No, the houses are not half done: The still undeveloped half may be extended by the inhabitants according to their needs. The buildings are part of the project "PRES Constitution" Elemental, winner of the category "Urban Developments & Initiatives" of the Zumtobel Group Award. Photo © Elemental, Chile
Architecture with added value
by Adeline Seidel
Oct 15, 2014

Studying the photographs of the “PRES Constitución” project by the Chilean architectural firm Elemental you would be hard-pressed to believe that it has just reaped an architectural award. For all these pictures reveal is an entire arsenal of uniform buildings – an estate of terraced houses that could be anywhere. At least that’s what it looks like. These images have neither captured some extraordinary architecture, nor are they celebrating a spectacular “salto mortale” in the art of civil engineering. The same holds true of the photographs of a children’s hospital in Port Sudan, which was masterminded by the architects at Tamassociati, an Italian firm. All we get to see here is a white box in a dusty environment with luscious green in front of it. The hospital’s architecture is plain vanilla, a far cry from luxurious austerity; and neither is the park a Garden of Eden. In the same vein, the makers of the “SolarLeaf” project have not bothered much with building design proper but instead concentrated on algae-filled panels on the façade, which supply the building with energy. Germany’s Arup Deutschland GmbH is responsible for the development of “SolarLeaf”, a built experiment that has not yet been completed but requires further monitoring and fine-tuning.

The above projects have one thing in common and that is that they have won prizes for something that is difficult or indeed impossible to decipher in their photographs. These ventures are too multifaceted to be snapped in a single shot, the stories of how they came into being too complex. They hardly lend themselves to debates on building aesthetics, which would struggle to do justice to them. Indeed these buildings are emblematic of a broader understanding of architecture that is permeating the industry slowly but with the thoroughness of mycelial filaments.

What Elemental have achieved with their “PRES Constitución” project exceeds the usual requirements of an architectural and urban planning firm by far. Four years ago a powerful earthquake and tsunami hit the Chilean city of Constitución on the Pacific coast, leaving it in ruins. In the aftermath, Elemental had to come up with a strategy for the city’s reconstruction in as little as one hundred days. The complexity of the task lay in mastering several tasks at once, for the company had to prove its salt as planners and architects, as moderators and seismographs of the needs of the people, as budget jugglers, as all-rounders and civic representatives on political committees.

Building beyond office terms

A stakeholder process was initiated to help define the basic needs of the urban population and set priorities. “Most importantly, the community had to feel empowered and in a position that allowed citizens to put pressure on the authorities during implementation,” the architects explained the rationale of their strategy, and continued: “The time it takes to make substantial changes to a city is far longer than the terms of office of political dignitaries in the municipal administration. However, by bringing the citizens on board we can ensure that that the next administration will implement the proposals agreed for the city.” For example, in the discussion between the citizens and the city representatives, and some included heated debate, it transpired that people previously had very little public space at their disposal – just 2.2 square meters per person – and so they expressed a desire for more. Another point of concern for both the architects and the people was the waves caused by a tsunami. Earthquakes are quite a common occurrence in the region, but the tsunami was a completely new experience. The idea of erecting a flood protection wall along the waterfront did not appeal to the citizens as it would have separated the city from the sea and the estuary, impeding access to an important source of income for the people. Ultimately Elemental suggested planting a protective forest along the riverbanks; they had evidence that the trees would substantially lessen the force of the waves and repel floodwaters. This proposal was a delicate matter politically as it required the expropriation of private land along the waterfront. Despite this potential obstacle the majority of the population voted in favor of the proposal; in fact, four years on a large part of the associated subprojects have been realized, including for instance new residential buildings and public sports facilities.

“PRES Constitución”, winner in the Zumtobel Group Award’s “Urban Development and Initiatives” category, is an exemplary project – as are the other four projects nominated in this section. The Zumtobel Group Award was bestowed for the fourth time this year and a third category has been added: The previous “Research and Initiative” category was subdivided into “Urban Development and Initiatives” and “Applied Innovations” in response to the change in perception among young architects and planners who are not happy to reduce architecture to appealing formal appearances but regard building as an extended process – complete with all technical, functional and social implications. This may even go so far as to waive constructing actual buildings and instead actively support urban development processes that enable the citizens to have a say in future planning.

Sure, none of this is really new. Think, for example, of Ebenezer Howard and his idea of the garden city, which he hoped would essentially empower people to live a healthy life in an urban environment. Or take the civic participation processes for residential and urban development projects in the 1960s and ‘70s. Not to forget those countless initiatives in which architects focus their primary attention on developing buildings that are acceptable from the viewpoint of the residents, thereby forgoing the opportunity to enhance the prestige of the planners or clients. This again is not something that can simply be communicated through pictures. Which makes it difficult to propagate such projects beyond the close-knit community of the specialists. In this regard, recognition through an award helps not only formulate socially responsible approaches, but indeed goes some way to changing the architect’s image in society. It’s a start at least.

Green experiment

The “Applied Innovations” category of the Zumtobel Group Awards honors innovative developments in building technology. The idea is to acknowledge the courage to experiment; after all the projects in question are just prototypes. This is, for example, the case with “SolarLeaf”, this year’s “Applied Innovations” winner. For its realization, Arup Deutschland GmbH teamed up with SSC Strategic Science Consult GmbH and Colt International GmbH to develop a façade panel that has several functions at once – and not just those solely geared towards enhancing the performance of the building façade. Rather, by producing high-quality biomass from micro-algae inside the panels, which serves as a resource for the production of foodstuffs or the pharmaceutical industry, the façade functions as a kind of cultivation area. By way of photosynthesis the micro-algae supply the building with energy, while a panel-integrated system absorbs CO2 emissions from the environment; not to forget, the panels double up as a sunscreen. “SolarLeaf” has not yet reached market maturity but the team around Arup Deutschland GmbH is working hard to achieve this.

Once we engage with these or similar projects it swiftly becomes clear that bestowing prizes such as the Zumtobel Group Award promotes an understanding of architecture that does not rely solely on news flashes bolstered by glam photographs but goes so far as even to make allowances for a project’s potential failure. And let’s be honest: Today’s construction industry does not include failure in its books; in this sector mistakes cost a lot of money, which is why the protagonists have to insure and safeguard themselves against all eventualities, leaving little room for experiment. As it is, this lack of willingness to embrace risk will nip any kind of progress and innovation in the bud. That said many things that are today being regarded and lauded as exemplary only flourished because the first approaches to them failed, prompting their makers to draw the right conclusions from their defeat. Just think of Buckminster Fuller’s “Dymaxion House” or his teardrop-shaped “Dymaxion Car”. Sure, these items did not conquer the market, nonetheless they led to new insights that formed the bedrock for later innovations – both in architecture and the automotive industry.

A protective forest will reduce the power of tsunami waves. Photo © Elemental, Chile
New public spaces and leisure facilities and will be along the shoreline.
Photo © Elemental, Chile
These new public spaces wished the inhabitants of the city.
Photo © Elemental, Chile
Winner in the category "Buildings" of the Zumtobel Group Award: The project "Port Sudan Paediatric Centre" by the studio Tamassociati Architects. Photo © Massimo Grimaldi and
The sheltered courtyard garden serves as a recreational area. Photo © Massimo Grimaldi
The winner of the category "Applied Innovations": The project "SolarLeaf" by Arup Germany GmbH. A facade system with Photo-Bio-Reactor technology.
Photo © Colt, SSC, Arup
By way of photosynthesis the micro-algae inside the panels supply the building with energy.
Photo © Colt, SSC, Arup