Palimpsest Manifesto

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How We Think About Buildings

For inanimate objects, buildings have a peculiar sense of life. Walls are membranes, or shells—perhaps they breathe. Structure becomes the bones and sinews. Rooms are liked to cells and hallways become arterials. Architects even talk about people circulating through spaces, like blood circulates through veins (Cairns and Jacobs 2014). Some architects even treat their buildings as if they have actual physical agency, with the likes of Steward Brand discussing their ability to “learn” and smart building proponent James Sinopoli describing buildings that “almost think for themselves” (Brand 1995) (Sinopoli, 8). Without a doubt, imbuing the metaphor of life into buildings is something critical to selling the experience of the architecture. Whether this is to involve a response to the general environment or the experience of the people within is irrelevant; the biological metaphor serves to explain the bestselling of a building more than any type of performative dynamism.

Even in sicknesses and death, architects ascribe the processes of life—in many cases this applied anthropomorphism moves past the what we as humans experience and into the metaphysical. On the occasion that architects do describe the impending obsolescence of buildings it comes in the context of “sick building syndrome” or as a side effect of vandalism, or terrorism, where an architect might describe them as being “in pain” or “wounded” (Cairns and Jacobs 2014). Rather assume that a building’s demise is inevitable, however, architects tend to ameliorate the aforementioned language of death. Michael Guggenheim notes that Architects have a tendency to use language of surgery or healing in stances such as these. A Building in mortal distress can be “reanimated” or “reborn”; a renovation or addition—as described by Arthur Cotton Moore—is analogous to an organ transplant (Guggenheim 2011). Implicit in this language of architects is that no building is too far gone to preserve and renew. Even in the regrettable case of death, buildings of historical significance often receive the same treatment as an individual in their passing, receiving obituaries and quasi-biographies in the event of their passing (Harris 1999). Clearly architects are invested in the notion that architecture represents some form of life. Though famous buildings, like the American Folk Art Museum, receive their due lamentations (Kimmelman 2014), what of the rest of the not-nearly-remarkable-enough buildings subject to the wrecking ball? If architecture is a form of life, is the destruction of a building tantamount to murder (Cairns and Jacobs 2014)? For every remarkable building, there undoubtedly exist thousands, millions more, that see the wrecking ball with no lament whatsoever. What of them?

The State of The Industry

Though architecture has the tendency to aspire higher, it is at the end of the day a business providing a service. The business of the construction industry has itself changed dramatically. Buildings themselves are designed to different, more stringent criteria. In turn, the way architects design has changed as well. We romanticize the notion that architecture deals with form, space and materiality, but in the business of architecture, these concerns come second to those of program. The truth is that architects are not the ones designing projects; real estate is ever more of an investment business. Developers and public relations consultants are the ones defining the ultimate characteristics of the vast majority of buildings today. Decisions come, not from a holistic perspective, but according to investment opportunity, political advancement and market projections (Lyster, 2016). More than anything, we as architects give form to the visions of others.

The relentless focus upon buildings as an investment not only characterizes the way architects design, it has transformed the way that we experience buildings to this day. Obsolescence has come to be a fixture of present day architecture as ever more specific programs conspire with the intent to create something as materially inexpensive as possible (Cairns & Jacobs, 2014). In the United States, the average lifespan of US housing stock is 35 years (Miller, 2014). The median age of commercial structures nationwide, as of the latest US Energy Information Administration survey, is 32 years (US Energy Information Administration, 2015). You or I are likely to outlast any given building by a factor of two-and-a-half. 

In a shockingly perverted way, this is a fantastic realization of the flexibility that has eluded the much more literal applications thereof proposed in the last fifty years. Architect after architect has seen a need for adaptability and flexibility in the built environment, for decades. Piles of conceptually analogous realizations exist that allow for enhanced adaptability: space frames (Yona Friedman and Konrad Wachsmann), kits of parts (Sears to the Eamses), clip-ons (Reyner Banham), capsules (Warren Chalk and Kisho Kurokawa), plug-ins (Peter Cook), robotic units (Archigram), serviceable surfaces (Superstudio) and intelligent machines (Nicolas Negroponte) (Lyster, 2016). 

It’s quite clear that modularity was never the economic answer. Projects that describe themselves as formally rearranging modules as a means to achieve enhanced performance over time have never caught on. The architects that did will their impotent visions of adaptability into existence have the embarrassing legacy of curating a failed vision under their belt. Take, for instance the Nagakin Capsule tower. Conceived by Kisho Kurokawa, this structure is a classic example of how architects envision spatial flexibility. Two “timeless” internal circulation cores support an arrangement of 140 prefabricated concrete capsules. In theory, these capsules were to have been switched out as they became too worn, or too out of step with living relationships. They haven’t. Rather, the inhabitants live in increasing squalor and the tower’s demise seems more imminent every year (Cairns & Jacobs, 2014). It would seem that Kurokawa’s logic of replacement was not flexible enough.

Architects that do attempt address change over time and programmatic adaptability tend to abstain from even implementing systems anymore. Through his Chilean public housing projects, esteemed Pritzker Prize winner Alejando Aravena implicitly acknowledges the inability of architects to develop a cost-effective solution for customizability. In the official descriptions of the projects, he describes it as a way to reduce the cost-per unit to the government, while allowing residents to make the most of their space (Aravena, 2011). The customization does not involve a system conceived by the architect at all.

Rather than attempt to force contrived visions for adaptability, the market has created a version for itself. Rather than assume rely on widespread acceptance of relentlessly complex framework/module interactions, the market has found practical value in the continuous development and destruction of the built environment—the realization of a wholly flexible architecture across a longer scale of time.

The Issue At Hand

Though we cannot dispute that the current system of architecture quite practically serves the market needs of the built environment, the cost of the constant construction and destruction does have a cost. This new generation of buildings represent material graveyards by the end of their life. We do not consider how to take buildings apart, and we do not to put value to all of the resources that are lost when doing so (Guldager & Sommer, 2016). We are, however, able to calculate and categorize every component of a building thanks to advances in modelling software in architecture. In the scope of the immense amount of physical waste created. As architects we must design with an understanding and acceptance of market forces. We must design with the knowledge that the average building has an effective lifespan of mere decades, limited by its weakest link. 

Foundations may survive for a thousand years, while the roof structure may be replaced after a thousand months. The sanitary fittings in the bathroom could last a thousand weeks, the external paintwork a thousand days, and the lightbulbs a thousand hours. (Groák 1992)

Such a pattern implies a failure of construction regulation, a failure of development supply, and ultimately a failure of architects to assert a more valuable type of urban construction. The fate of a building is inextricably tied with its valuation, and its longevity is determined by economic—and to a lesser extent—social and cultural valuation (Maas, Hackauf, & Haikola, 2010). Today, the valuation of urban spaces is subject to a market outside of regulatory reaction, while the physical forms enclosing the spaces are. In spite of the economic and experiential realities, architecture’s self-description—of unending life—is repressing a reality that also includes the necessary conditions that lead to its demise (Cairns and Jacobs 2014). 

As architects, we put so invest precision and effort into the construction of buildings, but can we not do the same for the material waste at the end of life?

What happens when we design for the valuation of the full lifecycle of materials? Can we design around the lifecycling of individual components? How do we design for decay over time?

In designing the new system for how one can approach the project, how can we perhaps mitigate the rampant and alienating corporatism implicit in the system?

How can we engage architects and the public on the subject of waste at end of life? Can we help everyone model the future of the built environment across time?

Sources

Aravena, A. (2011). Alejandro Aravena: The Forces in Architecture. Tokyo: TOTO Publishing.

A fantastic collection of projects and thoughts that describes the economic and social impetus behind a series of projects. Particularly relevant are the descriptions of his social housing projects and the impetus to allow inhabitants to create their own economic value.

Brand, S. (1995). How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built. London: Penguin.

Cairns, S., & Jacobs, J. (2014). Buildings Must Die: A Perverse View of Architecture. Boston: MIT Press.

This book describes a model for which we can understand the current state of architecture. Modern buildings are facing a wide veriety of different forces conspiring to make them more temporary, more wasteful, and less experientially meaningful.

Groák, S. (1992). The Idea of a Building: Thought and Action in the Design and Production of Buildings. London: E. & F. N. Spon.

This source illustratively describes the commodification of different building components, as a function of the rampant commodification within architecture.

Guggenheim, M. (2011). Formless Discourse: The Impossible Knowledge of Change of Use. Candide: Journal for Architectural Knowledge, 9-36.

Guggenheim describes the issues facing architecture and predicting the future. Addressing the future of architecture involves, according to him, understanding that the way we speak about architecture can inform its perception in practice.

Guldager, K., & Sommer, J. (2016). Building a Circular Future. København: GXN Innovation.

This book provides fantastic insight from a Danish team dedicated to reducing waste from construction. This book creates a template for architects to design buildings from the beginning with as little waste as possible. The authors embrace the quantized nature of the world we live in and the planned obsolescence of building materials to create a rigorous vision for the future that embraces the ephemeral nature of current construction. What this book lacks is a philosophical vision for the ephemerality of space beyond the fact that it is sustainable; what does it mean when all space is acknowledged as temporary?

Harris, N. (1999). Building Lives; Constructing Rights and Passages. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Hill, D. (2014). The Commodification of Everything: On Restaurant Day and Airbnb. In SpaceCaviar, SQM: The Quantified Home (pp. 216-223). Zurich: Lars Müller Publishers.

A new mentality is driving a new perception of space. An spare room is no longer more space, but an opportunity to make money. Airbnb transforms this unoccupied space from happenstance into a commodity advertised on a global market.On a similar level, through similar online means, Helsinki stages Ravintolapäivä—Finnish for “restaurant festival”—where Finns colonize underutilized urban spaces and serve street food. This grassroots festival circumvents stringent food hygiene regulations and urban zoning. This bottom-up temporary rezoning has proved incredibly popular with Helsinki residents, and shows a major gap in thinking between city leadership and the needs of citizens. The requirements imposed upon capital-A Architecture seem lumbering and bureaucratic in the face of the shifting whims of urbanites.

Jacobs, J. (1961). The Death and Life of Great Amercian Cities. New York: Random House.

This book is the classic argument for describing the value of the richness and authenticity of urban space and architecture.

Kimmelman, M. (2014, January 13). The Museum With a Bulldozer’s Heart: MoMA’s Plan to Demolish Folk Art Museum Lacks Vision. Retrieved September 15, 2016, from The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/14/arts/design/momas-plan-to-demolish-folk-art-museum-lacks-vision.html

This New York Times article addresses the reactions of people when the cycle of demolition and destruction affects a building with more urban presence than average.

Koolhaas, R. (2002). Junkspace. Guide to Shopping, Harvard Design Project on the City, 408-421.

This article describes the roliferation of nonessetial, acultural spaces devleoped in an era of heightened corporatism and neoliberalism.

Lyster, C. (2016). Learning From Logistics: How Networks Change Our Cities. Basel : Birkhäuser.

This book describes a new method of thinking about architecture in the new economy. The building itself is subsidiary to greater industrial and logistical economic concerns. Logistical systems are changing the notion of place and space and scale, and architecture must rect differently to this global shift in understanding.

Maas, W., Hackauf, U., & Haikola, P. (2010). Green Dream. Rotterdam: NAi Publishers.

Green Dream describes the issues facing green and sustainable design in both broad strokes and minute detail. Rather than beat around the bush and repeat platitudes, the authors deconstruct tropes of green design. By cutting through the bullshit of greenwashing and criticizing the over-reliance on performance and symbolism, this book manages to capture the essence of what architects today need to focus on.

Marini, S. (2011). Placements: Architectures of a Neo-Neorealism. In A. Bertagna, & S. Marini, The Landscape of Waste (p. 24). Milano: Skira Editore S.p.A.

This article rather poetically describes the spatial waste created by constant destruction. I’m sure this understanding will be valuable for the future of my thesis.

Miller, J. (2014, February 2). The Age of Housing Stock by State. Retrieved from NAHB Eye on Housing: http://eyeonhousing.org/2014/02/the-age-of-the-housing-stock-by-state/

This source describes the average age of single-family-owned residential architecture as being approximately 35 years old.

Sinopoli, J. (2010). Smart Building Systems for Architects, Owners and Builders. Burlington: Elsevier.

This source describes a technology-enabled vision for adaptable architecture. I used this as a means to discredit traditional adaptability and modularity.

US Energy Information Administration. (2015, March 4). A Look at the U.S. Commercial Building Stock: Results from EIA’s 2012 Commercial Buildings Energy Consumption Survey (CBECS). Retrieved from US Energy Information Administration: https://www.eia.gov/consumption/commercial/reports/2012/buildstock/

This source describes the average age of commercial buildings as being 32 years. Though the article is dated 2015 and is the most up-to-date availible, the information is from 2012. They have disclaimer on the site describing the reason for the informational delay.

 

 

A Viewpoint for a Manifesto

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Does a space is feel permanent, defined by the solidity architecture enclosing it? Do inhabitants experience spaces as fixed and unalterable? How far past human perception does the timescale of architectural change lie? Can anyone see their childhood home as a constantly shifting space? Their office? Their favorite cafe? Fixtures and furniture may change, but even that pushes against our understanding of change. If this notion of space being experientially unaltered seems nostalgic or blatantly false, that’s because it is. Right now we are living in an unprecedented era of architectural change that is a byproduct of a sweeping generational change. The proliferation of technology and a relentless focus on optimization and commodification has created a world too dynamic for tradition architecture to cope with. 

For inanimate objects, buildings have a peculiar sense of life. Walls are membranes, or shells—perhaps they breathe. Structure becomes the bones and sinews. Rooms are liked to cells and hallways become arterials. Architects even talk about people circulating through spaces, like blood circulates through veins (Cairns and Jacobs 2014). Some architects even treat their buildings as if they have actual physical agency, with the likes of Steward Brand discussing their ability to “learn” and smart building proponent James Sinopoli describing buildings that “almost think for themselves” (Brand 1995) (Sinopoli, 8). Without a doubt, imbuing the metaphor of life into buildings is something critical to selling the experience of the architecture. Whether this is to involve a response to the general environment or the experience of the people within is irrelevant; the biological metaphor serves to explain the preferred perception of a building more than any type of performative dynamism.  

Even in sicknesses and death, architects ascribe the processes of life—in many cases this applied anthropomorphism moves past the what we as humans experience and into the metaphysical. On the occasion that architects do describe the impending obsolescence of buildings it comes in the context of “sick building syndrome” or as a side effect of vandalism, or terrorism, where an architect might describe them as being “in pain” or “wounded” (Cairns and Jacobs 2014). Rather assume that a building’s demise is inevitable, however, architects tend to ameliorate the aforementioned language of death. Michael Guggenheim notes that Architects have a tendency to use language of surgery or healing in stances such as these. A Building in mortal distress can be “reanimated” or “reborn”; a renovation or addition—as described by Arthur Cotton Moore—is analogous to an organ transplant (Guggenheim 2011). Implicit in this language of architects is that no building is too far gone to preserve and renew. Even in the regrettable case of death, buildings of historical significance often receive the same treatment as an individual in their passing, receiving obituaries and quasi-biographies in the event of their passing (Harris 1999). Clearly architects are invested in the notion that architecture represents some form of life. Though famous buildings, like the American Folk Art Museum, receive their due lamentations (Kimmelman 2014), what of the rest of the not-nearly-remarkable-enough buildings subject to the wrecking ball? If architecture is a form of life, is the destruction of a building tantamount to murder (Cairns and Jacobs 2014)? For every remarkable building, there undoubtedly exist thousands, millions more, that see the wrecking ball with no lament whatsoever. What of them?  

Though it may be witty and provocative to call such treatment of buildings architectural genocide, there are real consequences of designing buildings to be as temporary as possible. Developers are increasingly calling for ever more programmatically specific buildings. It is through this predetermination of function as a cost-cutting measure that architecture is becoming increasingly more specific. Though this specificity and stinginess, the average building is becoming more and more temporary; it is simply no longer economically possible for buildings to be built on a timeframe that lasts indefinitely—or at least an indeterminate amount of time. Rather, the vast majority of buildings built today are only economically justifiable on the order of decades (Maas, Hackauf and Haikola 2010). This notion of architecture embodying some form of unending life belies both how urban inhabitants experience virtually all buildings today, and the lifecycle implicit in how architects design and developers profit. Make no mistake, regardless of what we tell ourselves, architecture is driven—like all industries—by what people are willing to pay for. Naturally, everyone wants the best deal they can get.  

What is strange and seemingly paradoxical about most buildings in which we live, is that these buildings fail to satisfy. We live in a strange era, where entities from corporations to individuals demand more freedom in the way we live. No longer does anything or anyone want to be tied down to something as petty and permanent as real estate. Ever more people rent, and ever more companies lease. Space is but a commodity, and permanence—at least any kind of permanence disassociated from history—is quickly becoming a liability (Marini 2011). A history, as part of the physical existence of a building, is not the liability, so much as the inability to adapt to changing needs is. (More on history, in a bit.) Our structures of legislation and the prevalent understanding of architecture is unable to keep up with the fleeting desires made possible through technology. The space enclosed within buildings has always been a commodity, but now social media is allowing inhabitants sell their guest bedrooms on a global market and to market their apartments as impromptu restaurants (Hill 2014). This dramatic shift in the flexibility and commodification of existing urban spaces dramatically changes the valuation of such space, to the detriment of current architectural practice patterns. Such a pattern implies a failure of construction regulation, a failure of development supply, and ultimately a failure of architects to assert a more valuable type of urban construction. The fate of a building is inextricably tied with its valuation, and its longevity is determined by economic—and to a lesser extent—social and cultural valuation. Today, the valuation of urban spaces is subject to a market outside of regulatory reaction, while the physical forms enclosing the spaces are. In spite of the economic and experiential realities, architecture’s self-description—of unending life—is repressing a reality that also includes the necessary conditions that lead to its demise (Cairns and Jacobs 2014).   

To contrast with the ephemerality of contemporary construction, the history of a building is rapidly becoming more valuable as a means to enhance the value of an experience, yet the world is rapidly becoming populated with the opposite. Rem Koolhaas denotes the structure popping up in the wake of the aforementioned economic concerns as “junkspace.” It is a paradigmatic example of a non-architecture that proliferates in the cost vacuum created by economic impetus (Koolhaas 2002). This non-architecture constitutes everything from suburban homes to airport terminals; because each and every one of the buildingsis designed for a shortened lifespan, they cannot have meaningful impact on the greater urban fabric as a result of their ephemerality (Maas, Hackauf and Haikola 2010). Possessed by ever tighter values of value and redundancy, this paradigm of ephemeral architecture pushes the built environment towards decontextualization, entropy, and meaninglessness (Koolhaas 2002). This economic push against contextualization is a push against meaning: Even in the 1950s have we known that the rich legacy and history of an idiosyncratic architecture is something to cherish and not destroy in the name of market efficiencies (Jacobs 1961). There is an embodied, idiosyncratic nature to architecture that has stood the test of time, that the current ephemeral architecture fails to capture in its design to not last.  

The final consideration of the current ephemerality of average architecture is the immense amount of physical waste created. Though architects tend to discuss their buildings in terms of longevity, the average building has an effective lifespan of mere decades, limited by its weakest link.   Foundations may survive for a thousand years, while the roof structure may be replaced after a thousand months. The sanitary fittings in the bathroom could last a thousand weeks, the external paintwork a thousand days, and the lightbulbs a thousand hours. (Groák 1992)  The commodification of space is not something limited to the experience—as described before—but something that defines the components of a building as well. Each component has a lifespan, and each component has value. When every component of a building is designed to last a minimum lifespan to compensate for rapidly shifting demand, the overall product has an inevitably mediocre material quality and is impossible to reuse. (Guldager and Sommer 2016). Part of the issue that compounds the issue of ephemeral architecture is the lack of value applied to the physical waste in the process of demolition.  Naturally, market forces impose the raw value of extraction and processing upon any building material, but the resultant waste after the building is left valueless. If the goal is to produce a linear building whose materials’ assembly into a structure is but a transitory goal, then they have succeeded. A Building designed with a circular resource use pattern need not however be designed to use the absolute cheapest materials possible (Guldager and Sommer 2016). Should materials be seen as having a life of reuse beyond a singular structural artifact, then the architect can ascribe value to them that can extend beyond the physical life of the building artifact (Groák 1992).  

Designing to eliminate waste is something that must be integrated from the beginning of the design process. If every material is to be recycled for a new structure, then the architect can ascribe value beyond the minimum required for a single structure. Rather than understand buildings as semi-permanent agglomerations of materials, infinitely recyclable fittings can cycle through their respective lifespans (Guldager and Sommer 2016). Can the materiality of a building then separate itself from the spaces it creates?   

To Summarize

Buildings do not last long enough; this perpetual demolition wastes both material and the greater urban experience. A new architecture must respond to the need for space that transcends time, in spite of a form and material that cannot. What architecture must achieve is a building typology that retains greater meaning in its longevity, while still being adaptable.  This new typology must die to be reborn, yet leave no wasted corpse. Is there room for a palimpsest within the brave new architecture in which we live? 

 
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Works Cited

Brand, Stewart. How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built. London: Penguin, 1995.

Cairns, Stephen, and Jane Jacobs. Buildings Must Die: A Perverse View of Architecture. Boston: MIT Press, 2014. 

Groák, Steven. The Idea of a Building: Thought and Action in the Design and Production of Buildings. London: E. & F. N. Spon., 1992. 

Guggenheim, Michael. "Formless Discourse: The Impossible Knowlege of Change of Use." Candide: Journal for Architectural Knowledge, 2011: 9-36. 

Guldager, Kaspar, and John Sommer. Building a Circular Future. København: GXN Innovation, 2016. 

Harris, Niel. Building Lives; Constructing Rights and Passages. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999. 

Hill, Dan. "The Commodification of Everything: On Restaurant Day and Airbnb." In SQM: The Quantified Home, by SpaceCaviar, 216-223. Zurich: Lars Müller Publishers, 2014. 

Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great Amercian Cities. New York: Random House, 1961.

Kimmelman, Michael. "The Museum With a Bulldozer’s Heart: MoMA’s Plan to Demolish Folk Art Museum Lacks Vision." The New York Times. January 13, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/14/arts/design/momas-plan-to-demolish-folk-art-museum-lacks-vision.html (accessed September 15, 2016).

Koolhaas, Rem. "Junkspace." Guide to Shopping, Harvard Design Project on the City (Taschen), 2002: 408-421. 

Maas, Winy, Ulf Hackauf, and Pirjo Haikola. Green Dream. Rotterdam: NAi Publishers, 2010. 

Marini, Sara. "Placements: Architectures of a Neo-Neorealism." In The Landscape of Waste, by Alberto Bertagna, & Sara Marini, 24. Milano: Skira Editore S.p.A., 2011. 

Sinopoli, James. Smart Building Systems for Architects, Owners and Builders. Burlington: Elsevier, 2010.

Narrowing the Question Pt. 02 - Fetishizing Waste as a Product

 

The 2016 Venice Biennale, curated by 2015 Pritzker prize winner Alejandro Aravena, is supposed to ask the tough questions about the role of architects in solving the myriad of issues facing the profession. This includes addressing inequality, sustainability, etc, etc, and, of course, waste. Prompting the discussion is this think piece on by Rowan Moore for The Guardian.

Contained within is a rather scathing critique on the role of architects and sustainability that says all of the things that architects themselves are afraid to articulate. Professionally there is a vast disconnect between how architects market themselves professionally, and the ultimate results of their work

 

If “humanitarian architecture” sometimes turns out not to be humanitarian, it is not always architecture either. In the urge to do good, or to be seen to do good, architects can forget their skills of making spaces and buildings that are desirable to inhabit.

 

In the rush to be seen doing good, does architecture tend to miss the point? Ostensibly, yes. Many projects focused on addressing waste in architecture treat the waste symbolically instead of attempting actually address waste in architecture. When waste is treated as but a symbol to add meaning to the project, surely it then becomes ornamentation.

 
 

Right now, architecture is in a position to deal with waste, but even luminaries like Aravena seem to be fetishizing the expression of waste, and not doing anything to solve. When a building is characterized materially by its expression of waste, people will not see it as a building to inhabit, but as a very large, interactive trash sculpture. While a trash sculpture might be perfect for an architecture expo, it does not lend itself much to functional architecture. Indeed, it seems pretty difficult, as well as counterproductive to force a trash sculpture into social change. If trash is a building material, where are the trash homes, trash offices and trash train stations? Exactly. Architecture that expresses its materiality in the form of trash seems exactly like the architecture that puts style over experience.

Perhaps more pertinent to the issues regarding waste and architecture are the ones that do not present themselves as such.

 

Narrowing the Question Pt. 01 - Fetishizing the Process of Waste Management

 

Waste and architecture is a broad subject. Dealing with waste from a sustainable perspective is rather different from the way that one can approach waste architecturally. Naturally, my temptation is to address waste is to remap the system that creates the waste to empower people to live more sustainably. Ostensibly, this is a response to the most visible form of waste that we see everyday in the form of single-use disposable items. 

Some architects do directly approach waste, in the form of this everyday trash, as a means to create architecture. Bjarke Ingels' Amagerforbrændingen Waste to Energy Plant is the most prominent architectural example thereof. Other prominent examples of current waste-to-energy plants include Erick van Geraat's Roskilde Plant, and Israel Alba's Valencia Waste Treatment Facility.

 
 
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Amagerforbrændingen Waste to Energy Plant

Instead of considering the new Amagerforbraending as an isolated architectural object, the façade is conceived as an opportunity for the local context while forming it into a destination in itself and a reflection on the progressive vision of the company. The roof of the new Amagerforbraending is turned into a 31 000 m2 ski slope of varying levels for the citizens of Copenhagen, its neighboring municipalities and visitors, mobilizying the architecture and redefining the relationship between the waste plant and the city by expanding the existing activities in the area. into a new breed of waste-to-energy plant, one that is economically, environmentally, and socially profitable.
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Roskilde Waste to Energy Plant

With the new Waste to Energy Plant, the city of Roskilde in Denmark now has a second towering landmark, besides the UNESCO World Heritage listed cathedral. The plant incinerates waste from nine surrounding municipalities and from many places abroad, to produce electricity and heat power for the whole region of Roskilde. The design presents an iconic expression for the otherwise functional architecture of the local waste management company KARA/NOVEREN’s next generation Waste to Energy plant. The façade consists of two layers: the inner layer is the skin which provides the actual climatic barrier, allowing the second, outer skin to be treated more freely, consisting of raw umber-coloured aluminium plates with an irregular pattern of laser cut circular holes. The aluminium plates are treated to give them the desired colour and patina during the day time. At night, the programmable lighting, installed between the two facades, gives the building an additional metaphor.
 
 

All of these projects have a great deal in common, in that they go beyond the programmatic minimum required to transform waste into electricity. All of these projects seek to be landmarks in their own right, the Danish projects especially. The Amagerforbrændingen facility towers above central Copenhagen, serving as a perpetual reminder of its own existence. That BIG also proposed the addition of a ski slope atop the plant and added special program to allow visitors to tour the workings of the facility points to the role of the architect as value-added designed to gussy up critical infrastructure. Indeed, the Amager plant was always destined to exist regardless of whether BIG was involved; the site and the waste management program was predetermined by the Danish government. Much like the Amager facility the Roskilde Waste-to Energy Plant was designed as a landmark to mitigate the effect of building a factory. Van Geraat's perforated façade and imposing spire is not something functionally necessary, but is in his words "a visual counterpart" to the imposing Roskilde cathedral. The aping and appropriation of historic architecture aside, the architecture of the Roskilde facility is quite transparently a wrapper on the inflexible existing program of a generic waste treatment plant. 

There are, of course, more examples of inspiring façades on Danish infrastructure, and the architecture press loves to laud these as overwhelming successes for the architecture industry. While this is to a degree true, this type of architecture's existence relies on forces outside the architect's control. These are not innovative architectural solutions as much as they are responses to innovative overnment mandates. It is not happenstance that these two projects are in Denmark, but a concerted policy choice of the danes to see value in sustainable waste management as well as providing architects the opportunity to mitigate the aesthetic disaster that power plants tend to be. 

 
 
 

Valencia Waste Treatment Plant

In an area close to the airport, where the crop fields and market gardens stretch out like a sea of gold and green, a typical image in this place, famed for its fertile land and gentle Mediterranean climate. This project, conceived as a public facility, providing a public service whose negative connotations must be erased, incorporates a visitor centre and an educational facility to demonstrate the energy-related and environmental potential of the plant and raise awareness among the population who also have a role to play in the management of what we choose to throw away. As a kind of observatory, it is a place to study, to understand and to contemplate contemporary society. 
 
 
 

The Valencia Waste Treatment Facility by Israel Alba is like the Danish plants in that the goal is to create an architectural artifact for waste management. Ultimately, the goal is to endear residents to the existence of an infrastructural process in their midst. Like the Amagerforbrændingen facility, it also contains educational program integrated with the main program of waste management. Unlike the Danish examples that express themselves as landmarks in proximity to an urban core, the plant attempts to hide itself in the smooth contours of the Valencia countryside by maintaining as low a profile as possible and having the roof and façade patterning mimic the surrounding fields. Also unlike the Danish counterparts, the plant sorts waste instead of burning it for electricity. The lack of an imposing architecture and the rural location lessens the effect of the Valencia Waste management Center.

 

 
 

What issue does this typology solve?

Given the analysis of these precedents, it seems better to understand them as architectural manifestations of policy than it does to understand them as an architectural solution. Here, the architecture is a wrapper over an infrastructure, but does not address the role that the architect can play with regard to rethinking the profession's relationship with waste. The architect provides ornament, though this is not to say that ornament in this instance is wrong or superfluous.

The architectural ornamentation of an otherwise standard infrastructure enables local residents to embrace a vital part of a system, and the inclusion of an educational program allows the government to create meaningful connections with the community. In a nutshell, this building is vital, but architecturally impotent.