Sunday, December 1, 2013

The "Sustainability" movement in architecture.

Architecture has had many styles, or movements. They blend, and are fractured, and are in some ways arbitrary, however as the job of Master Builder transformed into the profession of Architect and communication and literature became more widespread, and education more formalized, movements began to be recognized in their own time. Of this modern era of Architecture the most important, defining movement was appropriately, the Modernist movement. It is a broad term, with many internal divisions and precursors, and the era it covers is nebulous in the extreme, but it is a recognizable movement, and it is one which transformed, dramatically, not merely the aesthetic of Architecture, or even the structure, or functional theory of Architecture. It transformed the entirely philosophy of the profession, it introduced social duty, an engineering of society through the design of buildings. It taught that architects were in the vanguard of progress, interdisciplinary designers who drew upon the most up to date theories of structure, materials, social science, health, and industrial design. There were many different visions of the future that was to be built, and the style of buildings varied greatly, but there was a tremendously powerful underlying intention, and belief. Since that movement (roughly 1900-1950, with a buffer of about 10 years on either side) there have largely been a series of reactions to it, followed by odd excursions into different materials, aesthetics, colors, etc. From Brutalism to Deconstructivism the movements were largely concerned with skinning. Many of the advances made in the Modernist movement have been continued, some even improved upon, but much of the social duty of architects appeared to have been forgotten, the structural advances were increasingly left to engineers, and residential design stagnated.

 I see the Sustainability movement to be fundamentally similar in scope and importance as the Modernist movement. It is the most important movement since the Modernist, and has the possibility of even eclipsing it. The Modernist movement was born of a need for designers to solve the problems of the turn of the century, the growth of the middle class, the aftershocks of the industrial revolution, and indeed, two world wars.  These were huge social challenges, and so there was a great need for a change of paradigm in order to come up with solutions, and architects were major players in that paradigm change. So it is/should/shall be with Climate Change and the Sustainability movement. In fact, Climate Change is only part of the problem, the world is facing a huge number of changes all occurring at once. The climate is changing, deserts are expanding, and society is urbanizing and becoming increasingly interconnected. Poor countries are getting richer, and better educated. Oil is running low, technology is outpacing governments, and species are going extinct at an alarming rate, most of which is not the result of Climate Change, but will no doubt be amplified by it. Humans are not merely posing a threat to one another, we are literally threatening the wellbeing of the global ecosystem. This challenge is almost certainly greater than that faced by the Modernists.

The challenge is greater, and it is also more multifaceted, fortunately, the tools we've got are FAR FAR better than the modernists had. We can automate, compute, and calculate things that were far beyond the abilities of the modernists. The modernists considered the ways in which people lived, or could live if given the right environment, They considered the structure, and aesthetic of materials, but little of their function in terms of insulation, or for that matter, health. They dreamed up new structural systems to reach great heights, but gave very little thought to the impact of their buildings, or their materials, on the environment. Since the Modernist movement however much of the focus in architecture has reverted to the skin of the building, and architects have withdrawn from the position as engineer, to be largely concerned with the look and to a greater or lesser extend, feel, and function of the space. The sustainability movement needs architects who consider ways of integrating the building into the environment, building with a focus on efficiency, and low impact, including finding ways of building less. Architects will have to once again be multidisciplinary, to integrate plants into their designs, make use of emerging materials and systems, understand end users needs and proclivities to tailor the buildings to those so that the building functions like the delicate, efficient, vibrant, evolving environment it should be. Architects will have to learn to take cues from nature in order to design buildings, and spaces, which are in tune with nature, rather than in harmful discord. Buildings will have to be made with both an entrance strategy and an exit one, or designed to have an extendible lifespan. It's an exciting time to be in the field, since the stakes are high, and the weapons at our disposal are powerful. 

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