On Plastic in Time

Two recent articles worth reading in each other’s context explore the unexpected long-term morphological behavior of plastic.

[Image: Photo by Benjamin Chelly, courtesy Albin-Michel/Galerie47, via The New York Times].

In one, Popular Science looks at the curatorial difficulties posed by plastic objects. Today, we read, “chemists and curators are in near-constant collaboration, working to preserve the world’s modern and contemporary art collections with methods derived from the field of heritage science. The thing is, no one’s actually certain what the best course of action is.”

For example, “museums are still stumped by plastics. Little is known, [University College London chemist Katherine Curran] says, about how plastics degrade, let alone how to stop it. But perhaps most surprising is the fact that most museums don’t even know the type of plastics in their collection. ‘Things often get classified as “plastic,”’ Curran says, ‘and that’s not that helpful.’”

The entire article is worth reading, especially for architects committed to using novel materials in their work without a clear sense of how those materials will behave over time (in particular, when novel materials are used as exterior cladding).

The other article to throw into the mix here describes the behavior of plastic furniture over multiple years and decades as a kind of open-air materials science experiment, unfolding in real time.

“One famous designer chair is oozing goop. Another has exploded into puffs of foam. A bookcase’s shelves bubbled as gases formed within,” The New York Times writes. “The culprits? Plastic. And time.

Like the article linked above, this one looks at plastic’s surprising mutability, given the material’s otherwise notorious, planet-threatening ability to outlast human civilization. It specifically discusses the work of designer Gaetano Pesce, including a cabinet of his that “bulged and warped as gases formed in its depths.” Pesce’s giddy response to his worried client? “The cabinet is alive and beautiful,” he allegedly said. “I so wish I was there to see my work evolving.”

That article also introduces the great phrase “furniture components with questionable futures,” writing that these sorts of “experimental objects are falling into mysterious decay” and that this fate is already visible with 3D-printed artworks, for example, made using materials whose long-term performance is completely unknown.

What’s so compelling about both of these articles for me is the basic idea that something perceived as nightmarishly eternal is, in fact, subject to deeply flawed mundane transformation, and that artificial objects supposedly facing near-geological lifespans actually perform, behave, and decay in semi-biological ways. What’s more, museum curators are ironically being tasked with stopping the decay of a material that, in almost other ecological context, cannot degrade fast enough.

This is not to suggest that we can therefore be cavalier in our use of plastic, but simply that the world of immortal things will not last forever after all.

Supergrass, or the Anthropocene is Local

lawn
[Image: Artificial grass stretches onto a sidewalk in Somerville, MA; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

While reading that “land use has already pushed biodiversity below the level proposed as a safe limit,” possibly setting the stage for an irreversible decline in biological variety around the world, it’s worth recalling a somewhat tragicomic article published last week warning that Britain has so many artificial lawns, these so-called permanent botanicals are now considered a threat to wildlife.

From the Guardian:

From local authorities who purchase in bulk for use in street scaping, to primary schools for children’s play areas and in the gardens of ordinary suburban family homes, the sight of pristine, green artificial grass is becoming a familiar sight. One company has registered a 220% year-on-year increase in trade of the lawns.
But as families, councils and schools take to turfing over their open spaces with a product which is most often made from a mix of plastics—polypropylene, polyurethane and polyethylene—there is growing alarm amongst conservationists and green groups.
They say the easy fix of a fake lawn is threatening the habitat of wildlife, including butterflies, bees and garden birds as well as creating waste which will never biodegrade.

I’m reminded of the artificial gardens of Don DeLillo’s new novel, Zero K, where plastic trees and flowers tremble lifelessly in an air-conditioned breeze, installed as part of a remote desert complex devoted to human immortality.

Only here, it’s the everyday landscape of Britain, slowly but surely being plasticized, replaced by a chemical surrogate for living matter, this ubiquitous manufactured stand-in for the picturesque English gardens of an earlier generation.

Lost butterflies flutter over plastic lawns, smelling nothing but petrochemicals. Bees land on the petals of polyester flowers and pick up the dust of industrial dyes rather than pollen. Excess drops of translucent glue glow in the afternoon sunlight.

The anthropocene is not only a global transformation; it takes place in—it takes the place of—your own backyard.

(Vaguely related: In the Garden of 3D Printers).