Buildings alive

Stephen Forbes, Executive Director of the Botanic Gardens of South Australia, reviews a new book about the green future for architecture.

Plants turn light into life. The capture of sunlight by chlorophyll and it’s transformation into carbohydrates provides our food, and through fossil and biomass fuel, the energy that powers most farming, industry and cities. Nevertheless our conscription of plants to work in city parks and gardens, in forestry and farming and in manipulation or, at worst, degradation of ecosystems is surprisingly limited. The abundance of relatively cheap fossil fuel has focused our attention elsewhere.

Cities can be viewed as combinations of built, grey and green infrastructure. Built’s circumscription is self-evident, grey describes services such as roadways and parking, storm water and sewerage, water, gas, electricity and communications, and green encompasses plants. While the regulations, codes and standards for built and grey infrastructure are legion and endeavour to complement each other, for green infrastructure they’re largely absent and overridden by those for buildings and services. Tim Horton, the Commissioner for Integrated Design and his team have their work cut out.

The temptation in this arena is to borrow from the future. Architect Ken Yeang has generated a dialogue around giving plants equal billing with architecture and services. Working with Llewelyn Davies Yeang in London and T. R. Hamzah and Yeang in Kuala Lumpur, Yeang has explored opportunities for plants to provide services such as managing wastewater and heat load, reducing carbon footprint and contributing to amenity in publications such as The ecology of the sky and Bioclimatic skyscrapers and in the design of radical skyscrapers such as the still in planning Editt tower in Singapore. French botanist Patrick Blanc, who’s famous for green walls such as those surrounding Jean Nouvel’s Musee du Quai Branly near the Eiffel Tower, is another charismatic figure in this arena.

While Yeang’s and Blanc’s contributions are important in presenting a vision for a sustainable future, few developers are willing to explore unmapped new terrain. In this context, Graeme Hopkins’ and Christine Goodwin’s exploration of green roofs and walls makes an important contribution to the future of green infrastructure.

Living Architecture – Green Roofs and Walls features Patrick Blanc’s 33-metre high north-facing living wall of Australian native plants on Sydney’s Trio Apartments on the cover. However, the majority of case studies represented are rather less ambitious. Indeed, the strength in the compilation of these case studies is the emphasis on pragmatic solutions rather than on theoretical or experimental ones. While we’ve refined our ability to work with structural materials in buildings and services, our ability to work with living materials remains constrained by the priority that we’ve accorded plants in our environment. The critical response to Patrick Blanc’s work at Trio apartments has been enthusiastic. However, developers are only likely to follow if the project’s seen as successful in the marketplace plants in buildings are as likely to be treated with suspicion and viewed as both a risk and a cost before being viewed as an asset.

Living Architecture presents a brief history and context and outlines the values and services provided by green roofs and walls but the strength of the book is in the exploration of technology and design principles, and in the examples provided, principally from Australia, New Zealand and Japan. Public examples in Adelaide include Adelaide Zoo, the demonstration in the Australian Native Garden in Adelaide Botanic Gardens, and remarkably, the Grange Jetty public toilets! While I happen to like these designs, the authors have the good sense to focus on the success of the plant materials in the various case studies rather than to debate the success of design. I’m hardly an enthusiast for the expansion of the Conservatorium of Music into the fabric of Sydney Botanic Gardens and Francis Greenway’s stables – I certainly wouldn’t be inclined to describe this as a seamless transition despite the capable individuals and practices engaged. Nevertheless, the technical aspects of the project are worth exploring and perhaps editorialising on designs for another volume. The authors do address a more critical issue – the capacity of the development and maintenance industries to deliver living architecture.

Living Architecture makes a substantial and vitally relevant contribution to a field that’s critical for our future – placing green infrastructure on equal billing with grey and built infrastructure.

Living Architecture: Green Roofs and Walls (2011)
Graeme Hopkins and Christine Goodwin, Fifth Creek Studio, CSIRO Publishing.

Originally published in The Adelaide Review on 5 July 2011.

For more information about the Botanic Gardens of South Australia, visit the website.

@StephenJForbes
@BotGardensSA

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