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Towards an exodus of sustainability at the UIA 2023 OBEL Award Talks

The panel titled 'Mending' comprised Anna Heringer, Xu Tiantian, Jeanne Gang, and Reinier De Graaf, who discussed architecture's role in healing the planet.

by Jincy IypePublished on : Aug 04, 2023

Is it too late?

The accelerated, inevitable course of climate change is a notorious fact, backed by mounting real-world consequences, whether we have come to terms with it or not. Cities imperceptibly sinking, sweltering temperatures, loss of nature, and myriad irreversible, non-reconcilable damages—the world over, most are experiencing the correlated penalties brought on by the lifestyles of the rich, our heightened, ruthless consumerism, and the largely remorseless interventions of massive corporations and abusive power structures. In the global architecture community, there is a shared sense of despair, there is critique, and there is hope. We also understand our limitations, as we grasp how little impact, in our finite positions, amounts to repairing and restoring the health of the planet, despite contributing to polluting it immensely, (while despite that awareness, not many are brazened enough to admit, act on it, or even begin to apologise). So, what are architects to do? How can the vocation be amended, to amend? Or does this inevitability absolve us of responsibility and effort, guiling as an excuse to do nothing?

Obel Award Talks: Mending - Creative Mending Through Climate-Positive Construction or Design Video: Courtesy of UIA WORLD CONGRESS OF ARCHITECTS CPH 2023

For those inclined towards debating and discussing the role of architecture, architects, builders, engineers, and designers contributing to restoring the planet we inhabit, I urge you to listen to the august panellists who presented riveting opinions and shared lessons outlined by their experiences, at the largest global event for sustainable architecture, the UIA World Congress of Architects 2023 that took place from July 2 – 6, 2023 in Copenhagen. Themed on 'Obel Award Talks: Mending - Creative Mending Through Climate-Positive Construction or Design,' the decorated panel comprised German architect Anna Heringer, Chinese architect Xu Tiantian, American architect Jeanne Gang, Dutch architect Reinier de Graaf, in conversation with Martha Thorne, Senior Advisor, The OBEL Award. With an audience rapt with attention, the ensuing discussion lasted an hour and a half, touching primarily upon what, and how the vocation of architecture, in all its ancillary limitations posed by governments, policies, and structures, as well as its own narcissistic faculty, is capable and responsible of, in the face of confronting this obvious predicament of climate change, to reverse, contrive, and ‘mend’ the environment.

L-R: The OBEL Awards ‘Mending’ panel comprised Reinier De Graaf, Anna Heringer, Xu Tiantian, Jeanne Gang, and Martha Thorne | OBEL Awards Panel at UIA 2023 | STIRworld
L-R: The OBEL Awards ‘Mending’ panel comprised Reinier De Graaf, Anna Heringer, Xu Tiantian, Jeanne Gang, and Martha Thorne Image: Courtesy of UIA World Congress of Architects CPH 2023

To mend is to ‘repair (something that is broken or damaged);’ it is to restore to health, to make amends or atonement for, to improve, and to set right. According to the Congress, with its byline of 'Sustainable Futures – Leave No One Behind!', the topic evinced a message thus: Mending embodies proposals and processes that can be adjusted to local culture, conditions, and needs, and places each global citizen at the heart of their own city, enabling them to thrive… Architecture can and must offer new and daring solutions. If mending implies caring for and improving something that is weak or in danger, can architects ‘mend’ the climate? If not, what is their role? How can local materials and techniques be understood, evaluated for their sustainability, and used effectively?

STIR in conversation with American architect Jeanne Gang at the UIA World Congress of Architects 2023 Video: Courtesy of STIR

The OBEL Award, a yearly honour bestowed on a project or initiative that has high aspirations about contributing to, and changing the world of architecture, design, and cities, participated at the four-day conference with an SDG pavilion, a massive ‘greenwashing machine’ as an art installation in the harbour of Copenhagen, Denmark, in tandem with five inspiring debates ‘about different urgent challenges facing the built environment.' The OBEL Award winners and jury members set discourse, spelling messages of action and hope, represented in topics of 'Well-being,' 'Mending,' 'Emissions,' and 'Cities.' Post the discussion and debate, STIR spoke to all four panellists about the theme of the Congress and attainable routes of sustainability that architects like themselves have a responsibility to nurture and exercise.

  • Anandaloy in Rudrapur, Bangladesh (2020) by Studio Anna Heringer | OBEL Awards Panel at UIA 2023 | STIRworld
    Anandaloy in Rudrapur, Bangladesh (2020) by Studio Anna Heringer Image: Kurt Hoerbst
  • Kindergarten Zimbabwe by Studio Anna Heringer | OBEL Awards Panel at UIA 2023 | STIRworld
    Kindergarten Zimbabwe by Studio Anna Heringer Image: Margarethe Holzer

One of these talks, the purview of this article, began with deliberating the very meaning of mending, apropos 'the power of architecture and design to heal, in part, our built and natural environments.' Previous OBEL Award winner, Anna Heringer emphasised mending at an ethical level, and she did, by apologising—visibly tearing up in front of the panel and an audience equally moved by her words, she exclaimed with fervour—“Last week, I had a friend (who) said, ‘Anna, I am so angry—no architect from the Global North ever stood up and said: sorry, we created a dream of an architecture that falsely promised life in paradise and said it was a mistake.’ With the global community present here at the UIA now, I would like to take the opportunity to ask for forgiveness, as an architect coming from the Global North.”

I ask for forgiveness for creating this ideal of architecture that was supposed to bring us safe and comfortable lives, a healthy, easy, happy life, while in fact, we contributed to social injustice by serving mostly the rich, and by contributing largely to climate change. – Anna Heringer

“It did not make us happy, or healthy. It brought us fame, money, and carbon-emitting conferences with nice dinners where we felt so important, but it didn’t make us happy. It even took a large part of the joy of our profession away because we created a framework of rules and regulations that makes it difficult to follow your intuition, to be (truly) creative, or to allow a participatory process. I’m deeply sorry that we even colonised the dreams of how a good home is supposed to look like, and that we make you believe that imported and industrialised materials are superior to the local, indigenous ones. To the members of the Global South here, we owe you an apology. We owe you the deepest gratitude and the biggest respect,” exclaimed the founder of Studio Anna Heringer.

STIR in conversation with German architect Anna Heringer at the UIA World Congress of Architects 2023 Video: Courtesy of STIR

Met with unanimous, resounding applause, Heringer’s poignant apology certainly set the course for the rest of the discussion, as Xu Tiantian, founding principal of DnA_Design and Architecture, agreed by affirming that “mending is a necessity,” as a planet-positive creative endeavour. Her oeuvre, replete with rural contextual designs designate reuse and purpose in China, resonating with proof of architecture as ‘co-authorship,’ a bridge that defines the built in harmony with nature, and an outcome for and by the community. Her projects are borne through a revival of culture and history, injecting revenue systems for rural regions while integrating with agricultural systems, and local resources. The effect must be allocated to that of acupuncture she says—an effective architecture of minimal interventions.

Architecture is not about specific species, it is about the relationship between people, other species, and the environment. We don’t work in a vacuum. To be more effective, architects need to think like ecologists. – Jeanne Gang

Acclaimed for her academic, science, and research-backed projects, Jeanne Gang, founding partner of Studio Gang, discussed in her presentation her built interventions in Chicago, learning and adapting to the city’s shortcomings, its legacy of pollution, and the exclusion of indigenous and minority communities. This prompted her to get involved with building policies, to set in course what she coins ‘actionable idealism,’ turning communities into allies, in pursuit of the inclusion of voices both human and non-human, to follow a goal of ‘environmental justice.’

STIR in conversation with Chinese architect Xu Tiantian at the UIA World Congress of Architects 2023 Video: Courtesy of STIR

Reinier De Graaf, notorious for his refined sarcasm bolstered through his illustrious books and talks calling out the very industry he works in, coloured the discussion with fact-based, educated divergence. In typical fashion, the architect began by confessing being suspicious of words, despite being an author. “So, ‘mending’—I know mend as a verb, ‘to repair something that is broken or damaged. To mend is to fix’. I am also, always, very suspicious of excessive demonstrations of virtue because a lot of harm is done in the world in the name of virtue.”

  • architect, verb (L); and Four Walls and a Roof (R) authored by Reinier De Graaf | OBEL Awards Panel at UIA 2023 | STIRworld
    architect, verb (L); and Four Walls and a Roof (R) authored by Reinier De Graaf Image: Courtesy of Verso; Cover by Tim Jones, Courtesy of Harvard University Press
  • The Al Daayan Medical District designed by OMA | OBEL Awards Panel at UIA 2023 | STIRworld
    The Al Daayan Medical District designed by OMA Image: Courtesy of HMC

Taking a blatant dig at Bjarke Ingels on a waterside vacation, as well as the Congress itself in his presentation, the partner at Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) and co-founder of AMO (OMA’s think tank) rightfully criticised—“can architecture mend the climate?,” followed by a photograph of Sir Norman Foster, clear as day, standing next to a carbon-emitting, private plane. “If not, what is their role?” he enquired, posing the hypocrisy of the industry. “I think I know what their role should not be. The role should not be collecting sustainability awards for buildings, that if you strip away the awards, are in every way, ‘business as usual’ (supported by an image of Foster + Partner’s massive Bloomberg HQs). “This is a building that, despite all the rhetoric, produces as much carbon as any other building that doesn’t get a sustainability award… We need to completely rethink our approach, to a much more radical level than any of the current awards or predicates suggest.”

STIR in conversation with Dutch architect Reinier De Graaf at the UIA World Congress of Architects 2023 Video: Courtesy of STIR

I found myself agreeing with him unashamedly. This mass exodus of architects, designers, builders, engineers, and creatives at large, preaching sustainability standards in their works, is mostly, prepositional, and not clearly defined or practiced with virtue. Let us not forget, how the legacy of architecture, especially in developed, first-world nations, has ended up disproportionately affecting those with fewer resources.

Circling back to the question I began with, does this perspective create an excuse for architects to give up? Reacting to Hedegaard’s equivalent query, Reinier vehemently refused. “Absolutely not,” he said. “It is not an excuse to do nothing. I also don’t think it’s an excuse to do what you were doing and pat yourself on the back with all kinds of marginally incremental change. The solution to any problem starts with a frank admission of the extent of the problem.”

Mending is a necessity. – Xu Tiantian

Gang displayed her disagreement, that he might be addressing the wrong audience, that not every architect is vying for sustainability awards, or is elevating their projects with vacant fodders of sustainable designs. “If we want to start with something first, it is exactly what Anna did, is by admitting what really happened. I think all of us need to own that and understand it.” His point, while largely accusive, points to the fact that in the wake of all the damage the profession generates, there is a 'fetish' for small interventions. “I sometimes wonder, is that an attempt to really change something, or to keep your hands clean in the face of very big problems? Is that an attempt to change things or to not be complicit?” he questioned.

  • Quarry #8, Quarry #9, and Quarry #10 by DnA_Design and Architecture | OBEL Awards Panel at UIA 2023 | STIRworld
    Quarry #8, Quarry #9, and Quarry #10 by DnA_Design and Architecture Image: Wang Ziling
  • Water Conservancy Centre by DnA_Design and Architecture | OBEL Awards Panel at UIA 2023 | STIRworld
    Water Conservancy Centre by DnA_Design and Architecture Image: Wang Ziling

The rest of the panel united in succession by relaying that most people overlook the impact of smaller interventions, how if people did their parts, in their own communities, it would together amount to something big, influential, and radical. The quandary remains, of how these interventions, like Tiantian’s community-level projects that link the urban and the rural, or Heringer’s use of locally available materials, contrast the mammoth scalability, high-profile, large-scale, urban ones built by OMA and Gang, or constructions by even bigger multinational corporations. There need to be strategies set in place where these small-scale interventions can be applied to bigger built typologies.

I hope that we can care more, and that becomes the dominant mode of practice. – Jeanne Gang

Gang proposed a logical intervention, where architects such as herself can shift their attention to building allies and communities, extending their power and influence to keep choosing to do the right thing, creating built tales co-authored with communities. Tiantian still carries hope in resistance, sharing how the industry can be ‘facilitators instead of just acting as architects,’ posing plausible alternatives that acquire enough traction for ‘architecture as a catalyst for mending.’

Heringer remained faithful to her ethos—‘architecture is a tool to improve lives’—evident in her community-led, nature-integrated intercessions, where sensitivity is viewed as a strength. To her and Tiantian, Gang extended support by pointing out that there is much intelligence in techniques practised in vernacular architecture. But, there is a need to experiment and zero down on alternatives to cement, making concrete more sustainable, since it is one of the most prolifically used materials in contemporary architecture, as succinctly termed by Reinier, 'an advocacy for intelligent concrete.’ “There are limitations to vernacular materials, but that exploration is needed,” she reiterated.

When we talk about mending, why do we separate the Global North and South? – Xu Tiantian

Reinier stated in agreement that to some extent, a clever move to uncover and put into practice, vernacular methods and materials such as rammed earth and bamboo is being practiced in modern buildings, (but) we cannot blindly apply vernacular practices to buildings of today. “The question is, how do you convert that old wisdom into the present mainstream, that is the integration needed in architecture and engineering, to apply it to the scalability of structures today? I think there needs to be a radical change of consciousness in the mainstream because that’s where most carbon is emitted, and until that happens, architecture being a catalyst is not enough.”

  • The Gilder Center at the American Museum of Natural History by Studio Gang | OBEL Awards Panel at UIA 2023 | STIRworld
    The Gilder Center at the American Museum of Natural History by Studio Gang Image: Iwan Baan
  • Aqua Tower (L) and Solar Carve (R) by Studio Gang | OBEL Awards Panel at UIA 2023 | STIRworld
    Aqua Tower (L) and Solar Carve (R) by Studio Gang Image: Steve Hall © Hedrich Blessing, Butler V. Adams, © Studio Gang; Tom Harris Photography, © Studio Gang

Hedegaard questions again—we are aware of the criticism and aware of what needs to be done. So, what can architects do, especially the ones in the Global North, in pursuit of mending? “I hope that people can care more, and that becomes the dominant mode of practice,” Gang answered. Tiantian expressed discernable irritation to the question itself—“What is the Global South? Who invented this term? When we talk about mending, why do we separate the North and South, who did that, who started this?”.

“I believe that the world cannot be fixed with one big decision, it’s the everyday decisions that we take that make the difference. Designing is constant decision-taking. A lot of decisions that we are taking are out of fear or greed, and we must change that, and instead, take decisions out of love,” Heringer continued to enlighten.

When we design out of love, for others and the planet, sustainability happens in a completely natural way. So, form follows love! – Anna Heringer

Reinier concluded the panel with a deeply veracious and necessary declaration—“The way political correctness operates is by weaponising virtuous language. We used to have design then we had ‘people first design’—the implication of that is whoever designed did not put people first. On a very un-sarcastic note, seven years ago I wrote a book taking a piss out of architects. I meanwhile feel the profession is so under siege, externally, but also from a self of exacerbated guilt, and self-annihilation, that this profession in all its beauty is in need of defending. So, I would like to be able to use the terms architecture and design in their conventional notion without the arraigned guilt associated with it. I now know what mending is, and that’s what I’d like to see mended.”

The UIA World Congress 2023 programme featured talks, panel discussions, and presentations by influential and innovative creative practices. STIR as an official Media Partner brings you the highlights of the congress through a series of interviews, visits, and conversations.

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