Extreme Architecture

Are There No Other Ways to Innovate in Architecture?

by | May 6, 2010


Hotel Ramota in Patagonia. Photo courtesy of Hernan Marchant.


While visiting family in Chile in December 2009 I decided to find out about new architectural developments here. I discovered that construction of the Costanera Center project had resumed. The Costanera Center, on hold since January 2009 because of the recession, is a planned US$600 million commercial real estate development in Santiago. The tallest of the four buildings, Torre Gran Costanera, designed by Argentinean architect César Pelli, will be 984 feet high, making it the tallest building in South America.

Upon my return to the United States, I learned that the opening ceremony for the the world’s tallest man-made structue—the Burj Khalifa—had taken place only a few days before on January 4, 2010. The tower in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, soars 2,717 feet with 160 floors served through 58 of the world’s fastest elevators at 40 mph. The total cost for the Burj Khalifa project was about US$1.5 billion.

These two projects share a common factor—sheer height—reminding me of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s observation in his book Difference and Repetition, “The modern world is one of simulacra…All identities are only simulated, produced as an optical ‘effect’ by the more profound game of difference and repetition.”

These two buildings in Santiago and Dubai have many differences, but also striking similarities. Each building is going to be considered as a sign of economic power in their respective regions. However, they have different though contextually appropriate heights and budgets. Both have had to perform feats of technical innovation to balance scale, height, foundation, and dense human use with protection from earthquakes and seismic activity, among other dangers. The Burj Khalifa is built in the middle of nowhere; the Torre Gran Costanera in the middle of a very congested downtown area.

These buildings represent one extreme position of the ideology behind architecture. On the other extreme, a faction with strong opposing views rallies against the negative effects of these huge-scale projects on our ecosystem. University of Florence Professor Alberto Magnaghi in his book Projetto Locale, observes, “In the rat race that leads to the construction of a second nature, artificial, our civilization has gradually stamped the territory which it treats as an area devoid of significance and buried under a mass of objects, works, functions, poisons.”

In a similiar fashion, Serge Latouche, in his article “The Globe Downshifted” in Le Monde Diplomatique, observes “The organization Attac has appealed for ‘a move towards progressive and reasoned deceleration in world growth, under particular social conditions, as the first step towards reducing predatory and devastating production in all its forms.’” In the same article, Latouche quotes Magnaghi suggesting “a long and complex period (50 to 100 years) of purification. During this period people will no longer be engaged in turning more and more fens and fallow land over to farming, nor in pushing transport links through such areas. Instead, we will set about cleaning up and rebuilding the environmental and territorial systems that have been destroyed and contaminated by human presence. In so doing, we shall create a new geography.”

These two polarized views described above, proclaiming either a downshifted or an upshiftedworld are extreme positions. Searching for a different attitude in the profession, I found architects in Chile proposing different ways of understanding the relationship between nature and architecture.

One of the most recent books about architecture in Chile, containing thirteen recent buildings, is PULSO: New Architecture in Chile. Kenneth Frampton, who wrote the introduction, considers these buildings part of a Chilean renaissance of late modern architecture. Seven of them are located in isolated territories and propose a strong relationship with nature.

Germán del Sol, one of the Chilean architects featured in this book, makes a very good point in his blog: that Latin America has an ancient tradition of works of architecture that stand in the midst of nature. Some are erected just to bring sign of life to places where shepherds and merchants passed or where people gathered to celebrate ancient rites. He says poetically:

Chile celebrates 500 years
Since America encountered Europe…
Until then, in America, we did not know
The inside of buildings
The interior was outside in the open air
The grand esplanades
Where our ancestors built pyramids
Or ball-courts like those of Uxmal or Monte Albán
Or palaces open to the sky like Chan-Chan
Or they would place a ceremonial rehué
Or geoglifos like those from Salar de Pintados
Or they would fill the main square of Cuzco
With beach sand from the sea
Because the environment of American culture
Became a culture of environment
They lived and still many live
In direct contact with nature
The European relation with nature
Has been filtered since the Middle Ages
By streets, plazas and cities.

Chile celebra los 500 años del encuentro
de América con Europa…
Hasta entonces en América no conocíamos
el espacio interior:
la interioridad estaba afuera al aire libre,
en las grandes explanadas
donde nuestros antepasados construían pirámides,
o salas de juego de pelota como las de Uxmal o Monte Albàn,
o palacios de salas abiertas al cielo como en Chan-Chan,
o colocaban un rehué ceremonial,
o geoglifos como los del Salar de Pintados,
o llenaban una plaza principal de Cusco
con arena de playas de mar,
porque a los indígenas americanos
el medio ambiente cultural les coincidía
con su medio ambiente cultural.
Vivían y aun muchos viven,
en contacto directo con la naturaleza.
La relación de los europeos con la naturaleza
ha sido mediada desde la edad media,
por la calle, y la plaza del pueblo o de la ciudad.

Identifying and preserving Latin American cultural identity is a never-ending and unsolved story. Modern architecture in Latin America has been dealing with the idea of finding the good balance between historical roots and modern references since the first half of the 20th century without finding a solution. We could enjoy more success with integrating our traditions and roots if we try to understand this relationship between nature, landscape and architecture from pre-Columbian times.

Chile’s strong and challenging climates and geographies provide a prime location for what author Ruth Slavid calls “extreme architecture.” In Extreme Architecture, Building for Challenging Environments, Slavid analyzes the relationship between architecture and nature, drawing on Germán del Sol’s projects such as Remota Hotel in Puerto Natales, Patagonia. The name “Extreme Architecture” refers to architecture built in extreme environments—all of them related to extreme conditions of localization and climate.

Building under these extreme constraints forces the architect to think about fundamental challenges: getting and transporting building materials, providing energy and power supply, disposing of waste, and managing the building process—giving special consideration to protecting the natural environment.

Germán del Sol began thinking about developing tourism in remote destinations in 1987. His Explora Tourism Company built, among other projects, hotels in San Pedro de Atacama, in the Atacama desert in northern Chile, Hotel Remota in Patagonia and Hotel Explora Patagonia in Torres del Paine, the latter in collaboration with José Cruz.

These projects are not only innovative for their locations. They grapple with unique, highly problematic constraints that have little precedent, and were designed with few architectural references. “Design,” Charles Eames, a U.S. designer and architect, says, “depends largely on constraints… one of the few effective keys to the design problem—[is] the ability of the designer to recognize as many of the constraints as possible—his willingness and enthusiasm for working within these constraints—the constraints of price, of size, of strength, balance, of surface, of time, etc; each problem has its own peculiar list.”

Architectural references are widespread and immediately available in this highly digital age. Powerful images imprint their shadow on our ideas and senses. This ubiquity contributes to the increasing tendency of architecture to become homogenized all over the world. Considering the urban and/or natural context is thus crucial. In architecture, one size cannot fit all.

AIA Past President Marvin Malecha frequently quotes his mother who used to say: “If everybody is thinking the same thing, nobody is thinking very much.” As long as we have different positions and different points of view on architecture we are innovating, not stagnating, which will put us in a better shape to face the future.

See German Del Sol’s blog at http://germandelsol.blogspot.com

Spring | Summer 2010Volume IX, Number 2

Hernán Marchant is Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies and Academic Support, College of Design, North Carolina State University.

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