Reset Materials — Towards Sustainable Architecture (2023)
Installation view at Copenhagen Contemporary (2023)
Photo: Hampus Berndtson

Chrissie Muhr is an architect, researcher and curator based in Basel. She has worked across and with diverse projects and institutions including the first Architekturwoche Basel 2022 and its Basel Pavillon, the design company Vitra, Arch+ magazine, Arno Brandlhuber bplus. Currently she is involved in building up  Experimental, a non-profit organization founded by architect and Prof. Regine Leibinger, and its BE-FELLOW program in collaboration with Bauhaus Earth in Berlin, fostering practice-based experimental and research work for sustainable architecture transformations.

Most recently, Chrissie has curated and edited the publication Reset Material – Towards Sustainable Architecture exhibition and publication in collaboration and partnership between Copenhagen Contemporary CC and the Danish Association of Architects (Arkitektforeningen). The exhibition and publication were supported by Dreyers Fond.

The exhibition took place at Copenhagen Contemporary, consisting of 10 unique collaborations between architects, artists and materials – recycled to regenerative. Together they have pushed the boundaries of what the potential for different material use and value can be.

Tell me a little bit about the project and what was your role in it as a curator?

It actually started with a series of talks called Agenda Earth, initiated by the art-historian and curator Marianne Krogh and the architect Mathilde Petri, a board member of Dreyers Fond who initiated from this forthcoming the Open Call #MATERIALER in May 2022 which gathered 53 applications. 

The important as decisive condition was that each application had to consist of an artist and an architect collaboratively investigating one material. Another condition was around the meaning and value of “sustainable material”; it was important that it stemmed from local/regional and abundant sources  and expanded in its experimental investigation from biogenic, to renewable and recycled materials. Not always entirely new, but rediscovered and reactivated material knowledge and practices with a potential to contribute to the transition. 

10 teams were formed each consisting of architects, artists, designers and manufacturers covering a wide and diverse scope of materials: Plastics, Silicon, Hempcrete, Straw, Tree or Mycelium. It was about fostering a long term experimental and practice-based research questioning a culturally developed stance to materials and allowing everyone, also the general public to question this stance. Seeking in particular the artist’s agency and perspective., but with a scope on the realities and risks facing the implementation, exploring the challenges and legal aspects and lastly putting it into applied methods and practice.

Coming into this assignment as curator and editor, I saw my role very much as a mediator — to steer, connect and enable the 10 teams. Constant individual dialogues needed to happen to understand the different approaches and developments within their diverse expertise, whilst also connecting all the ten teams through common discussions and learning from each other. A series of three workshops also introducing further partners of the site, graphic design to exhibition architecture set up a joint development and process to shape and support a common strategy and concept.

It was important to not bring this exhibition into an architectural gallery and institution, but rather a space both allowing to open up and connect also physically – creating accessibility and awareness through an experience, physically expanding the discourse trans-disciplinary and to the public. Joining partnership and collaboration with Copenhagen Contemporary activated many synergies on the curatorial program by director Marie Laurberg promoting cross-disciplinary and experimental projects shaping the future of aesthetics, and the spaces itself contributing in their post-industrial transformation both as a first remodelled building project by Dorte Mandrup and as part of the vibrant urban transformation and audience of Refshaleøen.

Reset Materials — Towards Sustainable Architecture (2023)
Installation view at Copenhagen Contemporary (2023) with Chrissie Muhr
Photo: Hampus Berndtson

Being an experimental project and working with very new trailblazing, experimental building materials, what worked well and not so well?

The high diversity of the ten materials from recycled to regenerative and even more of the teams and their setups were both a challenge in how to transmit into one exhibition, but at the same time the high potential and source of expertise and learnings. However when we say “material”, it is less about changing the paradigm from a modern promise of steel, glass and concrete to another. But expanding both our understanding of material embedded in a larger process and methods, the reset or reactivation or even initiating of their entire value chain from source to implementation, maintenance and care, to repair, reuse or recycling. Here value starts already by the language and perspective, its social, political and often decisive economic and legal realities, to the sensual experience and quality of aesthetics to create new desires and relations of how we inhabit and live in the world. From recycled plastics and silicon to biogenic materials such as mycelium, nettle, clay and hemp. Over the past year, the creative teams have sourced, cultivated, recycled, deconstructed and recomposed the materials in mills, laboratories and workshops.

This led to another fundamental discussion on how to transmit this investigation into the exhibition. Instead of limiting it and our pre-conception of how we are valuing and applying these materials by now, it was about pushing the material in its inherent potentials and properties. Thus, we decided together with the ten teams to keep this freedom not talking and actually producing building mockups but transitory objects, in the sense that their forms go beyond the standard material sample stage and hint at other potential applications. We introduced them as material fragments and their purpose is to firm up the link between the process and its potential for functioning materialisation and to propose typologies relevant to technical operation.

By that, both the exhibition design of Archival Studies and graphic identity of Studio Atlant enabled the material investigation. Based upon a circular approach, the exhibition design didn't produce anything new, but rather employed existing building materials —borrowed and reused by the end of the show. The graphics and publication was integral in its material approach through the layout and fabrication.

In the exhibition, this culminates in a landscape of tactile fragments poised between art, design and architecture, activating the space, light and visitors and pointing to new possibilities for constructing our physical surroundings.

A good example was the team Straw run by Anne Beim, Line Kjær Frederiksen and Lykke Østerby Arnfred of CINARK at the Royal Danish Academy in collaboration with  the artist Tove Storch, the thatcher Laura Feline Ebbesen and Thomas Gerner and DBI (The Danish Institute of Fire and Security Technology).

The project was investigating the sensuous and technical qualities of this biogenic material, also looking into diverse cultural methods and knowledge. Through bundling, reeds form an arch and become load-bearing what also relates to a technique in Iran and Iraq; through burning, the characteristics of thatched surfaces are studied mimicking an old Viking tradition and a Japanese tradition of wood surface treatment or clay spraying which essentially acts as a fire retardant. Through the preconceived weakness of straw they also wanted to raise a different discussion and by that critique about current construction techniques and about architecture as such. 

As an example, the team Tree was critically reflecting the notion or waste of industrial wood production in the ambition of using the entire trunk of a tree — in the current process of sawing a lot of the wood goes to waste in unused sawdust either burned or bound in some synthetic compound. In this team the architect Kim Lenschow, the artist and designer Bonnie Hvillum from Natural Material Studio worked together with Hans-Peter Dinesen, the 3rd generation of the Danish wood manufacturer. 

Aiming for Dinesen’s mantra using the whole tree, they updated the idea of the so-called Winterhouse built from one tree trunk by exploring the possibility of working with various wood fibres and inherent wood-based binders like pine resin or cellulose. The project is a development of methods and processes, and even more synthesising a new type of materiality beyond what is normally associated with wood. Thus, Tree challenges conventional understandings and aesthetics of how to use and perceive this natural material.

So it's important to state that the teams and projects were from the get go at very different stages and scopes, which of course also means some were closer than others to a possible implementation. At the same time showing that each material investigation had an impact and contributed to the transition in multiple ways. Thus challenging and bringing new systemic and aesthetic perspectives to the table, is equally important as methods and practice.

Another team was investigating recycled Silicon run by the artist Honey Biba Beckerlee, the architect Anders Lendager of Lednager, together with the manufacturers Én jord and Eco Silicate. Systemically this was very interesting, as they were inquiring into the systems of waste management and its global infrastructures. Silicon is the second-most abundant element on Earth after oxygen. The material is a crucial component of micro-chips. Currently, about half of mined silicon is disposed of as industrial waste. Silicon presented several physical material tests while elaborating a series of building fragments that demonstrate opportunities and challenges in working with the material. To highlight this project is that you take something from a completely different industry and bring it through an artistic process into the construction industry – high-tech and tangible production. In addition, Honey Biba Beckerlee’s artistic experiment with making ceramic glaze or using the substitute for the gravel terrazzo-like revealed further its aesthetic potential and experience.

Straw, Reset Materials — Towards Sustainable Architecture (2023)
Installation view at Copenhagen Contemporary (2023)
Photo: Hampus Berndtson

Having these interdisciplinary teams from the get go, what was it like to bring in manufactures, and how receptive were they to collaboration?

In terms of implementation in the building industry and market it was a chance to have the industry partner a part of this transition. There were different setups and roles.

The team Tree, mentioned above, and Hempcrete, joined by the architect Søren Pihlmann and Jakob Rabe of Pihlmann Architects, the artists duo Studio Thinking Hands, and the manufacturer HempCrete ApS. Both teams were close to the manufacturing and production — but in different ways and stages, so the space and scope for artistic to applied experimentation varied as well as the different agencies within the teams.

A different example was the team Monoblock, a collaboration of Desislava Lynge and Michael Lynge of Lynge Lynge Architects, with the artist Jakob Steen and the master mason Mikael Martlev, and manufacturer Xella— they entered an open-ended process – artistically and industrially. Working with the Energy+ mono block from Xella, ‘Monoblock’ activated a mutual investigation and learning, revealing a mono-construction wall in its circularity and aesthetics.

Reset Materials was spanning a platform from artistic investigation and the cultural space of an exhibition to industry practice and innovation. Allowing for a re-evaluation of the material’s perception and narrative through its construction and recycling, and its aesthetic capabilities, the need for a constant dialogue and reset of roles and design processes became apparent.

A mutual transition, the collaboration with the industry partner was about finding a balance and being able to take perspectives, keeping the freedom for experimental work and yet connecting to the reality of projects and market. Taking risks that are required and really understanding it as a whole and common transition.

Silicon, Reset Materials — Towards Sustainable Architecture (2023)
Photo: Hampus Berndtson

What was it like to bring the experimentation into the 'real' work practice? Have many teams continued to work with the methods and materials that were developed?

For all participants this work was actually part of their practice from the get go. The grant #MATERIALER and so Reset Materials supported and gave them the required and often lacking further capacity and freedom to explore and enable their changing practices and values. Exciting and crucial  about this program and its exhibition and publication was the unique opportunity to realise and materialise something physically and sensually, as well as bringing all these different practices and approaches together and enabling them in this common transition.

In an ongoing dialogue with the teams, they are continuing with their projects and practices in various ways. For example, Philmann Architects with Hempcrete, or team Mycelium with Naturpladen transfer their investigation into real building projects. By that further developing and facing testing, infrastructure and construction solutions.

Reset Materials — Towards Sustainable Architecture (2023)
Installation view at Copenhagen Contemporary (2023)
Photo: Hampus Berndtson

What were the hardest learnings in this project?

The most interesting and fundamental but of course also difficult learning was the transdisciplinary approach and condition — specially between architecture and art. As an architect, you get trained to control and plan. The artist does almost the opposite, by questioning and producing. Reconnecting in a common dialogue, it's opening a first fragile but highly potential ground. This creative community of practice is for me a crucial kind of collaboration that allows the teams to explore more freely and enhance their potential. 

Another important learning was about having a constant dialogue in the collaboration. Not curating for but with the teams, the project is about creating “a platform”, for the processes, the teams, the approaches — it's an ongoing journey that everyone is on, so it's very important to present it as a mutual learning. Even more crucial is initiating and expanding the dialogue through the diverse audience at CC and readers of the publication – here allowing the most positive learning. 

Beyond rational analytics the landscape of tangible material fragments expanded our understanding through the aesthetic capability of affection by using all our senses – we can see, feel, hear, smell and experience these potential materials and so allowed us to step into and even inhabit a potential future at this very moment.

Having worked on this incredible initiative, as well as many other projects you are involved in currently, how do you think the industry can move towards these 'new' materials? What should we take with us from this project?

It is about collaboration and commitment of all involved.  It is not just about having another material decision and change, but to understand, initiate and reactivate value chains, the different stakeholders as well as their incentives. Connecting all the languages between research, architecture and industry to policy. We are in a constant transition to critically reflect and adapt to an alternative mode of making, building and architecting, in a more sustainable direction. The business and the economic part are key to this transition. It's both a cultural value as well as an economic one. If we look at reuse for example, the economic system, contracts or fee structures behind it is not there yet; the value chains need to be set up to deal with the entire infrastructure.

In parallel we need to open up towards more diversity within materials, looking at regional and local resources and thinking about scaling and implementation. This of course also connects to the questions of speculation and growth – It requires us to rethink our position on global vs local, availability as well abundance of resources — new sensitivity of what is around us to reactivate. An example is the practice of Material Cultures, CINARK or the Bioregional Design Practice of Atelier LUMA in Arles.

I think we can see that we are at this critical point, we see the changes happening in this industry, but of course we need more forces and encouragement both from policy-level as through reference practices.

Hempcrete, Reset Materials — Towards Sustainable Architecture (2023)
Photo: Hampus Berndtson

Going back to the narrative of the exhibition around “towards sustainable architecture,” what does it mean to you?

It is less architecture but the way we build, inhabit and source that is not sustainable. Addressing the terminology is still important to bring attention and create awareness to be able to change. Although the aim is that there is no more need to use the prescription “sustainable”, but that it is inherent to our making, inhabiting and architecting  — we shouldn't need to talk about it anymore, but rather practise it.

And so it comes down to this “visibility”, do we need to still see things being described or formed as “sustainable”, “post-carbon” or “regenerative”? Or is it something that should just become invisible, a quality and aesthetic implemented across all practices and methods — as a common value and agreement.

Earth, Reset Materials — Towards Sustainable Architecture (2023)
Photo: Hampus Berndtson

What are your next plans?

It informs further diverse projects and agencies. I'm continuing mediating architecture, design and art through content and form, working within research, culture and education and alongside decision-makers in society, politics and business. The transformation starts from and with the people.

Continuing on Reset Materials and its initial #MATERIALER, last autumn, the Danish Association of Architects (Arkitektforeningen), in collaboration with Dreyers Fond, launched the development project Agenda Earth. The project aims to generate new knowledge, push both cultural and systemic barriers, and enable new solutions and visions towards a sustainable transition of the built environment. It builds up in three tracks: NATURE, MATERIALS, and TRANSFORMATION.

For TRANSFORMATION curated by Marianne Krogh there is the collaboratively developed program titled Sensing Earth forthcoming starting with a series of talks and a magazine from this summer. 

Most recently I’m able to develop and focus on this further as Co-Managing Director and Artistic Director of Experimental in Berlin, building up knowledge and practice in the transition towards sustainable architecture futures. A non-profit organisation founded by Prof. Regine Leibinger of Barkow Leibinger fostering practice-based experimental and research-oriented projects, it funds and supports emerging talents through a fellowship program. In collaboration with Experimental and Bauhaus Earth the project-based BE-FELLOW Program has currently four fellows with Material Cultures and Baukreisel a.o. and the forthcoming Open Call to be launched in May 2024. I’m looking forward to further developing the fellowship program to include new formats such as publications, exhibitions and symposia, as well as new collaborations and networks.