Without innovation, Man would certainly still be living in caves today, still fully under the constraints imposed by his environment. Indeed, in architecture as in many other fields, there are two main types of profiles. Those who align themselves as well as possible with the preconceived lines and those who do everything to break away from them. The first ones follow the current of what is already done. They practice mainly for the lucrative aspect of the profession or sometimes because they have not found anything better. The others think outside the box and swim against the current. They innovate to advance the field and the way of practising the profession. Each of these profiles has its role to play. However, there is much to appreciate about those who innovate for the way they make things happen. That’s why their names often stick in people’s minds in a lasting way. If I ask you which architects touch you the most, you will certainly name those whose innovative ideas made your eyes sparkle. Perhaps Zaha Hadid, Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, Rem Koolhaas, Bjarke Ingels, Chris Precht, Odile Decq, Stefano Boeri, Santiago Calatrava or Francis Kéré. You can tell us in the comments. In the meantime, let’s take a look at how some architects are innovating to improve our lifestyles, sometimes even beyond what we can think.
Build higher and bigger
I already see some who will say that monumental projects are generally projects reserved for rich and powerful people. Indeed, the shadow of a certain ego often hangs over most of these projects. So there are two sides to these types of projects. If we start, the debates will be endless. Some will talk about the bad impact on the environment, for example. Others will perhaps mention the densification that is positive for urban development. Some may argue that it is segregated, while others may argue that it is a spectacular attraction that sometimes sets the host city or country apart in a significant way. However, we can above all recognize the quality of major projects as being often enormous sources of innovation. New, more stable, poetic forms are discovered, opening up the field of possibilities. We advance the materials sector by discovering new materials that are lighter, more flexible and resistant. We also explore new construction techniques and technologies that make it possible to build lighter, more durable and faster.
A new generation of designers is taking things a step further by rethinking the philosophy of monumental construction. Many projects now associate monumentality with the resilience of weak or vulnerable communities rather than the pleasures of the rich. This is the case with several projects submitted to the Evolo skyscraper competition in recent years.
Develop and reinvent ingenious theories and principles
If you are interested in architecture for any reason, you are probably familiar with the points of modern architecture by Le Corbusier. For those of you who may have forgotten, they are of course the pilotis, the roof terrace, the free plan, the banded window and the free facade. This approach was revolutionary at the time, even though it was based on the construction principles developed in the United States by the Chicago School under the influence of Viollet-le-Duc’s teaching. Today, we still use them in our designs, whether or not we have mastered the references, but it sounds so obvious.
A project that well illustrates modern architecture according to Le Corbusier is the Cité Radieuse in Marseille, a vertical city designed in 1947 and classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2016. It has 337 apartments of 27 different types, plus a playground and a swimming pool. The concept that made this project so special is the system of interlocking apartment units that allows them to open onto two facades and have an “interior street” every three floors, thus saving space.
Later, between 2004 and 2005, the VM house designed by PLOT (a former agency created by Bjarke Ingels and Julien De Smedt in 2001 in Copenhagen) was inspired by this emblematic building. The architects developed two minimalist apartment buildings consisting of interlocking units with the same corridor system every three levels. The apartments are so spacious, bright, comfortable and affordable that the project caused a media uproar and established an impressive list of international awards. The same client has now approached the agency again for another residential project on the adjacent plot; The Mountain. Of course, inspiration is not the only ingredient that made the project a success.
Taking inspiration from heritage to create added value
Building a community on its heritage is probably the best approach one can take. Of course, some cities or countries deliberately choose to do otherwise for many reasons. Yet heritage generally contains social values that are a strength for the community. This is certainly why architects around the world are encouraging this approach to bring added value to communities.
The Tulou Collective Housing project illustrates this approach and how it can impact people’s lives. This collective housing project is inspired by the Tulou, a traditional form of housing dating back to the 12th century and located in the rural areas of Fujian province in southeast China. It is a model of walled community cities built of compacted earth with individual dwellings surrounding a generous inner courtyard and common facilities. The people who live there share a great deal in common, including the surrounding farmland.
The project developed by URBANUS reinterpreted this model in the contemporary urban context of Nanhai, Guangdong, in the same geographical area as the traditional Tulou. The fortification, which is mainly used for protection in a rural context, allows in this new context to isolate the inhabitants from the noise of the outside environment while creating an intimate and comfortable environment inside. While the homes produced are similar in size and price to conventional affordable housing in the region, the enormous added value is in the generous open spaces and shared amenities. The homes benefit from natural light and ventilation, and residents can enjoy on-site spaces such as a library, computer room, fitness areas, bicycle parking, stores, a restaurant and a large open courtyard.
Anticipating and building for resilience
The construction sector is identified as the most polluting and energy-consuming sector of activity. Of course, it would be a mistake to think that architecture and construction are the same things. But architecture must manage construction to reduce its negative impact on the environment while optimizing its positive impacts. Architects around the world are actively involved in this. Architects have been among the pioneers of ecological movements through several architectural styles. Organic architecture and bioclimatic architecture, for example, are approaches that focus on respect for the environment. Beyond advocating for the environment or constructing environmentally friendly buildings, architects also intervene in extreme environments to create opportunities or in places affected by disasters to help the community rebuild and become more resilient.
The Rebuild by Design initiative developed in the US after Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast in 2012 is a good example of how design can be used to build more resilient communities. It wasn’t just about rebuilding destroyed facilities, but rather about building structures and amenities that would improve people’s lives. Depending on the location, it was, therefore, a question of creating spaces for enjoyment and socialization, spaces for walking and physical exercise, but it was also a question of creating jobs and putting in place ingenious solutions to deal with the rising waters. The projects funded and implemented (BIG U, Living Breakwaters, Hunts Point Lifelines, Meadowlands, …) have enabled communities to emerge from this ordeal stronger and ready to face similar situations in the future.
Optimistic and visionary, architects, therefore, play a very important role in the research of solutions to problems like overpopulation and climate change. But even further, they are also very much involved in the search for opportunities related to space and underwater conquest.