Sustainability vs. Architecture




angkor wat view

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

This building was built for Lord Vishnu – The Preserver.

You hear a lot about sustainability in architecture and “green” design. Sustainability has become a holy word in urban design and architecture circles. If you wanted to build something in the 1960s, you talked about Progress. If you want to build something in the 1970s or 80s you talked about Community and Diversity. If you want to build something today, invoke the goddess Sustainability.

The problem of course, is that “building something” is inherently unsustainable. Fixing something, improving something is sustainable. The idea that you could demolish a house built before 1950 and replace it with a more sustainable, greener house is either insane or infantile.

Each year in this country we demolish and discard 1,700,000,000 square feet of buildings. That’s 1.7 billion square feet, or 425 Sears Towers. One-third of all of the landfills in the United States is old buildings. Disposable diapers got nothing on demolition refuse. Anyone who tells you they can raze your house and build a greener one isn’t counting the carbon footprint of the demolition itself and where that stuff ends up.

In the early 1960s they celebrated the joys of demolition and the attendant virtues of slum clearance. One of the benefits cited was the productive life demolished buildings would serve in much-needed landfills.

I don’t think that is our view of landfills anymore. They certainly aren’t part of the worship practice for the goddess Sustainability. But the problem is everything we do is framed by an economic system that rewards waste and innovation.

Innovation is Good. Waste is Bad. But you can’t separate them out in the current system – they are interdependent and integral, like Harihara.

Architecture has always (or at least since the Renaissance) defined itself as newness, as innovation. This moves products off the shelves, which is good for the economy. It also has occasionally given architects the devaraja complex. This is aided by our metaphysics, which also (since the Renaissance) has given those who design something new the role of historical agents. In order to DO something, you must CREATE something from nothing. Unlike the Hindu leitmotif herein, there is no role for the preserver, only the destroyer and creator.

You think architecture doesn’t dwell in devaraja complexes? Here is a great quote from Irving K. Pond, a Chicago architect of 1920:

“Among the first to impress upon insensate matter, or materials of the earth earthy, the god within man, was the architect. Probably he was the first to symbolize or interpret social consciousness, the abstract social idealism, in material substance; the first to breathe the breath of life into material forms, holding up to humanity a mirror of its ideals, longings, and aspirations.”

No small brief that. The problem with this godlike formulation is that it ain’t sustainable. Building something new is always less sustainable than fixing something old. The architects know that – 70% of their billable hours are in existing buildings. But don’t tell the economy….

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