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A sustainable bridge to the future

Case Studies | September 1, 2009 | By:

Blaine Brownell’s proposal advocates sustainable interdependent skyscrapers.

In 2008 United Nations announced that for the first time in history, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities. It has also been predicted by the Brookings Institution that in the next generation, the existing volume of building will double, largely in the form of tall buildings in urban centers. Double in the next 20 years? For architect Blaine Brownell, this realization is an environmental train wreck, a teardown and rebuild collision consuming massive amounts of energy and material resources that will expand the waste stream to unprecedented levels.

Brownell’s Bridge Tower: Proposal for an Interdependent Skyscraper is a visionary effort meant to sideline such teardown and rebuild tactics and introduce a more thoughtful—if not provocative—sustainable scheme of overlaying existing buildings with a new structural envelope. Constructed from solar-harvesting ETFE fabric systems, (the same material employed by the Eden Project in Cornwall, England, and Beijing’s Water Cube), these architectural shrouds will be resilient to heavy lateral weight loads, insulate, allow light transmission and allow for the possibility of integrated printed photovoltaics. While futuristic in our current context, his proposal is visually and conceptually linked to Superstudio’s 1969 project, The Continuous Monument: An Architectural Model for Total Urbanization, and conjures up images from Fritz Lang’s expressionist 1927 film Metropolis.

Significantly, Brownell’s Bridge Tower (designed with Brian Glover of Arup) uses the existing city as a foundation. The cloaking system would not only provide superior cladding to existing buildings that may becoming obsolete due to their energy consuming properties, but also connect disparate structures while creating additional volume equivalent to a new tower. The scheme would also incorporate above and below ground linkages that, in their totality, establish an urban loop that could be punctuated by “city rooms,” multifunctional community spaces that “would serve as sky boxes, mixing chambers and winter gardens that support new kinds of social activities not enabled in conventional tall structures.”

According to Brownell, our consumer-driven culture is far too prone to envisioning architectural solutions as only new, resource-draining materials and building systems. “Given the massive investment of embodied energy and resources in our existing physical environment, however, we will have no choice but to conceive creative adaptive reuse approaches on an unprecedented scale,” states Brownell.

Brownell’s proposal is a bridge to somewhere: a more sustainable future.

Mason Riddle, a contributing editor for Fabric Architecture, writes frquently about art and design. Her piece on Blaine Brownell’s choice of sustainble materials appeared in the July/August issue.

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