Cautionary Climate Tales That Give People Pause When They Press Play
The India-born director Joshua Ashish Dawson builds digital worlds that ruminate on the future shock of environmental destruction in the real world.
This article is part of our Design special section on how the recent push for diversity is changing the way the world looks.
A young woman is distressed. She seems unwell. Her body was “never designed to cope with the extremes of a shifting climate,” a soothing voice informs us. As a dreamy soundtrack plays in the background, she arrives at “Spa Sybarite,” where futuristic stone treatment pods hover on stilts above a desert landscape.
“Spa Sybarite” is a three-minute film by Joshua Ashish Dawson, a 32-year-old Angeleno who describes himself as a “world builder” and much of his work as “speculative climate futures.” Trained as an architect, he uses digital design tools and the language of cinema to create environments and scenarios that, he said, “ask viewers to question their assumptions about the world they live in.”
At “Spa Sybarite,” the voice-over goes on, guests are offered “an assortment of scientifically tested customized treatments to help your body condition itself to the environmental despair that faces our planet.” Soaking in an outdoor tub rinses skin “of the deposits of wildfire ash,” and healthy meals are “customized to your prior nutritional accessibility.” There is also “solastalgia therapy,” where digital visualization artists create an immersive 3-D simulation of your wildfire-destroyed home for you to visit.
The conceit for “Spa Sybarite” is both slightly absurd and eminently believable. Elements almost feel like satire, something Mr. Dawson plays with, but his ultimate aim is for a kind of “hyper-realism,” he said of the film, noting that the idea of a climate spa is not very far from reality. “Wellness is a multi-trillion-dollar industry,” he said, “and it’s only a matter of time before someone takes the obvious opportunity to market wellness as the solution to climate-based illness, the biggest global health threat of our time.”
Having grown up in Bangalore, India, he is sensitive to how climate change disproportionally affects low-income communities and communities of color. His invention of a white, presumably wealthy protagonist in “Spa Sybarite” raises the question of who has access to wellness, not to mention basic heath care. He sees the luxury spa as a product of disaster capitalism, “where these infrastructures of care are used to make a profit off of a crisis.”
Mr. Dawson has made three other films, ranging from four to seven minutes, with related themes: In “Cáustico,” it is the politics of water privatization; in “Loa’s Promise,” the ecological and human impacts of unregulated resource extraction; and in “Denervation,” the threats posed by counterfeiting in an unscrupulous pharmaceutical industry. Concern with the environment and health underlie everything.
He traces his career path to his childhood in India in the 1990s, when two of his loves were Lego and movies. His father is an English-speaking Protestant Christian who works as an interior designer, and his mother is a Hindu civil engineer whose first language is Marathi. The family spoke English at home, and both Mr. Dawson and his sister attended convent schools that had been established by the British.
“The influx of Hollywood at that point in time in Bangalore really was something that we grabbed onto and were excited about,” he recounted. Even today, he said, movies are a big part of how his family connects.
He went on to study at the RV College of Architecture in Bangalore, where he received a bachelor’s degree in architecture. While in school, he interned for several months in the Ahmedabad office of Balkrishna Vithaldas Doshi, India’s first Pritzker Prize-winning architect.
Doshi, who died in January, worked with Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn, two influential figures in modern architecture, and he was known for adapting the International Style to a community-minded modernist approach and regional focus that reflected India’s culture and climate.
“I learned a lot from him in terms of how he used mythmaking and storytelling very much in his design process,” Mr. Dawson said. “And it was the start of something that was sort of going off in my head.”
After graduating from architecture school, he received his license to practice in India. But he lacked experience with digital tools used for design and fabrication. That led him to enroll in the master’s program in advanced architectural studies at the University of Southern California, where he met another key mentor, Alex McDowell.
Mr. McDowell is a Hollywood film production designer with credits on “Fight Club,” “Minority Report” and “Man of Steel,” among others. His studio, Experimental Design, creates future-gazing story worlds for corporate clients, educational institutions and cultural organizations. He is also on the faculty of the USC School of Cinematic Arts and is the director of the school’s World Building Media Lab, where students collaborate on immersive storytelling.
“What’s exciting is when students come in from completely different disciplines with this very open-minded approach to storytelling,” Mr. McDowell said. “And Joshua was one of relatively few who really pushed against the edges of his discipline. He came into class as an architect, very open and excited, I think, by the idea of entertainment media. He came in ready to break down the walls.”
Mr. Dawson’s graduation project was his first short, “Cáustico.” Set in the year 2036, in a computer-generated city of anonymous steel-and-glass structures, the film envisions a future where dwindling fresh water supplies are controlled by a fictional company called Turquoise, whose depletion of underground aquifers causes massive sinkholes, while some of the most privileged citizens start moving into a subterranean lower city to be closer to the water. For the audio, Mr. Dawson used snippets of actual news reports on climate and water issues from 2014 and 2015, reminding us that such a future might not be so far away.
Since then, he has turned out films at a measured pace while working day jobs. He spent four and a half years as a designer at Price Architects and HKS (the two firms merged in 2019), and for the past two years, he has been a narrative visualization specialist at IBI Group, producing dynamic 3-D models that help planners study the impact potential infrastructure and development projects will have on future urban environments.
Mr. Dawson said he eventually wants to create real-world spaces. For now, he remains focused on the films he thinks of as a critical design practice, taking inspiration from ’60s and ’70s radical architecture collectives like Superstudio and Archigram, which rejected building in favor of exploring experimental concepts in films, artworks and manifestoes that challenged the status quo.
Funded with grants and his own savings, each short film has involved a handful of partners. Some he has known since his days at USC, like Ashton Rae, a cinematographer, who described Mr. Dawson as “an incredibly collaborative director” with “a clear and punctuated vision.” She noted that in addition to making films “about real-world issues that affect marginalized individuals,” Mr. Dawson prioritizes having a diverse crew on set and for postproduction work.
Mr. Dawson said his own identity as an immigrant of color is an asset in his work, giving him “a different perspective on issues that locals can’t see or see in biased ways.” As a Christian and the product of an interfaith marriage in India, he described himself as a micro-minority who “always felt like an outsider.”
Familiar with the religious, gender and caste-based discrimination that is widespread in India, he is still learning about racism in the U.S., where he said immigrants are often expected to feel grateful just for being here. Based on his name, people often assume he is white before they meet him, which can cut both ways.
“Since the killing of George Floyd, there definitely has been an increase in the kind of space making for people of color to be given a place at the table,” he said. “But it can be a little bit like a quota, like tokenism, with one spot or two spots that all the marginalized groups of people within their discipline have to compete for.”
His hope is to see more people like him doing the kind of work he loves. “I never had a road map set by someone who looked like me, who paved this sort of interdisciplinary path like the one I’m trying to forge,” he said.
His next project is a feature film that will incorporate cultural references tied to his identity as an India-born designer. It started as a visual thought experiment, a reimagining of the historic Bradbury Building in Los Angeles — specifically its soaring interior court with a glass ceiling and ornate Victorian ironwork — as an ancient Indian stepwell. The fictional hybrid structure will serve as a setting for a story about an Indian American detective who threads through its spaces as she investigates a murder.
While Mr. Dawson was working on the screenplay this winter, drought-stricken Los Angeles was being battered by heavy storms, with most of the rainfall washing into the ocean because of insufficient drainage and catchment infrastructure. His project is a provocation to city planners to look to India’s stepwells — subterranean structures that are admired as aesthetic as well as engineering marvels, which for centuries provided reserves of clean water for drinking and bathing — for creative inspiration, if not literal solutions.
“The past can teach us a lot, not just in terms of how water histories are written but also how water is controlled by the state,” Mr. Dawson said.
He attributed his decision to weave his cultural background into his work to finding his voice as a designer and storyteller, but he added that it probably also has something to do with an increased openness to diverse cultural narratives.
“Personally,” he said, “I like to roll with this idea that it’s a beautiful synchronization between the two.”