The Oslo Architecture Triennale, which will start in just a few days under the title “The Future of Comfort,” will discuss how sustainability is challenging our idea of comfort and posit how architects can enter into this debate. ArchDaily had the chance to talk with Rotor, the curators of the Triennale, who have collected over 600 objects carrying claims of sustainability from over 200 architecture offices, companies and environmental organizations across the world.
Most of all, we wanted to find out: what truly counts as "sustainable"? Read the complete interview after the break:
You at Rotor have collected over 600 objects that carry claims of sustainability for your exhibition "Behind the Green Door." What have you learned about what counts as sustainable?
Maarten Gielen: We’ve spent over a year looking at architecture that calls itself sustainable. For the exhibition we ended up selecting materials related to over 200 projects. What does the Novartis Campus in Basel designed by Gehry have in common with the Wiesbaden Army Airfield designed by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers? Are there similarities between the co-housing project Tinggården of the Danish group Vandkunsten and a design for an incinerator with ski slope by BIG? Between the work of Werner Sobek and Anna Heringer? They don’t share a formal language, there is often not even a common vision. And yet they’re all being referred to as ‘sustainable’.
Lionel Devliege: A difference can be made in the manner in which the label sustainable is being used. In some projects it is a driving force, a deliberate attempt to “save the planet”. Other projects use the notion more opportunistically. But what all the authors whose work we feature in the exhibition have in common is that they try to formulate a sincere answer to the question: “What does it mean to be an architect in a world of limited resources, a world that lives above its carrying capacity?”
From your perspective, has the idea of sustainability, even at its inception, ever had a clear definition? Do you think it ever will?
LD: Virtually everyone refers to the 1987 definition put forward by the Brundtland Commission, a United Nations body that had as a mission to “create greater cooperation (...) between countries”, “to define shared perceptions of long-term environmental issues” and to formulate “aspirational goals for the world community”. In other words, the agenda of the commission was to formulate a position that could be embraced by as many parties as possible, across ideological, economic and other divides. We can say today that in this the commission succeeded brilliantly by crafting the notion of ‘sustainable development’, and defining it as open as possible.
MG: What we have seen over the last few decades are attempts to translate the broad abstract notion “respect for future generations” into guidelines for concrete situations. Our society is looking for answers to questions such as: “what cladding material is the most respectful to future generation’s needs?”. You can imagine that a question like that touches upon enormous interests: of manufacturers, of regions and their industries, of associations of building contractors and workers, ... It quickly becomes an ideological matter, answers depend of how one thinks society should be organised.
And there’s many more questions. Imagine: can a building material or an entire building on itself be considered sustainable regardless of what happens inside of them? The recent George W. Bush Presidential Centre in Dallas is for instance Platinum LEED-certified, but at the same time hosts an exhibition that celebrates the American invasion of Irak and Afghanistan. Can this be called a sustainable building? If not, then what does this imply for architects that want to build sustainably?
LD: We think it is best to keep questions like these partially open, that there will never be an univocal answer. So it is the too narrowly defined models of sustainability that we find most problematic, the models that claim to have all the answers. To use the adjective sustainable is to say: “This object contributes to greater balance in the world; this is morally right”. And as long as we live in an unbalanced world, all such claims should be up for discussion.
What role do you think architects will play in not just defining sustainability but also putting it into practice?
LD: We see architecture as a useful indicator of changes in our societies that are difficult to reveal otherwise. Compare the architecture of today with what was built as recently as twenty years ago. The changing architecture illustrates shifts in the way we collectively understand the world.
MG: But architecture does not only undergo these changes in society, it can also steer or at least influence them. Perhaps the idea of compact housing in the name of sustainability scares certain people. They might think it cannot be done in a comfortable way. So when a particular project succeeds in organising spaces in such a way that comfort and density are combined, it creates new options for the world. Architecture has the power to show the feasibility and desirability of what before was just an idea.
Is sustainable architecture the first step towards building a sustainable society? What would truly sustainable architecture look like? Would it forsake comfort? If so, is society really as ready for it as it may claim?
LD: The notion of sustainability was developed with the a global, planetary outlook in mind, as you might expect from the UN. It was very much a question of social justice too: how to improve the living standards of the ‘developing countries’ without jeopardizing the future of all. The report asks that the way we deal with the ‘needs of the present’ does not jeopardize the capacity of future generations to deal with their needs. But what does this mean, “needs”?
MG: Norway, with its booming oil economy, is an interesting place to ask that question. That is why the opening conference of the Triennale is titled ‘The Future of Comfort’, and looks precisely at these questions.