Architecture today has been developed over centuries for the ever-changing modern world. However, because of its enormously negative effect on the increasingly dangerous climate crisis, our infrastructure needs to improve, both in its concept and creation. Our modern world needs a more sustainable interaction between nature and our concrete buildings, primarily based on how our society views architecture and its building processes. Through my research, I have found many women architects, engineers, designers, and scientists trying to do their part while inspiring others to do the same.
Julia Watson, an activist in her work protecting and supporting indigenous ingenuities and solutions, is an architect, author, and professor at Harvard, Columbia, and RISD. She has hosted a Ted Ed concerning the ancient methods of architecture where she managed to confront our paradoxically medieval architecture practices and advocate for the centuries-old ancient architectural techniques that are still helping indigenous and less urbanized communities today. She uses examples of isolated and indigenous communities to support her argument and provide further proof, such as multiple water-based civilizations in Asia and Africa that usually suffer from environmental flooding and water excess. In response to their situation, they have made floating cities and towns from local plants that grow in abundance around the edges of the water, even creating post offices and markets. Only from a short video, Watson chronicles the concept that things made over generations seem to last for generations. In contrast, Rachel Armstrong is an architect and creator who believes in going the opposite way; to create futuristic and lab-made solutions to strengthen our architecture. In her Ted Ed, she outlines the critical mistakes of our modern construction systems: blueprints, industrial manufacturing, and construction using human labor. Explaining that all of this energy results in an inert object, meaning there is a one-way transfer of energy “from our environment into our homes and cities” (00:27), she plainly states that it is not sustainable. She attests to nature’s fascinating ability to the ‘right kind of language’ and that those living systems are always in constant conversation with the environment through chemical reactions called metabolism, or a conversion of one group of substances into another through the production or absorption of energy just like in the human body. However, nature can use the living materials in its arsenal and sustainably make the most of local resources. Finally, after setting the stage, she introduces her in-progress idea of using metabolic materials for the practice of architecture.
Considering that this breakthrough idea is one of the first of its kind, she talks about their team working on creating the antidote to our traditional top-down architecture methods. Instead, she and her collaborators developed the protocell to transition from inert to living matter.
The protocells are microscopic fatty bags with a chemical battery with no DNA. It can move around its environment, follow chemical gradients, and perform complex reactions (some of which she mentions are “happily architectural”). Most importantly, it can pattern its environment, for example, by extracting CO2 from the atmosphere and turning it into carbonate. Unlike our Victorian buildings, these do not force structure upon matter. Through an architect’s tendencies, she suggests that even properties and surfaces could converse with the atmosphere, extract co2, grow, self-repair, and respond to dramatic changes in the immediate environment. Even scaling up these metabolic materials could lead to serious consideration of the ecological interventions, possible repair of atolls, and water damage that they could be programmed to manage.
Another bio solution comes from Shneel Malik, a bio-architect at UCL’s Bio-Integrated Design Lab. She says our relationship with nature constantly deteriorates, partly due to our architecture. We need to keep finding ways to build cities as if they were nature itself. We could do that by developing new living materials suitable for the growth of other organisms or new design and fabrication tools for large-scale components that embed nature and biological systems in the architectural process.
However, the biggest problem for her is that the World Economic Forum ranks water as the number one factor for the climate crisis, yet 80 percent of the surface and groundwater across the globe remains contaminated. The water’s situation is primarily due to a need for more cost and energy-efficient solutions. Still, through collaborations with Dr. Brenda Parker, a biochemical engineer at UCL, they found one part of the solution. An extraordinary organism called microalgae can absorb heavy metals in water but are high-maintenance and expensive. So, Malik and Parker created a low-cost environment that welcomes microalgae and gives it somewhere for them to grow and live. Assembling them into a wall of vein-like channels and trickling the water down through the top allows the microalgae plenty of time to absorb the harmful materials, produces cleaner water on site, and even manages to create small amounts of energy.
With Dr. Paolo Bombelli, a bioelectrical engineer at Cambridge University, they created 3D cells with a conducting material made from waste aluminum mesh that could hold the algal biomaterial long enough to light up an LED bulb. After this, there were practically no limitations to what they could do. Like altering existing building materials to grow algae, mosses, and lichens passively.
Thankfully, Professor Marcos Cruz at UCL was already experimenting with this idea. After his prototype was met with the algal biomaterial, it had a fantastic effect, giving the product a source of nutrients and accelerating the growth of the organisms inside. Now, we come to Eleni Myrivili, the first Chief Heat Officer from the Greek government, tasked with creating design solutions to battle the ongoing heat waves terrorizing their country over the past summer. Massive wildfires raged and destroyed the forests next to Athens, and lives were lost. Despite our ongoing conversations about global warming, we have never taken the heat threat seriously, especially considering our urban environments. Unlike the aviation and vehicle impact on our global carbon emissions in 2019, being 2.1%, the construction sector makes up 38%. Our bodies, cities, and infrastructure cannot thrive or adapt to the extreme temperatures of global warming. The nature of our surfaces, which absorb heat, store it, and radiate it at night, compound the problem, with cars and air conditioning adding to it. Some negative consequences on real-life communities are significant mental health problems, fatigue, loss of sleep, increased workplace injuries, loss of productivity, heat waves correlated to increased violence in communities, and decreased ability of children to learn. The most crucial long-term thing to do is redesign; a “paradigm shift” is necessary for our infrastructure planning to make our buildings more energetically sensible. Making cities cooler, thinking beyond air conditioning, and focusing on centuries-long knowledge of architecture are where we can start. From the materials to the construction type, how we use, cool, and move around in our buildings needs to change. However, landscape architects who know about thermodynamics, soil, and biodiversity—those who can create new sustainable, nature-incorporated urbanities with different metabolic systems and resilience, can only bring it about. But Eleni Myrvilli, like Julia Watson, does not have to look far into the future to find a quick solution.
Underneath Athens, a 20-kilometer-long ancient Roman aqueduct runs interrupted and invisible, previously unused. Now it cools down the city by supporting the urban nature above Athens. Medellin, Columbia, and Seoul, South Korea, made green and blue corridors with lower temperatures, performed ecosystemic services, and protected the city from natural disasters. Each has attracted visitors, created jobs, and supported business development, bringing together all the ecosystemic and urban levels.
Finally, we come to Angelika Fitz and Elke Kransy, the authors of: “Critical Care: Architecture and Urbanism for a Broken Planet,” who express the need for a new concept; ‘caring architecture.’ Through ecology, social justice, feminism, economics, and politics, they lay out their plans and carefully crafted ideas to revive and heal the planet. They advocate for agency for architects and planners, including their improvements to a landslide-prone area in China with local materials, green roofs, biogas technology, vertical courtyards, collective animal husbandry, and progress to a modern rural livelihood for the residents, which because of architects, reshaped the area for the better. In Vienna, the goal was to heal the urban wilderness by maintaining wildlife and giving the public access to a new type of space; a peaceful coexistence between forest and park. In Nairobi & Sao Paulo, they rectified land tenancy rights and improved infrastructure.
Despite each project’s personal and fine-tuned nature, they require various programming and scope, locally appropriate solutions, and a cross-section of stakeholders. Thankfully, the prototypes can be mimicked and altered for similar situations.
Fitz and Kransy have basic rules for a caring space of shelter. They believe that good architecture is critical to human life, moves beyond sustainability, and has materials with a low energy footprint or site impact. They do not interfere with everyday workers and life. The building has to be able to support itself and be able to support the community. Kransy, a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, says: “Today’s demands on architectural production under accelerated neoliberal capitalism, oligarchism, and authoritarian populism are extremely opposed to the ethics of interdependence. Financialization, commodification, gentrification, touristification, and aggressively iconic spectacularization dominate the architecture market and dictate the pressures on the profession.” She also states the importance of overcoming toxic devaluation and focusing on the impact.
Bottom line is our infrastructure needs to change. Global warming is affecting us all, and the only way we can turn back the hands of carbon emissions is through togetherness and partnering ingenuity. However we manage that, either through looking to the past or working toward the future, we need to design new cities that are energy sustainable, time-tested, and, most importantly, inclusive, not only to nature but to everyone. Who better to do that than women?