Interview Green Good Design Awards - Vincent Callebaut

Chicago 2021



Chicago Athenaeum & European Centre - Green Good Design Awards 2021, March 31

"Vincent Callebaut: An Archibiotect, a designer of a better tomorrow"

The European Centre for Architecture Art Design and Urban Studies and The Chicago Athenaeum Museum of Architecture and Design have named Belgian architect Vincent Callebaut as the Green Practitioner of the Year for 2021.

With his innovative thinking, talent, and willingness to change the world for the better, Vincent Callebaut justifies the title ARCHIBIOTIC: ARCHItecture, BIOmimicry, and ICT (Information and Communication Technologies). The climate crisis and the rising sea levels are crucial issues that his futuristic, ecodistrict designs fight to win over. Lilypad, Physalia, Hydrogenase, are just a few of his grandiose projects.

His studio, Vincent Callebaut Architectures, is based in Paris, France.

Elizabeth Soufli: You are not just an architect, but an "Archibiotect," a transdisciplinary approach that you invented back in 2008. What's an Archibiotect's philosophy and purpose in design?

Vincent Callebaut: ARCHIBIOTIC is the title of my second architectural monograph published in 2008 by the United Asia Art and Design Cooperation in Beijing. It is a neologism that, in my opinion, brings together the three vectors of contemporary urban creation: ARCHItecture, BIOmimicry, and ICT (Information and Communication Technologies). When this book came out, Times Magazine had optimistically christened me "Archibiotect imagining fantastical projects that address the world's environmental and social ills."

Since then, I have continued to develop a new transdisciplinary approach to architecture by building bridges between fundamental research developed in universities and scientific laboratories on the one hand and applied industrial research on the other hand. During these moments of health crisis which is sounding the alarm about climate change, the

ARCHIBIOTIC concept has never been so in tune with its era. Indeed, in 2021, every citizen wants to get closer to Nature and is interested in Biomimicry to build the post-carbon, postfossil, post-nuclear and post-insecticide world of tomorrow. In spite of this thirst for Nature, we are all a bit schizophrenic and addicted to Information and Communication Technologies that have led to the recent explosion of telework, the development of connected objects but especially the constant exchange of data. In short, the engineering developed by Nature over the last 3.8 billion years and the engineering developed by Humanity over the last 50 years have become ultra-complementary.

The Archibiotects of the 21st century have for leitmotiv to transform cities into ecosystems, neighborhoods into forests, and buildings into inhabited trees. My generation's challenge is to invent new ways of living that generate their own energy through photosynthesis, that recycle all this waste into resources, that use only biosourced materials, exactly what a mature ecosystem like the Amazon forest does.

E.S: What makes a GOOD DESIGN, and most importantly, what describes a project as a "GREEN" GOOD DESIGN?

V.C: A GREEN GOOD DESIGN is a non-formatted project that overturns the traditional toolkit of Architecture. It is a project that, in my opinion, must propose the right symbiosis of the Human-Nature couple by taking inspiration from the forms, structures, and feedback loops that exist in an ecosystem. It is a project that has been studied at every stage of its life cycle to be the most carbon-efficient and respectful of the planet, from its design to its dismantling, through its construction and operation.

E.S: How did everything start? When did you decide to be an architect, and what made you go "green"?

V.C: I am part of the new generation of architects trained at the end of the 20th century during the global awareness of the climate crisis and the rising sea levels. At the time, we were caught between, on the one hand, the denial of the last climatosceptics, who were, unfortunately, the greatest leaders of this world, and on the other hand, the cry of alarm of the collapsologists who announced the collapse of our society incapable of reinventing itself in advance.

Under the impetus of the damning reports of the Giec and the awareness of former President Jacques Chirac in France and the former Vice President of Al Gore in the United States, who both proclaimed "Our House is Burning," it seemed vital to me at the age of 23 (diploma in hand) that Architecture and Urban Planning could provide many solutions to try to reappropriate the Earth and the Climate. I then worked for nights and nights to draw my projects, now called "Manifestes," these climatic mini heroes who made me known all over the world, such as:

- La ville flottante "Lilypad" designed to accommodate climate refugees whose structure inspired by the leaves of giant Amazonian lily pads is built from green algae and recycled plastic waste from the 7th continent.

- La ferme verticale à New York "Dragonfly" whose greenhouses are inspired by the crystalline structures of dragonfly wings. This project advocates the development of Urban Agriculture in order to reintegrate, in the heart of the consumption places, the places of organic food production in short circuit.

- Le zeppelin vertical "Hydrogénase," which proposes a new generation of zero-carbon air transport powered by recyclable bio-hydrogen rather than oil.

These three projects gave me the opportunity to exhibit my ideas in 2010 in about ten national pavilions at the World Expo in Shanghai and at the World Contemporary Arts Fair in Dubai. That's where it all started, where the agency was born.

In these emerging countries, I found innovative entrepreneurs, eco-responsible real estate developers, and courageous politicians who trusted my transdisciplinary team and me by commissioning us to build real ecological projects to transit from dream to reality.

E.S: Your projects vary from buildings that produce their own power to towers that remove pollution and floating cities… What are the most significant environmental challenges of our days that your projects have to face and overcome?

V.C: Today, we are in the process of delivering several projects built in Taiwan, Dubai, and France. All of them have in common the will to limit their environmental footprint. All of them are led by ambitious and pioneering clients. And when a client believes in you and gives you the means to achieve exemplary goals, you are ready to move mountains for them!

In Taiwan, Taipei, the "Tao Zhu Yin Yuan" eco-friendly residential tower is being delivered. It's a 45,000 square meter tower built all-steel to be hyper-flexible and earthquake-resistant and can withstand shocks up to 7.0 on the Richter scale. Aiming for a neutral carbon footprint, it integrates many passive bioclimatization systems such as wind chimneys that cross the core of vertical circulations and provide natural ventilation. The tower is covered with large photovoltaic and thermal solar canopies producing electricity and hot water for selfconsumption.

After achieving a 50% reduction in intrinsic carbon emissions during its construction phase, this tower will be able to capture up to 135 tons of CO2 per year in the atmosphere thanks to the 23,000 plants, shrubs, and trees that will cover this vertical spiral forest.

The great quality of this project is its reversibility. Indeed, the apartments are free of any loadbearing point, no walls, no ducts, no posts inside the apartments, but a generalized double floor that allows for personalized interior design for each buyer. The reversibility of the project is synonymous with sustainability in time and space.

In Dubai, the Belgian pavilion "The Green Arch" is under construction for the World Expo "Expo2020 Dubai". It will open its doors on 1 October 2021. It is a beautiful project in a mixed steel-wood structure that is wrapped with more than 5.5 kilometers of Cross Laminated Timber louvers. The concept of this pavilion is to create a public agora under a large spruce vault filtering the sunlight like a giant mashrabiya. Inside, visitors will be able to discover the most beautiful Belgian innovations that imagine the mobility of the future in the form of comic strips. This project is a true spatialization of the concept of "Belgitude," a clever mix of Latin romanticism specific to Southern Europe and high pragmatic technicality from the Germanic and Anglo-Saxon countries of Northern Europe.

Ιn France, we are currently carrying out several major urban renewal projects such as the "Réhabilitation des Anciens Thermes Nationaux" in Aix-les-Bains, a project classified as a Historic Monument in Savoie. The aim is to enhance the national heritage while promoting the development of a new type of housing, "sky-villas," which brings back all the advantages of living in the countryside with a private garden but in the heart of a historic city close to all services. Each apartment will benefit from a large green balcony, bringing nature back to the heart of the city and allowing you to admire the great alpine landscape between the Lac du Bourget and Mont Revard.

E.S: In 2019, a historic fire burst in Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, where part of the roof burnt to the ground and major damage was done to the upper part of the building. Your design "Palingenesis, Tribute To Notre-Dame" features a gothic and biomimetic forest on top of the Cathedral, a rebirth of the place. What's the inspiration behind this project?

V.C: Each wave of time contributes its alluvium, each race deposits its layer on the monument, each individual brings his stone. Thus do the beavers, thus do the bees, thus do people. - Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, 1831.

We advocate for an exemplary project in ecological engineering that feels true to its time and avoids a pastiche architecture that turns the city into an open-air museum. Circular economy, renewable energies, inclusive social innovation, urban agriculture, protection of biodiversity, without forgetting beauty and spiritual elevation: our reconstruction project feeds on such values to deliver a deep, conscious meaning.

From primitive Gothic in the 12th century to its restoration by Viollet-le Duc in the 19th century, through the radiant Gothic of the 13th century and the flamboyant Gothic of the 14th century, Notre-Dame Cathedral undoubtedly arises from centuries of work and multifaceted inspiration. As such, it is hardily encumbered by useless musings about the overlapping styles inherent in the building.

We seek to present a transcendent project, a public sky garden, symbol of a resilient and ecological future that offers the city of Paris a set of solutions inspired by biomimicry, defined here as a common ethic for a fairer symbiotic relationship between humans and nature.

Our "Palingenesis" project - in Greek παλιγγενεσία, meaning "rebirth," "regeneration" – aims to assimilate the venerable stone nave, to blend in naturally as a vegetal graft harmonizing in one gesture - in one single curved stroke of the pencil - the roof and the spire. Respecting the inherent principles of descent of the building's structural loads towards the flying buttresses and the inner fasciculated pillars, the four roofing lines and the four lines of the roof's ribs bend and join together in harmony towards the sky, producing a parametric and light geometry.

Constructed with cross-laminated timber beams prestressed with carbon-fiber slats, the new oak frame seeks to use the minimum amount of material to ensure a low-carbon footprint while offering the greatest transparency to the Cathedral.

E.S: Is there a certain hierarchy among green features, energy, location, materials, etc.?

V.C: Since the beginning of the first COVID-19 confinement on March 15, 2020, we have discovered our absolute necessity of resilience worldwide, i.e., our collective capacity to withstand a shock and come back to life like a forest after a fire.

This health crisis must be seen as an extraordinary opportunity to invent a more sober, more reasoned, and more united development model. Any exemplary approach must become the norm. Facing ecological and social issues is not an option in an architectural project. It is the basis of our professional commitment. Our role is to imagine eco-responsible lifestyles and then design the architecture that allows them to be spontaneously adopted by the greatest number of people.

Like our vertical village "The Rainbow Tree" designed 100% in solid wood in Cebu City, Philippines - or - our more recent project "Archiborescence" to build affordable wooden housing in Lille, France, the four major "icebreaker" measures we implement through our projects to achieve resilient and ecological urbanism are the following:

a. Zero-waste circular economy: Unlike our current linear economy, where we produce, consume, throw away and create debt by plundering the Earth of its resources, the circular economy is a "regenerative" economy. It is based on bio-sourced materials, recycling of waste into resources and decentralized renewable energies. The circular economy systematically implements the triple "R" rule: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. In this new economy with a positive environmental impact, priority is given to short supply circuits and reuse in all sectors, particularly the construction sector, which emits 40% of greenhouse gases and consumes 40% of the energy produced worldwide.

In our European cities, 90% of the buildings of 2050 are already built! The priority must therefore be massively oriented towards energy renovation and the rehabilitation of existing buildings.

b. Soft mobility and the fight against urban sprawl: In the midst of urban sprawl, large, stressful, and polluted cities have very quickly calmed down, and the organization of the territory has been organized around proximity. Indeed, the spectacular drop in CO2 emissions, waste production, and noise pollution has been beneficial to our health and wellbeing. We all felt it. Traveling on foot and by bicycle, we have learned to know our neighborhood, neighbors, and local merchants better and help each other. Physical distancing has intensified our vital need for social proximity based on solidarity. It seems obvious to everyone today to drastically reduce our business and leisure travel around the world. The "car-free" city should no longer be a taboo, and the "100% cycling" city boosted by the de-confinement should not remain temporary. Let's transform our neighborhoods into a friendly village that brings together all the services between family life and professional life. The denser a city is, the less energy-intensive it is. The closer the inhabitants are to each other, the more they show solidarity.

c. Biodiversity and urban agriculture: We are living in the third era of global urbanization where, after having built cities on nature, then cities on/around cities, we are now repatriating nature to the city to better fight against soil sealing and protect our biodiversity. Open-air urban forests, agricultural towers, and urban farms are reinvesting mineral cities. This intensive greening of the built environment has the following objectives: The creation of islands of urban freshness; the repatriation of biodiversity in the heart of the city; the recovery of rainwater and its phyto-purification; the development of urban agriculture and co-gardening.

d.Agility of use/reversibility of buildings: The health crisis undeniably highlights the failure of hyper-specialization and the monofunctionality of certain spaces in the city, such as the La Defense district in Paris. The reversibility and mutability of the infrastructures and buildings we design are becoming essential to follow the evolution of uses such as teleworking and teleconferencing, the use of which has exploded during the crisis. This mix of uses must be found at the city, neighborhood, and building level. For several years now, we have been imagining in most of our projects a shared floor for all the residents of a building. A socialization space that could also be used in the future for future quarantine and isolation measures in the event of a crisis. Cities consume 80% of the planet's resources on only 2% of its surface area. These four icebreaking measures address the structural reasons for ecological and health crises and not simply to cure their symptoms. They are simple to implement, economically viable, and aim to build a frugal city where less is more.

E.S: Cutting-edge ideas and innovation, is this enough for a better future? You've said, "I want to give hope for a better tomorrow." How can design create hope for a better and environmentally safer tomorrow?

C.V: Humanity is part of a global ecosystem. Humanity is not superior to nature and should draw much more inspiration from the living through biomimicry. As a reminder, like the Amazonian forest, nature invented the circular economy. It recycles everything and transforms each waste into a resource. It uses photosynthesis as its only source of energy. It limits the excesses coming from the outside and systematically relies on cooperation between species.

We try to do the same through biomimicry through our architectural projects, which are conceived as metabolic ecosystems that produce their own energy (calorific, refrigeration, electrical, and food) and recycle their waste into resources via virtuous loops.

Our biophilic architectures are inspired by the forms, structures, and feedback loops found in nature. There is no right angle; they are designed "out of the box." Our projects combine the best of low-tech and the best of high-tech rather than opposing them as is too often done in Europe. Low-tech is synonymous with sobriety and simplicity, modularity and reparability, social ties and solidarity practices. It takes the form of bio-sourced construction, bioclimatic co-design, and any ventilation, irrigation, heating, and lighting technique that does not require a single kilowatt for its proper operation. High-tech brings together renewable energies and smart grids (intelligent energy and data distribution networks) that aim to produce energy cleanly and reduce overall consumption and waste towards a carbon-neutral balance sheet. Developed for the Paris City Hall, our "Paris Smart City 2050" project is a perfect illustration of this low-tech/high-tech fusion. Following the Climate Energy Plan of Paris aimed at reducing 75% of the greenhouse gas emissions within 2050, the "2050 PARIS SMART CITY" project is a research and development work on the integration of high-rise buildings with plus-energy (BEPOS) producing by solidarity all together with energy for the surrounding areas. In order to fight against the urban heat-island phenomenon by increasing in the same time the density of the city in the long-term, this masterplan presents eight prototypes of mixed towers. These towers repatriate nature in the heart of the city and integrate from their design the rules of bioclimatism and the renewable and recyclable energies in short loop through innovative systems. Turned to new social innovations, they invent the first new eco-responsible ways of life to implement the quality of life of the city-dwellers in respect of the environment. This kind of project developed with ambitious politicians is a big hope to create a safer and greener tomorrow!

We live through architecture 24 hours a day: in the office, at home, during transport, in theatres, in the streets. This directly influences our health and comfort. Being an Archibiotect is like being an haute-couture designer; it is inventing spaces that dress you and closely embrace your body like a garment to optimize your quality of life and magnify your emotions always connected with Nature.


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