Kuwait School, Gaza. Sketch by Mario Cucinella
A new culture of sustainabilityCreative empathy, sensitivity and knowledge.
(Interview by Mauro Panigo)
Mauro Panigo (MP)
Mario, thank you for coming to talk to FLOWS about your experience and philosophy of architecture. At a time of great transformation, even though there is a significant identity and values crisis, your daily challenge lies in constantly innovating the built environment, incorporating the concepts of ‘Building Green Futures’ in it. What tools does Mario Cucinella use to trigger and start these processes?
Mario Cucinella (MC)
First a little introduction. Building Green Futures (www.buildingreenfutures.org) was started to respond to the many unanswered questions on the urban development of the future, especially in countries where there are no options. I’m thinking of countries where there’s no access to water, although so simple, and there’s no electricity as we have. We always have an option in our western world – we can plug into a socket. There isn’t that option in many places so our work of visionary architects, technologists can have a very important impact on solving problems in people’s daily lives. Why did we call it Building Green Futures? Because, from a certain point of view, the built world is a world we live in every day. The stimulus came from the Kuwait School project in Gaza – in a context of no light and no water, we had the idea of constructing a building that could, in some way, speak empathically (for me, empathy is a sort of creative practice). We made the best use of the resources to create the conditions of both relation with the environment and human relations, meaning the restoration or giving of dignity to people. We should remember that architecture is not only a representation of ourselves but also of our time.
MP: What do you mean by new culture of sustainability and what relation do you see between mobility and sustainability?
MC: It’s a difficult definition; sustainability contains many things that need to be understood. As often happens, words come out more quickly than deeds – a lot has been said about sustainability but not much has been done. We have to come to terms with a culture that comes from the 20th century, a very strong consumer culture that forgets about other factors. The topic of our time, today’s time, cannot and must not focus just on climatic change but rather on a more general change in culture. So it’s essential to understand that we’re living in a new era, an ecological era that will require a conception of buildings and infrastructure developed with greater technological attention to the design tools and not just their ‘muscular’ part (i.e. structures that are only ‘filled’ by systems). I mean that, when you design, knowledge has a central role and, in the end, sustainability is knowledge.
As a result, mobility falls within my view of culture of sustainability. Italy needs to be taken care of and we’re called on to work on our urban and infrastructure systems, unique in the world. Architecture can be a decisive tool in relaunching inland areas, and must go back to being at the centre of our attention and public discussion. The Italian Hall at the Venice Biennale 2018, entitled ‘Archipelago Italy’, placed the importance of mobility in the remotest areas at the centre. The infinite potential that the relation between new technologies, the transport world and smart mobility can offer in connecting rural areas with metropolitan centres will have an increasingly focal role in the design thought of the future.
MP: Professional updating and continuous research. What quality contribution do you believe can integrate the new procedures and environmental certifications into the complicated design path of mobility?
MC: In future, the project must always be guided by the concept of sustainable mobility consistent with the evolution of our transport systems. It will be a matter of activating a mix of increasingly efficient public and private transport and valorising the infrastructure networks taking new technologies into account and ensuring widespread accessibility. In addition, new forms of mobility may have a favourable influence with respect to the needs for environmental improvement and the critical points arising from climate change, a pressing problem with answers that are still inadequate. People managing and influencing the regional development should have the responsibility of using planning tools that are increasingly aware of implementing the interrelation between all the values in play, including the environmental and bioclimatic ones.
Mobility architecture and engineering must be more and more able to respond to the claims linked to the environmental sustainability of the projects, so that they become true workshops useful for defining and testing new methods of approach. From this point of view, the spread of environmental sustainability protocols like LEED (for green building design) and the more recent ENVISION (for infrastructure projects) can be valid tools for project research offering solid bases for continuous testing respecting the environment. Therefore, in the varied project path, it is essential that research and knowledge become common behaviour models. This is an important, significant step but planners must, with their work, also return to being the guarantors of the best planning of places and reach towards the development of the social, economic and environmental evolution of the context we live in now and in the future.
MP: So, in your words, we can see a move in the direction of collective renewal. What role does the concept of ‘creative empathy’ play?
MC: The internationalisation of construction processes indifferent to places, cultures, landscape and energy conditions has created a diffusion of inadequate models for local climate and conditions, to the extent that buildings have been turned not into opportunity but a planetary energy problem. On one hand, the growth of towns and cities has effectively been a great opportunity in the last 100 years but, on the other, the development of an exclusively profit-oriented economy has generated great negligence in terms of people and produced places of non-involvement in towns and cities. The consequence has been a vulgarisation of building models which has not only led to a flattening of the urban landscape and indifference to different needs but also created a problem of consumption often irreconcilable with micro-economies, also causing pollution levels incompatible with people’s lives. Therefore, the definition of sustainability must take account of two points of view – the first concerning technical and performance aspects, the other a new relationship between architecture and landscape that generates identities with greater creative empathy. Sustainability, by definition non-global, is against a model that is indifferent to places and people, against the principle of flattening and simplification of languages.
MP: Young designers, architects and engineers need support and opportunity. S.O.S. (School of Sustainability) is your creation that considers these needs.
MC: In 20 years’ time, young people of 25 today, recent graduates, will have to face challenges that aren’t those I’m facing now. In the future, problems will be infinitely more difficult; these young professionals must have technical tools (an architect, engineer or artisan who doesn’t know how to use their tools won’t go very far). In addition, there’s the ability to go beyond today’s limit and imagine beyond consolidated schemes. Only this attitude can really cause a change and open unexpected views. Let me give you an important example. Giotto, tired of the mediaeval stereotype of golden skies, painted the sky blue for the first time. It may seem banal, yet a man who made such an artistic choice in the context of that time certainly took a revolutionary step, breaking a ‘status quo’. In this way, Giotto introduced an idea of unpredictability – who would ever have thought that the sky could be painted blue? I think that schools should help young people to reflect on the unpredictability of the future, that part of time that we can’t yet see but can be glimpsed through knowledge, creativity, intuition and talent. Young people are aware that they are the key players of this future and look to school for the tools to deal with it with trust and courage.
MP: You talked about Giotto and a move decidedly ‘against the flow’. How much does your approach to the professional challenges of every day and life go ‘against the flow’ or fall into a consolidated scheme?
MC: I’ve only recently begun to understand my job. It’s taken time to get to know it because it’s insidious, full of demands and knowledge. Continuous knowledge must have a central role, also in this case. Every day, you face a real world of things to do – buildings which look lovely to us on the outside have a ‘behind the scenes’ of very hard work to achieve the result. You live with the fear and passion of thinking of something intangible and having to turn it materially into a place – it’s a very complicated process. The free spirit of the first ideas turns into a design, a project. Then you say to yourself, “Now I have to take it and make it fit into the denser and denser network of regulations…” After passing through that network (laws, budget, clients, companies, etc.), you can still maintain that it’s a dream, so that means that you’ve achieved your result and that your ideas will continue to live in that structure.
The creative process of architectural and engineering works is one of the most beautiful things that a person can do and try out. If we think about it carefully, our memories, other than the emotional dynamics with people, are often tied to places, whether it’s a landscape, road or building. That’s the point of this anecdote. I still have a clear memory of when I went to kindergarten; 50 years later, I have to design a kindergarten. I think back to my kindergarten and find that it was designed and planned by Giuseppe Vaccaro, one of the modernists of the time. So I say to myself that it’s true that architecture doesn’t move but travels in the memory, in our memory, in our psyche, it’s something linked to the story of our house, the smells of our area, to space and time.
Designing and planning is an act of great responsibility. Building space is perhaps one of mankind’s oldest actions and continues to be one of today’s great challenges.
On behalf of FLOWS. Modelling Mobility:
Interview by Mauro Panigo – Contemporary Urban
Editorial editing by Alberto Zavatta – Contemporary Urban