In the Venice Biennale, I remember reading a quote that said: “The future is the product of present actions.” This short but inspiring sentence was displayed in LED lights at the edge of the Italian Pavilion, which Mario Cucinella Architects curated. We had the pleasure of having founder Mario Cucinella as a guest lecturer the other day, and a lot of his projects dealt with the issue of architecture as a ‘present action’ that can have a great impact on the future.
Our studio professor Giorgio gave an introduction: about how he worked for Renzo Piano and Giancarlo di Carlo, and in 1992 set up his own practice in Paris, and now has expanded to Milan, New York, and Bologna. He is an AIA honors fellow as was as a RIBA fellow, and has done projects worldwide from China, Nigeria to Italy.
Mario started off his presentation with a Hemingway quote: “We have to get used to the idea that at the most important crossroads in our life there are no signs.” To him, this quote represents the every day life of an architect’s decision-making process. These decisions should be informed by the environment and architects always have to keep sustainability in mind, Mario said, and current students will be leading the climate change crisis in the next 25 years, which is why education at this moment in time is so important. Mario also founded School of Sustainability, where they teach students that just graduated but not yet professional to develop skills of design sustainably, teaching them how to use different kinds of software for around three months. I wonder if he uses Timur Dogan’s DIVA? The idea of this pre-professional short course on sustainability really intrigues me, because as a student that took Timur’s environment class and despite my interest in the topic got thrown off by the software that I just couldn’t master, it would really be helpful to have a few months to concentrate on learning just that.
A few slides were dedicated to Edward Mazria’s research on sustainable design, reminding me again of Timur’s lectures. By the year 2030, the world needs to build another 50% of current existing buildings to accommodate for growing population and deteriorating buildings that are not up to the current environmental code. 50%! This is why sustainability is so important.
But “architecture is more complex than numbers”, said Mario. Often, architects tend to leave the ‘science-y’ part of design to the engineers, letting them do all the daylight analysis etc. etc… But by the time the work is handed over to the engineers, it’s too late. The environmental impact of the building has to be considered very early on in the design process, which is why, to Mario, its very important that architects learn to use the software’s and learn about simple things such as sun angle, and apply it to the design. In his hotel parking lot project in Milan, he showed us his firms process of simple environmental analysis: sunpath diagrams, shadow masks, sunlight analysis, wind analysis, irradiation analysis… They were all things we learned in Timur’s class! We could run these analysis ourselves.
Mario mentioned that Revit and Grasshopper marked a new era of design, an era that would enable architects to run those simulations by ourselves, and take more responsibility about how our buildings impact the environment, not just today but tomorrow as well. Since coming to Cornell, I’ve noticed a great disparity between studio professors and professors that teach sustainability or building technology (mainly Timur and Jonathan Ochshorn), and always been discouraged that what we learn in an elective class almost never gets applied to studio projects. Older, more traditional studio professors would discourage the use of 3D modelling, emphasizing working with our hands. Mario’s firm is perhaps a best of both worlds. They team works collaboratively on many physical models, but also uses Revit and Grasshopper and the like. Mario said that grasshopper to him is just a bunch of nice colors but that’s it, since he was never taught how to use it in school. He acknowledged that in architecture school, more knowledge is required now than ever before; sketching a design is easy, but balancing that with 30 different kinds of software is not so easy. But architecture students still have the same limited number of hours as they did 30 years ago, so that time spent learning new technology comes at an expense somehow… perhaps we spend less time learning theory and history? Less time drawing?
In the same hotel parking project in Milano, he talked about the 60 degree angle from the foot of the building that the building mass had to stay behind, and how you can’t always criticize an architects work because of the strict regulations. He briefly talked about around 8 other projects: The Golinelli Arts and Sciences Center (flexible spaces are a compromise between functions), Casa della Musica (a facility for a high school music program that became a ‘contagious’ project that started to affect aesthetics of surrounding buildings), MET Tirana Building (Tirana – a city where a lot of Italian businesses were moving to for tax reasons), Peccioli itally Library (social housing and library project, that could become a factor to motivate people to stay in the small village), Etruscan Art Museum in Milan (inspired by Etruscan tombs and black vase technique), and more.
On one of his projects, he said: “As an architect in Italy, you have to live a long time”. A lot of us laughed at that. His firm’s project for ARPA’s new headquarters in Ferrara had some delays and was not yet finished; he was hoping that it’s completion would be a Christmas present for him. The design was intriguing because it was inspired by windcatchers in Hyderabad, Pakistan; a precedent we had learned about in first year. The roof of the project has 120 chimneys, designed to be built very quick, and the wind catchers catch sun in winter, and reduce direct sunlight in summer due to it’s angle.
Mario also introduced two projects in Africa: one in Ghana and one in Algeria. About Algeria, he said: “I thought Italy was the worst country for bureaucracy, but I found somewhere else also.” Algeria is a great country for oil and gas reserve, but the process to transfer the resources to usable energy is not so easy. In the last 10 years, they have made many bad buildings that resulted in traffic and pollution: for example, the refinery was built upwind of the city, so the pollution is carried to the city center. The people cannot afford air conditioning all day, so the buildings have to have natural ventilation. Mario was inspired by North African stone work by shepherds that represented a sun path, and the cooling of hot stones that warmed up during the day creates condensation, creating pools of water. He used stack ventilation with a huge open atrium in the middle of the tower (which wasn’t easy in terms of fire safety regulation), which in the summer time takes away the heat. The façade opens up like a Marilyn Monroe skirt to make way for the entrance. I saw for the first time a firm that made a rendering of their building in unfavorable circumstances: the tower was being attacked by the famous Mediterranean storms, with palm trees almost falling over with strong wind.
The Ghana Office Building was commissioned by an English company, so he compared the energy cost in Ghana to London: it’s the same since oil is the almost same price everywhere. But the cost of life is different, so people cannot afford to pay much for electricity. Mario used simple strategies to reduce to cost of energy, such as having cantilevered floors and having the glass two or three meters away from the edge of the building to reduce solar gain, and using the same stack effect in atrium as the Algeria project.
Mario also worked with Betty Williams, who is a nobel peace laureate (1976). She said: “And still 40,0000 children die per day, and more than 14 million do yearly. These are the realities in terms of life.” She created an association of Christian mothers, both Catholic and Protestant, that lost their child, because the pain of losing a child is the same in whatever sect or religion. He designed a little village in Southern Italy, where the government originally decided to make a nuclear power plant. He said that “Even designing simple things, you must remember where you are”, so implemented rainwater harvesting, natural ventilation, and underfloor cooling.
At the end of his lecture, Mario reminded us that Italy is a network of cities, only 20-30 minutes apart. We’ve had this experience in our Central and Northern Italy trip, where we’d go on the bus for 30-60 minutes and arrive in our next city, passing by a couple more on the way. Comparatively, in Manhattan, if you take the metro for 20 minutes you are still in Manhattan or at best Queens. In Italy you’re in a whole new city, with its unique culture and history and vernacular traditions. The industry that is upholding Italy’s economics is also a conglomeration of small companies, not large companies as in the U.S. According to Mario, the network of small energies and innovation between these small companies keeps Italy from collapsing.
In 25 years, when it’s our turn to be solving issues of sustainability, I hope we can think back to this lecture and be inspired by Mario once again.
Photo by Alp Demiroglu