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Environmental Architecture (MA)

Luke Spence

Luke is a spatial designer and environmental researcher whose work investigates the themes of sensing, consumption, porosity and contamination. With a deep interest in craft practices, Luke is interested in exploring how traditional artistic mediums, such as ceramics and analogue photography, can be practised to engage with and communicate current social, political and environmental conditions.

Prior to studying at the Royal College of Art, Luke earned a Bachelors Degree in Design at Goldsmiths, University of London. It was here that Luke began exploring the themes of porosity and consumption as a means of referring to the relationship between human and material bodies and the matter that enters into these porous subjects.

Aged hands carefully showing the underside of a green leaf that has been contaminated with soot particles.

Luke's project puts forward a model of remote evidence-making that utilises the medium of ceramics to materially record chemical substances in the environment. It is a model that the non-expert citizens of Alentejo, a region in Southern Portugal, can implement into their own landscape to make a documentation of the unjust practices of intensive agriculture that feature in this part of the country.

This work came about following a research enquiry that looked into the environmental and social impacts that olive and almond mono-crops have caused in this region. These two mono-crop varieties dominate the landscape and provide the sites in which artificial substances from synthetic fertilisers and pesticides enter into ecological spaces.

The project recognises that not only are the local citizens bearing witness to these moments of environmental contamination, but they are in-fact being exposed themselves on a daily basis to the chemicals that are released from these intense practices of agriculture. Tile Recorder essentially provides the citizens of Alentejo with a ceramic tool that allows those impacted to make public their struggles and make others aware of the experiences that they face in the region.

Producing the Tile

For a period of one-week a large number of ceramic azulejo tiles were produced at an open ceramic studio in the town of Montemor-o-Novo using a terracotta clay from the Municipality of Vendas Novas. During this week the project could engage with a craft practice that recognises the role that the traditional Azulejo tiles have played in Portugal and the Iberian Peninsula for hundreds of years. These ceramic forms have been used to create depictions, mythical, biblical or cultural, of past events across various cultures. The Azulejos produced for this project are instead use to materially depict the environmental and chemical composition of the Alentejo Region.

Given the porous structure of ceramic works, the tiles are able to become tools for capturing particulate matter. The role of the tile in this project is to make a recording of the chemical and biological substances that are emitted from the intense agricultural practices that feature heavily in this region of Portugal.

The unglazed ceramic tile in this sense can allow the practice of citizen research and the collection of data to operate in a way that is not only free from the functional requirements that are associated with expert research tools, whether that be technical know-how or some prescribed operation, but instead be able to work so that the users of the tiles have full autonomy with how and where exactly these research devices will be situated, and for what reasons. This model of research isn’t just a practice of recording as a means of simply documenting particulate matter, but also as a way to bring forward a particular site or condition that should be made known to a wider population. 

The video below documents the production of two tiles whilst in residence at the convent workshops in Montemor-o-Novo, Portugal.

Tile Production in Montemor-o-Novo, Portugal
a sunlit ceramic studio in portugal, three kilns in the background lit by sun coming through an adjacent window
Centro de Investigação Cerâmica, 2022
white plaster mould to produce ceramic tiles sits on top of khaki cotton cloth. terracotta tiles in the background
Worktable, Centro de Investigação Cerâmica, 2022
microscopic image of ceramic particles
Microscopic image of ceramic matter, 2022
orange terracotta ceramic tiles stacked in various piles, lit by the sun through a window
The form of the ceramic tiles, 2022




110mm x 110mm

Fortes Novos

In the town of Fortes Novo, not far from the city of Beja, is a factory that incinerates the olive bagasse once the olives have been pressed for their oil. Opposite this factory lies a property that is exposed on a daily basis to the soot and ash particles that are emitted from this factory. The health and wellbeing of property and its owner have deteriorated for as long as the factory has emitted these toxic substances.

The project allows those that are effected by any unjust agricultural industry to establish their own research practice. In doing so, a collective of effected citizens can start to jointly expose the industries that have little regard to the citizen groups that they inhabit the region alongside.

A white Portuguese house with flaking white walls. A chimney emitting white smoke in the background. chickens roaming around.
House in Fortes Novos, Beja District, 2022
a ceramic tile placed on the top of a terracotta block stack, trees in the background.
Tile situated in Fortes Novos, 2022
a ceramic tile placed on the top of a terracotta block stack, trees in the background.
Tile situated in Fortes Novos, 2022
a vacuum sealed transparent bag featuring a contaminated ceramic azulejo tile. Black background
Contaminated tile from Fortes Novos, 2023

Tiles in the Field

The project saw the placement of ceramic Azulejo tiles across the region of Alentejo in a number of varying environments. The images below document the various locations in which the first phase of Tile Recorders have been positioned. Their prolonged exposure to these environmentswill allow for a greater duration of time for chemical substances from agricultural practices to reside within their porous structure.

calm waterbody with tile placed in foreground on shore rocks. olive plantation in background
Tile by Guadiana River, AlentejoDigital scan of medium format film negative, 2022
monoculture crop samplings in plastic protective housings. four tree silhouettes on horizon line. tile lying in foreground
New Olive Plantation in Beringel, AlentejoDigital scan of medium format film negative, 2022
tile on rocks in forground. mid frame calm river waterbody. concrete bridge crossing river
Tile by Guadiana River, AlentejoDigital scan of medium format film negative, 2022
A large oak tree with tile placed in canopy. tree surrounded by intensive olive plantation
Tile placement in tree canopy, AlentejoDigital scan of medium format film negative, 2022
brick ruin surrounded by intensive olive monoculture. tile at the top of brick ruin structure
Cuba brick ruin surrounded by Mono-crops, AlentejoDigital scan of medium format film negative, 2022
Tile position in the bottom of a river bed surrounded by intensive olive monoculture.
Tile in River Bed, AlentejoDigital scan of medium format film negative, 2022
Abandoned industrial complex with olive bagasse incinerated plant emitting smoke in background. Tile in shrub lower left frame.
Alvito Bagasse Incineration Factory, AlentejoDigital scan of medium format film negative, 2022

A Plot in Vila de Frades

On the 26th of September 2018, a hillside plot, belonging to a Portuguese local named Luis, was intentionally burned in the Municipality of Vila de Frades, near to the town of Vidigueira. Those who set the plot alight hoped that Luis would put the piece of land up for sale which would allow for a monoculture to be established on this land. Luis retained his damaged plot of land and is now putting his energy into restoring this land and conserving the seeded plants he has introduced into the soil.

The new threat now considers a recently established irrigation perimeter not far from the boundary of Luis' plot that might later have a detrimental effect on the species that Luis has seeded as part of his conservation project. It may be that once the monoculture is in operation, the chemical substances that are emitted as part of its agricultural process later interfere with how Luis' conservation project develops. The tiles have been positioned on this plot to capture the possible substances that may transfer onto his land.

The images below document the conservation project and the placement of the ceramic Tile Recorders.

Portuguese hillside featuring black burnt tree surrounded by new sapling trees
Sapling trees surrounding burnt treeDigital scan of medium format film negative, 2022
Portuguese hillside featuring black burnt tree surrounded by new sapling trees
Tile situated within conservation projectDigital scan of medium format film negative, 2022
Portuguese hillside featuring church ruin and chicken wire fence with tile attached to wooden post
Tile on boundary postDigital scan of medium format film negative, 2022
vineyard in the background framed by a circular away of shrub bushes
Tile by vineyardDigital scan of medium format film negative, 2022
A landscape image showing the Portuguese landscape and distant horizon. a burnt tree in the foreground
Future landscape for monoculture plantationDigital scan of medium format film negative, 2022
an infrared map of Alentejo, Portugal. Featuring blue crosses to identify the locations of tiles in the landscape.
Near-infrared map identifying the locations of tiles amongst the dense vegetal landscape, 2022