Philippe Madec is a pioneer in sustainable development in urban planning and architecture, and was an expert for the Grenelle de l’Environnement discussions in France. He calls on all builders to change their approach to construction, believing that less high tech and more ecology would help build cities in harmony with nature and its residents. We spoke with him.

 Urban plants are not nature. […] They’re just an artefact. Generic construction has destroyed the environment. 

Why does the approach to construction need to be changed so urgently?

Philippe Madec: In recent decades, we have felt that the 20th century solution of building uniform concrete structures with identical façades on four sides and a highly technical ventilation system has seen its day. This generic construction method has significantly damaged the climate.

Mechanical ventilation systems emerged in the 1960s and are a bad remnant of modern architecture. The residential construction sector loses all credibility because, in the past, all rooms had a window to generate natural ventilation.

Nowadays, people wake up and enclose themselves instantly in “cupboards” to go to the toilet or use the bathroom. I believe that this is one of the saddest things to see first thing in the morning.

In my firm, we work to ensure that residents can enjoy light in every room. In Saint-Nazaire, we created the first and only collective housing units with hybrid natural ventilation. We’re currently negotiating with the French government to create housing with no mechanical ventilation systems. For a project in Bordeaux, we want to provide air circulation without using any mechanical ventilation and only flows from the façades and air inlets.

If we succeed, we will revolutionise the future of housing in France.

 

For a media library and refugee shelter in Paris’ 19th arrondissement, you will be using mudbricks and natural ventilation – solutions some might think are only used in the Southern hemisphere.

I’ve been working on natural ventilation for 17 years – of course it works! Natural ventilation is a modern ambition that we need to get right because it would be an environmental catastrophe if Southern countries decided that air conditioning is the only solution for managing climate problems. Major architects like Australian Glenn Murcutt and African Francis Diebedo Kéré are great examples of what high-quality architecture is able to achieve without air conditioning. Africa needs to protect itself from this machine-centred vision of the future.

As for materials, if you look closely, rural architecture in France exclusively used mudbrick right up to the 19th century. Returning to mudbrick construction is not a step backwards; it’s about showing an interest in local resources and mud as a physical material with a low carbon footprint, and also a way of promoting people’s know-how.

The Manifesto for frugality encourages reduced energy and technology use and the opting for bio-sourced materials.

Tell us more about your initiative, the Manifeste pour une frugalité heureuse et creative (Manifesto for Happy and Creative Frugality).

Our business sector generates 40% of greenhouse gas emissions. We need to choose to fight for a future that is less harmful to the planet. The Manifesto for Frugality encourages reduced energy and technology use and opting for bio-sourced materials.

Frugality is saying that we will try to be smarter and design bioclimatic buildings. The more high-tech a building, the more it will encounter planned obsolescence and complex systems, and the more there will be breakdowns and higher energy consumption.

 Citizens participating in urban projects is another facet of biodiversity. There aren’t just plants, but also people. Nature is all around us and we are part of it.

In one interview, you said that you were opposed to green walls?

There are different kinds of green walls. If you plant Virginia creeper or ivy at the base of a façade, you will be greening using a plant in its natural context.

If your green wall requires building a steel structure with shelves to store soil, and creating electricity and water circuits to maintain it, all requiring the use of a crane over several days, I don’t call that ecology. I call that plant decoration and greenwashing.

However, planting trees and greening roofs in urban areas is a great decision for managing heat islands. Solar rays hitting artificial surfaces generates additional heat that we need to prevent.

How do you think we can build the city of the future?

The city of the future is a city built with everyone and shared with everyone. These cities will be co-built and co-designed. Citizens participating in urban projects is another facet of biodiversity. There aren’t just plants, but also people. Nature is all around us and we are part of nature.

The big question is what do we do with living things? How can we incorporate them into architectural and urban projects? Reconnecting with nature will provide the necessary conditions for a happy life, and all my projects work towards this goal.