Slow Architecture: Building a Sustainable Tomorrow

This article appears in Volume 24: The Slow Issue

Slow food, slow fashion, slow travel: wherever the term "slow" is applied, it signals a rebellion against the prizing of a short-term economic gain over long-term sustainability. The Hilton hotel group recently bragged about opening one new property every day. While it may have all the technology to reduce emissions and save water that money can buy, this rate of development feels intrinsically contradictory. The first rule of sustainability is reuse, and this applies as much to buildings as it does to packaging and materials. Rather than replicating architecture on a global scale, considerate development protects the past while creating opportunities for growth through employment, reviving traditional skills and financing creativity.

In reaction to the sleek and impersonal buildings that are shooting up in cities all over the world, the concept of "slow architecture" is becoming a movement of its own. Its members include the hoteliers who have poured years of commitment, money and consideration into just one place, restoring it so lovingly that it starts to take on a character beyond that of a building alone. Whether protecting a slice of history, preserving old-world charm or championing traditional craftsmanship, these abodes know their place in the world. Layered with stories and human care, they make us long to travel, instilling a sense of peace that you can almost feel seeping from their walls.


Marrakech, Morocco

This 300-year-old riad is tucked away in a lesser visited part of Marrakech's medina that feels remarkably untouched - boys play football in the dusty alleys outside and the air is filled with neighbourly chatter. "In Morocco, they have a saying that means 'You don't find your house, your house finds you,'" says AnaYela's director Andrea Bury. "Someone spotted us with a guide and asked us to have a look at a derelict building nearby. From the moment we saw it, we knew we had stumbled upon something magical." Over the course of a year the former palace was restored using nothing but hand tools and traditional techniques. A hundred craftsmen re-sculpted the building using tadelakt, a labour-intensive waterproof plaster. During the reconstruction a manuscript was discovered in a hidden room revealing the story of a 16-year-old girl's love affair. Starting with the words "I am Yela", the tale is hammered in silver onto the riad's doors. "I'm not an architect or a designer, but this project has made me completely rethink the way we live," reflects Bury. Soon after completing AnaYela she set up Abury, a platform to help artisans market their products on an international scale. Just like AnaYela, Abury preserves traditional skills by connecting them with modern design.

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Montagne Alternative

Commeire, Switzerland

This nature-led retreat has breathed life back into the 500- year-old Swissvillage of Commeire. Sixty years ago the farming industry here drew its last breath and when co-owner Benoit Greindl found the village only 12 residents remained. He set out to create a sanctuary from the modern world that would support the local economy. "We talk a lot about sustainability being a new thing, but these ancient villages were doing it hundreds of years ago - houses were built to last using natural materials that are in keeping with the land," he observes. "It's been inspiring to restore the old barns by combining the best of the past and the future." The economic impact is still being realised, but already some residents have returned and a village shop has opened.

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Dunton Hot Springs

Colorado, US

The abandoned ghost town of Dunton, hidden in the mountains just outside of Telluride, Colorado, was bought by the entrepreneur Christoph Henkel in 1994. He had the intention of turning a profit by selling it off as real estate - however, it didn't take long for the enchanting history and the surrounding valley to get the better of his finance-driven plans. Local carpenters and craftsmen were brought in to restore whatever they could, including an old saloon where Butch Cassidy carved his name into the bar, a store, a bathhouse and a dancehall. Ranchers laboured over the complicated chinking between hand-hewn logs and a neighbouring farm donated a cabin, which was driven down the road on a pick-up truck, to thank Henkel for his conservation efforts. The result is a perfectly restored 1880s mining town, a scattering of huts surrounded by the epic San Juan Mountains. While cabins appear rustic and untouched on the outside, inside they are exquisitely furnished with salvaged antiques, roll-top tubs and wood-burning stoves.

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Alilia Yangshuo

Yangshuo, China

Buildings are a fundamental part of our social history and nowhere is this more precious than in China, where heritage is often erased without a second thought. Alila Yangshuo is the only restored sugar mill in south China, a lofty concrete structure that sits on the Li River which meanders through the dramatic karst mountains. Architect Dong Gong's ambitious design is littered with historical references. Bamboo installations depict local caves and traditional machinery, while hollow concrete blocks used throughout the exterior replicate the sugar-making process of the 1960s. With no mass production facility available, it took four men working for over a year to create the 60,000 blocks needed.

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Reserva Do Ibitipoca

Minas Gerais, Brazil

Reserva do Ibitipoca's hotel and lodges aren't only a nod to a historical preservation, they're a fundamental part of the area's future. Now owned by the local community, their back-to- nature ethos reflects Ibitipoca's slow way of life and pays 100 per cent back into the hands of locals. Originally built in 1715, the reserve's grand farmhouse, Fazenda do Engenho, had been left to ruin until local businessman Renato Machado bought the land. Over three years Fazenda was transformed into an eight- bedroom hotel using local knowledge and skills. By adhering to 18th-century building principles, Machado proved that modern isn't always best - high ceilings and multiple windows allow the wind to cool the house and remove the need for air-conditioning. The estate's craftsmanship has not only supported the local economy but also given a new lease of life to old skills. Machado likes to think of Ibitipoca as a living art gallery showcasing local talent - intricate woodwork celebrates Minas Gerais' wood- turning and carving tradition, authentic Mineirão art adorns the walls and even the paint was made using local mud.

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