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2021 – Against Gravity

projects by Syntia

In his exhibition in Munich Ai Weiwei spectacularly transforms the Haus der Kunst- a bright, glowing tapestry made of 9000 colorful children’s backpacks covers the museum’s entire column-lined street elevation. Giant Chinese characters covey a quote of a mother who lost a child, thereby recalling the tragic fate of all those killed last year in the massive earthquake in Sichuan: the Communist government is still trying with all means available to cover up the corruption and shoddy work that directly led to the collapse of the schools.

Modern architecture transmitted the image of the architect as the lone designer who has complete control over the planning process, an image that is irreconcilable with working on a building designed by someone else – just as there would be little sympathy for an artist who alters someone else’s music, art, literature or film. Perhaps this is also the reason that modernism, with its tabula rasa mentality, viewed historic monuments as isolated works, while other old buildings were simply replaced. As a result, during the first half of the twentieth century, contemporary ideas were only rarely incorporated in existing structures. It wasn’t until 1980s, awareness of the significance of refurbishment as a sustainable urban planning tool has developed. Regardless of whether the project was pure preservation or took an experimental approach: some of the most important projects completed in recent years have been additions that enter into a dialogue with the past, something modern architecture neglected to do.

An architect who intervenes in an existing building must confront the changes that have occurred over the time. When developing projects for these buildings – whether recent in origin or from the distant past- we have difficulty dispelling a strange illusion: the buildings appear to possess the genesis of their own alteration, as if their existence were rooted in something other than time and space, so that ultimately our work merely involves revealing the intrinsic codes.

Closely examining the existing building is a prerequisite at the start of every restoration and renovation project. The synergy of structures and their connections, materials, surfaces, climate control characteristics, energy balance and building technology must be grasped. When listed buildings are in play, the provenance of individual building components and history of their use take on increased significance. Investigating deterioration and previous repairs, as well as their causes, can provide vital information for the restoration and involves differentiating between the present condition, wear and tear, quality and maintenance, the state of technology at the time of construction, and whether faulty planning played a role.

In September 2019, as a result of the La Sénior project, promoted by the Spanish Theater to change the look towards the generation of our elders, a photography exhibition called Against Gravity arose. It was planned from the beginning as a call open for young adolescents to take photos of people over 65 years of age anywhere in Madrid and with the aim of portraying them in fun, vital, unexpected attitudes. The project had to be stopped, and once it was recovered to overcome all the problems caused during this time by Covid-19, it collaborated with three Secondary Education Institutes and later exhibited in Matadero.

In a number of phases, the Matadero, a former slaughterhouse compound built in early twentieth century in Madrid is to be transformed by 2011 into a multi-disciplinary cultural centre. Hall 17c is now home to Intermediæ, an institute for contemporary art, which intends, first and foremost, to shed light on creative processes, as well to foster experimentation and interaction. It is an open space holding exhibitions, film screenings, video game studio, repair café, workshops, events for children and families and art center for interdisciplinary studies.

The architects limited their interventions to a bare minimum – probably due in part to a budget of only 700 000 euros. All of the vestiges of the past remain visible, including the residue of cork insulation which recalls the former use as cold storage, as well as evidence of repair work, for example, of the columns. Missing portions of walls were left untouched, as if they had just been jackhammered; A counter 15m in length made of welded steel plate of 15mm dominates the foyer; ducts and wiring are surface mounted and remain visible. To this end they employed materials typically used in industrial settings, off-the-shelf, without further processing.

“Reuse is an easy word to explain it, but it is not an end unto itself. It’s more expensive to reuse the old than buy new materials. While many of us feel that it makes more sense to repurpose than to throw away, our society, the market and the legal frameworks are telling us the opposite.”

Rotor activates processes that aspire to have an influence on national and European-policy making, and promote the principles of a circular economy. One example is Opalis, project for ten years started by reclamation dealers. “We started documenting dealers around Brussels, then it became all Belgium, and now it’s Benelux and France combined. Opalis lists more than 300 companies offering reclaimed materials. It was a gigantic amount of work to identify, contact, visit and understand what they did. We document this in a big online archive.

Our aim with the annual is to give visibility to the reuse of the building components and transmit its real impact on the economy and people.”

Commuting implies the use of energy and the production of emissions. High-tech allows us to find low-tech solutions. For instance, the use of sensors can signal when a building is empty. In order to make it efficient, it could be used more hours per day and become multi-functional.

Limits and restrictions often imply better and sustainable planning. However, architect Hagen urges “One of the greatest menaces of the future is poverty. Ecological sustainability is not enough. We need social sustainability, because neediness forces us to focus on what costs less right now instead of looking for the right solution in the long term.”

Imagine you have lost a leg. Switzerland has one of the best medical care systems while in less developed countries people cannot afford prosthetic legs. The World Health Organization estimates nr of 35 million people yearly who need prostheses or orthoses. Industrial engineers from Switzerland found an affordable solution- plastic packaging waste in these countries is a valuable resource for high demand of low-cost prosthetic legs. They developed modular prosthetic legs with a high functionality. The goal is not the product but the circular economy- to set up a local material cycle in order to create new jobs and to keep the value in the country.

By cultivating an ethics of low cost, architectural design can improve the quality of places, strengthen communities and lead to answers about living in the effect of climate change.

“Entering the Anthropocene poses challenges regarding the role humans have in managing the planet. Our decades long experience as architects in places where long wars have just ended or where poverty is extreme has meant exploring the zero-level conditions in which simplicity, economy, sobriety and attention for environmental problems are the only way to face the future. This has required a constant effort toward a kind of simplification that synthesis modernity and tradition. It is a step forward reducing costs and adding social content. The ethics of low cost implies devising more efficiently, less superfluity (including the aesthetic kind), and optimizing services and costs to benefit the community,” say the members of TAMassociati.

The trend to think locally regarding resources such as community, history, materials and processes extends to identity given by building traditions. For TAM, designing to preserve local elements of diversity and particularity is a battle against cultural homogenization.

Exchange with the typological and figurative heritage of the context means designing in continuity with the site by absorbing the local knowledge and practices. It also means reinventing these in a contemporary key. TAM does this while aiming to have a positive impact on the environment and contributing to the inhabitant’s self-sufficiency.

“The eco-maison (2017) part of H2OS project built in the farming region of Keur Bakar, Senegal, 200km south of Dakar, is a co-developed residential system that is self-sufficient in water and energy supply”. The project is a contribution toward halting the depopulation and impoverishment of rural areas. It addresses domestic waste management and the cultivation of vegetables through techniques that are respectful of the Sahelian environment.

Good architecture emphasises significant places that help people live well. It’s what the Norwegian architect Christian Norberg-Schulz calls a ‘cosmic’ artificial landscape in his 1980 book Genius Loci: Towards a Phenomenology of Architecture. Schulz wants us to see a site as having a precise identity that is always recognisable, whose characters can be either continuous or variate over the time.

Further reading:

Detail, Review of Architecture 2009, Domus, Materials and processes, 2021; Christian Schittich; Reading the Existing Fabric, Enrique Sobejano, Fuensanta Nieto; Building Retention and Historic Preservation, Berthold Burkhardt; Centre for Contemporary Culture in a Former Slaughterhause in Madrid. Architects: Arturo Franco and Fabrice van Teslaar; Redesigning our material heritage, Salvatore Peluso; The challenge is to improve people’s life, Cecilia Fablani; Simon Oschwald – Breaking the Wall of Affordable Prosthetic Legs, 2018’; https://projectcircleg.com; Discreet, friendly and generous buildings, Valentina Croci; TAMassociati https://goodland.network;