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An Architectural Language Shaped by Sustainability
With its quantifiable objectives and measurable performance, sustainability often passes as a technological challenge. Its primary language is that of data, equipment, and engineered systems, most often translated into a hyper-technologized layer hidden within a design upholding pre-existing aesthetic norms. As architecture is the image of society at one moment in time, how does the focus on sustainability translate into architectural language, further legitimatizing the efforts to establish an equitable relationship with the environment? Architecture serves as an expression of attitudes, and since sustainability has become a fundamental value, it is worth looking at whether or not it has produced an aesthetic transformation.
“Sustainability has to find its own power of seduction,” says Ilaria di Carlo in her book “The Aesthetics of Sustainability“, in which she points that sustainability is expressed more “through improved technical performance rather than through a new urban language”, arguing for the need for “an innovative aesthetic”. The innovation of the 19th century regarding glass and steel led to the emergence of a new aesthetic, even though architecture’s first attempts to make use of the new materials replicated the aesthetic conventions of the time. In his article titled “An Un-flushable Urinal. The aesthetic potential of sustainability“, David Heymann asks the question: what is the aesthetic consequence of our desire for sustainable performance? and draws parallels to the world of art to argue that no significant technological change is free of esthetic consequences.
A decade after Heymann’s considerations, the practice is still dominated by the quantitative approach to sustainability, checking criteria in pursuit of certifications; however, there is evidence that the “aesthetic revolution that is certain to follow the rise of sustainable techniques” is in the making. Biophilia has become a signifier of environmental preoccupation, architects are drawing inspiration from traditional sustainable practices, and numerous projects show various versions of technology-driven sustainability. In addition, innovation in the field of construction materials, although still far away from mainstream commercial use, promises an expansive array of new aesthetical possibilities.
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An Invisible Performance
In 2017, Bloomberg’s European headquarters designed by Foster +Partners was named the world’s most sustainable office building, having achieved the highest score against the BREEAM sustainability assessment scheme. The unassuming building gives very little clue of this; however, its environmental strategies and sophisticated MEP systems significantly reduced carbon emissions, water and energy consumption. This example showcases a prevalent attitude where sustainability is relegated almost entirely to the engineer’s competence. At the same time, the architectural image is a reflection of sustainability considerations, as the metal fins across the façade vary in scale, angle and density according to solar exposure.
With sustainability as one of its core themes, Expo 2020 Dubai proved the fertile ground for a demonstrative show of the architectural possibilities that can emerge at the intersection of technology and environmental practices. The Sustainability Pavilion designed by Grimshaw Architects draws inspiration from natural processes such as photosynthesis, with a morphology optimized for sunlight and humidity water harvesting, with the funnel shape stimulating natural ventilation and bringing natural light inside the pavilion. The structure has a complex water management system that collects condensation, which is filtered and disinfected, mixed with desalinated water harvested on-site and then used as potable water for the pavilion. In this case, the sustainable features of the legacy building are also defining its architecture.
Learning from Vernacular
In discussing her work in Bangladesh informed by local materials and building techniques, Anna Heringer described sustainability as “a synonym of beauty”. The low-tech, bioclimatic, circular design approach has a particular architectural expression informed by the possibilities of the natural materials and the construction knowledge developed in that environment, giving sustainability a cultural, local identity. This attitude towards sustainability, shared by many architects operating in similar contexts, is often considered feasible only in less urbanized environments. Belgian practice BC Architects & Studies however, strives to put their knowledge of local materials and techniques developed through projects in Africa at work in Europe as an upgraded vernacular, seeing earth from the excavation of construction sites as a form of local material.
As is the case with digital fabrication, innovation in sustainable materials holds the potential to dramatically change the image of the built environment. Addressing the environmental impact of the construction industry, the UAE Pavilion curated by Wael Al Awar and Kenichi Teramoto presented an innovative, environmentally friendly cement made of recycled waste brine, a byproduct of industrial desalination. The project explores a hyper-local, experimental solution for mitigating carbon emissions within the construction sector, using a resource-abundant in UAE and countries with similar environments.
Sustainability is discussed chiefly through the lens of ethics; however, it is also important to critically evaluate its esthetic outcomes. Is this aesthetic that of Zumthor’s chapel, BIG’s “mega sustainable” Infinity Loop, or something entirely different, stemming from material innovation like that of the UAE Pavilion? The complexity of sustainability generates many attitudes and approaches. Still, since architecture is a conveyor of meaning, it is worth considering how the collective focus on the environment can be expressed in architectural language.