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.
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.
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