Floating Music Hub. Image © NLÉ

How can studying the direction of the sun, different building materials around the world, and communities that have built on water for centuries point to the future of architecture? MoMA’s Emilio Ambasz Institute for the Joint Study of the Built and the Natural Environment will host its first annual Earth Day lecture online, on April 20 at 5:00 p.m. The inaugural keynote speaker, architect and professor Kunlé Adeyemi, will address the increasing challenges of living on a damaged planet and the momentous cultural shifts required by the climate crisis. In advance of that conversation, Ambasz Institute director Carson Chan asked Adeyemi about his own innovations in design, which acknowledge and address the world’s changing climate, architecture’s role in both exacerbating and seeking solutions to rising environmental challenges, and how we can think about a sustainable path forward for communities around the world.

Carson Chan: Your career took you from Nigeria to the Netherlands and back. Can you tell me about when you began to be concerned about the environment in your architecture practice?

Kunlé Adeyemi: That’s a good question. When I think about it, my work at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) in Rotterdam in the early 2000s always involved environmental analysis. But I think it came before that. Growing up in Northern Nigeria, my father was an architect, and designing for a tropical climate has always been part of my upbringing. Thinking about basic issues of climatic design—like natural cross-ventilation, protecting the building from east-west direct sunlight—were things that have always been a part of my upbringing as a young architect. As my career developed into more of an international practice, I learned how to understand these things in a more scientific way. I started my own office, NLÉ, in 2010 with a lot more of a focus on designing for the Global South, especially Africa, which presented more challenging environments. The natural environment came to the foreground because, in dealing with the basic things of everyday life, the climate was always central.

Architecture shouldn’t be about isolating ourselves from the elements, but about creating an interface between humanity and the environment.

Kunlé Adeyemi

Floating Music Hub, designed by NLÉ

Floating Music Hub, designed by NLÉ

Thinking about climate has been central to your designs. What is an observation about designing with the environment and climate that you have in your practice that you wish other architects would think about?

The driving principle of our practice—and it’s something we always hope other architects and planners will think about as well—is that we should always stand for diversity and the amicable coexistence between humanity and the environment. In whatever we do, we should always think of how we can create structures that enhance the relationship between people, between people and their immediate environment, and between people and the larger ecological context. Architecture shouldn’t be about isolating ourselves from the elements, but about creating an interface between humanity and the environment.

We know that the current challenge of our time is the climate crisis, the impacts of which we have seen for many years now. Whether it’s sea level rise, temperature rise, wildfires, desertification, we need to understand that the environment will continue to change, and it’s the responsibility of us humans to adapt to these changes. The aim of my work is to understand how we create new ways of adapting to the world through architecture to enable the long-term sustainability of the human race.

By the numbers, things look dire for humanity. We have designed our own extinction, in a way. Architecture, or the building sector, currently produces about 40 percent of the world’s yearly greenhouse gas emissions. Is there anything architects can do to start shifting this number? How can architecture be part of the solution?

There are many things we can do. We need to take account of the energy consumption of buildings, and it starts by understanding different material cultures around the world. We need to utilize more carbon-neutral materials—materials that are less energy-consuming to make, but also less energy-consuming to maintain. It’s not hard to think about this on a domestic scale, but when we jump up in scale to, say, an office tower, it becomes more challenging. We’re getting there. There are a lot of examples of buildings around the world today that are addressing this issue. Depending on what part of the world you’re building in, simple design decisions like orienting the building in the right way can make a huge difference. Basic architectural principles of understanding how sun directions can affect the heating and cooling makes a huge difference.

Eighty percent of the world’s major cities are by the coast, but we have yet to develop a way to adapt to floods and encroaching coastlines.

Kunlé Adeyemi

Mansa Floating Hub, Cape Verde, by NLÉ/Water Cities Development

Mansa Floating Hub, Cape Verde, by NLÉ/Water Cities Development

Your Makoko Floating School project won many awards around the world—including a Silver Lion Award at the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale—for addressing the risk of sea-level rise. But in 2016, after a storm, the structure collapsed and impacted the community it was serving. Building for the climate crisis is a challenge in itself. Can you talk about what steps you took next?

We have relentlessly continued to pursue, develop, and innovate sustainable solutions for water cities and communities, as we believe this is central to addressing long-term social and environmental challenges for climate-vulnerable communities. You can read a little more about the Makoko situation on our website; we’ve moved forward with several iterations and improvements in five countries across three continents—the latest being Mansa Floating Hub, in Cape Verde.

NLÉ is now well known for these A-frame floating structures. Were your designs for seaworthy architecture a direct response to sea-level rise?

Yes. We believe they are a literal interpretation of how architecture needs to adapt to sea-level rise, but that they also represent historically underpinned ideas of how cities can evolve in the face of climate change. Humans have always lived near water; the history of human settlement is the history of humanity’s relationship to water. Water is needed for agriculture, transportation—our survival, in short. Eighty percent of the world’s major cities are by the coast, but we have yet to develop a way to adapt to floods and encroaching coastlines. With NLÉ’s African Water Cities projects, we’ve developed a concept for building on and around water. Water Cities is the idea of a built environment that straddles land and water, that exists within a semi-aquatic ecosystem which allows for a lot more water in the urban fabric, allowing for a new adaptive coexistence between humanity and the environment. Instead of fighting back the water, we want to learn to live with it. We’re learning how to survive the future from people who have traditionally built and lived on water.

Be sure to register for the first annual Ambasz Earth Day Lecture, moderated by curator and writer Beatrice Galilee.