Earlier this fall, I sat down with architect Sean Lally to discuss his Big Idea: how architecture can take advantage of energy, and not just matter, as a building material. This interview is the second in our series of deep dives with creative thinkers from a variety of different backgrounds. You can read the first entry with complex systems scientist Sam Arbesman here. To see more samples of Sean’s work and learn more about his book, The Air from Other Planets, check out this Hieroglyph blog post from September 2014.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Joey Eschrich, Project Hieroglyph: Can you start by telling us about yourself?
Sean Lally: I have a design office called WEATHERS in Chicago. I’m educated as an architect and landscape architect, and that has played a role in how I think about the materials available that make space. The focus of my work and research is to explore the creation of new spaces and how those spaces enable and shape the interactions of the people that use them.
JE: Tell me a little bit about the last major project you worked on.
SL: Right now I’m working on two seemingly very different approaches to the same project. I’m building a series of large models and stage sets that I’m photographing to produce detailed high-res images that depict a particular spatial and social scene. These scenes demonstrate both the new shapes architecture can have with energy as a primary building material, as well as the social interactions and repercussions for people using them. Simultaneously, I’m building working prototypes of the technologies embedded in the photos that would make them feasible. Fictions with footnotes, you could say!
JE: How did you decide to become an architect?
SL: I really have no idea. I went into landscape architecture because I liked plants and biology coupled with design. After working in that for a few years, I realized more opportunities might exist in architecture to really push the design side of the discussion. But now, my work is now as rooted in landscapes and our outdoor environments as it is in architecture. I think the greatest opportunity today is in addressing space and architecture through the lens of the landscape and crises affecting our environment as a result of climate change.
JE: What is the main argument of your book The Air From Other Planets?
SL: World environments are changing, and simultaneously, the human body is continually being engineered, from immunization to the enhancement of our eyesight and other senses. These might seem like two separate events, but as an architect, what it means is that the materials that make up our surroundings and how the human body interacts and senses them are both in play.
In the past, architects manipulated matter to make steel, glass, and concrete, which gave us new novel spaces, but the human body always remained the same. We were learned more about it: how the eye works, what low frequencies do to the ear, and so forth, but we weren’t tuning our bodies to the spaces we inhabit. Today, both the built environment and the human sensorium can be designed simultaneously; one doesn’t necessarily predetermine the other.
This is an important conversation to have because the climates and environments of our world are changing, and so are our bodies. For life on Earth to continue forward, it’s unreasonable to believe we can simply preserve what we currently have now. For humanity to live sustainably and responsibly, both Earth’s environments and the human body will have to artificially evolve together. And I’m interested in exploring what the technological and aesthetic implications could be.
I’m interested in making energy…a building material like steel or concrete and making new and novel spaces and shapes with it.
JE: How do you define “material energies,” a term you use several times in the book?
SL: Architects work with materials that build spaces and define boundaries: things like steel, concrete, and glass. Each has its own proclivities, which effect what that space looks like, and the shapes it can take: a tall tower, an enormous stadium, a transparent, modernist house. Energy in architecture is generally seen as a fuel for simply heating, cooling, or lighting up an existing building design.
I’m interested in making energy—electromagnetic, thermal, acoustic, chemical—a building material like steel or concrete and making new and novel spaces and shapes with it. This definition of energy also includes the social and political interactions that emerge, both intentionally and unintentionally, from those shapes and spaces. We’re not starting from scratch here. Energy is already something that kind of courses through our lives. We just need to build on it.
JE: How can we conceptualize architecture as working with the energy around it, instead of confining it or keeping it out?
SL: The best way to do this is to give energy shape. This is why I’m doing the photographs and design speculations while simultaneously developing the underlying technology. If something doesn’t have a shape or aesthetic you can describe or articulate, it’s difficult to give it value. Energy is essentially invisible at the moment, except in extreme conditions. As a fuel, it’s something that resides in our mechanical systems. When we think of energy in architecture now, we usually think of solar panels or the mechanical ducts that run through a building. If it’s not seen as a fuel that cools or heats our buildings, then it’s seen as a technology that sits on top of it—but not as an integral part of it.
But if you take street lighting as an example, you have a shape—a cone of light coming down from the light bulb—produced by a spectrum of light that creates a physical boundary. At night, if you’re in the light cone, you have safety, recreation, commerce. When you’re outside that boundary edge, you don’t.
Street lighting is an amazing piece of architecture, and it’s one that can go away when it’s not needed. Simply flip a switch. It also changes its shape and aesthetics day to day: from a full moon to a new moon, its boundaries and edges look different as it interacts with the local environment.
When energy can be given its own shape, new quirks and proclivities emerge that differ from what you can do with steel or glass. It can also get people excited about what we can do with energy when we have more of it available, when we can find other clean and responsible ways of generating it. Maybe architecture should start with the streetlight and go forward from there as a new model for how we build our spaces. Start with street lighting and layer new energy systems and technologies, one on top of the other, until you have a built environment that is robust enough to flexibly accommodate diverse ways of using space. Something that is nimble, flexible and embedded with the same energy fields as the environment that it sits within. It would be a space that is suited to people’s changing needs and requirements, instead of static limiting factors that tell us what we can and can’t do inside them.
It’s time to give energy shape, get people exited about what life and social interactions might be like and have them demand the political and technological changes that have to happen to make them possible. It might sound counterintuitive at first, but we need to double down on our energy use, at least in the visions we speculate on, and not get stuck in the mindset of conserving the energy we’re currently getting from fossil fuels.
JE: You’re arguing that architects shouldn’t think of energy only in terms of conservation, in terms of cutting back and maximizing efficiency. How else should energy be conceptualized and deployed by architects?
SL: There are some very talented and smart people working to find better ways to harness, store, and move renewable energy around. At the same time, I don’t think we can escape the fact that, at least here in the U.S., all of our discussions of energy or the environment are increasingly tied nearly exclusively to an ethical and moral responsibility. Either cut back and conserve or you’re wasting energy, contributing to a crisis, even being selfish.
I think it might be beneficial to take a different approach, one that markets and demonstrates new activities, aesthetics, and lifestyles, while simultaneously smuggling into the discussion the idea of a responsibly evolving environment that requires the need for additional funding and political backing to make possible. The environments we live in, either locally or globally, have never been static, yet nearly all discussions of the environment are tied to a notion of conservation. We’re using the wrong language, the wrong metaphors.
Maybe what we need instead right now are visions of a future environment that might not look like what we have around us today, but are more supportive of the well-being of as many species as possible going forward. I think it’s necessary to decouple the word “sustainable” from the framework of energy conservation as we move forward.
JE: With all this in mind, do you think we should be training architects differently? Is there a different set of skills or perspectives that young architects should master?
SL: I do think there’s a distinction between the discipline and the profession. And so within the profession of “architect,” there are education and training criteria that need to be met. But the architect is the great generalist. We’re not usually specialists in anything—we’re generalists whose work draws in knowledge and insights from everywhere. In terms of the education and training, it’s about being able to piece together an awareness of all these subsets of variables that are at play, and being able to build the design scenarios and the collaborations to get a project done.
I think it’s necessary to decouple the word “sustainable” from the framework of energy conservation.
JE: In the book, you argue that architects have a unique relationship with time. How do you relate to time and its passage in your own work?
SL: When you think about a building, you usually think about the walls that stand strong against the natural elements. Those walls are made of stored and ossified energy—wood, steel, etc.—that mediate and defend against the local weather. The success of that architecture is rooted in its permanence, but we know in the back of our minds that it all starts to decay as soon as it’s finished, if it’s not continually maintained.
But if we go back to street lighting as an example of an architecture made from these material energies, you get a different relationship with its surroundings and time. Unlike an architecture made of walls that mediate against those energies that make up the local environment, the shape and aesthetic qualities of the streetlight are directly informed by the dialogue between the spectrum of light coming out of the streetlight and the light levels of the site it is on. And it goes away for half the day when the sun is out.
Buildings tend to be depicted with images that represent permanence. How else would you get a 30 year mortgage on your house if the bank wasn’t convinced it wasn’t going to be there that long? But when you start to think of architecture as intense micro-climates or energy fields that can take on those same architectural responsibilities, you realize the images we create of built spaces can’t have the same static form. It’s not to say they can’t last as long; it’s just that over time they’ll look different, from hour to hour or season to season, as those climatic forces push on the energies that make up the spaces.
But if you consider the re-launch of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos as a type of story of the universe, I think that was pretty amazing. There were so many instances when seemingly fundamental issues were discussed and I couldn’t help think “How did I not know this?” I really like those moments.
I couldn’t help but feel inspired. We all have a role to play. It might not be the one we initially intended or hoped for, but that shouldn’t prevent us from continuing to push forward. Architects need to find new ways to do things and act boldly, not scale back and retrench in the face of our the energy crisis and our other challenges. We need to invent new relationships with energy and space, not just a diminished version of our current understanding.
Thanks to Elizabeth Garbee for editorial assistance and expert co-editing!