Lab Project

Guabuliga – Well by the Thorn Tree

Bernhard Sommer

When Baerbel Mueller asked me to write on climate responsive planning, I asked myself: Why responsive?

The term is surely derived from the IT field. Yet the projects realized in Baerbel Mueller’s [Applied] Foreign Affairs program don´t apply sophisticated sensor technologies. The projects are not responsive in the way a highly engineered building is. Of course, the planning practice in her lab involves all kinds of simulation software and intelligent, customized scripts. But this is not the only aspect that is fascinating about the [A]FA projects.

The projects always include and incorporate the people who will live with them as an indispensable part of their functionality. I say to live with them to avoid the term use or user, perhaps I should have also avoided the term functionality. This deeply humanistic approach is the universal lesson to learn from [A]FA. Engineers talk about users as much as economists talk about consumers, and Energy Design is usually seen as a consultancy for reducing the demand for resources by increasing efficiency through optimizing shapes, processes, and systems. Yet with all the power and data documentation made possible through computers, it still remains difficult to come up with a convincing answer to the big question of today: the question of energy. By this I mean the fair distribution and clever use of resources, be it any kind of raw materials or the most limited resource in this world: land. Land can not only be polluted like water, it can be cleaned, or exploited and consumed like raw materials that can somehow always be replaced by other materials. Land is devastated and rendered useless for decades – and here I am not (only) referring to (not so) distant wars and rainforests, I am also talking about failures of zoning laws and economic interests that thoughtlessly and unnecessarily consume huge areas of fertile and inhabitable land. A reason for this failure of technocratic administration of natural wealth can be seen in a narrow-minded focus on physical processes and logical cause-and-effect schemes only. It is more than stupid to deny natural forces and logic, it is irresponsible in fact—it would be worthwhile to widen the understanding of what a cause is and what an effect is through cultural concepts. If we treat the people we work with (or for) with respect and dignity – as much for them as for ourselves – we will be able to find new constraints and causes.

When the [A]FA Guabuliga students identified clay and reeds as building materials, as they would be readily available, traditionally in use, and climatically advantageous, they soon found out that, for socio-cultural reasons, these would never be accepted as the basis for a desirable building technology of the future. The fascinating circular base geometries of the compounds were also expected to yield to clear rectangular shapes, as Josef Hofmarcher describes in his "the living cell" project. We are well familiar with disastrous material desires, such as the car. We know that desires can be created, as demand in the economy is being created. So if engineers and architects find out that the use of certain materials and shapes are advantageous, this could be disseminated in a society through advertising from the top down. If this is sustainable, for sure it is costly.

However, the [A]FA team would never have had the resources to change consumer behaviour in such a manner. As people are not perceived as consumers here, nor as users, but as proud people having a social status to defend and knowledge to pass on, they might want to plant a tree and for sure will strive to erect their own compounds. These social forces became part of the project and all considerations regarding climate and sustainability. What the students developed went beyond a responsive design—I would call it a behavioural planning concept. At the Energy Design Department, we refer to this term as the use of non-linear computational design methodologies that operate through self-organisational processes in order to address a wide range of practical and discursive issues within a designed architectural and urban expression. We are NOT referring to behaviourist psychology by using this term.

Clearly, such a concept is closer to our contemporary understanding of physics, which only applies a deterministic behaviour of the many rather than the old-fashioned Newtonian actio-reactio. When Rudolf Clausius introduced the term entropy, he could not have been aware of how he had changed the concept of physics from a collection of deterministic laws to a continuum of statistical effects of probability. What now guides us is the consciousness of irreversibility and a more humble approach regarding feasibility.

Life lowers the entropy on earth, or at least in an organism. Consuming solar energy avoids the dissipation of part of the incoming radiation into the nothingness of the infinity of space. Crude oil was generated in this way. If we burn it today, we increase entropy again, eliminating what took thousands of years within seconds.

Future energy concepts should encourage people to behave in a sustainable way, using solar forces, organisms, and geometries to lower or at least not increase entropy. The mastery will come through the development and design of self-organisational processes that shape the urban habitat.

BERNHARD SOMMER, architect, teaches and researches at the Department of Energy Design at the University of Applied Art Vienna. He understands energy as a flow that leads time, as a new dimension, into architectural design. Bernhard is a co-founder and principal of exikon, an architectural practice that is strongly influenced by his research.