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Retrofitting for Sustainability

I'm writing this a few hours away from the opening of Viennese architect Susanne Zottl's new exhibition at SCI-Arc, A Styrofoam Lover with (E)motions of Concrete. According to SCI-Arc, the show "proposes a new program that at once asks for a transformation of existing spaces and structures, as well as an improvement of the energy efficiency of existing buildings."

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"Walls in this exhibition bend and undulate," SCI-Arc continues; "they push into space; spaces pushes into them. They gain their shapes by using casting, coupled with a flexible textile membrane, as its mode of creation." To be totally frank, it sounds a bit like it's just a big wall made from a creatively poured mix of concrete and styrofoam—but, having said that, I like Zottl's own accompanying descriptions enough to draw attention to the project.

Quoting her own write-up at great length:

"Practicing architecture in the city of vienna confronts us frequently with the question of how to invent architecture within existing structures and in the context of protected monuments. Many of our projects are remodelings of historic structures. The agreement with the Bundesdenkmalamt (federal office of historical monuments) is that additions to and alterations of the monument are only permitted, as long as there is a clearly readable break between the historic substance and the new elements. So the monument in its former appearance could, at any point of time, be reconstructed. We are convinced that this attitude—the act of freezing a particular status of a building in time—represents a dead-end. The quality of grown structures is their intensity, which is created by the traces left on it by [the] different stages it ran through. Contemporary tasks and questions demand continuous re-interpretations of existing structures. In order to keep “monuments” as living organisms within the city, their transformation into the contemporary context is inevitable. Baroque architects and sculptors did not act shyly when transforming gothic cathedrals according to their view of the world."

If, as Zottl suggests, the "remodeling and renovation of existing buildings in our time are strongly linked to the improvement of their energy efficiency," then the problem being set up here is actually extremely interesting. How do we intervene into the existing building stock of a city—especially a city with such historically monumental structures as Vienna—without violating preservation laws but also delivering a new era of sustainability? How do we transform our own Gothic cathedrals, to paraphrase Zottl, be they old brick warehouses or simply the vinyl-sided suburbs, so that they meet the green standards that we expect from architecture today?

I'd suggest that these are questions we will be confronting more and more as we begin to retrofit our existing buildings and infrastructures for the 21st century—even in cities less soaked in the past than Vienna.

Zottl's show closes on March 8.

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