[Editor’s Note: The photographer has gotten in touch with me again, on January 13, 2010, requesting that these images be taken down due to the unexpectedly specific terms of a usage agreement originally signed with Biosphere 2. The images have thus also been taken down from Sheldon’s own site. With any luck, however, these images will reappear in public sooner than later; for now, I have to honor the request of the photographer. The text of this post and the entirety of the often quite animated comments thread will remain. Apologies for this turn of events!]
Photographer Noah Sheldon got in touch the other week with a beautiful series of photos documenting the decrepit state of Biosphere 2, a semi-derelict bio-architectural experiment in the Arizona desert.
The largest sealed environment ever created, constructed at a cost of $200 million, and now falling somewhere between David Gissen’s idea of subnature—wherein the slow power of vegetative life is unleashed “as a transgressive animated force against buildings”—and a bioclimatically inspired Dubai, Biosphere 2 even included its own one million-gallon artificial sea.
“The structure was billed as the first large habitat for humans that would live and breathe on its own, as cut off from the earth as a spaceship,” the New York Times wrote back in 1992, but the project was a near-instant failure.
Scientists ridiculed it. Members of the support team resigned, charging publicly that the enterprise was awash in deception. And even some crew members living under the glass domes, gaunt after considerable loss of weight, tempers flaring, this winter threatened to mutiny if management did not repair a growing blot on the project’s reputation.
Sheldon was originally inspired to visit and photograph the site after reading in the New York Times that “suburban sprawl” had come to surround the once-remote research site.
Indeed, we read, real estate development has “conquered vast swaths of the Sonoran Desert. The Biosphere, miles from nowhere when it was built in the 1980s, is now within the reach of a building boom streaking north from Tucson and south from Phoenix (and which some demographers say will eventually join the two cities, once 100 miles apart).” Traffic jams are not infrequent where there were once country roads, and new suburbs have sprung up within just a few miles of the research site.
Sheldon’s images, reproduced here with his permission, show the facility advancing into old age. A vast biological folly in the shadow of desert over-development, the project of Biosphere 2 seems particularly poignant in this unkempt state.
The fertile promise of the microcosm has been abandoned.
In this context, Biosphere 2 could perhaps be considered one of architect Francois Roche’s “buildings that die,” a term Roche used in a recent interview with Jeffrey Inaba. Indeed, in its current state Biosphere 2 is easily one of the ultimate candidates for Roche’s idea of “corrupted biotopes“; the site’s ongoing transformation into suburbia only makes this corruption more explicit.
Watching something originally built precisely as a simulation of the Earth—the 2 in “Biosphere 2” is meant to differentiate this place from the Earth itself, i.e. Biosphere 1—slowly taken over by the very forces it was meant to model is philosophically extraordinary: the model taken over by the thing it represents. A replicant in its dying throes.
In any case, these images have all been taken from Sheldon’s series; even more photos—and many other projects—can be found on his site.