Is cheap energy the enemy of good architecture?


When it is finished this summer, The Shard, a 66-storey office block next to London Bridge station, will be the tallest building in Europe however, if Ken Shuttleworth is to be believed, it will also be obsolete. “The tall glass box is dead.” proclaimed the architect who led the team that designed the Gherkin.

Speaking in the How green is tall? debate at last month’s Ecobuild event in London, the former Foster + Partners employee and founder of Make architects predicted that Renzo Piano’s new 310m high tower would be demolished and replaced within a few years.

Describing The Shard as a ‘greenhouse’, Shuttleworth criticised Piano’s design for its lack external solar shading and used figures to demonstrate that it would generate double the carbon emissions of Make’s latest project at 5 Broadgate, which has only 35% glazing on its facade. For Shuttleworth, The Shard is doomed because it already seems out-of-date and out-of-step with a shift toward increased energy performance and sustainability in high-profile towers.

5 Broadgate, London by Make Architects. In comparison to The Shard, only 35% of its facade is glazed.

Shuttleworth’s comments place The Shard in a long tradition of buildings that were designed when “energy was cheap and sealed, air-conditioned buildings were acceptable.” For Shuttleworth however, architects now “know better.” If he is right, The Shard also has plenty in common with a whole generation of buildings that have come to define architecture in the UAE.

From the 1960s onwards, the availability of cheap energy heralded a revolution in building styles and construction techniques throughout the Gulf. Traditionally, the main purpose of buildings such as the merchants’ houses in Dubai’s Bastakiya district had been to make life in the desert bearable, but throughout the 1970s and 1980s, wind towers, built from palm fronds and masonry in deference to the sun’s fierce strength were replaced with high-rise, glass and concrete towers that defied it. During the rapid modernisation that accompanied the oil boom, a new, imported generation of building types, technologies and construction techniques swept the older, traditional generation away as individuals, clients and developers turned to an architecture that better symbolised the dreams and aspirations of the new UAE. Buildings offering a higher quality of life and the trappings of modernity replaced ones that were actually highly efficient, but unacceptably old-fashioned and irrevocably connected with the past.

A new concrete, steel, and glass skyline emerged throughout the Middle East, fuelled by subsidised fuel, unsustainable amounts of energy, and colossal levels of air-conditioning. For Abdulmajid Karanouh, Aedas‘s chief designer of the new Abu Dhabi Investment Council headquarters in Abu Dhabi, the social and environmental results of such development are unacceptable and he hopes that Aedas’s latest project represents a small step towards an architecture that is more environmentally and culturally relevant to the demands of the region and our times.

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The new Abu Dhabi Investment Council building will feature a computer-controlled facade made up of more than 2,000 translucent units that will open and close as the sun moves over their surface. The result is a reduction in overall energy consumption and carbon footprint. Andrew Henderson / The National

If it has taken almost 40 years to realise the wider costs of the architectural mistakes of recent decades, it has taken a similar length of time for contemporary designers to appreciate the inherent wisdom of traditional building techniques. As the Al Bahar Towers, with their shading screens, and the giant air-cooling cones planned for the new Guggenheim Abu Dhabi show, traditional Islamic building technologies have a role to play, even at the cutting edge of contemporary architecture.

Model of the planned Guggenheim, Abu habi showing giant ventilation cones inspired by traditional islamic wind towers that will help ventilate the new museum.

For Dr Ronald Hawker, a former associate professor of art history at Zayed University and author of Building on Desert Tides: Traditional Architecture in the Arabian Gulf, there are many vernacular techniques that modern designers can and should adapt from the past. These include:

• Wind towers (badgir/barjeel) that capture cooler, faster, higher breezes than the warm air travelling at ground level. These are then directed down into the living space while a naturally resulting vacuum removes warmer air from the room.

• Shading screens (mashrabiya) prevent sunlight from hitting a facade or interior, reducing the effect of solar gain, while allowing cool breezes to enter. Jars of water placed under mashrabiya also helped to cool the air further as it passed through the screen.

• A system of ventilation (badkesh) allows breezes to travel down through external walls before entering a room at a lower level, cooling seated guests.

• Insulating plaster (juss) was traditionally applied to breathable masonry walls made of collected beach rocks, coral and alluvial stones. When used to build small, windowless rooms, juss helps create spaces like those inside a vacuum flask whose temperature can be easily maintained.

• High walls and courtyards operate like external wind towers and mashrabiya for external spaces, directing cooler air down into the heart of buildings, while protecting them with shade.

A version of this article originally appeared in The National, Abu Dhabi

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