Feature Article

Work Globally, Design Locally

How green design is sustaining regional diversity

February 7, 2017

To help Payette’s design team understand the cultural context of Aga Khan University Hospital complex in Karachi, the university arranged for the team to travel to Spain, North Africa, Iran, and South Asia. There, designers studied traditional patterns, materials, and forms—all of which the project interprets without imitating.

Photo © Paul Warchol
Stop copying the West.

That was the message of a 2016 workshop in Kenya organized by UN-Habitat, where Musau Kimeu called on African developers and architects to design buildings suited to their climate. “We must pursue sustainable building design strategies to construct buildings that have exemplary humane qualities and that resonate well with the locale,” he said. (Kimeu, who is chair of the University of Nairobi’s Department of Architecture and Building Science, was quoted in the Rwandan newspaper The New Times.)

In today’s global economy, American architects work on six continents. At last count, according to the 2016 Firm Survey Report by the American Institute of Architects (AIA), annual revenue from international projects totaled $2.2 billion. Large firms earned an average of 12% of their revenue outside North America, while some firms were closer to half or even three-quarters.

When the imitation of Western design by admirers world-wide is added to this direct influence, the “subtle destruction” of regional diversity— identified by Paul Ricoeur in a 1965 essay (see sidebar)—isn’t so subtle anymore.

An architecture of resistance

Vincent Kitio, chief of UN-Habitat’s Urban Energy Unit, backed Kimeu’s call for climate-responsive design, adding that urban buildings consume 56% of the energy generated in developing countries, and that the majority of modern buildings in sub-Saharan Africa now are replicas of Western designs. In “Invasive Aesthetics: A Manifesto for Reviving Architectural Identity in Developing Nations,” (an article ArchDaily tagged as one of 2013’s most significant), Mauritius-based Zaheer and Zarrin Allam asked, “Do we really want a world that is basically a mirror image of the U.S.?”

The Aga Khan Award for Architecture has been answering that question for 40 years, encouraging excellence in addressing the needs and aspirations of societies in which Muslims have a significant presence. At the time the award was founded, notes a brief history provided by the Aga Khan Development Network, architectural discourse reflected Western preoccupations:

Little was said of Islamic architecture or many of the concerns that the award championed then, and which are common today: sustainability, human scale, climate adaptation, quality of life.

For green building practitioners, it takes only a moment to put these concerns for regionally appropriate architecture into the context of their own professional mission and spot the overlap. In his 2014 essay “Code of Context,” Jay Wickersham, FAIA, did just that. “It may be that our best protection against global homogenization lies not in the realm of the visual or the historical,” he concluded, “but rather in the idea of sustainability.”

Taking a closer look

“Where better?”

“Absolutely.”

“The whole point of sustainable building and development is that it belongs in its place.”

Those are some of the responses we heard when we ran the idea past a posse of international practitioners whose works express the principles of critical regionalism. Proposed by Kenneth Frampton, this approach rejects not only homogenized global design, but also a romanticized version of vernacular architecture (see sidebar).

So we wanted to learn how the idea of sustainability as a “thin green line” against the forces of global homogenization is working in practice on the ground:

  • Is the priority of regionally appropriate architecture explicit in this design approach, and if so, how?
  • How do sustainability and regionally sensitive design mesh in these types of projects?
  • What are the metrics or indicators of success?
  • And what happens when values collide? In an unfamiliar context, how do international practitioners assess the ethics of their design solutions, or determine whether to proceed at all?

For the practitioners we spoke with, the priority of regionally appropriate design was always explicit (although the degree to which their clients shared the priority varied), and the examples in the following discussions suggest that it meshes with sustainability seamlessly and flexibly throughout the design process, in the final work product, and at a range of scales.

Metrics for success run the gamut of internal checks—such as the Nature of Place tool HKS applies to each of its projects, and the values inherent in NBBJ’s quiet advocacy—as well as external indicators, such as:

  • local and critical acclaim and enduring influence, as with Payette’s Aga Khan University Hospital
  • percentage of materials derived from, and money kept in, local communities, as for MASS’s Butaro District Hospital and Ilima Primary School
  • research-based and quantified measures, as with Perkins+Will’s work in Istanbul

Regarding values colliding, we mostly heard that they don’t because of a variety of factors:

  • due diligence in advance of taking on a client
  • deliberately built processes that bridge a cultural divide
  • extensive and continuing consultation with stakeholders
  • respect-based, evidence-backed advocacy

All of these strategies have helped the teams behind these projects to find a balance of universal and regional values that works, or to continue the search together with their clients.