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.


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.

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.