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Lo-Res Architecture

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You know how it is when you rearrange bookshelves. You pick up something and open it and before you know it, the morning is gone. The other day, I picked up Issue #46 of Log magazine from 2019. I remember skimming through it and the following Issue #47 about carbon form. I thought I’d revisit these issues later but, a few months later, the world was Covid, teaching was online and I was packing up my things to send to China. I did put some thoughts into a post at the time, and I do remember wondering if I was object oriented or indifferent and, in the end, decided I was both, mostly on the basis of the project I’d set my class in Fall 2019 [c.f. Carbon Offset].

I’ve nothing against a well-made and functioning green roof but putting plants on buildings is generally a stupid idea although some ways of doing it are more stupid than others. Still, the idea of trees on buildings was still very much in the air in 2019 and education is supposed to be about the ways of the world for better or worse.

The same article also introduced the concept of lo-res architecture but I didn’t spend too much time worrying about it as I’m confident I’m at the lo-res end of that spectrum. I really do believe that using simple means to do many or complex things well is superior to using many or complex things to do one simple thing badly.

The idea of sending self-assembling autonomous robots to Mars to extract water from rocks and make mud bricks is a good example of what I’m against. It’s a niche position. It may be better to send people to Mars to crush rocks to extract water to make mud bricks. A better idea might be to have people here on Earth use our water to make mud bricks we can then rocket to Mars so the robots can get on with building houses there. But let’s not talk about carbon form just yet.

I’m generally as suspicious of claims made for new architectures or technologies as I am of the ingenuousness of those who make them. A genuine lo-res architecture shouldn’t require 2,000 words of high-res language to be understood. Anyway, the next article made me wonder if I was neo-pomo, post-pomo, postmodern revivalist or just plain postmodernist. Further in, I briefly wondered if I was a Stanley Tigermanist using shallow means for deep ends whether intentionally or not. I think not. No.

I thought I knew a bit about the concept of embodied carbon as I could never look at exuberant structure without thinking of the amount of steel that went into its various contortions. My lo-res apartment building at least wore some of its carbon unembodied on the outside but Issue #47, with its awesome cover photo of an orbital interchange next to a shopping mall in Doha, stopped me feeling good about that.

We know it’s possible to put plants on buildings but we also suspect the carbon cost in getting them there and keeping them there will probably be greater than any carbon gain from having them there. What we’re left with are some fleeting microclimate and biodiversity advantages but, since plants on buildings are a way of making buildings more pleasing for us to look at, its really just a smug kind of stealth ornament. It’s using carbon-based life forms as decoration.

But we’re carbon based life forms as well so we can’t hate carbon too much. The problem is our excessive combustion of fossil fuels laid down in the Carboniferous Period about 350~300 million years ago.

Carbon form includes roads and all buildings such as shopping malls and apartment buildings as well as detached houses designed to be accessed by vehicles. Shopping malls are embedded in an entire economy of carbon to fill them with goods. Everyday when I used to drive to university – from Dubai, of all places – I passed by a LEED Silver shopping mall.

No building rating system I know of offers any points for whether a particular building is necessary or not. The question of whether a building’s use of resources is justified IN PLANETARY TERMS is never asked.

Carbon form includes airports, of course.

Regarding Phase I of Qatar’s Hamad International Airport, Rem Koolhaas commented in 2013, “We are delighted and honored to participate in the exciting growth of Doha, in a project that is perhaps the first serious effort anywhere in the world to interface between an international airport and the city it serves.” Umm. Tokyo’s Haneda has been a conveniently located international airport since 1961 but hats off to OMA’s* PR for recasting circumstance as inspired. Next time I want to build an airport I’ll start by creating a site next to my city.

This report notes that “the development of the New Doha International Airport (NDIA) in Qatar requires the reclamation of a large area that was previously utilised for the deposition of waste. Between the 1950’s and 1990, approximately 6.5 million cubic meters* of waste was disposed to the NDIA site. As part of the NDIA project, this waste would be relocated to an engineered landfill approximately 40 km away, close to the town of Mesaieed.”
* somewhat disappointingly, this volume is equal to only 6.5 Empire State Buildings.

Noises were made about Phase II being LEED Silver. It will have a 10,000mindoor tropical garden, 268mwater feature, 11,720mof landscaped retail and dining space, other leisure attractions and facilities … [ref.] I’m sure it will. “But good luck OMA – if anyone can do it, it’s you!”

Starchitects validate the carbon economy and are a symbiotic part of it whether or not they design airports. But most do. All other architects are also implicated since carbon form includes all buildings that can’t exist or function without the significant input of energy from fossil fuels. If a building depends on steel, concrete, air conditioning, artificial illumination, mechanical ventilation and elevators, then it’s carbon form.

Even if all new buildings were to be built to Passivhaus standards and all existing buildings were to be magically retrofitted to Passivhaus standards, we’re still not going to make it by 2050. It’s a bit depressing so let’s not go there. 2050 will still come to us.

The carbon economy includes everything to do with combustion engines so we’ve been heading down this particular path since the Industrial Revolution. A revisionist history of architecture could begin by tracking what happened circa 1965 with Postmodernism and then work back to post-WWI with The International Style and then back to the 1920s and Modernism and post-WWI. However, to propose solving our current problems by “raising awareness” this way is about as immediate a solution as colonizing Mars. There’s also the danger that any talk not focussed on actioning definite proposals will simply be assimilated back into the carbon economy as academic churn or media churn, much like what happened with sustainability. While purporting to be a solution, Mars-talk quickly fulfilled its true function of trivializing the appetite for low-tech solutions in favour of solutions necessitating yet more industry and technology.

Mud brick seems like a good idea for places where rain or floods won’t destroy it. Rammed earth walls seem good for the same reason. Straw bales are inexpensive. Timber is also relatively inexpensive but we’d need to grow more of the right kinds. Unless we want to create more problems for ourselves, we’d have to control our preference for hardwoods. Nader Khalili [c.f. Architecture Misfit #12: Nader Khalili] developed an ingenious construction system using sandbags secured with barbed wire. This all seems to indicate that buildings with thick walls and short spans are a solution for the future, even though people in the Middle East worked this out millennia ago. The Yemeni did for eight-storey buildings, still standing five hundred years on.

Hassan Fathy [c.f. Architecture Misfit #8: Hassan Fathy] championed mud-brick buildings, most famously in his designs for the new city of New Gourna.

His 1989 obituary in the AP News Archive concluded by saying “he struggled without success to convince Egyptian peasants that mud brick, a traditional building material in Egypt, is preferable to concrete” and this is the problem. A carbon economy is always going to encourage the mindset that known low-cost solutions that work, are inferior to “modern” ones that won’t work as well.

“Just as good as a bought one!” my Sheffield-born mother used to say when she finished knitting a sweater.


  • Graham,

    Ive got to disagree about plants on buildings being a stupid idea.

    I accept some criticisms of the initial vertical forest buildings etc but I think you have to acknowledge that the generation of boomer architects and designers (of which I am one) that are responsible for the last 50 years of “built environment” on the earth ARE accountable for a good portion of the destruction and utter devastion of the natural world.

    Look at what Terrapin Green are doing or the city of Singapore or the majority of projects by Trans Solar – these pracitices are making attempts to limit biodiversity loss and in some cases increase the green plot ratio for given sites. They are living and designing in our current world not some dystopian hellscape that is an extension of a 1980s /1990s architectural education.

    Loss of habitat through the rapacious industrialization and development of our natural environment is a primary cause of what many are calling a 6th Extinction Event. Some would say we live in a civilization that is in contradiction with life itself. A civilization hard wired to exploit the earth, and to divide people and to destroy the environment.

    Historically, the vast majority of the architectural profession has supported this “business as usual” system through willfully producing image based designs that capture our imagination but destroy the reality of our natural environment in the process. Since the 1950s the majority of the profession and its institutions have failed in their most basic tenent – to create a better world.

    From my perspective the loss of nature is unparrelled in architectural thought and education and its THIS that has to take precedent and that needs to be adressed as a matter of urgency for current and future generations.

    • says:

      Hello Robert and thanks. I keep coming back to all of the points you mentioned and am still wondering about the best way to combine buildings and plants, the degree to which the should be combined and, of course, whether they should be combined at all. I live in Wenzhou in China. The climate is humid sub-tropical and plants grow easily, although not as easily and as lushly as in Singapore. I’m enjoying the plants in pots on my balcony. The rubber tree is thriving and so is the monstera and bougainvillea. The plumbago however is not doing well. It wilts easily on my balcony even though it’s a standard roadside plant here. They would all probably thrive better in natural ground and this I think is the real problem. Buildings and plants compete for the same land. We have to do the best we can in cities where land is scarce and redressing the balance is always going to be good. In Shanghai you can see a conscious effort to do this. There are plants in planters along elevated roads, the space beneath those highways is gardened, roadside verges are complex, ivy is encouraged to grow up the columns of elevated roads. It’s planted in the ground if it can be or grown in planters if it can’t. There’s obviously a policy at work. What’s also curious is that none of this city-wide green-ification involves buildings. It’s mostly unselfconscious interventions along roads. Not once have I seen plants and building combined, although I know if I went to see Heatherwick’s “1,000 Trees” I could. More can always be done of course, but this seems like a sensible and low-cost way of dealing with mainly heat island effect I imagine, but that also provides those other benefits. I’m sure I’ll return to this topic. It’s one of my constants. Thanks again.