Nick Rosen | |
Sobek's glass house
Green chic

Actor Brad Pitt is fronting an eco-show on WETA, Washington DC’s PBS Channel tonight, featuring an off-grid house by a German architect.

The shows PR says it will cover some of the smartest recycled, energy-efficient, materials-conscious buildings on the planet

It is buildings not cars, says Pitt, that are the worst eco-offenders. They “use 40 percent of the world’s energy and emit 50 percent of its greenhouse gases.”

The show travels to Boston, Chicago, New York and China — where developers develop new kinds of urban development that don’t mimic the “energy unconscious” American lifestyle.

The documentary ends by looking at a radical glass house in Germany that was engineered to be fully recyclable. (The Werner Sobek house is on view in the National Building Museum’s “Green House” exhibition.)

Washington is all but alone in showing the series in one night, a decision made by Kevin Harris, WETA vice president and television station manager.

“I love the show,” he says. “It’s beautiful. It says everything that you want a show like that to say.”

Susan Szenasy, editor of Metropolis and an early advocate of green design, describes “sustainable” features as “the new poetry of buildings.” The Washington Post says: The film’s superior visuals — cityscapes and action footage, as well as brilliantly orchestrated interviews — convey excitement about largely hidden and technical features, as well as infrastructure, to purify water and air and reduce reliance on carbon fuels.

Pitt reduces the technology and engineering to a mantra for the movement: “Imagine buildings that make people feel better.”

Already regarded as an architectural icon comparable to Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion or Farnsworth House, Werner Sobek’s glass house R128 (Rmerstrasse 128) in Stuttgart is residential technology taken to the highest possible level of sophistication. Sobek’s open-plan cube wrapped in a glass shield is an ecological show-house of precise minimalism. There are no walls and no closed rooms. The house provides its own energy. Recognizing Sobek’s voice, the front door opens if called. R 128 is a prototype. R 129 is already being planned.

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One could unscrew his house, named R 128 and cleanly segregate all components for recycling. But the assumption is that this won’t be happening in a hurry because the conservation authorities would veto it. The house is already regarded as an icon of 20th century architecture, comparable to Mies van der Rohe’s 1929 Barcelona Pavilion or his 1946 Farnsworth House. If architecture means taking shape, construction and residential technology to the highest possible level of sophistication and then to refine it even further, then Sobek’s house is a masterpiece. If construction means creating a functioning, comfortable home, then it is a rigid artefact that is quite unsuitable for day-to-day use.

Its an architectural Signpost for the Future

Ten tons of steel was all it took to manufacture the supporting frame, which was prefabricated with machine precision and erected on site. A flight of stairs connects the open-plan spaces on four levels, a glass shield wraps around the cube-shaped building and photovoltaic panels are integrated into the roof. There are no walls and no closed rooms, aside from the two toilets. Furniture is scarce: a yellow set of shelves on the ground floor; a bed, a movable bathtub and a cube with a matte sheen (a wall unit) on the first floor; a group of chairs, a Le Corbusier recliner, a red set of shelves and hi-fi speakers on level two, and a fitted kitchen unit (no upper cupboards due to the lack of walls) and dining table on the upper level.

Naturally, every item in the house is computer-controlled and monitored, if required, externally via internet. The front door has a voice-recognition feature and opens if called; the doors to the toilets require only a manual signal. Water faucets are switched on and off by sensors while ambient temperature, lighting and windows are controlled via a touchscreen. If Sobek thinks something is useful, it is installed; useful features that don’t yet exist are commissioned.

Having dispensed with light switches and door, window and wardrobe handles, curtain rails, skirting boards and the like, Sobek’s architectural purism goes far beyond that of Mies. The philosophy also stretches to Mr and Mrs Sobek’s day-to-day lives – there is no room for knick-knacks. Storage space is rare, and in the absence of a cloakroom visitors simply drape their coats over the railing. It is probably a question of getting used to living without all the stuff that tends to accumulate in a house.

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If there is one reason why an estimated 95 per cent of people would not feel comfortable in this fascinating house with its grand view of Stuttgart’s city centre, it would be because it does not provide any comfort or intimacy. While no one can see into the house, it is as if one lived outdoors, surrounded by nature, at the mercy of the weather. The moon is a bedfellow, and winter storms appear to sweep through the living room. In the evening it is a pleasure to sit in the bathtub in the dark and watch the city lights.

R 128 sounds like a prototype, and justifiably so. The Sobek family is testing this prototype, empirically piloting a residential lifestyle for the third millennium. It is an ecological show-house, with its incredibly strict minimalism representing an architectural manifest – a house that shows the way, but is not the final destination. R 129 is already being planned and will take the journey one step further.

Werner Sobek founded Werner Sobek Ingenieure (WSI) in 1992, a structural engineering and design consultancy operating on a global basis. Its work focusses on design and high-end engineering but WSI is also engaged in traditional engineering tasks.

Professor of Engineering at University of Stuttgart since 1995, Werner Sobek merged the two renowned chairs of Frei Otto and Jorg Schlaich at the University of Stuttgart into the Institute for Lightweight Structures and Conceptual Design (ILEK) in 2001.

He is co-author of “R128 by Werner Sobek”, “Steel Construction Manual”, “Glass Construction Manual”, “Stahlbau Atlas”, “SOM Journal2”,and “Archi-neering”, and subject of “Werner Sobek: Ingenieurkunst / Art of Engineering” by Werner Blaser.

Design e{+2}: The Economies of Being Environmentally Conscious (three hours) debuts tonight at 8 on WETA (Channel 26).

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