Liminality is an essential feature of architecture. Through the techniques of design and the materials of construction, liminality demarcates space as interior or exterior and differentiates cultivated places from fractious environments. Whether defined as natural or built, architecture's intricate entanglement with its surroundings perpetually nudges its disciplinary focus from the building as object to the field.
Although from the 1950s into the 1970s critics thoroughly discussed the relational discourses between architecture and the environment, these themes have recently received renewed attention and even institutionalization. The Emilio Ambasz Institute for the Joint Study of the Built and the Natural Environment at New York's Museum of Modern Art is just one prominent case in point. The institute was founded to encourage the investigation of trans-scalar and cross-historical relationships between environments and their human and nonhuman actors, for which architectural structures serve as mediating agents.
Linking the growing interest in environments with the escalating social urgency for active environmentalism, Etienne S. Benson's Surroundings documents the history of the concept of “environment” as well as its implications for future ecologies. Six sweeping historical vignettes traverse temporal and geographical limits to compile a composite image of the complex relations between actors and their surroundings, emphasizing their intimate association: “We are environments just as much as we are in environments” (1). Throughout, the book engages the processes of thought and adaptation—via rhetoric, practices, technologies, or social relations—that engender ways to mobilize the concept of the environment or its derivatives, and thus to construct knowledge about the world.
Distancing itself from genealogical histories of the concept, the publication extends its scope from prehistory to the envisioned abandonment of the term environment. On one side, it seeks residual manifestations of how historical actors conceived of themselves and their world prior to the rising popularity of the term in the nineteenth century and across imperial projects—that is, environment (British/U.S.), milieu (French/Dutch/Belgian), Umwelt (German), ambiente (Spanish/Portuguese/Italian). On the other side, it engages various contemporary scholarly discussions of the “other” ecologies that transgress the concept's perceived discursive limitations, given that no single definition sufficiently addresses the diversity of coexisting planetary environments—such as Bruno Latour's actorial Gaia or Donna J. Haraway's “sympoietic” Chthulucene.1 Benson's inquiry draws from these extremes—a before and after—to inform contemporary debates about environments and environmentalisms as they converge with the ever-present and admonishing leitmotif of the Anthropocene.
By stressing the urgency of developing a conscious environmentalist position in light of contemporary discourses on climate, energy, and viral contagions, the book joins recent histories of science, technology, and the natural or built environments—such as Joy Parr's Sensing Changes (2010), Andrea Wulf's The Invention of Nature (2015), and Daniel A. Barber's Modern Architecture and Climate (2020)—whose attempts at seeding environmental consciousness exceed the historical project and existing disciplinary structures to argue for awareness and ultimately change.2
Steeped in an approach that emphasizes “materialized cosmologies”—following the methodological considerations of the historian of science and ideas John Tresch—the book proposes the concept of “environmentalization,” seeking to transcend mere contextualization (e.g., representation, interpretation) by focusing on the material conditions between entities (e.g., organisms, species, communities) and systems (e.g., biosphere), along with the practices or techniques that form and are informed by them.3 Exploring how the relations between these various agents and their frameworks transform from one historical episode and geography to the next, Benson's chapters unfold as historically situated themes with widely differing contents, which range from French naturalists' systematization of life and the economization of organisms in the early nineteenth century to early twenty-first-century writers' confabulations of anthropozoic climate change and the planetary necropolitics of the human enterprise.
Benson's disparate vignettes, presented in a chronological progression, use a template-like structure to connect particular variations of the concept of environment to its spawned forms of environmentalism across time and place. Postrevolutionary Paris sets the initial scene. The Muséum d'Histoire Naturelle utilized its imperial networks and the systematic classification of the natural world to exploit emerging socioeconomic opportunities, bridging different environmental conditions and moving species from their original habitats to desired locations. A subsequent discussion turns to medical statistics and the regulation of colonial lands and racialized bodies in the nineteenth-century British Caribbean. The oppressing empire justified its expansionism through an environmental theory of health that rationalized biotechnical supremacy together with scientific racism. Benson then leaps to Gilded Age Chicago, where the progressive settlement movement made significant environmentalist strides by seeking reforms to the industrialized urban landscape and, thus, the welfare of the “social organisms” that served it. Such a conscious engagement with the environment was meant to enable communities to transform their surroundings and thus their conditions of life.
Switching scales, the book next explores the coupling of extraction industries with geopolitics in interwar U.S.–Europe–Soviet relations. Western powers, in exercising conceptual and practical control over global flows of energy, abstracted human and nonhuman matter into strategic biogeochemical materials with serious implications for the larger planetary metabolic system of the biosphere. Benson subsequently turns his focus to the United States to address the establishment of environmental policies in postwar U.S. consumer culture. In response to grassroots activism for environmental justice and the universalist environmentalism extending across the lines of class, gender, and race, the era's negotiations centered on the acceptable levels of toxic contamination (e.g., carcinogens, biocides) in foods and spaces of incidental exposure. Finally, the book returns to the precarious present with a discussion of 1990s enviro-capitalism—when atmospheric modeling and climate science only served to exacerbate the schism between the global North and global South. Now, a new master term—the Anthropocene—dictates the rules of engagement under which all human activity is subsumed as the defining agent within the imbalanced planetary system. Set against the Earth's volatile transition from a sphere of life (biosphere) to a sphere of death (thanatosphere), the newest discussions coax contemporary and alternative environmentalisms.
While Benson navigates Surroundings with an enviable ability to transition from hyperlocal to global analyses, the book's coherence is at times threatened by extreme scalar leaps, disjunctive geographies, kaleidoscopic subject matter, protracted temporalities, and, as a consequence, tenuous connections between the scenarios the author analyzes and describes. Still, such discontinuities support a comparative synthesis of what constitute in the first place the abrupt although evolutionary changes currently existing within the embroiled history of environments and environmentalisms. The author fully acknowledges these symptomatic instabilities and notes that the book relates but one of many possible histories. The book's eclecticism, including its citing of different theoretical approaches in several European languages, is the necessary result, Benson concedes, of his scholarly focus on the textual analysis of untranslated works. Given the salient emphasis on U.S. policy making, environmental activism, and geopolitics throughout the book's final chapters and conclusion, the author might have enhanced his line of argumentation by recasting the geography slightly—for example, from the eighteenth-century French naturalists to the radical ecological changes imposed by European colonialists on Native Americans and the “New World” since the seventeenth century, as sketched previously by William Cronon's foundational Changes in the Land (1983).4
Moreover, Surroundings exemplifies the transdisciplinary research that permeates the emerging field of environmental humanities. Each chapter aggregates a microcosm of thought, introducing readers to the topic while also serving as an essential reference for scholars who are already engaged in discourses related to the environment, whether natural or built. Historians of architecture will be drawn particularly to Benson's discussion of the correlations between social disorder and urban developments during the Gilded Age, which expands on recent scholarship that engages the history of tenements and the settlement movement. Moreover, by pairing historical and contemporary critiques of environments and environmentalisms, the book suggests zones of potential contact for other scholars in the field of architecture who view environments as fraught ground for corrective maneuvers on many fronts, including race, ethnicity, gender, class, disability, and sexuality.5 With Surroundings, Benson provides a compelling demonstration of the profound material consequences that seemingly arbitrary choices of concepts have for “how we think, talk, and write but also who we ally ourselves with and against and what we do and make together” (196). Thus, to piggyback on the author's urgent plea that we recognize in our current moment future speculations regarding what the environment might become: readers may find that this book yields another important realization, that we surround as much as we are surrounded.
Bruno Latour, Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime, trans. Catherine Porter (Medford, Mass.: Polity, 2017); Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2016).
Joy Parr, Sensing Changes: Technologies, Environments, and the Everyday, 1953–2003 (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010); Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015); Daniel A Barber, Modern Architecture and Climate: Design before Air Conditioning (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2020).
See John Tresch, “Cosmologies Materialized: History of Science and History of Ideas,” in Rethinking Modern European Intellectual History, ed. Darrin McMahon and Sam Moyn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 153–72.
William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England, rev. ed. (New York: Hill and Wang, 2003). For a focused discussion of U.S. environmental history, see Mark Fiege, The Republic of Nature: An Environmental History of the United States (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2012).
Examples include Ana María León and Andrew Herscher's Settler Colonial City Project; Irene Cheng, Charles L. Davis II, and Mabel O. Wilson's editorial and curatorial work on the entanglements of race and architecture; Aimi Hamraie's critical access studies; Dalal Musaed Alsayer, Daniel A. Barber, and Carson Chan's platform Current: Collective for Architecture History and Environment; and Esther Choi's BIPOC-led and -focused mentorship initiative Office Hours.