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Is it time to re-think the fundamentals of creating architecture?

What would change if architects leave their egos behind? Would architecture become more inclusive? Prof. Anne Feenstra examines.

by Anne FeenstraPublished on : Dec 19, 2020

Exactly a hundred years after the Lumière brothers had shown their first film, Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier addressed an audience in Paris. People from all over the world had come together to the Odeon Theatre in March 1995, to discuss the next century of cinema. Von Trier bluntly declared that in the last ten years only rubbish films had been produced and that film making needed a drastic change. He went on to read out the Dogme 95 Manifestoi, urging film makers to go back-to-the-basics of story-telling and acting, using local settings only. Clearly poised against Hollywood studio productions, he pleaded for total avoidance of high technology and special effects. The last point he made, before throwing red manifesto paper prints at the flabbergasted audience, was that the film director should not be credited.

Although some said Von Trier was only looking for publicity, the manifesto, over time, did influence the European film making and the art scene. This included architects. Towards the millennium date, several architects in Europe had started to ask fundamental questions. Are we forgetting who we are building for? Are we forgetting where we are building? Are we forgetting humanity ?

Architecture should also work at night and in the monsoon rains.  | Anne Feenstra | STIRworld
Architecture should also work at night and in the monsoon rains. Image: Prof. Anne Feenstra

Nille Juul-Sørensen of the Danish Design Centre explainedii: "big architecture offices were doing what I call hi-tech baroque. It was advanced for the sake of being advanced."

In January 2009 the invitation to teach final year students, within Prof. I.M. Chishti’s Studio, at the School of Planning and Architecture(SPA) in Delhi, India was extended to me. I took the offer and never regretted it. Chishti had been - in his younger years - a film maker in Paris. Intersected with bouts of his thundering laugh, he was able to share his tremendously inspiring methodologies to unleash creativity. The talent and abilities of what these students were able to do was a bleak comparison to the ground realities of architecture in India. Four highly motivated fresh SPA graduates took the plunge with me and we started Arch i platform, exploring design.

Panel discussion at the exhibition at the India Habitat Center, New Delhi, India | Anne Feenstra | STIRworld
Panel discussion at the exhibition at the India Habitat Center, New Delhi, India. Image: Arch i platform

Through the first exhibition we showcased at the India Habitat Center, we raised several critical questions. Can architecture become more than a glitzy piece of art? Can it become a social catalyst? Can we find roots of architecture in the evolving culture, physical setting and environment of a specific place?

The exhibition demonstrated possible anti-dotes against the design uniformity of globalisation through the exploration of three small projects. The projects by ONIXiii, Revathi & Vasant Kamath and AFIR (my Afghan team), were all crafted, contextual and deeply ecologically responsible. They formed the backdrop of debates Arch i platform organised about the ‘responsibility of an architect’ and ‘alternative building materials’. In the discussions, a participant suggested that all the projects fall in the category of New Materialismiv; not obsessed by style like Post Modernism and Deconstructivism, but inventively embracing local materials like stone, brick, lime, bamboo, timber, copper, among others.

Blow-up 3D diagram of Welcome Pavilion in front of the HQ building | Anne Feenstra | STIRworld
Blow-up 3D diagram of Welcome Pavilion in front of the HQ building Image: Rumi Singh Maharjan

But could it be that, what has been called New Materialism, is actually not something new? Tremendously inspiring work has been done in the search for successfully synthesising indigenous crafts and innovative technologies, which embrace the vitality of our planet’s health. While Christopher Alexander, Juhani Pallasmaa and several others had carved out new theoretical frameworks, hands-on practitioners like Hassan Fathy and Simón Vélez were able to create convincing architectural evidence on the ground.

Bird's eye view of Welcome Pavilion in front of the HQ building | Anne Feenstra | STIRworld
Bird's eye view of Welcome Pavilion in front of the HQ building Image: Prof. Anne Feenstra

The first time I had the pleasure of experiencing a creation by Vélez, was at the Hannover World Expo in 2000, during a visit with my then boss Will Alsop. While everybody was obsessed with MVDRV’s creation, the two structures which intrigued me the most were made of natural materials. While Thomas Herzog had used timber to create a very elegant canopy with not-so-elegant columns, the spaces of the ZERI pavilionv blew me away. Entirely shaped by Guadua bamboo from Colombia, Vélez had constructed something, what I would call a kind of magic.

In the last one and a half decades, working as an architect in the Hindu Kush-Himalaya range, I have seen an extraordinary richness of diverse people in awe-inspiring landscapes. These myriad communities, from Afghanistan to Sikkim and beyond, have thousands of years of accumulated wisdom. Yet, linear development strategies are rapidly taking over the vernacular, visceral approach. With the given natural hazards of the mountain terrain, decision makers struggle seriously to act in an informed and sustainable manner.

Overview of SMA team’s interventions in the landscape of the ICIMOD headquarters; Welcome Pavilion on the right. | Anne Feenstra | STIRworld
Overview of SMA team’s interventions in the landscape of the ICIMOD headquarters in Nepal ; Welcome Pavilion on the right. Image: Prof. Anne Feenstra

In 2015, two massive earthquakes struck Nepal. Almost 9000 people died and half a million buildings were damaged beyond repair. The entrance porch of ICIMODvi headquarters, an elongated concrete roof slab, resting on cracked heavy concrete columns on a heavy concrete line foundation, was in a bad shape. ICIMOD’s Director General David Molden concluded, after some consultations; “let’s bring it down and build back better”.  We, the non-profit Sustainable Mountain Architecture (SMA) team, initiated dialogues with end users of the ICIMOD community and their 270 employees. Their key concerns for the new design were earthquake resistance, pedestrian friendliness and blending in with the natural surroundings. A few spoke about access for differently-abled people. We formulated four design starting points for the new ‘Welcome Pavilion’. First, a light footprint point foundation which subsequently supports a light steel/timber structure. This would perform well during earthquakes. Thirdly; make a structure that would provide cover, yet allow natural light and landscape to flow in. And last but certainly not least, make a ramp instead of stairs so everybody is welcome.

Crafted copper panels form the protection against the natural elements | Anne Feenstra | STIRworld
Crafted copper panels form the protection against the natural elements Image: Aman Raj Khatakho

For the roof-scape, we tried to compose stylised Nepali mountain peak characters. Segmentation of the structure was needed to enhance movement, in case of earthquakes. We combined this with five glass slits, allowing ample natural light to flow in. We used Sal timber planks and finished the roof with a traditional precious material: copper. This material has been used for ages as cladding for important roofs in central Nepal. Copper expert Binod Shakya, from the nearby historic city of Patan, told us: “I listen to the material, it tells me what it can and cannot do”. As architects we felt that this crafted material would do well for a more contemporary architectural expression. And ICIMOD, as both the user and the owner, understood that while the initial investment is higher, the sturdy material ages well and requires hardly any maintenance. 

After removing a staggering amount of 23,600 kg of concrete, we could start with the building work. This clean-up was obviously good for the soil and water percolation. The actual construction took only two and a half months after which the main entrance was open again for the hundreds who pass through it each day. The perfect landing spot for birds, on the leaning front pole that travels into the sky, is in line with our SMA’s Design with Nature philosophy. Upon entering the Welcome Pavilion, one can hear bird songs in the whistling landscape.

Lars Von Trier spoke 25 years ago about a necessary drastic change, about going back-to-the-basics as only rubbish was being produced. He spoke about dumping special effects and embracing the local context. Is it perhaps time, after film, to fundamentally re-think how we design, how we create architecture? And what about his point of not giving credit to the creators? Making a film surely comes with different responsibilities, as we ultimately have a very tangible profession. We leave 4D-evidencevii behind. But just imagine for a second and suppose we try real hard, would our egos be able to handle the modesty of not being credited ?


i  by Peter Schepelern, 13 December 2013

ii by Freja Dam, 5 may 2015

iii In 2010, relatively un-known ONIX architects became the Architects of the Year (Netherlands).

iv New Materialism was coined by Manuel DeLanda (according to British architect/writer Neil Leach in 2009). DeLanda published a series of articles in DOMUS on New Materialism subjects like biomimetics, intelligent materials and other contemporary material concerns.

v Zero Emissions Research and Initiatives was created by Gunter Pauli on 6 April 1994. A member of Club de Rome, Pauli wrote the book The Blue Economy (2010).

vi The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, the premier mountain knowledge institute of the Hindu Kush-Himalaya, is based in Khulmatar, just outside Kathmandu

vii Most of our 3D-creations will need to stand the test of time. Time being the 4th dimension.

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