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When art met science

Updated Tuesday, 15th June 2010

From COP15: Architect Sunand Prasad champions the need for sustainable and adaptable design of buildings.

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Copyright The Open University


Interviewer: So the first question is something about the past really and about how you’ve ended up thinking about environmental issues. Can you say something about that for us?

Sunand Prasad: I’ve been conscious every since I started architecture about the whole idea of limits of resources, the finite capacity of the ecosystem, and also the fundamental unity of human beings and the planet, if you like, what has been later described by James Lovelock as the Gaia theory, and that’s sort of in the bones in some ways, and I think it comes from my childhood, where we lived in self-sufficient community, and by the end of the ‘50s, I was born in 1950, by the end of the ‘50s there was talk about self sufficiency of another kind. Methane digesters were used to convert carbon into gas for cooking. There was talk about solar cookers. Not photovoltaics of course but concentrated solar and solar water heating. It was a community which is probably carbon negative, in the sense we probably absorbed more carbon from the air than we put in, and there was a whole idea about living in balance with nature and a whole peaceful society, which is all part of an idea of what post-independence India would be like, and it was shot full of idealism and.

Interviewer: Where was that, sorry?

Sunand Prasad: That was in Central India.

Interviewer: Whereabouts?

Sunand Prasad: In Sevagram, which was a centre that Gandhi founded in the kind of last years of the independence struggle from about 1939 onwards, and my parents met and married there and had three children, of which I was the eldest there. So it’s there in the background and when I started doing architecture that was pretty much exactly the time that the Club of Rome report came out, and that was called Limits to Growth. And so the consciousness of that was deep in, but I think the other thing I should say is that all that time it wasn’t about oh my god. You know, this is terrible, what are you going to do? But it actually seemed like quite an exciting task, the idea of energy efficiency, autonomous dwellings, water conservation, recycling of waste, getting energy from waste, conserving water and, you know, which we used to do in India because there was a shortage of water. There were times when you really did have to reuse every bit of water. All that seemed like actually part of normal life, you know, no more than, for example, I mean people don’t go out and say oh my it’s, well people in England do go out and say oh my god it’s raining. But you know rain was a fact of life and so are other aspects of living in balance with the world.

So that’s where my fundamental engagement with this comes and. So it comes out of a fundamentally, it comes out of attraction rather than fear I’d say. It comes out of seeing it as a field where imagination, knowledge and especially the combination of arts and science works well together, which is very much who I am, I think.

Interviewer: As an architect …?

Sunand Prasad: As an architect, arts and science. My father is an artist, he’s an artist, and I was always going to be a scientist, but then the two came together in architecture. And it just seemed to me to be part of the excitement of architecture to do that, and then later on, as the, first the energy shortage in 1973 and then the whole idea of toxicity in the environment, Rachel Carson had already written Silent Spring, Schumacher was there with Small is Beautiful and all the, you know one might argue with. I mean I personally think large can also be beautiful. But then later on there was Bruntland and the invention of the word “sustainability”, and we ourselves, when we setup in practice, Greg Penoyre and myself, we got very interested in designing energy-efficient buildings. Already at the previous practice we had been doing that. It was in the bones, I guess. And then as the carbon emergency became clearer, then of course the whole thing consolidated more, and I think that it brings a certain kind of focus to what otherwise can be very diffused, rather than, you know, one of the problems with the holistic view is that you spend all your time being holistic and not focusing down on what really matters. And carbon makes us concentrate because there is an emergency on what matters, but not to the exclusion of other things, and that’s what, those are the fundamental origins of my interest in this.

In purely historical fact, we started designing environmentally conscious buildings back in the early ‘90s. We did a particularly interesting one for us, and a big learning experience for us, in 1995 we won a competition and since then have done a number of buildings like that. And when I became involved with the RIBA and eventually became President.

Interviewer: Sorry, can you explain that. RIBA?

Sunand Prasad: And when I became involved with the Royal Institute of British Architects, and stood for and became the President, already by that time I had been leading with climate change as one of the main points of focus for the RIBA. In fact, continuing a tradition in the RIBA, which started with a president in 1974, saying that he wanted as sort of a slogan for design to adopt the idea of long-life, loose-fit, low-energy. Now that is 1974, it’s 35 years ago.

Interviewer: It’s quite prescient, yeah.

Sunand Prasad: And it’s very prescient, it’s very topical, it’s something that was attractive from the beginning, and it’s all three parts that are important, you know. It’s the idea of long-life. It’s the idea of loose-fit rather than tight-fit and too precise. It also means adaptable, loose-fit also means adaptable. And so these are, this is where architecture is important, and it’s not just a question of mechanical engineering, or science, or systems or technology alone. They’re all absolutely vital, but architecture and the understanding of people’s needs, which is at the heart of architecture, that’s what allows us to make buildings which are adaptable. Because without understanding needs you can’t make useful adaptable buildings; you can make useless adaptable buildings, but if they’re to be for people’s habitation, and habitation of their emotions as well as their practical needs, then they won’t actually stand the test of time. And if it doesn’t stand the test of time, it’s not sustainable by definition.

Interviewer: I’d like to ask you a specific question about human behaviour and buildings, and you’ve touched on it there in what you were saying, but I’m interested in the relationship between the way in which the buildings can adapt, and the behaviour in which human behaviour can adapt buildings. Can you say something a little bit about that?

Sunand Prasad: It’s a truism to a large extent to say that buildings affect human behaviour but buildings also have to be adapted to human behaviour, and of course human beings adapt to buildings, and they’re in a mutual fit of adaptation. Now that can actually be negative or positive. It can be constructive or destructive. We will inevitably adapt to our environment, but that adaptation may be frustration, anger. It may be a feeling of not being valued. That’s one of the most interesting things that we’ve learned in designing with people and for people is that actually a building can express something about how much the institution or the function for the building exists, how much that entity values you as a person in the way that the building is designed.

So it operates on all those levels, but equally when we’re designing buildings we obviously start, well maybe not obvious in all aspects but in our practice we certainly have made a very big virtue of designing for people, understanding needs in a very detailed and exact way but also in a very wide way, designing for that, but always leaving that space open where for example not only might people inhabit the buildings in their own way but they might adapt the buildings to suit themselves.

Interviewer: Thank you. We were talking a moment ago about being prescient and about thinking about these things back in the ‘70s. I’m now going to ask you to attempt a similar sort of thing and speak a little bit about where you see your own practice and where you see a much wider global community?

Sunand Prasad: Do you want to say that before we talk about the present?

Interviewer: We’ll come back to the present in a slightly odd …

Sunand Prasad: Okay.

Interviewer: So if you could say something about where you think you might be going over the next decade, and where you think we all might be going over the next decade?

Sunand Prasad: In my personal work I have no doubt that really pretty much for the rest of my life low energy resource conserving buildings, adaptable sustainable buildings with a low carbon footprint, is going to be a major focus for me, in designing as an architect, but also in campaigning as an activist to the extent that I am. I can’t claim to be a very big activist, but I certainly have campaigned. And spreading the message generally, seeing the links, joining it with other people that are doing that, that is going to be a major focus for me personally, and I see myself, architect’s work for a long time and certainly for the next ten years I have no doubt that I will be, provided I’m still working I will be fully engaged in that world on all those levels. But in particular I now want to move on to showing by doing rather than showing by, or rather than being involved in policy, in doing policy I want to actually show by finding the solutions. In many ways I’ve been quite a general level, arguing for action, talking about measurements, targets and so on. I really am dying to get down and find solutions which combine all those aspects; art, science, technology, society, people, culture.

So that’s going to be my personal focus, finding answers and then trying them out and testing them to see if they really work or not. I think that’s where the rigour comes in, so that combination of knowledge, information, imagination, creativity but always with a discipline of rigour so that you’re not fooling yourself and other people all the time. You can be allowed to fool yourself a bit to get yourself going, but then you have to sooner or later test yourself.

Interviewer: Yes, absolutely. So to move back, as I say, to move back, what is it you’re currently working on, and what are you currently most concerned about, in your work and also personally?

Sunand Prasad: I’m very concerned about the outcome of COP15. I do believe that it is time the world got its act together, all world governments got their act together because there’s a big job to be done. It’s frustrating that a job that I see as very exciting, full of imagination, knowledge and all those finest things about human beings, that it’s being presented as a backwards step by the sceptics and so on, and sadly a lot of don’t knows are drifting that way at the moment. But I’m pretty confident that that drift will show itself to be short-lived. But it does concern me. I’m very concerned about the low take-up. I’m concerned particularly about the low take-up of this issue in the construction industry, certainly, although architects are seen now to be from some extent doing quite well on this front, the RIBA has done very well as an institution, you cannot be complacent. We’re only just keeping up with the curve, penetration amongst architects is still quite low, and certainly I don’t see at that huge critical mass upsurge of information and enthusiasm. We need to be at a far more energetic level, and I don’t see that happening yet - that concerns me greatly.

Interviewer: Have you got any projects on the go at the moment that have been particularly, that are particularly exciting you, that give you particular cause for hope?

Sunand Prasad: One of the most interesting challenges coming up, and one of the biggest challenges, is what to do with the existing stock of buildings. So some of the most interesting projects we now have are major retrofits of significant buildings, including London landmark, a ’70s concrete, what the popular imagination would hold to be a monstrosity, you know, to turn that into a piece of sound ecological design. That’s a great challenge and very exciting. We’re also doing a negative, a carbon negative school, which relies on a trade with a local housing estate which is being refurbished at the same time; there’ll be energy exchange, sort of distributed energy systems.

So there are very interesting projects, we’re doing low-energy schools, low-carbon schools. One of the things I particularly like to do is low-energy workspace and healthcare spaces as well. So yes, there are many interesting projects.

Interviewer: Very exciting, absolutely.

Sunand Prasad: And of course domestic retrofit too, we’re taking part in the retrofit for the future competition, and that’s very good as well.

Interviewer: I guess that leads quite neatly into asking you, you’ve spoken about your fears around COP15, and you’ve spoken about some of your hope around some of your projects, so I guess that leads to asking where would you put yourself on some sliding scale between optimism and pessimism?

Sunand Prasad: I’m at core an optimist, who has waves of pessimism from time to time. That’s how I would summarise it. But I keep reverting almost helplessly to an optimistic state, which some might even consider to be denial, but I prefer to think of it as a positive outlook and a kind of pragmatic way of holding to never say die and getting on with things. But I think that sometimes the reality of the world does require a sense check, and that could be pessimistic from time to time.

Interviewer: Lovely, thank you very much indeed for your time.

Sunand Prasad: My pleasure.





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