Ivry-sur-Seine Social Housing Complex

The manmade world tends to dominate the natural one but it’s possible for architecture and ecology to coexist in harmony. In fact, it urgently has to, as it became increasingly apparent to Byera Hadley Travelling Scholarship recipient Eleanor Peres as she travelled the world last year to write a research report on this very subject.

Originally from Hobart, Eleanor studied architecture at UTS, and has practiced at Zones Urbaines Sensibles in Rotterdam, Kengo Kuma and Associates in Tokyo and most recently Hayball Sydney studio. She’s now based in Moscow working on another exciting research project called “The Terraforming”.

The Fifth Estate touched base with Eleanor via email on her latest research titled “On What Earth are you Thinking?” and her thoughts on the role of architecture in a time of climate breakdown and mass biodiversity loss.

When you give a brief summary of what this research paper is about, what do you say?

Architecture and ecology share a tense relationship where the former often dominates the latter by carving out artificial environments that rupture flows in interconnected networks of biodiversity and form patterns that segregate the human species as dominant over others.

“On What Earth are you Thinking?” positions architecture at a scale comparable with ecology in order to imagine a more reciprocal relationship between artificial structures of design and the ecological landscapes they inhabit and alter on a planetary scale.

On a personal level, why did you pick this topic? Was there a catalyst moment? And what did you set out wanting to achieve?

I think people are sensitive to and aware of the fact that the environment is under pressure. Less so than a catalyst moment, there was a cascade of realisations over time that either led to the research or evolved through fieldwork and writing.

I learned that the ecological typology “Sydney Turpentine Ironbark Forest” had lost 95 per cent of its once extant coverage to urban development and became fascinated in species and ecosystem disappearance.

Despite the fact cities have become the dominant preference for human settlement, ecologies of peripheral landscapes are becoming increasingly threatened by industrial infrastructure that supplies the human city with its energy, technology and food and relieves it of its waste.

I discovered that 40 per cent of built space in the world is in fact outside cities and takes form as infrastructure in roads, mines, data servers, automated ports and the likes. Urban Theory Lab at Harvard and the work of Nikos Katsikis is a fantastic online agglomerate of maps and visual representations of such planetary data. It is not only where we live and what we live with but what we borrow in order to live in cities and what we dispose of outside those cities that impacts planetary ecosystems.

I set out to understand what role urban architecture played in the imbalance of human growth and ecological erasure and I hope the essays and case studies offer readers a variety of ideas for future imagination and implementation.

You use the word “ecology” instead of “sustainability” in the research – can you provide a brief explanation why? And is there any hope for recovery for the word sustainability in your view?

I think of sustainability as a word that carries unrealistic expectations and is applied in ways that almost never allude to its true definition – the ability to exist constantly.

The popular term entered common discourse as the focus of the Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, a gathering of a consortium of countries confronted with international inequality.

Personal balcony garden in Tokyo

At this point, the year I was born, both the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union had fallen and the very need to discuss this topic in an international forum suggests planet earth was already not sustaining itself. The word has been applied like rationed cordial and watered-down in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) acts ever since.

An ecosystem, on the other hand, is a community of living organisms in conjunction with the non-living components of their environment, interacting as an interconnected system. The very word ecology derives from the Greek “oikos” or house and offers a concept where both the rules of the house apply and where comfort and retreat are provided.

In Timothy Morton’s “Being Ecological”, the ecological house is a weird one where the roof is perforated and the walls are alive, retaining all kinds of visitors we might not welcome, and where other houses seem to be overlapping with ours.

In an essay on the planet, Dipesh Chakrabarty argues that the anthropocentric idea of sustainability that dominated the twentieth century continues now beyond it as a mantra of green capitalism.

Habitability, on the other hand, a concept inherited from the Earth System Sciences, asks what makes a planet capable of accommodating complex life over deep time scales. When you google “sustainable architecture” you find yourself in a pictorial waterfall of external facades decorated with gorgeous plants dripping from their geometric edges.

There is Sydney’s renowned Central Park tower, laced with high-maintenance ornamental plants whose diet is a costly intestine of hydraulic pipes that drip-feed the aesthetic pleasure of passers-by.

In my mind, urban ecologies are polychromatic environments in flux, experimental and imperfect testing grounds where the expertise of biologists, horticulturalists, ecologists, landscape architects, architects, planners and people overlap.

Some elements might thrive, and others might die, but the system needs to be engineered in an open-ended manner that responds to changeability, seasonality and the conditions that surround it. Design with ecology is learning from the scientific method of observing what already exists and prototyping before investing in a total intervention.

You make an interesting point about what the colour green has come to symbolise – can you explain why this is important?

Plants and algae are autotrophic, which means they produce their own food by using the sun’s energy to turn carbon dioxide and water into carbohydrates in their leaves. All other species, including humans, are heterotrophic because we feed off complex substances initiated by the work of autotrophic plants. Decomposers in the form of insects, fungi and microscopic bacteria complete the cycle by consuming and breaking down excretion, dead plants and animals into basic nutrients that are returned to the ecosystem.

The research welcomes a critical perspective on the use of green in architecture and planning, a phrase I suppose borrows its title from the benefits reaped by the autotrophic work of photosynthesising plants, then dismembers the static colour from its reference to biological production.

The colour green is taken advantage of by every city, sector and planning policy, including architecture, in a style that oversimplifies the diversity of what artificial structures, architectures, can learn from ecology in becoming more synonymous with their urban atmospheres.

If we are being real with ourselves, green architecture is less likely expensive apartments adorned with native species and more likely a waste processing facility at the scale of a district or suburb, a metabolic facility sloshing with the stinking bile of the things we didn’t consume and disposed of, where the dripping faeces of the everyday are transformed into biowaste that can be re-used to generate communication systems that power society.

Not only green, but so many colours and textures turn brown and become super-useful and highly valuable commodities.

One quote that really got me thinking was from Japanese architect Toyo Ito about our efforts to segregate ourselves from nature, and that we’ve reached the limit of this way of thinking (pg. 16). Many societies, Western ones in particular, have become so used to being separated from nature. I guess my question is, how do we manage the expectations and fears of people as we let the natural and the manmade worlds coexist more?

The polarity of a sealed inside versus a wild and dangerous outside became an important fiction to dissolve throughout the research, offering in its place a proposition that the protection and proliferation of ecosystems is embedded in the same complex web of metabolic and technologies systems that power cities.

I am not sure there is a limit to what the human imagination could come to fear over time, from insect invasions to death the phobias are countless. Living species and microorganisms exist that infiltrate the body and our structures at finer scales than the materials we have engineered over time to enclose ourselves from them.

We see this now in the form of coronavirus invading immune systems, not unlike ants eating through timber structures. Toyo Ito’s reference speaks to the preference for understanding the systems of earth as interconnected rather than a false premise that humans can “create” the world they desire exclusive of the finer particular matter that assembles that world.

Fabricating a fear of those systems will not erase the fact that they are also busy getting on with their life without WiFi.

In the practical world of building cities, how would you like to see this research informing design and planning?

This research is quite a specific comparison of eight different cities’ response, from both planning and architecture, to a planetary imbalance of human growth and ecological erasure in the context of climate change.

The media sensation of collapse narratives warning us of the end of the world between 2030 and 2050 have at least sent electric shocks to the design and engineering industries, who have been hard at work inventing.

Carbon capture technologies, renewable energy solutions and natural climate solutions when deployed together are all viable options to transform the way the world digests energy instead of throwing it out to the atmosphere or letting it drift to the southern hemisphere.

It seems obvious to me that all governments should be regulating construction to be net-zero energy, meaning a structure is designed to capture its energy from the sun, wind or hydraulic means.

The same expectation goes for our data and the outsourced sites of server farms that process the ability for individuals and whole media circuits of businesses to stay switched on. We might see these transformative acts in the implementation of an international treaty like the Montreal Protocol in 1987, designed to protect the ozone layer by phasing out harmful substances known for its depletion.

Further down the track, I imagine we might see ecosystems such as the Great Barrier Reef or the Amazon possessing legal rights, as corporations do, for the management of their systems and insane ability to perform what we call ecosystem services. Bumblebees, bacteria and boreal forests do not have the right to legal representation, the right to vote or to participate in the economy, but neither did women or corporations at a point in history. 

What did travelling around the world teach you about Australia’s approach to environmentally sensitive design? And which countries/places are leading the way?

I think people in Australia are genuinely concerned about the condition of our environment, especially having witnessed burning and flooding of sizeable areas of the landscape in the past few years.

This summer has been a tipping point that has brought climate questions to the forefront of public discussion, beyond an individual reckoning toward how industries like tourism, construction, parks and wildlife can manage both in the recovery of their livelihood as well as their methods to design a future that is safeguarded.

Gardens by the Bay conservatory, Singapore

Many industry professionals I interviewed advocated for Singapore as the “green-print” for environmentally sensitive design. I agree with them regarding the creation and execution of policy on a national level but admit the greening of a place on scale of human pleasure and leisure is less beneficial a climate project than the design of large-scale infrastructures for the management of energy and waste.

Singapore’s plan has been gradually unfolding for decades under strict legislation and seems to be working for Singapore though I question its scalability and application to other territories.

We should look to the Netherlands, a country that by necessity of being geolocated under the natural water table, have been forced to integrate economic and environmental pressures to their proposal for a circular economy by 2050, with a 50 per cent reduction in the extraction of raw materials and minerals by 2030.

The circular economy report reveals that in the last century, humans started 34 times more materials, 27 more minerals and 12 times more fossil fuels. Of the 54 materials critical for Europe, 90 per cent depend on importation from China. Their limited availability in the future will lead to geopolitical tension and an inequality to access which the Netherlands are preparing to move away from.

Can you provide your thoughts on what it’s like working as a young architect in Australia who has a passion for designing places that touch lightly on the environment?

In my experience both of practicing architecture at Hayball and teaching at UTS, I am witnessing a transition in the field from object to system.

Individual visions of form-making that recall expired ideas of a master architect behind a drawing board have eroded and emerging in their place are communication tools and platform technologies that foster collaboration and complex information and relationships.

Glenn Murcutt’s philosophy of “touching the earth lightly” still carries itself today and resonates with me as the metabolism of a design, that is how an act of architecture responds to its environment in the way it captures and digests energy and makes efficient use of materials as well as existing structures.

The Australian pavilion for the 2018 Architecture Biennale, Repair, made a statement within the industry of the importance of ecological principles to our practice.

The creative directors Baracco and Wright with the artist Linda Tegg expanded the theme’s discussion from art and architecture to the deep time of indigenous aboriginal land management practices through the voice of Paul Memmott, and to ecological science through David Freudenberger.

But let’s not lose sight of the limiting capacity of a Biennale to influence its own field, let alone infiltrate industry. The 2018 IPCC report assured that maintaining an earth surface temperature lower than 1.5°C, the planetary carbon dioxide emissions must decline 45 per cent by 2030 and reach net zero around 2050. This will be impossible in the absence of a radical reimagination of “business as usual”.

Architect Journal declared in January this year that buildings are responsible for 40 per cent of global C02 emissions, and that steel, concrete and aluminium combined account for over half of industrial emissions.

There is no denying that at an industry scale, architecture is complicit in the degradation of ecosystems under threat by climate change. There is no current viable solution to replace the widespread implementation of concrete and we still flush our toilets with potable – drinking – water.

There are pockets of good ecologically sensitive design in Australia but in your view, what needs to happen for this design approach to infiltrate the industry at scale?

A platform with no political or institutional affiliations called “Architects Declare” was launched in May 2019, first in the UK and then reappropriated to the Australian context.

It confronts the twin crises of climate breakdown and biodiversity as the “most serious issue of our time” and proposes eleven pathways that all in the construction industry can implement toward a transformation of practice. It currently has over 800 signatories, which scales response-ability from an individual practice level to a peer network where information is shared regularly through a newsletter and events through the transition.

In a similar category of expansionist practice, Architects Assist was set up following this summer’s rampant bushfires to connect architects willing to work pro-bono with families and communities requiring design and documentation services to recover their livelihood.

These initiatives that mesh an expanded network of practitioners are a useful scale mechanism whose collective success in execution will ultimately rely on new forms of knowledge, skill, hardware and software.

Most architects do not know how to make an energy neutral building. On the research trip I visited SDE4 by Serie Architects (p118), the first net-zero-energy building in the tropics. While I acknowledge not all climates welcome the natural comforts of the tropics, the principles of design were intuitive and simple. Carbon modelling and post occupancy are important, but no more so than the project team itself.

Eleanor Peres

Some serious background reading went into this – any recommended reading for people interested to explore these ideas further? 

Absorbing material that would inform this research was at some moments deeply disconcerting and at other times brought pure joy.

All references I explored are at the end of the document and I welcome anyone interested in talking more to feel free to contact me but to your question I can recommend two short essays and two longer books:

  1. Dipesh Chakrabarty The Planet: an Emergent Humanist Category
  2. Adrian Lahoud Scale as Problem, Archi­tecture as Trap in Climates
  3. Timothy Morton Being Ecological
  4. Keller Easterling’s The Action is the Form

Read Eleanor’s research paper here.