I would like to begin with a picture of an artistic installation, the shrouding of the historic gateway of Porta Venezia, created for Design Week in April 2019 by the Ibrim Mahata from Ghana. It is a fine example of parasitical practice, the material coming from gunny sacks used to import raw materials from the artist’s country of origin, which in these times of controversy over new arrivals from Africa, introduces a profound challenge: “you want stuff from Africa, the people come with it.” It was a temporary statement, fitting symbiotically onto the historic structure, while changing the meaning of that structure.
Although it is impossible to prove, it seems obvious that in the period since the end of World War II more buildings have been produced than during all of the 7 millennia of human construction activity that preceded it. This unprecedented building boom has accompanied an exponential population increase, from 2 billion in 1927 to 7.7 billion today, along with a radical depletion of rural areas, resulting in well-over 50% of humanity residing in urban situations. Considering these numbers it might sound absurd for me to pronounce « we don’t need any more buildings», and such a statement will certainly be interpreted as an assault against architecture. Killing architecture is not my goal: I love architecture and have an undying respect for the profession, and frankly it would not be in my own interest to abuse the field, seeing that I make my living from mediating its output.
Everywhere I look, however, I see empty buildings, both in dense urban environments and in abandoned countrysides, and it makes me wonder why more buildings need to be built. I also notice an abundance of underused structures, often with their lights burning throughout the night, a sign of extravagant waste, and ask myself: why so much of the contemporary city has been programmed for single uses? This mismatch of people in need and empty space prompts me to conclude that there are enough buildings already, we just need better allocation. There is a simple rebuttal to my queries, however, which sound like this: “It’s the economy, stupid,” since at least a third of any successful city’s well-being usually turns around construction. In the liberal economy that prevails, the creative energy of developers and their designers gets inevitably channeled by profit-driven motives toward the deleterious cocktail of demolition, extraction, and construction with imported materials.
This practice, what Friedrich Nietszche called creative destruction, was inherited from the carbonholic industrial past, and was once regarded as “progress,” but since the awareness of the climate crisis, it must now be reclassified as bad entropy. Any act of construction, no matter how “sustainable”, contributes to inflating rather than calming the planetary dilemma of impending biological extinction—how much it does is simply a matter of degrees, as are the meteorological consequences perceptible in degrees. Since the demolition of Pruitt Igoe in St. Louis, public administrators have frequently decided that demolition rather than reprogramming is the only solution to dire social problems of poverty, criminality, and drugs that pervades the habitats of the poor. The recent collapse of part of the Ponte Morandi in Genova, led to the quick decision to demolish the rest, creating tremendous pollution and disruption of the lives of thousands of people rather than rethinking the remaining structure, which the lone voice of engineer Enzo Siviero sustained salvageable at a tenth of the cost of the bridge that will be built.
Meanwhile, the combination of vanity and greed that lurks behind so much of contemporary architectural production has unmolded what we can call hypertecture, some of the largest and most costly structures in history, not to say the most frivolous, while failing to seriously cool down Global Warming. The Burj Khalifa in Dubai (David Childs, SOM 2009), which I believe is still the tallest in the world, sticks out as the clearest example: 29% of its height has floor plates that are too small in area to be leased. Even the well-intentioned projects that obtain high LEED ratings, such as the new One WorldTrade Center in New York, designed by the same firm (David Childs SOM, 2006-2014), nowthe tallest in the Western hemisphere, and at 4 billion, the most expensive, flaunt suchdistinction as a marketing device, a form of green-washing, while remaining in the service ofspeculative enterprises that refuse to relent in their exploitation of people and non-renewableresources. The Shanghai Tower, second tallest in the world, also high LEED rating, preens inthe Pudong financial district with a series of towers like male strippers. Zaha Hadid seems tohave answered this male eroticism with a non-phallic highrise in Macau.
Such monuments to vanity represent the world’s collective psychosis of waste. Russia’s recently completed flame-shaped Gazprom Tower, known formally as the Lakhta Center, set on the outskirts of St. Petersburg, fits the squandering attributes of hypertecture and the petrol binge, cutting a rather sinister figure as the “new” tallest structure in Europe, while yielding a sterile purgatory of suspended urbanity. Some of the greatest design talents on earth have become mercenaries of these enclaves of symbolic capital, which although intended to promote the power of a place, actually discourage the sort of equity that fosters a place’s genuine sense of identity.
That the so-called Shard in London, formerly Europe’s tallest structure, remains conspicuously empty a decade after opening-- the apartments start at £30million--provides me a ready example of a monument to misplaced priorities. Designed with sustainable objectives, such as increasing urban density, and reducing energy needs through double glazing, it looms over the Thames as a redundant icon, a ghostly gimmick of marketing meant to give London the equivalent of the Eiffel Tower. In an equitable society, any habitable empty space that remains vacant for over two years should be heavily taxed and eventually expropriated for
social uses. Seeing as the millionaires are not buying into it, let’s give it to the people!
Such a policy was indeed recently enacted in Barcelona and remains indicative of the contradictions we face in the mandate for sustainability. The mayor Ada Colau ordered a new tax policy on hundreds of empty dwellings, mostly owned by banks and holding companies, hoping to curtail the rampant speculation that developers practice in the race to create more tourist structures. The municipal fines would be rescinded if the owners agreed to lease the space according to a social rent to accommodate those who have been excluded from the inflated housing market. Her policy, however, was recently overturned by the Catalan region’s Supreme Court, which insisted that the municipality does not have the right to impose such restrictions on private property.
My personal interest in abandoned buildings began 50 years ago—when I worked as a volunteer on the restoration of nearly abandoned castle town in Tuscany. Of the 300 people that once had lived in Cennina, only 10 remained. The rest had migrated to the cities for work in factories and services, occasionally returning to their village in shiny cars, but no longer residents. Without much skill we fixed and insulated the tile roofs and plastered the walls of the old houses, while professionals worked on the official restoration of the castle, which, half a century later, is still unfinished. In recent years many small towns in Italy have opened themselves to outsiders acquiring a house for a token sum of one Euro and then fixing up and contributing to the local economy. This has had great appeal to foreignors from the north with a good retirement pension who want to be closer to the beach and good weather.
In recent years many small towns in Italy have opened themselves to outsiders acquiring a house for a token sum of one Euro and then fixing up and contributing to the local economy. This has had great appeal to foreignors from the north with a good retirement pension who want to be closer to the beach and good weather.
Ever since then I have always looked for and lived in abandoned buildings, sometimes squatting them. Project Artaud in San Francisco, artists cooperative that reused a factory for work-live lofts and a theater, was one of the places I lived in off and on. Since 1971 the residents have resisted gentrification by demanging that if you buy a share of the cooperative, you can only sell it back from the same price. I am not alone in observing that more creativity is required in fixing things up for reuse than creating buildings ex-novo. And any professional will argue that the cost per square meter of renewal is much higher than building something new. But there are other values at stake—cultural and ecological—that might outweigh socalled
I recently organized a Terra Viva Workshop with the Fondazione Dante Bighi in Copparo, a small town outside of Ferrara, once a thriving agricultural center, which later hosted a mix of industrial production, mostly involved with mechanical components made in steel. At present, both industry and agriculture have collapsed and many people, especially the young, have left. The municipality has accumulated at no cost more than 120,000 square meters of abandonedbuildings. Considering this relatively worthless patrimony, we proposed that anyone whodared to come to Copparo, fix up the unused buildings, and initiate a creative activity shouldbe allowed do so rent free, contributing only to the services and energy of the city. Inexchange for space participants would pay a rent of social rent, through service or energyproduction. Alas, the political exponents who had invited us to Copparo lost the recentelections--I hope not because of our proposals--and such ideas will have to wait.
In a liberal economy, the classic principals of sustainability, “reduce, reuse, and recycle” to which we should add “refuse and redeem” seem antithetical to turning a profit. While some theorists, such as Serge Latouche, preach « degrowth », no politician on the face of the earth can survive by predicating the idea of less development. Development remains the holy grail of liberalism, and implies a strong construction sector. Even the United Nations’ agencies devoted to the virtuous mission of arresting climate change have difficulty avoiding the issue of growth and thus promote « sustainable development », rather than reducing or eliminating it altogether. Thus my admiration goes to those who occupy and reuse, which seems to me the
most creative and sustainable thing we can do. The French architects Lacatan and Vassal have made a career of retrofitting ugly prefab housing estates, such as Le Grand Parc in Bordeaux, reasoning that it is more costly and environmentally damaging to demolish such buildings than to use their generally solid structural base for wrapping the exterior with a scaffold that provides an extra layer of habitable space. This process has improved the daylighting and thermal performance of the units, while giving the occupants an extra 20 square meters of space, and it should be noted the work was carried out without requiring evictions.
Social relations are radically changing and new forms of association require different spaces. The prevalence of digital culture and internet has greatly modified the way people work. One of the outcomes are hubs for co-working, which are usually carved out of unused spaces. In Madrid an old garage was retrofit by CH & QS to serve the fluid needs of co-working. Eventually the cooperative acquire the first storey of the building and in order to keep the easy communication between spaces, the architects applied one of the methods of Gordon Matta-Clark, carving delirious voids out of the non-bearing walls.
The parasitical squatter often brings new life to places. In Freiburg the 8 barracks of the French occupation were squatted by a group of ex-students, with a grunge aesthetic. They became the nucleus of a community organization that planned the Vauban district, Europe’s most sustainable settlement. They brought criteria such as a car-free city and off-grid living which became part of the eventual project, 15 years in the planning. They also organized a truly rough children’s garden where with supervision kids from age 3 to 10 can work with blacksmith’s tools, saw wood and hammer nails, grow food, milk cows and do lots of potentially dangerous things. The settlement’s code gave people a discount if they did not own a car, while parking must be in one of two solar garages at a cost of 17,000€ per year, and thus there are only 140 cars per 1000 persons.
The most outrageous squat in the history of occupying empty buildings occurred in Caracas, from 2007 to 2014. Caracas, once an oppulant oil city, has undergone during the past 30 years a precipitous decline, involving a majority of poverty-stricken families who live in shanties, known locally as ranchos. During a flood in 2007 a group of people needing shelter stormed the Torre David , an unfinished highrise, begun in the 1990s and only 70% finished. No windows, no elevator, no water. Guided by some social planners known as UrbanThink tank, the eventual community of 3000 created a system of self-government and improvised their
shanties up until the 27th floor. They found their new home to be the safest in the city and most of the occupants, except those who fell from the barrier-free elevations, created a relatively comfortable and profitable exisitence until the police finally evicted them. A Chinese business was interested in acquiring the project from the city.
Parasitism can be understood as a debilitating infestation or a symbiotic pleasure. Squatting, however, can lead to social conflicts between the haves and the have-nots. One of the more socially acceptable forms of parasitism is to plant the building and leave the interaction to vegetation. Trees grew spontaneously on the Torre Giunigi in Lucca, for instance, creating a bizarre aerial park already in the 14th century. The artists Freidensreich Hundertwasser in Vienna, who wrote the “Mold Manifesto” against modern architecture in the 1960s, struggled for 20 years to get the city to build his idea of social housing, a building that is literally a
planter. In Munich, the architect Ferdinand Ludwig has been experimenting with ways to combine inorganic materials with growing trees. He is still having difficulty obtaining permits but has proven how structurally well such a system can perform. The artist Giuliano Mauri created a growing cathedral in the Arte Sella park with an armature made of wood that encased seedlings of growing trees that in 25 years will replace the decaying armature.
Among the most underused spaces in cities are flat roofs, which have the otential to become a resource for recreation, growing plants and creating energy. In Rotterdam, in connection with the 2012 Biennale of architecture a group of activists reclaimed the roof of a decadent office building slated for demolition. The DakAkker roof garden has brought new life to the building, which is now being restored rather than demolished. A Café offers products grown on the roof, including honey. In Milano the office of PiuArch installed an innovative roof orchard on top of their office in conjunction with the 2015 EXPO. It required the addition of lightweight policarbonate beams to handle the extra live loads.. In the colder climate of Canada, an enterprising young owner of a supermarket put a hydroponic garden on the roof of the store, creating truly zero-kilometer produce.
Not only are cities full of empty buildings, they are full of awkward empty spaces. These spaces can either connect or disconnect; they can either contribute to community or create an atmosphere of dread. Among the most interesting are the ex-railyards. In the Bastide district of Bordeaux, Catherine Mosbach won the competition to create a botanical garden. It stretches a kilometer and has green houses designed by Helen Jourdà fences made from the forestry office, a wetland park and a series of gardens showing what vegetables are in season. In Berlin the SudGalande park was made from old switching yards and the designers left the
trees that had grown through the abandoned tracks in situ.
There is a delicate distinction between leaving things be and allowing them to flourish. It led Gilles Clément to write a short manifesto called “the Third Landscape”. The first is agriculture, the second is designed parks, and the third is letting nature take its course, within a frame or structure. A good example is the Time Garden in SoHo new York, the work of land artist Alan Sonfist. Who scattered the seeds of the indigenous species of Manhattan on a t ypical lot and surrounded it with a fence, allowing the plants to grow as they would undisturbed in nature. Clément is a proponent of the “do as little as possible” school, let nature be natural, as seen in his work at St. Navaire, and especially at Lille, Parc Matisse, where the form of an island found on the other side of the planet was extruded 6 meters, planted randomly and let to mature.
I should perhaps beg your forgiveness in admitting that we do need some new buildings, not museums, not skyscapers, but buildings that can save us from heat death. The entire consumer system, including architecture, is based on waste that does not return to where it came from, that follows a linear logic and accumulates. The immense Pacific Garbage Patch is 3 times the size of France and is the most dramatic result of the many dangerous habits of a society served by plastic. Buckminster Fuller taught that we should not wait from humanity to evolve but rather should redesign whatever is not working. Enter a young Dutch student Boyan Slat (now 25 years old) who through crowd funding organized a major experiment to attempt to capture the plastic from the PGP and recycle it. The tubes send out from San Francisco last year did not hold, but his mission will soon send out another effort.
If we lived rationally there would be no waste. Buckminster Fuller explained: “waste is just unused resources” We are, however, caught in a consumer system that is difficult to change. Just as the great African artist Pascale Martine Tayou has recycled plastic into his monumental assemblies, so Michael Reynolds, the Garbage Warrior, has for 4 decades been taking throw away materials such as tires and bottles and creating beautiful adobe dwellings in New Mexico. The Rural Studio, a training ground for students in Alabama has been building with throw-away materials for two decades: a house with walls made of cardboard samples, a playground structure on old oil barrels, a community garden made with old oil barrels. There are countless materials that are virtually free but require high design skills to be recycled.
Up to 70% of American waste goes to landfills, which has created extremely toxic conditions. The waste seeps dangerous chemicals into the water table. While no one wants them, incinerators, especially those with new catalytic convertors can dramatically reduce reliance on landfills. Sweden has produced several co-generation plants that burn waste, produce energy and make heat distributed through pipes to the neighborhood. The new waste to energy plant in Copenhagen designed by Bjarke Ingels, is the tallest building in the city and now
known as Copenhill. It is the cleanest, least smelly incinerator in the world and to enhance its functional role a skislope has been prepare on its roof. This ludic function has transformed it from a thing to avoid to an attraction. –This is the type of building we need.
I will end with the project that I believe is the most important of the age: the New Safe Confinement, or NSC, in Prypiat, Ukraine, site of the Cernobyl nuclear disaster. Designed by a consortium of French and Italian engineers and paid for by 15 countries at a cost similar to the skyscrapers I showed at the beginning, this structure was designed to be unoccupied doing the most necessary task in Europe: containing the volcano-like reactor 4, which is still active.All of our health and safety relies on this building. In other ages people looked to religiousbuildings for solace, we must look to the great 270-meter vault of the NSC as our cathedral ofnuclear despair.
Unfortunately we really need this building, a grand carapace with no frills, which maybe one day will be found to have a certain sublime beauty, like the aqueducts of the Romans, the watermills of the Ummayads, the freeway interchanges of babyboom America. Otherwise we don’t really need anymore buildings in the age of Climate Crisis. We need to deal with what we have, fixing things up, connecting things, adding onto them with symbiotic care, so that it will be easier to live together in the resistance to Extinction.
If Le Corbusier ended his Towards an Architecture with the enigmatic briar pipe and the statement “Architecture or revolution, revolution can be avoided”, I would like to end with a similar challenge: a panama hat made of recycled paper and the ultimatum “architecture or extintincion, extinction can be avoided”.
Credits © Richard Ingersoll