At a time when we are emerging from a global crisis, and face the challenges of climate change, the world needs a new architecture, with “strategies that use radically different materials and constructions, in synergy with nature”. Cork, which offers a “singular convergence of qualities”, is especially well placed to respond to this challenge.
What was your first contact with cork, your first memory of this material?
One of my first memories dates back to my childhood, linked to the basement walls that one of my uncles covered with expanded cork agglomerate. The space had a unique atmosphere due to the feel of the material, the design of the panels, which was completed with some wooden slats, the space’s hue and acoustics, and the heat that it retained from the existing stove. Although at the time I wasn’t at all interested in architecture, I was impressed by the effect created by cork in this space.
Your academic work has focused, among other things, on the relationship between digital and material dimensions in the field of architecture. In particular your PhD thesis “From digital to material: Rethinking the applications of cork in architecture, through the use of CAD/ CAM techno-logies” focuses on the applications of cork. How did you become interested in researching the possibilities offered by cork in this context?
The use of CAD/ CAM in architecture began at the turn of the 21st century. At that time, in addition to the emergence of new materials, digital manufacturing allowed us to revisit traditional building materials, such as wood or concrete, and opened up new possibilities for design and applications. In 2003, in this context, I was interested in developing my PhD thesis around the exploration of digital technologies with a specific material, or an industry where that innovation could happen. By virtue of its physical properties, ecological value and its importance for Portugal, cork was a natural and ideal case study for this work. The architects Álvaro Siza and Eduardo Souto de Moura first opened up the possibility of using cork as an external cladding material in the Portuguese Pavilion in Expo Hannover in 2000, which gave even greater strength and importance to this research option. To be able to proceed with my research, I was fortunate to be able to count, from the outset, on openness and support from Amorim Cork Insulation.
What does cork have to offer to archi-tecture, and in a broader sense, to the cities we can imagine?
I think my previous reference to my memories helps answer this question. Cork is a material that has unique characteristics that leaves no one indifferent. Its thermal and acoustic performance had been empirically proven, long before it could be confirmed by any scientific research. Cork’s appearance conveys a sense of comfort and using new design technologies and digital manufacturing it can be customised to create unique environments from an aesthetic and functional standpoint. Furthermore, in the current outlook, cork is an extremely important product to confront the challenges facing the world by virtue of its sustainability and the cork industry itself. To apply cork in buildings and in the city is an effective way to respond to the growing needs to incorporate Nature into built environments.
The New European Bauhaus is a new movement that is re-imagining Europe. But its roots date back to the original Bauhaus movement, from the early 20th century. How do we bridge the past and future? What unites and separates these two historical moments?
100 years ago, the world was emerging from a crisis caused by the First World War and Bauhaus sought to solve problems, through convergence of the arts and using technologies from that period. Nowadays, the world is once again in the midst of a global crisis that requires an urgent response. Like the original Bauhaus, the New European Bauhaus appears to give hope and is helping to project our common future, through a collective effort that involves everyone - architects, designers, artists, scientists, economists or ordinary citizens – linked to a movement that also seeks to be a cultural project. Despite the obvious analogies between these two historic movements, there are also clear differences. For instance, current environmental problems require solutions whose various measures deviate from the ideas that have been advocated in the past. For example, concrete and steel, that previously announced the new architecture of that time, are now recognised as an important element of the problems that we now face. Today, we also need a new architecture, and strategies, materials and construction will have to be radically different, in synergy with Nature.
You are the only Portuguese member of the high-level round table of the New European Bauhaus. In your opinion, given your national identity, how can Portugal add something of special relevance to this movement?
Climate change, and all its associated problems, poses a threat to all forms of life and regions of the planet without exception. However, although we face a common problem, the solutions will have to be specific, according to the individual conditions of each location, such as the local weather, materials and economy. In this case, the New European Bauhaus is necessarily different from the original Bauhaus, which gave rise to the modern movement, where universal principles were advocated for architecture and urbanism that were often unsuccessful. In this context, it is important that Portugal, like any other country, contributes to this change and makes itself heard, so that measures and best practices can be adjusted to different realities. I think that the way that our architecture has been pragmatically able to adapt the influence of the modern movement to our local conditions, which was internationally recognised as “critical regionalism”, can serve as an example to lighten the complex challenges that we are now facing.
Cork is one of the materials that you have chosen in your projects. What qualities of cork stand out and how can this 100% natural and recyclable material play a more central role in the architecture of the future?
I would prefer not to try to highlight just one quality, but instead the singular convergence of various different qualities in a single material, that makes cork a very balanced material for architecture. Considering that the two great forces that are shaping the present and future of the building industry are decarbonisation and digital transformation, cork - as a 100% natural and versatile material that can be approached digitally - is perfectly placed to assert its relevance. Some of the examples of applications that underline the value of cork for the future of architecture include building insulation and coverings, landscaped roofs, and the possibility of mixing it with other materials, customisation and reuse.
How can a material such as cork help shape this new movement in the world of European design?
The circular economy associated to cork is an absolutely extraordinary story. Combining elements of the forest, climate, biodiversity and culture, the life cycle of cork encompasses very complete processes of recycling and reuse, which cut across different types of products and applications. In addition, in cases associated to how to produce expanded agglomerated cork (ICB) used in the building industry, recycling can be used to create products that have higher value than the original, thereby demonstrating upcycling opportunities. In this context, I don’t know of any better material than cork that can serve as a model of inspiration for the practices that have to be implemented, not only in the building industry, but in our way of life in general.