Xavier Vilalta: Architecture at home in its community

My work focuses on the connection of both thinking about our community life being part of the environment where architecture grows from the natural local conditions and traditions. Today I brought two recent projects as an example of this. Both projects are in emerging countries, one in Ethiopia and another one in Tunisia. And also they have in common that the different analyses from different perspectives becomes an essential part of the final piece of architecture. The first example started with an invitation to design a multistory shopping mall in Ethiopia’s capital city Addis Ababa. And this is the type of building we were shown as an example, to my team and myself, of what we had to design. At first, the first thing I thought was, I want to run away. (Laughter) After seeing a few of these buildings — there are many in the city — we realized that they have three very big points. First, these buildings, they are almost empty because they have very large shops where people cannot afford to buy things. Second, they need tons of energy to perform because of the skin treatment with glass that creates heat in the inside, and then you need a lot of cooling. In a city where this shouldn’t happen because they have really mild weather that ranges from 20 to 25 degrees the whole year. And third is that their image has nothing to do with Africa and with Ethiopia. It is a pity in a place that has such rich culture and traditions. Also during our first visit to Ethiopia, I was really captivated by the old merkato that is this open-air structure where thousands of people, they go and buy things every day from small vendors. And also it has this idea of the public space that uses the outdoors to create activity. So I thought, this is what I really want to design, not a shopping mall. But the question was how we could do a multistory, contemporary building with these principles. The next challenge was when we looked at the site, that is, in a really growing area of the city, where most of these buildings that you see in the image, they were not there. And it’s also between two parallel streets that don’t have any connection for hundreds of meters. So the first thing we did was to create a connection between these two streets, putting all the entrances of the building. And this extends with an inclined atrium that creates an open-air space in the building that self-protects itself with its own shape from the sun and the rain. And around this void we placed this idea of the market with small shops, that change in each floor because of the shape of the void. I also thought, how to close the building? And I really wanted to find a solution that would respond to the local climate conditions. And I started thinking about the textile like a shell made of concrete with perforations that would let the air in, and also the light, but in a filtered way. And then the inspiration came from these beautiful
patterns of the Ethiopian women’s dresses. That they have fractal geometry properties and this helped me to shape the whole facade. And we are building that with these small prefabricated pieces that are the windows that let the air and the light in a controlled way inside the building. And this is complemented by these small colored glasses that use the light from the inside of the building to light up the building at night. With these ideas it was not easy first to convince the developers because they were like, “This is not a shopping mall. We didn’t ask for that.” But then we all realized that this idea of the market happened to be a lot more profitable than the idea of the shopping mall because basically they had more shops to sell. And also that the idea of the facade was much, much cheaper, not only because of the material compared with the glass, but also because we didn’t need to have air conditioning anymore. So we created some budget savings that we used to implement the project. And the first implementation was to think about how we could make the building self-sufficient in terms of energy in a city that has electricity cuts almost every day. So we created a huge asset by placing photovoltaics there on the roof. And then under those panels we thought about the roof like a new public space with gathering areas and bars that would create this urban oasis. And these porches on the roof, all together they collect the water to reuse for sanitation on the inside. Hopefully by the beginning of next year, because we are already on the fifth floor of the construction. The second example is a master plan of 2,000 apartments and facilities in the city of Tunis. And for doing such a big project, the biggest project I’ve ever designed, I really needed to understand the city of Tunis, but also its surroundings and the tradition and culture. During that analysis I paid special attention to the medina that is this 1,000-year-old structure that used to be closed by a wall, opened by twelve different gates, connected by almost straight lines. When I went to the site, the first design operation we did was to extend the existing streets, creating 12 initial blocks similar in size and characteristics to the ones we have in Barcelona and other cities in Europe with these courtyards. On top of that, we selected some strategic points reminded of this idea of the gates and connecting them by straight lines, and this modified this initial pattern. And the last operation was to think about the cell, the small cell of the project, like the apartment, as an essential part of the master plan. And for that I thought, what would be the best orientation in the Mediterranean climate for an apartment? And it’s north-south, because it creates a thermal difference between both sides of the house and then a natural ventilation. So we overlap a pattern that makes sure that most of the apartments are perfectly oriented in that direction. And this is the result that is almost like a combination of the European block and the Arab city. It has these blocks with courtyards, and then on the ground floor you have all these connections for the pedestrians. And also it responds to the local regulations that establish a higher density on the upper levels and a lower density on the ground floor. And it also reinforces this idea of the gates. The volume has this connecting shape that shades itself with three different types of apartments and also lets the light go on the ground floor in a very dense neighborhood And in the courtyards there are the different facilities, such as a gym and a kindergarten and close by, a series of commercial [spaces] that bring activity to the ground floor. The roof, which is my favorite space of the project is almost like giving back to the community the space taken by the construction. And it’s where all the neighbors, they can go up and socialize, and do activities such as having a two-kilometer run in the morning, jumping from one building to another. These two examples, they have a common approach in the design process. And also, they are in emerging countries where you can see the cities literally growing. In these cities, the impact of architecture in people’s lives of today and tomorrow changes the local communities and economies at the same speed as the buildings grow. For this reason, I see even more importance to look at architecture finding simple but affordable solutions that enhance the relationship between the community and the environment and that aim to connect nature and people. Thank you very much. (Applause)

  1. It's a great concept, but I would like to see the application pan out in the next few years. If it works, it will be marvelous.

  2. Could you do a better job of giving a speech in a foreign language?
    Public speaking is hard enough in your own language, and many of the highly intelligent people who do these TED talks are probably introverts who aren't great with groups of people to begin with.
    Give the poor guy a break. He's more successful than you'll ever be.

  3. Oh give me a fucking break. Americans are the absolute worst at thinking they're special because of where they're born. We're seen as bad people in the US if we don't believe in America exceptionalism and aren't proud to be American, yet you want to put someone down the second he says he's proud of his country? You have 300 million Americans to chastise before busting his chops dude.

  4. For those commenting on the way he speaks, just remember that public speaking is harder than it looks. It's easy to critique someone behind a screen.

  5. I understood him perfectly well. Although English is obviously not his first language, there's no need to put the guy down.

  6. Yea i was also very impressed with the roof panels.. I saw a solar panel with a motor built in to make the panel always point directly at the sun. They should add that on the "umbrellas" on the roof, make it very slowly moving ofc 🙂 I also really liked the entrance square with multiple entrances and two layers.

  7. The problem with that is, the whole purpose of a solar collector is to generate energy, and a motor takes energy. In addition, it would be slightly disconcerting for an umbrella (which is their secondary function) to slowly dip into view between you and your friend. He made the right choice.

  8. no, he's not. a transcript in the description would be awesome. that wouldn't add much work compared to how much effort those people put into this.





  10. Especially for people who do not have English as their native language, this man can be hard to understand sometimes. It's not thát strange to ask for subs. Saying I'm not cultured when I do is just you being passive aggressive.

  11. How is this disgraceful? What he does is to take the most important thing into consideration and thats the community. The buildings might not be the most beautiful for everyones eyes. But i think they are interesting, something you will open your eyes for. Also today we are going for buildings which will be more efficient and reduce the energy used for it.

  12. Our ancestors build marvel palaces and cathedrals that took generations to complete. We will be remembered as a lower culture making quick and ugly shopping centers and sport stadiums everywhere.

  13. Best way to connect people and nature in a community sense is — decentralize everything, cities roads and buildings. Spread things out a bit goddamit!!! Concrete jungles of today are just a complete failure in all aspects. Filthy, smelly and polluted asshole that keeps growing and increasing its population with people who dont mind to live in their own shit.

  14. Very interesting, I loved the way this architect thought about local weather conditions and used them to his advantage. This guy knows how to be Eco-friendly in the cheapest way possible. I do believe that by including cultural cues in these buildings should make this community proud.

  15. So this is how architects view themselves and their work, and what makes them capable of justifying the horrible atrocities they inflict upon cultural heritage. It all makes sense now…

  16. The knowledge is preserved, it's not a bad thing. See, our ancestors did build huge, glorious buildings, but the times are changing. Since modernism from the 19th century, people needed the change in architecture as well. Everything is simplified, broken down to its essentials. This is the time we are living, and it needs to happen! People needs the change. Surely, it's too simplified in my opinion too, bit this will change again, as soon as we understand the principles of space in buildings 🙂

  17. well a masterpiece, lesson learned. i appreciate the approach to contextualize and also the create a responsive indoor environment for multistory shopping mall. but i still question the consideration of importing the outdoor shopping experience to inside which we  in Addis Ababa are still  struggling in bringing  the ground to multistory. i argue that the next shopping or  marketing  scenarios to be build should be an intermediate between ground and multistory|  outdoor and indoor .

  18. I like that getahun says
    Getahun Heramo(Ethiopia)
    Dear Xavier,
    I am very glad to hear from your TED-talk session and also other media that you are doing your best in the contemporary history of Ethiopian architecture. I really support your effort to reconcile the modern architecture with domestic tradition, climate and nature (by the application of fractal geometry).
    However, I do have two objections regarding your presentation in Ted-talk.
    1. In your presentation you said that most of the shopping malls in Addis Ababa are almost empty because of the unaffordable wider interior shops. Can you justify this with evidence? Did you make any research on this issue or
    are you simply trying to sell your ideas easily? My evidence at hand shows quite contrary implication but I want first to hear from you! There are some buildings which faced problem due to the Railway project (not related with the problem which you mentioned) but still they are almost full!!
    2 How are you going to realize the colors on the polymer concrete? I hope you know that much research is being carried to prevent the fugitive nature of various pigments and dyes! I believe that you will take care in selecting the right color index for each color that can withstand UV degradation and water permeability! The pigments that work in Europe might not go well here! As you didn’t disclose this information, I can’t judge anything but it is only to make a remark because you are in another environment! Specially don’t trust those red dyes! They will let you down in weather conditions of Addis Ababa! If you do not select the permanent red dyes, all the red lines in the façade will disappear in few months/years and the building façade will eventually mourn for the lost colors!! So does the client!!

  19. I like it
    Getahun Heramo (Ethiopia)
    Dear Xavier,
    The use of traditional motifs in domestic architecture shouldn’t rejoice you like a "eureka" experience. This has been the trend during the art nouvea period 116 years ago which made use of designs on the fabrics. Zaha Hadid ,the contemporary renowned architect, once clearly disclosed that she was consciously inspired by that movement. Even in Ethiopian context, about 50 years ago, architect Arturo Mezzedimi, who designed the African Hall said the following on this issue. "It was a question ,therefore ,of blessing all these elements (traditions) and incorporating them in a modern building ,while at the same time eschewing any facile concessions to folklore and local color…The objective and reasoned utilization of local knowledge and experience rendered it necessary to take a number of matters into consideration and to make certain decisions.". You can still note the design on the entrance of the African hall which was based on designs on African textiles (though it is being hidden by the reception building and has been used in a too minimalistic approach!) Also I can mention for you the Ethiopian contemporary architect Fassil Giorgis, who is an advocate of vernacular architecture! The fractal concept of African motifs is also not new. I knew you imported this idea first from the mathematician Ron Eglash, the author of African Fractals book! However I can also mention professor Nikos A. Salingaros of Texas university who strictly teaches to make use of the fractals of Ethiopian silver cross in architecture.

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