Looking ahead to the future of our built environment, a one-size-fits-all approach simply won’t do. Issues like rising sea levels, temperatures, and water scarcity in urban communities need localized solutions that take into account questions of sustainability, culture, and public health. Having investigated vernacular infrastructure across indigenous communities for her book Lo-TEK. Design by Radical Indigenism, designer Julia Watson is an expert in local, nature-based technologies that are inherently adaptable and resilient. We talk to her about the future of our cities, building materials, and her latest project for Our Time on Earth – a five year, world-touring exhibition that just opened at London's Barbican Centre to investigate how radical, collaborative ideas for the way we live can get us to a much improved place by 2040.
Claire Brodka (Architonic): Can you describe your project for Our Time on Earth?
Julia Watson: For our particular piece, I was paired with Smith Mordak, Director of Sustainability at global engineering company Buro Happold, to create a unique commission for the space. Together, we connected her engineers with knowledge keepers of the War Khasi community in the north-eastern Indian state of Meghalaya, the Subak community of farmers in Bali, and the Ma’dan community of southern Iraq – all of whom were featured in Lo-TEK. The goal was to merge expert Western engineering with these communities’ indigenous technologies to create a model for how this collaboration could help us design the cities of the future and tackle climate issues like rising sea levels, rising temperatures in urban communities, and water scarcity.
The result is The Symbiocene: a model of a generic urban condition that shows the impact of those collaborative technologies: the microclimatic effect, the reduction of urban heat island effect, the biodiversity increase effect… All three communities offered unique solutions to these different problems, and our installation explains how.
CB: What specific technologies are shown in your model?
JW: The first is a living canopy that grows with a city to create shaded areas and counteract urban heat island effect. Based on the living root bridges of the Khasi, such structures would be particularly useful for those urban environments that experience being above 40 degrees Celsius 70% of the year, like many cities in India.
The second technology from the Ma’dan community is based upon sea level rise. Rather than displacing communities, how do you take inspiration from their floating island technology and adapt cities, neighborhoods, and buildings accordingly?
The third emerged from the Subak, which is the sacred rice terraces of Bali. Rather than focusing on the agricultural aspect of these landscapes, we looked at the water resource sharing, which is a really incredible part of the system. It’s one of the most democratic technologies that I've ever seen. There are so many benefits of water sharing at different scales in a city environment: you're not just using fresh, clean water for everything, you're sharing water using nature-based technologies rather than industrialized tools, and using differently filtered water for very specific purposes within a shared community.
CB: What do you think application of these technologies would look like on a global scale?
JW: It’s not just about what the West knows best, and strategizing on how the rest of the planet gets developed or saved from climate change. I think the important questions in relation to global implementation of these techniques are about place-specificity and ownership. If we were going to create a canopy technology over a city, how could it grow with that particular space and environment? And how could it be responsive to the culture? The most successful approach will be to actively drive the process of decolonizing the way we think about the built environment, and having indigenous knowledge holders work collaboratively with Western engineers. That’s where I think it becomes more nuanced and interesting.
There’s intellectual property within these local communities, and there’s huge potential for the evolution of indigenous technologies because they already exist. You have much more success if you're scaling up something that already exists than if you're bringing in foreign knowledge that's not informed by hundreds or thousands of years of cultural wisdom embedded within that knowledge. However, the foremost issue we have to confront is ownership and use of the indigenous knowledge – which is why we came up with the ‘Smart Oath of Understanding’: a nine-part spoken word contract that was read aloud by the CEO of Buro Happold and verbally accepted by the community knowledge keepers. It can be heard when visiting the installation.
In terms of current examples, architects like Mohammed Rezwan, who built floating schools in Bangladesh, and studios like LANDPROCESS in Thailand that implemented rice terraces on top of Thammasat University, are concrete cases of how you would take those ideas and tenants from traditional ecological knowledge as inspiration to create a new technology for the future.
CB: In a world where the construction sector – dominated by concrete – accounts for 40% of CO2 emissions, what do you envision for the future of building materials?
JW: I think the process of reducing CO2 emissions needs to be a much more multi-stakeholder engagement. Anything that goes into our system has to be used throughout and have a much more symbiotic engagement with not just the construction industry, but all other industries. If, for example, you start using kelp as a material, you could track it through a food cycle, to a fuel cycle, an agricultural cycle, to fashion, to architectural building projects, to wastewater management, and even to the creation of insulin for the medical sector. That's when you start to get a really big cascading and exponentially growing environmental impact based upon systemic changes and ideas about materiality and the biodegradability of a material technology.
That being said, there are an incredible number of alternative materials to choose from: there is felt made from recycled plastic bottles, mycelium-based bio-composites, hemp, and cotton made from shellfish. I think if the industry continues to pay attention to these more sustainable and regenerative material alternatives as well as renewable energy sources, we are on the right track. I hope we're around 10 to 15 years away from turning that corner and really understanding and investing in those big changes that are needed. Because we know what to do. We just have to do it.
For more, check out the materials section on Architonic.
Our Time On Earth is on view at the Barbican Centre in London until August 29, 2022.