The Earth &I Interview with Architect Vincent Callebaut
Vincent Callebaut is a Belgian architect based in Paris. Since founding his studio in 2008, he envisions and executes projects addressing both the ecological and societal challenges of global warming. As an advocate of “archibiotics,” or architecture with forms and functions inspired by natural species’ behaviors, he has been named Green Practitioner of the Year 2021 by The European Centre for Architecture and The Chicago Athenaeum Museum of Architecture and Design. The Earth &I contributor Élodie Bitsindou spoke with him about his visionary work.
Can you guide us through your design process? What are the key parameters of your work?
I am a Belgian architect based in Paris for the past twenty years. My studio, Vincent Callebaut Architecture, is known for its biomimetic projects. This growing architectural trend takes its inspiration from the forms, structures, and interactive cycles found in nature in order to build symbiosis between man and environment.
Hyper-industrialization and globalization have led us into the current climate crisis. Rather than relying on human-developed high-tech, we analyze how species have survived during the past 3.8 billion years without producing any waste, pollution, or debt. Our leitmotiv: to consider the city as an ecosystem, the neighborhoods as forests, and the buildings as inhabited trees, capable of producing their own energy and transforming waste into resources.
With biomimicry, we are reviving the circular economy, which is regenerative by nature. Previous generations have lived by the linear economy, which produces, consumes, and throws way, producing debt and pollution by using nonrenewable fossil fuels. As the new generation, we want to make sure that everything produced and consumed is recycled in a virtuous spiral.
Urban life is central to your work. To what extent do your creations combine or integrate existing structures? Do you think that contemporary cities can be rehabilitated with ecological structures?
The horizontal urban sprawl, such as in Paris, is pushing the poorest populations further away from the city center. Some statistics predict that by 2050, the world will have 9 billion inhabitants, with 70% in urban areas.
After having built city upon city with horizontal urban sprawl, we are working to return nature back to the heart of the city while increasing population density in the city center.
We are now in the third era of global urbanization. After having built cities upon nature and horizontal urban sprawl, we are working to return nature back to the heart of the city while increasing population density in the city center.
The concept of the "Quarter-Hour City," theorized by Carlo Morello, aims for all social classes to have easy access to all services within fifteen minutes of one's home, including work, nursery, schools, gyms, supermarkets, and leisure activities. We would spend less energy on travel, as well as reduce the energy consumed from heating and cooling.
Unlike a single-family home, an urban apartment is surrounded by an average of nine other apartments, which can keep each other warm and reduce the carbon footprint. My parents' generation's dependence on the automobile caused greenhouse gas emissions in city centers to skyrocket, increasing air pollution, from which there are nearly 250,000 deaths per year in Paris.
Previous generation’s dependence on the automobile caused greenhouse gas emissions in city centers to skyrocket, increasing air pollution.
In 2016, we were commissioned by Anne Hidalgo and the Paris City Hall, as well as the Urban Ecology Department, to develop the Paris Smart City 2050 plan. The project was presented to all district councils of Paris to implement high-rise buildings in Paris, address the systemic housing crisis on one hand, and fight against the gentrification of the central cities, and turn them into a kind of museum.
We developed eight prototypes of vertical villages based on a concept of energy solidarity. Today, by taking the best of both low-tech and high-tech, contemporary architecture grafted onto Haussmannian (typical Parisian architecture) buildings, [we] can produce the electrical, calorific, and food energy necessary to meet the needs of inhabitants of the 21st century with a low carbon cost.
We have been working on La Petite Ceinture, a former railroad beltway around the city, which we would like to open up to "Pariculturists"—Parisians who grow their own organic food through urban farm space. In contrast to The High Line (public park) in New York, our dream would be to create a Low Line for Paris, which could house mushroom farms, supermarkets, gyms, swimming pools, and nightclubs.
In your work, you seem to prioritize the big picture, grand scale approach. How does this affect your archibiotic design? How can such projects affect users in their daily lives?
Our love for a grand scale comes from considering the city as an ecosystem in a comprehensive way, including its habitat, biodiversity, management of the flow of materials, food, and building materials.
I graduated in June of 2000, at a time that Yann Arthus-Bertrand, Nicolas Hulot, and Al Gore were already warning us about climate change. The inertia and disinterest of politicians frightened me. As a young architect, I chose to develop answers to the questions that nobody was asking.
One of our flagship projects was LILYPAD, a biomimetic floating city that could help accommodate the 350 million climate refugees expected by 2050, following the rise of the oceans and the salinization of agricultural land.
It is this type of thinking that has led us to large-scale solutions. This approach also allows us to optimize monetary resources without scattering ourselves in micro-projects. From the fundamental research that is done in scientific laboratories and universities, we experiment with these innovations, both high-tech and low-tech, by first manifesting them on paper in the architectural design and then later onsite, where the architecture comes to life.
Our mission as architects is, above all, to produce architecture that is as beautiful as it is comfortable and easy to use. That's why we are so fond of hanging gardens. It offers outside living space right in the heart of the city.
We prefer to work on housing, rather than museums or great architectural gestures, because everyone needs a good home. I think this is the cornerstone of contemporary architecture.
A major challenge in your work is to convince financiers to invest in an innovative and ecological project rather than in the security of traditional construction. In what ways do you design architecture that is a profitable environmental investment?
This is the big question facing us all today. How do we move away from the old model of a linear economy to the new model of the circular economy for as many people as possible? Our answer is, “to think comprehensively about the life cycle of a building. How is it built, lived in, inhabited, and operated? How can it be dismantled to assign new functions?” This is the case of the Belgian Pavilion at the Dubai World Expo 2020, designed as a giant Meccano (structure of bolted metal parts).
The more we want to integrate biosourced or geosourced materials and renewable energy, construction costs increase by as much as 10% to 15%. A well-insulated house that also produces all or part of the energy it needs reduces operating costs by 70% to 80%. In five or six years, the initial upfront cost is offset. It’s only necessary to think beyond the short term and to the medium term.
Today, the under-forty generation has integrated this into their approach. Our choice to promote new architectural and economic visions attracts young dynamic promoters who, like us, are highly conscious of climate change.
In the DRAGONFLY vertical farm project on New York's Roosevelt Island, you bring together livestock, crops, irrigation, waste, and human activities in one urban structure. Are similar "vertical farms" feasible for any urban area?
DRAGONFLY is a prototype designed with Dickson Despommiers (MIT professor and inventor of the vertical farm concept) for the purpose of feeding 50,000 New Yorkers. Vertical fields of permaculture vegetable gardens are built in levels to produce up to twenty-five kilograms of fruits and vegetables per year per square meter cultivated. The idea of locating it on Roosevelt Island is to create a floating market distributing all the food to Brooklyn and Manhattan, from producer to consumer, without intermediaries. Producing locally also eliminates the losses due to import-export flow.
This mixed-use tower houses apartments and office spaces to create a real neighborhood just like Little Italy or Tribeca. Instead of being horizontal, it is vertical. It includes interior streets for the different flows intrinsic to the life of a neighborhood.
This summer’s drought reminds us that water resources are at risk. DRAGONFLY works in a virtuous loop. Water flows down by gravity from the top floor to the ground floor and then back to the top. Ninety percent of the water resources needed for intensive agriculture are saved. This is achieved through permaculture, which consists of mixing plant species, without artificial chemical products. The building is part of the locavore (locally-grown and sourced) approach, offering seasonal products endemic to each city. In the Paris 2050 project, we collaborated with AgroParisTech, part of Paris- Saclay University, to integrate vertical farms at each gate of Paris. They would have produced organic food for 30% of Parisians.
The TAO ZHU YIN YUAN spiral tower is one of your most important projects. Can you tell me about its implementation?
The Taiwan Tower is the project that really established the firm in 2010. I won the competition against Zaha Hadid and Fernando Menis by demonstrating that it is possible to build a 50,000-square-meter residential tower that cuts its greenhouse gas emissions in half during construction and reduces its energy consumption by 70% during operation.
Our highly sculptural architectural proposal, according to the client's wishes, integrates all the principles of biomimicry and bioclimatic architecture. The tower is designed to follow the solar trajectory and the prevailing wind direction. It integrates passive wind chimney systems, inspired by termite mounds. The hot exterior air (40 °C or 104 F in summer in Taiwan) is conducted under the foundations, where the thermal inertia of the earth, constant all year round in all countries of the world, maintains a temperature of 16 °C or 60.8 F. The air is returned to the apartments by a natural draft system. By lowering the temperature this way means that it is not necessary to reduce the air’s temperature from 40 °C to 24 °C but from 26 °C to 24 °C. The energy consumption is thus 70% lower than any other tower in Taipei.
The tower is resilient, built to withstand earthquakes measuring up to 9.0 on the Richter scale. Constructed without a single gram of concrete, its ultra-high performance Japanese steel structure minimizes the amount of materials used, as nature does. Like a reed that grows but does not break, the tower rests on a ball bearing system that stabilizes it in the event of an earthquake.
The Tao Zhu Yin Yuan spiral tower is built to withstand earthquakes measuring up to 9.0 on the Richter scale.
Acting as a carbon sink, the tower is covered with more than 23,000 plants, shrubs, and trees that absorb up to 135 tons of CO2 per year in the atmosphere through photosynthesis. It is the first building in Southeast Asia to be awarded the diamond label of Carbo-Absorbent Building. This vertical forest project is made possible by easy maintenance. The vegetation is planted in traditional substrate containers accessible directly from the balconies. Access points allow gardeners to maintain the balconies without entering the apartments. The growing areas are held in common with costs paid by the co-ownership association.
You have just published visuals of your new project OCEANIUMS. Can you tell me more about its conception?
OCEANIUMS was not commissioned but is the result of the agency's concerns following our experience in Dubai, where the construction environment is potentially dangerous for workers. We observed how many architectural projects for big sports events become obsolescent. We came up with the idea of floating stadiums on the sea that can be nomadic. The stadium would go to the fans, and fans would no longer go to the stadium. It would move from city to city, thanks to the natural ocean currents.
We now have the opportunity to work, not only with BIM (Building Information Modeling) but with artificial intelligence. By combining 3D modeling and AI, we want to take advantage of this architectural revolution to make construction sites safer.
This project illustrates a philosophical vision: We live on a planet called Earth, but it is a blue planet, with 70% of its surface area covered by oceans. Rather than sedentary “Earthlings,” why not create a society of nomadic “Sea-lings?”
Architects of the past designed buildings that reflected the beliefs and aspirations of their time: cathedrals, palaces, places of learning. You yourself have designed a proposal for the reconstruction of the roof and spire of Notre-Dame de Paris. Where does the notion of ideal fit into your work?
The cathedral of Notre-Dame has undergone four centuries of evolution in construction techniques. Rebuilding the identical roof that was destroyed by fire is the opposite of the direction of history. By proposing a new architectural concept, we presented the vision of religion that reinvents itself. As in all of our projects, the structure would have produced the energy that the cathedral needed and would have taken on a new function as a shelter, especially for the homeless. Why use solid oak, when we have mastered the technique of cross-laminated wood which, thanks to steel cables, allows us to use a minimum of material, as nature does in all its living structures?
What kind of world do we live in, and more importantly, what kind of world do we want? Our society lives in hyper-instantaneity, the opposite of the medium-term vision that I mentioned. The younger generations have practices that are opposed to it. We travel a lot, we fly a lot, we are hyper-technophiles, and we have difficulty taking the necessary actions to repair the planet. These reflections are those of the citizen that I am, and through architecture—what I know best—I try to bring some answers. [To find out more about Vincent Callebaut, go to VINCENT CALLEBAUT ARCHITECTURES PARIS.]
Élodie Bitsindou is a PhD candidate in architectural history at Paris Sorbonne University. Interested in cultural transfers between France and the United States, she is currently writing her thesis on the influence of Levitt and Sons on French suburban sprawl.