2000 feet and climbing

by William Mercer
November 12, 2020
An interview with Stefan Al, Visiting Associate Professor at the Pratt institute and architect, on designing for tomorrow with sustainability in mind.
Can you tell us about yourself, your academic background and what drew you towards designing with a sustainable approach?

My grandfather owned a small carpentry factory. Ever since I was old enough to hold a hammer, he would give me little pieces of timber. I enjoyed making small tables and chairs. This eventually inspired me to pursue architecture. One of my first projects was the design of a TV tower. Since it was 2000-feet tall, and briefly the world’s tallest tower, the project changed my trajectory. When a building reaches such a large scale, it is no longer just architecture, but city design. Since then, I’ve focused on how cities have positively reinvented themselves through design. As a professor, I was fortunate to study different parts of the world and saw a huge variation on how cities could be. I was impressed to see cities and buildings that promote sustainability and beauty at the same time. This inspired me to be part of the change.

As an Associate Professor, what do you seek to teach your students regarding designing buildings for tomorrow? Your course Supertall explores “design techniques to shape architectural massing, taking into account complex programmatic, planning, circulation, structural, and mechanical requirements”. What do you think is the key element to retain for the designs of tomorrow?

I believe that sustainability is getting more and more important in future designs. Buildings are responsible for roughly 40% of the world’s carbon emissions. We can no longer just build the way we did over the last century. We need to build with new materials that are kinder to our planet, such as cross laminated timber, which is an engineered wood that is much stronger than regular lumber and with less environmental impact than traditional materials like reinforced concrete. And we need to design so that buildings consume less energy for heating, cooling, and lighting. The challenge is to do this in such a way to create a building that is not only more sustainable but also more aesthetically appealing and inspiring.

Canton Tower
One of your earlier pieces, while you were at firm Information Based Architecture, is the Canton Tower in Guangzhou, China. What lessons did you take away from this project?

I learned that a tower can serve as a symbol of progress. We designed the 600-meter-tall TV tower in the form of a hyperboloid shape, which is a beautiful lattice structure that is structurally advantageous but had not been applied on a building of that scale and complexity. Upon construction, the project was instantly embraced by the public as a symbol of modernity. Today, it is widely appreciated as an innovative structure.

You have served in multiple institutional capacities, such as at the World Heritage Center of UNESCO. How do you see our world moving forward with the “new” while adequately maintaining our past builds?

I think before architects would approach an adaptive reuse project with the idea of doing a minimalist intervention. But this became a bit of a cliché. Today, it is more about establishing a dialogue between the old and the new. Architects now have more leeway in doing something original and surprising.

Stefan Al
What projects are you currently working on that have marked you and what do you hope the outcome of them will be? (What message do you seek to send out to the design community?)

I have been working on designing a pavilion for Burning Man. It is giant portal oriented towards the sunset. It also features photovoltaic-powered lights that will be re-used after the event and sent to people with no or limited access to electric lighting. The message here is that we need to think of the afterlife of our structures. Construction waste does not need to be waste and can be re-used if we plan for it.  

And finally, how does urban design shape our day-to-day lives or how should it do so?

Urban design shapes so much of our everyday lives from the way in which we travel to how we can interact with our neighbors. Good urban design can promote healthier habits like walking, encourage more social interaction between people, and strengthen the sustainability of our environment.

Picture 1 - Canton Tower (IBA) (
Picture 2 - Stefan Al (courtesy of Stefan Al)
© 2020 Musée Nomade ConnectArt