FLEMMING RAFN: IN HARMONY WITH NATURE

© Flemming Rafn

From your point of view cities, buildings and nature are not opposites, but prerequisites for each other when facing current urban challenges. Could you explain your philosophy in further detail?

Our office is looking at challenges our cities are affected by such as migration, mobility and climate change. From our point of view cities and nature have fought against each other for far too long. Back in the days, nature had a destructive character and could be dangerous. Nevertheless, we are the product of hundred thousand of years walking in nature and also understanding not only its dangers but also its potential. For this reason, and if we really want to solve the above stated problems, we have to find a “third way”, i.e. a new balance between the world’s natural resources and our consumption. Additionally, we strongly believe that a lot of solutions can be actually drawn from nature because we see the urban metabolism as a kind of ecosystem in which all parts communicate with each other and have the potential to form a strong and sustainable whole. As a result, we consider architecture, climate and resources as integrated parameters in our design process. The main question is, what is really adapting to what? All of our projects are adapted to what is living – not the other way around.

When did you decide to follow this “responsible approach”? Were there any key moments additional to the overall claim for environ- mentally responsible consumption?

Right from the beginning we wanted to follow a rather humble approach towards nature and its potentials than trying to force it to our projects. When taking UN questions seriously, such as how massive numbers of people will move into cities, how we will live longer and what huge impact this will put on our cities, it is our duty to think about sustainable architecture and how we can reduce our resource footprint on the building level as well as on the user level. I really do not understand why the industrialized agriculture industry is constantly criticized while the building in- dustry is not grilled to the same extent, considering we have a way larger footprint on the planet. Additionally, when talking about sustainability we also need to think about regenerative aspects. Which materials can be re-used or re-cycled? All in all, it is to find out how all these puzzle pieces can be put together in order to bring value to a more sustainable healthy life and to reduce our CO2 footprint to a minimum. Looking back on our work we can say that there are several smaller steps we can make that combined leads to a much larger impact.

© Flemming Rafn

Your projects such as climate adaption projects, sustainable urban masterplans or hybrid building typologies are characterized by solving more than just one problem. What is the advantage of such a holistic approach and how do you manage it?

Since we see cities as ecosystems and not only as a sum of buildings and infrastructure, we cannot focus exclusively on one problem. On the one side you have a metabolism of technical infrastructure, building mass etc. On the other side you have the decay of the material which starts to crumble over time and is regenerated by certain species. Our approach is to make use of all these energies, make the most of a limited budget, sort out what is really important in life and try to develop a positive design. In case of The Climate District of Copenhagen, for example, we did not propose just one new water management solution but for an entirely new holistic approach of how to deal with water in general. All this has been adapted as general realization in the industy since Copenhagen was hit by the monster rain in 2011. It’s a complex array of solutions that must come together to fix the climate impact on the city.

From theory to reality: When looking at several projects such as your Climate district or your Climate Park, one can say that handling water challenges is one of your key issues. Could you explain how your planning has turned the historical 90 year old Enghavenparken into a more resistant urban space with respect to water challenges?

The Climate Park a classicist historical park in Copenhagen, has been transformed and is now the largest climate project in Copenhagen. With a 22.600 m3 water reservoir the park answers the need to handle future water challenges. The challenges are positively transformed into a large variety of new recreational, relaxation and sensory opportunities to be used both in an everyday situation and in the event of extreme rain events. The park will continue to be a unique space with its own poetic, lush fairy-tale-like atmosphere, but we added several new performative layers.

The park has been an important green space at Vesterbro since 1929. It is built as a strict neoclassical park with a reflecting pool, geometric axes, playground, and stage. The structure is preserved and enforced with the restoration of the tree alleys going through the park. The different areas in the park are based on the park’s original character and designed but with great additions of new modern urban experiences. Some of the park’s spaces have been lowered to collect water during cloudburst and a urban levee or water wall that outlines the park can hold onto the rainwater. We harvest everyday rain and use it as a resource and we can hold back the extreme rain amounts, so it does not damage the surrounding districts. In dry periods the different elements will act as recreational spaces and be used for play and relaxation, effectively expanding the necessary investments to a 100 % performativity, rather than just using them in the 1 % of time we see the extreme rain events.

© Flemming Rafn

Additionally, you set a focus on multifunctionality. Why do you think it becomes more and more important providing urban spaces responding to more than one need?

In my opinion, we have been settled way too long for monofunctional places. Different urban spaces have so many great potentials that is simply a sin not to use it fully. Just think about the harbor of Copenhagen: Before its careful revitalization, it had been polluted for decades. Nowadays, it is a popular urban space where you can swim safely, enjoy ice cream or simply having a good time with your friends and family. The multifunctionality brings back life to once abandoned places. And this is the essence of urban space: life, people, fun and activity. The same holds true for planting trees in cities: We do not only need fancy restaurants, bars and shops – we also need greenery and parks, i.e. spaces to breathe. Only one tree in a city is 10 time better than placing it in the wood simply because it brings back a bit of nature into the urban context and also recent studies show that only looking at a picture of a tree lowers your stress level. Imagine what trees could do to our society in real life! As you can see: Multifunctionality is a very broad field urban designers, planners, architects but also inhabitants should think about.

You say “Everything is like before and yet not”. Are there any urban structures and elements that work effectively throughout time?

I truly believe in the archetypes of space and architecture and I am very critical about what is overly hip. I think, it is important developing structures that motivate people to engage with each other, that create a certain kind of dynamic. The corona crisis has initiated a lot of discussions about city life and what kind of urban spaces we need. I am not into regressive discussions saying the city has always looked like that and therefore should remain like that. But we need to understand the reasons causing the city to look or function in certain way, and identify why it maybe does not perform well anymore. We need a deep understanding of the historical, social and economic context of a city because all of these aspects are responsible for its’ shape. It is our foremost task as urban planners, designers and architects to adapt and optimize it to its contemporary context and needs: preserve what is good and renew only structures which need to be optimized. Looking back on 200 years of urban design history, a lot of the classicist archetypes have actually been incredibly successful. So, it is our task to create an fruitful dialogue between the past, the present and the future.

The Climate Park is a perfect example of your approach turning “problems” into something useful; in this case you use water also as an educational element; namely telling the story of The Climate Park. Do you think urban spaces such as The Climate Park can be used to increase our overall awareness for global urban problems and therefore enhance our competencies in building more resistant cities?

I think so. Architecture and urban spaces truly have a huge impact on our behavior. In terms of The Climate Park it becomes clear that nature can be either a very destructive power or an energy which can be used and re-used for different purposes. Architecture and urban design help us to use the positive aspects of “natural energy”. Re-connecting our professional competence to natural processes is a key element of our approach – and for sure of any urban designer. And as soon as you can re-establish a positive but also critical and sensible way of behavior or activity within an urban environment, you are also linked to everyone around you. As a result, we are all in this (nature and culture) together.

© Flemming Rafn

Since our current issue is titled RESISTANCE – what are the main challenges our cities have to become resistant to?

I think it is more about understanding the why and what about the resistance against positive climate change. It is incredible how much we already know, and how little we are doing, when it is obvious how much we stand to gain if we make it in the race for the green transition.

One major problem is that people know what they have and are uncertain about what they might gain by changing something in their lives. This is one central point in understanding why some changes happens slowly. There is protective resistance to what people strive for, what comforts them and the ideals they hold the highest.

Systems, regulations and the financial sector have a lot of resistance built into them, too. Systems will at all times try to suboptimize themselves, rather than making themselves obsolete. Regulations are just slow and by nature more conservative, one-sided rather than being about sustainability or holistic quality. Just look at the building codes and how hard it is to experiment or do something new. And the financial sector will of course try to sustain the most profitable business cases, even if it is wrecking the planet.

You call your approach humane solutions to man-made problems. Why do you make a difference between “human” and “man-made”?

Humane indicates it is about all the cultural, practical and ethical implications of what it means being a part of the human race. No other species have ever had this particular impact on the planetary habitat, and only a deep understanding of human nature can potentially bring forth the motivation to fundamentally change the human condition to something more resilient. And make way for a more positive narrative.

Thank you for this interesting insight into your work.

 


Flemming Rafn

is a co-owner and partner at TREDJE NATUR (THIRD NATURE) where he is responsible for the performativ development of a new kind of nature that seeks to fuse building and biology into a third hybridized relation. From his perspective by far the greatest challenges facing our society lie in the existing city. He is not only a winner of several awards such as the Popular Science Award (2018), Leaf Award for Vinge Station (2015) but also listed among the top 100 most innovative sustainable solutions by the SUSTAINIA100 and speaker at the TEDx Copenhagen Talk.

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