Plug and Play: Huy Bui's Vertical Landscapes.

The designer's modular ecosystem as a response to the Anthropocene.

"I simply wanted to have more plants and nature in my life," Workspace member Huy Bui told me about the origin of modular landscape project, Plant-In City. "I was working in a shop environment; in winter in New York City, it gets pretty dark. No trees, nothing, you're barely affording rent, you can't travel. And you're just like, how am I going to survive?"

The idea to bring the plants inside, and make it vertical, was an adaptation that reflected the verticality of the city it was invented for – and its scale and regularity similarly reflected an attitude toward the specific contingencies of living in a city like New York. "The notion of modularity really spoke to me. If, for example, we had to vacate our building tomorrow, we could just pick up the modules and go and take our plants with us. It's really a New York-specific challenge that Plant-In City came from. If I lived in Los Angeles, Plant-In City probably would not have existed."

Bui's rectilinear planters are designed to be easily stacked and recombined, a system of terrariums fitting together like blocks of Legos: "It's a very simple design-language. This language is cubes and rectangles, and their multiples. The axiom is a three-quarter inch piece of plywood. So everything is divisible by three quarters of an inch. Three-quarters, one and a half, six, twelve, etc. It has an ambiguous scale. At 1:1, it might look like a terrarium. But as the scale increases you start to see it as a miniature building."

This scale and shape allowed the project to act as an ecological device that could be inserted seamlessly into an existing system. Bui, along with Jon Schramm and Carlos Gomez DeLlarena, started the project loosely inspired by Peter Cook's Plug-In City, a proposal advanced as part of the Archigram conceptual architecture group in 1964 in which large municipal superstructures could be swapped in and out of the urban fabric as needs or circumstances dictate.

"That's how our body works, as well," Bui said. "The various organs plug into the central nervous system. They're all interconnected, and speak the same language. The infrastructure is designed around components of a certain form. A car without a road is useless. All systems, ecosystems, any system is based around the interchangeability of certain parts. And what ecologies are based on specifically is interdependence."

Crucially, the shape of these systems is determined by their internal traffic. Along with conceptual architects, Bui also cites Stewart Brand, the publisher of the ecologically-radical Whole Earth Catalog (1968–72), quoting the biophysicist Harold Morowitz: "the energy that flows through a system acts to organize that system." Creating structures that encompass and attempt to reconcile ecosystems in the contemporary urban environment ties into what Bui sees as the imperative of confronting the Anthropocene: the supposition, still debated among geologists, that the earth has moved from the Halocene (beginning 11,7000 years before the present) to a new geological epoch, defined entirely by the impact of man on the planet.

Bui's parallel project, the Grid-Topo, adapts another approach, also informed by radical architectural discourse. "It's based on Superstudio's idea of the grid being a very simple human construct that allows us to commodify space." Superstudio, in many ways the Italian counterpart to Archigram, made provocative paper "anti-architecture," that used an aggressively simplified grid to mediate design problems. (Rem Koolhaas glossed the issue in Delirious New York: "The grid, above all, is a conceptual speculation... in its indifference to topography, to what exists, it claims the superiority of mental construction over reality.")

"I'm bringing that sense of the grid into the landscape," Bui said. "It returns to these same ideas: terraforming, transforming the land. But we've been moving nature around for a long time. Now it's time to create design with a notion of reforming natural systems."

Huy Bui's Plant-In City and Grid-Topo projects are on display in The Shop.

—Zachary Sachs

Images by Paul Barbera.