by David Thomas
Last week I went to the opening of Siemens’ new building in London’s Victoria Docks. It’s called the Crystal, and is designed to be a shining light for sustainable building. The intention behind the building is to show Siemens as the leading authority on the smart city.
The architectural and energy efficient side of the Crystal
Siemens technology underlies the infrastructure of cities all over the world. This was reflected in the types of business guests at the event: for instance I spoke with a representative from the Paris transport authority RATP, which is switching its metro over to driverless Siemens tech.
“… the Crystal will help us intensify dialogue with our customers. The Crystal is our sector’s showcase, contact point and mastermind.” – Roland Busch, Siemens Infrastructure and Cities Sector.
There are natural and mechanical ventilation methods. The main parts of the building felt ventilated enough but the 270-seat conference room, built within a red bubble, was stuffy enough to give me a headache.
The environmental engineers were from Arup and their main work is out of sight underground. The Crystal is 90 percent water self sufficient using a 17km water treatment network of pipes, with rainwater and blackwater harvesting plus landscaped drainage that maximises yield from rainfall. So the Crystal’s best qualities have, arguably, nothing to do with it looking like a crystal.
The Crystal’s political side
As a journalist at these conferences it’s all about making the most interesting friends. The audience was four-fifths male but I was next to Dr. Melanie Chait, CEO at Johannesburg’s Big Fish film school. One of her student's work had been chosen for a screening later.
The day was less about making business more sustainable and more about making sustainability more profitable. That’s why the Crystal has to be a massive crystal. If Siemens wanted to create a sustainability centre and were serious about sustainability it would have been a retrofit not a new building.
Sitting in front of me was a short man in clothes that were far too big for him, and snappy cowboy boots. My guess was he was an architect but Melanie disagreed.
The morning session was chaired by CNN news anchor Becky Anderson, and the first speaker was Dr Roland Busch, CEO of the Infrastructure and Cities Sector for Siemens. His job seems to involve travelling around selling Siemens technology. I found myself respecting him as a political salesman but unsold on his ability to know what’s right or wrong for humankind, which is generally my guiding compass particularly when judging people in positions of power.
The next speaker was Dr Juan Cloas from UN-Habitat, the UN agency for human settlements. He talked for a long time about the fine alchemy of building a city. It turns out 45-50 percent of the city should be public space. No more, no less. Dr Cloas cited Manhattan as an example: 49 percent is public space, including roads, streets, parks.
As former medical doctor and two-time mayor of Barcelona, his diagnosis is that there are fundamentals to making a city. Buildings can be part of a five-year business plan. Building or rejuvenating a city – which Dr Cloas achieved with Barcelona@22, his rejuvenation of Barcelona’s industrial district - is different. It takes at least 20 years.
Dr Cloas talked for ages, losing me one minute and winning me back the next. His main message was this: you can’t have a city without the street. Deny the street and you break the city. As yet, he says, there is no better thoroughfare technology than the street. And it’s this currency, of human traffic, that Dr Cloas promotes in his work at UN-Habitat. I trusted his view of urban life and felt he cared more about it than Dr. Busch.
Next speaker was the Mayor of Johannesburg Mpho Franklyn Tau. He’s been Mayor for 10 years and delivered a speech all about revolutionising the political process, to involve citizens. Beside me, Melanie, (remember she’s a political filmmaker from Johannesburg) had never heard of him. His scheme for allowing the citizens to participate in politics and basically govern themselves was dodgy in my opinion. It’s a way to save money and shift accountability for Johannesburg’s problems onto the people themselves. I guess we’re supposed to believe that in all cities people will enthusiastically start pulling together to build a better tomorrow for themselves?
The panel discussion
The man asleep next to me was the head of sustainability at Tatar Power, Avinash Patkar. The panel discussion was animated enough to wake Avi up.
One reason for the panel debate being the most interesting part of the day was Daniel Libeskind, an architect and musician. His was an artistic voice in a room full of business types. He turned out to be the baggily dressed little guy with the cowboy boots I’d pointed out to Melanie earlier. She’d said, “he couldn’t possibly be an architect with those shoes.”
He spoke well. Ten minutes into his talk she whispered to me, “His boots don’t do him justice.” Libeskind was the first speaker all day to suggest the point of a city is to support its people, not its businesses. The Mayor of Bogota, Petro Gustavo, said something excellent recently, “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation.”
Libeskind’s vision of urbanity is also of a space for all people. He believes technology and sustainability, with their focus on democracy and civility, are the headlamps of a new urban renaissance. That’s what he called it: a renaissance.
As an example, he described the process of rebuilding the World Trade Centre site. The project is called Memory Foundations – a green space surrounded by a spiral of five office buildings, the tallest being architect David Child’s One World Trade Centre.
Daniel Libeskind explained how the planning originally excluded the people of New York City and how he brought them back into the frame, deciding on a lower height, unifying the space at the level of the traditional NYC skyline.
The word "politics," Libeskind reminded the room, means "of the people." And "idiot" just means "private person," or "person disinterested in engaging with others."
Another interesting part of the panel discussion was when Libeskind, Dr Cloas and Dr Busch were discussing how Singapore’s urban planning was a shining example of how to efficiently enable architects, designers and systems people such as Siemens to realise their urban vision.
This sounds great so long as you agree with the form this vision takes. I don't like the form the Crystal takes, but its impact could turn out to be significant.
About the author: David is an environmental journalist who writes about energy efficiency and about the solar industry for websites GreenDeal.co.uk and TheEcoExperts.co.uk. He has recently grown a beard.