Daily Features

To the Ends of the Earth: Pilgrimages to Unmapped Landscapes

Twice a year, designers Kate Davies and Liam Young of Unknown Fields Division take a crew of students and collaborators to far-flung places worth exploring

By Laura Raskin, Superscript September 26, 2013

Kate Davies and Liam Young organize and run Unknown Fields Division (UFD), a “nomadic design studio” housed within London’s Architectural Association School of Architecture. Twice a year, these designers, critics, and curators take a motley crew of students, artists, and collaborators on three-week treks to unexpected hinterlands—the places that support or reflect modernity, but rarely get the spotlight. So far, UFD has conducted eight missions, from the west Australian outback and the Arctic Circle, to the site of the Chernobyl disaster and, this summer, Madagascar. Laura Raskin spoke with Young about these unexpected investigations.

This summer, UFD explored the sapphire towns and mining landscapes of Madagascar.

Laura Raskin: How did the idea for the studio come about?
Liam Young:
We wanted to engage with the world and a critical part of that was getting out into the world, to tell a story about cities and landscapes that wasn’t being told. So often cities are conditioned by peripheral landscapes that are out of sight, out of mind. We wanted to get students out of the familiar comforts of architectural institutions and into landscapes to bear witness to them, and to re-imagine or re-map the city as a place conditioned by—and that conditions—a wide array of landscapes that architects normally don’t think about.

LR: Why go to Madagascar?
This year is supposed to be the first free election there since 2009, when there was a military coup. Until 2009, Madagascar was relatively protected by a stable government and had extraordinary conservation programs in place. The rest of the world poured huge amounts of money into those programs to protect this rare and fragile ecosystem. What happened after 2009 was a destabilization of that condition. It became a kind of free-for-all. There was a massive rush to these resources, from rosewood poaching to gemstone mining. We wanted to be there for that change, because what we choose to do in a place like Madagascar will define who we are as a culture.

LR: Tell me about some of the work that has come out of the trip.
TANK Magazine in London was one of our media partners and they are releasing a collection of portraits of workers we met along our journey. The sapphire mining pits are holes in the ground and they use human conveyer belts. All over Madagascar you see instances where the body is repurposed as machine. We did a series of portraits of these “mechanisms,” which are actually portraits of people. We always do one filmic output and one print output after each trip.

In the winter of 2012, UFD traveled to Mexico City and Central America to study the rise and fall of ancient and modern cities and civilizations.

LR: Did you visit any structures or buildings?
We moved through villages composed of sheds made of found materials. To speak of it as architecture would be a stretch. That’s really the point—we’re not architectural tourists. We don’t go to India to see Chandigarh.

LR: Anyon can join the studios?
Summer expeditions are open to everyone. The winter one is a focused research studio for the Architectural Association. When we went to Chernobyl we had a radiation worker from the Bay Area who removed waste from industrial sites and he wanted to go to this iconic landscape. We had someone born one year before the Chernobyl disaster in Pripyat, Ukraine. She was evacuated in the middle of the night, wrapped in a rug, and put on a bus. Our trip was the first time she could go back. 

LR: Do you have a winter trip planned?
We’re looking into global supply chains. We’ve been developing partnerships with shipping companies. We want to trace the origins and back stories of familiar objects of the city. So we’re going onboard massive cargo ships to follow the trail of objects from the hole in the ground to the point of consumption.

The Chernobyl control room. In the summer of 2011, UFD explored the stretch from the exclusion zone of the Chernobyl Nuclear Reactor in the Ukraine and Gagarin’s launchpad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Journalist Jessica Charlesworth documented the group's summer 2012 trip from Roswell, New Mexico, to the Burning Man Festival. Photo by Jessica Charlesworth.
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