This issue of the Journal of Architectural Education explores the environment of the desert in its geopolitical, infrastructural, and aesthetic dimensions, acknowledging that deserts continue to transform the architectural imagination and collective intelligence. Historically, from predominantly Eurocentric and Western perspectives, deserts have been considered precarious and unsafe environments where hostile climatic circumstances and extreme temperatures prevent life from thriving. The desert — from the Latin desertum, left, abandoned, withdrawn—has for centuries been reduced to a mystical trope: interpreted as unknowable and sublime. The architectural discipline is also implicated in the misconception of deserts, with critics like Reyner Banham arguing that in this environment “nothing officially exists.” Yet there is life here—rich in history, traditions, and the cohabitation of humans, flora, and fauna.
Some of the earliest and most enduring civilizations emerged and thrived through the desert, where they have been subject to the forces of environmental racism for centuries. The contemporary desert is a physical and conceptual battlefield where spatial conflicts pose existential threats to human and non-human life. The desert is a site of divergent and often diametrically opposed spatial typologies, from nomadic camps to military bases, ancestral cities to agricultural civilizations, industrial complexes to illegal resorts, utopian communities to logistical epicenters. The desert, in this light, is not ‘absent’ or ’empty,’ but a site of abundance co-opted by violent occupations, extractive campaigns, and colonialist expansions, exacerbating violence across the most contested regions of the planet.
We suggest that the desert demands renewed attention.
Today, deserts cover 33% of the land surface of the planet, including cold and hot deserts on every continent. With climate change and its resultant migrations, the extent, form, and population of this arid geography will shift dramatically in the coming decades. It will encompass new territories, attracting new settlements, assembling new constituencies, demanding new approaches to scholarship, pedagogy, and design in the drylands.
Deserts are sites of immeasurable vastness, entangled with deep time and the magnitude of the earth, host to numerous forms of living from minerals to insects, from plants to animals and humans. Beyond reductive readings of deserts as conceptual abstractions or conditions of scarcity, this issue seeks to unravel a wide-ranging diversity of resources beneath the deserts’ alleged homogeneity—a productive drive for life instead of indifference. Perhaps, in this moment of extreme climatic changes, global warming, and mass extinctions, the desert might offer an opportunity to question the principles of our unsustainable ways of living and to suggest different strategies of coexistence between humans and non-humans, life and non-life.
Imagining this issue as a non-linear constellation of ecological, cultural, logistical, and critical interpretations, we encourage contributions considering the desert as not only a condition against the logic of occupation and displacement, violence and extraction, precariousness and erosion, but also as an enduring place of cultures, rituals, poetics, mythologies, imaginaries, alliances, and forms of living that call the desert home, thriving and resisting entropic tendencies: lessons for an alternative understanding and a radically different future.
We are looking for different contributions able to unveil the diversity and complexity of the desert ecosystem through a multiplicity of voices and perspectives. Essays might address how design and pedagogical practices theoretically and critically articulate the notion of desert within the global environmental and political crisis. Designs, instead, might focus on specific projects by authors and/or their students that investigate, research, or speculate upon the desert and its multitudinous expressions of life (human and non-human). Narratives might focus on sharing brief material or cultural histories—or more personal, direct, and experimental story- telling—which often exceeds disciplinary requirements. Finally, (Cartographic) Images may include provocative visual material able to render, describe, analyze, and map the desert in its ceaseless condition of becoming.
The submission deadline for all manuscripts for this theme issue is February 6, 2023. Accepted articles will be published in issue 77:2 (Fall 2023). For author instructions please consult the author guide.