Green Architecture: Catherine Kirk, a Gardener in the Concrete Jungle

Climate change conferences and environmental issues are at the heart of our preoccupations. Sustainable buildings and green labels are the architect’s contribution to the green revolution. As a young professional, Catherine Kirk brought her engineering skills -acquired in England- and added it to the French artistic and creative touch to serve Nature through the development of a biological architecture.

Monday afternoon, a steaming cup of tea in hand, Catherine is waiting for us. She is the perfect illustration that the French creativity and the English practical views of architecture work together to grow toward a greener architecture. Nowadays green walls and vegetated roofs are blooming all around the world, phasing out the plain grey concrete. The profession evolves toward a more sustainable and conscious conception of edifices with innovative materials. “Architecture tends to be very aware of the impact that the buildings have on the environment and to try and evolve to be more respectful of nature”. Often forgotten as an art, the profession constantly renews itself through inspiration from nature but also reinterpretations of contemporary productions along with cultural preoccupations.

Hypérion will serve as a reference for BBCA (low carbon building label) building.

Where daffodils and fleur-de-lys collide

To be an architect is not only about drawing plans and creating incredible structures, the buildings have to match popular concerns and thus environmental issues have to be considered. After a bachelor’s degree in architecture in Cardiff, Catherine Kirk chose Paris for her master’s degree and final year as a student. The French conception of architecture, more artistic and conceptual than the English one, was what brought her to finish her studies at Malaquais (a Parisian architecture school). Aware of the advantage of her double expertise, she joined Jean-Paul Viguier’s firm eight years ago to bring her very own English practical touch to the French creativity. Her engineering knowledge acquired in Wales paired with the French conceptual and creative sensibility makes her feel more complete. “That is the thing about architecture, there are so many different aspects to manage, you have to know a bit about everything”. Catherine’s concern for the terrible environmental impact of buildings erection and “the awful amount of carbon dioxide it takes to create a concrete facility” she looks forward to changing that. As multi-skilled professionals, architects have the power to make ideas into visible constructions thus, they have to find the balance between rationality and the philosophical vision of things.

Nature knows best

As an art, Architecture finds inspiration in nature for itself. Just as other artistic fields such as music and paintings would, it might have taken more time for building making to integrate nature but more sustainable buildings are now ordered and green labels created and delivered to sustain the idea. Architects are increasingly inspired by biological structures such as human bones or insects wings, coupling creation and science to bring building making to a new level. As a young professional, Catherine hopes that architects will be more and more concerned as well as inspired by Nature. She is herself observant of how the ecosystems around her works, using what is already existing and has proved efficient in nature engineering such as flower blooming and petals opening systems.I think that there is a lot to learn in nature. It has been evolving for thousands of years. Nature is the most refined form of engineering. She likes to see architecture as a science of memories, the buildings as records of this natural engineered system. “There is obviously the aspect where organisms die. Thus, building design needs to take a look at nature-inspired intelligent structures as well as sustainable materials and building techniques before it disappears.

Mechanical flowers

Catherine worked on a temperature sensitive facade for the Intelligent Skins Project

The Intelligent Skin project, in which Catherine played a part when she was still a student, uses nature as a constraint to creativity. It is a research project which aims to develop analytic methods of living structure processes to develop intelligent skins for buildings. Participants rely on aesthetically appealing raw materials from nature and turn them into engineered prototypes. But Catherine went further and decided not to include any mechanical device to reproduce natural process in her prototype, only flower based science: “I was interested in the intelligent skin project because it is a process that happens automatically and in direct consequence to what is happening in the environment and how the different cells act.” Unlike Jean Nouvel’s retractable metal lattices that constitute the façade of the Institut du Monde Arabe, Catherine focuses on natural process and no mechanical ones. She insisted on the fact that “when you get too many different mechanical elements, it is more likely to break because it is not in the fundamental genetics of the material”. Thus, for her “building’s skin”, Catherine studied how the petals of a flower reacted to the heat, opening, and closing according to the sun. She tried to decompose and apply the same natural mechanism of cells dilatation to a façade using smart materials such as heat reactive gel. An added advantage of such a realization is that it is autonomous and self-sufficient, it does not need any power source to be activated.

Never stop learning

This kind of endeavour reveals that creativity and pragmatism are not incompatible. Building design, often forgotten as an art, tends to draw upon everything around us. From pre-existing facilities to movies and even texture, everything is worth studying and archiving. Architects are able to process concepts and artistic realization into creative fuel for their material constructions. It is by analyzing existing mechanisms and turning them into upcoming projects that Catherine successfully couples her double vision on architecture. Constantly inspired by her environment, she developed the eye of the skilled architect. She admits being driven by tangible creations more than architects strictly speaking: “I like certain buildings in particular rather than say I really like an architect”. French architecture gives room to imagination and conceptual projects and thus puts inspiration forward. The Philharmonie de Paris is a whimsical illustration of this perspective. On the other hand, English pragmatism puts function first at the expense of the form. That is why working the two visions together would allow architects to create a more sustainable architecture. Finding inspiration in gardens and forests with a French view, analyzing it with the more engineer-driven English one would be the base for practical projects that are still beautiful to look at.

« A rock-like building with the air of a hill », the Philharmonie de Paris by Jean Nouvel

Out of the bloom

Because inspiration is not limited to material architectural realizations, mixing and matching media might catch the technician’s eye. Some daily details such as a particular color in the sky, a specific material on an unusual area, a repetitive motive on a wall might appear as mundane to our profane eyes but are incredibly rich for professional architects. In her degree’s final year, Catherine studied Hitchcock’s movies and how his cinematic choices are very architectural. Hitchcock was himself, at some point in his career, a stage designer and assumed that “an art director must have a wide knowledge and understanding of architecture”. As a final project, she conceived a film library that was to be experienced by the visitors as in a movie: “In the same way that a film has a beginning, a middle and an end, I wanted to create the same sort of feeling while visitors move through the building”. She used architectural devices to direct the movement of the people through the building with the intention to create a deliberate atmosphere of suspense. “What interested me in Hitchcock’s work was the feeling of anticipation. You can create this sensation with walls, windows, intersecting plans, and the way you can let light come into the building to you.”

It is so important for Catherine to challenge her creativity as well as her engineering capacities to serve the functionality of the buildings she designs, to make the life of its inhabitants easier and more pleasant, “architecture has a lot to do with the human experience you feel in it, it has to be about the people that are going to inhabit in the building. I love the idea of a beautiful, extravagant building, but at the same time, I think it has got to be an extension of the way that people live, says Catherine”. Inspired by Louis Sullivan, the father of skyscrapers and modernism, she adds: « Louis Sullivan, a famous American architect said that ‘Form follows function’ and I believe in that.

Barbara Fasseur

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