In Emergency Break Glass: The High Atlas Foundation Experience – OpEd


In 2019, I embark on a journey through a world covered with glass and sealed in plastic. The aspiration behind UNDER WRAPS, my initial Wheelwright Prize proposal, is to explore the culture and architecture of greenhouses focusing on the spatiality of horticultural operations and the interactions between plants and humans across a spectrum of contexts and cultures. Even though at the time of formulating the proposal, I have an appreciation for the importance of open systems, I am simply hesitant to frame the topic of my proposal in a “decided” way. And so, while I am critical of the “technology will do it for us” mantra, to borrow an expression from Gregory Bateson, and stunned to see how millions of dollars are spent to develop various versions of “closed worlds” that we could export to a new—untouched by humans—frontier, I decide to approach the topic with an open mind. I don’t hide that when in 2021, a billboard sponsored by a group of environmental organizations is put up in front of the SpaceX headquarters to celebrate Earth Day, I cannot agree more with the message: “Mars sucks. –Earth” Still, I want to stay objective, and only then—if given the chance to travel—make up my mind. Afterall, what sense does it make to travel if we already know? Why waste such an opportunity to project knowledge we already have onto a place we do not know?


At first, being inside the greenhouses feels attractive, even if a bit eerie. For a week, I shadow the work of the oldest botanical conservatory in Poland, which happens to be in Poznań where my family lives. I spend two weeks on a farm in Sicily, close to where I lived years ago. For almost three weeks, I drive and walk through the sea of plastic in the Spanish region of Almería. Gradually, things start to feel unsettling, but I keep the feeling at bay and persist in my visits. I want to know the people and plants that live in these spaces. Wherever I go, a bubble of suspended reality forms around me, I am charting a map of greenhouse heterotopias. … Even though it is rampant that the laws of nature are being violated, I try to focus on the catalytic potential of these closed spaces. Here I want to reflect on one experience that will stay with me.

In March 2022, Michael Diamond, a travel expert based in D.C. tells me about the High Atlas Foundation as we talk about my upcoming trip to Morocco. I visit the office the day after I arrive in Marrakech. As HAF’s president Yossef Ben-Meir tells me about the work of the foundation, he warns me that the greenhouses are nothing special, he wishes they were nicer. I tell him that I am not interested in the structures—he looks puzzled, I am an architect. I explain that I am drawn to what his makeshift net houses do for the rural communities and their ecosystems.

A couple of days later, a young project manager Said El Bennani accompanies me to three nurseries hidden in the hills south of Marrakech. Getting there requires hours of driving. At some point asphalt ends, the dirt road runs through the bed of a dry river, it gets bumpy, and then we walk. Organic fruit tree saplings, and aromatic plant seedlings are grown on remote pieces of land lent in-kind by the government and cared for by the members of local communities. One of the nurseries is a female-run business start-up. The women I meet are learning to work under plastic. It’s unbearably hot and humid in there. My camera stops working, and the wilted seedlings look desperate. A more experienced grower from a nearby community is helping them understand how to manage the climate inside the greenhouse. I hope their seedlings survived and are by now ready to be transplanted onto a nearby farm. I hope their small plant-based business is thriving.

HAF monitors all the transplanted saplings and tracks their survival rate. I imagine that it is rare to know the fate of your plants, let alone reseed your nursery with seeds received back. The circular nature of this arboreal community is socially profound and environmentally significant. The life incubated in those simple net-house nurseries runs deep into the Moroccan landscape and invigorates underprivileged rural communities. It frees people from economic dependencies and protects plants from global genetic contaminations. Promoting organic cultivation of endemic argan and carob trees—both potentially highly profitable—HAF indirectly helps restore fragmented stands of two fundamental species of the Moroccan landscape endangered by urbanization, staple crop plantations (mainly barley and corn), and encroaching tomato and banana greenhouses. Yes, tropical bananas under plastic in the predominantly dry savanna! HAF’s modest greenhouses are a powerful weapon against exotic monocultures that drain water resources and depend on foreign seeds and fertilizers. Technology is indeed what we make it to be…

This text is an excerpt from the Wheelwright Prize Lecture delivered on November 17, 2022, at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. For the recording available on the Harvard GSD YouTube channel, click here.

Aleksandra Jaeschke

Aleksandra Jaeschke is an architect and an Assistant Professor of Architecture at The University of Texas at Austin. She holds a Doctor of Design degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Design and an AA Diploma from the Architectural Association in London. A book based on her doctoral dissertation, entitled The Greening of America’s Building Codes: Promises and Paradoxes, was published by Princeton Architectural Press in December 2022. She was the winner of the Harvard GSD’s 2019 Wheelwright Prize.

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