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Building sustainability: Slow architecture

Mass consumption, economic growth, globalisation – every trend has a countertrend. For example, “slow architecture” which puts the focus on the local area. The first question is: How do I want to live? An interview with sociologist Christiane Varga.

Christiane Varga | Germanistin und Soziologin

Christiane Varga has a degree in German Studies and Sociology from the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich and is passionate about architecture and the sociology of space. Christiane was born in Ulm but, after her studies, she moved to Austria where she initially worked as the Editor-in-Chief of Living Culture, a Graz-based cultural magazine, before joining the team at the Zukunftsinstitut (Institute for the Future) in Vienna in 2012. Her work focuses on looking holistically at the dynamic interaction between home, life and work.

Slow architecture

Construction is increasingly being shaped by architecture that is emerging gradually and growing organically. Slow architecture brings about successful alternative concepts to conventional buildings and is based on strong characteristics of sustainability.

The term “slow architecture” grew out of the slow food movement in the mid-1980s. In addition to using natural materials such as wood or natural stone, integrating buildings into their respective environment also plays a decisive role in the basic idea of “generic architecture”. Here it is important to see locations for what they are: a unique combination of nature, architecture and culture. As such, perception is shaped by the location and the surroundings themselves, the architecture that celebrates or blights a given place, and the rituals that take place there.

  • The location and the surroundings themselves
  • The architecture that celebrates or blights a given place
  • The rituals that take place there

All three aspects together create or allow experiences. This underlines that the primary focus in future will be to tackle the themes of roots, authenticity, idiosyncrasies, diversity and finally locality in both the spatial planning and design of buildings. If you combine this with a globally networked perspective, then the result is specific, local, sensual experiential spaces. When the idiosyncrasies of a region are tangibly personified through its buildings, public awareness is as good as guaranteed. In technical parlance, this focus is also described as sensory branding of buildings, cities or regions. Slow architecture achieves this very successfully.


Can slow architecture prevail as a concept?
We talk to Christiane Varga

Deceleration, attentiveness, a return to our roots... Since when have these metaphysical trends played a role in architecture and what is the situation today?

As in many other areas, there has been a trend now in architecture for several years to pay more attention to our use of materials and to challenge existing concepts. This is embedded in a growing interest in health, through which we are more keenly aware of materials and production processes for textiles or of ingredients in food, for example. Regionality plays an increasingly important role and a greater appreciation of space and the surroundings is visible in the architecture. Existing materials or construction methods are used more frequently in order to integrate new architecture into its respective environment, such that the specific, regional character, authenticity and also diversity is made tangible. Driven by visionary and innovative thinkers, slow architecture is already cropping up in certain places, but the mainstream focus remains primarily fixed on efficiency and cost.

The predominant message seems to be “as much as possible for as little as possible”. How does that fit in with slow architecture?

Here there is yawning gap. As a society, we are emerging from a period of mass consumption that has now reached a peak following economic growth and in the course of globalisation. Buying cheap T-shirts galore, then simply throwing them away instead of washing them, that is the height of consumerism. However, this apparent paradox with slow architecture is important because every trend has a countertrend. This is precisely why local sourcing is coming back into focus, with local carpenters and architects being employed. This also has a democratising effect, since healthy order books and strong demand can make local services cheaper and in turn allows clients with small budgets to choose more than just a mass-produced article. Ultimately, however, it boils down to how we respond to simple questions: How do I want to live? What do I want my surroundings to be like? What can be made with certain materials that I want to use? What significance does the local area have for me?

“Change is a process which is allowed to also have a playful aspect and which carries on gradually, step by step. It's about excitement, not indoctrination – this is how long-term change happens.”

With the current shortage of skilled workers, though, "slow architecture" takes on a completely different meaning...

Unfortunately, we can't get away from that. Here it is clear just how important a holistic view is. After all, sustainability, training, craft and many other things are closely interlinked. It's not enough to focus on just one thing. In order to combat the shortage of skilled workers over the long term, we need to reconsider the types of training on offer and motivate young people. If nothing changes, then slow architecture will remain an isolated topic and there will continue to be just a handful of clients, companies and architects with knowledge of organic architecture.

What needs to happen for slow architecture to gain enough traction? Does it need to be promoted in a dogmatic way or are small initiatives enough?

Looking at it as a whole, topics such as sustainability need to step out of the "eco corner" shadows. A certain element of glamour should not be a contradiction – sustainability can indeed look great and be trendy, we can see that in pioneers such as Bjarke Ingels. The problem is that the property industry is booming and there is no fundamental need for change. The motivation to make projects more complex and time-consuming is therefore low. It is all the more important to establish examples which inspire and motivate imitators, so that the pressure from customers grows. Over the long term, a countertrend will develop – as a countermovement to our digital world too. People will be attracted by the possibility of resetting boundaries for the endlessness of the digital space and the appropriation of professional and private lives. The home will become a hub which welcomes me with natural materials, organic shapes and tactile objects. This is evident, for example, in the development of the bathroom, which is undergoing a transformation from functional wet room into wellness space.
It's important that slow architecture is fired up in an undogmatic way that is free from repression. The aim is not just to build mud huts single-handedly, but to create an awareness for organic structures and support architects who are grappling in this area. Individual actions can have a huge impact without the need to abandon basic concepts. Change is a process which is allowed to also have a playful aspect and which carries on gradually, step by step. It's about excitement, not indoctrination – this is how long-term change happens. It doesn't happen overnight, but this ultimately is what slow architecture is all about.