Poetics of true sustainability – thoughts after Alvar Aalto Symposium 2018, pt. 1

Alvar Aalto Symposium in Jyväskylä is organized every three years. It is an international forum for architects and other related professions to share the newest discussions of the field.

Four Dwellers in Agile Cities researchers had a special opportunity to present their work and participate to the debates this year. In the two following blogs, we briefly highlight Symposium discussions and intriguing themes.

People, Performance and Poetics

On the days when IPCC gives us alarming reports of global warming we cannot avoid talking about sustainability. Alvar Aalto Symposium brought to light how surprisingly different situations we have in Europe regarding sustainable building. For instance, architect Mikkel Frost from Cebra stated that in Denmark the national norms on sustainable building are set to such a high level that sustainability is for them a self-evident part of the design. It is not a question of experimental building, but of the business as usual.

Beddington zero energy development in London represents the trend of sustainable houses that look like machines. (Photo: Oliver Heath)

Assistant professor Sofie Pelsmakers painted a much more critical picture of the realization of sustainability in the British context. According to her, in many cases, sustainability is just rhetoric. Measuring e.g. energy consumptions show that projects do not achieve their aims. Problem is that we are afraid to admit that our experiments partly fail. Before new honesty in this question, we cannot really start solving the problem.

Pelsmakers also asked why don’t we pay more attention to aesthetic qualities in sustainable solutions? According to her, for truly sustainable architecture we need to include People, Performance and Poetics. With including people she referred to designing for the real needs of the communities. Aspect of performance is about the question above, about honestly looking into the fact whether our experiments work or not. But why poetics? Here she really hit the point. Just browsing through latest architectural magazines illustrates this.

Sustainable buildings often seem like machines of sustainability. Can machine ever be a home for human life?

There also seems to be some kind of a new brutalist aesthetic trend going on. Especially in latest social housing in Europe spaces are mostly raw unfinished concrete with grids of steel, like prisons. From the point of view of sustainability, if we build new houses, they should last long. Houses that are loved last long, they are taken care of. We need poetics. We need beautiful buildings that last time over trends of the magazines, buildings that have the warmth to become homes.

IBeB project in Berlin by Heide & von Beckerath is one to follow the aesthetic trend of brutalism. (Photo: Andrew Alberts)

Does it work?

Anders Tyrrestrup from AART Architects presented a promising practice of their office. They are not afraid of learning from their mistakes. His team is a forerunner in multidisciplinarity. Accompanied by anthropologists, they boldly return to their projects after some years from completion. They ask from the people who live their buildings, whether the design really works or not? They take the question of performance seriously. Of course, this brings to light also the parts where they have succeeded.

With methods of humanist research they make visible the qualities of architecture that engineering sciences cannot measure.

Thus they gain knowledge that can be used as arguments to build these spatial qualities. They can explain why we should choose natural materials to be touched or why we should realize a variety of shared spaces for the differing needs of the people. They are exactly these kinds of unmeasurable qualities that can bring the longed poetics back to modern architecture.

Elina Alatalo

Faculty of Management, University of Tampere