Architecture and the materials we build with are changing with global warming. At a lecture sponsored by the Fine Arts department, Architect Galen Pardee ’11 discussed his theory of “post-concreteness,” an idea that raises questions of the future use of limited resources and materials, like concrete, in architecture, as well as the role architects play today. Pardee presented his research to the Brandeis community on Feb. 7 as part of the Richard Saivetz ’69 Annual Memorial Architectural Lecture Series. He is currently a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, as well as the director of Drawing Agency, a design and research studio.

Pardee first spoke about his research involving the concrete industry in Singapore, the largest per capita importer of sand in the world. Through a project titled “Territories of Territory Extraction,” Pardee traced the path that sand travels through Singapore and how the country utilizes it in its industry and development, using maps, photographs, and satellite imagery.

Singapore relies heavily on concrete, which is produced from sand, for its building structures and for artificially expanding its coastline, Pardee explained. Singapore uses so much sand that it must import the material from other nearby countries, many of whom have since banned its export there. One such country is Indonesia. Pardee said that in the early 2000s, sand miners caused an entire island to virtually disappear. “Sand is possibly the second most extracted material on the plant after only water. And again, it’s non-renewable, [so] we are running out of it,” he said. “If you took our best guess at all of the gravel and sand that was brought out of the earth in this year and put it all in a pile, it would be 27 meters wide, 27 meters tall, and [would] circle the earth.”

Concrete is an easy material to access, use, and train labor forces to construct with, which is why it remains in use and is a “pervasive and cultural material,” Pardee said. However, as evident by the pressures on Singapore’s sand supply, concrete is not a sustainable source. Here is where Pardee’s “post-concreteness” comes into play––he wonders how the changing climate and limitations on resources will affect architectural design in the future, and how this will impact countries that rely heavily on such materials despite the environmental consequences. Pardee said that the impact of Singapore’s concrete industry and desire to expand its coastline are harmful to both the environment and geopolitics. For instance, he explained, sand dredging and shoreline reconstruction destroy natural habitats and will lead to flooding with sea levels rising, and physically expanding the country’s land mass and interfering with the territory of neighboring states has caused international legal issues. The future of architecture must involve an environmentally conscious approach to rethinking how finite resources are used.

The next research project that Pardee spoke about was the “Great Lakes Architectural Expedition,” which also studied geopolitical boundaries in relation to architecture. The Great Lakes, which contain 80% of the water in North America and 20% of the entire world’s fresh water supply, have strict rules regarding how the water can be used, in order to ensure its protection. Pardee said that this has become a source of disagreement in the past, with only certain towns and businesses near the Great Lakes being granted access to water. Through this project, Pardee worked in Toledo, Ohio to design a model of a unique architecture office that would be built near the watershed. Pardee said that the challenge of this design project was “how do you rethink what the office looks like once you’ve taken away a lot of the standard trappings of what architects do.” Pardee also designed a topographic map of phosphorus deposits in Toledo and Lake Erie, because runoff due to agriculture is a prevalent problem among farmers in the Great Lakes region, and he designed a model for a 30 mile long public park that would bring in more green space instead of an industrial office complex.

Lastly, Pardee presented his most recent projects––renovations of a New York City apartment and a historical house in Leadville, Colorado. Continuing with the idea of “post-concreteness,” Pardee explained that what he sees as modern and sustainable architecture challenges his usual perceptions. “[I] accept maybe a less concrete idea of a design or intervention and try to sort of work with existing conditions as much as possible,” he said. “You probably heard it before, but ‘the most sustainable building is a building that already exists.’”

For the apartment in New York, Pardee redesigned and renovated the kitchen, with the goal of keeping and utilizing as much of the existing material as possible for a less wasteful project. For instance, he said that he added new doors and cabinets for better storage, but did so by designing them to be built over the existing wall space. He added that he also opened the floor plan up as much as possible, but made sure not to disturb the building’s electrical and pipe systems, which would have made for a more complicated, expensive, and unnecessary undertaking. “The other benefit of this is that it allowed us to really focus our time, attention, and money on the things that really need fixing, rather than spreading ourselves very thin,” Pardee said.

Similarly, for the house in Colorado, Pardee used the existing structure of the house itself in his architectural plan, and only completely renovated what was necessary, such as leaking roofs and a lack of a solid foundation. Built around two sets of stairs, the house had a unique design, which Pardee said he worked with to allocate storage space and areas for building utilities. Furthermore, Pardee had to follow the regulations set by the town’s historical commission, making working with existing architecture even more important.

“I want to go back to this question of what I’m calling post-concreteness,” Pardee said. “I think this has been, for me, still sort of like a working definition, but I hope as you guys move forward with your own architectural interest or education…it’s worth interrogating the received knowledge that we get about what we do as architects and where we make our difference,” he concluded.