Issue 13


Photos by Sigrid Reinichs Words by Oliver Herwig

Dwindling resources, flooding, drought, exploding energy prices: these are certainly not the best times for construction. But might this global crisis not prove to be the opportunity for a fundamental shake-up in urban planning and architecture? An appraisal of the current situation.

Megalomaniac buildings


So that’s supposed to save us from overpopulation and scarcity of resources? 500 metres high, the megastructure known as The Line cleaves the landscape of north-west Saudi Arabia, running deep inland from the Red Sea coast, like a ruler dropped by a giant. 170 kilometres long and just 200 metres wide, its exterior clad in mirrors, its interior connected along the entire length by a high-speed train that will complete the route in just 20 minutes. One day nine million people will live here, in an ideal (business) climate of entrepreneurs and experts, pioneers and surfers of the wave. The PR pictures are magnificent, showing a kind of cross between a space colony, a theme park and a skyscraper canyon, and the vocabulary used by the promoters of the 725-million-dollar project is equally florid: Sustainability as the main driver, Economic engine, Built from the ground up and humanity-centered.—It’s hard to get a handle on the megaproject, which comes across as a blithe update of every modern-age utopia from Arturo Soria y Mata’s La Ciudad Lineal and Herman Sörgel’s Atlantropa dam off Gibraltar to Le Corbusier’s Plan Obus for Algiers, which proposed—in all seriousness—an inhabited city viaduct on the shores of the Mediterranean. The Line has an equally expansive vision, enfolding a city of millions like some enormous toy. The aim is to drive the development of humanity into a post-fossil economy and, above all, to create space for a young population and its perspectives. The sustainable vision is scheduled to become reality in 2025, but the supply flows of the materials required for its construction may alone be enough to cause the lofty goal of emissions-free living to implode.


Cities have always been drivers of change. But around 70 per cent of the world’s population will live in metropolises by 2050, and cities will need to address problems that were once the privilege of states according to forecasts by political scientist Cathryn Clüver Ashbrook and Daniela Haarhuis, Professor of Human Rights and Constitutional Law at Hochschule Düsseldorf University of Applied Sciences. Cities are where our future is decided: by how people organise themselves there, how they coexist and how they join forces to tackle challenges. In the twentieth century, none of this was yet a problem; designers still went to town on creating shiny, futuristic metropolises that served first and foremost to demonstrate technological feasibility. This image shattered when the limits of growth became apparent. Even Hollywood switched to dystopia mode, sending volcanos and tornados to devastate megacities, floods to batter houses, Godzilla and aliens to pulverise towns, and pandemics and zombies as the final death knell to the depopulated settlements. Cinema had found a way to explore our latent unease over the seemingly infinite nature of economic growth.


A great rethink has now begun, influencing the way we plan our cities for maximum resilience, transparency, openness and recyclability. Our focus is shifting to solutions beyond high-tech installations, to traditions and to the idea that we humans are also part of the whole and are dependent on networks that we had previously merely exploited or even destroyed. Designer Monika Bielskyte is one example, breaking with the concept of human-centred design, while her colleague, Julia Watson, is embracing indigenous knowledge and local solutions. Even an architect and engineer like Werner Sobek urges, The only answer is to plant trees. Every day. in his 17 Statements on Sustainability.



Under Water


A cursory online search for metropolis by the sea throws up recommendations for gorgeous beachside cities. But holidaying under palm trees will soon be replaced by concerns over the impacts of carbon emissions and climate change on those seaside settlements. Entire areas are already drowning (like the Ahr region in Germany and Balochistan in Pakistan) or burning up (like the western USA and the Peruvian capital of Lima). And oceanside metropolises are particularly fragile. A study on climate change, published in the scientific journal Environmental Research Letters in October 2021, gives cause for concern. After running a series of emissions scenarios, scientists from Climate Central and Princeton University gave a stark warning of the inexorable rise in sea levels—with dramatic consequences for all human settlements in coastal areas. Even a moderate 1.5 per cent increase in average temperatures is enough for entire areas to be affected. Nations that are currently still constructing coal-fired power stations, like China, India and Indonesia, will be particularly badly hit. But if emissions continue unchecked, 50 major cities—a total of around one billion people—will be in danger. Even in prosperous Europe, cities like Bremen and Hamburg will regularly suffer flooding. Sea levels will rise by almost five metres if global warming reaches 2 degrees Celsius, and by around nine metres with an increase of 4 degrees. Even the mightiest levee, dyke or protective barrier will be powerless. Entire towns, cities and regions may simply have to be abandoned.


Alongside flooding is the problem of drought. Major cities, including Lima and Mexico City, are drying up. The Mexican capital is already pumping groundwater from depths of as much as 400 metres, while the desert city of Lima, with an annual rainfall of just 13 millimetres, is dependent on the dwindling glaciers of the Andes, on water brought in by tanker trucks, and on artificial canals. These cities are not isolated examples. California is parched; all-time low water levels at the Hoover Dam flag up the vanishing reserves of civilisation. And the severity of the situation will be exacerbated by weather phenomena like El Niño and climate change. Today there are already 663 million people around the world with limited or no secure access to clean water.



Titanic protection


Climate adaptation is a project of titanic dimensions, amassing virtually incalculable costs, and facing uncertain success. The West Closure Complex—the biggest pumping station in the world—was completed a good ten years ago, in June 2011, at a total cost of around 1.1 billion dollars. As part of the Gulf Intracoastal Water Way, its purpose was to protect New Orleans from storm surges in excess of the average water levels of 5 metres. However, forecasts from Climate Central show that even a temperature rise of 2 degrees Celsius will frustrate all those efforts. Adaptation to the water can involve many approaches: floating cities (following Asia’s example), renaturing or abandonment of settlements located on riverbanks and in flood plains, or even enormous engineering projects like Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico (MO.S.E.). This gigantic series of floodgates was designed to isolate the Venice Lagoon and protect the city of Venice, that wonder of the world, from the flooding known there as acqua alta. Costing over six billion euros, the project was scheduled to go into operation from autumn 2020; however, this marvel of technology is susceptible to faults and is already not nearly tall enough. The Netherlands can look back on centuries of experience in dyke-building; the Delta Works protect the southernmost part of the province of South Holland and the west of North Brabant from the sea. Their purpose is to prevent the recurrence of disastrous flooding like that of 1953, which claimed the lives of 1835 people and over 200,000 animals. But drought, storms and flooding are becoming less and less manageable, their onslaught ever faster and fiercer. Soonfloods of the century will be an everyday occurrence. As sources including reinsurer Munich RE have noted, climate change is causing high material damage to buildings and infrastructure, as well as significant crop losses in agriculture.The insurance company’s answer? Resilience. But what form should that take?



Smarter construction

Asking a lightweight construction specialist like Werner Sobek about the challenge of sustainability delivers a clear-cut answer:
We must use less material to build for more people. We must rethink our building practices to allow the subsequent reuse of all materials. Nothing must be lost; nothing must be destroyed. In Sobek’s prediction, We have until 2050 at the latest to comprehensively reduce emissions of climate-damaging gases, flatten the curve of population growth, and develop a fully functioning circular economy along with food, education and healthcare provision for all, he writes in his 17 Statements on Sustainability, and follows up with the urgent warning, If we don’t, as a whole society, accomplish this task, then the consequences will no longer be within our power to control.


The construction industry consumes around 60 per cent of all global resources. But perhaps it need not be that way. In Houses That Can Save the World, authors Courtenay Smith and Sean Topham explore a dozen strategies for building differently—in a more ecological, more universally beneficial way. They spent years collecting 150 international examples and strategies for reducing eco-footprints, for collaborating and building new communities. They are convinced that [c]hanging the way our homes are constructed could help alleviate many of the world’s problems, instead of making them worse. And they are optimistic, speaking of a global design revolution extending to a worldwide movement of empathetic housebuilding that relies on considering things from multiple perspectives, rather than accepting top-down design processes or end products by so-called experts or developers. Their book is a paean to the architects in us all, but also a call for us to be proactive instead of waiting for instructions from others. An example would be the Buoyant Foundation Project and its amphibiation projects in Vietnam, Nicaragua and Jamaica, providing floating foundation structures for homes built from simple materials; if inundations occur, the foundations allow homes to simply float on top of the rising floodwater levels and return to the same place when the water descends. Or the Accretion Project by MAP Architects, in which electrolysis is used to bind minerals in sea water and grow building frameworks. Many approaches, but a single goal: we need to learn to think in cycles once again, and to work together.



The great rethink


High time, then, to appraise the situation. Where are we? There are two camps. On the one hand, the proponents of hypertechnology seek to mitigate the negative impacts of technology with even more advanced tools—like Elon Musk, say—or megaprojects like The Line. On the other, there are voices calling for a fundamental return to natural thinking and local economies. This is no contradiction; we need multi-faceted options, ranging from sponge cities and serial construction, from reforesting and renaturalisation to awareness that the affluent are key drivers of climate change and urgently need to cut their eco-footprint. But the melee of well-meant projects swamps the bigger picture. French sociologist Bruno Latour delivers a reminder, referencing James Lovelock’s Gaia concept and applying it to our coexistence. Over billions of years, the community of life created favourable conditions for life on our planet; those conditions that we are placing in grave danger today. This happened not out of generosity or altruism, but out of the interdependencies between living things. These interdependencies are suddenly re-emerging in a world of dwindling resources. But the realisation still has to hit our everyday lives.

Houses That Can Save the World, Thames & Hudson, 2022

Can houses save the world? Courtenay Smith and Sean Topham are convinced that we will need to build and, above all, collaborate differently in future if we are to preserve the planet. Their in-depth research has assembled dozens of projects from many different continents and cultures that use natural resources, smart participation or new forms of construction and materials to ­prevent our footprint on the planet from growing any further. 19 strategies, from Assimilate to Transform and Weave, introduce exciting forms of architecture that bring people together and present them as architects of their own future.

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