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Virserum, Sweden – Kengo Kuma makes the case for local, sustainable building

Architecture conference preaches the power of the local and the force of the individual

There was a certain irony in Japanese architect Kengo Kuma jetting briefly to a remote spot in southern Sweden to discuss the importance of working with local traditions and materials, then heading off to Edinburgh to present his proposals for the new Victoria and Albert Museum in Dundee.

Kuma, however, sees no contradiction between this approach and the now international nature of his work. Japan, after all, has a vast range of different climates and traditions itself. ‘I feel that architects do not belong to a country but work with the place,’ he said.

Kuma also talked about respecting the ‘spirit of the material’, which could be anything from timber in Japan to the soft volcanic tufa stone found near Vesuvius in southern Italy.

For the Hiroshige Ando Museum in Japan (AR October 2001), he consciously restored the traditional visual link between the village and its adjoining mountain, employing timber from the mountain in his building. This reinforces a famous adage of Japanese carpenters that ‘the best wood comes from the hill behind the building.’

In Yamaguchi Prefecture in western Japan he used adobe (another local material) for a small building to house a precious wooden Buddha. The adobe effectively controlled the humidity and temperature, removing the need for air conditioning. Japan, Kuma says, is now seeing a resurgence of ‘charisma artisans’ - people with traditional skills who are becoming role models for the young.

He hopes this represents a move away from the 20th-century belief that ‘concrete and steel is the only possible solution for real buildings’. This local-centric approach tied in with many of the ideas underscoring the theme of the Swedish conference, The Architecture of Necessity. Initiated by the Virserums Konsthall, an exhibition space in a town that grew in the wake of the now defunct furniture industry, the concept was developed by Claes Caldenby, professor of theory and history of architecture at Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg.

Austrian architect Walter Unterrainer was chiefly concerned about the meaning of true sustainability. He highlighted laughable examples of ‘sustainable’ design that were anything but. Supposed ‘passive houses’ under construction in Tromsø, Norway, were left with their insulation exposed to driving rain. When Unterrainer enquired, he was told that heaters would be put in to dry out the houses after construction. ‘This will use the same amount of energy as one house would consume in 15 years,’

Unterrainer said. He was equally critical of Italian Mario Cucinella’s SIEEB building in Beijing, where photovoltaic (PV) panels were mounted on steel arms. ‘Everybody knows PV doesn’t work in Beijing, because of the smog,’ Unterrainer said. In addition, the support arms started to rust within a year, and were acting as thermal bridges.

For Unterrainer, classic buildings like Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye and Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion House were closer to true sustainability because in their different ways they were flexible enough to guarantee a long life. ‘A lot of buildings are demolished because they are redundant,’ he warned.

Unterrainer is currently retrofitting 2,500 social housing units (dating from the mid 20th century) to current energy efficiency standards. Using an approach he calls ‘architectural acupuncture’, in which he makes relatively modest changes to the fabric, he stressed that the way to sell this idea to long-term residents is not only through lower energy bills, but also by improvements to such things as access and the quality of balconies.

But, he said, at a cost of just 600 euros per m², energy bills could be reduced to a tenth of their original size. Aware that upgrading existing stock is a current critical challenge, Unterrainer is keen to roll out this approach to more social housing. But new houses matter, too.

San Francisco-based Michelle Kaufmann explained how she had produced 51 houses that challenge the typically extravagant and unliveable ‘McMansions’ that dominate so much of US housing. A former employee of Frank Gehry, she realised when designing her own family house how few alternatives there were.

The solution, she believed, lay in well-designed, compact, energy-efficient homes that could be prefabricated. When manufacturers told her it could not be done, and that this was not what the market wanted, in true American can-do fashion she bought her own factory and proved them wrong.

In the face of the current environmental crisis, it’s easy to think that nothing can be done without the support of ponderous and slow-moving governments. How encouraging, then, to bear witness to architects who are making a different kind of contribution.

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