This is a critical moment, architecture needs to keep up with the times
We interviewed Maria, Anna and Shalini, postgraduates at U-Hasselt's Building Beyond Borders program and co-curators/builders of the expo Same Same But Different. The exhibition by BC Architects & Studies & Materials is a hands-on experience in the literal sense. ‘Touch it, feel the materials,’ Maria encourages us while showing us around the 4 rooms that make up the exhibition. Each room focuses on durable construction building in their own way: bio-sourcing, geo-sourcing, reusing materials and community building.
Can you give us a tour around the exhibition?
Shalini: The exhibition is curated by BC Architects & Studies & Materials, they are a group of architects and researchers that focus on geo-sourced materials. It’s a collaboration with other research groups and ateliers. The first room of the exhibition gives an overview of the situation of extracting and mining for construction materials in Brussels. It’s not a direct critique on the mining industry in Brussels, but rather it gives a transparent overview not only of the process the materials go through and the impact on the environment but also of new practices in earth construction.
The first room aims to give accessible information on these complex matters. The other rooms of the exhibition give examples of possible alternatives. Geo-sourced, Re-used, bio-sourced, urban mining. The last room focuses on social harvesting, where the community aspect of architecture and construction is the central topic.
Why is the exhibition called Same Same but Different?
Shalini: What we are showing is the same, same but different in the way that these processes and materials have existed in Belgium for centuries. There is no new invention, the difference is how we are using the materials, the new techniques and technologies.
Maria: The attitude of the exhibition is a hopeful, positive one. We want to give answers on the question of how our way of building can be more sustainable. It’s also reversing the way we design architecture: when you start from reused materials, you can not just draw a design from scratch like architects sometimes do. You design based on locally available resources.
There is no new invention, the difference is how we are using the materials
Anna: It demands a different aesthetical approach as well. Aesthetics have often been the focus point in the last century of design and architecture: they would draw a design and then find materials. With reusing materials, it’s not so easy to imagine what a finished product will look like. But that’s fine. Aesthetics are not fixed but specific to time and place. So we can learn to appreciate the aesthetic of collaging. It used to be the norm to reuse materials, even after World War, people were rebuilding their houses en masse. The big shift came when the international style became the default. It created a sameness for architecture all over the world: where buildings used to represent the local landscape, all buildings internationally were now made from the same materials like concrete and with the same new technologies.
We can learn to appreciate the aesthetic of collaging
Shalini: It’s hopefully also an encouragement to construction designers to stay local. Colonial mining poisons water and destroys the regional landscapes of the colonised countries.
What does a locally-sourced construction site look like in practice?
Maria: The second room shows a project by BC Materials in Ardennes where they decided to only use locally sourced materials, from within a 30km radius of the site. They use the local clay soil to make rammed earth floors and earth plasters. The room in the exhibition is a prototype of the building itself. In our social project, the last room, we’re exhibiting different ways to make bricks: from textiles combined with cornstarch, for example, but we're also showing that bricks that are used indoors don’t have to be fired.
Locals are also the human resources that make the construction possible, through a design and build process that is participatory and inclusive. Every project and occasion requires a different approach, and we want to present that broad landscape of possibilities.
In our present circumstances, local and ethical mining is even more topical.
Maria: Exactly. It became even more obvious with the current wars going on, as almost each of them is a war of resources. I think it will become less and less convenient to get, for example, Chinese jointed wood. The price of getting something from the other side of the world is only going to rise.
Anna: Architecture has always been a representation of the times. We are in a critical moment, and architecture really needs to keep up with the times.
Shalini: The Belgian tradition of building houses, which is by using new bricks and having plenty of organised garden space, is just not sustainable. Society and architecture are the same things, they reflect each other simultaneously. We are trying to raise awareness about how our current mining processes are what is going to kill us.
We are in a critical moment, and architecture really needs to keep up with the time
For each of you individually, what would the utopic future of architecture look like?
Maria: My utopia has no ‘traditional’ architects [Laughs]. It just makes more sense that construction is designed and made by the people who use it. When you do it yourself, you understand the efforts behind it and you get more in touch with the nature you are utilising. When an architect is appointed nowadays, they usually don’t know the circumstances, the community, the ecosystem or the dynamics of the place where the construction site is based. The community themselves raise the question of what they need and they are able to do it themselves.
My utopia has no ‘traditional’ architects
Anna: We are a research group at UHasselt in collaboration with BC Architects. The first thing we did was write a manifesto. I would say we are indeed very utopic. There is a very interesting book that I would like to recommend which is called Architecture Without Architects.
You’re organising a festival in the park of Tour & Taxis as well. What can we expect when visiting?
Anna: We wanted to find an accessible way to spread the knowledge we have gathered during our research and the festival explores social mining and harvesting. We started collaborating with Park Farm, it’s an association based in a glass greenhouse in the middle of Tour & Taxis and with great care for the community.
Maria: The park of Tour & Taxis is already quite controversial. Half of the park is privately developed and turns its back to the neighbourhood. ParckFarm shines from behind the bridge, the public side of the park. Together with ParckFarm we built a participatory construction site. During our one month festival, there will be a lot of different happenings: radio talks, open construction sites, movie nights, pizza moments and parties. We will make bricks! It’s a festival to empower the community and raise awareness around ecologically and socially sustainable architecture.