Interview: Oulu's Designer, Evangeline Dennie

Named for the cultural epicenter of northern Finland, Oulu adds a shock of green to Williamsburg's bricks and asphalt. Unlike the other bars in the torrent that's hit the neighborhood, Oulu features a living facade and a thoroughly green design. I caught up with Evangeline Dennie, the woman behind Oulu's unique look, and we spoke about design, materials, and the therapeutic possibilities of architecture.

TreeHugger: What other projects have you worked on recently? How is Oulu different?

Evangeline Dennie: One of my most recent and significant projects was to design the interim memorial at Ground Zero, called the Tribute Center. I was hired by the architecture firm of record (BKSK) to be an in-house architecture design consultant. I was given the amazing opportunity to conceive the design concept and layout, which was eventually built in 2006. Meanwhile, I documented hundreds of artifacts recovered from the WTC site through sketches and photos for potential use in the interior space. I also proposed layouts for 3,000+ names of the victims who perished. I wrote minutes for 10+ meetings to develop its mission statement and guiding principles for the 9/11 Victims and Families Association. It was like architectural therapy for everyone at the table, myself included.

As far as greening Tribute, I coordinated the product specs to ensure all the finishes and particle board had low-VOC content and materials had recycled content. I initially did a LEED evaluation of the project, but it was turned down due to budgetary constraints.

Both Tribute and Oulu include green products, but their main similarity is that I put my heart into them. So ultimately the designs reflected my values and the goals of the project. They have quite different programs, with one being a non-profit, and the other being what I like to call an "eco-lounge", but both are very provocative in clearly different ways.


TH: What story are you trying to tell with Oulu's design? What inspired you to clad the facade in a vertical garden?

ED: The design reconceptualizes space using forms inspired by the natural landscape of Oulu's namesake in Finland. The finished woodwork of the walls and seating took its cues from the patterns that emerge from the bark of a birch tree with thin panels of wood that peel away from the wall. The tables start near the ceiling and curve out, cantilevering over the floor. Each wall-height curve defines programmatic space with the DJ elevated above in the interstitial space.

The wood was harvested from forests certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. Almost all of the construction materials had high recycled content. Almost all the construction waste was recycled. The interior finishes had low-VOC, including the silver milk-paint in the ceiling. The green wall was nearly everyone's favorite due to its aesthetic value.

In my humble opinion, the green wall was a brilliant response to the industrial landscape of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It was clear that this would become a welcome addition to the neighborhood. And judging by the double-take from nearly every hipster that walks by, it is a success.

The green wall helps combat global warming and filter air by absorbing and converting carbon dioxide to produce oxygen. Just 1.5 square meters of the grass-like vegetation produces enough oxygen in a year to supply one person's yearly oxygen intake needs. When translating that info to this project, Oulu's green wall will conceivably produce enough oxygen for 46 people a year!

Personally, the idea originated a few years ago after reading a story about a decaying fictional city overtaken by trees and vines. Imagine such a sublime way to restore our cities' lost natural habitat and hydrological processes. As designers, it's imperative that we find ways to work in harmony with nature, otherwise we will be left in the dust, so to speak. I envision an era when entire cities will be covered in green walls and roofs, instead of brick and stone. I thought that was too ambitious an idea until I learned about the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris. Viola! After some research to find an installer, the green wall at Oulu became a reality.


TH: Has sustainability always been central to your approach to architecture? Was there a moment when you realized its importance?

ED: Sustainability has always been central to my approach in architecture. My appreciation for nature began when I used to play for endless hours in the woods near my suburban home. When the wind blew, I used to think that God was speaking through the trees. I was struck when I learned about the shortage of fossil fuel and other natural resources in middle school. I was only 12 years old, and thought, 'Wow, this is the most important problem in the world." That conviction never escaped me. When we studied environmental systems in architecture school, I tried to apply the principles I learned in most my studio projects.

The opportunity to implement green design in real projects came from my mentor, Hillary Brown, whom I worked with for over two and half years. She is one of the main contributors to transforming New York City to the Big Green Apple. Together, we co-authored two High Performance Building Guidelines, one for K-12 schools and the other for college campuses. We facilitated green charrettes for the architects, engineers, landscape architects, and contractors at each design submission for 10+ new and renovated schools in New Haven, CT. We also made a film about the green building process for non-profits.

I hope to design more ecologically-inspired architecture, as well as teach others how to do the same. My goal is to change the world through green design. Like Einstein said, "The world we have made as a result of the level of the thinking we have done thus far creates problems that we cannot solve at the same level at which we have created them. . . We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if humankind is to survive."

Oulu is located at 170 N 4th Street, Brooklyn, NY

Tags: Brooklyn

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