Omer Arbel’s latest creation, 75.9, is a testament to his studio’s deep understanding of its mission: to explore the art of manipulating materials and finding form. Nestled in a picturesque hay field in northwestern Canada, not far from Vancouver, this architectural marvel showcases Arbel’s expertise and creativity.
To truly appreciate the genesis of this project, one must follow Arbel’s journey, which began in the world of architecture. He honed his skills under the guidance of Enric Miralles in Barcelona and later worked in various design studios in Vancouver. Eventually, he transitioned into design and co-founded Bocci with entrepreneur Randy Bishop in 2005. As the creative director of this lighting company, Arbel had the perfect platform to delve into materials production research, a passion that is evident in the design of Bocci’s Vancouver office spaces.
Arbel’s fascination lies in the intricate manipulation of matter and how it reacts under different stresses, whether chemical, physical, or mechanical. His meticulous approach, numbering each attempt and design, resembles that of a scientist conducting experiments. He begins with exploration, allowing the object or product to take shape naturally. This process has not only shaped his design philosophy but has also served as a valuable training ground for his foray back into architecture.
Before being commissioned for this project, the firm had already explored unconventional methods of shaping concrete. They believed that the traditional shapes created by humans did not fully utilize the inherent properties of the material. Arbel, the architect, explains that their first building, known as “75.9,” utilized fabric formwork. This technique has several advantages. It allows the resulting forms to directly reflect the fluid dynamics of the concrete, resulting in structurally efficient lines and reducing the amount of concrete needed.
The fabric used in this process is geotextile, typically used in infrastructure or landscaping projects. This material is both inexpensive and exceptionally strong. It also allows moisture and air to pass through during the curing process, which is crucial for the success of the system.
Using this method, the firm was able to create pillars that resemble lily pad leaves. These pillars have grooves that give the impression of ruins within the surrounding landscape. The building itself is divided into four double-height spaces made of glass and cedar wood. To connect the building with its environment, the topography was extended up to the rooftops. The openings in the building are defined by curved, ribbed concrete partitions. Additionally, magnolia trees were strategically placed on the hollow summits of the pillars to enhance the continuity with the surrounding landscape.
The pillars, which are visible even from the outside, become the focal point within the expansive double-height interiors. Their cleverly staggered arrangement promotes cross views between rooms and towards the surroundings of the site. The deliberate use of raw, textured materials in these structures creates a deliberate contrast with the dominant presence of wooden elements and sleek polished concrete flooring, occasionally interrupted by strategically placed planted areas.
However, what are the firm’s perspectives on the sustainability of this system? “Considering the significant consumption of resources during construction, it is imperative that we design buildings to surpass the current standard lifespan of 30-50 years,” primarily due to market pressures. Arbel further emphasizes, “It is futile to use materials labeled as sustainable if our buildings are demolished within such a short timeframe.”
Arbel not only views this approach as environmentally wasteful but also detrimental to the spiritual connection between humanity and its creations, resulting in generic structures lacking longevity. Arbel stresses that if we persist in constructing buildings in this manner, “there will be nothing worth restoring, neither culturally nor practically.” However, “if we design buildings to endure for 200, 300 years (as we did with 75.9), envisioning them being continuously restored and renovated rather than demolished and rebuilt… the carbon and resource costs associated with concrete can be amortized over a much longer period, eventually matching the environmental impact of so-called sustainable construction methods.”