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Copenhagen Contemporary urges all to reset materials for a sustainable future
Installation view of Reset Materials - Towards Sustainable Architecture
Image: Hampus Berndtson

Copenhagen Contemporary urges all to reset materials for a sustainable future

Reset Materials – Towards Sustainable Architecture exhibits ten installations that present sustainable experiments undertaken with wood, plastics, hempcrete, silicon, and more. 

by Almas Sadique
Published on : Aug 25, 2023

When the impressive imprints of high-tech inventions fade out, one begins to notice the barrage of waste such innovations leave behind. It may sound too harsh to put such blatant blame on technological creations of such nature, but, when discerned from close quarters, it becomes clear that their presence—at a time when consumerism guides a large populace to acquire and discard umpteen amount of objects quickly and consistently—tends to pose a larger issue, not only because of their sheer numbers, but also because they refuse to become one with the environment. In processing naturally available entities to an extent such that their original visages fade away, only to be replaced by materials and objects that stubbornly continue to occupy space and infest their vicinities with toxins, humans have managed to crowd their havens with discards that add no value, and instead, add to the overall pollution level and rising carbon footprints.

In the face of such urgencies, it is imperative to take a step back, to critically assess what one is creating, and how. Addressing this, Copenhagen Contemporary, a gallery in Copenhagen, Denmark, is currently hosting a large, experimental exhibition at the intersection of art and architecture called Reset Materials – Towards Sustainable Architecture, which invites visitors to ‘explore sustainable building materials of the future.' On view from June 30 - September 28, 2023, the exhibition presents several installations that showcase the scope and potential of sustainable materials. “As a society, we need the creative power of artists to develop new solutions to future challenges. Creativity is fundamentally about thinking new—inventing, creating, and developing something that does not exist already. At CC, we are proud to present this innovative and visionary project which will hopefully inspire a new and more sustainable take on architecture," says Marie Laurberg, director of Copenhagen Contemporary.

“Construction represents one of the most polluting human activities on the planet today, accounting for nearly 40 per cent of the global CO2 footprint. Much of this comes from production and waste of materials. It is therefore urgent for architects and the building industry, and for society in general, to radically transform how we source, construct, and inhabit our built environments,” reads an excerpt from the exhibition's note. Prior to the exhibition, ten interdisciplinary teams were set up (selected via an open call), each comprising architects, artists, researchers, material producers, and more, to experiment with natural materials and present their vision of ‘post-carbon architecture.’ They worked on their individual projects for a year, as part of the #MATERIALER project, initiated by the Dreyers Foundation, where they experimented with their designated materials to understand their aesthetic, constructive and ecological potential.

The result of this year-long research project is a series of prototypes displayed across the Danish gallery space, exemplifying the extent to which each material can be modified to fulfil specific functions, without becoming unsustainable. The design exhibition at Copenhagen Contemporary, curated by external curator and architect Chrissie Muhr, is produced by the gallery in collaboration with the Danish Association of Architects (Akademisk Arkitektforening). "In order to allow ourselves to continue to build in the future, it's essential that we prioritise experimentation with new materials, recycling, and innovative architectural approaches that promote sustainability. The World Capital of Architecture and the UIA World Congress of Architects this summer in Copenhagen were unique occasions to show how Danish architects are currently working with local materials and a new sustainable aesthetic that can inspire globally. And we are thrilled to present the material exhibition in collaboration with Scandinavia's largest institution for contemporary art, Copenhagen Contemporary," says Lars Autrup, director of the Danish Association of Architects.

Guest curator and architect Chrissie Muhr added to this sentiment by asserting it as 'a moment of transition.' "Facing the complexity of our times, this unique exhibition allows us to step into and even inhabit a potential future at this very moment. A future driven forward through the collaboration of the next generation of recognised Danish architects, artists, designers and manufacturers. A reset of standards, values and aesthetics that will become your future material memory,” she relayed.

Reset Materials - Towards Sustainable Architecture draws focus upon both newly developed and rediscovered local materials such as recycled plastic, silicon, growing organisms, mycelium, nettle, clay, hemp, and more. These materials were collected, cultivated, recycled, deconstructed and recomposed by the teams to build the final installations. The gallery raises a pertinent question through the exhibition—“Will our buildings in the future be constructed out of fungi, nettles, and recycled plastic? Can we cultivate bricks like we do crops? And how will sustainable materials change our understanding of architectural beauty and values?”

The different teams undertook experiments under the heads of Tree, Plastic, Earth, Hempcrete, Silicon, Monoblock, Straw, Biocement, Mycelium, along with Nettle, Hemp, Flax & Eelgrass. "The exhibition is, above all, a critical comment on the way we source and build our environments, outside the exhibition spaces, with little or no regard for our planetary boundaries. The remodelled industrial spaces at CC set a robust stage for addressing the crucial need to transform our relationships with materials. The exhibition design bridges the gap between current and future standards by using standard contemporary materials, like plywood sheets or a façade membrane, to present future standard materials and their implementation," reads an excerpt from the press release. In keeping with the essence of the showcase, the exhibition design, too, is circular in approach. It does not utilise the usage of new materials. Instead, existing building materials, borrowed from suppliers, hold up the space. Once the exhibition concludes, these materials will be reused in their original functions.

The participants that undertook the project ‘Tree: Expanding Perceptions of Wood’ include architects Kim Lenschow and Anders Wilhelmsen, artist Bonnie Hvillum from Natural Material Studio and Hans Peter Dinesen from Danish flooring brand Dinesen. While experiments with wood are not a new venture, the group’s installations at the gallery focused on wood that is left over after the production and processing of refined wood products. In picking up surplus material (such as fine-grained fibres, sawdust, and powder) left behind by Dinesen, and combining them with wood-based binders, the group managed to create an entity with a materiality distinct from the usual features of wood. “Tree transforms conventional understandings of how to use this natural material. The result is a site-specific work that pays homage to the infrastructure of ducts and piping that is needed to transport and utilise this waste product at the mill. This infrastructure has resonance with similar systems typically found in an exhibition hall. These formerly generic, mute, and purely functional objects are rematerialised through the new sawdust-based material,” reads an excerpt from the press release shared by the gallery.

Architect Vicki Thake, photographer Torben Eskerod, and textile artist Grethe Wittrock undertook the project ‘Plastics: Using Recycled Plastic in Architecture’ and ReVærk architects Simeon Østerlund Bamford and Mathias Ørum Nørgård with artist Kasper Kjeldgaard proceeded to undertake the research titled ‘Earth: Expanding the Notion of Building with Earth Through Hybrids.’ While the former investigates the possibilities of integrating plastic within a circular sustainability framework of architecture by encouraging reuse, the latter speaks about the exploration of material and construction hybrids that can improve the tensile strength of rammed earth and view the many possibilities of its versatile usage within the Danish built context.

Meanwhile, ‘Hempcrete: Developing New Perspectives on Known Techniques,’ was built by Søren Thirup Pihlmann and Jakob Rabe Petersen of pihlmann architects, Studio ThinkingHand artists Rhoda Ting and Mikkel Dahlin Bojesen, and ApS producer Christian Vædele-Larson. Hempcrete is a bio-composite material made using hemp, lime and water, which is then combined to build blocks. “The project investigates the capabilities of the three ingredients in combination with different formwork, application methods, ratios, and densities—parameters chosen after examining known techniques. It explores a new understanding of the material by acknowledging the intimate relationship between raw products, cyclical assemblage, porous structure, and spatial experience. Furthermore, the project explores how living components can interact, relate, and entangle across different temporal and scalar perspectives,” a description from the press release explains.

‘Nettle, Hemp, Flax & Eelgrass: Living with Plant Fibres’ is a research undertaken by architect Frans Drewniak and artist Sara Martinsen. The project poses a pertinent question—“How can we bring back biogenic materials in architecture?” Drewniak and Martinsen have imagined new dwellings built using four native plant fibres, namely nettle, hemp, flax and eelgrass. These constructions ascertain a structure that is organic, breathable, compostable and biodegradable.

The project, ‘Silicon: Turning Microchip Waste into Building Solutions’ was undertaken by Anders Lendager, Nikolaj Callisen Friis, Daga Karlsson and Andreas Berg Bonnén of Lendager, artist Honey Biba Beckerlee, producer Én jord and Eco Silicate. It investigates the possibility of developing new applications with the waste left behind after silicon processing for buildings. Since silicon is the second most abundantly available element on Earth after oxygen, it presents an exceptional opportunity for its research and integration within ordinary objects and materials. “Currently, about half of mined silicon is disposed of as industrial waste. The project presents several physical material tests while elaborating a series of building fragments that demonstrate opportunities and challenges in working with the material,” the participants explain.

‘Monoblock: De-constructing with Aerated Concrete and Lime’ was undertaken by architects Desislava Lynge and Michael Lynge of Lynge Lynge Arkitekter, artist Jakob Steen, master mason Mikael Martlev and manufacturer Xella. Built using the Energy+ monoblock from Xella, this project ‘identifies a potential for aerated concrete monoblock materials to be recycled.’ The bricks invented as part of this project are done using a new method that treats surfaces and bricking. A description of the project reads thus, “Today, aerated concrete monoblocks are commonly used in residential buildings where the material is hidden behind multiple material layers due to aesthetic and regulatory standards. This project reveals the sensuous potential of monoblocks by highlighting their individual aesthetic qualities, thus allowing for a re-evaluation of the material’s perception and narrative.”

Experiments with straw were undertaken by Anne Beim, Line Kjær Frederiksen and Lykke Arnfred of CINARK – Centre for Industrialised Architecture, Royal Danish Academy, artist Tove Storch, thatcher Laura Feline Ebbesen, and Thomas Gerner, and DBI – The Danish Institute of Fire and Security Technology, for the project titled ‘Straw: Unfolding the Will of the Material – The Burnt and Bundled.’ Straw is a common material used to build thatched roofs. However, this project undertakes a series of tectonic investigations into the technical qualities of this material. “Through bundling, reeds form an arch and become load bearing; through burning, the characteristics of thatched surfaces are studied. As a whole, this research points to the possibility of new forms of thatched architecture, bringing forth unique conceptions and representations of the material,” the builders share.

‘Biocement: Growing the Columns of Future Cities’ included the exploration of bio-cement by architects Lasse Lind and Aleksander Kongshaug of GXN/ 3XN, artist Silas lnoue, IBF producer Esben Mølgaard, and Biomason producer Jan Vandesande. Made using natural processes that are inspired by coral reefs, this material ‘grows’ at room temperature and can be cured by bacteria in a span of seventy-two hours. At the end of this duration, it becomes a strong and firm aggregate material that bears semblance to the materiality of concrete, while being twenty times lighter and three times stronger. Additionally, ‘the project imagines a column for the twenty-first century, one produced by nature and with virtually no carbon footprint.’

Lastly, the project ‘Mycelium: Experimenting with Biogenic Acoustic Performance’ was undertaken by architect lsak Worre Foged, Naturpladen ApS producer Jon Strunge and Jørgen Strunge, architect Jonas Aarsø of nikolova/aarsø, and Magnus Reffs Kramhøft of Henning Larsen Architects. It focuses on the examination of mycelium and its potential for usage as a visual and acoustic entity. “Mycelium is a fast-growing fungal material that can be steered by specific growth processes and formwork to bind residual organic substrates such as hemp hurds, reeds, sawdust, food or textile waste into circular and carbon-storing composite materials. These materials can be used to replace conventional building materials or create bespoke, sustainable building mass,” the project promises.

‘Reset Materials - Towards Sustainable Architecture' is on display from June 30 - September 28, 2023, at Copenhagen Contemporary in Copenhagen, Denmark.

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