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“As architects we have to work even harder to use buildings to create a setting” – David Chipperfield

Sustainable construction? For the award-winning British architect Sir David Chipperfield this has much to do with permanence – but not necessarily of that of material and mass.

“I have probably the least credentials in this room to talk about sustainability.” With this typically English understatement, which at times characterizes his multiple prize-winning work, David Chipperfield opened the series of keynote speeches at the Holcim Forum.

“But I can offer views from the frontline, how it is to work as a practicing architect.” The first view he presented was the one from his office in London. This collection of “singular, uncoordinated, professionally planned, and well-considered buildings,” which he must look upon from his workplace, does not please him a bit – in fact, he finds it difficult not to become unsettled by this explicit manifestation of problems.

“At best we now have architecture to wonder at, not to be in,” observes Chipperfield, although every architect intends to do more than just serve the practical function with their projects: “We all believe that the people who live in our buildings also enjoy them – and that the buildings enhance their context.”

When it comes to sustainability, Chipperfield is especially interested in the notion of permanence – fully aware that longevity is not exactly fashionable these days. “In this age of throwaway and the redundancy of everyday things, taking care of, valuing, and treasuring seem old-fashioned concepts.” But he also applies the term “permanence” not simply to the physical properties of a building, such as mass and materiality, seeing it much more as “a declaration of lasting priorities. The organization of buildings and their integration in a larger whole give shape and solidity to our vague ideas of society.”

His office has become famous for conducting its renovation and expansion projects accordingly: He strives to understand which social values a building should express, how the building can bond society in this manner – and how the appropriate expression can be achieved. Relying on continuity in this way is justified also because our expectations on the built environment have changed little or none throughout all the upheavals: “We expect to find in our built world opportunities to protect ourselves and possibilities to come together.”

The architect sees this last-mentioned function of buildings – as a place to come together – as increasingly endangered. Chipperfield’s diagnosis: “There is no public realm, only shopping malls! But in a time when it seems increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to create public space and any other collective form beyond the commercial, it becomes even more important that buildings exploit their potential to contribute whatever they can to an environment that represents the civilized ambitions of society.” The architect has the important task of carefully respecting the existing context, because “the tabula rasa visions of modernism – as exciting as they were – underestimated the importance of the cumulative, organic, and emotional qualities of buildings.”

To clarify this point, David Chipperfield cites the renovation of Rockbund Museum in Shanghai, a commission his office handled, and one which is mundane in several regards: “There is nothing particularly memorable about what we did; it is quite invisible. But I have to admit that in the normal contemporary planning environment of Shanghai or most other developing cities it would be difficult to build from new anything so rich.” This can rightly be understood as an indictment of modern architecture, which is often fixed on outward appearance and is thereby inwardly destitute; Chipperfield believes that wrong decisions often have already been made by the time architects are called onto a project.

Architecture has always strived for durability, he asserts, “with buildings that give form to our collective values.” The communal visions have not been lost, but “we seem to have lost the machinery and will to impose other criteria than those inevitably delivered through the free market.” One could regret this. Or one can continue to believe “that architecture is the resistant physical means by which we can express our collective desires to belong to something bigger than ourselves.”

4th Holcim Forum 2013 – “Economy of Sustainable Construction”

The ongoing economic challenges in many parts of the industrialized world are drivers of a paradigm shift: governments, companies and individuals are all becoming aware that although sustainable development incurs costs, it also offers considerable economic potential. This topic: “Economy of Sustainable Construction” was the focus of the 4th International Holcim Forum for Sustainable Construction, held in Mumbai, India, from April 11 to April 13, 2013.

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Last Updated: September 16, 2013
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Mumbai, India
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