On July 3, 6000 participants from 135 countries stared at the opening ceremony stage that was the window to the UIA2023 World Congress of Architects. At the conclusion of four days packed with 150 sessions, 250 Science Track papers, and 400 speakers, we found ourselves gripped by a sense of urgency and hope. The conference had just concluded, and the ideas, visions, and revelations shared were nothing short of transformative. The discourse was rich—each presentation a brushstroke in a larger tapestry of human innovation, resilience, and adaptability.

Image 1: CSU members and student scholars at UIA23. L-R: Silvia Vercher (Perkins Eastman & CSU), Amhara, Ahzam, Kaitlin, Anna Rubo (CSU & CSUD)

Every three years, architects from all around the world convene to present, discuss, and debate the newest research and most pressing issues facing architects. In July, we had the opportunity to attend this year’s Congress in Copenhagen with the theme Sustainable Futures: Leave No One Behind. Selected by CSU, we attended the Congress through a scholarship for students from the New York City Area.

A commitment to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) guided the Congress content. In 2015, the United Nations Member States collectively penned a seminal blueprint for our world’s future—a tale of peace, prosperity, and sustainable coexistence on Earth. Dubbed the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, this manuscript is underscored by its 17 Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs. These are not mere aspirational visions; They are a common language for professionals to use in establishing steps to move forward and make change. It helps develop a better understanding of all the different facets of sustainable urbanization and provides common guidelines that allow practitioners to assess how their work is reaching the SDGs and holds the profession accountable.

SDG’s serve as the common thread and link the uncomfortability of the realities of urbanization and nations in reaching cultural equity. Overall, the goals aid professions in having more global awareness of how their work affects the people, simply outside of aesthetics. The SDGs represent a multi-layered narrative. The SDGs aid us in confronting our environmental challenges; it mandates tackling climate change and its effects on our oceans, forests, built environment and inhabitants. They grasp the profound interconnectedness of our collective aspirations—acknowledging that the eradication of poverty is a tale inseparable from the stories of enhanced public health, elevated education, shrinking inequality, and burgeoning economic prosperity.

The Congress, through keynotes, round tables, the Next Gen program and the Science Track addressed six themes: Climate Adaptation, Rethinking Resources, Resilient Communities, Health, Inclusivity and Partnerships for Change. Each of us focused on two of these themes. Through the keynotes and sessions attended, we learned about exciting innovations to adapt and mitigate climate change with respect to the built environment,

design our cities/buildings with reused and/or more climate friendly materials, as well as successful partnerships to help urban communities thrive, the importance of evidence-based architecture in regards to health, and how public participation is an integral part of resiliency. Through 250 competitively selected papers by graduate students , academics and professionals, the  Science Track explored the most recent research and presented new perspectives on the six themes. Additionally, the Next Gen portion of the Congress highlighted young voices in the industry, and brought a glimpse into the future. From small robots casting concrete to IoT systems for wastewater management in India, the future was a blend of technology and sensitivity. Erle Tek’s concrete-casting robots were not just a feat of engineering but also adaptable to future innovations in concrete like Futurecem and Chemcrete. KarIoT’s water management system, an issue of increasing concern given climate change, illustrated how technology can support sustainable development and social equity.

Image 2: Mycelium based panel framing structure at one of the exhibits representing new age sustainable materials

We have shared below some of our key takeaways from the six different themes, including reflections on the Science Track papers, Next Gen conversations, and UN SDGs. Of course, the Congress was too rich to fully capture the extent of our experience so this is just a taste.

Stay tuned for more information on an in-person and virtual event that will take place on October 11 and dive deeper into these reflections.

1. CLIMATE ADAPTATION

Francis Kere’s tale of transcending geographical and material boundaries captured the essence of adaptability. When he discussed returning to Burkina Faso to build schools out of clay, it resonated deeply with Parth Dasgupta’s later exposition on the value of natural capital. Both urged the world to recognize local materials not merely as inert substances but as living elements with ecological narratives. Dasgupta’s idea of attributing monetary value to natural assets like pollination and soil regeneration underscored the urgent need to reconsider our extractive economic models. This seemed like the perfect epilogue to Farrokh Derakshani’s commentary on the unsustainable pace at which we’re depleting resources. Climate adaptation, they implied, is not only about resisting change but also about revising our definitions of wealth and progress.

The panel on mass timber buildings in Sweden provided another case study for the global community. The sequestration of carbon in building construction through responsibly sourced timber seemed almost like a rebuttal to our concrete jungles. Could this be the sustainable architectural lexicon of the future, I wondered. Especially considering the planet’s already stretched boundaries, as outlined by Derakshani, the mass timber narrative suggested an adaptive approach that goes beyond mere survival to regeneration and renewal.

Image 3: Flood resistant bamboo and mud community structure by Pakistani architect Yasmin Lari

When the conversation shifted to climate resilience in cities, the gravity of the situation hit home. Billy Fleming’s critique of the BIG U Project in Manhattan for its likely transformation into a “dumb wall” made me question the efficacy of current solutions. The statistics were alarming. Seawalls at $44 million per mile versus nature-based solutions like beach nourishment at $4 million per mile. Yet, why were we not adapting faster? The C40 session had the answer: our comfort zones. “Everybody likes sustainability until it’s time to do the actual work,” they said. Change demands breaking down systems and processes we’ve grown comfortable with, and that’s a hard sell.

2. RETHINKING RESOURCES

The Turning Waste to Architecture presentation from Anders Lendager was inspirational and demonstrated the opportunities for innovation and creative thinking. Anders Lendager was a traditional architect who repeatedly ran into challenges with thinking outside the box at his previous firms. To work around this, he created his own firm, Lendager, to research and create new materials within the project design process. One example of this firm’s innovative work is Resources Rows, an apartment building made from reused bricks. Rather than deconstructing and reassembling the bricks one-by-one, they cut out square meter “superbricks” which allowed them to construct new brick wall with record efficiency, saving time and money, as well as creating a beautiful aesthetic (see picture).

Image 4: Resources Rows in Copenhagen by Lendager

Another session, Sustainable Transformations of Architecture: How do We Embrace the Beauty of Ugly, highlighted the importance of building less new architecture because the most sustainable building is the one that’s already been built. However, there are challenges that come with this. For one, the aesthetics of a building can greatly influence how the space is used and how humans socialize, interact, and form communities in a space. Madeleine Kate McGowan, one of the panelists and a designer from Copenhagen shed light on the complexity of aesthetics and sustainability, linking it to our feelings. She shared that our feelings are much more complex than beautiful versus ugly, and tapping into this complexity has been key for her. Asking the audience to consider what beauty is to a bee, she explained how she has found beauty in turning away from human-centric design and working to establish habitability for many different creatures in her projects.

3. RESILIENT COMMUNITIES

Resiliency within communities is often noted in the context of withstanding and recovering from climate related challenges. During the Resilient Communities conference sessions, it became very clear that resiliency has many layers rooted in giving agency to people in their communities through public participation. The Science Track: Design For Resilient Communities: People as Partners session included presentations on collaborative design processes for urban furniture, cultural drivers in Buenos Aires urban development and community participation in neighbourhood construction in Ecuador. The foundational act of listening to people’s stories was shown to better inform practice and create better outcomes of addressing community needs and wants.

Image 5: CSU’s Silvia Vercher moderating a discussion on resilient communities, the SDGs, and everyday life

It was shown how cultures’ influence in placemaking can foster more impactful and useful community participation. Instead of imposing preconceived innovations, the sessions suggested that we must consider the social, political, economical, historical and cultural appropriateness of solutions. Often the utilization of pre-existing cultural drivers can reinforce cultural identity and sense of place in communities, establishing the basis for better outcomes. It was shown that there must be a balance between professionals utilizing their expertise and them listening to the needs of communities they are working with. This type of engagement was noted as an integral step to establish transparent communication and establish trust. It aids in the understanding of daily life to better work towards resilient and habitable environments. Public participation is usually a forgotten practice, however it can aid professionals in finding the gaps that need to be filled to make more evidence-based architecture and urbanization.

The sessions touched on many different studies and proposed solutions, but some of the most notable were the discussions regarding privilege and sustainability. The C40- Regenerative, Resilient and Equitable Built Environment: The Role of Cities and Architects Panel discussion brought to light the reality that people have been living with the effect of climate change for decades and have reaped the consequences, while people with privilege are now seeing the small effects. Christian Benimana provided insights on the image of modern, beautiful cities still being perceived as culturally better and being emulated as the path towards upward mobility. He noted that as cities densify and continue to spread, unsustainable practices are deemed better. This leads to resistance in shifting towards sustainability from those wanting a better lifestyle; and this ambition should not be ignored. The discussion spoke to an immense challenge in transforming the paradigm of what is considered a better city in conversation with how we transition the world to sustainable urbanization.

At the end of the conference, we were offered a place to begin to make this change; community participation and being cognizant of peoples stories. During the Science Track- Design for Resilient Communities Wrap Up session, panellists emphasized the need to first address the problem of inequity, and injustice in regards to the global climate crisis. Juan Du spoke of the necessity to respect people’s dignity and how the architectural profession should aid in the creation of more sustainable and resilient communities that empower the people living in them.

4. HEALTH

The Health Science Track sessions offered the perspective that health is far more than medical facilities and is not solely the responsibility of medical practitioners. What was highlighted throughout the discussions was the ecological relationship humans have with the built environment, and how this corresponds to human health outcomes and the health of the planet as a living system. The discussion during the Design for Health: Health as a Consequence of Design – Part 1 Debate session touched on humans’ tendency to restrict nature in cities and how this contradicts our inherent desire for green spaces. It was noted that we incorporate small increments of nature in our built environment as an afterthought and this should be remedied. The session focused on removing the barriers between the outside and inside created by the built environment and how this could improve humans relationship with nature and improve health of the planet as a whole. The importance of addressing sustainability from an inclusive framework where the planet is a pre-existing system was discussed during the Designing to Impact People’s Health: Are You Prepared? Panel. The session focused on how the built environment should be positively influencing the health of all its inhabitants. Dr. Andrew Dannenberg noted how architects should consider themselves as health professionals and this broadened the general perception of architect’s role in society.

Technology was noted throughout many Science Track and Next Gen sessions as a tool to aid architects in establishing informed practice. To improve the conditions in communities, technology can serve useful in capturing data to highlight needs, enact appropriate solutions and promote the creation of sustainable policies. The use of technology can highlight issues within societies that are often disregarded, ignored and deemed invisible. However, the fact that sustainable technology is concentrated in wealthy neighbourhoods brought to question; who is really benefiting from this technology, does it currently reinforce inequitable agendas and why? Spreading access to these technologies in underserved contexts to improve equity was noted as the next step forward, but reaching this goal will be faced with many barriers.

Image 6: UIA ‘23 exhibit on including nature in our daily life by SLA Architects

Health outcomes are unique to each community due to many factors including the built environment, access to resources and climate change. The necessity of architects being cognizant of these diverse contexts was highlighted in the Keynote Dialogue – How Architects Must Tackle Climate Related Health Inequities with speakers Christian Benimana and Maria P. Neira. Architecture influences how people live, grow and participate in society. Being aware of inequity and unique contexts can allow architects to see through a health focused lens when influencing built environments in working class communities. During the Science Track – Design for Health: Planning for Healthy Environments Session Part 2, it was suggested that the field of architecture needs to begin establishing interdisciplinary teams that can assess health outcomes in practice and establish evidence-based architecture. In doing this the built environment can be better informed based on various fields of knowledge to establish evidence-based templates that are still able to be adapted to solve unique contexts.

5. INCLUSIVITY

The journey towards inclusivity in architecture took another transformative turn at the UIA World Congress of Architects 2023. The panels on “Design for Inclusivity” were a revelation, not just for their academic rigor but also for the practical applications that were showcased. It was here that I encountered the work of Chris Downey, an architect who had been visually impaired since 2008. Downey’s presentation was nothing short of ground-breaking. He didn’t merely focus on designing spaces that catered to the visually impaired; he challenged the very essence of modern architecture, which often leans towards the superficial. His insights into the acoustics of space were eye-opening—how the subtle sounds of footsteps on wooden floors or the reverberating tap of a cane could serve as auditory landmarks. He had ingeniously used wax to create tactile feedback systems on the basic things like handrails, adding an entirely new layer to architectural design. It was a moment of realization that architecture had so much more terrain left to explore.

But the pinnacle of inclusivity was reached with the LIMBOACCRA presentation. This initiative focused on the adaptive reuse of unfinished buildings in Accra, Ghana. What struck me was the sheer ingenuity of the approach—it neither dismissed the incomplete structures as failures nor did it shy away from their irregularities. Instead, it celebrated them. Local art installations adorned these unfinished spaces, transforming them into community landmarks. This was not just about utilizing existing resources; it was about engaging the community in a meaningful dialogue about the spaces they inhabit and the places they call home. The LIMBOACCRA project served as a powerful reminder that inclusivity isn’t just about making spaces accessible; it’s about making them resonate with the very people who use them. It’s about recognizing that every individual, regardless of their physical or socio-economic conditions, has a role to play in shaping the built environment. And perhaps most importantly, it’s about understanding that inclusivity is a form of social climate adaptation—a way to ensure that everyone is integrated into the solutions we create.

6. PARTNERSHIPS FOR CHANGE

C40 Cities hosted a session titled “Regenerative, Resilient and Equitable Built Environment: The Role of Cities and Architects.” In this session, we heard lessons learned from all around the world, including New York City. Zack Aders, Vice President of the NYC Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), a city agency, shared two important partnerships that drive clean construction workforce development. NYCEDC began the ConstructNYC program which is designed to connect small-to-mid-sized minority/women-owned businesses with exclusive opportunities to work on NYCEDC projects. Additionally, the city partners with City University of New York to host the Career Pathways program, equipping students with the skills for careers in the clean construction industry. It was exciting to see how NYC is leading in its partnerships for change.

Image 7: Francis Kere’s community-based execution of local vernacular projects in his village in Accra, Ghana

One of the Partnerships for Change Science Tracks sessions specifically focused on community participation. Chunyu Wang, a researcher from Chongqing University, shared their researched on how the sharing economy changes co-living rental community design in China. Through the analysis of nine cases, they saw improvements in how the sharing economy allowed for the adaptive reuse of buildings, and the transformation of physical spaces into social spaces where residents felt more connected and a part of their community.

In another session hosted by C40, Jan Gehl and Carlos Moreno discussed how to create green and thriving neighbourhoods. A key driver behind Paris’ 15-minute city plan, Moreno explained that the purpose of cities is to enjoy being there. The purpose is not most efficiently getting from point A to point B, which has been the focus of many cities to date. Copenhagen is an example of how cities can move away from car-centric design, improving the liveability of the space and allowing for healthier, happier, and more sustainable communities.

THE CONVERGENCE: SCIENCE, NATURE, AND THE HUMAN EXPERIENCE

At the termination of the conference our thoughts converged into a singular understanding: Climate Adaptation, Rethinking Resources, Resilient Communities, Health, Inclusivity and Partnerships for Change are not disparate elements but intertwine intricately in the fabric of a sustainable future.

Image 8: Quilt by Tuva Victoria Belfrage Nesse exhibited at the UIA ‘23 Conference.

The congress left us with morethan just insights—it left us with a responsibility. We’re standing at the intersection of science, nature, and human experience. Whether it’s adapting to new materials,
understanding the economic ramifications of natural assets, addressing longstanding inequity or rethinking design to include multi-sensory experiences, the future asks for more than passive participation.

We have the knowledge, the scientific backing, and the creative ingenuity to build that future. And build we must, not as isolated architects, scientists, or policymakers, but as a collective striving for a resilient and inclusive world.

As the congress demonstrated, the work has already begun. And now, it’s up to all of us to carry it forward, to move beyond liking the idea of sustainability to doing the hard work it entails.

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