Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Designing for the Apocalypse: why many architects love a crisis

As reports and revelations about the diminishing credibility of Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) continue to unfold daily, there is no question that it has major implications. If the science behind AGW were beyond doubt, it would provide a powerful argument for greater government regulation and economic participation. It would empower a worldview geared against greater personal liberty and a rising standard of living. Accumulating wealth would depend more on subsidies and catering to a marketplace in which supply and demand are dictated by government policy rather than actual needs and wants of free people.

As professionals who try to address such needs and wants in all of its variety, architects are very much subject to AGW's affect on buildings, both in the way they are designed and engineered and in the way they respond to government mandates. In fact, architects are very much wedded to AGW, as it justifies their guiding design philosophy and helps structure their firms' core values. Many signature designers, including a few that I personally know, have put global warming at the the center of all that their work aims to be about--whether it be in the aggressive employment of green technologies in their buildings, to their promotion of a planning solution (e.g. smart growth) or building type that can be shown to be earth-friendly (e.g. skyscapers). The issue's inherent demand for greater control over the environment in the hands of an enlightened elite complements well with architects' own (and as yet, unrealized) ambitions of becoming the major shapers of the built environment. Idealistic architects ultimately want to transcend the rough-and-tumble, at times crass, reality of the free market, and if the global warming issue makes this possible they will quickly jump on the bandwagon.

Now that the bandwagon's coming apart due to the quickly evaporating authority of AGW's leading scientific gatekeepers, will these same climate-fearing architects insist they won't be fooled again? Will they gladly go back to merely designing pretty buildings that hopefully fullfill a client's programmatic needs and budget? Such has been the reality for architects for most of human history, but the last couple of centuries seem to indicate that many designers will latch on to other issues that rely on the self-serving promotion of mass hysteria. These manufactured crises have helped spawn major architectural evolution and innovations we enjoy and often take for granted. However, they have also served as excuses for the abandonment of aesthetics that have bred public contempt for modern architecture and the oppressive dullness that it has wrought to our cities worldwide.

If anyone is bookish enough to read about the history architectural theory, one is struck by how the discussion changes dramatically around the late 18th century. Up to that point, when an architectural treatise was written, the question they tried to answer was simple but profound: how should one build to satisfy Nature or God? Before Vitruvius's Ten Books on Architecture was written in first century BC, architecture in the academic realm was pretty much a religious matter, often done by priests, and rules were created for the proper design of temples and tombs. After fall of Rome (and with it, obscuring Vitruvius), a return to the religious question reemerged during rise of European Cristendom until around the 14th century. Then the Renaissance kicked off 500 year-long stream of architectural treatises that tried to answer another seemingly inescapable central question: What was Vitruvius trying to say?

Far from being some sort of narrow academic obsession with the ruminations of an unremarkable Roman military engineer, the study of the Ten Books of Architecture actually provided a highly practical basis on which it was possible discuss and debate about architecture from a secular point of view. Vitruvius plainly stated the values that architecture should embody: beauty, firmness, and commodity. The basis from which these values could be achieved was suddenly subject to all sorts of secular interpretation, whether through math, science, or some sort system of universal taste. Squabbles between architects over the minutiae of classical proportions may seem petty and a bit arbitrary to us now, but they were a part of a highly serious exercise in trying to figure out how to make good buidings and pleasant spaces. This fixation on Greco-Roman classicism left us a built legacy of undeniable appeal that continues to beloved by people the world over.

Before the industrial era of the latter half of the 18th century, architectural design neglected something else just as important as beauty: function. It wasn't because it was deliberately ignored, but rather because life up to that point was relatively simple. Wealth was small and highly concentrated, physical comfort was unknown, people died like flies, and everyone was at the mercy of nature. The most a building was expected to do was to shelter the occupant from the rain, and have rooms big enough for a couple pieces and furniture, and, if you had the funds, some servants. Staying warm was futile, plumbing was non-existent, and you interiors were dark and draughty. The most an architect could do was to embellish the exteriors and interiors, which is partly why arguments about the Greek orders mattered so much then.

The industrial revolution completely upended this state of affairs. Technological advances made it possible to live in a way that transcended what until then was nasty, brutish and short. Industrialization unleashed exponential increases in productivity, and with it, wealth, which then became more widely distributed and created a new middle class. The modern mentality was born, in which one was influenced by the idea that things are so new and changing that nothing from the past applies. Closely tied to this mentality was that the problems that afflicted man since the dawn of time were not immutable facts of nature, but capable of being solved or improved upon. Poverty, hunger, sickness and social injustice were no longer accepted as part of the natural order of things, since Reason, coupled scientific empiricism that made industry possible, would show the way towards a better, more enlightened future.

In this modern outlook, both age-old human problems and new problems resulting from the changes brought about by the industrial revolution were now neatly packaged under the term crisis. What was once the natural cycle of life, death, plagues and famines were now crises of public health, sanitation and unacceptable squalor. As the fecundity of the human population rose with ever greater production of food and improved medicine, there were crises of overpopulation, resource depletion, traffic congestion and pollution. Then later, when the masses were more properous than ever before, new crises were made out of more aesthetic and spiritual issues such as a low quality of life, poor education and more recently environmental damage. Labeling the existence of certain complex problems as a crisis instantly lends a sense of urgency and seem to imply that only grand (and preferably state driven) solutions will work. Those that operate with the crisis mentality attribute problems that afflict mankind to a lack of a rationally-inspired design. Architects of the modern era were naturally quite keen on this.

In the past century, architectural theory changed from plodding treatises on the correctness of the classical orders or the moral quality of materials to blunt manifestoes, written often in an urgent tone and composed of a series of bold assertions and even bolder solutions. The overall attitude in these manifestos, whether it be written by the Italian futurists, the Bauhaus founders, or Le Corbusier himself, was that everything had to go. There were no small fixes. It was fundamental to start from scratch. One notices the term chaos used frequently in these manifestoes, referring to not only the rapid displacement of people and livelihoods due to the machine, but also in the way ideas, art and style continued to multiply exponentially in variety and personal whim. The 19th century was defined by stylistic ecclecticism, embracing romantic notions about a distant past (gothic revival, classical revival) or exotic places (Japan, India, China, Arabia). This had to stop in the twentieth century, with architectural luminaries like Sigfried Giedion arguing that a new more abstract style that harmonizes with the industrial age will alleviate the spiritual chaos unique to modern times. Le Corbusier's own philosophical movement, Purism, began with the notion of a retour a l'ordre, or a return to order. To achieve this, it was necessary for the biggest players in society to take the lead, such as major industrialists and ultimately, the State.

To these Modern idealists, war had a practical benefit. It was seen by many as a way of cleansing, of ridding the old chaotic order of the present. War's aftermath would then bring about the opportunity to begin anew with supposedly better solutions. Closely tied to war was a financial crisis, the Great Depression, which would bring down the unjust, chaotic order of laissez-faire capitalism in which people freely make their economic choices and would then set the stage for the State to engage in centralized economic planning. Once the state was the only agent making economic choices, it would then also decide what gets built and where, assuming it would follow the guidance of enlightened design experts. Ego-driven Nietzchean supermen such as Le Corbusier himself would be at the ready, with plans for a new radiant city, where up to three million residents would be housed in skyscrapers, multi-storied zigzaging apartment slabs, driving on highways, and enjoying abundant greenery and collective gardens. To further prove that these grand plans of his were based on the utmost rationality, he proposed to abolish the traditional urban street, which were emblematic of the chaos in traffic, inadequate daylight and fresh air, and architectural incoherence. Le Corbusier and his Modernist contemporaries were big believers in never letting a crisis go to waste.

For architects of above-normal aesthetic sensibility, their insistence that their design was based on functional considerations alone seems a bit naive to us nowadays. If one trudges through the oftentimes dry CIAM manifesto published in the 1940's, one is stuck by how this club elite modern urban planners were so unflinchingly certain in their diagnosis of existing cities, in uncritically accepting population growth projections that often never panned out, and in their conviction that the solutions offered was the only way forward. And then to couch this all in an aura of objectivity and 'science', it only seems a bit absurd to us today, especially upon taking stock on the havoc the CIAM movement has wrought to urban development in the latter half of the twentieth century. Even the solutions proposed reform movements within CIAM during 1950's and 1960's such as Team X were still fixated on overscaled structures and urban mega-blocks.
In their eyes, they did offer a reasonable solution to all the crises as they were understood at the time. The CIAM city would fix traffic congestion by separating car traffic from people; quality of life would be dramatically better due to abundant parks and greenery; skyscrapers and towers would efficiently organize density while allowing more space for fresh air and vegetation, thus improving the health of its inhabitants. Housing would be of higher quality as well as a lot more equitable. Isolating the workplace from the residence, and confining walking to park-like pedestrian paths would also make life a lot better than what it was before. Still, in addressing the crises at the time, CIAM's practices begot newer crises: encouraging car traffic to bridge the distance between work and home contributed to air pollution due to heavier auto traffic, the giant apartment blocks helped generated a crisis in criminality and ghettos. Modernism's rejection of ornament and the human scale, along with copious amounts of concrete helped spawn an existential crisis, in which much of the public still doesn't accept the works of its cultural elite, whether it be in art or achitecture. For all of modern planning's collective fervor, their ideas seemed to disrupt cohesive communities and produced the most alienating landscapes.
Never learning from the law of unintended consequences, architects and planners responded to these new crises undiminished. Fears of a global population bomb, vanishing natural resources and a potential nuclear apocalypse led some to focus on sustainability, either as a self-sufficient village (Arcosanti, Drop City) or as a new high-tech civilization based modular design (Archigram, Japanese Metabolists). These movements were quite short-lived, due to the fact they tried to address a global crisis in complete isolation from political, economic, and technological realities of the time.
Other architects and planners who were less driven by apocalytpic concerns tried instead to solve the existential crisis of communities and crime by looking backward into a simpler time before modern crises arose. A new classical historicism emerged by the late 1960's, in which the restoration of traditional styles effectively addressed the pressing need for familiarity, security, and timelessness in a rapidly changing world. New Urbanism served as its planning arm, aiming to restore valuable social bonds through structuring streets and neighborhoods along traditional patterns. A popular theory of a "Pattern Language" argued that much traditional design resulted from natural experiences engrained in human memory. For the first time in many decades, much of the public responded favorably. Still, to much of the academic elite in the field, historicism was inadequate partly because it was too engrossed in formalism and surface treatment. Large social and environmental problems that afflicting the modern world were not being more directly engaged by a historicist movement that was busy narrowing the scope of architecture back to preoccupations of the past (eg. embellishing exteriors and interiors, keeping the rain out, worring about a building's 'appropriateness'). This wasn't the premodern era where architects were mere artists-craftsment quietly serving their patrons. Now, architects expected themselves to be agents for radical change.
By the time centers of architectural thought, the schools, had rejected the historicists and isolated them to a couple of programs in the U.S. in the early 1990s, a new crisis began to take shape that would inspire many bright young architects from that point onward. Unlike previous crises, where architectural solutions were a bit out of touch with reality, this new one, anthropogenic global warming (AGW), had the potential of putting the design of buildings at the very epicenter of a broad strategy in combatting it. Since a hefty portion of overall carbon emissions (40%) is generated by buildings, architects were now in position to lead the way in devising critical solutions, and thus saving civilization from impending climate-induced collapse. Instead of wallowing in isolation imagining future fantasies as was often the case in the 1960s and 1970s, in the era of global warming, all things were now aligned for architects to make a difference. Economic and political entities perceive the cost of climate change to be so great so as to fundamentally rethink how we build, how much our structures consume, and in what other new ways our buildings can perform. The technology has also caught up, thanks to modern computing, with new automated systems in adjusting energy usage, daylight, and enabling all kinds of surfaces to absorb and transmitt solar energy. Knowledge of green design had recently become more systematized, with widely accepted ratings such as LEED. And unlike the efforts of a few decades before, most green buildings looked mainstream, differing from non-green buildings only in terms of specified materials and systems.
All these improvements and advances don't come cheap, and like anything that bills itself as environmentally friendly, they have yet to be competitive in the marketplace due to this inherent price premium. Businesses that push green projects can only circumvent this market disadvantage with taxpayer-funded subsidies and intensive government patronage. Supporting these projects thus relies on state policies aimed at regulating the marketplace based on an overruling belief in the public good. As long as AGW presents itself as a crisis that threatens everyone's well-being, then the government sees itself as justified in redistributing wealth towards companies (and the designers that depend on them) that promote its definition of the public good. To put it crudely, many architects saturated in green orthodoxy have become willing instruments of the state. This is nothing new in the profession, but it has become a prevailing pattern in the past century for architects to be joined at the hip with all kinds of ruling regimes. To many idealistic architects (which is at least half of them) serving the goals of the state is fine so long as the policies pursued are enlightened. It beats having to make a living in the messy marketplace, to which many of values architects hold dear have either a high price tag or no worth at all.
If carbon emissions from humans are proved to have no affect on climate change, and thus government-led action is irrelevant to stopping what is a complex natural occurence, is it still a valid public good? It's important to remember that although crisis often bring about a lot of wrong-headed solutions, there are just as many innovations that we could not live without. Making buildings much more efficient over its lifecycle as a means of reducing carbon emissions is clearly a public good, especially as it adapts to growing competition for natural energy resources due to rapid economic development throughout the globe (which is also good). Implementing ways to reduce a building's negative externalities to the environment is also a public good, if it improves air and water quality and minimizes the disturbance on ecosystems.
What is not a public good is expending extraordinary sums of other people's money when the benefits are either meager or non-existent. Nor is it good when the vast sums of money shield producers from the market discipline, thus slowing real innovation. What AGW has done so far is to force lots of money to be spent on measures that achieve comparatively little benefit but incur an enormous burden for everyone whether through higher overal prices, increased taxes, and the uneconomic elimination of perfectly productive and profitable industries that employs millions. It has also apportioned even more gobs of state money towards subsidizing renewal energy, which, by the immutable scientific laws that apply to them, will remain a highly inefficient and expensive means of producing energy. In buildings, it has encouraged designers to integrate wind and solar generation, which dramatically raises construction cost and maintenance in exchange of providing a small fraction of the energy needed to operate the building itself. Another example is that the fear in the carbon produced in the transport of vegetables from farms has gotten a number of young architects to embrace the idea of growing produce on the building, whether through green screen walls or green roofs. Never mind that such practices do not make food cheaper nor make city dwellers better farmers nor our time more wisely spent. And then add to those the extra cost of moistureproofing and reinforcing structures. But of course, the higher the construction budget the greater the design fee.

Once the urgency in AGW sputters to a standstill, what are architects left to do? Maybe what they have always done, before modern crises appeared on the scene: focus on beauty, strutural soundness and the way it functions in relation to what is appropriate to the surrounding circumstances. It does not mean one has to resort to historicist styles or classicism. Rather, we should openly encourage aesthetic and technical experimentation and development, but within the limits placed by reality, such as the client's wishes, the site's urban context, natural properties and climate. For the more politically idealistic, these goals don't go far enough. For the rest of us, it assures a more honest dialogue with the public that we serve, and in return, the public awards us with higher esteem for our creations. An added bonus is that we won't be portrayed as elite dupes.

No comments: