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Bridge: Mostafavi on Ecological Urbanism and Bennett on Vibrant Matter

vibrant matter

Opening Figure: Image from the cover of Vibrant Matter, speaks to the idea that things have a power and a force associated to them, and this ideas weaves itself through this bridge analysis in a variety of different scales.

Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke UP, 2010. Print.

Mostafavi, Mohsen, and Gareth Doherty. Ecological Urbanism. Baden, Switzerland: Lars Müller, 2010. Print.


Mostafavi_Bennett Bridge

The Mostafavi reading sets the stage for both his own, as well as Jane Bennett’s views on the future of our world and how we should respond to changes as well as prepare ourselves for the future.

Mostafavi makes us aware of, or reiterates to us how the world population is steadily increasing and has resulted in constant migration from rural to urban areas.

Screen Shot 2015-04-25 at 6.22.14 PM Screen Shot 2015-04-25 at 6.23.04 PM

Figure 1: Screenshots taken 1 minute apart from each other showing the speed at which population is increasing in real time.

This results in increased numbers of people in cities as well as cities in general, which goes hand in hand with a greater exploitation of the world’s limited resources. He asks the question, what means do we have as designers to address this challenging reality?

Both readings are attempting to respond to this question through promoting a greener form of human culture, but at vastly different scales, and with different philosophical intentions.

In the simplest terms Mostafavi promotes the investigation of a multi scalar design strategy, which simultaneously and holistically considers site, and context as it expands beyond the urban territory into national and global implications.

In contrast, Bennett advocates more thorough and attentive interactions between humans and things, in an attempt to highlight the material agency or effectivity latent in nonhuman bodies. She questions our classification of the human uniqueness or superiority with a radical aim at more-than-human politics.

In an attempt to summarize and bridge between these two positions I would define Mostafavi’s approach as large scale, holistic, and realist

Bennett’s approach as small scale, intricate, and visionary


Figure 2: Breaks down relationships between Mostafavi and Bennett in a diagrammatic way.

Mostafavi _ Ecological Urbanism

In this reading Mostafavi references a series of articles from The Guardian, which is a newspaper in the United Kingdom that addressed the fundamental questions of sustainability. These stories were specific examples pulled from places like Iraq, Alberta, Mumbai and Liverpool that exemplified economic and political instances that resulted in multi scalar by-products.

Through reading I tried to distill these stories into a set of problems, proposals to rectify these problems, and the results of these proposals that Mostafavi suggests.


In response to the first story on the connections of the invasion of Iraq with the oil boom in Alberta,

Alberta Oil Sands


Figure 3: Image showing an example of landscapes destroyed by urbanism.

1. Low Prices + High Profits > Environmental Devastation

“The extent of this environmental devastation, encompassing land, air, and water all in the aid of relatively cheap oil for the consumer and hefty profits for the oil companies is a vivid reminder of the urgent need for future conurbation to discover and design alternative and efficient ways of using energy resources.”

In response to the second story on a high-rise residence construction in Mumbai for India’s richest tycoon,

2. Aesthetic Appearance ≠ Acceptable Building Construction

Aesthetic Appearance + Ethical Performance = Acceptable Building Construction

“There is growing anger about such absurd spending, as the divide between rich and poor is becoming obscene.”

In response to the third story on traumatized asylum-seekers in Liverpool,

3. Simple Moves -> Lasting Productive Results

“In tending to their vegetables on the plots, alongside their neighbors, the participants are able, in a modest and unsentimental way to construct a collaborative and productive ground for communication and integration.”

Each of these three stories expresses the multiple realities that our individual and group actions shape in the context of the contemporary urban domain. Together they demonstrate Gregory Bateson’s argument that in contradistinction to the Darwinian theory of natural selection, “the unit of survival is organism plus the environment.”

Organism + Environment


These proposals are posed as suggestions throughout the reading as different ways of looking at the previously stated problems in broad terms.

1. An ecological design practice that does not simply take account of the fragility of the ecosystem and the limits of our resources, but considers these conditions as the basis for a new form of creative imagining.

[ Difficult Realities à Productive Results ]


2. Ecological urbanism can be seen as a means of utilizing a multiplicity of old and new methods, tools, and techniques in a cross-disciplinary and collaborative way to help enhance and advance our approaches to urban development.

[ Retrofitting of the Past + Planning for the Future]

3. The city can no longer be thought of only as a physical artifact, instead we must be aware of the dynamic relationships that exist among the various domains of a larger terrain of urban and rural ecologies.

[ Site + Context + National Implications + Global Implications + Social Implications + Economic Implications + Political Implications = Good Design Strategy ]      [MULTI SCALAR]

4. The blurring of boundaries between the real and the virtual as well as the urban and the rural implies a greater connection and complementarity between the various parts of a given whole.



1. Engaging new subjectivities and collectives through the frameworks of ecological urbanism is to engender greater opportunities for social and spatial democracy.

[ Subjectivities + Collectives / Framework = Democracy ]

2. Projects will provide the stage for the messiness, the unpredictability, and the instability of the urban for more just, and more pleasurable futures. This is both the challenge and the promise of ecological urbanism.

[ Small Scale Subjectivities + Large Scale Collectives = Messiness = Productive Ecological Urbanism ]


To move on to a slightly contrasting point of view, Bennett’s approach scales down the intentions and scope of Mostafavi to a more visionary and experimental approach with ecological implications.


Bennett’s writing dives into a huge array of philosophers like Spinoza, Berson, Deleuze, and Guitarri. Bennett seeks to concretise their ideas as well as question and elaborate on some theories with reference to contentious issues like stem cell research, power black-outs, obesity, and food politics. This being said a lot of the reading was highly philosophical and discursive making it more difficult to simplify.


The only way I could imagine tackling the summarization of this reading is to define a set of terms and how the fit themselves into Bennett’s bigger view on the Force of Things.


Bennett_Vibrant Matter


To supplement Bennett’s original book titled “The Enchantment of Modern Life,” which focused on the setting and landscapes as an essential factor in promoting certain human actions, this book tries to focus more on the catalysts of these actions and how they potentially exist in, and are intrinsic to nonhuman bodies.


Bennett states more specifically, that the political project of this book is to encourage more intelligent and sustainable engagement with vibrant matter and living things. Her guiding question is, How would political responses to public problems change were we to take seriously the vitality of non human bodies?



Figure 4: Image diagraming the fact that all things are made up of the same components just organized differently.


Vitality: This means the capacity of things. Not only to impede or block the will and designs of humans but also to act as a quasi agent with force, trajectories, propensities, and tendencies of their own.

Its interesting to entertain this idea and start to question how the analysis of political and economic events might change if we were to give these forces of and within things more credit.


For example, Bennett then uses this theory of the force of things to question what difference it would make to the course of energy policy if electricity were to be figured not simply as a resource but as an actant?


Actant: (Term borrowed from Bruno Latour) A source of action that can be either human or nonhuman; it is that which has efficacy, it has sufficient coherence to make a difference, produce effects, and alter a course of events.


This definition begs the question, Why advocate the vitality of matter?


To this Bennett explains,

“My hunch is that the image of dead matter feeds humans earth destroying fantasies of conquest and consumption. It does so by preventing us from detecting a fuller range of the nonhuman powers circulating around and within our human bodies. These material powers, which can aid or destroy, enrich or disable, ennoble or degrade us, in any case call for our attentiveness and respect.”


This being said Bennett invokes Spinoza’s idea of conative bodies in order to justify this plea for respect of the nonhuman.


Conative bodies: Bodies that strive to enhance their power of activity by forming alliances with other bodies.

Similar to Lucretius’s idea that everything is made of the same building blocks, and is connected and reducible to a simple substrate resonating with an ecological sensibility.


The notion that if we and nonhuman things are made up of the same components, we should in theory have similar capabilities, tendencies, and forces seems to me a bit dramatized and more speculative to the extent it was presented in the reading. ­


At first glance Mostafavi and Bennett seem to have completely different opinions, but upon closer examination it seems they have similar agendas. Both agree that the human or the subject is not autonomous and that in order to successfully promote greener forms of human culture it is not practical to rely on the “end-in-itself theory.”


I think were Mostafavi and Bennett most obviously overlap is their understanding on the whole and how it is a messy situation of things cross-referencing, effecting, disturbing, and sponsoring one another all at the same time.


Last weeks reading of swarm intelligence and how it should be seen as singular individual agents, and not as abstract agents that embody the collective intelligence of the entire society seems to reference a similar idea here. That being said, I would like to end with a quote from the Bennett reading that encompasses this shared concept.


Figure 5: Shows a naturally occurring swarm in nature (birds). Speaks to the part-to-whole relationships developed within the bridge examination.

“What appears is a swarm, a swarm of competing ends being pursued simultaneously in each individual, and in each thing, some of which are healthy to the whole, and some of which are not. Each body is a heterogeneous compound of wonderfully vibrant, and dangerously vibrant matter.”


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