Thinking Through Soil: the earth in the herbarium

Every material process that shapes the construction of the urban environment passes through the soil at some point. In Thinking Through Soil, we will use the process of soil formation as a critical lens to trace the politics and material contingency of the urban environment. 

The goal of this course is to familiarize ourselves with the fundamentals of soil science and soil theory, in order to think in new ways about the geos of design. As a material that lies at the intersection of the biological and geological sciences, this kind of thinking requires us to engage with the categorical boundaries that have historically shaped soil knowledge. By learning where these boundaries are and how to navigate them, we will become better equipped to make design decisions, and think critically about larger environmental issues such as climate change, wastewater agriculture, and local biology. 

The course will begin with seminar style discussions around key texts that frame an analytical approach to the science and politics of soil knowledge. Here we will encounter recent critiques of the politics of soil by queer and feminist materialist scholars such as Vanessa Agard-Jones, Mel Chen, Elizabeth Povinelli, and Kathryn Yusoff have identified the geos as a crucial source of power distinct from the bio-political, and yet animated by the same ontological cut that distinguishes between them. 

Through guest lectures by soil scientists, historians, and botanists, we will also learn more about how soil works, how it is understood empirically, and how it has been delineated as a natural historical object since the 1880’s. Through these engagements with both humanities and science scholarship on soils, we will begin to try to imagine what a different conception of soil might mean for our design practice, and for a broader commitment to decolonial geo-environmental justice. 

Final projects in this course will be done in partnership with the Harvard Herbarium. In approaching this herbarium’s vast and immaculate digital collection, we will ask a simple question: where is the Earth in the Herbarium? To put the question another way, in preparing the millions of catalogued plant specimens that fill national herbariums around the world, and our own herbarium here at Harvard, what happened to the dirt? Predating the university itself, the longevity of the herbarium as a form means that it has not only accumulated plants but has also accumulated our ideas about plants, and through a strange kind of absence, our ideas about earth as well. Through a series of presentations and workshop style feedback sessions with the seminar as a whole, students will build a final research project reconnecting a plant with its missing soil. In this phase of the course, we will engage directly in the representational questions our readings have lead us to, taking seriously the old architectural maxim that drawing is thinking. Final projects will consist of student-selected projects based in the digital collection of the Harvard Herbarium, and will require us to imagine more clearly the missing earth in the herbarium. 

For a preview of last years final projects, see:


Note: the instructor will offer live course presentations on 01/19-01/21. To access the detailed schedule and Zoom links, please visit the Live Course Presentations Website. If you need assistance, please contact Estefanía Ibáñez