Rocking the cradle

The best design thinking has moved on from ideas about reducing consumption and minimising eco-damage, says Henrietta Thompson. They still matter, but the new cradle-to-cradle thinking is about avoiding such damage in the first place


Everyone knows what an eco-efficient building looks like – it’s the one with the windmills on top. Inside, the aesthetics are Spartan, and the less consumption of materials the better. When it comes to fixtures, fittings and furniture, as long as it’s recycled and/or recyclable, non-toxic, local and homemade, it’s OK. Kermit was wrong – it is easy being Green and, with a huge range of eco-options, it’s getting easier all the time. Or is it?

No sooner than we have all got the hang of it, the goalposts have changed. As is now being pioneered by a number of architectural and design champions around the world, it is not just a case of knowing where the raw material comes from or how something is made and finished. Today, designers have to consider the design, longevity and re-use of things more carefully than ever before. Crucially, it is no longer enough to think of ‘cradle to the grave’ but in terms of ‘cradle to cradle’.

‘Cradle to cradle’ is a proactive manufacturing model pioneered by architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart through their best-selling book of the same title and their US-based consultancy MBDC. The idea is that our current way of designing and making things (the ‘cradle-to-grave’ approach) creates fantastic amounts of waste and pollution. Reducing our consumption, they say, is just about minimising damage and maximising efficiency, whereas what we should really be doing is finding ways to do things that don’t damage the environment at all. Their model for change is nature.

Although, in the past, Europe has generally been one step ahead of the US when it comes to uniting and taking action in planetary sympathy, we are just starting to see the cradle-to-cradle philosophy, and concurrently a nature-inspired design landscape, starting to emerge over here with some interesting results.

Tonkin Liu, the London-based architectural practice, is championing the latter. For the design of a portable pavilion at the heart of this year’s London Festival of Architecture (June to July 2008), the team is building on research of the past few years. Tonkin Liu previously ran a unit at the Architectural Association, which was themed ‘ultra-natural’ and studied form and behaviour in nature. According to partner Anna Liu, nature is much more cunning and inventive than human technology. ‘Limited resources and survival create no-wastage and no-frill systems,’ she says. ‘Ironically, this efficiency creates a myriad of fantastical forms, beauty and capabilities. Why? Is it because the environment and the creature are “live” systems, constantly ‹ responding and adapting to every change in each other, not in linear, but much more lateral ways? If so, can buildings and building materials become “live” systems that continually re-create themselves?’

So far, so philosophical. Tonkin Liu’s most recent commission, however, sees the practice take a few steps closer to making it a reality. Following the festival’s theme of ‘Fresh’, the pavilion it has designed for the LFA takes the form of a flower and will travel between the five hubs of the festival for five weeks. Consisting of 14 petals forming a spiral around a central stalk, the flower unfurls to create shelter according to different places, events and weather. Visitors enter through the gaps between the petals – which increase in size from a child to an adult.

The flower is constructed from steel and fabric. Steel tubes will be used for the main structure, and sheet steel for the stage. The original idea was to use a steel coating – currently in development – that mimics the process of photosynthesis and creates energy for lighting, like the plant’s process of photosynthesis. Sadly, this won’t be ready in time for the festival. In the meantime, Tonkin Liu must be satisfied with the more traditional Green measures, building in sustainable features such as a wind turbine and rainwater collection to give the structure stability.

Limitations aside, it’s Liu’s vision that is most interesting. ‘We now have the capacity to mimic what nature does much more closely, on the molecular and cellular level,’ she explains. ‘We should adopt the spirit of nature, which is driven by survival, limited time and limited resources. In the next five to ten years we have to work much harder at creating materials that can answer our energy crisis.’

Liu is not just talking about reducing toxicity and waste, or even of recycling, reusing or reappropriating. ‘We need to think in terms of new, intelligent materials,’ she says. ‘Materials that grow and transform, that change with need and usage, rather than static materials. Can glass behave like skin, with a micro-natural ventilation system? Can a building be grown over time, with a new brick that multiplies as and when you need it? We have no room for nostalgia and pining for the good old days, or complacency with our quaint windmills. We must use all of our imagination and will power, with everything we’ve got.’

There already exists an abundance of amazing, and cost-effective, materials that can be used to much better advantage, says Liu. ‘In the pavilion we are using a double-layered canvas. With the weight of the rain, the layers push against each other and create a gradient colour. It is not just about the materials, but about what experience the materials bring to us – their tactility, light, and how they change with time. In another project, we folded expanded metal – another very cheap material – and sandwiched it between two more layers at right angles to each other. This gave us a super-thin, but strong decking system that could span quite a long way, but remain light. By virtue of the 3D layering, this system also created a mosaic of moving light and shadows.’

How far designers can go along the path of biomimicry depends, for the moment, almost entirely on materials science. What nature does, say the proponents of the cradle-to-cradle approach, is absolutely mind-boggling, on a level of science fiction already beyond human imagination. ‘The answers nature comes up with are dumbfounding – for example, the salamander whose skin feeds the young and grows back in three days,’ says Liu. If we, like nature, minimise waste and maximise innovation, we will find much more exciting territories.’

The new super-natural approach is encouraging for designers, in that it does away with the depressing vocabulary of ‘reduction’, ‘avoidance’, ‘minimising’, ‘sustaining’ and ‘limits’. But, in order for designers to fully exploit McDonough and Braungart’s idea of cradle-to-cradle production, they need to be braver when it comes to adopting and experimenting with new materials. ‘We also need more enlightened clients to free us from the fear of being sued for trying something that you’re using for the first time,’ says Liu. ‘Everyone wants longer and longer warranties. We also need more honourable manufacturers to stand alongside us in research and innovation. As a culture, we have stopped inquiring and believing in invention. Ironically, we need it now, more than ever.’

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