Tropical Sustainable Architecture

Tropical Architecture and Modernism

One of the impetuses for developing research around tropical architecture lies in the historical origins of modernism in Europe and the US. From its early days, modern masters like Le Corbusier and Oscar Niemeyer understood that Modernism in architecture ought not to be transplanted globally without some recognition of its changed context. Alvar Aalto, in championing modernism in the Scandinavian countries, also emphasized the importance of understanding the region, climate and social context. In the US, Frank Lloyd Wright devised the term Usonian architecture to emphasize the grounding of his architecture on locality. The Arts and Crafts movement in the UK too sought their grounding in local traditions and to preserve their culture.

Unfortunately, much of the work that passes for architecture in the tropics today are unadulterated transplants from temperate countries, particularly the US – justified in the name of International Style. The inappropriateness of such transplants was argued by many schools of architecture, armed with the writings of environmentalists like Victor Olgyay (1952) with Aladar Olgyay (1963) and Maxwell Fry (1956) and Jane Drew (1964), and the designs of architects like Paul Rudolf, Richard Neutra, and several local masters, many of whom are not known outside the shores of their own countries (Lefaivre and Tzonis, 2001). The ease with which the International Style can be transplanted and the ubiquity and low-cost of energy as a solution to any environmental woe meant that by and large, the call for a more appropriate architecture went unheeded in the tropics – as it was elsewhere.

Countries in the tropical belt have seen unprecedented growth in the last 50 years and are poised to escalate in terms of economic, technological and material development. Not only are the issues facing countries in the tropical belt relevant to other countries, it is also likely that countries in the tropical belt will be among the leaders in terms of economic and urban development in the world in the foreseeable future. The fact that the impending escalated development in the tropics is unprecedented poses new problems and challenges to architects and planners all over the world and requires fresh ideas from our very best thinkers.

Climate as Design Generator

The point of departure for most tropical architecture is climate. At the simplest level, modern tropical architecture has been simply an adaptation of modern trends in design and construction to climate, taking into consideration some changes in the lifestyle that the tropical climate affords. Often, there has been an exploration of open and semi-open spaces, verandas and balconies, and open plans.

But the city and the modern lifestyle it encapsulates do not encourage such natural living. Strong breezes, so welcome in the hot humid conditions, mean that paper had to be kept in place or it might be blown away. Iron rusts, materials deteriorate and fungi grow faster in the tropics than in temperate countries. Working indoors, as most city dwellers do, is not comfortable and productivity is low. Most buildings in the tropical city adopt airconditioning as the panacea to all these. The further advantage of air-conditioning is that, if costs and environmental degradation are not of concern, the architecture can be entirely stylistic and the immediate environmental and climatic conditions ignored. For these two reasons – that it can resolve environmental comfort problems by simply guzzling more energy resources, and it is stylistically openended – air-conditioned buildings are both popular with the public and a bane to the responsible architect.

The challenge to define a modern idiom for tropical architecture is not just a climatic issue but also one that is related to the problem of adapting to the modern lifestyle, of the transformation of local cultures to the modern city. While it is possible to retain enough of the vernacular lifestyle for residential designs to be naturally ventilated, other building typologies like offices and shopping centres have not been so lucky.

Ethics, Poetics, Sustainability and Contemporary Architecture

Pérez-Gómez (2005), in “Ethics and poetics in architectural education”, asserts that the architect has a responsibility to make poetic statements of social and cultural conditions with their works. Science has its limits, and aesthetics is not just the icing on the cake or an afterthought but an intrinsic responsibility of the architect.

Unfortunately, the ease with which architects can use the umbrella of the International Style to indulge in form-making can lead to an “emotivism” (Bess, 1996) in architecture that blithely ignores all aspects of context, climate, environment and even human needs. Aesthetics in architecture becomes simply selfexpression and self-referential. To give it its due, emotivism has given us some very interesting and awe-inspiring architecture – e.g. the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao by Frank Gehry or the Sydney Opera House by Jørn Utzon. Monumentalism and iconism have their places too.

Architects have to contribute to mankind with their work. The question is how? Whatever the personal stands of individual contributors, this book supports Communitarianism. Susan Hagan (2001) proposes a moral contract between architecture and the environment. Since the 1970s, many architects, e.g. Tay Kheng Soon and Ken Yeang in Malaysia and Singapore, have criticized the limitations of architects who restrict themselves to the discussion of ‘linguistics’ and ‘styling’ without engaging the volatile environment and the city.

A common perception is that sustainable environments are not really “visible,” and “trendy architecture” with seemingly sustainable features can fail badly and not work ecologically. Lucius Burckhardt (1992) comments that ecological architecture, or more precisely, the ecological house, an issue from the 1970s, has turned out to be a trap. They appeared well in magazines, won awards, and were examples to model after, but failed miserably in terms of measurable environmental performance. He suggests that one cannot really see an ecological building, but one can either build the image of an ecological house or one can calculate how to save energy and how to clean up the environment. The problem with the second option is that nobody will take photographs of it for architectural publication. Perhaps this problem can be avoided if we can bring the two dimensions together.

William McDonough (1996) hits out at irresponsible architectural practices that seek only short-term benefits, and proposes reforms with a “Declaration of Interdependence” (similar to issues raised in many fields since the first Earth Day in 1970). He claims that architects have a special role to play, where design becomes the foremost statement of human intention. He postulates that the new role of architects is one of leadership in developing new definitions and measures of prosperity, productivity, and quality of life. In the “Hannover Principles,” he also proposes criteria for assessing whether a design solution is safe and just, and operate from the current solar income.

In contemporary architecture, there is a trend towards the commercialization of the image that titillates, aggravated by the internet and the flat screen. Juhani Pallasmaa (1996), in The Eyes of the Skin, criticized the hegemony of vision in architecture, and proposed more enduring and rich ways to sense and experience the environment and the place. Pallasmaa (1993) had also suggested that architecture will pick up on early Functionalism with a social mission, with better understanding and sophistication, shifting from the “metaphorical” towards an “ecological-functionalism.” Tzonis and Lefaivre (1990), in “Critical Regionalism”, traced Mumford’s position that the modern architect could and should engage a place and its community critically, using innovation in technology in a progressive way, thus ensuring continuity as well as change and growth into the future. Donald Watson (1991, 1995) on rethinking good architecture, suggests that architecture that embraces sustainability issues of a context is akin to Le Corbusier’s precepts for an ideal architecture.

Building Science and The Architect

Building science is, in many ways, an attempt to reduce environmental issues and their spatial dimensions into mathematical formulas and numbers. Two threads of research can be detected here. The first deals with physiological studies and is epitomized by Ole Fanger’s concept of thermal comfort. Such studies are the bedrock upon which environmentally responsive architecture can be devised. They can, and often are, legislated as design standards that provide a much-needed objective framework for architects. While it is, on the one hand, highly scientific, physiological standards of comfort do not translate readily into design (Ong, 1994, 1997; Ong and Hawkes, 1997). They are best utilized as checklists after the design has been put at least to paper.

As building science becomes more sophisticated and complicated, the danger is that the architect will find it increasingly harder to incorporate its findings into his work. While building science is reductionist and precise, in contrast, the architect’s design mind tends to deal with pre-parametric heuristics, qualitative thinking with transformations from precedents, allowing him to make quick and efficient design decisions that synthesize complex criteria besides including environmental issues (Bay, 2001b). The difficulty in architectural design is that the architect has to address many diverse issues simultaneously during development of his design. The issues may be isolated, different and even conflicting but the product is a singular building that responds to all these issues at the same time. The only way for an architect to function adequately is to internalize these issues and intuitively resolve them through creative design. Architects tend to avoid applying building science directly in their design process, prefering where feasible to work with a building scientist as a consultant. The typical architect prefers to work with broad principles and strategies (Hyde, 2000). A survey on the use of environmental design software among architects showed that almost none of the architects surveyed employed such tools in their practice, and that consultations with building scientists are rare (Wong et al., 1999).

The second thread of research, typified by the Olgyays’ bioclimatic approach to design, found more followers and inspired later generations of architects like Ken Yeang and Tay Kheng Soon. Olgyay and Olgyay (1963), in Design with Climate: Bioclimatic Approach to Architectural Regionalism, stated that architects do not have the time and mental resource to compute all the bioclimatic data. They propose that calculations on how parametric variations in building form can affect indoor human comfort in a climatic context be made separate from the architect’s design process, to produce principles and graphical guidelines for the architects to use as a generator towards a regionalized architectural language.

Over the years, these parametric studies have grown and have become more sophisticated with attempts at integrating the different fields in building science and addressing other environmental and sustainable issues.

Social and Cultural Dimensions

One challenge for building science is the influence of social and cultural dimensions in the application of building studies into architectural design. Over the years, social and cultural rituals have evolved to adapt to climatic conditions and vernacular architecture, in particular, embodies some of these adaptations in their plan and design features (Hawkes, 1996). It is important that these socio-cultural factors are somehow subsumed or incorporated into building science studies. While socio-cultural factors are a common thread in the writings of many architects, such concerns have not found a suitable quantitative expression. Various essays in this book observe the sensibility and necessity of such integration, and suggest ways to think about and correlate these seemingly opposed dimensions.

Urban Issues

Another great concern is the effect of high-rise high-density buildings and overcrowding in the rapidly expanding city. While the air-conditioned high-rise is easily replicated in the tropical city, the effects of urban canyons and heat entrapment in the city are different for the tropics. While sunlight is welcome in the temperate city and buildings are set back to allow sunlight to penetrate to the road level, shade is preferred in the tropics. While snow and sleet may be a problem in temperate cities, the problem in the tropics is heavy rain and flooding. While strong gales are better avoided in colder cities, more wind and ventilation are welcome in the tropical (and sub-tropical) city. It is only recently that urban studies have been made to some depth in tropical cities and the findings are suggestive in terms of the design of the tropical city for the future.

Towards Tropical Sustainable Architecture

The essays here define various dimensions and present the latest research and thinking that surrounds the field of tropical architecture today. However, the issues presented here are relevant to the architectural discourse elsewhere in the world also. Frank Lloyd Wright is known to have said that his buildings are not of any style but simply designed with style. Style in this sense is not a visual appearance but a consequence of a particular way of looking at design or of the design process.

It seems logical to expect that the approach to architecture presented here will naturally lead to a tropical sustainable architecture, but however the problematic of tropical architecture language discussed in the introduction still lingers on and continues to be debated. We end this book with a philosophical discussion in the last chapter, presented by Anoma Pieris in “Is Sustainability Sustainable? Interrogating the Tropical Paradigm in Asian Architecture”.
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