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Reaching a Sustainable Symbiosis

A symposium in New York pushes alternative ways for sustaining sustainability

At the beginning of February, a two-day event at Cornell University discussed the next steps for sustainability. The lectures were delivered by a diverse group of researchers and practitioners spanning multiple disciplines, but who share a common concern for what co-organiser Michael Hensel has labelled ‘sustainability fatigue’.

This symposium was not centred upon exhausted issues including energy, optimisation and performance, but was instead focused on re-thinking the entire conceptual foundation for the project, one which fundamentally examines our relationship with nature and nature’s relationship with humans. Important to this shift is a move away from purely technical solutions to environmental sustainability and a move towards an understanding that our built and natural environments are equally becoming the contexts for thriving hybrid ecosystems.

Hensel gave a provocative keynote lecture calling for a non-anthropocentric architectural agenda for sustaining sustainability, an agenda defining humans equal to and not separate from nature. This was outlined with eight major themes spanning multiple scales from material performance to settlement patterns and process.

He asked the audience to consider niche environments with several material skins, which in their compilation generate built ecosystems; and he challenged projects that are only engaged in complex shape-making, biomorphic expressions that fall flat as discrete objects disengaged from their natural environments. Hensel championed common architectural concepts employing degrees of interiority and exteriority where multiple envelopes unfold, one interior into the next.

Less common perhaps, or at least in the context of the topic of sustainability, were the sited schemes. The work of Frei Otto and the Blur Building by Diller Scofidio + Renfro were mentioned as exemplary projects where the building envelope is considered to foster its own climate unfolding outwards. Spidernethewood by R&Sie(n), 2007, Nîmes, France was featured for its inventiveness in employing vegetation that extends and connects the built threshold with the local climate.

This sits in contrast to what Hensel calls ‘eco wallpaper’, architectural elements that do not offer long-term sustainable solutions due to their absence of linkages to existing climates and ecosystems. Similar to Hensel’s call for the unfolding of multiple building envelopes, Birger Sevaldson, professor at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design and principal researcher in the OCEAN Design Research Association, also spoke of this interstitial zone, in what he calls a ‘thick boundary’.


A model of the Cherry Blossom Pavilion by Cristina Díaz Moreno and Efrén García Grinda of AMID.cero9 which was exhibited at the 2010 Venice Biennale. It features ‘a process of gathering and assembling of post-subcultural materials into third natures’

His lecture promoted systems thinking in design for exploring built and natural ecologies that connect to and expose the inner workings of what Sevaldson labels ‘wicked problems’. For Sevaldson, a wicked problem is ‘super complex’; indeed, he argues we must look beyond the object and think of everything as being ‘super complex’. He offers a cup of coffee as an example of two super complex systems merging, one originating in Norway (paper cup production) and the other in a field in Colombia (coffee production).

Visualisation is key in navigating complex systems for design processes enveloped by systems thinking to encourage collaboration for the production of new knowledge. Sevaldson described this ‘multi-layered woven fabric of relationships’ as a necessity for developing design systems thinking. Hensel returned and underscored several of Sevaldson’s points, particularly concerning visualisation as a means for ‘seeing’ and comprehending biodiversity, to address architectural solutions that may foster a thickened border of multiple building envelopes.

Hensel presented the ‘Pigeon Tower’ in two locations, one in Turkey and the other in Egypt, as provocative case studies in architecture that generate active hybrid ecosystems that also engage broader systems of production. In Turkey, pigeon droppings were collected and harvested each year for fertiliser to cultivate a new melon farm industry, thus bringing new economic and trade benefits to the local culture. The other example in Egypt shows pigeons inhabiting the thickness
of the wall of a tower where eggs were once collected to bolster the local food supply.

The symposium featured speculative work by a handful of international architects. Dana Čupková and Kevin Pratt of Epiphyte Lab and Cornell University flirted with and inspired the audience with their Green Négligée, the title of which is a spin on Frederick Law Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace of parks in Boston. Zone overlap and a loose fit define their competition entry for a thickened ecological net system that enveloped one flank of the building, ultimately dissolving the figure-ground relationship of an existing Brutalist mid-rise housing complex in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia.

Their speculative project expands our notion of beauty within active systems while answering to Hensel’s call for multiple unfolding envelopes as a solution for exploring deep architectural ecologies. Energy flows move from juvenile to mature states through sophisticated systems of hydroponic growth, while also answering to cultural necessities of leisure and play. Cristina Díaz Moreno and Efrén García Grinda of AMID.cero9 expanded these topics in their presented projects.

Both their Cherry Tree Blossom Pavilion and Opera Prima, feature ‘a process of gathering and assembling of post-subcultural materials into third natures’. These new natures ultimately expose new forms of beauty that they claim, ‘image the public realm in a subversive manner’. Jonas Lundberg, a founding member of the Urban Future Organization, expands these notions into the public urban realm.

His research, teaching and practice fuse nature, people, technology, economy and ecology as one in which the city is at once a building and the building is the city. His question, ‘Where does the city end and the building begin?’ exposes Sevaldson’s wicked problems where intensive collectivity and collaboration answer to issues that are complex and systemic within a contemporary urban realm.

Marco Poletto of ecoLogicStudio, joined also by Claudia Pasquero, underscored the role of the architect as being centrally concerned with the design and development of built interfaces. Their Cyber Gardens in the city reveal how humans are forces within nature in a geological sense. These virtual gardens generate spaces of social cultivation where for Poletto and Pasquero, ‘coding is gardening and information is material for design’.

For example, in their current installation in Simrishamn, Sweden, visitors navigate a suspended algae garden, where each unit is fitted with a nozzle to encourage visitors to blow fresh oxygen into the photobioreactor bags. The final panel discussion provoked a new set of questions concerning design research models, transdisciplinary collaboration, and most importantly, the cultural realm within Hensel’s call for a non-anthropocentric architectural agenda.

We may argue over the slippery cultural gradient prescribed, subscribed or extracted from anthropocentric versus non-anthropocentric models for architectural design, but what was made clear is that our next steps concern fundamental relational calibrations between humans and nature. John Marzluff, Professor of Wildlife Science at the University of Washington had the simple message: ‘to sustain connections between humans and nature, we need to put a face on biodiversity by making it personal’.

For Marzluff, deep ecology is also cultural. We need to place importance upon recalibrating our relationship with nature to address next steps in sustainable design. Sustainable architecture should therefore be less concerned with issues of optimisation and energy manipulation and more emphatic about facilitating built interfaces between humans and nature.

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