In a recent Op-Ed for the design magazine Domus Florian Idenburg, of the New York based architecture practice SO-IL, speculated on ‘architecture’s radical responsibilities’. Suggesting that if architects were truly committed to sustainability they should abstain from building altogether, Idenburg spoke to the fundamental conflict within the field of ‘sustainable design’. In practice, sustainability appears to have become nothing more that another tick-box that architects have to achieve in the technical requirements and planning obligations for their buildings, and Greeniness – as Idenburg put it – has become a mere marketing device.

SO−IL’s own ‘green’ project - ‘Sunnyside Up!’ - A green roof sales and education center in New York. © SO−IL

For those of us who are truly serious about the issues of sustainability, how best should they be expressed in our work? Is it through seeking the ultimate ‘green building’, with all the contradictions that implies, or is the radical approach truly an abstinence from building entirely? Should we be pursuing a kind of architectural celibacy, and actively looking for ways not to build?

Of course there is inherent truth in this argument, for every act of creation embodies an equal and opposite act of destruction – a reality that is all too frequently overlooked -, and we should therefore be very selective as to what we build, and what we choose to destroy. The abrupt ceasing of all construction however, and the economic stagnation that would inevitably follow, would not in itself create sustainment, far from it.

There is a bigger problem with Idenburg’s provocation though, that is that abstinence from building, like abstinence-only sex education, will never work. Buildings, like sex, will always happen. Far better to do both responsibly.

This leads us back to the original question, what is the responsibility of the architect? For Idenburg, and indeed for many in the profession, our primary obligation is in the crafting of space, based on the belief that we are shaped by the spaces we inhabit. This is certainly true, and the creation of buildings and spaces that delight and inspire is fundamental to the idea of architecture; such places can instill pride in those that inhabit and use them, the importance of which cannot be underestimated in the consideration of social sustainability.

Crafting Space: SO-IL's plans for a Concert Hall in Poland, a Wedding Chapel in China, and a Museum in the Netherlands. © SO−IL

This was not Idenburg’s argument however, which instead was premised on the apparent ‘revolutionary progress made in the neurosciences’:

“Once we can provide ‘scientific’ proof of the actual behavior of brain and body in our built environment; once designed space can have ‘a measurable effect’ on the wellbeing of the inhabitants of this planet, there will be a real scope of work within our field, and a real responsibility for the architect.”

Forgive me, but that sounds like a designer desperately seeking justification for his forms.

Idenburg effectively dismisses the architects responsibility for sustainable development by claiming that “architecture simply does not operate on a level in which it can make – or even trigger – the changes that are needed to sustain this planet”. With buildings responsible for an estimated 30-40% of global carbon emissions, and construction accountable for around 24% of all raw materials extracted from the ground, this seems a fundamentally flawed assumption.

Buildings do not exist in isolation: their construction, use, and dismantling ties them into a complex ecosystem of environment, economics, and society; they are embedded within great infrastructural networks – energy, water, waste, communications, and transportation; they form our cities, change our landscapes, and define the way we live our lives. Architecture has to be conceived in this broadest sense, and it is only through this larger understanding and acknowledgement of what we do and the impact we have, that we will be able to achieve fundamental long-term sustainability. If we limit ourselves to the crafting of space, and the creation of beautiful forms, we condemn the architectural profession to irrelevance.

© Thomas Stoney Bryans 2011

About Thomas Stoney Bryans
Thomas Stoney Bryans received his M.A. in Architectural Design with First-class honours from the University of Edinburgh in 2006, and his M.Arch from the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University in 2010. He has worked for numerous practices worldwide including UN Studio in Amsterdam, Simon Conder Associates in London, and Heneghan Peng Architects in Dublin. His main research interests include large-scale questions of sustainability such as energy, transportation, food, and water, and how these issues are affected by and impact upon the way we live, and the buildings and cities we live in.

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3 Comments
  1. With such a high percentage of both raw material consumption and carbon emissions produced from the construction industry globally it only makes sense to include sustainability as high on the agenda for all architects. Whilst Idenburg makes a flawed argument I agree that most development has too much of an impact on the environment and often it would be far more sustainable to have not created them in the first place.

    All buildings should be designed to act as passively as practically possible and perhaps this should be the starting point for technical merit.

    Far too often codes and standards have become checklists that do not effectively reflect true sustainablulity

  2. Quantification of sustainability is difficult; after all who is the judge? How can one aspect of sustainability be judged against another? What is the value of an architect’s spatial vision compared to the size of the contractors profit and how is this profit judged against the cost to the earth. Planning lawyers constantly argue the value of sustainability. Perhaps it is them to which we should turn to lead the way. Has this not been demonstrated in the courts?

    Until all principles can be measured and equated there will be no definitive balance or understanding of the intrinsic interrelationship sustainability principles have. In the meantime we will all lobby for a different party, the architects ego, the cultural boost to the community, the developers wallet and the jobs created and of course Mother Nature’s plea. If we are waiting to unravel the mysteries of neuro-science to measure the benefits of some vain quest for architectural beauty before deciding to tackle ecological sustainability issues we only add to the debt that positive social and economic borrowing already owe to the environment.

    In my opinion all buildings should be designed to act as passively as practically possible and it is only a matter of time before this will have to be the starting point for future technical compliance. Material selection will be of utmost importance, with the sourcing of local building materials and the reuse of existing materials as important factors. The art will be to create spaces that have sustainability at the core of the design philosophy and not as an afterthought, whilst still enhancing the everyday lives of the people who inhabit this space.

  3. Great article and it touches a sensitive subject: the wider responsibility of the architect towards society and the environment.

    I think it is a case of “if you can not beat them, join them”; abstinence from building cannot be the solution. Offering leadership and skills for sustainable building is a much better way forward. The role of the architect is evolving, embracing sustainability is an opportunity as well as responsibility.

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