c29 editorial - sustainable architecture: a stern warning for planet earth

C29 Editorial - Sustainable architecture: a stern warning for planet Earth

Why talk about sustainable architecture today, in a global political framework that seems to quickly run in the opposite direction? The answer, of course, is that we need to urgently talk about it exactly for these reasons. It is necessary to underline, and to do so towards an ever wider public, the risks that the planet Earth runs if we continue on this path, in order to convince the highest possible number of people that a trend reversal is necessary.

Why talk about sustainable architecture today, in a global political framework that seems to quickly run in the opposite direction? The answer, of course, is that we need to urgently talk about it exactly for these reasons. It is necessary to underline, and to do so towards an ever wider public, the risks that the planet Earth runs if we continue on this path, in order to convince the highest possible number of people that a trend reversal is necessary.

From the USA to China, from Brazil to Russia, the current agenda seems indeed to have forgotten these issues: we now read that the rulers of the world's greatest powers intend to retreat from the Kyoto protocol or even deny that climate change exists. And, in the stupidity of social networks, these theses seem to even persuade large sections of the defenseless population, in a sort of irresponsible relativism, in which every scientific truth is questioned for the sole benefit of the ruling classes.

In the face of all this, however, in the specific field of architecture we have been witnessing, for some years now, a considerable increase in the awareness of these issues, to the point that today there is no expression more recurrent – and sometimes even abused – than «sustainable architecture». Not always, to be honest, it is appropriately used and indeed it is sometimes associated with interventions that involve very little sustainability. And yet, the fact that this theme is the key for the decades to come is now clear to everyone, even if the general public does not always have a clear knowledge of what this expression means.

It seems, in some ways, that the great theme of ecology – which had marked world culture at the dawn of the Seventies, in the face of the atomic threat and the risks of global pollution of the time – is once again becoming very topical. This is because the thesis of The Closing Circle – the title of a famous book by Barry Commoner published in 1971 – that nature acts in closed cycles and that man instead stubbornly insists on generating open cycles, with the unbridled use of technology, is still dramatically true. In the building sector, for example, the majority of the most recurrent construction processes consume resources by determining non-recyclable waste. This happens even more in the underdeveloped areas, where large open dumps are full of non-recyclable, or even recyclable, building waste, but where virtuous processes in this sense are not activated. Likewise, in many hot areas of the planet, buildings continue to be built in ways that involve frightening energy consumption. The road to energy zero building is still long, and requires investments and commitment for a more sustainable future especially in hot areas such as the Persian Gulf and in the whole South of the world.

Therefore, with this 29th issue of Compasses, we tried to give an answer, obviously a partial one, to these questions, presenting the state of the art of the concept of sustainability through a series of essays and projects. If we look at the dictionaries, under the entry «sustainability» we find the following definition: «avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance». So, what is sustainable architecture? This is the title of the first article that opens the [essays] section, in which the authors Fernando Vegas and Camilla Mileto of the Univèrsitat Politècnica de Valencia, who have been working on these issues for years, explain in a synthetic way what this expression means. As they rightly pointed out, if the word «sustainability» seems to be brand new, as a matter of fact «the history of architecture tells us that architecture has been sustainable from its birth». Today, as the authors write, many expressions are used to explain sustainability – «kilometer zero, low-tech, bioclimatic, passive ecological, ecotech, bio-architecture, bio-construction, permaculture» – but in general this term means «to identify certain architectures that are supposedly responsible for their relationship with the environment». An example, in this sense, is given by earthen architecture, which marks the history of humanity since its appearance, and which today – as the same two authors show in their second article – still offers scenarios of great news. This is demonstrated by the cover of the issue itself, which depicts the indoor swimming pool built inside the rammed earth walls in Toro, Spain, designed by Vier Arquitectos.

Still in the [essays] section the theme of sustainability is declined in the interesting article by Serena Viola, of the University of Naples Federico II, who examines the experience of King's Cross in London, where a series of industrial and railway buildings have been converted to public use according to the "reuse, optimize, share" philosophy. The result consists in high quality interventions, such as those of Stanton Williams Architects, WilkinsonEyre with Jonathan Tuckey Design, Heatherwick Studio, which transform the ancient granaries, gasholders, storage and railway buildings in a sustainable way. Finally, the theme of sustainability also marks the last [essays] article, written by Jacopo Galli of the IUAV University of Venice and dedicated to the illustration of an important project, financed by the World Bank, for a sustainable reconstruction in Syria after the years of devastation and war that have destroyed many traditional villages of the country. On this same theme, in the [academia] section, we present another interesting article, written by Salah Haj Ismail of the University of Cantabria, which specifically concerns Aleppo. Based on the lesson of the past, the author shows how it is possible to rebuild the city by reusing even the rubble of war as a building material, in a sustainable and symbolic process, which lays the foundations of the new buildings on the materials of the ancient ones.

Still on the theme of sustainability, with specific attention to the Gulf region, the whole [focus] of the issue is dedicated to the "People Planet Profits" conference organized by Massimo Imparato as part of the UAEmodern initiatives carried out during the Dubai Design Week. Through the reflections of Monica Mazzolani, Federico Parolotto, Mario Cucinella, Hala Younes, Jarvis Liu, the theme of "sustainability" is declined «as a form of resilience for the planet, as a mean of social equalization and as a tool for boosting economy».

The three projects presented in the [architecture & plan] section are also related to the theme of sustainability, declined in different ways and scales: if in Rafaela Cultural Center in Argentina the theme is above all the compatible reuse of an existing building (the old market), in the other two projects – both in Paris – we see instead new architecture, on the great and small scale, fully deal with the theme of sustainability. In this way, we range from the large residential building – the bâtiment HOME, realized by Hamonic + Masson & Associés – built as part of the huge urban project Paris Rive Gauche, whose design and construction elements are based on sustainability, to the green-roofed wooden building intended to host the “Christian Marin” Community Center in Limeil-Brévannes, designed by Guillaume Ramillien Architecture.

Finally, in the [experiences] section, we present two projects that are antithetical but equally relevant to the theme of sustainability: the futuristic building of Bee'ah Headquarters in Sharjah, UAE, created by Zaha Hadid as the head office of the company that deals with waste recycling, and the main results of the Rifat Chadirji Prize 2018, organized by Tamayouz Excellence Award. In the latter case, it concerns an interesting theme of conservation and reuse: the brief asked participants to transform the current unused site of the Old Governorate Building into the Baghdad Design Centre while integrating the damaged original façades into their concepts for the new building, as a memorial for an era in Baghdad’s history.

The issue is completed by other interesting experiences in the [materials & interiors] section, such as the one proposed by Ingrid Paoletti of the Politecnico di Milano, concerning an algorithmic pavilion with 3D printing to optimize the use of resources, or that of the circular restaurant – based on the principle of circular economy – designed by Carlo Ratti for the ENI pavilion at Maker Faire Rome. Finally, even the [smart food] section is fully relevant to the issue of sustainability, presenting a research on diatoms as both sustainable food for the future and geometries for the design of new urban elements, as in the case of the Edo project realized by the University of Campania Luigi Vanvitelli.

While the issue was in preparation, we received two sad news we wanted to remember in the [in memoriam] section: the passing of Fabrizio Carola, an extraordinary architect who had worked all his life with traditional techniques in Africa, and that of Marco Dezzi Bardeschi, one of the masters of Architectural Conservation. To them both goes our loving thought, so that their works can illuminate the present and the future of architecture and therefore, as the Latins would say, ut vivant.

Andrea Pane