The excitement was palpable as guests – mainly students and young architects from all over the world – eagerly streamed into the historic Teatro Piccolo Arsenale in Venice. With the 300-person venue filled to capacity, moderator Rolf Soiron inspired the panelists Alejandro Aravena, Jonathan Ledgard, Milinda Pathiraja and Robert Mardini to discuss practical solutions, rather than hold a strictly formal debate.
Is the “versus” in the panel title contradictory? Should it be inverted to indicate security is a prerequisite to sustainability? Robert Mardini, Regional Director of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in the Near & Middle East, observed that as conflicts are becoming more protracted in many parts the world, a significant amount of pressure is placed on urban settlements which undercuts a society’s ability to focus on the long term planning priorities associated with sustainability. He observed that there was a large gap between sustainability discussions in developed countries and those in developing nations due to the presence or absence of basic security. “How can people care about sustainability, if they have no security to access basic services like water, food and sanitation?,” he asked.
In terms of the scale of cities in developing contexts and the affordable existing technologies that could be used to connect them, Jonathan Ledgard, former foreign correspondent for The Economist and Director of the Future Africa Initiative at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL Lausanne), stated that despite the hype about mega-cities, “most people in Africa are living or will live in towns.” The creator of the Droneport concept in collaboration with The Norman Foster Foundation confirmed that technological options currently exist to accomplish effective connectivity between sites with limited ground infrastructure and furthermore “in the next 10 to 15 years, most towns in the equatorial zone will have Droneports, due to their affordable price point.”
More focus on coordination, less on building
Alejandro Aravena, Founding Partner of Elemental architects in Chile and Curator of the 15th International Architecture Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia, explained how sustainability requires an inclusive approach to addressing challenges across contexts and time. “The role of the architect is to channel many different forces together to add to the common goal of sustainability.”
Architect Milinda Pathiraja asserted that “designing in a sustainable way is not a choice, but is an obligation.” He described the approach of his practice Robust Architecture Workshop in Colombo, Sri Lanka that investigates how “architecture can be a catalyst for organized labor.” He cited the example of designing construction methods to support the retraining the Sinha Regiment of the Sri Lankan Army during the process of building a community library, a project that won the Global LafargeHolcim Awards Silver in 2015.
Architecture must not wait for the political system to mobilize
The panel discussed how political contexts shape the direction of physical development and in turn the design professions which work within them. Milinda Pathiraja talked about his experience in Sri Lanka where despite the war ending in 2009, political problems still persist and subsequently he argues that way forward to effectively reorganize in the country falls on the design professions themselves, since the alternative of waiting for political systems to do so would take too long.
Robert Mardini put forth another position based on his work in the Near and Middle East stating that “in places where political systems are no longer present or functioning, the best solutions we often find are designed with communities.” Alejandro Aravena adopted a more provocative stance, explaining that one of the messages of this year’s Biennale was to “identify the voids in the law where we can innovate without breaking it.”
High value of open space
Alejandro Aravena explained that “coordination will be the real challenge to our professions”, poignantly arguing for the value of open space – space that is not consumed within the footprint of building sites. Robert Mardini acknowledged the existence of many layers of challenges and the importance to interconnect solutions: “after the bombs stop falling, it would be a disaster if cities start rebuilding mechanically without real long term thinking on how the goals reflected in sustainability could be integrated,” he said.
The panel concluded with questions from the audience and Rolf Soiron, Chairman of the Board of the LafargeHolcim Foundation for Sustainable Construction, summarizing that we must all partake in the effort to push sustainable thinking, methods and technology. Alejandro Aravena added a remark apparent to the sensibility in his design work: “Architects give form to places where we live. Not much more than that, but nothing less than that.”