Programmatic excess: On the making visible of waste infrastructure

Where does our waste go? For many this deceptively simple question cannot be properly answered. One primary reason being that, like most essential infrastructures, waste management infrastructure is largely hidden from view. Waste work is relegated to the margins of urban space, done by workers who are underpaid and often stigmatised as dirty. And while the popularity of zero-waste movements has induced a growing awareness regarding the production of waste, for most the actual management of waste remains out of sight, and consequently out of mind. With this visual and mental distance between waste management facilities and much of the public, waste management practices escape proper public scrutiny. This can oftentimes lead to the contamination of air, water, and soil, and can also add to the stigmatisation of waste workers. To address these issues therefore requires facing questions regarding visibility and proximity; questions which architects and other designers are accustomed to dealing with. 

In Mexico, at the edge of the Cancún Airport, a squat, grey cylinder sits amidst piles of scrap metal and other refuse. Designed by architect Rozana Montiel, the 6.5m wide building has a very particular purpose, as is evidenced by the spire-like chimney that emerges from its centre. At the base of the chimney is an incinerator which the building was built to house. Inside the building, an operator places solid waste into the flames of the incinerator, and the machine converts the waste into ash, gas, and heat. The building is one of seventeen incinerator stations located in national ports and airports throughout Mexico - located accordingly so that the waste can be processed where it is found. This waste comes from overseas, is of either animal or vegetal origin, and is considered to be a threat to Mexican biosecurity. Thinking about Montiel’s Habitable Station therefore invites reflection on how architecture approaches the management of inputs and outputs. To evaluate the impact of this building requires comparing it to other programmatically-rich waste treatment facilities, such as Bjarke Ingels’ CopenHill. Aside from both treating waste, what is common to these two buildings is that they far exceed the requirements of a typical waste facility. In the case of the Habitable Station, this is evident in the inclusion of components that exist for the exclusive use and benefit of the incinerator’s operator. While in the Copenhill, additional public facilities are included which are each based on leisure. Both buildings include and distribute program in novel ways in order to make waste visible. By analysing these two highly varied facilities, we can glean valuable insights into how enhancing the visibility of waste management can contribute to the welfare of the environment.

An incinerator building houses all the components necessary for treating and disposing of waste. What Montiel’s incinerator building does is complement those essential elements with elements specifically introduced for the benefit of the operator themselves. If in most buildings dedicated to mechanical services the presence of the worker is largely absent from view, here evidence of the operator is apparent from all angles. Distributed radially along the walls of each station are features including a desk, a toilet, a sink, and a freezer; as well as details such as coat hooks [1]. Compared with other waste treatment facilities, the relative amount of space dedicated to the worker in Montiel’s building is therefore very high. This makes the Habitable Station an agreeable place to spend time in - it allows the operator to be comfortable. They can inhabit the space in much the same way one would inhabit a house, right down to the mechanical hearth at the building’s centre. The only difference here being the lack of a bed.

Each waste facility like this which is built to include auxiliary amenities for workers has the potential to shift the public perception of waste work. Such a shift in how waste work is valued could allow the occupation to attract more capable workers, thereby enhancing how waste is treated and managed. Such a shift may also mean increased social mobility for waste workers (who currently experience very little social mobility). Yet in being beyond the view of the public, for the Habitable Stations to bring about a shift in public perception would require some form of media publicity.

If a desk appears somewhat out of place in an incinerator, it begs the question of what other programmatic combinations such a facility might inspire. One of the most novel answers to this question comes from Bjarke Ingels, whose own incinerator building combines a waste treatment facility with a dry ski slope. While 85 metres high mightn't be a remarkable size for a mountain, in Denmark, a country known for being particularly flat, Ingels’ mountain-shaped building, the CopenHill, is a definitive landmark. Along the length of its sloping roof runs a 400 metre green ski-slope, as well as hiking trails and ski lifts. The building features a glass lift, a cafe, a viewing platform, a ski rental shop, and the world’s tallest climbing wall. Beyond the large aluminium blocks that make up the facade of the building, the building’s interior contains Amager Resource Centre. It is the cleanliness of this state-of-the-art facility, claimed to be the world’s cleanest power station, which allows for this programmatic hybridisation. In associating this incinerator with fun and leisure, the building works to make waste approachable. The implication is that living with waste means living sustainably, and that such a mode of living can also be not only fun but dignified.

While both the Habitable Station and the Copenhill incorporate auxiliary programs, the two buildings differ starkly in both their cost and their context. At a cost of $670 million USD, the Copenhill building is the most expensive of its kind in Denmark, and one of the most expensive buildings in the country's history. It is owned by five municipalities [2], the citizens of which have footed a portion of its cost; with another portion covered by renting out the ski slope to a private company. Of the 440,000 tons of waste burned in the facility, 30,000 tons of it are imported from the U.K.[3].For if the facility did not burn this imported waste, it would operate at a loss [4]; with Brexit looming however, whether or not Denmark will continue to import British waste remains uncertain. Overall, the solid waste incinerated at Copenhill provides enough electricity to power 30,000 homes, and to heat 72,000. The country also has a relatively low amount of landfill, with much of the domestic waste being either recycled or incinerated and converted to energy. Conversely, in Mexico - a country that generates 40 million tonnes of rubbish per year, only 15 percent of that waste is recycled  [5]. While the expansive and centralised CopenHill facility was funded by the geographically-small welfare state of Denmark, the distributed and minor Habitable Station was funded by the large federal state of Mexico.

Inextricably linked to differences in funding and in types of waste processed, the two buildings also differ in their levels of visibility. If at the Habitable Station dealing with waste is a quotidien exercise, at the Copenhill the treatment of waste becomes a spectacle. While it was never realised, the initial design for the CopenHill included a chimney that would send out a smoke-ring for every ton of CO2 burned in the plant. Even without such an addition, the building works to turn waste not only into energy and heating, but also into celebration. In mixing the treatment of waste with fun, the CopenHill perfectly exemplifies Ingels’ concept of ‘hedonistic sustainability’; the idea that instead of being perceived as a compromised or constrained way of life, that living sustainably could instead be the most desirable, even fun alternative. You can have your comfortable lifestyle and have your healthy planet too, so says Ingels. What is at stake here is a question of severity; with what gravity are the issues of ecological and climate destruction best addressed? Presumably hedonistic sustainability is better than no sustainability, and yet to presume that environmental collapse can be mitigated without radically altering our consumptive lifestyles may be flawed logic. Some approaches to sustainability feel paternalistic, some rely on inducing guilt at an individual level; and in opposition to these, the notion of hedonistic sustainability is encouraging - it is a tool that can assist in the struggle to protect the environment. Because it claims that there is no need to radically alter our existent behaviours, such an approach will invariably make more people interested in sustainability. Yet for many this reasoning makes such an approach woefully inadequate; presumably the changes required to meet the challenge of dampen environmental devastation will in fact be not only weighty and momentous, but also utterly complex [6]. What is clear however, is that buildings like the CopenHill offer an encouragement to consider sustainability for people that may not otherwise. Bringing waste into the proximity of urban dwellers has a clear impact on the urban configuration of the city, and it encourages a greater awareness of waste; in Copenhagen there are residents living 200 metres away from the Copenhill [7]. Getting everyone involved in thinking about pollution is vital to the success of any concerted effort to intervene in the degradation of our environment.

If Montiel’s incinerator dignifies waste work, the CopenHill glorifies it. The very existence of a building like this says these workers are important, their work is valued. Yet at the same time as the CopenHill brings the phenomenon of waste management closer to the public, this glorification of labour conceals the workers - it makes the work itself more distant, even mystical. Ingels calls the building a ‘cathedral of waste-to-energy’[8]; as paying visitors ascend the glass lift they are shown an expansive interior replete with sleek machines - an interior in which the workers themselves are absent from view. Conversely, in Montiel’s incinerators the presence of labour is constant, however due to their placement on the edges of airports and train stations - here the labour of waste work also remains out of public view. Where Ingels’ incinerator tends toward the singular and monumental, Montiel’s is contained, unassuming, and approachable. Rather than being dichotomous however, these two waste facilities both offer valuable lessons in how the configuration of architecture can mitigate the degradation of the environment.

If bringing together a waste treatment facility with a leisure centre is an act of incorporation and centralisation, in the case of Montiel’s Habitable Stations, the construction of seventeen individual incinerator buildings is a gesture of decentralisation and distribution. In being compact and constructed of ready-made parts, these buildings lend themselves to being repeated, and can be erected in a matter of weeks. They also feature novel ribbed concrete panels which are designed to require minimal maintenance [9]. The buildings are powerful in their accrued impact; powerful as an extensive network. Because each repeated node is of the same form, each can take on the same level of importance within the network. This act of distribution also avoids the need for large, costly, plots of land. Such a configuration raises questions about models of distributed buildings (i.e. if a building isn’t being used for 24 hours a day, what alternative configurations of use could be developed?). Each building was built to be used by only one person, and yet each is integrated into a national waste management system. Existing as it does within a network, the Habitable Station is predicated on an outside, on the flow of inputs and outputs: in comes solid waste, out goes ash, gas, and heat.

In explaining the logic of the name Habitable Station, Montiel says the following: “The term station evokes the replicability and tidiness of a spacelab, and the logistical movement around a train station.”[10] The scale of the building also requires every element to be highly functional - each minor component is arranged in an exacting manner. By referencing space stations Montiel places the project in conceptual proximity to other closed loop, hermetically sealed architectural environments. Whereas the reference to logistics draws attention to the project of waste management being centrally concerned with the optimisation of flows - with the organising of material trajectories. According to such conceptions buildings are both embedded within systems, and are systems in themselves. The circular form of the station adds to this sense of a singular, closed loop project [11]. As does the nature of the very waste that the building disposes of. When organic matter comes from abroad which the authorities consider as posing a risk to “the health of the Mexican countryside at risk", it is brought to the Habitable Station to be burned [12]. In this sense, each Habitable Station contributes to an ongoing effort to configure the entire country as a closed-loop system. In such systems, inputs become outputs and vice versa. Thinking about architecture in such terms entails minimising waste and enhancing the performance of our various infrastructural networks.

This engagement with an outside must be considered in parallel with Montiel’s broader body of work - an oeuvre which exhibits a clear dedication to the value of operating collectively. Montiel designs architecture that produces some benefit for a given public - yet in this instance the public which she is addressing is difficult to discern. How can this be a socially-minded project if there is no apparent society with which the building engages? The building undermines this question by producing its own community; one composed of the incinerator and its operator. That Montiel put such work into a project like this is telling. This is not something fancy - this is not an infrastructure for public use. The people who this project directly impacts are the incinerator operators. What is vital however, is to recognise in every ostensibly closed-loop system, a system which is invariably contingent on broader environments. The Habitable Station is designed to facilitate a piece of technology. The incinerator is situated at the core of the building; it is the central point around which each other component is arrayed. And yet the presence and the dignity of the operator is in no way eclipsed by this machine. This involves not a diminution of the incinerator, but an elevation of the worker - such that here their labour is of equivalent importance as that of the machine. That the requirements of the operator are accounted for - that there is a freezer, a toilet, a sink, somewhere to hang jackets - each of these minor additions works to create an environment in which the operator can feel dignity in their work. Thinking about the feasibility of closed-loop systems means considering architecture and its relationship to waste management in ecological terms; yet understanding waste systems as open and contingent is essential if we are to recognise our own embeddedness within these systems. Design cultures valorise the innovative at the expense of a consideration of maintenance and waste, yet thinking through the Habitable Station and the Copenhill invites a revaluation of these often-discarded themes.

Both buildings show far more care for people than is typical of such a facility, and both present novel visions for what programs might be considered within the remit of a waste facility. To better manage waste doesn’t mean choosing between implementing either extensive, even planetary-scale strategies - or detailed, localised ones; both approaches are undoubtedly necessary. And both enhance the visibility of waste. The longer that our waste - and any evidence of its processing - remains hidden from view, the longer it will take for us to stem the ever-increasing rate of waste production. Conversely, if methods such as those used in the Habitable Station and the CopenHill are used to make waste work more visible in other contexts, then surely a greater consideration of processes of waste production would ensue. Designing waste management infrastructure gives architects and other specialists an opportunity to reorient how a given public relates to waste, and thus to their environment at large.

[1] Other components include electronic scales, a ladder, fire extinguisher, collection trolley, a rack, an emergency cabinet, signage (warnings), emergency generator, gas tank, extractor fans.

[2]  Gurzu, Anca, ‘Not enough’s rotten in the state of Denmark,’ 9 September 2019, Politico: https://www.politico.eu/article/denmark-garbage-gamble-amager-bakke-plant-waste/ (Dragør, Frederiksberg, Hvidovre, Copenhagen and Tårnby)

[3] Wittrup, S. Ingenøren, 12 August 2016. Available at: ing.dk/artikel/miljoeorganisation-affaldsimport-amager-bakke-kan-aldrig-blive-gevinst-klimaet-186002?fbclid=IwAR0zIbgKMfhfMs-KQbhPDPdfYR7sCUUoN8WsgyrnLZUtBmHwZ2UIyfVv4JA

[4] Gurzu, Anca

[5] Godoy, Emilio, ‘The waste mountain engulfing Mexico City,’ 9 January 2012, The Guardian:

[6] Ingels is currently developing Masterplanet - ‘a plan to redesign Earth and stop climate change’. Such a plan implies an eagerness to engage with the planet as something reducible and approachable:

[7] Gurzu, Anna

[8] Youtube, ‘Inside CopenHill: The clean energy plant with its own ski slope’, WIRED UK, 8 January 2020: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pOqocj2h6EM&ab_channel=WIREDUK

[9] Waste work is maintenance work. It must be repeated each day, and it is often overlooked. Further discussion on maintenance and waste work here:

[10] Rozana Montiel talk, UVA School of Architecture, accessed 18 October, 2020 https://youtu.be/TFcseXxzwW0?t=1765

[11] Further discussion of closed loop systems in architecture can be found in Lydia Kallipoliti’s 2018 book ‘The Architecture of Closed Worlds: Or, What Is the Power of Shit?’

[12] Rozana Montiel Studio, ‘Rozana Montiel builds Mexican incinerators from corrugated-concrete’, Dezeen, 16 April 2020, accessed here: https://www.dezeen.com/2020/04/16/habitable-station-corrugated-concrete-rozana-montiel-mexico/

Incinerator Station, Rozana Montiel, 17 Mexican ports and airports 
(from Rozana Montiel)

CopenHill (Amager Bakke), Bjarke Ingels Group, opened 2017
(Photo by Hufton & Crow)

CopenHill (Amager Bakke), Bjarke Ingels Group, opened 2017
(Photo by Hufton & Crow)

Habitable Station and constituent components (drawing by Rozana Montiel Studio)

Prefabricated building components made of special folded concrete (Photo: Rozana Montiel Studio)

Incinerator operator shown placing waste into the machine
(from Estacion Incineradora video: https://vimeo.com/248803753)

The station sat amongst sand and refuse at the edge of a Mexican airport
(Photo: Rozana Montiel Studio)