While the imperative to create sustainable architecture remains an urgent priority, new buildings with an architectural identity that grows over time are relatively rare. Normally technical systems with an ecological functionality are invisible, as they largely exist to regulate. The aesthetic natural addition of the vertical garden to buildings is becoming more common in many cultures, but now we are beginning to see in the experimental work of architects such as R&Sie and EcoLogic Studio serious attempts to bring together the notion of structure, natural systems and growth, and function. The architectural practice Triptyque, founded in Paris in 2000 by a Brazilian woman - Carolina Bueno - and three Frenchmen - Grégory Bousquet, Olivier Raffaelli and Guillaume Sibaud, recently created such an anticipatory architectural experiment. After winning an invited competition to renew the National History Museum in Rio de Janeiro, they migrated to the city the following year. They moved a second time, to São Paulo, in 2002, retaining an office in Paris. Feeling at home in this racially diverse city of 19 million inhabitants, they began work on a modest scale, studios for a photographer and a tv station, apartments and a villa extension, before gravitating to government and commercial buildings, housing, a library, offices and the Cultural Institute of Inhotim in Minas Gerais, a museum in an environmental park.
Today, for all its economic dynamism, Saõ Paulo has serious crime problems, high air and water pollution, congested roads and a lack of public transport infrastructure and services. A saving grace is the vibrancy of street life, lushness of vegetation and architectural heterogeneity. Vila Madalena, for example, is a bohemian quarter in the district of Alto de Pinheiros on the west side of São Paulo, where students like to live with a high concentration of bars, clubs, artists’ studios, galleries and boutiques. Here in 2008 Triptyque completed Harmonia 57, a three storey building of six artists’ studios in Harmony Street, deliberately named by anarchist students to avoid tribute to public authorities. The owner sold the new building to a clothing company who turned the extraordinary structure into its flagship store. The first impression is of a “skin” of vegetation dominating thick concrete walls. Made of a porous mix of cement, vermiculatis and sand, the concrete’s enlarged pores were made with a small mould, to accommodate plant species from the Atlantic Rainforest, Africa and India. These can tolerate radical temperature fluctuations and humidity, and form a good ecosystem, with some species offering shadow and others a bank of humidity. Their varied mass is watered by a system of external piping. This natural camouflage renders the planes of the façade beneath almost irrelevant as it continues to grow.
Two blocks are connected by wood planked metal footbridges intersected by glazed balconies and at the centre an internal plaza. The block overlooking the street is cantilevered and rests on pilotis, while the rear one is a solid punctuated by variously sized windows with extended concrete “lips”, one of full height, topped by a smaller structure with a pitched roof. This was originally designed to be the watchman’s house for the artists’ apartments. On the street façade four electronically operated lightly latticed eucalyptus wood screens open up to give transparency to the interior spaces and their luminous white wall surfaces. A concrete bordered side entrance leading by ramp from the street receives cars. External terraces on the first floor and at roof level leading to a green planted roof, with stairs connecting each level, give this heterogenous mix of volumes and spaces an easy to navigate circulation system for visitors and staff.
Triptyque were keen to generate an efficient ecosystem for water and plants. A system of yellow painted water pipes across the exterior, with electric pumps, a water treatment system and rooftop tank, conspicuously serves the whole structure, rather like the human body’s arterial network. On the facades there are sprinklers with nebulisers on pipelines, and over the green roof irrigation sprays which emit a humid mist, giving the building an intriguing character. The time and frequency of irrigation is electronically programmed, with a sensor disconnecting the irrigation programme when rain is detected, while motor pump enables the periodic emission of liquid fertiliser.
This system works in tandem with the green roof which generates fresh air and moisture and provides good thermal conditions inside the building, avoiding the need for air conditioning. The roof is made up of a layer of expanded clay, metal clean brash, wood, plastic and earth, which serve as an initial form of water filtration. Rain water is collected here and stored in three ground wells, and pumped into boxes positioned higher up to supply the building’s needs, as well as used to maintain a high level of groundwater to help restore the local hydrological cycle.
This flexible, resilient system has been much admired, although it does not actually use solar panels for financial reasons, and some dislike the pipes themselves for being an “anti-design” statement and wish they could be more aesthetically appealing. On the other hand the architects define the building as more than its tectonics: it is a permacultural environment strictly organised to function effectively in that mode, which links it to the lush vegetation surrounding much of the architecture in São Paulo, but instead of being a greenhouse, the ecosystem is woven around a façade as if it is the dominant structure. At the same time, the open character of the blocks offers a rereading of the concrete-dependent heritage of Brazilian modernism. It suggests the connected relationship between interior and exterior that many more modest buildings aspire to, even as if the construction was inside out. The building’s formal identity itself - grey, sculpted, deformed - is played down as merely a base with a primitive quality, deliberately in order to highlight its environmentally performative quality and interactive potential. In order to make architecture more live, certain components have to be muted or made to appear unimportant, otherwise the result would be very disorganised and hard to read.
The architects feel that the building is a low-tech, primitive “body/machine”, directly addressing the realities of Saõ Paulo rather than any utopian condition. “We didn’t try to make a vertical garden but a mineral/vegetal skin, a plastic and ecological material that brings a new presence to the neighbourhood”, says Triptyque partner Olivier Raffaelli. While the pipes are visible, the structure itself is hidden behind the greenery, but not to be picturesque but to “put the building’s degeneration and aging in an aesthetic process - a beautiful/ugly/living mix”. Triptyque like to quote the French artist Dominique Gonzales-Foerster’s definition of a tropical identity as “something organic, intense, sensorial, vegetal, pulsating, immature, out of control”. They explore the dichotomy of the concept of organic versus artificial, but through a functional rather than a merely metaphorical resolution of the two. Harmonia_57 captures that impulse, and like their structures at Inhotim, a visitor centre, and three kiosk-like forms set in a park, strives to integrate art and environment. While all these projects are clearly seeking a living camouflage, Harmonia_57 is more than that: a robust ecosystem symbolising urban growth through the interconnection of natural and artificial elements.