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Preaching Sustainability on the Automotive Plant Floor

July 12, 2008

I just returned from Torino, after spending a day at the 2008 International Union of Architects World Architecture Congress.  Hosted in the former FIAT factory at Lingotto, built by Mattè Trucco in the 1920s but converted to use as a convention and shopping center by Renzo Piano Building Workshop in the 80s.  The irony of debating public space and environmentally sustainable design in a temple to car culture was amusing.

Mattè Trucco’s building is a great work of architecture, the kind of optimized materialization of the production process that drove early modernists and inspired Le Corbusier, who called it “one of the most impressive sights in industry”.  It is most famous for the testing track on its roof, complete with canted turns at each end.  Today, thanks to Renzo Piano’s design,  the roof also hosts a number of other appendages: a heliport, a rooftop restaurant with a formally enticing green glass VIP bubble and saucer, and most interesting, the teetering wedge-like block which houses the art collection of the Fondazione Giovanni e Marella Agnelli.

My son and I visited the Agnelli Museum in the morning when the line at the Congress accreditation desk was so long and the ticket price so exorbitant I was ready to skip the Congress entirely (so much for one of the main congress themes: “Architecture is for Everyone”). Actually this was already after a two hour odyssey from the airport: the train being inoperative due to construction and the rickety old infrequent shuttle bus and the crowded local city bus both slowed to a crawl by road construction and traffic (so much for another one of the main congress themes: “Sustainable Cities”).  But the rooftop/tracktop building for the Agnelli Collection was a delight; a tectonic jewelbox that offers a creative but appropriate response to a unique site.  The design objects on display, from Macintosh to Jean Prouvè to Joe Colombo, were great as was the small selection of paintings from Canaletto to Balla to Matisse.

When we finally made it into the Congress, there was time for a quick look at the exhibitions and a choice of a number of enticing talks.  We chose one entitled “Architecture for a Sustainable Future” but left after the language switched to Spanish and it became clear it was focused on one region: the Americas.  We then shuttled over the Palavela, the huge concrete olympic hall, for “Building for the Future”.  Mark Wigley moderated fascinating presentations by Mario Cucinella, Yansong Ma, Francois Roche and Mathias Sauerbruch.  Again, the focus was primarily on sustainability, at least in the presentations of Cucinella and Sauerbruch which were the most architectural. Ma’s talk was mind-boggling for the view into the speed of change, a young firm getting caught up in the storm of building in Beijing, interesting in light of his expressed desire to design “slowly” in the face of radical acceleration. Saurbruch’s presentation showed off beautiful but also extremely performative buildings such as the Federal Agency for the Environment in Dessau. Among the principals he advocated for more environmentally sustainable buildings, alongside the obvious energy and materials efficiency and urban density,  he included “intelligence and surprise” and “beauty”.  Wigley wrapped up with the observation that all of these works were experimental and that to be practical today, one must be experimental, echoing gurus from the business world who preach “constant reinvention”. The question “what architecture for the future” was never really answered but Wigley ended on the note that it is the role of architects to define the future, not just to await it.

After this talk, as I manically scanned through the Congress guide to decide what else couldn’t be missed, I realized that such events today serve a strange purpose in this digital age.  I’m sure all of the information exchanged, including images of all projects presented, is is available to me as I drink my coffee in my apartment in Rome. So why damage the planet further by flying to Torino?  Only 2 or 3 excuses come to mind. One is the viewing of actual products: touching fabrics in the Arkitex textile show for example can’t be substituted digitally yet. Another is the thrill of attaching a face to a name, shaking the hand of a scholar like Joseph Rykwert (and introducing him to my 12-year-old son). Neither of these really justify the carbon footprint of the Congress though. What would justify it, and I don’t know if this happens or not, would be for true dialogues, work sessions, laboratories in which new solutions and answers emerge. This would require a radical redesign of the Congress structure to work effectively. First the presentations given on-line weeks before the Congress, then a chance to dialogue digitally, then a few days of concentrated face-to-face meetings and work sessions, interim presentations and a few weeks or months of digital follow-up toward publishing findings. From such a coordinated, digital and physical event, experimentation might breed results.


Image: Tom on the bridge from Lingotto  © photo: John Rankin


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