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Shaping Cities like Coral Reefs

An interview with Chris Bosse, co-director of the Australian architecture agency Lava (Laboratory for Visionary Architecture).
Shaping Cities like Coral Reefs
Shaping Cities like Coral Reefs

What is history of LAVA agency ?

At the time LAVA was founded, in 2007, each of the three directors, myself, Alexander Rieck and Tobias Wallisser, had already gathered extensive experience in practice, research and teaching.
I first met fellow director Tobias Wallisser at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2004 where we both had projects win awards (he the Mercedes-Benz Museum and me the Beijing Watercube). We joined up with Alexander Rieck - his groundbreaking work at the Fraunhofer Institute in Stuttgart was a perfect fit for our goals. Since then we have set up offices in Stuttgart, Berlin and Sydney and work across Asia, Middle East and Germany. We operate as a global office network.

You define yourself as a ‘think tank’ in architecture, how do you differentiate yourself from other architectures agencies ?

The traditional model of the architecture practice is the master architect with the 6B pen and the roll of sketch paper. We don’t believe this top down design process is contemporary in the 21st century anymore. We set up LAVA very much as a network practice, with offices across the globe, connected virtually, which allows us the flexibility to draw on the latest research and resources specific to the projects we are working on.


Is innovation your major goal ?

We aim to be specialists in good ideas of any scale - one day we design a piece of furniture or an installation, the next day we design a holiday resort and after that a stadium in Ethiopia. We believe the way we work is a model for the future.  The world has become smaller and more connected, and the bandwidth and outreach of architectural projects has become much larger over the past decade. It is quite normal to work in Sydney, Hong Kong, Seoul, Berlin, Milan and Addis Ababa at the same time.
We work closely with the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany and other organisations where the latest research provides the answers for the future.


This helps us ensure that our team is constantly pushing the boundaries of design and staying ahead of the competition. For example we recently drew on research into swarming and used algorithms based on those principles to create an optimised route and layout for a trade showroom for Phillips.

All three directors actively teach and continuously bring new talent into the network. We love working with experts in different fields such as sustainability, sports, lighting, workplace, marketing, engineering, etc etc. Collaboration keeps us fresh and curious.

What is your vision of architecture and urban planning for the coming years ?

Our vision for the architecture of the future is about the intelligence of the system. We believe that the intelligence of the smallest unit, copied from nature to generate architectural space, dictates the intelligence of the overall system. Ecosystems such as reefs act as a metaphor for an architecture where the individual components interact in symbiosis to create an environment. The intelligence of the smallest unit results in the intelligence of the overall system. In urban terms, the smallest homes, the spaces they create, the energy they use, the heat and moisture they absorb, multiply into a bigger organisational system, whose sustainability depends on their intelligence.


Our approach to form making is the future of architecture because combining digital workflow, nature’s principles and the latest digital fabrication technologies results in achieving more with less: more (architecture) with less (material/ energy/time/cost). We believe that the future is not about what buildings look like, but how they perform, interact and how they connect with each other. Think of a coral reef, where thousands of species thrive in coexistence with each other and the elements, air, water and sun. The reef is like the city of the future.

In 2010, you proposed to wrap-up old buildings like the UTS Tower in Sydney. What are the materials for this structure ?

Yes our award winning ‘Tower Skin’ is a simple, cost effective and easily constructed building skin that the transforms identity, sustainability and interior comfort of tired icons, re-purposing inefficient buildings. It began as a speculative proposal to re-shape the UTS tower in Sydney and evolved into a broader architectural idea for re-purposing inefficient or outdated buildings as an alternative to demolishing and rebuilding (with its huge financial and environmental expense). A pre-existing building is wrapped with three-dimensional lightweight, high performance composite mesh textile. Surface tension allows the membrane to freely stretch over a light steel frame around walls and roof elements achieving maximum visual impact with minimal material effort.

The ‘skin’ is a translucent cocoon that can create its own’ microclimate’. It can generate its own energy with photovoltaic cells, could collect rainwater, improve the distribution of natural daylight and use available convective energy to power the building’s ventilation requirements. With embedded LED strips it acts as an intelligent media surface effectively integrating principles of architecture, fashion, media and communication design into a new hybrid typology.

There is a range of façade textiles out there at the moment such as Ferrari Stamisol, and we are constantly challenging fabricators to improve the properties of their products, integrate solar cells, make them self-cleaning, air-purifying or glow at night.

What makes your realisations environmentally friendly ?

Nature and its symbiotic processes make our buildings sustainable. The potential for naturally evolving systems, such as bubbles, spider webs and corals, to create new building typologies and structures is the core of our work. The geometries in nature create both efficiency and beauty.  Computation allows you to simulate this natural behaviour, such as growth and adaptation of species. It is often misunderstood as superficial mimicry, but the potential is in understanding the principles behind nature, not only the appearance, but biomimicry.

Structure, material and building skin are three areas that we believe that architecture can learn so much from nature. So our projects incorporate intelligent systems and skins that can react to external influences such as air pressure, temperature, humidity, solar-radiation and pollution.

The cost of pulling down a 120m tower and replacing it with a brand new tower is not only in the capital cost but in the environmental footprint, embedded energy, let alone timeframe. The reskinning idea aims at only adding what is needed, and refurbishing smartly without demolition, while the building stays in operation.

Your agency was selected for the development of the center of Masdar, the futuristic city of the emirate of Abu Dhabi. Briefly what solutions have you proposed to contribute to what will be the world's first eco city ?

LAVA’s winning design for the city centre of Masdar, the world’s first eco city, includes a plaza, five-star hotel, a convention centre, entertainment complex and retail facilities. The entire area is designed as one continuous, spatial, interactive environment - a ‘loop’. Masdar Plaza is “The Oasis of the Future”: a living, breathing, active, adaptive environment; stimulated by the social interaction of people, and showcasing the use and benefits of sustainable technology. The “Oasis of the Future” is conceived as an open spatial experience with all features, whether hotel, conference, shopping, or leisure, offering the highest quality of indoor and outdoor comfort and interaction. The Plaza, just like an oasis, is the social epicentre of Masdar. 24-hour access to all public facilities is enabled through interactive, heat sensitive technology that activates low intensity lighting in response to pedestrian traffic and mobile phone usage.

Your giant “umbrellas’’ are truly remarkable. How do they work ?

Yes the giant sunflower umbrellas create the first mediated outdoor plaza in the Middle East and makes public outdoor space habitable throughout the year. They allow people in hot climates to roam public spaces day and night.  The solar powered ‘sunflower’ umbrellas capture the sun’s rays during the day, fold at night releasing the stored heat, and open again the next day. They follow the projection of the sun to provide continuous shade during the day. The sunflower principle is eco‐friendly and can be adapted to anywhere in the world – it opens opportunities for outside living, even in the desert. These shade structures are made from low E coated PTFE membrane with a specialised mechanism to open and close.


Could you give an organic look to your buildings without polymer materials and their ease of moulding ?

I don’t think that architecture should be bound by material but you should find an expression of a material. Louis Kahn said: “Brick what do you want to be?”  So what shape does a freeform molded biopolymer want to be? Yes polymer materials make it easy and efficient to create sinuous and fluid structures that follow nature’s structural principles. Something this year’s Pritzker Architecture Prize laureate, the late German architect Frei Otto, experimented with in his pioneering form-finding work.

Many of our projects use these materials to create light filled, efficient and beautiful structures. For example in our Greenland Display Suite in Sydney we used technologies from the boat and surfboard building industry, such as GRP, a glass reinforced plastic. LAVA used the GRP to create the freeform desks – this is lightweight, strong material can be formed into fluid shapes.

Parametric modelling and rapid prototyping means the design went straight from a 3D computer model to the fabrication workshop where the reception and display desks were CNC cut and coated. This creates great efficiencies in terms of time and budget.
The ability to play with light is seen in the The Watercube, designed for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, where the entire structure is based on a unique lightweight construction, developed by PTW and CSCEC with ARUP, and derived from the structure of water in the state of aggregation of foam. Behind the totally randomised appearance hides a strict geometry that can be found in natural systems like crystals, cells and molecular structures.


By applying this novel material and technology the transparency and apparent randomness is transposed into the inner and outer skins of ETFE cushions. Unlike traditional stadium structures with their gigantic columns and beams, cables and back spans, to which a facade system is applied, the Centre’s architectural space, structure and facade are one and the same element.



According to you what is the future of plastic or composite materials in the future of architecture and urbanism ?

New materials and technologies enable an adaptability, responsiveness, environmental awareness and strength not seen in conventional architectural design. The biggest challenge design will meet in the future is obviously sustainability. We all know that. About 50% of carbon emissions come from buildings, so as architects we are in the driver’s seat to change this. 
We must build sustainable structures using the very same energy that is abundant in nature. We have no other alternative unless we are aiming at the exhaustion and ultimate destruction of the planet. The big challenge with plastics is their durability, which at the same time is their disadvantage. As we all know we don’t want plastic to end up in the ocean and other ecosystems till the end of times.

Hence it is important to continue the research and development of Environmental-Friendly Biodegradable Polymers and Composites.

Fibres such as corn, hemp and coconut can be employed to create hitech polymers of the future. I believe that people in the 21st century are looking for spaces that link them to nature, and the organically-shaped forms found in nature: waves, canyons and clouds create beautiful, efficient and connective spaces. Materials such as plastics facilitate the creation of these spaces.


You have imagined a recycled plastic house. What is the concept? Can we imagine seeing this building someday ?

Yes the house is made from fully recycled P.E.T. It is environmentally friendly, hygienic, nontoxic, uv-stable, energy-efficient, and by using different colours and opacity, surfaces are designed for varied light control and views. The house showcases the latest passive ecological technologies. A lightweight prefabricated structure is transported to the site on a truck, and filled with water, which provides thermal mass, water storage and fire retardancy. The water cools naturally during the day and returns the heat slowly during the colder nights. The floor, wall and roof are built of one structural element and the "columns" form spaces for bathrooms, kitchen and an internal garden. The plan creates a floating space with maximum transparency and interaction with the surrounding site, an idyllic piece of land in the Australian Blue Mountains. Different colours, grain, opacity are used according to the desired light-control and views.



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