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Love and sustainable architecture

By Rasmus Rune Nielsen

Portrait by Simon Birk

Love make us act’, said Stig L. Andersson, the Danish landscape architect, when I interviewed him for my recent book, Good Buildings on a Small Planet.

He was speaking about Dante, whom I have not read.

Nonetheless, I got his point.

If we face the risk of losing someone or something we love, we will act. But we also act in the absence of a threat and without calculation, in order to nurture, develop and build bonds between ourselves, and things that are crucially important. Connectedness, relationships, and attachment between people, and between people and places, are conditions for sustainable development.

We do not have to call it love. Instead we can speak of culture, lifestyle and communities.

We tend to focus on sustainable development as a question of technology or politics. And rightly so. The transition to a green economy will not take place without political courage and new disruptive technologies. But the ’great transition’ also depends on the ’great transition ’of green politics to an everyday lifestyle and our consumer choices. The transition won’t work as a thirty-year guilt trip. It will be much more efficient as a quest for quality of life and a meaningfulness found in new ways of connecting nature and community.

’great transition’ is the slogan used to describe how Danish architects have designed the spaces and everyday framework of the modern welfare state. What we see now is that this tradition is being reinvented to create human drivers for green change.

My book Good Buildings on a Small Planet is about just that. I’ll give a few examples starting with C.F. Møller Architects, a firm that has for almost a century been one of the main architects of the modern movement in Denmark. These days C.F. Møller is showing new ways forward by reinventing our Scandinavian tradition of building in timber that is now highly relevant as a way of replacing CO2 emitting concrete, with a building material that instead absorbs CO2.

C.F. Møller’s first take on a new timbertecture was their winning proposal for a 34-storey residential tower in solid wood that is to be completed in 2023 in Stockholm. These flats will offer a life high above the city, surrounded by wooden walls, floors and ceilings. You can step out on a glass covered balcony that encircles the building to create a shared social space for neighbours on each floor. It’s futurism without steel and high-gloss surfaces. A natural ambience, high in the sky.

If a flying car were to shoot past the windows, it would be a hydrogen-powered Volvo with a crate of biodynamic fruit and vegetables in the boot.

C.F. Møller is neither the only, nor even the first architectural practice that is turning to wood.

Yet what is so appealing about their vision is not simply the reduction of CO2 emissions.

Rather, their design achievement is the use of a climate strategy to develop a new urban lifestyle that revolves around a sense of connectedness to nature and to each other.

Where C.F. Møller puts forward a new vision for a sustainable city life, effekt, another Danish firm, is giving suburban life a sustainable makeover. effekt’s design for ReGen Villages has been called ’The Tesla of Eco-Villages’. These villages are completely self-sufficient residential neighbourhoods where food and energy is produced on site and all waste is recycled in a closed loop. It might sound familiar, as there are many eco-communities all over the world.

What’s new is that effekt’s eco-villages are conceived as a mainstream product targeted at people who do not want to live an alternative lifestyle and become part time farmers to get there.

ReGen proposes eco-living as a service where food production is handled by professional farmers so you can spend time with you family knowing that everything you eat and use will be handled properly and will leave no negative imprint. effekt now has a series of suburban developments on the way based on the principles of self-sufficiency. The unique offer that effekt is putting forward is not designing a closed resource loop, but rather, designing a complete sustainable lifestyle package for a modern, upper middle-class life. effekt’s self-sufficient neighbourhoods produce an appealing image of suburban life in and with nature.

Stig L. Andersson and his urban design firm SLA take the relation to nature to the heart of the city. They are designing a new city-nature that can become a source of community and simultaneously a toolkit for dealing with climate change. A recent project from Paris exemplifies their approach. SLA is working with Jacques Ferrier Architectures to build across the Périphérique ring road. They are creating a green urban space on top of traffic that will be surrounded by buildings with green facades including fungi that absorb pollution. Also included in the project are rooftops with urban gardens and a commercial tea plantation. The whole complex is designed as a ’green filtration machine’ to cleanse the polluted air, making a green and very liveable communal space under seemingly impossible circumstances. Nature is brought into the city as a highly performative biological system that is designed to handle pollution, cool the buildings and deal with water and climate adaptation. But equally important, a new kind of urban space is being created where nature creates a rich and sensuous space for community life to unfold around growing and nurturing shared resources.

We have a huge challenge ahead of us in inventing a way of life that is feasible within the boundaries of the planet. If we are to meet the requirements of the Paris Agreement and limit temperature increase to within the 1.5—2 degrees Celsius safe space, we need to move fast.

In order to get there, we need politics and technology, but we also need to come up with new visions for everyday life and an urban culture where sustainable change is desirable and meaningful. We need to work with sustainability not simply as a question of consuming less, but also of giving more. More beauty. More meaning. More community, and all of the things that make us act.

July 19, 2018

Rasmus Rune Nielsen is a writer and a curator, and the Founder of ANDEL Urban Consultants.