Alexandra Arenes

Alexandra Arenes


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Design at the time of the Anthropocene: reporting from the Critical Zone

Supervisors: Prof. Albena Yaneva, Prof. Stephen Walker

The environmental crisis changes the daily practices of landscape designers, renewing attention to granular elements such as chemicals, sand, nutrients, water, earthworms, fungi, etc. Their possible disappearance or transformation threatens human establishments: the habitability of our planet depends on these various entities and their entanglement. This is the manifestation of the "intrusion of Gaia" (Stengers) or the effects of the Anthropocene. This thesis aims to bring new insights into what a landscape is, what composes it, and what are the hidden entities and how to detect them.

To address these questions, I have undertaken empirical fieldwork using ethnographic methods, following scientists of a specific branch of earth sciences called the Critical Zone (CZ). The specificity of CZ science is the instrumentation of landscapes. In observatories, geoscientists decompose landscapes, through their observations of the soil, the rivers, and the atmosphere. The dissertation shows how this knowledge can bring a new understanding of territories and the Earth, more attuned to the cycles and their overlapping. It provides materials to construct the cosmopolitical approach to landscapes.

The thesis also experiments alternative mappings to capture the complexity of the composition of the Critical Zone. These maps, or visualisations, shift the anthropocentric view to a cosmopolitical view (a view from within). The production of these maps from the knowledge of the Critical Zone contributes to a better understanding of the dimensions of this Critical Zone as well as to renewing the architects' view of the landscape, to renewing their tools and therefore also their practices and actions of transformation of our environments.


Alexandra Arènes is a French landscape architect and now a PhD researcher at the University of Manchester. She co-founded SOC (Société d’Objets Cartographiques) in 2016, a think tank on earth political design, drawing on scientific and public enquiries, and producing workshops and exhibitions. The studio designed the installation CZO space at the ZKM (Museum for Art and Media, Karlsruhe) for the exhibition Critical Zones. Observatories for Earthly Politics (curated by Bruno Latour, 2020), the result of close collaboration between science and art. She has also contributed to theater research (INSIDE, Back to Earth, Où atterrir?), and co-authored the book Terra Forma, Manuel de Cartographies Potentielles (B42, 2019).


Terra Forma, A book of Speculative Maps, with Frédérique Ait-Touati and Axelle Grégoire. MIT Press, 2022.

Terra Forma, Manuel de Cartographies Potentielles, with Frédérique Ait-Touati and Axelle Grégoire. Edition B42, 2019.

Article (peer-review)

“Giving Depth to the Surface – an Exercise in the Gaia-graphy of Critical Zones”, in The Antropocene Review, 29 June, 2018, with Bruno Latour and Jérôme Gaillardet.

Alexandra Arènes (2020) Inside the Critical Zone, GeoHumanities, DOI: 10.1080/2373566X.2020.1803758

Articles (non peer-review)

The soil map of the Strengbach Critical Zone Observatory, in OASE 110 Soil, 2022

“Traveling through the Critical Zone”, ZKM catalogue Critical Zones. The Science and Politics of Landing on Earth. Publisher: MIT Press, 2020. Editors: Bruno Latour & Peter Weibel.

“If the Earth is not the globe, how to sketch it?” with Bruno Latour in NESS 2: Mad World Pictures, September 2019.

“Terra Forma” in Feral Atlas, a web research platform assembled by Anna Tsing, 2020.


“Critical Zone Observatory Space”, installation at ZKM Center for Art and Media, Karlsruhe, in Critical Zones. Observatories for Earthly Politics, curated by Peter Wiebel and Bruno LatourMay 2020 - January, 2022.


Landscape seminar series, ESALA Edinburgh, « Terra Forma, investigating Critical Zones », February 24, 2021.

Goldsmith Lecture, University of Texas, Architecture. Alexandra Arenes, "Learning from Critical Zones," September 30, 2020

Lecture Series: Institute of Landscape and Urban Studies. Architecture of Territory, Prof. Milica Topalović, Critical Zones: Sensors for Ghost Landscapes, October 01, 2020.

Education/Academic qualification

SPEAP, Master d'Expérimentation en Arts Politiques, Sciencespo Paris

Award Date: 30 Jun 2016

Master of Architecture, Ecole Nationale Supérieure d'Architecture de Grenoble

Award Date: 1 Sep 2009

External positions

Architect, founder, SOC - Society of Object Cartography

2016 → …

Landscape Architect, BASELAND, firm landscape urbanism


Areas of expertise

  • NA Architecture
  • Landscape Architecture
  • HM Sociology
  • Science and Technology Studies, Actor-Network theory
  • GN Anthropology
  • Ethnography
  • NX Arts in general
  • Visualisation


  • Anthropocene
  • Critical Zone sciences
  • Cartography
  • Actor-Network Theory
  • STS
  • Landscape Architecture