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A Manifesto for Sustainable Design Essay

This manifesto proposes an approach to sustainable design that I am interested in exploring during my time studying architecture. The idea of sustainability is a complex one, not without apparent contradictions. This makes it difficult to define in a wholly satisfactory manner. For the purposes of this manifesto I will advert to the definition proposed by Jason McLennan who asserts that sustainable design: “seeks to maximize the quality of the built environment, while minimizing or eliminating negative impact to the natural environment.” I find this definition particularly useful in the emphasis which it places on quality. By quality, in this context, I mean an approach to building which emphasises not only thoughtful design but also the careful use of materials; these considerations are crucial to achieve sustainable development.

“Quality” as the architect Thomas Sandell says “is always sustainable”: this holds particularly true if we return to the most basic meaning of that adjective – “long lasting.” My manifesto would involve seven basic considerations: a structure should be layered, generous, contextual, connected to nature, innovative, stimulating and idealistic. I propose to examine each of these points in turn, aware that they can be generally grouped under the heading of sensitivity. As I see it, a sensitive approach to architecture is one that fundamentally responds to the issues of site, user and impact, while not excluding other concerns – and all this in a way that is considered, thoughtful and restrained. These, then, are the fundamentals of my approach to design.

1. Layered

According to T.S Eliot, “Genuine poetry communicates before it is understood”: I believe the same holds true for genuine architecture. It affects us at a pre-conscious level and its impact transcends the immediate, sensory, effects of the building. As I see it, architecture is not a matter of superficial effects. Its must transcend that which is little more than eye-catching gimmickry. A good example of what I would consider a layered design is Erik Gunnar Asplund’s Woodland Chapel built in 1922 (Fig. 1).

Located on the grounds of the Woodland Crematorium in Enskede outside Stockholm, it was built to accommodate the funerals of children. At first, the chapel seems unremarkable in its elemental simplicity – as Simon Unwin puts it “without pretentions to being anything more than a rudimentary hut in the woods.” However, in quiet and richly suggestive ways, Asplund imbues this seemingly uncomplicated building with a poetic sense of an ancient and timeless place for burial. As J.R Curtis puts it, this apparently simple chapel was: “guided by underlying mythical themes to do with the transition from life to death, the procession of burial and redemption and the transubstantiation of natural elements such as water and light. There were echoes too of Nordic burial mounds and of Christ’s route to Calvary.”

Fig. 1 Erik Gunnar Asplund, Woodland Chapel, 1922 One striking aspect can be found in Asplund’s sensitive treatment of the theme of resurrection. The idea is usually made explicit through the use of iconography; Asplund, however, evokes the notion of rebirth through his use of subtle association. The Chapel, for example, has only one source of light, which comes from above. The eye is therefore drawn upwards, to the heavens. This effect is accentuated by the pervasive darkness of the building.

Like Robert Venturi, Asplund opts for “richness of meaning rather than clarity of meaning.” As a result, his Woodland Chapel has an uplifting rather than a depressing effect. His Chapel becomes an affirmation of life rather than an acceptance of defeat, and this appeals to me very much. It is no surprise to discover that Asplund himself – in a 1940 article on his crematorium building in Byggmästaren – referred to the Woodland Cemetery, in which the Chapel lies, as a ‘biblical landscape’. Whatever else it is, the Bible is a book of hope.

2. Generous

“Design is people” –Jane Jacobs

Jane Jacobs’s fundamental commitment to ordinary human beings is something I admire. Generous architecture offers an approach which puts everyday people at the forefront of the design. This is an inclusive architecture which does not limit itself only to the client and/or private users of the building. Nobody is excluded. An example of this kind of what might be described as “generous” architecture can be found in Norwegian firm Snøhetta’s Oslo Opera House on the waters of the Oslo Fjord, completed in 2007 (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2 Snøhetta, Oslo Opera House, 2007

Snøhetta are concerned with the social dimension of architecture and this design imaginatively reinterprets the traditional opera houses that “conventionally limit their public spaces to exterior plazas or grand lobbies, often only accessible during opening hours.” What is striking here is that their Opera House succeeds in giving back to the city a public space. The sloping rooftop becomes a new public area: a recreation space and viewing platform that you can walk on, sit on, sunbathe on, even snowboard on. As a result anyone, whether interested in Opera or not, can enjoy the space. The building has been called “a social democratic monument” by founding partner of Snøhetta, Craig Dykers – and one can see why.

In a recent television interview, Dykers went on to remark: “There is a sense of being able to place your feet onto the building that gives you a sense of ownership. At a certain point you no longer see the building as an architect’s building but as your own building” This is the kind of architecture which interests me. The fact that this building is sited in the middle of a highly populated area shows what can be done to help people live a fuller life – including those who have no focused interest in the Arts. This approach seems particularly relevant as more and more people live in cities and comes as a reminder that a city need not be a soulless, inhuman place.

3. Contextual

“Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context – a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.” — Eliel Saarinen

Architecture is inextricably rooted to place. An awareness of context then, would seem to be a sine qua non but unfortunately this is not always the case. An understanding of the social, historical, environmental, cultural and human qualities of a place is vital to building to best effect. By “contextual”, then, I mean an architecture that is sensitive to the history and memory of the site. This would by no means exclude an awareness of the buildings that surround it. I admire Alvar Aalto for his understanding of the importance of relating design to the most significant features of the local site: the kind of features that are, as Michael Trencher puts it, “either physically self-evident or historically and culturally relevant.” Aalto’s design for the Enso-Gutzeit Headquarters in Helsinki, (1959-62), affords a good example of this approach (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3 Alvar Aalto, Enso-Gutzeit Headquarters in Helsinki, 1959-62 The site for this building was in the old, Neo-Classical centre of the city and Aalto sought to respond to Engel’s buildings on the harbour and to the Church on a nearby hill. Arising out of his respect for the site, the scale of Aalto’s office building derives “both its horizontal and vertical character from the nearby historical buildings, hence its symmetrical, formal façade.”

A more recent example of contextually sensitive design is afforded by Grafton Architect’s proposal for the new Faculty of Economics for the University of Toulouse, still under construction. While envisaging their project, the architects walked from one side of the city to the other, “gauging the character of the brick facades, the polygonal towers, the transitions from streets to courts and the underlying spatial patterns.” The resulting design offers a sensitive response to the layered history and unique geography of the site. As founding partner Shelley McNamara has put it, the building “weaves into the mesh of the city.”

4. Connected to Nature

“Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.” –Frank Lloyd Wright By nature I mean a world predominantly uninterfered with by man. Building in a way that is sensitive to what is natural, its resources and habitats is a key issue in current debates about sustainable design. That said, it is nearly one hundred years since Frank Lloyd Wright offered architectural proposals showing how to live in harmony with the environment. He called this “an organic architecture…of nature, for nature.”

Lloyd Wright also understood the connection between nature and well-being: “the closer man associated himself with nature, the greater his personal, spiritual and even physical well-being grew and expanded as a direct result of that association.” It is hard not to agree wholeheartedly with Lloyd Wright’s philosophy. As I see it, Architecture must connect to the natural world—not just in terms of the use of resources or in merely avoiding the negative impact of building on the environment—but also, as importantly, in terms of what a connection to nature can offer. His design for the Kaufmann Residence at Falling Water provides an obvious example of Lloyd Wright’s respect for nature and the natural world (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4: Frank Lloyd Wright, Falling Water, 1935

At Falling Water, as Neil Levine remarks: “you do not ask where the house ends and the natural environment begins.” This sensitivity is present throughout his oeuvre, so that his buildings often seem to grow out of the environment and never appear at odds with it.

5. Innovative

There is often an assumption that to be truly innovative is to break away from all that went before, to create something totally new. I do not agree. As I see it, the most interesting avant-garde architecture has always been steeped in an understanding of the past. As T.S Eliot said “To be totally original is to be totally bad.” Just as every human being comes from parents, so every new idea owes something to what has gone before. While not rejecting the achievements of the past, Le Corbusier understood that new challenges require innovative thinking. He proposed radical ideas to enrich modern living, “from private villas to large scale social housing to utopian urban plans.”

Yet his inexhaustible inventiveness, “that heretical habit, driving-force of all his artistic desires” was always rooted in an understanding of what had gone before. His 1955 design for the Chapel of Notre Dame du Haut, in Ronchamp, (Fig. 5) provides a good example, though it marked a profound change in direction from his earlier works and a move away from standardization and the machine aesthetic adverted to in Towards a New Architecture. J.R Curtis even suggests that “a nostalgia for the giant ruins of antiquity” began increasingly to show itself in Le Corbusier’s imaginatively forward thinking work.

Fig. 5 Le Corbusier, Chapel of Notre Dame du Haut, 1955

In a manner similar to the approach of Asplund for his Woodland Chapel, Le Corbusier sought to evoke religious emotions through the play of space, light and form rather than relying on traditional iconography. In my opinion, what particularly makes the building exciting is its mixture of old and new, its daringly original design linking with an organic awareness of past forms. Curtis suggests a synthesis of influences: from Hadrian’s Villa to the mud buildings from the Mzab in Algeria, to Dolmens and Cycladic buildings, to the Parthenon itself. Out of an awareness of these sources, Le Corbusier manages to invent a new vocabulary. Other examples of this syncretism mixed with an innovative approach can be found in his designs for the Villa Madrot in Le Prdet, the Pavillon Suisse in Paris and the Duval Facory in Saint Die.

The result has been described as “a wholly new formal idiom”— and one which owes its impact to the combination of the past and the wholly modern. An interesting contemporary comparison is The Sea Organ, in Zadar Croatia by Nikola Bašic, built in 2005. The architect consulted master organ makers and Dalmatian stone carvers in his wish to create an experimental installation on the quayside to create a natural musical organ powered by the waves of the sea. Underneath its elegant white stone steps are 35 musically tuned tubes, through which the waves create random harmonic sounds. This kind of architecture excites me: strikingly innovative, yet sensitively grounded to the history of the site and traditions of the local people.

6. Stimulative

Stimulative architecture, I would define as that which lifts the spirit, making us feel more alive. It surprises and challenges us even as it makes us appreciate more the needs it fulfils. Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s design for the Glasgow School of Art affords a good example (Fig. 6). Built in two phases from 1897-1899 and 1907-1909, the School still excites not least by its subtle playfulness. Around every corner the visitor is struck by something unexpected.

Fig. 6, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Glasgow School of Art, 1899 On a closer look, a fusion of opposites emerges. Materials range widely and include leaded stained glass, exposed concrete and painted softwood. Their interplay is matched by an unexpected synthesis of light and dark, mass and plane, the old and the new, the solid and the void. As a result, the building imparts what Denys Lasdun calls “the brooding air of frozen excitement.” The fundamental stress lies in its manipulation of space. It seems to provide an example of what David Brett describes as a kind of “poetic workmanship” where structure, features, interiors and furnishings become “subject to a unifying system of forms, metaphors and unconscious associations.”

7. Idealistic

This concept ranges widely and includes respect for people coupled with a hope to advance and uplift. It is the opposite of cynical or purely utilitarian. A building finally is more than something purely functional. It should have a spirit and not turn its back on artistic considerations. I would argue that idealism is the underlying principle to all the approaches of the architects above. Even if idealism is a difficult idea to define, it still has a reality and nowhere is it, and conversely the cynical, more obvious than in architecture. “The ultimate goal of architecture”, said Aalto in 1957,
“is to create a paradise… every house, every product
of architecture…should be a fruit of our endeavour to
build an earthly paradise for people.” This idea appeals greatly to me and would be one of the basic impulses behind my approach to architecture.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the seven points of this manifesto provide an overview of some approaches to sustainable design that I am interested in exploring during my time studying architecture. These basic considerations propose a design that is layered, generous, contextual, connected to nature, innovative, stimulating and idealistic. These approaches can be loosely grouped under the idea of sensitivity, that is a respect for people, nature, site and precedent.

Examples of these considerations can be found in the work of architects, both past and present: from the timeless profundity of Asplund’s Woodland Chapel to the striking innovations of Le Corbusier and more recent examples from Grafton Architects Toulouse Economics Department and Snøhetta’s Oslo Opera House. This is a manifesto for a lasting architecture. The bottom line is that sustainability is not a design aesthetic, as Robert Stern points out: “it is an ethic, a basic consideration that we have to have as architects designing buildings… in 10 years we’re not going to talk about sustainability anymore, because it’s going to be built into the core processes of architecture”.

List of Illustrations

Fig. 1: Erik Gunnar Asplund, Woodland Chapel, 1922 (Source: http://www.fubiz.net accessed January 12, 2012) Fig. 2: Snøhetta, Oslo Opera House, 2007 (Source: http://www.mimoa.eu accessed January 12, 2012) Fig. 3: Alvar Aalto, Enso-Gutzeit Headquarters in Helsinki, 1959-62 (Source: http://www.fubiz.net accessed January 14, 2012) Fig. 4: Frank Lloyd Wright, Falling Water, 1935 (Source: http://www.mimoa.eu accessed January 12, 2012) Fig. 5: Le Corbusier, Chapel of Notre Dame du Haut, 1955 (http://farm4.static.flickr.com accessed January 20, 2012)

Fig. 6: Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Glasgow School of Art, 1899 (Source: http://www.glasgowarchitecture.co.uk accessed January 12, 2012)

Bibliography

Allen, Brooks H. (editor), Le Corbusier: Essays, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987 Anderson, Jane, Architectural Design, London: Thames & Hudson Press, 2011 http://www.architectural-review.com accessed November 22, 2011

http://bigthink.com accessed December 12, 2011
Blundell Jones, Peter, Gunnar Asplund, London: Phaidon, 1995. Blake, Peter, Frank Lloyd Wright: Architecture and Space, London: Penguin Books, 1964
http://www.blackwoodgallery.ca accessed November 11, 2011

Brett, David, C.R Mackintosh: The Poetics of Workmanship, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992 Brooks, Bruce, Frank Lloyd Wright, 1867-1959: Building for Democracy, Hong Kong: Taschen, 2006 http://www.coldsplinters.com accessed 22 November, 2011

‘Craig Dykers Interview’ GRITtv on youtube.com, 12 November, 2011

Curtis, William J.R, Modern Architecture Since 1900, London: Phaidon, 1996 Eliot, T. S., “Dante.” in Selected Essays New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1950 Elkin, T., McLaren, D. and Hillman, M., Reviving the City: towards sustainable urban development, London: Friends of the Earth, 1991 Gill, Brendan, Many Masks: A Life of Frank Lloyd Wright, New York: Putman, 1987 http://www.graftonarchitects.ie accessed October 25, 2011

Heinz, Thomas A., The Vision of Frank Lloyd Wright. London: Chartwell Books, 2000 Hertzberger, Herman, Space and the Architect, Rotterdam: 010 Press, 2000 Hoffmann, Donald, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater: The House and Its History, New York: Dover Publications, 1978 Honour, Hugh, A World History of Art, London: Laurence King, 2005 http://imodern.com accessed January 22, 2012

Jencks, Charles, Le Corbusier and the Continental Revolution in Architecture, New York: The Monacelli Press, 2000 Maddex, Diane, Frank Lloyd Wright: Inside and Out, London: Pavilion, 2002 Middleton, Haydn, Frank Lloyd Wright, New York: Heinemann, 2001 McLennan, Jason, The Philosophy of Sustainable Design, New York: Ecotone Publishing, 2004 Pallasmaa, Juhani, The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses, Wiley-Academy, 2005 Pearson, Paul David, Alvar Aalto and the International Style, New York: Whitney Library of Design, 1978 Quantrill, Malcolm, Finnish Architecture and the Modernist Tradition, London: Taylor & Francis, 1995 Ray, Nicholas, Alvar Aalto, London: Yale University Press. 2005 Ryan, Zoe, Open: New Designs for Public Space, New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2004 www.sandellsandberg.se accessed November 22, 2011

http://www.spatialagency.net/ accessed November 21, 2011
Tempel, Egon, New Finnish Architecture, New York, Washington: Frederick A. Praeger, 1968 http://www.treehugger.com accessed November 22, 2011
Trencher, Michael, The Alvar Aalto Guide, New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1996 Unwin, Simon, Analysing Architecture
Venturi, Robert, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture New York: Museum of Modern Art Press, 1966 Wolschke-Bulmahn, Joachim, Places of Commemoration, Washington: Dumbarton Oaks, 2001

——————————————–
[ 1 ]. McLennan, Jason, The Philosophy of Sustainable Design, New York: Ecotone Publishing, 2004, p.5 [ 2 ]. www.sandellsandberg.se accessed November 22, 2011
[ 3 ]. Eliot, T. S., “Dante.” in Selected Essays New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1950, pp. 199-237 [ 4 ]. Unwin, Simon, Analysing Architecture, p.255
[ 5 ]. Ibid. p. 256
[ 6 ]. Curtis, William J.R, Modern Architecture Since 1900, London: Phaidon, 1996, p. 113 [ 7 ]. Wolschke-Bulmahn, Joachim, Places of Commemoration, Washington: Dumbarton Oaks, 2001, p.1016 [ 8 ]. Venturi, Robert, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture New York: Museum of Modern Art Press, 1966, p.16 [ 9 ]. Johansson, pp. 59-60

[ 10 ]. http://www.blackwoodgallery.ca accessed November 11, 2011 [ 11 ]. Anderson, Jane, Architectural Design, London: Thames & Hudson Press, 2011, p. 129 [ 12 ]. Ryan, Zoë, Open: New Designs for Public Space, New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2004, p. 28 [ 13 ]. Ibid. p. 29

[ 14 ]. ‘Craig Dykers Interview’ GRITtv on youtube.com, 12 November, 2011 [ 15 ]. Eliel Saarinen, Time Magazine July 2, 1956
[ 16 ]. Trencher, Michael, The Alvar Aalto Guide, New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1996, p.34 [ 17 ]. Quantrill, Malcolm, Finnish Architecture and the Modernist Tradition, London: Taylor & Francis, 1995, p. 122 [ 18 ]. Tempel, Egon, New Finnish Architecture, New York, Washington: Frederick A. Praeger, 1968, p148 [ 19 ]. http://www.architectural-review.com
accessed November 22, 2011 [ 20 ]. http://www.graftonarchitects.ie accessed October 25, 2011 [ 21 ]. Middleton, Haydn, Frank Lloyd Wright, New York: Heinemann, 2001 [ 22 ]. Brooks, Bruce, Frank Lloyd Wright, 1867-1959: Building for Democracy, Hong Kong: Taschen, 2006 p. 12 [ 23 ]. Ibid. p.


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