Sustainability is Killing Creativity

Austin Williams | 27 May 2008

The commonplace assumption underlying even the most anodyne sustainability discussion is that human activity causes harm and should, in some way, be reined in to suit whatever nature’s limits will allow. If our starting point is that increased human activity is inherently detrimental, then architects are simply in the position of damage limitation. 

How can architecture possibly maintain the illusion of genuine creativity if it refuses to challenge this widespread cultural malaise? For example, last year, the Housing Design Awards introduced a FutureProofing Award that implies that we all have to protect ourselves from what lies ahead, as if, whatever it is, it’s bound to be bad.

If we define ‘creativity’ in terms of minimal impact survivalism, then Developing World shanty dwellers are wonderfully creative with tarpaulin and string. But actually coping strategies are nothing to celebrate or emulate. Transforming nature – and social barriers – as opposed to accepting so-called environmental parameters, is what meaningful architectural creativity should be about.

The mantra “Less is more” has gone from being a defining moment in Modernist thought – to being the unquestioned orthodoxy of our environmental age. Unfortunately, in so doing, its progressive content has been stripped away.

In the past, efficiency was meant to encourage us to design creatively in order to – as Buckminster Fuller implied – do more and more and more. Nowadays, environmental efficiency states that using ‘less’ is simply an end in itself; and wanting ‘more’ is irresponsible and sustainability is nothing more than a moral injunction for restraint.

Sustainability takes Thorsten Veblen’s 1914 ironic maxim ‘invention is the mother of necessity’ to legitimate its credo against conspicuous consumption and growing materialism. After all, in today’s world, inventing more only makes us want more and that is deemed to be irresponsible. The motto for today, proudly rammed down our throats by the sustainability industry, is that ‘less is good for you’.

This contemporary framework of restraint places restrictions on ambitions, not just on the palette of materials that architects are expected to use to realise those ambitions. As such, architecture, amongst other creative professions, has simply become little more than a carbon spreadsheet.

My point is that under the moral orthodoxy of restraint, it is fair to say that we can still be creative – in the same way that chain gangs still manage to sing the blues beautifully – but the essence of a freedom, beyond imagination, is lost.

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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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