London Property Review

Austin Williams | 14 October 2007

The architects of David Cameron’s so-called eco-house predict that ‘sustainability will be the critical word in architecture over the next 20 years.’ This is undoubtedly true. The problem is that sustainability is actually going to be the death of architecture. 

The editor of Environmental Building News is currently promoting the idea of ‘Passive Survivability’; Nick Rosen, author of ‘How to Live Off-Grid’ demands the right to live without mains water and electricity. And the puritanical George Monbiot, hopes that his book will ‘make people so depressed about the state of the planet that they stay in bed all day, thereby reducing their consumption of fossil fuels’. The commonplace assumption underlying even the most anodyne discussions about the world today is that human activity causes harm and should be reined in, in some way. Professor John Gray compares humanity to ‘slime mould’; while that kindly old James Lovelock, complains that the world is suffering a ‘plague of people.’ Nowadays, sustainability is a dinner-party euphemism for Malthusianism.

But with half the world’s population living in cities, where is the sense of exhilaration in the creative urbanisation of a planet for six, seven or eight billion people, and more? Such a moment in history demands maximum engagement, but architecture has become paralysed in its acceptance of the orthodoxy that humanity is the problem and nature is sacrosanct. Nowhere is this paralysis better exemplified than New Orleans, were the urgency of rebuilding a new city is held back by doubts about the legitimacy in building near ‘fragile areas’ at all… while, two years on, displaced residents continue to live in trailer parks.

It is sustainability’s implicit and explicit demand for restraint that is the problem, as architects seem content to simply regurgitate government edicts on sustainable communities, sustainable travel or some other official sustainability piffle. The former president of the World Green Building Council suggests, for example, that we’ll gain contemporary insights by reading ‘a forthcoming book on ancient Indian construction methods.’ Unfortunately, bamboo and bullshit aren’t going to meet the needs of a modern Indian economy, let alone the requirements of the developed world.

This green mire that architecture finds itself in today can only get worse unless it begins to break free of the low aspirational, sanctimonious, petty-minded, misanthropic, miserablism that sustainability represents. As Rem Koolhaas says, ‘confidence is completely absent’ amongst architects, but only a few dare advocate ‘development’ – without prefixes – as a way out. As a result, architecture finds itself hiding behind climate chaos and community consensus. Where once architects revelled in stamping their vision on the world, now they make excuses for their footprint.

Too many have signed up to the Faustian (or is it, Orwellian) pact which says that ‘sustainable architecture’ is unquestionably good; and ‘good architecture’ is sustainable. From this supine formulation, value judgements about the credentials of architecture need only be justified against the latest sustainability indicator; benchmarked against an energy reduction target; or self-audited against one of the hundreds of spurious ecological indices. With tick boxes, who needs creative tension? If you’re lucky, aesthetics is the bit on the side.

Just because buildings are blamed for carbon emissions, architects have polarised into either guilt-ridden apologists or eco-zealots. But there are no free-thinking critics. And so, ironically, at the very time that it is enjoying a resurgence in the media and in popular opinion, architecture has managed to reduce itself an impact assessment and a carbon calculator. It’s about time that the profession stopped celebrating the need for natural limits and rediscovered their critical faculties and creative ambitions. Unless they put humans first, meaningful architecture is doomed.


Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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