Towards an Ecological Architecture
Kivi Sotamaa article for ALL DESIGN journal issue 'New Era, New Environmental Design'
July 21. 2011, Helsinki Finland
How can architecture as an art form take on issues of sustainability? How does music deal with ecological challenges, for that matter? Architecture differs from music in that it performs both functionally and culturally. It protects people and communities from the environment, and provides a stage for life and cultural expression. It is the cultural performance and its relationship to sustainability, which I would like to explore here briefly, instead of the engineering performance - passive ventilation, solar panels, geothermal systems - things more commonly discussed when the topic is sustainability. Architecture has disciplinary specificity and knowledge, beyond technical and technological issues, and if there's to be a new ecological architecture then architecture as an art form has to raise to the challenge.
I believe that digital/biological paradigm is fruitful ground for a new, ecological era in architecture. Digital design, fabrication and material technologies are causing a paradigm shift in the physical world: We are moving away from serial reproduction towards serial permutation, from copies towards iterations. New digital technologies introduce variation, mutation and flexibility into industrial mass production at an unprecedented scale. This technological shift holds immense technical and artistic potential. Design, fabrication, and materials are becoming more responsive, intelligent and differentiated.
In addition to the digital, in recent years, there has been a lot of interest in nature as a source for architecture. Biomimicry, which literally means 'learning from the wisdom of other species', is an exciting field of exploration where architects and engineers work to develop structures, materials and processes which are better optimised, more intelligent and ecological. Digital design technology has introduced new possibilities for designing more in the manner of nature, using 'evolutionary' design processes, scripting, simulation together with robotic fabrication and new biomimetic materials. The technical possibilities for creating better optimised, more intelligent environments is incredible.
Design which simply mimics nature and aspires to becoming 'optimally performing' is often void of cultural expression - at best resulting in engineering feats such as the Eden project by Grimshaw and Partners or the Munich Olympic stadium by Frei Otto, and at worst in pseudo scientific digitally generated mumbo jumbo, mascarading as architecture. This is the line that the many architectural programs focusing on digital design and biomimetics at schools of architecture around the world have tried to walk, often failing. Although some of the research may be valuable to the field in terms of new techniques, processes and materials, it is not architecture, at least if you agree that architecture is a form of cultural expression.
The development towards the digital/biological does not imply the disappearance of cultural expression, but simply creates new materials and techniques through which culture expresses itself. Does that mean we need to paint our buildings with flowers? Perhaps. Jeff Koon's Flower Puppy or Patrick Blanc's Vertical Garden are straight forward examples of the development. The corporate buildings and high tech housing towers have long ago isolated people from all natural forces an enveloped them in air conditioned abstraction. It seems obvious that making visible environmental forces - flora, seasons, flows of matter and energy, wind, sun and water - would go a long way towards a new more ecological experience in architecture.
There's also something to be said about beauty. Beautiful objects and environments encourage care, love, meaningfulness and therefore have a long lifespan. But beauty does not imply quaint conformity to pre-existing aesthetic traditions and clichés, but rather explorations into new sensations. In fact, in order for a sensation of beauty to take place clichés have to be shattered. Sensation is the enemy of cliché and vice versa, and beauty is what seduces us into exploring new possibilities, new places. The place we should get to, is one where we are emotionally and intellectually experience our place in the ecology, consider our actions and their effects, and act responsibly instinctively.
An inspiring precedent of what ecological architecture might be can be found in Bernard Rudofsky's famous book Architecture Without Architects. There are pictures from the Hyderabad Sind in West Pakistan, a city where unusual diamond shaped roofs channel wind into every building, and since the direction the wind is always the same, these 'windscoops' are all oriented the same. Collectively, they make visible, and experiential on the interior, the prevailing environmental force - wind - and in doing so create an architectural expression of community where each house is slightly differentiated, nuanced part of a whole. This architectural expression of a collective is in contrast to the many western communities, where extreme individuality is manifested through an architectural emphasis of difference at the expense of any overall coherence.
Architecture is an art form which creates stages for life and has what I have entitled 'dramatalurgial powers'. In other words, by creating new kinds of environments and atmospheres architecture can cast us in new and sometimes unexpected roles, challenging the way we occupy the world and behave in our societies. It is in this recasting that the subtle yet awesome power of architecture lies. The Hyderabad Sind is an example of a more coherent and ecological experience of relationship between an individual and the collective, between a part and the whole, between human and nature, than most contemporary cities. I believe new ecologically motivated and digitally powered designs by great architects can take on existing clichés and create a new ecological architecture, beautiful enough to seduce us into exploring more sustainable ways of being and feeling in the world.