XC90 presents… sustainable design

Brandon Clifford runs architecture studio Matter Design and lectures at the MIT School of Architecture. As part of a series about sustainable innovation, we visit him in Boston in an XC90 to hear his views on how architects of the future could learn a lot from the builders of the past.


The Cannibal’s Cookbook: Stone Age techniques for modern architecture

Your work focusses very much on the past, why is this?

“The research I’m working on at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] extracts knowledge from the past to transform our future. For instance, we look at Stone Age thinking to figure out if there’s a smarter way to build that we’ve forgotten. I think the future of architecture looks very much like the past. Ideas about sustainability are currently suffocated by an assumption of making things lighter, thinner and, consequently, more temporary, but history tells us sustainable thinking can be very heavy also.”

How does this manifest itself in everyday design?

“Today, we don’t recycle our building materials. Around 99 per cent of a demolition site is either concrete, stone or brick, and yet we still don’t have a way of taking that back into the built environment. Instead, we landfill that. For every bag of refuse you throw away each month, the building industry contributes two more on your behalf. If you look at our past, every civilisation has found a way of recycling their building materials. St Peter’s Basilica in Rome cannibalised the Colosseum to construct itself.”

You’ve recently written a book on architecture called The Cannibal’s Cookbook. Tell us about it.

“Well, Rome is just one example of reconstituting building debris to support the continual change that a city requires. What we’ve been doing as a research group is looking at these moments in the past where there is an intelligent methodology to do this. We’ve extracted these recipes, condensed them into this ‘cookbook’ and offered them to the world saying ‘Here’s a way of recycling your building waste’.”

How does this work in practice?

“We demonstrated it by constructing one of our own projects with this method. We built from previously discarded stone and concrete that was going to be landfilled. We digitally scanned it, ran the algorithms that were literally pulled from Inca stone construction and created a new piece of architecture from that knowledge. It is an alternative and ancient way of thinking, but I think it is also sustainable and smart. It’s the future of architecture, but it looks identical to the past.”

How do you see the role of the architect evolving?

“We wouldn’t recognise an architect on a construction site in the Middle Ages. Instead, they had master builders. Architects today are in charge of representations of architectural intent. Architects produce drawings that tell a contractor how they want a building to look, but they have no control over how it’s made. That is in the hands of the builder. But that’s not always been the case in architecture. Our past is littered with moments when these two were one and the same. And you get particularly amazing pieces of architecture in those moments when the thinker and maker are the same group of people.

“Take Gothic cathedrals, for example. The masons that built those had a certain autonomy to be able to work through their craft. Every column is unique because they are made by different craftspersons. One of the things happening right now in digital production is that this relationship between how things are designed and how they are built is being upturned in an amazing way. Right now, it’s an exciting moment to be an architect. For Matter Design, we’re looking to the past to help plan a smarter future.”

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