IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Daniel A. Barber Interview with CAPAS Fellow Daniel A. Barber

Daniel A. Barber is Associate Professor of Architecture and Chair of the Graduate Group in Architecture (PhD Program) at the University of Pennsylvania Stuart Weitzman School of Design. He received a PhD in Architecture History and Theory from Columbia University, and a Master of Environmental Design from Yale University.


What were your first thoughts when you saw the call for applications for the fellowship?

I sat down and wrote my motivation immediately. It was fully formed in my head. Now it has changed somewhat; become even more concerned with urgency but the basic trajectory of architecture as a medium – a visual register and a material substrate – for reading signs of and analyzing the apocalypse…or at least an end, I have learned to be careful, here at the Centre, it can be an end without being an apocalypse, an end of one way of living and the beginning of another. Mediated, reflected, and produced by architecture.

What does the apocalypse and/or post-apocalypse mean for you? 

I live in a general state of panic about the end of the world, especially relative to the prospects for my children and future generations. As a scholar of architecture, I feel an obligation to embrace these fears and paranoias, to sort of swim in them, in order to think clearly about how the discipline and profession can change; how it can focus on mitigating the worst of ongoing and increasingly violent climate disasters. The temporal exceptionalism of the apocalypse is an important cultural trope and conceptual driver for thinking about how urgent change can happen. I suppose the irony is my interest in the apocalypse as a concept is also some naïve or at least optimistic position that by accepting that some end has happened we can move through the present into a somewhat more realistically considered future. It is going to get worse before it gets better. At a conference on Radical Hope at the Rachel Carson Center in Munich some years ago a colleague used the term “apocaloptimistic” which is absurd and problematic but also impossible to discount as a sort of way forward; things will get much worse, but we have no choice but to get through it together.

What is your fellowship trying to achieve, which questions is it addressing, and with which methods?

Frankly, time to read and write. My ‘regular academic life’ is overwhelmed by teaching and even more administration and university service: all valuable work, cultivating a diverse and accomplished faculty, and considering curricular and other changes for professional programs focused on the climate emergency. But there is vanishingly little time for research. At CAPAS I have been reading and discussing articles and books with colleagues, and hiding away and writing.

I suffer, as do many of my colleagues, from a sort of plague of interdisciplinarity and there is never enough time to read. CAPAS is a great chance not only to read across an even wider number of fields, based on colleague suggestions or other topical connections, but also of course to discuss the texts with people working in those fields, or familiar with them in different ways. That sort of active discussion is vital to bringing knowledge back to architecture and discussions around climate and the design imaginary.  

How does the fellowship project build on or connect to your previous career or biography? 

This fellowship comes at a crucial time in in my career; a shift from a more historical/scholarly focus to a more pedagogical/curricular/administrative focus, and also a bit more public and dare I say activist. My next institutional position, yet to be determined, will be running a school. So, this fellowship is both in a practical sense a sort of last gasp of research – reading and writing – time and also a chance to reflect more freely and openly on the crisis dimensions of the present, the pedagogies and practices in architecture that can operate within a sort of post-apocalyptic, resource scarce (relative to the resources buildings are used to) world of a new kind of creativity and imagination. And now of course, climate disasters, pandemic, war 1000 km away, nuclear threats, how we operate amidst these ongoing catastrophes; how do we, how can we function and engage and flourish in this context. This is the challenge of the humanities.

My project at CAPAS is focused around the ‘aftermath’. I’m trying to understand how we can think about architecture as operating in an ‘after’ relative to fossil fuels, to the global energy system and to petroculture. This involves framing buildings as energy systems, considering the IAE’s ban on fossil fuel generation; it involves thinking about preservation, retrofit, adaptive reuse, etc.; thinking about comfort and adaptive comfort and different ways of living in interiors. I am also trying, as a scholar, administrator, critic of sorts and convenor of discussions with engineers, architects, natural and social scientists, policy makers and others; in this context I am trying to talk about, bring into discourse, find ways to encounter the urgency of the moment, the desperate need to transform our economies and relations to ecologies. In some ways, this is a lot about mourning, about recognizing what we and future generations have lost by what has already been wrought, emitted, by the “baked-in” nature of the climate crisis. This, again, is sort of the post-shuttering that I am interested in, the aftermath. Buildings, architecture – the design of buildings – as the creative medium of that transformation and taking on the project of building ways of life in the aftermath of carbon-fueled, growth oriented modernity.

What do you hope to take with you from the project and its results?

Mostly the discussions with colleagues. I am blessed to have the research time, but even more so to engage with such dynamic and interesting colleagues.

What are the aspects you are looking forward to with respect to input from other disciplines, other perspectives and the exchange with the fellows and people at CAPAS?

As above, there has already been much input and cross-fertilization with a number of colleagues. I have been playing online apocalyptic video games, watching movies and tv series, we are setting up a summer fiction list. We have also had the opportunity, with the faculty directors, to discuss the conduct of our discourse, the organization of our meetings and involvements. It is gratifyingly transparent.

To get some practical advice: What would be the three things you would definitely need in a post-apocalyptic world? 

A sailboat, a solar-water-desalination bag, and a fishing rod.

What are some of your favourite pop culture references to the/an (post)apocalypse — whether its films, books, a YouTube channel, or music — what can you recommend?

Uh oh. I’m a fan of science fiction, speculative fiction – in my seminars, I ask students to read two of the following novels over the semester, just to stay in a sort of speculative/ possibility frame of mind. We talk about them at a few points and some students choose to write their research paper on one or more… the list of course is just a beginning:

  • Atwood, Margaret

    . esp. Oryx and Crake trilogy
  • Bacigalupi, Paolo. The Water Knife
  • Butler, Octavia

    . esp. patternist series
  • Doctorow, Cory. Walkaway
  • El Akkad, Omar. American War.
  • Gibson, William. The Peripheral. 2014 and Agency 2020.
  • Lee, Chang-Rae. On Such a Full Sea.
  • Liu, Cixin. The Three-Body Problem
  • Mandel. Edna St. John Mandel. Station Eleven
  • Munīf ʻAbd al-Raḥmān. Cities of Salt, 1994.
  • Olukotun, Deji Bryce. Nigerians in Space. and After the Flare
  • Okorafor, Nnedi. Who Fears Death. and Lagoon
  • Penny, Laurie. Everything Belongs to the Future.
  • Robinson, Kim Stanley

    . esp Mars Trilogy and The Ministry for the Future, 2020.
  • Serpell, Namwali. The Old Drift
  • Sloley, Emma. Disaster’s Children.
  • Stephenson, Neal. Seveneves
  • Thompson, Tade. The Rosewater Trilogy. 
  • Tregillis, Ian. The Alchemy Wars. 
  • Vandermeer, Jeff. Borne.
  • Watkins, Claire Vaye. Gold Fame Citrus.
  • Whicker, Julia. Wonderblood.
  • Whitehead, Colson. Zone One.