Book Review: Oslo Architecture Triennale 2013

Oslo Architecture Triennale 2013: Behind the Green Door edited by Helle Benedicte Berg
OAT, 2013
Paperback, 144 pages

The 5th Oslo Architecture TriennaleBehind the Green Door: Architecture and the Desire for Sustainability—is currently underway, running until December 1 at various venues in Oslo. Behind the Green Door is the main exhibition and also the name of the catalog for OAT 2013. It is a slim volume that includes a program for OAT (green pages, as seen below) but also a number of essays, interviews, and projects responding to the theme developed by curators Lionel Devlieger and Maarten Gielen of ROTOR (with Criticat). In their foreword to the book (spread below) and introduction to the main exhibition, the curators ask: "Has the widespread use of the 'green' adjective resulted in an almost complete erosion of the meaning?"

It's a good question that responds to the rampant use of the word "sustainability" and the placement of the adjective "sustainable" in front of just about anything. Reading any architect's description of their project these days is believing that every new building is sustainable. But as LEED Platinum buildings are being critically examined as not-so-green, assertions of a building's sustainable principles should really be treated skeptically, arising from the fact the word "sustainability" is used without a shared, professional definition.

The curators again ask: "Is it possible to disagree? To be opposed to 'sustainability' while still acknowledging the reality of climate change?" Tapping into the childishness that can arise from using words without really knowing their meaning, the curators pose OAT as a "'time out': A moment to suspend current affairs and practices in order to ponder fundamental, underlying questions."

An intriguing proposition comes in the form of Gielen's "Pockets of Sustainability," which asks architects and others to narrow their focus toward determining what is sustainable. An example illustrated in the essay is teak wood, which was specified as reclaimed for the High Line elevated park in New York City. One's first impression may be that using reclaimed teak is good because then the trees needed to supply the same amount would not have to be cut down. But given the desirability of teak for residential decks and other uses, reclaimed teak is often taken from houses in Asia purchased solely for the material. In the process of lining the walls of a bedroom in Bridgehampton, housing and heritage are destroyed halfway around the world. This narrow "pocket" allows people to see just how accurate assertions of sustainability really are. More accurately, it dismantles assertions of sustainability by revealing that nothing is truly sustainable; there is only a gradient of impacts that are both positive and negative.

Elsewhere in the catalog is a "Who's Who in Green Building" (not the obvious names, that's for sure); "A Scrapbook of Experimentation," from the 1960s and 70s; an interview with Alfredo Brillembourg (spread below), founder of Urban Think-Tank and a keynote speaker at OAT; and some Nordic/Scandinavian-specific essays and projects (by Snohetta), among other essays. If you're interested in a "time out" be sure to visit OAT's website for information on ordering the catalog.

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