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Dr Sandra Piesik on micro-cities, vernacular architecture & future-proofing our planet

Posted on 01 Sep 2023

Dr Sandra Piesik, award-winning architect, scientist and author of ‘Habitat’ discusses the vernacular architecture that will help us ensure we can live securely and peacefully on Earth as the human population increases.

Technology School of Guelmim, Morocco. The starting point for the project was to provide a strong architectural form that was contemporary but
was also inspired by the context in which it occurs. Photography © Fernando Guerra – FG+SG.

Thames & Hudson: How is the dramatic change in the human population and climate changing the way we build, or should build our homes?

Dr Sandra Piesik: Vast demographic shifts are reshaping the globe and we see the expansion of a working-age population in Asia, in particular India and China, young societies in Africa, and Northern America, whereas the European population is getting older. With a shifting hybrid model of work and greater co-dependencies on digitalisation our homes will need to be more flexible and adaptable for future use. It also means that we can build homes outside the city centres and re-introduce decentralised work-living models, taking away the pressure from mega-cities. Climate change is impacting the way we will be living in the future, and the fundamental lesson of Habitat is re-contextualisation of homes with their natural ecosystems, which includes the provision of food, in other words, the re-creation of self-sustainable models of living. Adaption of the built environment to the adverse effects of climate change needs to become an urgent priority.

Village houses set in the landscape of Madagascar’s central highlands represent the regions’ more humble built expression. Photo: ©Bernd Bieder/imageBROKER/Superstock.

T&H: Our population is set to hit 15 billion by the end of the century. Are there technologies and resources which will help to ensure we can live securely and peacefully on Earth as our population increases?

SP: I think that the population size is not necessarily the issue here. It is how we distribute and extract resources that matter, and we know that since the first industrial revolution, the exploitation of natural resources has not been fairly distributed across the world. In addition, we need to tackle resource waste from food to commodities. We see an emergence of various movements connected to circular economy and more recently regenerative economy, all of which aim to reduce our ecological footprint.  What is missing is a debate on cultural change and cultural shifts, that will also lead to changing aesthetics in architecture and products the consumers are willing to buy.

T&H: What are the issues with our fascination with technology in finding authentic regional solutions to regional problems?

SP: Deployment of what is already there. We read how the legislation is behind the AI developments, similarly, we are behind in deploying emerging technologies for solutions on the ground. One of the most promising ones in sustainable regional models is blockchain, and there are many successful pilots in the localised distribution of goods, but to deliver the transformative change we need ambition and scale.

Uncontrolled urban growth in Freetown, Sierra Loene, West Africa, has created slums, many of which are built from imported materials and systems that do not respond well to the conditions of the local environment. Photo Credit: ©Fabian von Poser/imageBROKER/Superstock.

T&H: What are ‘micro-cities’ and how do you see us tackling the global problem of exponentially growing cities and towns?

SP: ‘Micro-cities’ are hugely important. In urban terms, there are called ‘intermediary cities’ or ‘secondary cities’ and they mitigate urban-rural migration, enabling communities to stay in smaller cities, and by doing so reducing the influx of the population to megacities. There are a few co-dependencies for the mico-cities to be successful and one of them is an efficient roads and transportation system, as well as a digital infrastructure. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw an increase in the debate on small to medium size cities, enhancing them with localised food supply chains, and generally local supply chains could co-create a winning model.

T&H: Why is vernacular architecture, and using local natural resources to create buildings more important than ever?

SP: According to ‘The Encyclopedia Britannica’, the term ‘vernacular’ means native or indigenous, belonging to the country where a person is born. In other words, vernacular architecture is local, often built by indigenous peoples.

The fundamental conclusion of Habitat is the connection between the planet’s five major ecosystems and climate zones with the built environment. This can be also applied to food systems, agriculture, and the general development of material culture. The availability of natural resources in different climate zones shaped cities and villages but also enabled the development of the first climate technologies for the built environment. Today I could say ‘Zero–carbon’ climate technologies. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) of 1992 defines an ecosystem as (…) a dynamic complex of plant, animal, and micro-organism communities and their non-living environment interacting as a functional unit (…). Habitat offers evidence that for 12,000 years we could live in harmony with nature as a ‘functional unit’, today we need to find new ways to re-establish this ‘functional unit’ for habitats of the future.

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Vernacular Architecture for a Changing Climate Sandra Piesik