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Tony Watkins

 ~ Vernacular Design 

Environmental Movement Journey Print E-mail

ImageAnyone wishing to develop "carbon-neutral" built-environment strategies needs to understand a little of the recent history of the modern environmental movement.


Stockholm 1972 was the time of the "technical fix".
When the first United Nations global conference on the Environment was held in Stockholm in 1972 critical concerns were escalating global pollution and the need for every human being to have access to diminishing supplies of potable water. At that time it was felt that science held the answers to every problem. If you could design a miracle filter for each smokestack, or purify every polluted water source, then your difficulties would be over.
Environmentalists moved quickly from this position, realising that putting bandages over symptoms is little more than an excuse for avoiding the more difficult consideration of the causes of the problem.
However thirty five years later many architects and others who hold power over our built environment have still not moved on from the "technical fix" position. They feel, for example, that double glazing or insulation will reduce the energy demands of buildings and that this is what "green architecture" is all about. Architects want to know which "solutions" will make it possible to carry on with business-as-usual.
In response to this demand a "technical fix" industry has developed. Climate change has become just another marketing tool for selling product. The consumer society has not only comfortably managed the transition into a "green" world. It has also been rescued just when it seemed to be under threat by concerns about waste, congestion, or life-style delivery failure.
The idea of a consumer society driven by idealism is new and it has been welcomed by everyone in the construction industry.
Unfortunately "technical fixes" fail to address the causes of climate change. That requires more fundamental changes to the way we go about building.
Habitat I in Vancouver in 1976 explored the possibilities of "built-environment democracy".
A cycle of United Nations global conferences followed Stockholm 1972, looking at specific issues, such as population and human rights, which were going to have a major impact on our environment, but which could have de-railed the initial conference. This cycle culminated in Habitat I in Vancouver, which asked how all the theory developed over the previous five years would impact on the built-environment.
Governments gathered in downtown Vancouver to discuss the architectural and urban design issues. They assumed of course that there would be no change to the existing hierarchical political world order, which in its turn was manifested in the physical form of our cities. Power structures are not normally changed by those who hold power.
Meanwhile the message went out to NGOs (Non Government Organisations) converging on Jericho Beach for a parallel meeting of those who did not hold any power to bring chain saws. There was no shortage of building materials as an endless supply of logs wash up on Canadian beaches. Very soon the NGOs had built a village. They were not entirely alone as the Canadian government had also built examples of new architectural initiatives in the same location. Jericho Beach was concerned with doing rather than talking.
Architects love building. Once, of course, everyone loved building, but slowly the building process had been taken away from them. Everyone in a Medieval town was involved in the building of "their" cathedral. Our traditional New Zealand culture assumed that everyone could build, just as it assumed that everyone could cook or grow some vegetables. Every bookshelf had a few favourite recipe books, and every workshop had all the tools you needed to build a house.
Thirty years after Habitat I, at a reunion in Vancouver at WUF3, the New Zealand architects who had been at Jericho Beach were remembered with great fondness. They simply knew what had to be done and they got on with it. They had finished their day's work and were heading off to the pub while other nations were only getting organised. Ian Athfield, now President of the NZIA, was one of those architects.
Soon the speakers from the official United Nations meeting began wandering down to speak at Jericho Beach. People like Margaret Mead who would always be remembered for saying "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing which ever has."
Delegates began to come down too. The world order was never going to be the same again. The concept of the United Nations Forum was born. It was clear that permits, regulations, and codes did not result in beautiful, ethical, socially-responsible building. They only served to sustain existing power structures.
All over the world people began a popular owner-builder movement. Before the industrial revolution and capitalism changed the social order building was a cultural act, giving form to beliefs.
Architectural democracy has nothing to do with having a vote. It is concerned with every individual being informed and concerned, and then translating that skill and knowledge into responsible action.
Architectural democracy is not an impossible dream. It is an attitude. Central San Francisco housing offers one example of democratic architecture. After the earthquake last century survivors were given a plot of land where they could build themselves a house, using whatever materials they could scavenge from the earthquake debris. There was no planning. There were no building controls. A century later these houses are still as unique as the people who live in them. None of them suffered from leaky-home syndrome.
In contrast the hills around San Francisco are covered with "ticky tacky little boxes" which are the inevitable result of a building process in which developers and councils disempower people. The profit-driven process dehumanises architecture and results in the dull uniformity of built-form bureaucracy.
Urban design democracy begins with an attitude which favours participation and personal responsibility rather than the megastructures and grand gestures of built-form dictatorship. Environmentally responsible urban design opens up future possibilities, so that people are able to do what they know they must do if they are to save the planet.
Tokyo offers an excellent example of democratic urban design. It is almost entirely a low rise city which makes it possible for any cell in the complex urban network to be changed. The economic and political scale of Tokyo empowers the individual. Size may be an excuse but it is not a reason for concentrations of power.
Thirty years after Habitat I it is now clearer than ever that only the little people will be able to transform carbon-neutral theory into carbon-neutral action.
A carbon-neutral New Zealand cannot be achieved by the rules and regulations of existing power structures. An architecture of democracy is needed.
The environmental movement went beyond the "technical fix" to embrace "Gaia".
"Gaia" is the concept that everything in the world is interconnected. When you throw a plastic bottle into the Waitemata it washes up in Tokyo. Every environmental change affects the whole system. There is only one earth.
The earth was seen at this time as rather like our own bodies. Healing takes place, but we need, like a doctor, to create the conditions which will make healing possible.
It was becoming clear that the planet as a whole was sick, perhaps with a terminal disease. If you did not believe that climate change was happening then perhaps you could at least be concerned at the loss of species. Even if none of these things were happening the desire for a fit and healthy world was still compelling. Life wants to live.
The denial debate just continues wasting time, as it always has, exploring irrelevant by-ways.
The significant Gaia move was from negative thinking to positive thinking. A person who seeks to be fit and healthy does not spend their time wondering if they are sick. They focus instead on enhancing their ability to enjoy life. Good health is a positive idea.
Global hypochondriacs obsessed with carbon footprints only cripple the ability of a carbon-neutral world to be, above all else, alive.
Gaia was also a positive political position. Everything we do, no matter how small, can make a difference. Every cell of a body is important. Indeed many important elements of a carbon-neutral world can only be achieved at the small scale. Zero-waste, for example, can only be realised by people who build their own houses, cook their own meals, grow their own food, and even own a pet pig. "Economies of scale" has a different meaning in a carbon-neutral world. Environmental savings are made at the small scale.
The idealists realised how wonderful a healthy planet could be, and they also realised that human beings could only be truly healthy when they were living on a healthy planet. Maori have always recognised that an individual cannot be healthy if the whanau or whenua is sick.
Many architects began recognising at this time that their buildings were sick too. The indoor air quality of buildings was so compromised by toxic chemicals that the safest thing for an individual to do was to go outside. The buildings which looked so good in the magazines were too often unfit to live in. Building-biology began exploring the issues. Books on healthy homes began appearing.
However only a few architects recognised that the built environment was also making a major contribution to the collapse of the planet.
Gaia also transcended the idea of autonomy which was so popular in the seventies. Autonomous buildings are good, and what they set out to achieve is worthy, but it is important not to see them as sustainable architecture.
Self-sufficient buildings collect their own water and energy and may even process their own waste. This conservation is admirable but the energy and resources needed to erect and dispose of autonomous buildings can almost always never be recovered over the life span of the building. A sustainable building produces a surplus over the whole life cycle of the building.
When the term sustainability was first used the meaning was very clear. Environmentalists were talking about sustaining the life of the planet. That is what sustainable architecture does. It produces a surplus. It creates more than it consumes.
Gaia architects saw every building as a living entity totally interconnected with a living planet.
The environmental movement recognised in the seventies that existing "political processes" were not able to answer the questions which were being asked.
In New Zealand our local government structures grew around the idea of development, by which we usually mean destruction. Roads and bridges needed to be built. Breaking in the land was the challenge. Action-oriented people were appropriate in positions of power. No one bothered to keep an environmental balance sheet. Nature would recover. It always had.
Once the land was broken and beaten different questions needed to be asked. Mediating between conflicting values and conflicting cultures required very different skills. Bureaucratic organisational structures had grown up which were ideal for controlling and restricting, but this was not what was needed for a carbon-neutral world. Regulations were the problem, not the solution. Life is a mystery which cannot be measured.
People needed to be empowered rather than disempowered.
Diversity and complexity are essential foundations for sustainability. The fear of someone who is different needs to be overcome. Even a book which is truly committed to sustainability can be quickly recognised by the diversity and complexity of its format. Uniformity disempowers. The eccentricity of sustainability is incompatible with the formula.
Environmentalists found that they were being neutralised even when it seemed that they were succeeding. The bureaucrats invented consultation as a way of retaining power. Everyone spent all their time at hearings when they would have done better to just sit in the sun. No one was listening. Even when the bureaucrats were listening they could not understand because they were living in a different world.
More laws were passed. More restrictions were made in a fundamentally flawed, but well intentioned, endeavour to go green. More permits were required. The very people who might have achieved carbon-neutrality were immobilised.
Many self-professed experts in sustainability have never moved beyond this political-process phase because it rewards them with status and power. There has been a proliferation of conferences and ministries where the green elite work out what other people ought to do. It is a game, not a revolution. Those who make the rules win. The players are merely pawns.
The universities have a legal obligation to be the critic and conscience of society but they failed to take a stand. The threat of losing their reward of status and power clouded their judgement. Research lost credibility when those funding the research had a pecuniary interest in the outcome.
Meanwhile old-order politicians found that they could relate to a built-environment dictatorship because dictators all speak the same "world class development" language. Demolition rather than zero-waste; excavation rather than respect for place; destruction rather than whakapapa. Most architects supported the old order with a handy selection of "technical fixes" because it retained their position of power too. It takes real courage to be different, even when the consequences of failing to be different are transparent.
Structures which resist change become inappropriate when change is necessary.
A carbon-neutral world cannot be achieved within existing built-environment political processes. Carbon-neutrality is a way of building just as it is a way of seeing.
The next phase of the environmental movement was the realisation that the questions are "spiritual".
Human beings are much more than objects, or resources, or economic units. So are buildings.
Life is both an expression of, and an exploration of, the meaning of existence. Life is a creative, positive search for understanding. The built-environment is all these things too. We build to discover who we are. This is a spiritual quest.
We spend the whole of our lives working out who we are and why we exist to finally arrive a point where no one believes us anyway. Life is a journey not a conclusion. Building is a verb not a noun.
A carbon-neutral New Zealand is a way of going rather than a conclusion. It is a celebration of life. It is a desire to be healthy and whole. It is a quest to be fully alive.
A few architects have advanced to this phase. They have moved beyond seeing each of their buildings as nothing more than a development of what has gone before in their personal exploration of design. These few architects want to give their power away. They see themselves as facilitators who set people and communities free.
Carbon-neutral architecture is spiritual quest rather than a material conclusion.
Maori always move forward by looking to the past. We have much to learn from cultures which realised that building is a spiritual act. Vernacular architecture was almost always concerned with ritual and ceremony, celebration and mystery.

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