In order to change how the built environment is designed and constructed, it is needed to understand the impact of decisions beyond the spreadsheet. This concerns how, where and with what buildings are envisioned and made. It requires an awareness of the complexity and entanglement of material extraction and resources, energy, supply chains, and production methods, which—as already known—have immense social and environmental consequences. Systems that consistently confirm the inherent injustice in regard to where and whom these decisions are affecting the most.
This journal contribution aims to bring forward some of the takeaways from the event ‘Infrastructures of Longevity’ held at the research and design lab SPACE10 during Copenhagen Architecture Festival 2021. In addition to myself, the panel included Joseph Grima, architect, critic, curator and editor, as well as creative director of Design Academy Eindhoven and co-founder of Space Caviar; Alice Haugh, architect, lecturer, former strategic design manager at Space & Matter now Build Environment Programme Manager at Laudes Foundation and partner in the urban think tank In Between-Economies; Frederik Noltenius Busck, co-founder and director of CPH Village. Svend Hvass, architect and researcher in the field of Japanese and Danish building traditions, enriched the conversation with perspectives on the potential role of rituals and on the notion of time in relation to the development of the built environment.
The building sector and the construction of buildings account for 40% of global carbon emissions today. To broaden awareness and perspectives of what is at stake, the event attempted to discuss historical, current and future aspects of the production of buildings across different scales. It began with inputs on the image and role of the architect, on cultural production and material extraction, then zoomed in on how industries and initiatives in different countries are trying to achieve change through different projects, and then on how traditions can influence future practices. Lastly, in a dialogue across perspectives, scales and sectors, the panel delved further into this subject to get closer to existing and new models for an approach to design and building anchored in honest social and environmental practices.
The event raised questions such as: how is it possible to design and construct responsibly taking climatic and social practices as the building blocks of urban development? Which infrastructures and scalable models are needed in order to achieve these changes, and how to learn from the bottom up, meaning from contexts where the development is for example inspired by community-based initiatives? How might it be possible, in this way, to also challenge and make visible the standards increasingly narrated by corporate marketing spin and greenwash?
This journal contribution will bring forward some of the references discussed during the event, as well as points made by the panel to unfold key aspects of longevity in the built environment, and in relation to problems and potentials within current as well as future modes and models for design and construction. The emphasized takeaways are not meant as complete perspectivations on the challenges discussed, but instead serve to contribute to the conversation with additional viewpoints and open up the subject for further dialogue.
Moving away from modernity
The role of the architect has and is in many ways still mirroring the built environment, as the notion of the “master” continues to inform the visions of what and how to build.
One such iconic example is the hand of architect Le Corbusier swifting above the physical model of his project La Ville Radieuse (The Radiant City) in the 1930s. Although the urban masterplan project was never realized, it still played an extensive role in European modernism in the way the architect was elevated and entitled to see the city ‘top-down’, from above, as a so-called ideal and well-ordered environment. The distancing of the master architect from the social and environmental consequences of this mode of urbanization caused by this ‘tabula rasa’ approach marked a shift across scales—down to the very material which buildings are designed and built from.
Implicit in the idea of modernity, democracy and growth that the architect was the purveyor of, was also the secret—this new miracle material—which is concrete.
Inherent to modernism has been the extensive use of concrete as the primary building block of urban development. Despite the knowledge there has been in the past decades about the severe environmental consequences of extraction and processing, this material is still the preferred in a market-driven construction industry, where cheapness and fastness are “good”.
The use of cement in concrete is the ingredient causing the largest environmental damage and carbon footprint while dominating how buildings are constructed.
In Denmark, the factory Aalborg Portland in the north is the world’s largest export manufacturer of white cement. Despite ambitions to develop more sustainable types of cement, its production remains one of the biggest climate sinners in the construction industry.
In order to move away from the modernist ideal of both the architect and of unsustainable building blocks, it is necessary to rethink the design and business models behind them.
New design and business models
When progressing from the modernist view of designing, planning and building, it will be fundamental for the architect to shift perception of the environment where one is operating—from top-down to eyeheight. In this change of perspective, citizens, residents and other stakeholders should be included as central to the process of identifying the design. Instead of adopting the “hand-of-the-master” approach to building, where perspectives and nuances are easily left out or lost, the architect and the construction industry should be responsible for shaping new and more inclusive building processes.
We are on a short term cycle in the built environment and that has specially to do with the business model [...] It does not have to be this way. If we look at some extreme examples— like The Great Pyramid of Giza—we see that actually when we attach cultural value to buildings or edifices we manage to maintain them actually pretty much until eternity
The notion of maintenance and care for the built environment brings the agency back to the people actually living in the buildings or using public spaces. Community Land Trusts (CLT), for example, are nonprofit corporations holding land on behalf of place-based communities, often seen in The Netherlands and the UK, where maintenance and care are often essential to the development of projects. By doing so, they bring forth more grounded ways of making decisions, planning and qualifying the needs of the community in order to build what it is needed in a more responsible way.
In Denmark the concept of CPH Village—affordable and sustainable student housing in Copenhagen—is an example of a model where the building blocks are strategically planned to be light, moveable and adjustable—which contrasts with a modernist view of building and points to a society in flux with a diversity of needs instead of a single ideal. Furthermore, the homes are created with the focus on establishing new communities, thereby potentially generating a higher degree of belonging as well as care for the buildings on the part of the residents.
Learning from traditions
In order to develop ways in which the built environment can become more socially and environmentally sustainable, it will also be essential to learn from traditions, especially how certain building methods, rituals and spiritual anchoring of places and buildings can inform the notion of time and resource awareness.
In Japan the Ise Grand Shrine or more specifically Ise Jingu—rebuilt every 20 years since the 7th century CE—is an example of how to change the perception of preservation and distribution of resources in relation to buildings. The construction wood is grown, harvested, processed and crafted around the site and, after the disassembly of the main shrine and other associated shrines, the building material is distributed to be used for new spiritual buildings across Japan. This illustrates how architecture for disassembly can be part of preserving both building traditions and communities, since it creates a strong sense of belonging through an annual pilgrimage, rituals and gatherings taking place during the construction and disassembly processes of the shrines.
There is a possibility that new design and business models could find inspiration in these ancient and traditional practices, implementing them with an awareness of cultural differences and a higher degree of scalability for them to have an impact across the construction industry.
To conclude—one of the most urgent and extensive design challenges the architect and the construction industry are facing is how to learn (as well as unlearn) in order to create honest social and environmental models for developing the built environment.
As the takeaways suggest, it is necessary to be simultaneously aware of the instrumentalized role of the architect, question material and design choices, strive for more inclusive and transparent processes and learn from buildings and environments that can inspire ways of building with a long term perspective.
Most importantly, it is needed to reflect and act on how urban development can become more equitable and not continue following ‘business as usual’, according to which people in power, such as real estate developers, retain their position using the built environment—often without the architect questioning the decisions made—to create immense financial profit, while sidestepping the social and environmental consequences of their actions.
Sustainable urban development requires structural and infrastructural changes to both practice and construction that shift ‘business as usual’, and therefore it is necessary to question the very foundations of who gets to build and what, where and how.
2) Joseph Grima, Infrastructures of Longevity podcast, 14:00
5) Alice Haugh, Infrastructures of Longevity podcast, 30:00
Christine Bjerke is an architect and educator based in Copenhagen. She is co-founder of the international think tank In-Between Economies and in 2020 she founded Christine Bjerke Studio. Her interests focus on the intersections of the built environment, gender studies, economic development, technology, design, and architecture. She is currently teaching the Urbanism & Societal Change Masters Programme at The Royal Danish Academy - Architecture, Design, Conservation. She is also a frequent writer on architecture and design with contributions to MacGuffin, ED, Archinect, among others.