Can Architecture Shift Attitudes for our Vulnerable Future?

The Groyne in the context of the city and the new shifted landscape

Humans have an impact on the natural environment, and that impact is ever increasingly detrimental. There is much published about the day to day existence of the world’s human population requiring intensive animal farming, over-use of pesticides, non-biodegradable plastic production and rapid urbanisation to survive, yet all this is having an adverse impact on our planet. Alternatives need to be adopted and as designers and problem solvers, architects can contribute to this in a real and significant way.

It’s easy for us to ignore the ugly side effects of our consumable presence on earth because we live safely cosseted from the ruin and extinction. But in some parts of the world, the destruction of the environment is vicious and severe weather conditions are an omnipresent threat. It’s easy for us to dismiss those areas and people as victims of their own wrongdoing because we don’t see the extremes that occur when the environment is ignored. This reality of acute conditions was starkly shown to me along with group of fellow students of architecture at Plymouth University when we visited Macau, China, in August 2017. Because of what we’d seen there, we used our final university project in Masters of Architecture to highlight these environmental problems and and bring forth the importance of architecture as a way of finding solutions to defend and protect our planet and its people.

Like many Asian coastal cities, Macau often suffers from unpredictable, fluctuating sea levels resulting in frequent and devastating floods. These recurring challenges are posed by climatic changes caused by a rise in temperature which is melting the ice sheets and in turn increasing the expanses of our seas. But it’s the rapid speed at which these changes are occurring and the correspondingly slow reactions to the adjustments that is causing some of the damage. Climate Central estimates that 275 million people worldwide live in areas that will eventually be flooded when the 3°C global warming occurs, affecting four out of five people living in Asia. This was something that was really shocking and upsetting to us.

On arrival, in Macau, we were greeted with traces of Typhoon ‘Hato’ which had happened a week before. Watermarks reached two metres high on buildings in the harbour area, many people were displaced, businesses and schools were closed for days and according to official figures, 10 people died and more than 240 were injured.

Present and future flooding consequences and predictions image copy right Eva Pontika

We were confronted with the utter destruction, yet most people seemed to have a similar disregard for their environment as the weather had for them. There was little acknowledgement between behavioural habits and the impact it can have on environmental changes.

This would not have been their approach 40 or 50 years ago, these are new ways of thinking but their impact is now too severe to ignore. It was shocking but inspired us to address the education of the residents of Macau in our project and also provide them with some much needed green space within the city to improve physical and mental wellbeing. Research demonstrates the positive impact green space, fresh air and areas for exercise have on communities and we felt the provision of a natural ecosystem as a wetland park, would directly show residents how significant the environment is to their lives and that protecting it is crucial and will help ensure their lives are less disrupted by the weather.

In his book, Designing with Nature, Ian McCarthy suggests that there are places that should be built upon and others that should not. The inner harbour of Macau is definitely a place that should not have been built on. It’s a dense concrete jungle with very little vegetation and when it floods, there is nowhere for the water to go. Our intention was to design a structure that would prevent the repeated damage to the city and its residents by providing a solution to the constant flood risk. We studied the harbour and its tides, weather patterns and water levels enabling us to work with nature, not against it and identified three elements to include in our proposal: flood prevention, the provision of a natural, open space and a new building for educational and community use.

Developing Techniques of tracing the sifting landscape within a fluid dynamic surrogate environment photo copyright Eva Pontika

Our urban strategy proposal, 2100 Macau, China: Shifting Attitudes for our Vulnerable Future, acknowledges that the flooding occurs and works with the problem of the increasing water volumes by introducing engineered, ambulating groynes which ebb and flow with the tides and create a shifting landscape formed from the natural sedimentation of the Pearl River Delta. These newly created land masses, would become a natural sponge and serve as a dynamic flood management system which responds to the water levels and acts to protect the city. Once carefully planted, the land would become a natural wetland park allowing residents to reconnect with nature and help improve their well being while simultaneously protecting their homes, schools and businesses.

Entrance to the Marine Biology and Ecology Research and Visitors Centre image copy right Eva Pontika

The third element of the proposal would draw attention to the urban symbiosis of the project as a whole with the provision of a building on one of the groynes that would be host to the Marine Biology and Ecology Centre. This would raise environmental awareness through its teaching and exhibition areas in the anticipation that it becomes a catalyst for shifting attitudes of the Macau residents towards valuing and protecting the environment. The presence of the Centre within the shifting structure would mean visitors could watch and experience its ever-changing position and highlights the importance of nature, landscape and ecology and their relationships with humans. It would be a constant reminder of how we should respect nature and not thrive to dominate it.

Section through the reseach centre. Showing the presence of water and human vulnrability. Image copy right Eva Pontika

Although this was a theoretical project, the process clarified for me that architecture is a multifaceted profession with the capacity of changing lives, attitudes and living habits. Architecture has a ripple effect and the impact of successful architecture has the potential to be both far reaching and last for centuries.

Typhoon scenario- Laboratories lifted out of harms way protecting vital research findings. Image copy right Eva Pontika

In our time of climate change and the predicted catastrophic outcomes during the next few decades, architecture is the perfect platform to highlight not only environmental issues but also social, cultural and economic issues which can be both a cause and an effect of climatic changes.

Since working on this project, I have ensured that at the forefront of my mind, is ensuring the buildings I work on, use nature to confront the impact they have on the environment and surrounding issues. I’m convinced that design is crucial to the future of safeguarding our planet and our communities and that applies to all types of projects. Large scale master planning and housing schemes have benchmarks like Building With Nature to promote this approach but smaller projects should not neglect their impact either. I’m working on it one project at a time — are you?

Eva Pontika (left) Charlie Glenton (right) Millar+Howard Workshop

2100 Macau, China: Shifting Attitudes for our Vulnerable Future

Nominated for RIBA Silver Student President Award

Won Creative Conscience Gold Award