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Design with and against Carbon Form

– Architecture forms as sites for new energy paradigms in the era of sustainability

I.Architecture form in the context of sustainable architecture

Although the concept of sustainability has been discussed for years, especially since United Nations set the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, the focus on sustainability in architecture has never shifted away from energy efficiency and continuous growth. It is particularly true in the context of the U.S. In An Introduction to LEED and Green Building by the U.S. Green Building Council, we can see one of the biggest goals is to build “a rising foundation for ever-higher levels of performance.”[1]The LEED’s disproportionate focus on building performance is one of the reasons that the architecture industry overlooks the socio-political aspect of architectural form and pays too much attention to the technical capacity of energy and building performance when it comes to sustainability in architecture.

In the book The Architecture of the City, Aldo Rossi wrote, “Architecture gives concrete form to society and is intimately connected with it and with nature,”[2] which highlights the importance of architecture form to study our built environment and to understand the human condition. With his concept of the locus as the background, we can perceive architecture not only as a particular building but also as a representation of the universal human condition. This understanding gives us a chance to revisit the concept of sustainability in architecture through the language of architecture form, which gives us an opportunity to redefine and reimagine the architecture and the human condition of our time.

As architecture theorist Elisa Iturbe writes, the discussion of energy efficiency “dislocates the origin of the climate crisis from the dominant political, economic, and spatial organizations that are its cause.”[3]Furthermore, the focus on building performance is entangled with profit and growth, which rationalizes this dislocation in the neoliberal world and stops us from challenging our energy-intensive way of living.

To change that, our society needs an inversion of ideology that recognizes the social, political, and spatial effects that come with energy. Next, architects must reimagine our way of living with the new energy paradigm and actively give form to it to create “new sites of the architectural agency.”[4]

II.Carbon Form – exploring the relationship between energy and built form

In order to create new architectural forms to achieve the goal mentioned above, we need to understand the concept of carbon form. In Elisa Iturbe’s Architecture and the Death of Carbon Modernity, she introduces the term carbon form to describe the relationship between architectural form and the carbon-intensive energy paradigm. For example, she identifies Villa Savoye as a carbon form because “its ground floor plan explicitly registers the turning radius of automobiles through the radius of the architectural figure.”[5]With that in mind, we are now capable to recognize architectural forms and typologies that “index the spatial implications of a carbon paradigm.”[6]

Urban form can also be used to interpret carbon form. The proposal of Radiant City designed in 1930 shows that Le Corbusier consciously placed fossil fuel vehicles as the foundations of the design. We can see the design of different types of highways and their critical position in the proposal, which becomes so essential to the level that if there was no fossil fuel, the city would not function at all. Radiant City also showed the new social relations at the time, which were only possible under the premise of using the energy-intensive infrastructure. For instance, the industrial areas were separated from the residential neighborhoods to disconnect work from leisure based on the logic of factory operation and highway. Therefore, we can understand Radiant City as a carbon form.

The examples above help us to rethink the relationship between energy and architectural form. To find the clues to create an anti-carbon form, the next paragraph examines an architectural practice that provides several methods to design against carbon form.

III.Spatial Strategies against carbon form - Openness, Incrementality, and Adaptability.

Figure 1. Villagers Erecting Building Structure at Yang Liu Village reconstruction project

This section of the essay focuses on the case study of Atelier 3’s open system and tries to find the methods that can create alternatives to the buildings designed as carbon forms.

Atelier 3 is a Taiwanese architectural practice founded by Ying-Chun Hsieh in 1999. Since then, they’ve participated in post-disaster reconstructions around the world and invented their own manufacturing and assembly methods to create the open system.

In rural reconstruction sites, all types of resources are scarce, and the transportation system is usually destroyed and inaccessible for large machinery. Therefore, Atelier 3 uses prefabricated, lightweight steel as the structure which can be easily transported, and they made the assembly process as simple as possible for local unskilled workers to participate. Since the structural framework was designed to be used with other materials based on different circumstances, local materials like bamboo, adobe, and stone can be turned into walls, roofs, and other architectural elements to fit into the structure.

Apart from building materials, another highlight of Atelier 3’s work is the involvement of local workers. The precise steel structure is designed with a handbook that explains the assembly process which doesn’t require any welding or other advanced construction skills. In the case of the Yang Liu Village reconstruction project in China, a local construction team made up of local villagers learned assembly knowledge from Atelier 3 and erected the structure of 59 houses under the architects’ supervision. (Figure 1.) In one documentary made in 2009[7], one villager in the local construction team said: “The first house took six days to build, the second, four days, the third was even quicker. It took two and a half days to build.” From this description, we can know that the open system is not only easy to learn and build but also transform the role of the villagers from victims of the disaster to builders who rebuilt their community. This is an example of how an architectural form can redefine social relations.

Figure 2. Program study of Maja Farm Permanent Housing by Tsai Sung Lun

In the case of Maja Farm Permanent Housing, the villagers continue to add various types of spaces like living rooms, kitchens, and stores after the project was officially completed.[8] (Figure 2.) Since the villagers were a part of the construction process, they are capable to remove and add spaces based on their needs.

According to the observation above, there are a few characteristics of the anti-carbon form we can recognize. Firstly,it uses recyclable material as structure and maximizes the use of local materials and workers, which not only reduces the carbon footprint of the construction materials but also the carbon emission produced during transportation. Secondly, the form of the building is organic and open to reinterpretation. It was designed to allow incremental changes, redesign, and evolution through the hand of residents. In other words, the form is open to be changed. In some cases, the open system may still be identified as a carbon form, but because of the openness in the system, the carbon form can be undone and redesigned to fit other energy paradigms later in the future.

IV. Designing with and against Carbon Form

Based on the observation of Atelier 3’s open system, it’s clear that the architectural form with the ability to repurpose, reinterpret, and evolve has great potential to become an anti-carbon form. That means instead of designing for one particular and exclusive use, we need to design for various types of energy paradigms that can form different ways of living.

Another finding of this essay is a new way to see the relationship between form and energy. For example, carbon form and carbon-intensive energy paradigm create a one-to-one relationship, which means the carbon form only works under a specific situation, like the Radiant City was only possible with the use of fossil fuel vehicles. On the contrary, the example of Atelier 3’s open system shows how an architectural form can create a one-to-many relation with different types of uses. I believe the relationship transition from the one-to-one pattern to one-to-many is critical to construct new sites for sustainable architecture in the future.

In conclusion, to increase the level of sustainability of our built environment, what we need is not only an energy efficiency evaluation system but a fundamental change in our mindsets and lifestyles. We can’t overcome the climate crisis overnight with a single solution, nor can we stop to use fossil fuels immediately because we are already a part of the current energy paradigm. Instead, we need revolutionary architectural forms that allow alternatives to carbon form to happen.




Po-Yu is currently working in Bernheimer Architecture in New York City as an Architectural Designer after graduating with a Master of Science in Advanced Architectural Design (M.S.AAD) from Cornell University. Before he came to the U.S., Po-Yu received a B. Arch from NCKU in Taiwan and worked in Taiwan and Thailand.

During his study in Taiwan, the Czech Republic, and the U.S., Po-Yu developed his interest in housing and politics, which later brought him to BA in 2022. He believes architecture in our time should be flexible, and adaptable, and create opportunities for others to weigh in.


References: [1]LEED Core Concepts Guide: An Introduction to LEED and Green Building (Washington, DC: U.S. Green Building Council, 2014), 1. [2]AldoRossi, and Peter Eisenman. The Architecture of the City. (Cambridge, Massachusetts, MIT Press, 1982), 21. [3]ElisaIturbe,“Architecture And the Death of Carbon Modernity” in LOG 47 - OVERCOMING CARBON FORM, edCynthia Davidson(New York, New York, ANYONE CORPORATION, 2019), 11. [4]Ibid., 21. [5]Ibid., 14. [6]Ibid., 14. [7]余 (YU), 雋江 (JUN-JIANG),尼斯雙年展_四川記錄片 / Steel and Mountain(English Subtitled). YouTube Video, 2009. 5JbO981RjJQO-5d6siRuER_U6DJN. [8]蔡 (Tsai) , 松倫 (Sung Lun), "再定住集落における恒久住宅の増改築に関する調査研究 (The post-disaster relocation process after Typhoon Morakot - A study on Rinari Settlement, southern Taiwan),"2019.


Atelier 3. "Brief of Works | Atelier-3." Accessed December 14, 2022.

Cynthia, Davidson, and Iturbe Elisa, editors. LOG 47 - OVERCOMING CARBON FORM. ANYONE CORPORATION, 2019.

LEED Core Concepts Guide: An Introduction to LEED and Green Building. Third edition, U.S. Green Building Council, 2014.

Rossi, Aldo, and Peter Eisenman. The Architecture of the City. MIT Press, 1982.

蔡 (Tsai) , 松倫 (Sung Lun). "再定住集落における恒久住宅の増改築に関する調査研究 (The post-disaster relocation process after Typhoon Morakot - A study on Rinari Settlement, southern Taiwan),"2019.

余 (YU), 雋江 (JUN-JIANG). 尼斯雙年展_四川記錄片 / Steel and Mountain(English

Subtitled). YouTube Video, 2009.

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