Sustainable Architecture in the 21st Century
HOW WAS THE CONCEPT OF SUSTAINABLE ARCHITECTURE BORN AND DEVELOPED, AND IN WHAT FORM DOES IT EXIST TODAY?
An insight into the 20th Century Architectural movements that brought to sustainable buildings into the present day
How can our comfort and exigencies be optimised while trying to be more sustainable and have a positive impact on the planet? Nowadays, the idea of progress is strictly linked to both of these aspects: on the one hand, it is impossible to imagine a society or way of living that decreases our comforts and benefits; on the other, we acknowledge that it is urgent for us to alter global environmental, social and economic policies. This article will consider how Architecture can combine progress in these two fields, by analysing the different relationships between nature and the science of construction from the beginning of the 20th Century up to today. In particular, the ‘Organic Architecture’ of Wright will be compared to Le Corbusier’s ‘Rationalism’; the two movements will then be evaluated in light of the most recent architectural works, which seem to develop and merge at the same time both past currents.
Frank Lloyd Wright has been the founder and major artist of what he called the “Organic Architecture” movement, based on the idea that the quality of a building is proportional to its accordance with the natural landscape around it. Nature was, for Wright “a source of […] inspiration, a model” (Twombly, 1979), which he worshipped and respected. He reflected this attitude in his works by using local materials and letting them “be themselves” (Twombly, 1979): using them raw and not painted or refined. Another basic concept of Wright’s Organic Architecture is its socio-ecological “sensitivity”: it tries to create an ideal space not only for the social interactions in its interior, but also for “heating, cooling, lighting and energy conservation” (Twombly, 1979). At the base of this attitude there is a deep respect of the natural world, together with an acknowledgement of our need to preserve it. Consequently, even if Wright’s philosophy is around a century old and is linked to an aesthetic point of view, it advances the ideals of Environmental Sustainability.
The most iconic and famous work by Wright is “Fallingwater House”, projected for the Kauffmans, a rich family who owned some land on the Bear Run, in Pennsylvania (Twombly, 1979). Every part of the house is built to integrate into and not deface the nature around it. As the location of the house was not large enough to provide the foundations for a house needed to host guests and for every member of the family to have their own room (Weisberg, 2011), the house is developed on many levels, with reinforced balconies set on bolsters that sit in the Bear Run’s stream.
The walls are made from local “rough stone”, which matches the rock over which the stream runs (Weisberg, 2011). Before projecting the house, Wright also requested a map of the site including the streams and the trees, essential for his design in order not to modify the natural composition of the site (Weisberg, 2011). Finally, the interior of the house, including the furniture, is simple and plain, with wide windows, so that the hosts and owners landlords could contemplate not humanly-devised objects, but the beauty of nature (Cricco, Di Teodoro, 2012).
Some decades later, a different innovative art movement developed: Rationalism. Its major artist has been Le Corbusier, but it finds its roots in the last Art Nouveau architects, such as Loos (Cricco, Di Teodoro, 2012). The main principle on which this artistic current is based is that comfort and functionality are the only features to be considered when evaluating a building. It follows that neither the relation with the environment around it nor being aesthetically pleasant are priorities in architecture. One of the main examples of this architectural movement is “Unité d’habitation”, in Marseille.
This is a block of “L” shaped duplex flats jointed with each other, creating social housing which aims to include all sort of services and facilities that enable a comfortable life inside the building. For example, the building provides public spaces for children, a kindergarten, a common laundry, and a terraced roof on which the tenants can enjoy an open-air walk (Cricco, Di Teodoro, 2012). However, when looking at the construction from the outside, it shows prominently and uncaring of the landscape, city and nature around it. It extends for 140 metres in length, 24 metres in width and 56 metres in height, imposing its enormous presence on the maritime city of Marseille (Cricco, Di Teodoro, 2012). Despite being optimal for the facilities it offers, and the comfort related to its structure – Le Corbusier studied the shape of the flats and of every piece of furniture at their interior in order to make the lighting and the proportions of objects optimal – its external appearance could disturb the landscape of the town, and consequently its citizens.
Nowadays, the most admirable and innovative architectural works try to merge both the principles of ecological sustainability and comfort for inhabitants. The term “Sustainable Architecture” refers to this new method of construction, using “material and processes that have little or no impact on the environment” (Caffrey, 2018). As the waste produced by construction and buildings had been calculated to be huge in 2013 (Caffrey, 2018), some changes have been thought to be necessary. Thus, new innovative techniques have been developed – most prominently, solar panel systems to provide energy. Moreover, in order to motivate architects to give their best in terms of environmental sustainability when projecting their works, laws have been established to guarantee the respect of sustainable parameters (Caffrey, 2018) and prestigious awards such as the Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) programme have been founded.
The work that I will examine is the Bosco Verticale – Vertical Forest in Milan, a tree-clad skyscraper projected by Stefano Boeri (Phillips, 2017) [see Header Image]. The aim of this building is to bring hectares of forest into the centre of a metropolitan city, by constructing two towers – one 80m high, the other 112m high (Babbs, 2013), planted with more than 700 “specially cultivated trees” (Babbs, 2013), in order to create a “microclimate” able to “filter out the sunlight”, as Boeri himself said (Babbs, 2013). Of course, the idea has some flaws: first of all that the building consumes enormous amounts of energy purely due to its height; on balance, however, advanced sustainable techniques employed can benefit the occupants, the neighbours and the local environment (Babbs, 2013). Following the success of the Bosco Verticale, Boeri has a new ambitious project: creating “forest cities” in China, to offer some repair to the country’s environmental degradation and smog (Phillips, 2017). Of course, these projects are ambitious, limited and present some internal contradictions in terms of environmental sustainability. However, they combine the need for the population to live in concentrated city environments and to have access to any necessary facilities, with impacts limited by a conscientious attitude towards environmental sustainability.
Green architecture, therefore, could potentially represent a fantastic way to develop future cities, without compromising on our environmentalist principles.
- Babbs, H. (2013). “High-rise gardening”. The Guardian.
- Caffrey, C. (2018). “Sustainable Architecture” in Salem Press Encyclopaedia (2018).
- Cricco, G. and Di Teodoro, F. P. (2012). “Il Cricco Di Teodoro” – Itinerario nell’arte: Dall’eta dei Lumi ai giorni nostri”, Bologna: Zanichelli.
- Phillips, T. (2017). “Forest cities: the radical plan to save China from air pollution”. The Guardian.
- Twombly, R. C. (1979). “Frank Lloyd Wright, his life and his architecture”. New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.
- Weisberg, R. W. (2011). “Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater: A Case Study in Inside-the-Box Creativity”. Creative Research Journal, 23 (4).