Installations call for humanity to loosen its grip on the planet

Created by Yale architects Joyce Hsiang and Bimal Mendis, a pair of installations use maps to consider the idea of “unexploring” the Earth.
“The World Turned Inside Out” installation

The World Turned Inside Out,” an installation showcased at this year’s Venice Biennale of Architecture, invited viewers to reconsider humanity’s relationship with the planet.

A series of dramatic maps, draped like tapestries across the walls of the main ballroom of the historic Sinel de Cordes Palace in Lisbon, Portugal, portray the myriad pathways humans have created — highways, railroads, shipping lanes, power lines, undersea cables, etc. — to tame and exploit the Earth.

The maps, marked by a dense meshwork of lines culled from vast datasets capturing complex global networks, form the core of “Terra Infirma – Terra Incognita,” an immersive installation created by Yale architects Joyce Hsiang and Bimal Mendis on view in the Lisbon Architecture Triennale. Collectively, they invite viewers to reconsider the relationship humans have with the planet against the backdrop of climate change and its related crises — the “infirma” referenced in the title.

By meticulously mapping the infrastructure that supports communication, travel, commerce, resource extraction, and other human endeavors, Hsiang and Mendis aim to call attention to the relatively unspoiled or unknown parts of the globe, such as the ocean floor — the “incognita” of the installation’s title — and inspire others to contemplate how to preserve such places or reclaim previously exploited areas and restore them to “unknown” status.

Ultimately, the project proposes that humans find ways to “withdraw and retire their status as a truly global species.”

Human encounters with the planet have been exploitative in nature,” said Mendis, assistant dean and director of undergraduate studies at the Yale School of Architecture and principal at Plan B Architecture & Urbanism, an interdisciplinary design and research collaborative based in New Haven. “Our project is a conscious way of asking how we can find a balance between construction and deconstruction or extraction and preservation. How might we relate to the unknown in a different way, not as something to colonize and exploit? How might we return places that used to be unknown back to the unknown, as an act of purposeful disengagement?”

Bimal Mendis and Joyce Hsiang
Bimal Mendis and Joyce Hsiang, faculty members at the Yale School of Architecture, combine data analysis, mapping, and artistry to produce immersive installations that call for an “unexploring” of the Earth.

The installation is the second iteration of Mendis and Hsiang’s planetary mapping project to be presented at an international architecture exhibition this year. A similarly themed installation, “The World Turned Inside Out,” was exhibited at the recently concluded Venice Architecture Biennale. This earlier version featured a massive globe cracked open into three pieces. Detailed drawings, similar in content to the maps on view in Lisbon, covered the front and back of the broken globe’s 86 steel frames. As in the Lisbon exhibit, the idea was to highlight portions of the Earth still unclaimed by humans and imagine the possibilities for further accumulation.

Our project calls for an ‘unexploring’ of the Earth,” said Hsiang, a professor at the School of Architecture and principal at Plan B Architecture & Urbanism. “It delineates and seeks ways to protect these unknown spaces and speaks to practices of retreat in the effort of allowing once-unknown areas to recover from the exploitive practices inflicted upon it. Our work is utopian and speculative in some way, but it is very much grounded in an analysis of the existing infrastructure and organization of urbanization on our planet.”

The urgency of the climate crisis makes discussing these ideas particularly important, Hsiang said. The effects of climate change have created new “unknown” spaces in the form of land exposed by retreating glaciers or dried lake beds, she said. Steps could be taken, she added, to protect these newly revealed areas, rather than exploit them for minerals and other natural resources.

The project, including both installations, is supported by Yale’s Franke Program for Science and the Humanities, an initiative that bridges academic specializations and encourages boundary-breaking, cross-disciplinary projects.

Our work doesn’t follow traditional boundaries,” Hsiang said. “The Franke Program’s support made both installations possible. We’re very grateful.” The funding allowed Hsiang and Mendis to work with a team of research assistants, many of whom are past and present students across Yale University.

‘Mapping as knowing’ has been one of the long-running intellectual themes that we have pursued for our talks and projects at the Franke Program, and we were delighted to support Joyce and Bimal in their unique installation project that calls attention to the transformations that urbanism has wrought on the planet,” said astrophysicist Priyamvada Natarajan, who directs the Franke Program.

Addressing climate change, Mendis said, requires a multi-faceted approach. “The problems that the planet faces are not just scientific in nature,” he said. “If we only throw science at them, we won’t find all the answers.”

Person standing in front of large-scale map
“Terra Infirma – Terra Incognita,” an installation presented in the Lisbon Architecture Triennale in Portugal, is composed of large-scale maps depicting the infrastructure that supports communication, travel, commerce, resource extraction, and other human endeavors.

For the installation, the Yale architects combined intensive data and spatial analysis with design and artistry to present information and new ideas about the planet to people in a way that Mendis hopes will capture their attention — and possibly influence their thinking and imagination.

We find that because the globe and maps are large-scale and immersive, it really changes the way people relate to them,” Mendis said. “Something clicks when they see the data in physical form and at a large scale. A book, drawing, or digital model doesn’t have the same effect.”

Mapping and modeling infrastructural networks across national boundaries at a planetary scale is no easy feat. There is no single data source to rely on and countries tend to classify roads and other infrastructure differently. Creating the maps involved reconciling these discrepancies and transforming massive amounts of data into compelling visual presentation, Hsiang said.

The Lisbon installation takes advantage of its setting in a lavish 18th-century palace that once belonged to a family of nobles. Its arrangement is a play on the map rooms that European aristocrats had in their mansions and palaces, Hsiang said. The maps evoke the portolan charts that seafarers used to navigate, which were webbed with lines delineating routes from port to port.

While the notion of humanity loosening its grip on the natural world may seem fanciful at first blush, the ideas proposed by the Yale architects already have real-world applications that are rooted in spatial planning and design, Hsiang said.

For example, intentional abandonment, people pulling back from areas they have exploited or inhabited, is the idea behind nature preserves and national parks. No-fly zones, usually implemented for military purposes, could be applied to protecting the environment and preserving dark skies. Mare clausum, the term in international law that describes when a state closes off navigable waters to other countries, could be repurposed to free swathes of ocean from overfishing, the entanglements of submarine cables, and the endless aftermath of fossil-fuel extraction, Hsiang and Mendis said.

The concept of “points of inaccessibility,” a term that describes the point in the ocean that is the furthest from the coastline — Point Nemo in the case of the Pacific — could be applied in other ways to protect natural resources by intentionally setting forth designated places as “remote,” Hsiang said.

On the one hand, these ideas reflect a shift in values that might seem impossible to some,” she said. “On the other hand, they are very real because they already exist. They are mandated all the time. It’s just a matter of what you’re choosing to mandate and why.”

Terra Infirma – Terra Incognita,” which opened Oct. 1, will be on view through Dec. 5.

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