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The Experimentalist: Mitchell Joachim

November 17, 2017
Mitchell Joachim

Photos: Recent Projects

Brooklyn-bred Mitchell Joachim hopes to turn New York into “the greenest city on the planet,” he says. Much of his work at sustainability-focused nonprofit architecture research and consulting group Terreform ONE, of which he is cofounder alongside fellow Harvard University grad Maria Aiolova, is pointed directly at that goal.

Joachim cut his teeth with innovators including Frank Gehry, I. M. Pei, and Moshe Safdie and has degrees from such prestigious universities as Harvard, MIT, and Columbia. So, when opening his own firm, “I knew I didn’t want to have any kind of traditional practice. I wanted it to be experimentalist, and a nonprofit seemed to be a way where we could survive,” he says. The practice started in 2006 in a building in Downtown Brooklyn that ultimately confined Joachim’s aspirations. “We saw architecture as part garage experiments, not just fancy people behind computers,” he says. “It requires a different facility.” Recently they found a true home in a massive shared space with other creatives near the Brooklyn Navy Yard that was formerly a machine shop for battleships.

Terreform ONE’s projects coincide with the company motto: “Design with Life.” Bio City Map of 11 Billion, for instance, pushed the company’s ambitions further: The display estimates where the largest concentrations of the human population will be at the end of the 21st century using E.coli colonies grown into specific shapes. Joachim asked his team, “Can we control bacteria and use it as an analog form of computation?” The only genetic modification to the E.coli, he explains, was making them luminescent in their onsite laboratories, “but other than that, it’s just plain old E.coli.” For projects like this, Joachim says he was merely inspired by “life itself, and then from that we try and nudge life to do things it [wouldn’t] normally do.”

That’s true for their buildings as well. With Fab Tree Hab he envisions homes grown from trees, with the rest of the material made entirely from living nutrients. Rapid Re(f)use aims to turn New York City’s trash into treasure—or buildings—by “thinking about logical ways we can upcycle our waste and design things to not be thrown away but to retrofit our existing elements in cities,” he explains, with metals for structures or organic compounds for scaffolding, for example. Using automated robot 3D printers modified to process trash and then wrapping it in “infinitely recyclable high-body energy aluminum,” Terreform ONE has the capacity to create simple but strong bricks out of recycled waste that could remake seven new Manhattan islands at full scale.

Unconventional projects like these, however, will always receive pushback, particularly from climate change deniers. “If we don’t build the systems we need to be resilient against climate dynamics, we’re absolute fools,” he explains, adding he is working on cricket farms to combat the impending food crisis as cricket flour has proven to be a viable protein alternative.

In the short term, more manageable projects are underway. Working with Intel on a building in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Terreform ONE is creating a vertical sanctuary for the diminishing monarch butterfly population. A double-skinned façade holding a vertical meadow with silkweeds and caterpillars is made to be self-sufficient for the butterflies, but they won’t be the only beneficiaries. The fragile insects “are a really good wellness indicator,” Joachim says. “If butterflies can survive, you and I can survive.”