An architectural language shaped by sustainability
With its quantifiable goals and measurable achievements, sustainability often passes for a technological challenge. Its main language is that of data, devices and technical systems, mostly translated into a hyper-technological layer hidden in a design that upholds pre-existing aesthetic norms. Since architecture is the reflection of society at a given point in time, how does one translate the focus on sustainability into the language of architecture and further legitimize efforts to establish an equitable relationship with the environment? Architecture serves as an expression of attitudes, and as sustainability has become a core value, it is worth examining whether or not it has caused an aesthetic shift.
“Sustainability must find its own seductive power” says Ilaria di Carlo in her book “The Aesthetics of Sustainability”, in which she points out that sustainability is expressed “in terms of improved technical performance rather than a new urban language” and argues for the need for “innovative aesthetics”. Nineteenth-century innovation in glass and steel led to the emergence of a new aesthetic, although architecture’s first attempts to use the new materials replicated the aesthetic conventions of the time. In his article entitled “A non-flushable urinal. The aesthetic potential of sustainability”David Heymann asks: What is the aesthetic consequence of our desire for sustainable performance? and draws parallels with the world of art to argue that no major technological change is free from aesthetic consequences.
A decade after Heymann’s considerations, the quantitative sustainability approach still dominates in practice, which strives for criteria checks in the context of certifications; However, there is evidence that the “aesthetic revolution that will surely follow the rise of sustainable techniques” is in the making. Biophilia has become a symbol of environmental awareness, architects are taking inspiration from traditional sustainable practices, and numerous projects are showing different versions of technology-driven sustainability. In addition, innovations in the field of building materials, while still far from commercial exploitation, promise a wide range of new aesthetic possibilities.
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An invisible achievement
In 2017, the European Headquarters designed by Foster +Partners was named the world’s most sustainable office building by Bloomberg after achieving the highest score in the BREEAM sustainability rating system. The inconspicuous building gives very little evidence of this; however, its environmental strategies and sophisticated MEP systems significantly reduced CO2 emissions, water and energy consumption. This example shows a prevailing attitude in which sustainability is relegated almost exclusively to the competence of the engineer. At the same time, the architectural appearance reflects sustainability considerations, as the metal slats on the façade vary in size, angle and density depending on the amount of sunlight.
With sustainability as one of its core themes, Expo 2020 Dubai proved fertile ground for a demonstrative show of the architectural possibilities that can emerge at the intersection of technology and environmental practices. Designed by Grimshaw Architects, the Sustainability Pavilion takes inspiration from natural processes such as photosynthesis, with a morphology optimized to capture sunlight and moist water, with the funnel shape stimulating natural ventilation and bringing natural light into the pavilion. The structure features a complex water management system that collects condensed water, which is filtered and disinfected, mixed with desalinated water collected on site, and then used as drinking water for the pavilion. The sustainable features of the old building also characterize its architecture in this case.
Learn from slang
Discussing her work in Bangladesh, which was shaped by local materials and construction techniques, Anna Heringer described sustainability as “a synonym for beauty”. The low-tech, bioclimatic, circular design approach has a particular architectural expression, informed by the possibilities of natural materials and the building knowledge developed in this environment, giving sustainability a cultural, local identity. This attitude towards sustainability, shared by many architects working in similar contexts, is often seen as feasible only in less urbanized settings. However, Belgian practice BC Architects & Studies is keen to use its knowledge of local materials and techniques, developed through projects in Africa, as improved slang in Europe and to see earth excavated from construction sites as a form of local material.
As with digital manufacturing, innovation in sustainable materials has the potential to dramatically change the face of the built environment. Curated by Wael Al Awar and Kenichi Teramoto, the UAE Pavilion looked at the environmental impact of the construction industry and showcased an innovative, eco-friendly cement made from recycled waste brine, a by-product of industrial desalination. The project investigates a hyper-local, experimental solution to mitigate carbon emissions in the construction sector using a resource that is abundant in the United Arab Emirates and countries with similar environments.
Sustainability is mainly discussed through the lens of ethics; However, it is also important to critically evaluate the aesthetic results. Is this aesthetic that of Zumthor’s Chapel, BIG’s “mega-sustainable” Infinity Loop, or something else entirely, harking back to material innovations like that of the UAE Pavilion? The complexity of sustainability creates many attitudes and approaches. However, since architecture is a carrier of meaning, it is worth considering how the collective focus on the environment can be expressed in architectural language.