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Spa Sybarite. On wellness, climate change and the architects’ agency
A conversation with Joshua Dawson on disaster capitalism and the exploitation of the climate crisis.

On the one hand, wellness: a buzzword, a lifestyle, and a multi-million dollar industry targeted as luxury for the wealthiest in our society. On the other, climate change: “the biggest global health threat to the 21st century”. In the middle, design and the agency of architecture. What would happen if capitalism brought these three elements together? Disguised as a commercial ad, Spa Sybarite is a film that imagines this eerie yet possible scenario. While establishing a dialogue with Beatriz Colomina’s X-Ray Architecture and Glenn Albrecht neologisms, designer and filmmaker Joshua Dawson raises questions about access to healthcare, sustainability in design, our contemporary obsession with biometric data and the future of architecture as un-built design.

KOOZ What prompted the project and this specific approach to our changing climate and its potential impact on architecture?

JD A few years ago, I worked in the hospitality sector of a commercial architecture firm that mostly designed high-end hotels. Many clients would provide us with their Pinterest boards filled with “inspiration images” of other luxury spas from around the world, leaving no agency to the architect beyond the technical execution of the building code. Ironically, even while they were striving to achieve LEED accreditation, their proposed materials were never region-specific and would often need to be imported using unsustainable methods.

The words “wellness” and “wellbeing” were used constantly, and sometimes interchangeably, to describe the project, while the clients planned price points for the accommodations at the highest market rates. I later realised that this attitude was simply a microcosm of the hospitality industry at large where the concept of “bodily rejuvenation” was used predominantly as a marketing gimmick. While working in a commercial architecture office you quickly learn how often the service-driven nature of our industry only benefits the wealthiest interests in society.

Published in 2009, the first Lancet Climate Change Commission's concluding remark was simple, albeit potent… “Climate change is the biggest global health threat of the 21st century.” Yet, while the rapid pace of a changing climate continues to increase health risks exponentially, hospitals tend to get less attention than luxury hotels, based on my observation.

Wellness is a multi-trillion-dollar industry encompassing far more than spas, supplements, or diet pills – it's a lifestyle choice that extends from simple exercise practices to elaborate interventions. However, unlike the medical industry whose products require clinical trials and FDA (Food and Drug Administration) approvals, wellness technology isn’t held to the same level of scientific scrutiny, allowing for its products, marketing, and messaging to ebb and flow with the trends and the latest preoccupations of its consumers.

As I thought about the inflated, sometimes dangerous messaging around wellness, I realised that it was only a matter of time before someone took the obvious opportunity to market wellness as the solution to climate illness. This gave birth to the idea of a “Climate Spa”.

Spa Sybarite’s critique doesn’t intend to target the concept or practices of wellness, but caution us of an industry exploiting our desire for health.

KOOZ What questions does the cautionary architectural typology of the “Climate Spa” seek to raise and which does it address?

JD The Climate Spa is not a far-off, completely futuristic speculation, but one that a company like Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop could commission to a starchitect. Therein lies the critique: have we become desensitised to companies making a profit from exploiting a crisis?

The most important question the “Climate Spa” seeks to raise is one of access. The fact that basic human needs are depicted as a luxury prompts us to wonder who can or can’t afford these facilities. Will the viewer have access to and afford this establishment? Spa Sybarite’s critique doesn’t intend to target the concept or practices of wellness, but caution us of an industry exploiting our desire for health.

It also addresses this new trend of investing in climate adaptation as opposed to climate change prevention. Therefore, a “climate spa” could very easily start to raise problems of a different nature and is not in fact a solution to climate change.

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KOOZ In her book X-Ray Architecture, Beatriz Colomina traces the psychopathologies of20th-century architecture suggesting that if we want to talk about the state of architecture today, we should look to the dominant obsessions with illness and the latest techniques of imaging the body—and ask what effects they have on the way we conceive architecture. Fast forward 100 years, how do you imagine the state of architecture being informed by this new architectural typology?

JD I think it would be fair to say that the obsession with the X-ray following the medical preoccupation with Tuberculosis 100 years ago is the equivalent of our obsession with biometric data today. With people rushing to contribute DNA to genome mapping projects, as well as with an abundance of personal biometric data accumulated through Fitbits, Apple Watches, and other wearable devices, our body is in a constant state of documentation. Its natural rhythms are being digitally replicated and diagnosed, allowing computational models to run simulations on our future medical states. We have various apps from health tech companies that see a benefit in early warning systems—to detect and respond not only to contagious illnesses but to personal health emergencies as well.

In the film, we see our character at the check-in counter. With a simple swipe, the system recognises her origin, parses its climatic condition, and in combination with her Electronic medical records (EMRs), runs a health analysis to recommend corresponding treatments.

The architecture of Spa Sybarite also speculates on the aesthetic repercussions of both physiological and psychological treatments raised by the climate. It isn’t architects that would play doctor and psychiatrist, as Beatriz Colomina mentions in her book, but wellness gurus peddling snake oil equivalents who would be playing the role of architects. Spa Sybarite continues to “mood-board” forward, regurgitating interiors that emulate the Spas of “green-washed” google results.

Just as Beatriz Colomina argues that the tuberculosis sanatorium acted as a laboratory for all of modern architecture, the climate spa or its equivalent would most certainly inform the future state of architecture.

Medical instruments informed by the EMRs like IV drips, pulse monitors, water fixtures, and hydroponic systems are wrapped with wood veneers, tile stickers, and brushed metal finishes, seeming to be one with the building rather than its appendages and make it resemble a medical instrument. In lieu of wallpapers, the walls of rooms have projections of warm-lit water reflections to ease the stress caused by a drought. Bathing pods lined with copper that regulate salts and minerals from the EMRs seem a Roman-Turkish cross and produce something completely bizarre yet cohesive with the rest of the complex.

The word solastalgia, coined by philosopher Glenn Albrecht in his publication Solastalgia: A New Concept in Human Health and Identity in 2005, is a neologism, formed by the combination of the Latin words “sōlācium” (comfort), and the Greek root “-algia” (suffering).It describes a form of emotional or existential anguish caused by environmental change. In the film, our character is seen suffering from Solastalgia due to the loss of her childhood home in a wildfire. To heal, she uses holographic generators that disperse and rebuild an immersive 3D version of the home that she describes from memory. It is very similar to AI text-to-image generators, but for holograms. This act of recounting and observing the reconstruction of a lost building within a building is proposed as a form of psychological therapy.

Just as Beatriz Colomina argues that the tuberculosis sanatorium acted as a laboratory for all of modern architecture, the climate spa or its equivalent would most certainly inform the future state of architecture. Currently, all signs point to our futures involving falling asleep in rooms adorned with water reflectors, to the hum of our personal hydroponic systems, producing crops that our local grocery stores can’t source, as we’re strapped to IV drips after spending a day in our solastalgia therapy rooms attempting to cope with the physical and mental toll of the climate crisis.

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KOOZ The project is articulated as a video. How is the medium deployed to provoke and instigate thought on the impact of climate change on health and wellness as well as their corresponding industries?

JD Taking the form of a commercial ad—a traditional yet dominant marketing tool—the film walks the viewer through the spa and its features. It was important that the ad didn’t engage the audience with an overly satirical voice/tone, as that would diminish the critique and the complexity of the situation in question.

Through a rapid sequence of shots, the film opens with the struggle of the character at the breaking point of eco-anxiety and ends with her leaving the spa feeling rejuvenated. The narrative documents our character's emotional arc from the entrance of the spa to her departure, all while selling us the existence of this sanctuary where you, too, could indulge in an experience both therapeutic and gratifying. Every decision that was to be made had to follow this arc, from hair and make-up transformations to costumes or lighting.

It was important that the architecture was a container for the character’s journey, hence I worked with my cinematographer Ashton Rae to choose the appropriate lenses for a mise-en-scène which balanced the framing of her perspective within this environment with the effect of the architecture on her.

At the risk of getting into the technical minutia, I created every camera move and lighting setup for each shot in a digital model of the spa in pre-production, enabling us to recreate it accurately and quickly on set over a single shoot day. To achieve a speculative architecture that would seem plausible to the audience, we realised that we needed to turn up the dial on the level of photorealism. This resulted in a single CGI shot in post-production that took weeks and sometimes months to complete.

Architects have a lot to learn from actors and their craft, not only their method of observation, sensory awareness, and deployment of affective memory to elicit specific emotional responses, but also their ability to use metaphor to make sense of the world within which they’re meant to act.

The fictional ad was shot entirely on a green screen stage in Burbank, Los Angeles, where the only live-action elements were the actor, Kyla Dyan, and any props that she came in contact with. It’s challenging for an actor to react to an environment that presumably has an impact on her when it doesn’t exist in its physical form. She had to act purely from her imagination on a green stage filled with nothing but c-stands, eye-line references and tape marks.

While preparing for the shoot, Kyla sent over a research document that she gathered on the character's nature, derived from an acting approach known as Alexander Technique. She understood her character through the movement of animals, where she described how she gravitated toward two mammals to abstractly mimic their behaviour for her performance. The first is the Bramble Cay melomys, a mouse-like creature that is the first mammal to go extinct as a direct result of human-induced climate change. Second is the western black rhino, which is on the verge of extinction due to excessive poaching. To protect the rhinos, they’re frequently airlifted out of their natural environment and brought to a protective sanctuary to heal. This drew parallels to Spa Sybarite and reshaped my understanding of the project as a sanctuary as opposed to simply a wellness facility or luxury spa.

Architects have a lot to learn from actors and their craft, not only their method of observation, sensory awareness, and deployment of affective memory to elicit specific emotional responses, but also their ability to use metaphor to make sense of the world within which they’re meant to act—all very useful design tools.

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Just as the term “filmmaking” or “cinema”, the role of architecture is a lot broader than it’s understood in our culture.

KOOZ The project uses speculation and narrative as tools for critical thinking. What is the potential of the architect beyond the mere construction of buildings?

JD A narrative provides a vehicle to test and prototype possible near and far visions of the future. More importantly, it also communicates that vision to a large public audience through various media/methods of storytelling. Cautionary tales, what-if-why-not scenarios, or thought experiments can help challenge our preconceptions about the world that we live in.

Making films and telling stories was never my goal as I was trained as an architect. However, just as the term “filmmaking” or “cinema” often finds itself constrained by the repercussions of the cultural grandiosity of the movie-making industrial complex, the role of architecture is a lot broader than it’s understood in our culture.

More often than not, the very issue needing resolution may need to be re-evaluated before it can be addressed.

Designers and architects are taught to believe that their abilities, skills, and way of thinking can fix the world’s problems through their products and services. Design is understood to be this act of problem-solving. However, what if architects acknowledge that most problems and many of the challenges we face today are unfixable in the hands of design alone and that the only way to overcome them is by changing our lifestyles, values, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviour? Their work could go one step further and use design not to problem-solve but to attempt to find and frame the right questions. While it's essential to constantly search for answers to the dominant issues at hand through curiosity and a focused line of inquiry, more often than not, the very issue needing resolution may need to be re-evaluated before it can be addressed. This is where architects stand to contribute in more meaningful ways: as interdisciplinary thinkers rather than just designers of buildings.

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KOOZ What is for you the power of the unbuilt imaginary?

JD The unbuilt imaginary has immense untapped potential to not only instigate or anticipate but actively shape our collective future. The act of using fiction as a tool to reflect and question present-day structures and systems, and reframing them by extrapolating alternative visions of society, can test our willingness to bear the cost of that future. It allows us to see a singular issue through myriad lenses, perspectives, and points of view.

Irrespective of the disciplinary nomenclature that we attribute to the variations of its process, whether it’s speculative architecture, world-building, world-making, critical design, or design fiction, the unbuilt imaginary can challenge the role of our built reality in today’s culture by raising important questions: Who funds our buildings? Who truly shapes our environment? What are the long-lasting impacts of what we build, not only on our environment, but also on the societies and economies of the marginalised and the privileged few? etc. Work that raises these questions can help establish a holistic framework to collectively reflect and redirect our policies, manifestos, and mission statements. I strongly believe this form of critical thinking to be a potent tool to advocate for change.

The act of using fiction as a tool to reflect and question present-day structures and systems, and reframing them by extrapolating alternative visions of society, can test our willingness to bear the cost of that future.

That being said, I would do this question a disservice if I didn't commenton the dangerous flip side of its power. We live in a culture of noise. The loudest voice travels the furthest. Dangerous rhetoric spreads faster than wildfire. The most provocative ideas usually find a way of making it into our daily feeds. However, the most compelling isn't always the most necessary. The best critical design often doesn’t get the credit it deserves because it’s not ostentatious but understated and our oversaturated visual culture doesn’t reward restraint but provocation and shock value. With the democratisation of tools like text-to-image generators and real-time visualisation game engines, conjuring and realising imaginative what-if and why-not scenarios have become more accessible. However, we also have an overabundance of ideas that are crafted to purely garner attention for click-bait. As a result, many of the status-quo issues that we aim to challenge are being reinforced and exacerbated through the very tools we’d hoped would disrupt and reinvent them. I remember being told as a student that “the best ideas will cut through the noise,” but I don’t believe that statement to be true anymore.

Images of the unbuilt imaginary draw their power from their support structures and the channels that distribute them.

I strongly believe, although perhaps naively so, that the images of the unbuilt imaginary draw their power from their support structures and the channels that distribute them. Hence, the unbuilt imaginary needs more voices from marginalised and underrepresented groups to not only test ideas that challenge the structures of power that they aim to dismantle, but also in academic, editorial, and curatorial positions that control the dissemination and critical evaluation of these ideas.

Bio

Joshua Ashish Dawson is an Indian-born world-builder, designer, and award-winning filmmaker based in Los Angeles. His films mix CGI with live-action to create fictional worlds to critique and study the built environment by exploring themes such as water politics, resource extraction, and climate change. Joshua’s films have been featured in numerous media outlets, including Vice Motherboard, Close-Up Culture, Director’s Notes, ArchDaily and Domus Italy. His work has been screened at renowned film festivals, TV channels and galleries across the globe including Architecture Film Festival, Rotterdam; Arquiteturas Film Festival, Lisbon; Archcine Fim Festival, Cinetekon Film Festival, Canal180, Fiber Festival, Chattanooga Film Festival, Brooklyn SciFi Festival. Joshua was the recipient of the 2019 Jury Prize for best Science Fiction film at the Academy Award-qualifying Cinequest Film Festival in San Jose. He received a Master’s in Advanced Architectural Studies from the University of Southern California, where he was the recipient of the S. Kenneth Johnson Memorial Scholarship and a Gesundheit Travelling Fellow. He has worked under Pritzker Prize-winning architect Balkrishna Doshi as well as Hollywood production designer Alex McDowell, founder of the World Building Institute at USC.

Federica Zambeletti is the founder and managing director of KoozArch. She is an architect, researcher and digital curator whose interests lie at the intersection between art, architecture and regenerative practices. In 2015 Federica founded KoozArch with the ambition of creating a space where to research, explore and discuss architecture beyond the limits of its built form. Parallel to her work at KoozArch, Federica is Architect at the architecture studio UNA and researcher at the non-profit agency for change UNLESS where she is project manager of the research "Antarctic Resolution". Federica is an Architectural Association School of Architecture in London alumni.

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Published
18 Feb 2023
Reading time
15 minutes
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