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June 19, 2019

Sustainable Architect Rahel Belatchew’s Unconventional Designs Are From The Future

Text by Sadaf Shaikh

The 50-year-old architect is proposing concepts like a self-sufficient city which breeds and feeds on insects and a residential building that produces electricity through movements generated by the wind

Rahel Belatchew squints up at the sun as we perch ourselves on a bench outside Famous Studios. It’s Day 2 of Swedish Style Mumbai, a lifestyle event that is set to showcase the different sectors of Sweden’s creative industries ranging from fashion, design and architecture to film, gastronomy and music and the 50-year-old architect, who has been eagerly looking forward to experiencing a sunny Mumbai, has had enough of the heat already. “I wish I had bought Bris here; it would’ve worked perfectly,” she laments. Bris — which, I am told, is Swedish for breeze, — is a wooden pavilion that Rahel’s firm Belatchew Arkitekter built outside Stockholm. She beams proudly when she explains to me how the structure, which creates the impression of a draft of wind having passed through it, encourages recycling since it’s all about creating an undulating framework of wooden units that can be dismantled and used for other construction projects. Sustainability is at the core of Rahel’s personal ethos; in fact, this is what her firms Belatchew Arkitekter and Belatchew Labs have largely come to be famous for. The former is an architectural firm that specialises in everything from urban planning and housing to offices and public buildings while the latter is a studio within Belatchew Arkitekter that works with experimental projects that test new approaches and solutions to urban and architectural issues. Belatchew Labs has spearheaded some visionary concepts such as StrawScraper — a skyscraper that doubles up as an urban power plant and SwimCity — a project that envisions sustainable living on water by creating 3-D printed housing for students, and Rahel only hopes to dive deeper into these futuristic concepts, going forward.

What veered you in the direction of sustainability?
If you consider the number one challenge we are facing as a species today, you will always end up with sustainability at the crux of it. It was very natural for me to gravitate towards that philosophy since it’s the only one that matters in this day and age. A hundred years ago, architects would discuss style — ‘Should we have the Neo-classic, the Modernist or the Gothic?” Today, it’s not about style; it’s a question of how can we create a better world in a sustainable way.

How would you describe your architectural aesthetic?
If you’ve been through my roster of work, you wouldn’t have been able to identify a style. I like the idea of not having an aesthetic, but rather an attitude of how to deal with projects. I like to experiment with approaches I haven’t tried before which means no two pieces of my work will ever look similar. This is probably not such a good idea from a business point of view because it means I can’t keep replicating a trademark model. But creatively, it is very fulfilling because it helps me customise my designs as per the client, the circumstances of that particular time and the challenges. We also have the experimental studio, Belatchew Labs, where we work with visionary projects dealing with global issues like space constraint, climate change and pollution. We use Stockholm as our canvas to provide solutions to these problems. In reality, these issues are pertinent to cities like Mumbai, Delhi and Shanghai because the residents of Stockholm don’t really have to deal with any major urban problems.

Can you expound the psychology of space and the hidden ways in which architecture makes people feel?
Think of architecture as the backdrop to our lives. You and I are sitting in this space right now and it affects how we talk to each other because there is a certain atmosphere. There is a wooden canopy over our heads to provide shade from the heat which is why we’re sitting here and when I go back to this conversation, I will remember our surroundings before I recollect what we actually spoke about. Architecture has that effect on our lives and memories.

One of your most experimental proposals was the insect pods, which explained how urbanites in Stockholm would one day get their food. Considering the alarming rate at which climate change is affecting ecosystems, do you see these plans being put into action in the near future?
I proposed that design to ascertain whether it would be possible for a city to produce food within its urban boundaries. It was more for a sparsely-populated nation like Sweden than a densely-populated city like Mumbai, but we felt like there was merit in having a food production unit close to where we live so that residents could see what they were eating and how the food had been procured. My starting point was to look at the production of meat. In India, you are safe from the harmful effects of beef production because of the ban. Beef is actually the worst of all meats and it is consumed in large quantities in Sweden. Cows emit methane, a potent greenhouse gas, as they digest plants and rising beef production requires increasing quantities of land. New pastureland is often created by cutting down trees, which releases carbon dioxide stored in forests. So what could be the alternative? In 2013, the Food and Agriculture Organisation, a part of the United Nations, released a report saying that we should look at insects as an alternative source of protein, seeing how arable land is being rapidly swallowed by towns and cities, oceans are increasingly overfished, and climate change is disrupting traditional farming. Working on this premise, Belatchew Labs created a concept city which is completely self-sufficient on insect protein. Each BuzzBuilding, as we call them, would cultivate insects from eggs to end-of-life that would continually reproduce. The insects would feed on waste from Stockholm homes and the humans would feed on these insects. The main structure is a steel exoskeleton inspired by the structure of insects. On the ground floor, there is a restaurant where insects are prepared and sold. The goal is to make the production process public and lift the veil of mystery surrounding it.

Do you personally enjoy working on designs that are experimental or utilitarian?
I like both because of the opportunities they present. I worked exclusively with my hands when I was younger so I like to see things actually being built. At the same time, Belatchew Labs allows me to work in a completely different dimension because my thought process can travel centuries into the future and I’m not limited by practicality. For example, we designed a structure called the Strawscraper which revolves around the future of wind farming. It is covered by a large number of thin straws that produce electricity merely through small movements generated by the wind. This doesn’t have to come into existence today or tomorrow but it could happen ten, twenty or even fifty years down the line. So I have my eccentric visions, the practical aspects of which actually come to fruition at Belatchew Arkitekter while the larger chunk of it goes into the repository of conceptual proposals at Belatchew Labs.   

How, according to you, do architectural preferences change from country to country? How does the Belatchew Arkitekter adapt designs to match these preferences?
I always consider the climate of the location I’m going to be building in because it provides me with the framework for my aesthetic. For example, in Mumbai, you can have many outdoor spaces and things to do in them. That’s a limitation in Sweden because the extreme cold pushes us indoors for nearly half the year.

Of course, a city’s culture also influences its design. It’s important for a country to borrow from its history to design its architecture otherwise the world will look like a homogenous entity without any sort of idiosyncrasies. For example, some of the larger brands don’t really adapt their stores to match the country they are situated in so you can never really tell the difference between shopping in America or in Egypt.

What challenges do you face when you blend contemporary architecture with sustainability?
I’ll answer that with an example. In Sweden, it’s the conflict between wanting to have large windows but being compelled to minimise them so that the internal heat doesn’t escape. Then again, you have summer for a few months so you want to let the sunlight in during that period. How does one get the best of both worlds?

What do you think about the architecture scene in Mumbai?
Unfortunately, I haven’t had time to see much. I’ve spent most of my time stuck in traffic so all my sight-seeing has happened from the window of my car. Mumbai is exactly what I would expect a bustling metropolis to look like — it’s lively and kaleidoscopic in comparison to Stockholm, where you have a row of industrial buildings that are more or less the same height. I have a feeling that the structures here are not as regulated.

Does being a woman have an influence on your thought process and the way you approach design?
I do believe all architects and designers incorporate their personal experiences into their body of work. As a woman, I’m concerned with making public spaces equally accessible to all. In many parts of the world, public spaces are mainly for males and they are the ones who feel safe and free to move about as they wish. For a man, it’s very easy to travel anywhere in the world by himself. It’s not the same case for women; we are restricted in our usage of public spaces so I would like to explore the premise of designing safe public spaces for women.

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