Architectural Digest China interview Mario Cucinella

14 Jul 2019

7 min

What put you into architecture, and what makes you enjoy architecture so much? The aspect I’m interested in and that over time has grown in my work is that the architecture is not an aesthetic exercise nor an isolated object. It is much more and much more complex, is linked to the life of men, the use of public space and the responsibility of building space, and this can affect positively or negatively our lives.

Now architecture is always associated with environmental issues, you are often called a ‘green architect’, so what exactly is ‘green architecture’ (or eco-architecture)? Sustainability in architecture is the ability to create the right project at the right place. There are many definitions of sustainability, especially in terms of places and working conditions. It is a position of an ethical nature, that is, to do the best you can in any given situation. It is not just an energy problem and cheap: a building must also respond to social needs. Only the sustainability applied to architecture allows you to design the best possible in any condition of the environment. The architectural thought for sustainable projects has to start from the knowledge of the place where you build, you have to really understand where a building will be built, in terms of culture, geography and climate. A building is not just a box to live, work or performance of a machine, it is mainly an expression of the culture of that place. The themes of energy, environment and reduction of consumption are a great chance to bring the architecture to its true nature: a building belongs to one place and only into that place can and should be built with those features.

Is ‘eco-architecture’ a very modern product? As for every historical period, architecture has to express the spirit of the time. Ecology in architecture is not a recent discover but has been an inseparable part of architecture in the past. There are many examples of beautiful buildings in the past centuries that take advantage of local climate conditions, to provide a comfortable interior and enrich the surrounding environment.

What is your view on the wisdom of traditional architecture? Traditional architecture is a great source of inspiration and innovation. It shows us how people in the past faces adverse conditions using locally available resources to develop comfortable and beautiful buildings thus enriching the local environment. In this context vernacular architecture express not an architectural style, but rather the identity of places, people, materials and environments. Shape and materials, as cornerstones of sustainable architecture, are the primary source of comfort in these buildings. In my opinion learning from vernacular architecture can enable a new design language capable of expressing the beauty and the richness of local cultures. This approach opposes the internalization and banalization of building processes with indifference to sites, culture and climate.

There is many old architecture in both Italy and China, and the issue or debate of the transition between the old and the new exists in both countries too, please tell us your thoughts on this issue. There is a large amount of knowledge in traditional architecture that has been forgotten and yet to be rediscovered to build a new generation of culturally and environmentally responsive buildings. Today sustainable buildings are conceived as a marketing product that needs lots of artificial technology to maintain comfortable interiors. But there is also an alternative path, conceiving low-tech buildings where form and materials performing these tasks instead of relying on machines. This process is much closer to the complexity of nature and less like mechanical artifice, and can lead to better buildings, enrionmentally friendly and closer to people expectations.

You seem to have bonds to China as you have done projects in Beijing and Ningbo, can you tell us a little bit about these projects? What are the inspirations of your design? The design philosophy of SIEEB combines sustainable design principles and state of the art technologies to create a building that responds to its climatic and architectural context. The design uses both active and passive strategies through the design of its shape and of its envelope SIEEB to control the external environment in order to optimise the internal environmental comfort conditions. The building design has been assessed through a series of testing and computer simulations of its performance in relation to its possible shape, orientation, envelope, technological systems and so on, finding a balance between energy efficiency targets, minimum C02 emissions, a functional layout and the image of a contemporary building. The design found a way to integrate tested and proven components with innovative systems. Envelope components, control systems and technologies employed in the SIEEB represent the state of the art of the innovative Italian production in the building sector. The building is closed and well insulated on the northern side that faces the cold winter winds and it is more transparent and open towards the south. On the east and west sides, light and direct sun are controlled by a double skin façade that filters solar gain and optimises the penetration of daylight into the office spaces. Attractive green spaces, gardens and terraces are distinctive elements of the project. Cantilevered structural elements extend to the south, giving shade to the terraces. Regarding CSET instead, the building is conceived as a beacon, the tower will be visible from all around the campus and will act as an icon symbolising the exciting possibilities of renewable energy research. Like a Chinese lantern it twists and distorts creating many different facades, similar to a three dimensional sculpture, changing with each viewpoint. The tower is uniformly wrapped in printed glass, creating an uniform skin which will glimmer by day, while by night certain fully glazed panels will become transparent, displaying the band of glazing like a ribbon wrapped around the tower.

Your ‘100K€ Home’ project was on exhibition in 2010 Shanghai Expo. How is that project doing so far? Do you think we can try projects like this in China as well? The 100k home started initially as a research project to address the critical problems of housing stock in Italy, which is low quality, expensive and high energy consuming. In the last years we develop the concept to make it adaptable to different climates and sites beyond the Italian context. Looking to China, it would be a great opportunity to experiment this concept in your country to address growing demand for quality and low cost housing thus reducing carbon emissions into the atmosphere.

You once said that ‘low-carbon green is a lifestyle’, could you talk about this a little bit further? It is not a matter to renounce to a comfortable life, but be aware about our environmental impact and adopting a more sustainable lifestyle. In the 100k project we explored this idea in terms of quality of life, social interaction and micro economies that can be generated by a single building. Instead to imagine a building which rely on natural resources and produce pollution,  the 100k home produces more energy than it consumes thanks to passive design strategies and use of renewables. This allows to minimize expenditure for energy and reduces inequalities in the access to essential services. Secondly the promotion of new way of mobility, like electric cars powered by renewables, use of bicycle and walking, can sensibly reduce carbon emission thus increasing quality of life. The design of exterior spaces like the terraces and the surrounding garden promotes a healthy contact with the nature and social interaction with neighbors. Moreover the creation of little vegetable gardens to grow km 0 fruit and vegetables can save money and carbon emissions thus producing healthier food. Last but not least the provision of shared spaces for inhabitants like common laundry, multifunctional areas, tool warehouse can reduce bills thus promoting social interactions between neighbors.

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