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At the Van Bo Le-Mentzel conference in the Hager Forum on 29 November 2019, the innovative Berlin architect and urban planner presented seven ideas for the cities and houses of the future. In this article he goes a little further in his vision of the future of architecture. In a second article he will present his concept of the circular city, a utopian scheme or the future of architecture? "What we can say with certainty today is at least this: We can't go on as we have been."
The architecture of the future: economic, ecological or political?
What the future is going to be like is harder to imagine today than it was a century ago. In those days, the “game changers” were easy to identify: new materials like armoured concrete, new types of mobility with the automobile, and new forms of communication like the telephone.
But what comes after Artificial Intelligence, Blockchain and solar and wind energy? Or put differently: What will come after globalisation? Will we colonise Mars?
Different people will depict different pictures of the future of architecture. It all depends on whom you're asking. Whatever the picture of the future is, it will always be the reflection of some kind of longing or yearning that we, the architects, have the pleasure to translate into space. To my mind, these desires can be divided into three categories: the architecture of unlimited growth, that of a green utopia, and that of a world without national boundaries. This means that architecture can be economic, ecological or political.
Architecture at the service of a long-term vision
Sociologist Harald Welzer describes the political future of the city in a very dramatic way in his book „Everything could be different“ (original title: “Alles könnte anders sein”, edited by S. Fischer). He depicts a world in which state institutions, such as parliaments, tax authorities and law enforcement agencies still have the say, but that has been rid of passports and borders. Architecture would be dictated by Banks for the Common Good, cooperatives and companies with long-term perspectives. In this world, the overhaul of existing buildings would have the priority over new and prestigious architecture. And yet spectacular construction projects would exist, e.g. incremental architecture. This term has been invented by the Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena. His award-winning compounds of houses are intentionally half-done. The missing half will be completed by the inhabitants, with apprentice craftsman using local raw materials.
This mates quite well with the Wikipedia spirit of the time and platform capitalism, in which everything is thrown into the world in its beta-version and needs to be refined by the consumer. In Welzer's city, hardly anybody drives a car, while almost everybody rides a bicycle. Basically, this type of city looks like the city of Freiburg in southwestern Germany.
The return to natural materials
In the ecological vision, the city is one thing more than anything else: it’s green. Streets and parking lots are freed from their asphalt lid and their SUVs. Homes are made from wood, walls out of straw and clay. Representative architects of this type of future vision are Satish Kumar, Rob Hopkins and Vandana Shiva. All of them are gardeners rather than urban planners. Key words are permaculture and Transition Town, both principles being inspired by traditional Chinese and South American farmers who privilege diversity, patience and the lowest possible degree of human interference. Unfortunately, permaculture is unable to address the challenges of organising and feeding our megacities. Nonetheless, their practices are quite inspiring. Just take the usage of compost toilets like Terra Preta or the spiritual education as practiced at the Schumacher College of Totnes, UK.
Data is the future of architecture according to economists
The most widespread vision is that of the economists: Elon Musk (Tesla), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) and Google no longer regard the dollar as their capital. Instead, data are “the raw material of the future.” The leader of the gang is Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon and most probably the wealthiest man alive. In order to avoid a “civilisation of standstill”, Bezos considers the conquest of space to be the only way out if we want to meet the requirements of world population. Once the remainder of the Earth's fossil raw materials will have been consumed, it will be the turn of Mars to be exploited.
The general idea of the economists is not necessarily based on ground-breaking inventions. After all, autonomous driving (the Google Car) and the computer you can talk to (Siri) are hardly more than utopias of the Sixties.
Technical innovation will play a key role in the architecture of the future
In their ideas, architecture must be driven by technological innovation. It must rise high and be full of smart technologies. Solar panels on every facade, on your contact lenses and on the sidewalks. Anything turns into a resource. And if it isn't a solar panel, it may also be a spectacular mirror foil as recently installed in Seoul, South Korea. “Infinity Tower” is their latest achievement –the logic of "tall-taller-the tallest" at its finest.
A tower that can not only be dimmed to invisible, but that is fitted with thousands of cameras and screens to display pictures and ads: architecture turned into an advertisement media for the Amazons and Tencents of this world. The buildings of the future also seem to want to go down the somewhat biblical road of our data that apparently disappear in invisible clouds somewhere up in heaven. The luxurious green that embellishes the intermediate floors of such architectural giants can hardly hide away the fact that in such economic utopias nature is little more than –embellishment. Somewhat more interesting are the latest projects launched by IKEA who, for the first time in their corporate history, have kissed their humble blue corrugated sheet metal romantic goodbye and embraced innovative experiments featuring green downtown oases and even a hotel on a roof, all of this right in the heart of Austrian cities. Turning points like this will be increasingly frequent, even though, unfortunately, construction laws all over Europe are far too restrictive. During a conference on innovation organised by the REWE trading group, I had the opportunity to witness a discussion on neighbourhood gardens on supermarket roofs.
In this context, digitisation and robotic automation of construction sites is totally unavoidable, be it only due to the lack of skilled manpower and Generation X. There are simply no concrete builders and masons left among the young people of today. Prefabrication will therefore become the standard. We will see if the spectacular 3D printers will really be able to offer solutions. Currently, they are just too slow and use up too much energy.
There is one thing we can claim, though: We cannot go on with business as usual. The worldwide CO² emissions are to a large part attributable to the construction industry. Steel concrete is becoming the cancer of the modern era. Major corporations simply ignore national borders. Why shouldn't states do the same? How do you plan cities in a world that no longer defines itself through the existence of borders?
Climate activists like Greta Thunberg raise the really big questions. As an architect, I prudently try to provide a tiny bit of input in small incremental steps. This input is combined in a utopian master plan that I have been developing over the past years in cooperation with specialised planners, corporate groups, novices, children and homeless people. I call it: the Circular City.
Van Bo Le-Mentzel