The interplay of culture, ecology and technology in architecture
Prof. Enriqueta Llabres-Valls, holder of the fifth "Dr. Jörg Mittelsten Scheid Visiting Professorship" at Bergische Universität
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The interplay of culture, ecology and technology in architecture.

An interview with Enriqueta Llabres-Valls, Mittelsten Scheid Visiting Professor at the Faculty of Architecture and Civil Engineering.

During your training as an architect, you studied the relationships between technologies, innovations, culture and ecology because you believe that these aspects have a crucial influence on the built environment. What does this influence look like?

Llabres-Valls: This influence is part of my vital relationship with the environment from childhood and also later when I went to university. It started with ecology and culture. I am from the Canary Islands and I grew up there as well. My family is from there. I then returned to the Canary Islands after living in many different places and spent my life there. The Canary Islands are like a microcosm. They are small islands and they have a very rich, natural, but fragile environment. So I grew up with the sea and the ecosystem. My childhood was very close to the landscape and the territory. But the Canary Islands have suffered. I mean, they've developed, there's been economic growth, but that has affected the territory and the landscape, and also the development. There's been a lot of controversy about how it's been developed and the seven islands in total haven't developed evenly either.
Each one is a little development laboratory.
One island that influenced me a lot before I started my career is Lanzarote. When I was a kid, Cesar Manrique, a very famous artist and landscape designer, was involved in the development of Lanzarote. He collaborated with architects and there are a lot of landscape projects by him. He explored the villages of the island, because the only wealth we had in Lanzarote was the landscape and the ecosystem. And if we hadn't taken care of it, there would be nothing there, because Lanzarote had no water. So Manrique went to the villages to communicate with the people. The development of the cultural landscape that Cesar Manrique wanted to promote in Lanzarote led to an economic boom, but it also affected the consciousness of the people who participated in the creation of the landscape. Such an example has always influenced my way of thinking about architecture, landscape, territory, etc.
That's why in 2012 I studied Local Economic Development at the London School of Economics and started working with the idea of relational urban modesty and relational capital, according to which people can come together and develop an idea of a city, an idea of public space, an idea of a building. So the spaces that are built are the ones that are able to accommodate different visions of different social groups. The diversity of opinions is something that should be celebrated, because otherwise it means that, for example, a dominant house covers the diversity of needs and conditions that each person has.
It is true that when you practice the profession of architecture and traditional architecture, it is always necessary to take into account what the client wants, but in a vision of integration of ecology, integration of landscape, you must not think only like an architect, because all architecture affects the territory and biodiversity. At this point I think that the concept of relational urbanism and the fact that the territory is a cultural construction is fundamental.
In terms of what concerns technology, my father had a decisive influence on me, but it had nothing to do with architecture. My father instilled in me from a young age a passion for science and for mathematics. My interest in technology has to do with the way we construct knowledge, how we construct our knowledge of the environment, and how that affects our cultural construction of that environment.
At the Barlett School in London, where I teach, our students are studying how agricultural practices in the application of phosphorus over the years are leading to a major emissions problem in the Baltic Sea. So the problem of sphericity and the ability to see the problems from the planetary scale to the scale of the structure and the material system is fundamental. And we can only achieve and convey this through technology. We need to understand this complex system of scale in order to provide timely solutions to the environmental problem, we also need to visualize and communicate it. Today, technology is able to help us manage big data systems. It helps us reach large groups of people. So for me, technology is a fundamental element of the design methodology. It's important to make critical reforms when using technology and to be careful not to take an extreme positivist view of technology. And that's why the interplay of culture, ecology, and technology is fundamental.
Most environmental problems, while they are problems that cannot be solved by technology, are based on how we relate to each other, how we compete with each other for resources, and how society manages public goods. I always face the problem of consuming or not polluting at the cost of sacrificing my individual utility for the common good. But I cannot force anyone to do it. So there has to be an awareness on the part of the individual to have a coordinated vision that enables a commitment to live better with it. And technology has an important function there.

A lot of your work has won awards, including Le Fanu Park, which has a large skate park in Dublin. What was important to you in that work?

Llabres-Valls: The most important thing about this project was the process of involving the different communities. This created a sense of ownership and belonging. We were able to design the space we needed for skateboarding with simple resources. We consulted extensively and made the park an inclusive place. It's a place for skating, but it's also usable by a different part of the population. We tried to include different stakeholders and their different sensitivities about skating, so the whole park is not just concrete. Some geometries are very simple, very direct, other geometries are more complex and there is a relationship between the different spaces where people can simply observe. This project was not well received initially in the community of Ballyfermot, Dublin, because the area had been a problem neighborhood for years. The residents didn't want a skatepark at first because they didn't see the positive impact. So there were negotiations with the neighbors. In the end, this became a multifunctional space, a skate park, but also a playground for children and a landscape project that also improved the visual quality of the area.
There was the skater and BMX community that promoted the project, we involved the local schools and created a sports facility next to the park. We went to where there were important activities in the community on certain occasions, had conversations and promoted the project. The local families had the opportunity to have a say and we also found people who felt responsible for the park. So at the end of the day, you have to understand the sensitivities of each group and try to orchestrate the design. The vision of the space and the design led the way. Everyone is able to express their constants, but ultimately they follow the lead of the vision that is being proposed. That is what gives us as architects the ability to lead.

How did you convince the people who had doubts about this park of your vision?

Llabres-Valls: On the one hand, there was a commitment to say, okay, we'll do the skate park, but we'll also do it for the residents there. So we developed a strategy to convince people. We used the soil from the construction to build a hill so that you can't see or hear the skate track from the street. So this design strategy achieves a negotiation point between the two parties. And finally, it is a multifunctional space that not only consists of a skate park, but also offers other activities that have nothing to do with skating, but rather with children's play. The transformation of the public space also benefited the homeowners who live there, because it brought an increase in value.

Is there a work or a building that particularly clearly implements the concept of relational urbanism?

Llabres-Valls: I think the skatepark is a good example of the concept of relational urbanism because, if you look at the video that goes with it, you can see that the kids clean their skatepark themselves. And that's it! I was not involved in the production of this video at all. There is a kid who says that this is not a space that the city cares about. This is our space, we have the responsibility and we have to take care of it.
I think architecture faculty need to start looking at how the practice of urban planning and the practice of architecture are connected and affect people's relationship to their territory, to their work.

What impact will materials have on building in the future, given that resources are becoming increasingly scarce?

Llabres-Valls: Technologies should help us to create architecture with less footprints, that is, through technology to check our materials for cost intensity and recycling. I think architecture needs to be understood as a cycle that takes into account construction, use, disassembly, reuse, or recycling, and is not focused on waste.
New materials can be obtained from wood. This is of fundamental importance. We are working on a topic related to waste and to residues. The direction should be that a concept of waste must disappear, because, our wastes do not disappear, they remain in the environment. So, the only way is to reuse it or design the area to accommodate it.
Building materials also have to evolve in this direction.
I think we are at a point in human history where there is no compromise on the environment. If you look at what has happened: the heat wave in Canada, the drought in California, the destruction of the Amazon, I think we are in shock. There has been a pandemic that has to do with how we treat animals. We are not in a state where we can just say, keep it up! It's really a bit absurd, and I also try to focus my intellectual efforts as much as possible on addressing the ecological reality of the planet.

What is the importance of design in the architecture of the future?

Llabres-Valls: It is fundamental. Ultimately, we need to understand each other, or human nature as it works. Our cultural evolution has far outstripped our biological evolution. Human beings, in my opinion, are always between the rational and the irrational. We like the things we understand, but we also have an attachment to values that we construct culturally, like the flag, the idea of a country, the idea of a community, the idea of a city. Ultimately, these are cultural constructions. And design is the maximum expression of this cultural construction of countries. So architecture without design is not architecture, and design is able to reach people's sensibility. So we have to use design to get in touch with people. Issues of beauty, of love or passion, of hate are very human things that must find their way into the designs if we want to preserve an area that until then was unattractive. It's also the way of doing things at LeFanu Skate Park. The design takes the lead because it brings forth the vision, a vision that people want, that they like.

The interview was conducted by Daniel Vazquez Capilla (06.10.2021)

Prof. Enriqueta Llabres-Valls teaches at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London. She holds the fifth "Dr. Jörg Mittelsten Scheid Visiting Professorship" at the Bergische Universität Wuppertal.


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