Environmentally Responsible Architecture

ImageIn the years before the collapse of the Roman Empire the vomitorium made it possible to go on eating even though you had had enough. The vomitorium was a technical fix which failed to address the consumption problem.



Thirty five years after the 1972 Stockholm Conference many architects have still not moved beyond the technical fix. Architectural obesity cannot be solved by insulation. Insulation which isolates us from an environment which gives us life only protects our hedonism from the harm which is done by architecture to our stories, our culture, our traditions and our whakapapa.

Green architecture embraces the natural world. Green architecture enhances relationships. Green architecture does not shelter us from anything.

Carrying around a big carbon footprint is rather like travelling with too much baggage. The baggage gets in the way of the journey. Those who insist that they cannot possibly manage without the baggage may as well stay home. They will be on the move, but going nowhere. Discovery is only possible for the person who travels light and is fleet of foot. Taking a little less luggage is not the same as being free. Carbon-neutral architecture has a positive footprint. It is more than just going to the vomitorium less often.

Green architects who left their technical fixes behind at Stockholm moved quickly. First there was gaia. This was the realisation that the whole planet is a living body and that architecture is not a consumer object but rather a living, breathing, constantly changing organism just like any cell of our own body. Then green architects began realising that political processes and the way we build could not answer the questions being asked by environmentally responsible architecture. Developers are interested in profit not ethics, councils are interested in control not understanding, and land agents are interested in the continuity of disappointment rather than long-life building. Architects explore the introverted world of design trends and it seems that only owner-builders explore the meaning of life. Green architects then began realising that architectural questions are spiritual.

When I first began using the term sustainability I meant sustaining the life of the planet. Over the next thirty years the term became popularised but also distorted. Fear of death and fear of the necessary change towards an environmentally responsible architecture led to talk of a sustainable economy, sustainable growth, and even sustainable consumption.  Architects were concerned with sustaining business-as-usual. For them development remained as a euphemism for destruction.

Aotearoa was fortunate because we had another tradition with concepts such as kaitiakitanga. This was first introduced into New Zealand law in the RMA in 1991, by an architect who argued that kaitiakitanga was not the same as guardianship. We can only talk of "sustainable development" when we mean sustaining and developing our whakapapa. We take our inheritance, we enrich it, and then we pass it on to another generation. Eco-architecture never eats the seed potatoes. It produces more than it consumes.

This was not what ego-architecture was concerned with. Ego-architecture ignored whakapapa, demolished our inheritance, released all the embodied carbon, destroyed the embodied human energy which is contained in buildings, and finally led to dramatic ecological collapse. The built environment has become the sustainability problem, but it could also be the saviour.

Democratic architecture is very different from the tightly controlled and regulated culture in which every other person is an architectural Stasi spy. The democratic distribution of power implies the dissemination of knowledge. New Zealand once had a culture where everyone understood building. Only good cooks can appreciate a truly great restaurant. The voyeurs only think they have sophisticated taste. Only those who have built themselves a house can appreciate the architecture of great public buildings.

In New Zealand we now have a built-environment democracy sham, where people think they are making decisions, while in reality all the decisions are being made for them. At least when people buy a car they recognise that they are choosing rather than deciding. The Building Act disempowers people and is anti-democratic.

Our problem is however not that we are committing slow suicide by destroying our planet. Our problem is that we are having so little fun doing it. No one has the courage to say that the world would be a better place if all the leaky homes did rot. To pass a Building Act which sees buildings as nothing more than consumer objects simply moves New Zealand back into the dark ages of building with enormous negative carbon footprints. Environmentally responsible architecture in contrast makes every move a good move.

The world would change if everyone involved with building took an oath to sustain life and do no harm. It would change even more if everyone stopped building whenever they were not having fun doing it.