The LafargeHolcim awards, a new horizon for sustainable architecture


By Edwin Heathcote, architecture critic, L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui and The Financial Times.

Originally published as an introduction to “Selected Projects”, a special edition of L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui dedicated to the 4th International Holcim Awards, released in December 2014.

Sustainability has become a cliché. It is a word used so often and so carelessly that it can now be used to defend the most banal buildings and an architecture of the most conspicuous consumption. Perhaps precisely because of this misuse and abuse of the word, there is a sense that a new generation of architects is simultaneously looking to redefine the idea of sustainability and to move away from object building and towards the landscape and the civic realm of public participation.

Happily, that is exactly what we are seeing in this 4th cycle of the International Holcim Awards competition. There seems to be a deliberate departure from signature architecture which has dominated architectural press and graduate exhibitions for decades. Instead, there is a growing awareness of social issues and the way architecture can be used to reinforce community and increase the resilience of what look like increasingly fragile cities. Marc Angélil, the chair of architecture and design and senior dean of the Department of Architecture at ETH Zurich, Switzerland, who has been present on all five regional Holcim Awards juries 2014, said: “There has been a transformation in attitudes to sustainability. Ten years ago there was a general understanding, but the projects have become more sophisticated, on the one hand offering the possibilities of aesthetics and on the other, social agency. The responses have become far more complex.

The judges concurred that where there had once been a visible hierarchy in the quality of designs, with Europe and North America leading the pack for sophistication and ambition, that gulf between what we might call the Global North and the Global South has receded. This round of submissions shows, if anything, a more wide-ranging, more searching set of submissions from Africa Middle East and Latin America in particular. Perhaps it is because those are the continents where the most rapid urbanization is occurring – the problems of architecture are being felt most acutely right now in rapidly-expanding cities and at the edges between wealth and poverty, between the established and the informal city.

Alfredo Brillembourg, founder of Urban-Think Tank in Caracas, Venezuela, who was on the Holcim Awards jury for Latin America confirmed that sustainability has become a cliché: “We should be working towards resilience. There needs to be recognition of complexity and multiplicity of uses. Until now there has been an emphasis on technology and innovation, but a lot of that kit doesn’t work or never gets built. Instead we should be looking at re-using existing buildings and asking a bigger question – a super-discussion about what sustainability is. Is it sustainable to have this much poverty in a city?

Stuart Smith, a director at engineering giant Arup in London, United Kingdom, and a member of the Holcim Awards jury for Europe notes a trend towards land and society. “The recession has left a legacy of more realistic projects, he says, an awful lot of people are thinking about landscape and social conditions as opposed to individualbuildings – and hardly any seem to be looking at form or geometry.” Although Smith is a little critical of the lack of real research into technologies, he is also very upbeat. “I came away from the process energized,” he says, “the younger generation in particular seem impressive in their commitment and in the realism of their work.

Dana Cuff, professor and founding director of CityLAB at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles, USA) was a little less impressed by the North American entries. “It is not a problem with the competition,” she says, “but with the United States, where we’ve abandoned the idea of the public realm in an almost complete manner.” It is an interesting moment for sustainability, she suggests. “We’re leaving the Birkenstock era and sustainability is becoming cool, which is a good thing – but we need to start thinking of buildings more like pets than objects. What I mean is that we’re going to have to live with these buildings, take care of them over time and that requires a new relationship with architecture.

It also demands a new and more symbiotic relationship with the land and the surrounding environment. The idea of an international style, and subsequently of signature “starchitect” buildings looks increasingly unsustainable. Marc Angélil says: “This year we noticed a very strong focus on water. It provided a red thread through many of the schemes, addressing climate change and infrastructure as a recurrent theme.” There is a remarkable range of designs dealing with this subject, from attempts to map subterranean water in California and a system of flood defenses around Manhattan to a floating market and civic space in the Amazon. Both the scarcity and abundance of water are dealt with in a series of often visionary proposals.

Another theme that Angélil elicits is waste. A number of the projects in this year’s lists pick waste, whether from the construction process or domestic and industrial needs and use it to create something, be that a new settlement or a new structure. It seems like a kind of guilt, as if our consumption has come back to haunt us and we require some kind of signpost to assuage our guilt but also to begin addressing what seems to be a problem that we have buried in landfill for too long, out of sight and out of smell. The vague memory that there are whole settlements built on the recycling of waste from the West seems to haunt our consciousness, while simultaneously providing an intriguing model for a Global North version, a more humane interpretation of a place consuming what is thrown away.

One more theme which Angélil extracts from his extensive survey of the more than 2,500 submissions is the wall. “Water, waste and walls,” he jokes, “somehow we seem to have picked the three W’s.” Whether they are “breath-able” walls, or walls capable of transforming carbon dioxide into oxygen, whether they are high-tech or low-tech walls, and whether they are protecting cities from the elements or attempts to understand the nature of porosity in the digital city – the wall remains a seemingly mesmeric element. In the context of sustainability and of the desired ideas of resilience that Brillembourg proposes, it is also a profoundly symbolic element. The wall is the symbol of enclosure, of keeping things out: the weather, other people, the noise and the throng of the city.

But what if it could be reinterpreted as a less finite gesture? The increasing polarization of the world’s cities and the widening gap between rich and poor brought about an acceleration of the gated community and the privatization of once-public space. “We’ve seen the wall reinterpreted in a very sophisticated way,” says Angélil, “as something that can generate oxygen, that can be responsive to climate, that can be biodegradable. It is being encountered as an element that could be negotiable.

If the wall can be reinterpreted as an architectural symbol of cooperation rather than exclusion, it would be a massive change in the meaning of architecture. Perhaps the 4th Holcim Awards can help nudge the definition of the wall – and the architecture it defines from barrier to embrace. That would be an achievement.

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