In the summer of 2012, our office was discreetly approached by a governmental agency (“the Agency”) seeking design services of a somewhat peculiar nature. Simply put, the Agency was in need of documents illustrating the design of a number of installations that could convert the latent energy existing in human misery and grief into a usable source of power and income. While we were intrigued by this proposition, our enthusiasm was dampened by a tiny bit of consternation: as much as our office understands “lemons into lemonade” to be a modus operandi of sorts, this particular project would involve an entirely different kind of fruit-squeezing altogether.
An impulsive feeling of guilt towards the project was voiced by some of our firm’s junior members—however, thanks to the inverse relationship between an architect’s acknowledgement of their own culpability and their associated remorse, these grievances were quickly abandoned (see chart). A more persistent concern, in this particular case, was the potential for our work to move beyond design and into the realm of the “real.” Needless to say, the firm’s more seasoned and battle-worn leadership squashed this reservation, which we recognized as the growing pains typical of an architect’s pubescence.
You see, our responsibilities vis-à-vis the Agency were to manifest on paper, or even on screen, the objects of their (admittedly unusual) request. To quell our young critics’ innocuous skepticism, we explained that our drawn work— rendered as service to the Agency and its desires—was already real. Our drawings would be no less real then the proof of life that human grief finds in the blood of self-flagellation and the moisture of bitter tears.
We were informed by the Agency that a group of woebegone New York State residents had been identified for the purpose of grief harvesting: the Involuntarily Un-Married (“the Dwellers”). Without even a modicum of the mental and emotional stability typically derived from participation in a loving relationship, the Dwellers—and their associated, relentless melodramatic shit-show of histrionics—were deemed a suitable subgroup for the requirements at hand. And so, we set to work: exploring the schemes and strategies that would maximize the benefits reaped from the unflinching grief of the Involuntarily Un-married.
Our approach to the design of a veritable machine for the gathering of grief’s detritus was to create a schedule of distinct moments: 1) Isolation 2) Provocation 3) Collection and 4) Distribution.
A series of permanent underground dwellings scattered throughout the state would serve the dual purpose of isolating the Dwellers and placing them (and their bad times) outside of mainstream view. When necessary, misery would be provoked by a number of above-ground installations that would engage the public at large. Once instigated, purpose-built devices would collect and disseminate any potential energy available in the manifested grief of the Dwellers.
Some of our early designs were quite beautiful in their earnest simplicity. For example, a tin can telephone that would allow for limited communication between the Dweller and visitors above. As is usually typical with the miserably desolate, bad memories cause exacerbated bouts of sadness and melancholy. Hearing sounds from a previous life, the Dweller commences with a dance of sadness—the audio of which might be transmitted back up to the visiting public via the tin can telephone, thanks to the design of bespoke floor planks equipped with bells.
In the same vein, a network of pneumatic delivery tubes would dispatch sentimental photos of lovers lost, or never attained, to the Dwellers below. Interested members of the public could deposit photographs into these tubes, perhaps from the convenience of their motor vehicles, to be delivered to the relevant Dweller—doubtless inspiring a spate of tears, which might be collected and stored in an offsite teardrop reservoir.
The collected tears might be re-routed for use in nearby fire hydrants; or to a grade-level processor, where they would power a hydraulic coriander chutney maker. The possibilities are limitless.
A significant challenge faced by our team of designers was the possibility that the Dwellers may at some stage become unproductive. That is to say the architecture should understand that a Dweller cured of grief is an inconvenience to the Agency. It was necessary to consider the value of a somewhat neo-Fordist approach to grief harvesting, one in which sustained provocation, collection and dissemination might somehow be embedded in the actual design.
Because alcohol has been known to instigate occasional bouts of violent grief, it was agreed that the Dweller should have access to a consistent flow of it. We designed a unique device for this purpose. For a small fee, visitors at grade-level could initiate the making of moonshine, which would then be delivered to the Dwellers in the event of a perceived deficit in their grief. Alongside the benefit of sustained Dweller anguish by alcohol consumption, the moonshine-maker would provide a fun activity for visitors—and at the same time a source of capital for the maintenance of the Dwellings.
Alcohol and photo deployment to the Dweller elicit further possibilities for material collection. The combination of arousing photographs and alcohol might, for example, encourage activities of an autoerotic nature—an eventuality designed for in the Spunkbank, which collects expelled fluids and delivers them to vending stations at above-ground sites across the state. Much like the teardrop collector, the Spunkbank efficiently avails itself of Dweller outflows that would otherwise go unused. Discharged fluids, packaged in decorative metal cups, would serve as a valuable commodity for a curious public in search of novelty gift items or mementos from former friends now living out their days in the Dwellings underground.
The necessary kinetics associated with the Spunkbank could also be put to use. We designed a Dweller pleasure stick whose up-and-down motion is diverted to a grade-level cigarette lighter. When raised, the stick elevates the cap of a small butane gas tank, simultaneously activating a rack-and-pinion gear system that instigates the lighting of the flame.
While our designs for these Dwellings began with a small degree of trepidation, we realized that as the project progressed, the effective collection and distribution of the materiality of grief came almost second nature to us. Is this because we had firsthand experience with the type of unfortunate individuals for whom we were designing? Or perhaps the by-products of bad times lent themselves naturally to adaptive reuse? The answer is unclear. However, as we continue to work with the Agency in the development of the Dwellings and their associated installations, we take increasing pride in our innovative capacities—knowing that thanks to our efforts, the once casually overlooked detritus of desolation is given a momentary chance at resurrection.
Mustafa Faruki is the founder of the Lab-lab for architecture, a Brooklyn-based design practice dedicated to completely re-inventing the potential outputs of architectural design.