We don’t mean to pick on any one firm here, but a string of repetitive competition proposals has culminated most recently in the Central Bank of Libya design for Tripoli by Henning Larsen Architects. Although they and other foreign foreign firms are making an effort to be culturally relevant, how many desert-like “flowing facades” do we need?
Don’t get me wrong, we like Henning Larsen’s design – it’s thoughtful and has a lot of sensible features that show an understanding of the local climate.
Coming off the main bank building are “pit houses” that are carved into the ground and take advantage of the earth’s ambient temperature to maintain a comfortable environment. They have good shade and natural ventilation – via an atrium – and water collectors.
These spaces reference the region’s ancient clay houses that the indigenous population, the Berber people, used to build (and which still remain standing in parts of the Maghreb region.)
They are typically cooler than modern homes since they were constructed not in defense of nature, but in harmony – thereby ensuring the most comfortable environment possible for free. Their earthern walls absorb heat keeping interiors cool in the summer time; and in winter, these same walls release that heat at night, keeping the house warm when it’s coldest outside – so it’s a win/win year round.
Henning Larsen takes advantage of this principal in a similar way with a more contemporary design that relies not only the earth’s consistent temperature to maintain a comfortable environment, but also the extensive amount of daylight available.
By maximizing penetration of sunlight in the building, the firm should drastically reduce the bank’s energy dependence and electrical expenses, and frankly, make it more resilient in times of upheaval or fuel shortages.
Henning Larsen calls the larger excavation a shaded oasis and social hub – one complete with space for operations, an education center, a restaurant and a hotel. The smaller excavation “allows vehicle access to the treasuries.”
But sometimes the design briefs become repetitive. The “flowing facade” mimics the Libyan economy’s “dynamism” (is that a polite way of saying economic and political turbulence?) and the “ever changing surface of the desert.”
I instantly thought of Foster & Partner’s “dune-inspired” Milan Pavilion for the UAE, which is similarly designed to evoke cultural and regional identity, and Masdar’s curvy terra-cotta buildings (which I happened to really love.)
We need to break with these conventions, consult with local designers who better understand the region’s emergent cultural and intellectual pulse and incorporate those into new projects.
The facade does have an external horizontal shading system, though, which has proven in other buildings in the region to do a great job of reducing excess solar gain and – by extension – energy use, and a slightly angled atrium that lets the light in without the scorch.
This is in itself a huge improvement on the kind of buildings that were being proposed just two years ago when nobody gave a hoot about conserving energy. So – all in all – a positive step in the right direction in terms of sustainable design, but a little less so in terms of originality.