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INSIGHT: Save What's Left: Architects as Stewards of Our Planet

We need to develop a new design culture of responsibility, one that seeks in every instance to do as little damage as possible to natural systems.

By Peter Gisolfi, AIA, ASLA, LEED AP
August 18, 2010


A brief essay that addresses architecture’s past and future can be grounded by starting with basic data. In the year 1 A.D., there were about 300 million human beings on earth. By 1800, world population had increased to 1 billion people, and 127 years later, in 1927, it had doubled to 2 billion. By 1950, the population had increased to 2.5 billion, and by 1960, to 3 billion. Only 40 years later, in 2000, the world population had doubled again, to 6 billion. By 2005, it was 6.5 billion, and it is now approaching 7 billion people.

 

Unlimited degradation of the natural environment is what we expect as a matter of course. We have stimulated a new wave of climate change, which may yet prove to be disastrous. Finally, because of insane government subsidies, we are unreasonably dependent on fossil fuels and all the environmental calamities associated with their extraction and consumption.

 

Within the global context, the United States is a major player. Although only 4.3% of the world population lives in our country, we consume approximately 21% of the world’s energy. Anything we do to reduce our profligacy would be disproportionately beneficial to the entire world. Meanwhile, we are constantly developing land, often destroying our best agricultural soils, and spending precious resources to fertilize and irrigate marginal agricultural sites to meet our expanding needs. It is our national policy to subsidize oil and fight endless wars to protect the flow of that oil. We irrevocably damage the environment by extracting and consuming fossil fuels. As a nation, whether governed by Republicans or Democrats, we seem to agree to unchecked federal spending, funded by loans from China, while importing debris from Asia without ever counting the cost of disposing of it when we grow tired of the excess.

 

Are designers culpable?

 

How do the design professions fit into this puzzle? In the not-so-distant past, architecture was predominately a regional endeavor. Buildings looked different in different parts of the world because they were built of materials natural to their regions, serving local human activities that were situated in unique climatic and geographic settings. Architects and other designers would learn their own traditions, plan settlements, and build accordingly.

 

It cannot be denied that there were international movements, such as the publication of Palladio’s Four Books on Architecture or the spread of Greco-Roman architectural prototypes around Europe and the Mediterranean basin. But the everyday practice of designing and constructing buildings was predominately regional and adaptive.

 

What has changed? In the second half of the 20th century, architecture became an international endeavor. It shifted from a regional, practical art to a more sculptural “high art.” As part of this development, the architectural profession increasingly endorsed a creed of individuality, originality, and self-expression. This sense of individual expression has proved to be mostly an illusion. Very often it appears, instead, to be a slavish devotion to current fashion. Architectural style is as change-agile as the difference between bell-bottom trousers and straight-legged jeans, as different as button-down shirts and straight collars. In the last 60 years, we have systematically rejected regionalism in favor of internationalism and fashion.

 

In our country, where we consume 21% of the energy of the world, we are told that 43% of that energy is used for heating, cooling, and constructing buildings. Thus, we in the design professions are part of a national problem and, indeed, a global problem. Sadly, the thrust of our education as architects is hagiographic. We are taught that individual architects who find unique ways to express themselves are heroic. Perhaps titanium is the material that must sheathe buildings in every region and in every climate no matter what the cost of the material and no matter what the cost of operating the buildings.

 

The future is stewardship

 

Is there another choice? Yes there is. The first inclination must be toward stewardship – the careful utilization of the resources we have in order to assure that they will be renewed and present for generations to come. We need to develop a new design culture of responsibility, one that seeks in every instance to do as little damage as possible to natural systems, and seeks to stabilize and improve them to the greatest possible extent. A valid critique of the popular LEED process is that it focuses too much on individual buildings and may lead to bureaucratically-enforced, cookie-cutter solutions. It also substantially ignores the most fundamental task of architecture, landscape architecture, and urbanism – the design of the patterns of settlement, which are even more important than the design of individual buildings.

 

If we become environmentally responsible stewards, then we will develop and invent a new regional architecture that is adapted to the natural environment. Historically, this type of practice always existed. The New England frame house, the Pueblo of the Southwest, and the raised wooden house of the Seminole were completely different, as were the patterns of settlement in which each of these prototypes was situated.

 

I am not arguing for mindless, indigenous architecture and the elimination of the architectural profession; I am arguing for a new adaptive architecture that clearly understands its regional setting. Our simple goals could be to reduce the consumption of energy in the building sector by 50% in the next 15 years, and then achieve energy neutrality in the built environment 10 years later. These achievements might be analogous to the Manhattan Project or to landing on the moon before the Soviets. The new focus on regionalism and energy conservation would be accompanied by a new attitude toward nature and the landscape, an attitude that seeks to conserve and reintroduce native species and native landscapes.

 

How can we make this change? Sadly, part of it must come from government action, because the deck is so stacked for the fossil fuel and nuclear energy industries that we cannot turn it around without significant legislative changes. Our federal tax code is the great motivator in our society. At both the federal and state levels, changes must be made to motivate us to alter our behavior, just as the bludgeon of federal authority has been used to bring us to the place we are today – a country of interstate highways, cheap gasoline, suburban sprawl, inadequate railroads, and irrigated, chemically fertilized, and remotely located industrialized agriculture. None of this happened without “big government,” and not much will change without some legislative intervention. But as architects, we will probably not be the major form givers to new legislation. That seems to be the purview of the political class.

 

Final thoughts

 

Our achievable task is to change ourselves. This can happen first through education. Emphatically, we must free ourselves of the clichés of the last 60 years. We need new heroes and new altars at which to worship. The path to an environmentally conscious and regionally appropriate way of designing must infuse every aspect of our pedagogy and curriculum, both for student architects and the profession at large.

 

We should have a lively, healthy, and, if necessary, acrimonious debate about these topics. Perhaps the phrase “signature building” may disappear from our vocabulary. Above all else, we must embrace an environmental ethic. Aldo Leopold stated this perceptively nearly 100 years ago: “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

 

When I visit new places, I evaluate the society by what they have built. This is a common way to see other civilizations. Architecture is too important to be left to individual fashion statements. Architecture is a fundamentally practical endeavor, which is responsible for its actions to the entire ecosystem. I preach for a higher value for architecture, not the diminished value of the second half of the 20th century. Sixty years of internationalism and fashion have lessened the stature, the seriousness, and the importance of architecture. But we can put this past behind us, and not be limited by this narrow point of view. We should reestablish a wider and more holistic point of view. Through technological innovation, we can invent better photovoltaic collectors and bigger and more efficient wind farms; but these are not architectural solutions. As architects, we must understand the Pueblo and the Seminole house and countless other adaptive responses so that in the future we will design and build adaptive settlements, and transform the built environment in new and creative ways.

 

We are not the first generation of human beings to bemoan the destruction of our environment. Read the words of Pliny the Elder 1,900 years ago from his Naturalis Historia, one of the first naturalist encyclopedias: “...in regard to nature’s elements, we have no gratitude...She is flung into the sea or dug away to allow us to let in the channels. Water, iron, wood, fire, stone, growing crops are employed to torture her at all hours, and much more to make her minister to our luxuries and our sustenance.” He was worried when the world population was only 300 million.

 

 

Peter Gisolfi is senior partner of Peter Gisolfi Associates, a firm of architects and landscape architects in Hastings-On-Hudson, NY, and New Haven, CT. He is chairman of the Spitzer School of Architecture at the City College of New York, and author of the book, Finding the Place of Architecture in the Landscape. He can be reached at pgisolfi@petergisolfiassociates.com.

 



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