Weaving Art and Architecture into Sustainable Environments

‘Reflected Asymmetry’, Ornella Gallo

The growing appreciation that our ‘built environments’ embrace a more sustainable role in our communities, is beginning to focus the minds of those constructing buildings, homes, and transport infrastructure. No longer is the life, durability and functionality of the building enough.

The impacts on the physical, social, economic and natural environments need to be considered along with the materials used, the energy consumed and conserved, the carbon footprint, the impact on people that live, work, or travel around and through it are all components that shape its design and role it plays within the ecosystem in which it finds itself. Not only does the design need to meet multiple needs efficiently – for users, maintenance, investors, utilities – but needs to fulfil greater demands beyond its immediate function. 

  • Does it drive constructive behaviours of the surrounding communities while enhancing their health and wellbeing? 
  • Does it evoke interest and revitalise the connections with local culture, and the historical context of its setting which is meaningful for the residents, workers and visitors? 
  • Does its form, function and composition make it an environmentally friendly catalyst for adopting more sustainable engineering techniques, mindsets, and commissioning of better urban spaces and infrastructure?  

I recently caught up with artist Ornella Gallo to view her recent artwork and installations at the Hanover Gallery, London. Having reminisced how long it was since we first met at London Fashion Week a decade ago, the conversation very quickly turned to the shift in the retail landscape and changing shopping behaviours since ethical fashion (incl. sustainability of supply chains and manufacturing) was beginning to be openly debated and encouraged. In 2012, global connectivity was exploding around us amongst eager fashionistas who embraced the creativity and global reach of social media – where catwalk shows could be viewed remotely and collections couldn’t remain under wraps for months, but were driving instant engagement, content sharing, and orders within days of a garment appearing on the runway.  

Ornella’s exhibition ‘Solid Reflections’ showcased the expression of natural forms drawn from her original artwork drawing of two figures in the rapture of intimate embrace. The art installations on show took the natural curves and flowing lines, and explored them in three-dimensions referencing the textures found in the natural world amongst rock formations and natural elements. The use of concrete, metals (copper, brass), metallicised mosaic tiles, and mirror segments are brought together and presented in a form that is not constrained within a rectangular frame, designed to engage the viewer in a thought provoking unrestricted experience that changed as the light in the room alters throughout the day and evening. The central theme of this collective was ‘reflection’ – reflecting the space the artworks inhabited, reflecting the people in their midst, and inspiring the individual to reflect upon unlimited flow and transformation of nature and its elements.  

Ornella explained to me that most of her work now graces private homes and buildings where she’s been commissioned to bring a new dimension into that living space and evoke the uniqueness of the dynamic that exists between its inhabitants, visitors and the surrounding environment. This prompted me to reflect on the creativity artists and designers bring to the table in shaping our public spaces and urban environments. The greater appreciation of integrating artistic expression into the design of living space and our nation’s infrastructure has seen a more purposeful use of materials and construction that can be both incredibly functional while introducing a unique aesthetic, and dare I say ’empathy’ into a space – one that creates ‘feelgood’, wonder, applause or just quiet contemplation. 

Image: Burro Happold

I am reminded of a great example of incorporating historical and cultural elements into the design of a sustainable transport solution – the pedestrian and cycle bridge installed as part of the newly built cycle hub at Kingston railway station in the Royal Borough of Kingston, South West London. The design of the bridge and hub recognised the work of Eadweard Muybridge, Kingston resident and pioneer in photography and motion-picture projection in the 1800s. The representation of motion and reliance on the rotation of wheels and changing photographic imagery was an ideal metaphor for cycling and the possibilities it offered the cyclist. It incorporated these cues and elements to shape the bridge installed in March 2019, and the development now visible and being used by thousands of commuters, residents and visitors every week.

Image: Sarah Wigglesworth Architects

This award-winning design is part of sustainable transport initiative, the ‘Go Cycle Programme’ which transformed the transport infrastructure in Kingston to incorporate 30km of new joined up cycle routes throughout the borough, and linked with major road, rail, and bus transport hubs to improve connectivity, reduce emissions, and link with the collective sustainable transport effort across the capital’s boroughs by the Mayor of London and Transport for London.  

Image: Burro Happold

The demand for lower emissions and healthier environments that meet new Sustainable Development Goals agreed at COP26, requires smarter sustainable solutions that need to meet demands for mobility, housing and changing lifestyles. This presents a golden opportunity to draw upon a greater understanding of our environments and those components that resonate with us – be it the landscape, nature, history, and culture – in a relevant, practical and relatable way that both support and inspire us. However large or small, it’s worth reflecting how your next project may wish to introduce new sustainable aspects that can be heightened through integrating artistry into their design, specification, and construction thereby creating a functioning space that drives a more sustainable future.

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