The New European Bauhaus will rethink the places and spaces we live in today

The mind behind the concept of #NewEuropeanBauhaus is not an architect or a designer, but, significantly, one of the most prominent climatologists of our time: Hans Joachim ‘John’ Schellnhuber, a German atmospheric physicist, climatologist and founding director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, known for his research on the concept of tipping points in the climate system.

As with any idea, it is fascinating to understand its genealogy and its Heterogonie der Zwecke (how an idea evolves from the original motivational pattern). The #NewEuropeanBauhaus is a new cultural wave where design, environment, science, art and architecture meet. It is inspired by the Bauhaus movement, born in 1919 in a German art school in Weimar, which became famous for approaching design as a way to unify the principles of mass production with individual artistic vision and combine aesthetics with everyday function. Walter Gropius, the founder of Bauhaus, was fond of the idea of creating a Gesamtkunstwerk (comprehensive artwork) where all of the arts would eventually be brought together. The idea of the #NewEuropeanBauhaus is, in effect, to unify art, the circular economy and social inclusion – with a core focus on the built environment and everyday objects – to achieve decarbonisation, social equality and long-term prosperity. It aims to develop an innovative cultural approach to support the ecological transition and a dynamic, cross-fertilised set of ideas and visions that will redefine Europe and the way Europeans live their everyday lives to build healthier, climate-proof, socially inclusive environments.

How did this idea of the #NewEuropeanBauhaus start? What is its genealogy?

Hans Joachim SchellnhuberI am constantly thinking: what can we really do about climate change? We have the Paris Agreement, but we are still not doing enough to implement it. What we need is a cultural revolution. The opportunity came two years ago when Ursula Von Der Leyen, just before being nominated President of the European Commission, participated in a conference where I was giving a lecture on the impact of climate change. She sat through the whole talk, which lasted for almost an hour. After that, we had a very good chat – she was extremely interested in the climate issue.

One of the elements that emerged from our discussion was the building sector. In order to stabilise the climate and keep global warming below two degrees Celsius, we need to improve the energy and mobility sectors. We already have solutions such as renewable energy, solar, wind and sustainable transport, like bikes or electric cars. But what we had overlooked – what I call the elephant in the climate room – is the built environment. We have to remember that approximately 40% of global emissions come from constructing, operating and demolishing buildings. Not just homes, but any sort of infrastructure. Many people focus on topics like global aviation, which accounts for only 2-3% of global emissions. But no one says a thing about steel and concrete structures that create tremendous amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, or about the built environment, which accounts for more than 50% of all waste.

If Europe and the world want to achieve net zero emissions, we need to reduce buildings’ emissions, transform the way we inhabit our homes and our cities, and rethink mega infrastructures, energy infrastructures and mobility infrastructures. How can a new cultural wave help achieve this decarbonisation goal?

I was very pleased by the European Green Deal approach. But we needed to do more regarding the built environment. In 2019, Bauhaus celebrated its 100th anniversary. In a country like Germany, we celebrate the past, but we don’t think about the future very often. People were holding conferences on the old Bauhaus, but nobody thought about what Gropius and his friends would do if they were alive today. With their mindset, they would have thought of a new way of making sustainable, inclusive, beautiful architecture. They would have started a revolution of the built environment. But the people who praised their work never came up with any of these ideas. So I thought, “You have to start this revolution yourself”. I’m a physicist, a climate scientist – I love architecture, but I’m not a professional architect. But I needed to do something a bit crazy. I’m a public intellectual known in Europe and around the globe. People would at least listen to me if I came up with something.

And you did come up with something. A rebranding of the old Bauhaus to push for a new vision of the built environment and of design in general – a new concept where science, design, architecture, materials, art, social inclusion, well-being and beauty go hand in hand. How has this revolution unfolded?

I began talking everywhere about replacing concrete and steel with wood and bamboo or clay. Traditional materials in Europe are fantastic. We have fantastic experience in manufacturing with artistic approaches. We know how to build in a better way, but we have all forgotten about it. In 2019, I decided to assemble a number of influential personalities in Germany and across the EU, convincing them to establish what I called Bauhaus der Erde (Bauhaus for the Planet), a private initiative that quickly became very influential.

Were you surprised to see that many of the ideas you fed to President Von der Leyen were presented on 16 September 2020 in her first State of the Union address, where the new Bauhaus was officially announced?

She said: “I want NextGenerationEU to kick-start a European renovation wave and make our Union a leader in the circular economy. But this is not just an environmental or economic project: it needs to be a new cultural project for Europe. Every movement has its own look and feel. And we need to give our systemic change its own distinct aesthetic – to match style with sustainability. This is why we will set up a new European Bauhaus – a co-creation space where architects, artists, students, engineers and designers work together to make that happen. This is NextGenerationEU. This is shaping the world we want to live in.”

I was very surprised and pleased to hear it. She picked the exact idea that was most important for me. This is clearly an opportunity to change urban planning, construction, manufacturing – to change the way we build and live in city buildings. But it needs to be a comprehensive cultural project. Why? Because this is a unique opportunity to bring attention, momentum and sex appeal to the European Green Deal. Since it started, it has become an extremely popular concept.

Recently we held a high-level roundtable in Brussels with famous architects, designers and artists, with over 8 000 attendees. Around 22 000 people have subscribed to the newsletter on the new European Bauhaus. These are unusually high numbers for bureaucratic (and boring) initiatives of the European Commission. But it is becoming a tremendous success story. And while I played a certain part in it, it is Ursula, with her gravitas and her drive, who pushed it forward.

Now the whole concept of New Bauhaus has been absorbed by designers, intellectuals and architects from all over Europe. Everyone is starting to contribute with ideas, existing projects, research and exhibitions. If you visit the Venice Biennale of Architecture, it is obvious that architects are already working on transforming their views.

Many people in Germany were willing to leave cities to find a good place to live during the COVID-19 pandemic. It does not mean that people will abandon cities – soon we will return to normal. But it tells us that people want a good place to live. Healthy homes, healthy cities, where trees absorb CO2 and building materials are sustainable and healthy.

Think about wood – you can store CO2 for 100 or 200 years in it. Artificial intelligence (AI) can help us build prefabricated constructions from wood that can be easily assembled and disassembled. We are entering a new age of constructing and operating buildings because digitalisation is changing everything. We talk about autonomous cars. What about autonomous houses with sophisticated sensors that can adapt to ambient temperature, humidity, to the presence of people, adapting spaces and minimising consumption? What about intelligent neighbourhoods or villages where communities share energy or other resources? This is an age where we need to combine high tech and no tech, AI and nature.

One of the elements that will characterise the New Bauhaus is the use of natural, regenerative materials, like wood or clay. But how do we make these supply chains sustainable?

The models of forest development created at the Potsdam Institute, some of the best in the world, show that forested areas in Europe and in the entire northern hemisphere are growing. So we are actually growing more timber than we are consuming. The tragedy is the slash-and-burn deforestation that is happening in Brazil, Indonesia and Congo. We destroy forests to produce soybeans and palm oil, but we could use sustainable methods of forestry and agriculture to produce biomaterials. In the southern hemisphere, where hardwood is very rare and grows very slowly, the answer might be bamboo. The world-famous architect Shigeru Ban, who won the Pritzker Architecture Prize, is pushing for the large-scale use of bamboo in the Global South. You can now build multi-storey buildings made of bamboo, a very elastic and robust material. It grows very fast, up to 40 metres high, within six years.

The other pillar is the circular economy, which focuses on how to reuse and recycle end-of-life construction materials. Today, 95% of car parts can be reused, recycled or remanufactured. We can’t say the same for buildings. Of course, materials like timber, for example wooden furniture, can be recycled much more easily than concrete and steel. A large part of our waste is construction waste. Therefore, shifting to biomaterials would be a great opportunity to redefine building circularity. Furthermore, we have to consider how we can use buildings more flexibly. Spaces have to adapt to different social uses, to new functions over time, without the need to constantly rebuild them.

Could we say that one of the main challenges of the New Bauhaus will be to reimagine public spaces?

We need to experiment and re-imagine. Think of a city like Seville, where people spend most of their time in the streets. We need to make those spaces beautiful, healthy, green. Many public squares were turned into car parks in the 1960s. We should lead a reconquista and reclaim urban spaces from cars.

We have to rethink suburban communities. Outside many European centres, there is a social and cultural wasteland: no cinemas, no hospitals, nothing. We have to create polycentric areas, where amenities are available to everyone through slow walking or public transport. Rethinking transport will definitely be a central part of this. Of the mobility we are using now, 80% will become obsolete in the near future. We need to focus on high-speed trains across Europe to avoid using cars and planes, to strengthen public transport and enhance the user experience.

But will creativity and redesign be more important than a new way of building?

As a physicist and a mathematician, I have learned that I can only convey my theories if I come up with a good metaphor or narrative. For example, I introduced the notion of tipping points in the climate system to underline the potential impact of climate change. We need to use our imagination, come up with visions and ideas of what the European private and public space should look like. It will be much greener; it will be shaped differently; it will combine high tech and no tech. It will look less masculine, and more feminine; it will be much more colourful. That’s why we need artists and creatives. When I grew up in the 1960s, everybody imagined that the future would look dark, cold, with grey and blue tones, sleek and masculine, built from steel and concrete. That notion of modernity is completely obsolete. We need a new notion of modernity, closer to nature, much more colourful and lively.

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