Climate change and design form Operative research on the morphological role of the ground level
Research stage: Intermediate doctoral stage
The issue of form and aesthetic in climate change
Climate emergency is pushing for a reconsideration of design practice, where the enhancement of resilience and sustainability is necessary to reduce carbon emissions due to the building process and make the space able to resist climate hazards. Nevertheless, nowadays, this objective is often achieved through a technical approach1. Indeed, current urban agendas and practitioners are implementing circular economy and Nature-based solutions that act as drivers for adaptation2 and mitigation3 of climate change, relating the open space and the built fabric. This is the result not only of a general will, rather it represents a technical answer fostered by international policies such as the ongoing “European New Green Deal” and the related documents such as COM/2020/984 and COM/2020/6625, respectively related to a renewed roadmap for the built environment field, to implement circular logics in building construction and promoting the greening of buildings, with more attention to the whole life cycle of the built environment.
Starting from this background, considering the current state of the art, circular economy and nature-based solutions could be framed as technical strategies for rethinking the built environment at various scales, setting a series of different solutions and approaches (Fig. 1).
Figure 1: Set of actions at the various scales related to Nature-based solutions and circular economy, mainly seen as technical generic approaches.
The research takes part in this changing panorama of the built environment, without focusing on the technical specificities of these tools, rather investigating how the morpho-typological dimension of the project is changing, focusing on the spatial impacts related to the implementation of circularity and nature-based solutions, thus exploring the relationship between climate-related technics and spatial modification. Indeed, the current climate breakdown is producing a growing onset of risks and damages on the built environments6, and more in general on people’s life7. Floods, rainstorms, and heat island effects are immediate effects of tangible climate change. They require a reflection related to the urban space, how to redesign it, which material to use, and which typological elements could be implicated in this climate-related transformation of the project.
Understanding how the ecological transition is transforming the morpho-typological condition of the project means having a glimpse of the qualitative solutions that we could gaze in the future resilient post-carbon city. As stated by K. Frampton, “There is no manifest reason why environmentally responsive and sustainable design should not be culturally stimulating and aesthetically expressive. Sustainability and its implicit aesthetics ought to be rightly regarded as a prime inspiration to enrich and deepen our emergent culture of architecture, rather than as some kind of restriction upon, or as something separate from, the fullness of its aesthetic and poetic potential.”8
Indeed, even if it is evident that adaptation and mitigation take the core of the design answer to the climate crisis, it is still vague which could be the qualitative spatial effects of the ongoing transition9. Investigating this issue establishes an aesthetical discourse but is also impactful in understanding the image of the city of the future, where a more sustainable approach to the space is necessary, and so opening the possible configuration that the built environment could shape. Therefore, to examine this topic, the research started to investigate the role of the form in this new design condition, considering the morpho-typological issue as a result and driver of the entangled relationship with the environment, in its limits, hazards, and possibilities. Thus, it emerges the question of how architecture could go beyond environmentalism and technological determinism10, to structure a new design narrative attached to the very issue of architecture: to give shape to our needs and space.
Tools and methods
The doctoral research is developed through a highly design-driven approach, essential to structure a discourse regarding the contemporary design production, to understand better the influence and spatial impacts that climate adaptation and mitigation strategies are producing. The selected cases refer to the last decades' regeneration processes, considered to enhance urban resilience, rethink neglected built contexts, and contrast the continuous and limitless usage of resources for new urban expansions.
The analysis set a series of interpretative categories to analyze the case studies, chosen in the European context, at an intermediate scale, to deepen the design actions on the building object and its possible connection with the context. The climate-related strategies considered are, on the one hand, circular approaches related to reuse practices, where the ground level could represent a key element in containing the consumption of new land and reducing the depletion of the resources11 using already existing structures. On the other hand, the study focuses Nature-based solutions applied to ground reclamations and greenery interventions. The ground, especially in urban areas, represents a crucial issue. Often depleted and polluted, it is an essential resource for a safe urban environment, hosting human activities, and counteracting climate hazards. Because of these reasons, regeneration projects usually act on it, applying nature-based as technical tools to reclaim the soils12, or to increase the number of trees in urban areas. Nevertheless, from a design perspective, we should reconsider how we design through nature, framing the role of ground design in a broader sense, not only focusing on the number of plants we are planting in our cities. Indeed, operating with the ground means establishing the relationship between humans, building and open space13.
In this perspective, a renewed importance could be addressed to the ground level. Indeed, it could be seen as the urban level that connects the building with the city, acquiring high importance being a permanent trace of projects.
Subsequentially, the investigation starts from the collection of case studies, of which only some will be reported and analyzed. The analyzed projects provided a set of solutions from which starting to question the aesthetic/formal values of the tools applied, so understanding the ontological and cultural features addressed.
The ground level as urban design challenge
The new global condition of climate thread imposes to apply effective climate-proof strategies, to adapt the urban environment and help in mitigating the effect of carbon emissions. Because of this undeniable necessity, the projects are increasingly developed through strategies that highly affect the project's image. This issue set a further need for the design field: a deeper understanding of the role of the project in this new climate condition 14. We could argue that circularity and nature-based solutions could imply a reconsideration of the conception and configuration of the design practice; nevertheless, to understand them over their technologic representation, we need to interpret and reflect upon their cultural role for the project.
The first reflection could start from the circularity, considering the long-lasting tradition of reuse for regeneration processes. Considering the intermediate scale, the research defines reuse as a form of architectural regeneration able to entangle the building and the city, revealing the relation between the site and the surroundings in its formal features. With this perspective, the research identifies in the bearing structure of the building the core in the circular reuse, producing a typological permanence and limiting the carbon emission. An example could be found in the regeneration of the Milanese Torre Bonnet by PLP architects, where the existing structure of the former tower remained as an unmodified element. This, on the one hand, halved the carbon footprint of the building process since it did not require demolition nor a reconstruction and, at the same time, kept a typological identity from the previous building (Fig. 2a), where the ground level enhanced its urban relation, albeit maintaining the same spatial feature of the previous functional asset. Hence, the architectural work is closer to an act of repairing15 than of reshaping, where the theme of circularity is intimately related to the concept of duration, revealing an attitude to consolidate the morphological building presence, rethinking the practice starting with what we have.
Similarly to this project works the redevelopment of Klaprozenbuurt neighbourhood by the BETA office, where the regeneration of a former industrial site kept the bases and the fabric structure (Fig. 2b). In these terms, the reuse of the structural elements defines a potential stratification of pre-existing architectures, connecting the practice to a sedimented imaginary visible in the permanence of the form of many architectures stratified during the centuries (Fig. 3).
Figure 2: The issue of architectural permanence of the form is a theme that defined an aesthetic of the stratification, and connect the practice of reuse to a long-lasting culture of formal permanence in the history, that opens to reflection regarding the relation between the architectural object and the urban level. The figure relates the permanence of the Theatre of Marcellus, in Rome, in which, despite the modification, it’s still recognizable the formal identity of the architecture. Similarly, Torre Bonnet that was approached through a circular strategy, developed a typological permanence of the form.
Moreover, this open to a reflection of the transformation of industrial sites without demolishing them, but rethinking the spatial relationships among the fabric. With this perspective, the ground level could be considered the floor in contact with possible climate risks, requiring thinking forms to resist extreme events.
From this statement, spatial responses could vary in many different forms, elevating the ground floor, working with the external ground section, implementing drainage solutions, and others. An example that works on this issue is visible in the Iseldoks project, by the Dutch studio De Urbanisten, where a rethinking of the typological section of the buildings and the neighbourhood's ground define a spatial resiliency to water (Fig. 2c), redefining the connection between the building level and the urban one. Here the project acts on the spatial relation of the ground level, where the need of avoiding the water risk during possible floods is solved by rethinking the typological section of the architecture.
On the other hand, exploring the design manipulation of ground levels means not only taking into consideration the building's base, but also the urban ground. Often depleted and polluted, it is an essential resource for a safe urban environment. Thus, the ground could be framed as other typological elements to connect the urban scale and the plot. Many projects are working in this direction, contributing to a renewal of the urban landscape. For example, looking at projects such as De Ceuvel by Space&Matter in Amsterdam, or Bottière Chenaie by Atelier de Paysages Bruel Delmar in Nantes, we can perceive the display of a renewed picturesque idea of nature within the modern city. Here, nature could enhance the soil reclamation and, at the same time, produce unexpected forms of the urban landscape (Fig. 2d). In this perspective, the greenery action reshapes the artificial spaces into a new urban wilderness, creating a new ecological reservoir for the city and implementing a romantic idea of wild nature (Fig. 4).
Figure 3: Representation of morpho-typological modification.
Figure 4: Nature, used as regeneration tool, seems to portray a new picturesque aesthetic of nature and wilderness, that recalls the aesthetic of the Italian capriccio, like the one portray in the picture. The collage trace a connection between the capriccio by Canaletto “Capriccio con rovine classiche ed edifice” (1719) with some details of De Ceuvel by Space&Matter in Amsterdam and Bottière Chenaie by Atelier de Paysages Bruel Delmar, that display a similar idea of a pervasive nature in the city.
Operating on the ground level seems to be an open exploratory field, where a manipulation of the space could produce a new syllabus for the design agenda, also in its spatial traits.
Looking at these projects, the design challenge of the climate-change modification of the project's aesthetic seems to open a set of different possibilities. On the one hand, the circularity seems to work on a subtle idea of the permanence of the architectural form. Reusing, so repairing, means working on an idea of duration, re-discovering a relationship of permanence between the built fabric and the city. On the other hand, nature-based solutions open to a broader discussion of a new urban sensoriality of the project 16, where a renewed closeness between the minerality of the city and the naturalness of the ground could produce a new image of the urban landscape.
To conclude, the reflection regarding the morpho-typological aspects open to a discussion regarding the possible formal and ontological meaning that climate-related technics have on the contemporary project. Indeed, if the transition toward a more resilient built environment is necessary, it should be addressed not only through a quantitative lens but also by considering the cultural and morphological implications.
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