Looking at architecture as a living organism

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Part of the Artkitektura Festival of the Architecture and the Arts is the "Living Architecture" exhibit which shows structures that balance nature, culture, and technology. In photo: Casa Organica in Mexico City (1985) by Javier Senosian Aguilar. Photo courtesy of ARTKITEKTURA FESTIVAL

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — ‘Organic architecture’ is a term coined by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1914 to define a kind of architecture that blends with the day-to-day of humanity and its environment. He believed that architecture should not be isolated from nature; that the structures built should flawlessly dip in and out of natural spaces. This concept of integrating architecture with the built environment is what the Artkitektura Festival strives to cast light on.

The Artkitektura Festival team — led by Sarri Tapales and in cooperation with UK-based organizations Architecture Steiner and Citydesigner — have devised a three-year learning program for the Philippines, the first of which starts this week, with the theme “Wholeness Through Architecture and the Arts.”

Two festivals will be happening in the country — one in Manila, from Aug. 24 to Aug. 27, and another in Iloilo, from Aug. 31 to Sept 3. Both weekends will include study tours by leading heritage experts, lectures by globally renowned architects, as well as art performances and exhibitions that explore the ways people interact with the spaces we inhabit.

Metropol Parasol The Metropol Parasol in Seville, Spain by J. Mayer H. Architects. It is said to be the largest wooden structure in the world. Its design is inspired by ficus trees. Photo courtesy of ARTKITEKTURA FESTIVAL

‘Organic architecture’ as a term has evolved into what some architects call now as ’living architecture.’ With this, Artkitektura deemed it apt to show the international exhibition on "Living Architecture," a visual presentation that traces the roots of this sustainable architectural approach and how this has been adapted to a digitally driven society. Works featured range from Gregory Burgess’ cultural space in the sacred ground of Uluru that was built on indigenous Australians’ songlines to Singapore’s award-winning 101-hectare nature park, Gardens by the Bay.

CNN Philippines Life talked to the Dutch architect Pieter van der Ree, the curator of "Living Architecture," to know more about the defining element of what living architecture is, how architecture marries technology with nature, and what he thinks about Philippine edifices. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

How did you get involved with the Artkitektura Festival?

I was invited four years ago to an architectural conference in England that Sarri Tapales [director] and Richard Coleman [associate producer] organized together. I was asked to give a lecture and then we started talking about the exhibition. The exhibition is a couple of years older and it tours in Europe, but not in the English-speaking world. Sarri told me she wanted to have it in Manila.

She said that she had been looking for museums in Manila and she went to five major museums, and Ayala Museum was one of them. I had some free time in March last year, then I flew to England, and I stayed a couple of days with Sarri and Richard, and I could feel the energy that it was a serious plan and that they really wanted it. I had the idea that if it travels to Asia, we have to transform the exhibition; we needed to balance the kind of projects and where they come from because it was a more European centered exhibition up to that time, and I felt that we had to update the exhibition.

Notre-Dame-du-Haut The pilgrimage chapel Notre Dame du Haut by Le Corbusier in Ronchamp, France. It is an example of architecture that is more humane and natural. Photo courtesy of ARTKITEKTURA FESTIVAL

What were the factors that you considered in creating this updated exhibition for the Philippines?

I experienced a shift — a slow but certain shift — and it partly has to do with creating more sustainable architecture. Another factor has to do with technology, computer-based design, which is allowing more sculpture freedom. These are experiments, but you can see the possibilities. For example, in a university in Germany, they are studying organisms, forms in nature, and how nature creates these forms. They are trying to investigate the mathematics behind it, and they are trying to transport that to computer technology and computer fabrics.

[Another] factor is that there is a new longing for architectural expression. I was brought up in functionalist tradition, and functionalism sought to find some sort of an eternal truth that would fit every occasion and every situation, but after some decades, people found it boring because it’s so uniform.

Since the end of the last century, but certainly, in the last decade, there [are] so many experiments in architectural expression, and people like that. There's a new museum built by Frank Gehry, for example, and you go there, and you say, 'wow.' There's a new opera building made somewhere in Norway or in China, and people want to experience it. Architecture is much more about an experience nowadays and we believe that the building is functional, but we don't think that's so interesting anymore. How it nourishes the soul or how it uplifts our spirits — that is what is interesting.

Pieter van der Ree "Living Architecture" curator Pieter van der Ree giving a guided tour of the exhibit during the opening of the Artkitektura Festival at the Ayala Museum. Photo courtesy of ARTKITEKTURA FESTIVAL

Technology and nature are often pitted against each other. How does architecture reconcile the two?

The subtitle of the exhibition is balancing nature, culture, and technology. Nature and culture have been in dialogue for thousands of years. Technology is speeding up and it has a disrupting role for welfare and progress. There's always that tension between traditional values and modern technology. I think that is the big challenge for us now: how we balance that new technology with nature because nature is the basis of our existence.

We cannot say that it's not important. We are natural beings so we have to balance those aspects. Architecture always has to do with all those aspects. It has a social aspect because it's for people, made by people. It has a natural aspect because you have to realize that you're building somewhere and you make it from materials, and however they are transformed, they always come from nature. If they're worn out, they will go back to nature. One has to develop a new way of thinking, a circular thinking.

Wild Rendeir Pavilion The Wild Reindeer Pavilion by Snøhetta in Norway. The structure mirrors the curves of the surrounding Dovre Mountains. Photo courtesy of ARTKITEKTURA FESTIVAL

Seeing the Philippines now, what could you say about how we’ve constructed our spaces?

I think there are opportunities and obstacles or challenges. There is a natural feeling here for that quality of living architecture. […] On the other side, I think that the legal system here or the commercial approach do not immediately fit together. In the Netherlands, the legal system is much more orientated about supporting social needs or taking care for public space. For example, if I had to walk from the place I stayed here, then you feel that this is not planned for pedestrians.

But here, with Greenbelt, that's a very nice way to walk here, in the mall and in between the malls. They got to a point of asking, ‘How do we create spaces for people?’ But there are also districts and buildings where I got the feeling that commercial aspect in them was the most important and that public life is not so well taken cared of. However, earlier, I spoke with a developer, who is very much looking for projects that fit their surroundings and those that could take care of the community. I still see a lot of openings, so I'm still very positive.

Singapore Botanical Gardens The "Supetrees" at the Gardens by the Bay in Singapore is an example of living architecture. Photo courtesy of ARTKITEKTURA FESTIVAL

What, for you, is the defining core of a living architecture?

As architects, we are taught to look at buildings as objects, and it's quite a task to design a building, to have it built, that it remains standing and is within budget. So normally, architects are object-orientated, but the building as an object is part of a surrounding, a part of a social setting, and what I would like is that we change this perception; that we start to look at buildings as organs or organisms functioning within social, natural, and cultural settings; that you're not satisfied with the building as a result, but that you look at how the building fulfill its role after it has been realized. Do people like it? Are they happy in it? Is it a healthy surrounding? What does it add to its surrounding? It's a change in perspective; that you look at architecture and ask: what does it contribute to life in all of its diversity?

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Artkitektura Festival runs until Aug. 27. For more event details visit the Artkitektura Facebook page or the official website. "Living Architecture" runs from Aug. 24 to Oct. 1 at the Ayala Museum.