Cityscapes for the future

“The nice thing about those days is that we were designing a lot of buildings that never got built,” joked designer Ron Arad to me in an interview before his trip to India this year. Arad was referring to Archigram, an avant-garde movement founded by Sir Peter Cook in the 1960s at Architectural Association, Britain’s oldest independent architecture school where Arad studied in Cook’s department in the 1970s.

Yet Cook revealed in an interview to ArchDaily in 2016 that their neo-futuristic designs were very much intended to be built. Arad and his contemporaries like the famous Zaha Hadid were pushed to imagine and experiment, spinning out path-breaking designs, embracing technology and new realities. Hadid’s ‘parametricism’ ushered in a whole new spatial complexity into architecture.

We are today at a point where our understanding of sustainability has necessarily changed. From 1.9 billion people in 1917, the world population grew over the century to 7.5 billion in 2017. Climate change, pollution from emission and waste, rampant effluent discharge and flooding, reduction of water bodies, encroachment into forest areas, and congestion of cities threaten the planet’s survival.

At this time, it’s vital that architecture reinvent itself. And it has begun to do so, although very slowly. For our buildings to be sustainable and organic to these times, their designs have to marry climate, function and aesthetic. They have to harness new materials, technology and software, invest in research, and rise to the expectations of this millennium, and change the way we build for the future.

Skyscraper with sky gardens

Suraksha Acharya, founder of Midori Architects in Chennai, is doing just this. She has just won two awards for Aero Hive, a hypothetical skyscraper design she created for Hong Kong, visualising it as an iconic landmark office tower with views to Victoria Harbour.

Her inspiration, Acharya says, is Commerzbank in Frankfurt, the highest building in Europe when it was completed in 1997, the first major green building by a commercial company, and the world’s first ecological skyscraper boasting sky-gardens.

“Tall buildings have to take every opportunity to reduce energy consumption,” says the 33-year-old, whose mentor is Ken Yeang, the ‘father of the bioclimatic skyscraper’.

Acharya’s hypothetical design is breathtaking in conception and futuristic in ambition. The skyscraper is actually a “breathing entity”, where vertical diaphragms in the form of green sky atriums behave like lungs, letting in oxygen and removing carbon dioxide. The Aero Hive’s ingenious twin-tower façades literally twist to accommodate daylight and wind flow, and at the same time negate heat gain.


Like Acharya, Rajat Sodhi at Orproject also studied at Architectural Association and practises its ethos: ‘Design in beauty, build in truth.’

“Technology has given rise to smart products, so why not smart buildings,” asks Sodhi, 36, who opened the Delhi branch of Orproject in 2011, a research-based architecture firm with branches in Delhi, London and Beijing.

With changing needs, the lifecycles of buildings are shortened and old material dumped in landfills; therefore, setting out to build with permanence often defeats the conservationist standpoint. Sodhi explains, “We are actually using very antiquated ways of building — glass, wood, brick and concrete — things that require a lot of energy to manufacture. While a brick by itself can last 100 years, the life of the building is just a quarter of that, so the brick is, in fact, over-engineered — a waste of energy.”

Sodhi points to the Hall of Nations in Delhi, brought down less than 50 years of being built, as a classic example of this. “We lost the energy we used to build it by dismantling and throwing it away,” he says. In the process, of course, we also lost an iconic modern Indian building designed by veteran architect Raj Rewal.

Sodhi’s idealism is pragmatic — he believes beautiful things hold profound truths and make cultural connections. “I believe a city environment really shapes us,” he says. “The Building Centre in the U.K., which published a piece on our project Bubbles, made an interesting connection between increased pollution and crime rate.”

Copying nature

Sodhi works with bio-mimetics — copying nature. He researches nature’s algorithms to write codes that he uses to make his drawings, and Bubbles was born of that — a proposal for enclosed parks in over-polluted cities like Delhi and Beijing that’s inspired by Buckminster Fuller’s ‘dome over Manhattan’ of the 1960s.

Cityscapes for the future

The proposed botanical garden will provide controlled climate and an interconnected clean air system. The idea for the structure was inspired by veined leaves and butterfly’s wings — light, translucent and structurally stable — and uses ETFE, a lightweight stretchable and affordable plastic. “A by-product of fossil fuels, ETFE uses very little energy in making and is easily recycled,” says Sodhi.

Fifty years after Fuller’s ‘wild scheme’, which had a rational basis for energy-saving and climate control, Bubbles has won multiple awards, including the 2016 Architizer A+ Award.


When the husband-wife team of Amit Gupta and Britta Knobel Gupta were invited to design a pavilion for the 2018 Helsinki Fashion Week, the world’s only sustainable fashion show, their company Studio Symbiosis visualised a ‘forest of trees’.

The couple gave careful thought to hi-tech manufacturing for ease of lo-tech execution. The pavilion’s intricate-looking design intelligently uses just three basic elements, and is made of engineered wood with slotted joints that can be assembled in two days flat.

The couple, who worked at Zaha Hadid’s studio for five years after graduating from AA, started Studio Symbiosis in 2010 keeping sustainability at its epicentre. They believed their buildings should reduce heat, control lux levels, and eliminate glare. Further, sustainability meant an active interaction between building and user. All this made them look at the idea of symbiosis from many levels, a holistic approach where various factors come together.

Based on latticework

For newspaper Punjab Kesari, the couple designed its New Delhi headquarters to be inaugurated later this year. Here they used simulation and scripting to determine the building’s ‘solar-responsive façade’.

Cityscapes for the future

The results showed that the east façade should be 62% open, the south 22%, the west 54% and the north 81% open. So they created a mesmerising latticework, based on the indigenous jaali design. Its hexagonal tessellation morphs across each face of the building to vary the light absorbed into the five-storey structure spread across 18,000 sq.m. No artificial lighting is required inside the building on a normal day. The jaali made of GRP also makes it contextual to its surroundings, placing it squarely in the local milieu.

The building won the International Property award for best office at Architecture India 2016-17.


Just as Fuller’s dome in the 60s intuited the need for radical building solutions, modern architects are working on building designs for a future where environmental sustainability will be key.

Cityscapes for the future

That’s why Sodhi’s Orproject concentrates on advanced geometries to spin ‘eco-narratives’ — it integrates natural elements into the design, pushing for intelligent, responsive systems versus passive systems that are often over-designed for ideal conditions.

Anyone can do it

One of Sodhi’s projects is a wall cladding that reminds one of a Dubuffet sculpture. Each module of the cladding funnels air. “It consists of two modular pieces of plastic, which can be adapted to existing structures. At any later stage, they can be melted and recycled,” says Sodhi. Then there’s Or2, which won the coveted Chicago Athenaeum Good Design Award in 2012. This is a translucent white tree-form with photovoltaic cells, which changes to many hues when exposed to sunlight. Providing shade by day, it turns into an enormous chandelier by night.

While the tree appears complex, Sodhi says that it’s actually quite easy to assemble. “Each piece is unique, numbered like a puzzle, and can be assembled through screws or rivets, with basic tools, much like Ikea furniture.” Thus, sustainable architecture also becomes about making users build for themselves in future — democratising it so that anyone can do it.

Studio Symbiosis takes inspiration from nature and its symbiotic solutions. “For us it’s important that a piece of architecture respond to the surroundings,” says Amit Gupta.

Under the Kannauj-Grasse twin city agreement, a 50-acre Perfume Park is being planned at Kannauj off the Lucknow-Agra Highway.

Fibonacci series

For the Park, the Guptas have derived the entire landscape from the Fibonacci series at the centre whorl of a sunflower. The research centre, museum and training centre are integrated as three petals at the locus.

And for a temple in Gorakhpur, they have created fractal systems based on nature’s self-repeating, self-similar systems. Some 40-50 optional systems were churned out to gauge the efficiency of implementation. A peepul tree and a baoli (stepwell) were also integrated into the plan. Says Britta Gupta, “We always begin with a strong concept story, but we don’t want to lose it on the way. We try to make it meaningful.”

When Acharya picked a site for her award-winning Aero Hive, she chose a densely built Hong Kong waterfront at the old Kai Tak airstrip, her focus on revitalising reclaimed land while examining the inherent challenges that come with the vertical growth of cities — urban land pressures, water scarcity, energy demands and environmental degradation.

For Acharya, the challenge was to prove that high-rises, often seen as glass boxes and energy guzzlers, can be ventilated naturally and be models of sustainability.

Acharya’s hypothetical design explores all parameters to make the building sustainable as an eco-system and balance its impact on the neighbourhood. It uses concepts such as air-cooling systems that kick in and shut off, motorised windows that open inwards for natural air intake, task lighting, sky gardens. The design’s porosity, organic nature and its ability to be a beacon for sustainability was what the jury noticed.

Talking of micro-systems, Acharya says, “All micro environments must empower the occupant to modify their state of comfort based on their thermal, visual or acoustic expectations. By acknowledging that in the design, you are allowing the user freedom, not compelling them to accept their immediate surroundings.”


When J.G. Ballard wrote High-Rise in 1975 about a dystopian ‘vertical-city’ in the outskirts of London, he imagined a day in the future when all systems fail and man is pushed to the brink to survive. Instead of exiting this oppressive situation, the residents stay on, their behaviour turning pathological as groups attack and vandalise, seemingly addicted to the chaos. The building is an allegorical phenomenon, calling attention to how architecture influences social behaviour.

Forty years later, a film adaptation of the book reminds us that we don’t actually leave the confines of an overbuilt city, we somehow adapt to its crushing certainties. So, if we choose to stay, how can cities sustain?

Art is predictive. And in architecture too, hypothetical designs are crucial to finding answers. This millennium’s personalised devices allow users to become shapers of design. And the sizeable shift we see in architectural practice today also lies in predictive technology, simplified implementation and user involvement. Sustainability is moving towards inclusivity, but it also truly depends on how well we envision the future.

Once a furniture designer, this incidental archivist believes writers never need to settle down.

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Printable version | Jun 14, 2021 7:25:02 AM |

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