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How The Balance Of The Old & The New Can Lead To A Sustainable Future

Architect and urbanist Sanne Van Der Burgh of MVRDV discusses why architects need to join hands for a common goal

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Sanne Van Der Burgh’s extensive career in multiple firms led her to MVRDV, where she has discovered her true calling. After spending over 14 years at MVRDV, she has delved into the realms of computational design, digital architecture, and technological advancements, utilising them to solve pertinent design queries. To this end, she initiated MVRDV Next, a research-based organisation that incorporates digitisation and software to facilitate design decisions. Van Der Burgh believes that progress lies in striking a balance between the traditional and modern, and that architects must envision new ways to create resilient structures that combat climate change on a global scale.

Tell us a little bit about your journey as an architect, and your work with MVRDV.

I studied at the Delft University of Technology, and there in my first year, we were still making drawings by hand. I was drawing with ink pens and rulers, and if you made a mistake, then you had to erase it with a knife. It felt very inefficient. A lot of time was spent on production. And I remember thinking at the time that there has to be an easier and faster way to do this. Then I found AutoCAD, and I thought, This is fantastic. From there, I quickly started discovering other software. What I loved about that is that they helped me make things faster, speed up my production, and also improve the quality of my production because I wasn’t that good at hand drawing. Then I also discovered Maya, which was, by that time, a software used in the film industry. During my studies, I was incredibly fascinated with the opportunities that software can bring to architects, not only in terms of production but also in terms of almost an extension of the design space or an extension of the imagination.

After my graduation, I started working for a Dutch firm called Erick van Egeraat Associates Architects. Then I walked into MVRDV, and I thought, wow, it was almost like a workshop, and there was just such a creative vibe going on in that place. That was 14 years ago, and I never left. I really found my place at MVRDV. The first project I was working on had a very repetitive task of testing different floor plan configurations, and I thought, “Well, if I automate this, I’ll have more time to play and explore.” So there, I started to do some grasshopper scripts, and that’s something that fits really well with the design style of the office. That led to me creating a group called MVRDV Next, the New Experimental Technologies Group. We are working on digital innovation and sustainability with this group, so it’s been a fantastic journey.

Moving on to a few of your projects, the Floriade exhibition, what innovations did you bring in here?

The Floriade exhibition that occurs every 10 years in the Netherlands was a very interesting opportunity to try computer-informed or parametric landscape design, which was also something new for us. For this landscaping project, we had a series of parcels of land, and the mission of the horticultural exhibition was to showcase all of the species that grow in the Netherlands. The question was, “How do you create a landscape design with an Excel list of 15,000 different plants in the area?” We created an algorithm that distributes these plants according to different concepts. Finally, we sorted the plants alphabetically in order to design roots in between the landscape. These exercises are good examples of how computational design can create design outcomes or can allow you to test and iterate design options that normally would take months, weeks, maybe even years. Data-driven design is very much at the heart of the work that we do. The thing that we worked on for a long time within MVRDV Next is the facade of that project. Every tile has to be prefabricated with its own code. In the end, we created a script that works with only four different sizes and creates a seemingly random pattern. We were able to draw by using a computational solution; the computer drew 44,000 tiles for us with 27 revisions and insane precision.

Could you talk about the Barapulla project in New Delhi?

Yes. I love talking about the Barapulla project. If you look at water and sanitation in India, there is severe water scarcity, but there is also extreme flooding, pollution, and environmental degradation. Specifically in New Delhi, the challenges are severe and urban. Further urban development in New Delhi is limited because of water scarcity. Within New Delhi, there is a 12-and-a-half-kilometre-long open sewer that runs through the city centre of New Delhi. I travelled to New Delhi to actually document and explore the trajectory of the drain. It coincides with the Barapulla flyover. And it lacks a public program. The strips of land around the drain are unused, and that means that this is currently a problem because it’s a hazard to health and well-being, but it’s also an opportunity because there is a lot of lands that is not currently used. We thought, ‘how can the Barapulla become a problem that becomes a solution for the city?’ And what we essentially propose is a fully integrated solution in which we introduce local water treatment to feed the water back into communities, resulting in a closed-loop development. Then we also create a resilient infrastructure that actually collects and stores monsoon rainwater. So we can also treat that and feed it back into the communities. At the same time, we see the opportunity to introduce a slow mobility access system, to create bicycle lanes and sidewalks, even some landscaping, and maybe some foot traffic. and to introduce a relevant public program, for example, exercising outdoor education, play, and cultural programs. If the ground has been sanitized, there is also a lot of land available that can be used for affordable housing. I have to say making the world a better place is my passion, and this is why I once became an architect. For me, this project is a personal hobby project, but I see it as an amazing opportunity to try and bring positive change to the world.

What would you say the next era of design thinking is going to be defined with?

I think we are at a tipping point, and you can really feel it. And, looking back over the last 50 years, we see architects and designers doing their thing, but we never really had a common goal. And that should be to mitigate the damage that we are doing to our planet. That means a very strong union of urban designers, landscape designers, architects, interior designers, and all designers to work towards the Paris Agreement. I also see that this needs to happen quickly. How can we reduce carbon emissions, energy, and water consumption, build with resilience using responsible and reusable materials in an inclusive way, and ensure biodiversity and ecology in our designs? How can we make the five pillars of carbon, energy, circularity, water, and ecology the pillars of all design firms? Because if everyone had the same ecological footprint as the USA, we would need 8.2 earth to live. This is shocking, of course. And fortunately, we do not all live like Americans, but still, we only have one earth.

What recent innovations are most exciting for you?

In the field of software, what I found very inspiring is something that we have created now with the city of Rotterdam. We are engaged in a dialogue to think of a way to help them, test their policies, and develop them. We created software that assists the city in determining which roofs are best suited for which programme in order to quantify impacts. Material innovations are also something that excite me—biomaterials, natural materials, bioplastics, and so on. Solutions that use or reduce waste that are relevant Relevance is the keyword, which is probably the new design language that needs to be developed and what we all need to move towards.

Sanne Van Der Burgh was a speaker at ID Symposium 2023, organised by India Design ID in New Delhi.

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