to that ‘new world’ idea.” Only now, she isn’t just living in the new world. She is creating the next one, trying to inspire another generation searching for hope. —DAN MORRELL

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24 comments

  1. sam /

    It is a great thing that hope for the human race in a precarious future world is being considered in this article. I am rather not convinced that trying to solve it lies proposing neo-futuristic forms devoid of concrete human experiences.

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