Sustainability through the looking glass

Chris Stewart, RIAS President 2022

‘Those who control the past control the future, those who control the present control the past’ George Orwell 1948

Sustainability looks to the future, focuses on the present and learns from the past. With the present starting to show extreme signs of concern, the past has become a source of excuse while the future continues to change rapidly.

25 years from now, 70% of the global population will be living in cities. This should be viewed in the context that over 1 billion people will be displaced, a result of rapid population growth, increased exposure to natural disasters and ecological threats. Importantly though, there will be a disparity in the way in which these changes are felt with the consequences being less in wealthier North American and European countries. As a result, it is hard to imagine what future cities will be like, with the possibility of them resembling the utopian photo montage dreams we admire in architectural magazines being unlikely

The eleventh United Nations Sustainable Development Goal calls on all governments to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable by 2030. They are by far the biggest source of energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions globally. How we manage our cities then, will either be a force for environmental destruction or a source of inclusive sustainable development. We will face enormous health challenges, in particular pollution, and must shift from the current high carbon infrastructure to one which improves the quality of life. There is space for opportunity; we need to promote cities with sustainable low carbon lifestyles for all. Urban Planning will become the most important role for Architects and as such, we must invest quickly in developing our understanding in this area and support the depleting professional resource which already exists.

In the twentieth century similar urban growth was witnessed; however, the agenda was different. Cities were either built to accommodate personal car transport or adapted to do so. Glasgow is a good example of this and illustrates the great cultural cost of doing so. It is interesting that 50 years after the construction of the M8 and as it nears its end of life, there are calls for its removal.

As we learn to live in a post pandemic world, significant interest has garnered around the planning concept of ‘Cities of Short Distances’ or rather the ’20-minute neighbourhood’. A compact city which keeps homes near everything they need for daily living. Commute times are reduced, cycling, and walking with their health benefits multiplied, fossil fuel usage and pollution decreased. Opportunities for social interaction are encouraged creating a feeling of safety. Over the past year I have been working closely with several inner-city communities in Glasgow to help develop Liveable Neighbourhoods, Glasgow City Council’s version of the 20-minute neighbourhood. The focus has been to promote grass root ideas which can bolster local town centres and encourage everyday journeys.

When asked what I think sustainability looks like now, I look back to Jane Jacobs and her book the Death and Life of American Cities. Jacobs fought to save Greenwich Village, a vibrant dense urban New York quarter from the developer Robert Moses and his freeway. Her book was published in 1961, construction of the M8 through Central Glasgow commenced in 1968 and was completed in 1972. We are still learning from the past.

Chris Stewart is the newly elected RIAS President. He is passionate about sustainable, inclusive architecture for all. Chris is a Director and founder of the employee-owned practice Collective Architecture. Chris is also a Director of the Scottish Ecological Design Association, former Convenor of the Glasgow Institute of Architects (GIA) Sustainability Committee and helped establish the RIAS Sustainable Working Group which he currently Chairs.

Review: Brick by Brick: Architecture and Interiors Built with Bricks

Echoing the squat form of a traditional soft mud brick, Gestalten’s Brick by Brick Architecture and Interiors Built with Bricks, offers a well curated selection of the simple brick manifested in many creative expressions. Through an interweaving of the contemporary and historic, editors Robert Klanten and Andrea Servert construct a narrative rich in detail and glossy imagery evidencing a material imbued with versatility, resilience, locality and history.

Formatted by Stefan Morgner, the typeset is exemplary, with the hefty physicalised form enabling a dogmatic dive for the coffee table. Imagery sits at the fore, acting perhaps as the principal partner, with the text supporting. The skilful formatting creates a clear rhythm, allowing the reader to flick effortlessly through pages of glossy, engaging images. Whilst there is a relative lack of technical commentary, the authors provide a fitting retort with timely essays bookending the carefully curated sections. Each short essay provides context, enabling an interested reader to expand their understanding and move beyond notions of the volumes purely pictorial focus.

Whilst all essays are well written and add to the understanding of a rich history, several carry notable prominence, including; “Brick Techniques: Historical and Contemporary Craftsmanship”, “The Ever-Changing Shape, Form, and Function of the Humble Brick and “The Versatile, Adaptable, and Sustainable Nature of Bricks”. The former, acts as an apt starting point, grounding the reader with a technical understanding of terminology, ultimately allowing the remainder of the text to hold interest for a varied audience. Further essays support this, each adding to the overall reading experience.

Primarily, this volume is positioned to act as a well-researched reference document, thus the majority of copy is examples of ‘best’ practice. The editors work with a neat format, with each selected work receiving a pithy, well written introduction, a series of glossy images and several supporting captions. Whilst the repetitive nature of the format holds potential to be mundane, the succinct descriptions and high-quality imagery enables a volume which captivates the reader with every turn of the page. Beyond the imagery, the curatorial efforts are commendable, with editors selecting an array of architectural examples ranging from the contemporary to the vernacular, evidencing the versatility of the material, a core tenet of the text. As a function of this publication’s quality, any number of examples could be selected, however, this reviewer’s personal favourites include; The Parchment Works by Will Gamble Architects, Casa Altingo by António Costa Lima Arquitectos and Haus Esters and Haus Lange by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Each commands interest, with the aesthetic and structural prowess of the raw materiality becoming bare in both historic and cotemporary practice.

All in all, Brick by Brick Architecture and Interiors Built with Bricks is a well-produced reference text with a twist. Imagery is defining, allowing one to celebrate the aesthetic value of a material that we are all reliant upon. As stated by the editors, “Brick by Brick offers a substantive guide for the continued use and innovation of the ancient material that keeps on giving” with the text that follows in clear support. Ultimately, brick forms a fundamental component of architectural expression and as such one should commend this effort to catalogue, promote and celebrate its historic and contemporary use.

Review: House of Joy

‘House of Joy, by Elli Stuhler is an invitation to reawaken a childlike curiosity and rekindle the joy that adulthood can try to bury. This colourful book, full of vivid imagery and calming proportions provides a necessary replacement to the mantra that grey and angular is sophisticated, and anything else is risky. Instead, this text advocates the need for our spaces to inspire joy. It comes at a fitting time, gracing our shelves in the wake of the pandemic, a time during which we were confined to our homes. The book brings together buildings and interiors with a plethora of different functions, all of which are doing something that goes beyond the prescribed norms. Whilst the places given space in this volume will not suit everyone’s taste, they are all bound to provide inspiration and contemplation. As stated in the book ‘Sometimes [joy] is highly personal, sometimes it’s universal. Most of the time it’s somewhere in-between.’ It is important to explore what brings you joy and the ways we can use our spaces to do this. This book helps you do just that. 

The publication comprises of seven sections, spreading a variety of topics and sometimes focusing on the discipline of interior design as opposed to architecture. Each space is introduced via a paragraph of contextual information, with subsequent resplendent images which speak for themselves. The selection of places herald from all over the world, and entries such as ‘A Distinctly and Vivicly Walala resort’, a hotel in Mauritius, highlights how being inspired by joy instead of pre-ingrained architectural convention, can allow designers to create spaces which reflect a broader place-based identity and culture.  ‘A Walk-In Collage of Reclaimed Materials’ is again exemplary, illustrating how joy can still be found in times of unforeseen disappointment, as this space had been renovated during a financial crisis. The home incorporates second-hand materials, which helped keep costs low whilst also creating a space which reflects the city it is in, both historically and in the present moment. It also allows us a glimpse at how architecture can work within a circular economy framework, something which is undoubtably necessary in the current environmental crisis.

Many of the entries focus on the use of shape and line to create joy, articulating how consciously abiding by the laws of proportion can allow us to feel joy inadvertently through the act of subconscious looking. ‘A Midcentury Refurb in Sunny California’ is a good example of this, juxtaposing the building’s angular design with curvaceous interior decoration, creating a space which highlights both the curved and linear shapes. Juxtaposition is used further as a tool to create joy, as it is through contrast that we are invited to notice and enjoy facets of a space which might have otherwise gone unseen. ‘Classical Venice with a Memphis Twist’ does this through its mixture of modern and ancient emblems, combining the wiggles and colours of the Memphis movement with classical venetian details. It is an example of how architecturally sophisticated spaces which span across time can be created, spaces which perhaps motion towards a future which is synthesised and connected to the past. These spaces are a wonder to be hold, and the joy they give can be represented in the merging of concepts and breadth they represent.

This book is a sumptuous and immersive experience in colour and form. The spaces collated in the volume comment on the aesthetic past, present and future, resulting in a timeless architectural window. It is a manual about how to enamour life with the joy, wonder and creativity whilst simultaneously creating refined spaces that are calming and worthy of reflection.


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Crumble is a collection of spirited, open-minded students and professionals keen to enliven the conversation about architecture. Based in Edinburgh, we’ve set up a bi-annual magazine that aims to promote interdisciplinary understanding of architecture and place. It provides a platform for people of all backgrounds and disciplines to publish articles and artwork that explore concerns about the future of our surroundings from a local to a global scale. The magazine gives those ideas reach within and beyond the university through public distribution. The magazine has an emphasis on engaging architecture with its real-world, wider cultural context and exploring how it can provide answers to current political and social issues. We are keen to involve students and professionals from as many disciplines as possible. The magazine has already involved current and former professionals alongside students of Architecture, Illustration, Product Design, Fine Art, Linguistics, History, Politics, International Development, Conservation, Landscape Architecture, History of Art, Urban Planning and English Literature.

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