The Earth & I Interview with Architect Vincent Callebaut

Washington 2023



The Earth & I interview with Architect Vincent Callebaut

Can you guide me through your design process? What are the key parameters of your work?

I am a Belgian architect based in Paris for 20 years. My studio, Vincent Callebaut ArchitectureS, has become known for its biomimetic projects. This growing architectural trend takes its inspiration from the forms, structures and interactive cycles found in nature in order to build symbiosis between man and environment. 

Hyper-industrialization and globalization have led us into the current climate crisis. Rather than relying on human-developed high-tech, we analyze how species have survived during the past 3.8 billion years without producing any waste, pollution or debt. Our leitmotiv: to consider the city as an ecosystem, the neighborhoods as forests and the buildings as inhabited trees, capable of producing their own energy and transforming waste into resources. 

With biomimicry, we are reviving the circular economy, which is regenerative by nature. In the 20th century, my parents' generation lived by the linear economy, which produces, consumes and throws away, producing debt and pollution by using non-renewable fossil fuels. As the new generation, we want to make sure that everything produced and consumed is recycled in a virtuous spiral. 

Urbanity is central to your work. To what extent do your creations combine or integrate existing structures? Do you think that contemporary cities can be rehabilitated with ecological structures?

The horizontal urban sprawl that Paris has been experiencing for many decades and is accelerating today with the Greater Paris project, is pushing the poorest populations further away from the city center. Some statistics predict that by 2050, the world will have 9 billion inhabitants, 70% in urban areas. 

We are now in the third era of global urbanization. After having built cities upon nature, after having built city upon city with horizontal urban sprawl, we are working to return nature back to the heart of the city while increasing density in the city center. The concept of the "Quarter-Hour City" aims that all social classes have easy access to all services within fifteen minutes of one's home: work, nursery, schools, gyms, supermarkets, leisure activities. We would spend less energy on travel, as well as reducing the energy of heating in winter or cooling in summer. Unlike a single-family home, an urban apartment is surrounded by an average of nine other apartments, which can keep each other warm and reduce the carbon footprint. Our parents' generation’s dependence on the automobile caused greenhouse gas emissions in city centers to skyrocket, impacting health, despite little recognition. According to Public Health France, there are nearly 40 000 deaths per year in Paris from air pollution alone. 

In 2016, we were commissioned by Anne Hidalgo and the Paris City Hall, as well as the Urban Ecology Department to develop the Paris Smart City 2050 plan. The project presented in all district councils of Paris, was to implement high rise buildings in Paris, to address the systemic housing crisis on one hand and to fight against the gentrification of the central cities, as well as turning them into a kind of museum.  We developed eight prototypes of vertical villages, based on a concept of energy solidarity. Today, by taking the best of low-tech and the best of high-tech, contemporary architecture, grafted onto Haussmannian (typical Parisian architecture) buildings, can produce the electrical, calorific and food energy necessary to meet the needs of inhabitants of the 21st century with low carbon cost. We have been working on the Petite Ceinture, a former railroad beltway around the city, which we would like to open up to "pariculturists", Parisians who grow their own organic food through urban farm space. In contrast to New York’s High Line public park, our dream, which is an achievable goal, would be to create a Low Line for Paris, which could house mushroom farms, supermarkets, gyms, swimming pools, and nightclubs.

In your work, you seem to prioritize the big picture, grand scale approach. How does this affect your archibiotic design? How can such projects affect users in their daily lives?

Our love for grand scale comes from considering the city as an ecosystem, in a comprehensive way: habitat, biodiversity, managing the flow of materials, food, building materials. These are all brought together by global thinking.

I graduated in June of 2000, at a time that Yann Arthus-Bertrand, Nicolas Hulot, and Al Gore were already warning us about climate change. The inertia and disinterest of politicians frightened me. As a young architect, I chose to develop answers to the questions that nobody was asking. 

One of our flagship projects was LILYPAD, a biomimetic floating city that could help accommodate the 350 million climate refugees expected by 2050, following the rise of the oceans and the salinization of agricultural land. 

Another project that seems straight out of Avatar, but feasible, HYDROGENASE was developed with the University of Berkeley.  Green algae, which has spread from the waste of intensive agriculture, can produce bio-hydrogen capable of raising neo-zeppelins, without a drop of petroleum. In 2010, we envisioned a future form of transportation using waste products transformed into resources. 

It is this type of thinking that has led us to large-scale solutions. This approach also allows us to optimize the monetary resource without scattering ourselves in micro-projects.  From the fundamental research that is done in scientific laboratories and universities, we experiment with these innovations, both high-tech and low-tech, manifested first on paper in the architectural design, and later on site, where the architecture comes to life.

Our mission as architects is, above all, to produce architecture that is as beautiful as it is comfortable and easy to use. That's why we are so fond of hanging gardens, especially since the health crisis. It offers outside living space, right in the heart of the city. Through what we call SKY VILLAS, we offer the best options for a single-family home with the benefits of a country garden with the convenience of a city apartment. Dwellings positioned above each other become true vertical villages. To encourage the inhabitants' free choice, we design buildings with a minimum of structural limitations. We deliver spacious apartments that are independent of any load-bearing restrictions, and can be converted in a thousand and one ways according to the evolution of the family unit. 

We like to work on housing as much as on museums, because everyone needs a good home. I think this is the cornerstone of contemporary architecture.

A major challenge in your work is to convince financers to invest in an innovative and ecological project rather than in the security of traditional construction. In what ways do you design architecture that is a profitable environmental investment?

This is the big question facing us all today. How do we move away from the old model of a linear economy to the new model of the circular economy, for as many people as possible? Our answer is,  “to think comprehensively about the life cycle of a building. How is it built, how is it lived in, inhabited, operated, see how can it be dismantled to assign new functions?” This is the case of the Belgian Pavilion at the Dubai World Expo, designed as a giant Meccano.

The more we want to integrate biosourced or geosourced materials and renewable energy, construction prices increase by as much as 10% to 15%. A well-insulated house, which produces all or part of the energy it needs, reduces operating costs by 70 to 80%. In five or six years, the initial higher price is regained. It’s only necessary to think beyond the short term, to the medium term. 

Today, the under-40 generation has integrated this into their approach. Our choice to promote new architectural and economic visions attracts young dynamic promoters who, like us, are highly conscious of climate change.

In the DRAGONFLY vertical farm project on New York's Roosevelt Island, you bring together livestock, crops, irrigation, waste, and human activities in one urban structure.  Are similar "vertical farms" feasible for any urban area?

DRAGONFLY is a prototype, based on the Vertical Farm concept of Dickson Despommiers (MIT professor and inventor) for the purpose of feeding 50,000 New Yorkers. Vertical fields, permaculture vegetable gardens, are built in levels to produce up to 25 kilos of fruits and vegetables per year per square meter cultivated. The idea of locating it on Roosevelt Island is to create a floating market distributing all the food to Brooklyn and Manhattan, from producer to consumer, without intermediaries. Producing locally also eliminates the losses due to import-export flow.  

This mixed-use tower houses apartments and office spaces, to create a real neighborhood just like Little Italy or Tribeca. Instead of being horizontal, it is vertical. It includes interior streets for the different flows intrinsic to the life of a neighborhood.

This summer’s drought reminds us that water resources are at risk. DRAGONFLY works in a virtuous loop. Water flows down by gravity from the top floor to the ground floor and then back to the top. 90% of the water resources needed for intensive agriculture are saved. This is achieved through permaculture, which consists of mixing plant species, without artificial chemical products. The building is part of the locavore (locally-grown and sourced) approach, offering seasonal products, endemic to each city. In the Paris 2050 project, we collaborated integrate vertical farms at each gate of Paris. They would have produced organic food for 30% of Parisians. 

This type of very futuristic project has concrete applications. We are currently developing a project for the city of Lausanne, Switzerland, where agricultural greenhouses on the roofs and in the gaps between buildings are cultivated by urban farmers. Residents participate in the harvest and receive a monthly basket of fruit and vegetables financed by the co-ownership fees.

The TAO ZHU YIN YUAN spiral tower is one of your most important projects. Can you tell me about its implementation?

The Taiwan Tower is the project that really established the firm in 2010. I won the competition against Zaha Hadid and Fernando Menis by demonstrating that it is possible to build a 50,000-square-meter residential tower that cuts its greenhouse gas emissions in half during construction and reduces its energy consumption by 70% during operation. 

Our highly sculptural architectural proposal, according to the client's wishes, integrates all the principles of biomimicry and bioclimatic architecture. The tower is designed to follow the solar trajectory and the prevailing wind direction. It integrates passive wind chimney systems, inspired by termite mounds. The hot exterior air (40°C in summer in Taiwan) is conducted under the foundations, where the thermal inertia of the earth, constant all year round in all countries of the world, maintains a temperature of 16°C. The air is returned to the apartments by a natural draft system.  By lowering the temperature this way means that it is not necessary to reduce from 40°C to 24°C but from 26°C to 24°C. The energy consumption is thus 70% lower than any other tower in Taipei, the capital of Taiwan. 

The tower is resilient, built to withstand earthquakes measuring up to 9.0 on the Richter scale. Constructed without a single gram of concrete, its ultra-high performance Japanese steel structure minimizes the amount of materials used, as nature does. Like a reed that grows but does not break, the tower rests on a ball bearing system that stabilizes it in the event of an earthquake. 

Acting as a carbon sink, the tower is covered with more than 23,000 plants, shrubs and trees that absorb up to 135 tons of CO2 per year in the atmosphere through photosynthesis. It is the first building in Southeast Asia to be awarded the diamond label of Carbo-Absorbent Building. This vertical forest project is made possible by easy maintenance. The vegetation is planted in traditional substrate containers accessible directly from the balconies. Access points allow gardeners to maintain the balconies without entering the apartments. The growing areas are held in common with costs are paid by the co-ownership association.

You have just published visuals of your new project OCEANIUMS. Can you tell me more about its conception?

OCEANIUMS was not commissioned, but is the result of the agency's concerns following our experience in Dubai where the construction environment is potentially dangerous for workers. We observed how many architectural projects for big sports events become obsolescent.  We came up with the idea of floating stadiums on the sea that can be nomadic. The stadium would go to the fans and no longer the fans to the stadium. It would move from city to city, thanks to the natural ocean currents. 

We now have the opportunity to work, not only with BIM (Building Information Modeling) but with artificial intelligence. By combining 3D modeling and AI, we want to take advantage of this architectural revolution to make construction sites safer. 

This project illustrates a philosophical vision: we live on a planet called Earth, but it is a blue planet, 70% covered by oceans. Rather than sedentary “Earthlings,” why not create a society of nomadic “Sea-lings?”

Architects of the past designed buildings that reflected the beliefs and aspirations of their time: cathedrals, palaces, places of learning.  You yourself have designed a proposal for the reconstruction of the roof and spire of Notre-Dame de Paris. Where does the notion of ideal fit into your work? 

The cathedral of Notre-Dame has undergone four centuries of evolution in construction techniques. Rebuilding the identical roof that was destroyed by fire is the opposite of the direction of history. By proposing a new architectural concept, we presented the vision of religion that reinvents itself. As in all of our projects, the structure would have produced the energy that the cathedral needed, and would have taken on a new function as a shelter, especially for the homeless. Why use solid oak, when we have mastered the technique of cross-laminated wood which, thanks to steel cables, allows us to use a minimum of material, as nature does in all its living structures? 

What kind of world do we live in, and more importantly, what kind of world do we want? Our society lives in hyper-instantaneity, the opposite of the medium-term vision that I mentioned. The younger generations have difficulty finding their ideal or have practices that are opposed to it. We travel a lot, we fly a lot, we are hyper-technophiles, and we have difficulty taking the necessary actions to repair the planet. These reflections are those of the citizen that I am, and through architecture--what I know best--I try to bring some answers. 

Interviewed by: Élodie Bitsindou, PhD candidate at Sorbonne University


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