By Ole Bouman
This month Archis trains its spotlights on ecology. Whatever that might mean. Ecology in some or other guise is of course a thematic presence in practically all the articles. They forward various ideas about the link between architecture and environmental consciousness. The potentials for a more nature-aware architecture are explored from a variety of different angles. And all the authors are interested in the balance between the reserves of worldly riches and their social consumption. All in all, the contributions have enough in common for us to speak of a special issue. In this respect, Archis is trying to do justice to a social sector, a domain of thinking and an important force field in our culture. Yet the subject of ecology is too broad to stay in a little world of its own. Ecology is an umbrella concept that covers far too much for there to be any such thing as ‘an ecological issue’. It is a subject that relates to everything: to matter and mind, art and science, market and society, heaven and hell, earth, air, water and fire.
Ecology is more an attitude than a theme. It must not be allowed to become the small change of a specialism. Yet this is precisely what happens. Ecology has long been annexed by specialists. It has been appropriated by morality specialists, by environmental specialists and by specialists in imminent doom. Environmental activists of every category not only tend to be pigeonholed together, but are often much too keen to construct their identity around their own certainty about what is good and what is bad for this world. From that point of view, a comparison with the computer world is not out of place. Although this device has wormed its way into every corner of existence, there still exists a separate world of enthusiasts and connoisseurs, of nerds and whizz-kids, of cybergurus, digimoguls and ICT experts. The rest of us are just computer illiterati. Ecology lacks a comparable term for its legions of innocents, but from the viewpoint of the ecological movement we are the ignorant, the still unawakened or even the guilty. This judgement is based on practically inexorable questions: how can the environmental debt we have built up ever be redeemed, how can new debts be avoided and further loss of biotopes be halted, and how can progress be made in these respects without impairing our level of consumption in a way that will result in serious social tensions?
There is no such thing as a neutral, value-free practice of ecology. The necessity of change is always audible behind the message. Ecology is almost invariably concerned with major changes in our world view: we must cease adapting to the social reality of a technocratic, market-driven world, but instead adjust our world view to the necessity of change. Although much of the specialist debate going on in architecture might lead us to think otherwise, here too the ecological argument comes from outside the professional discourse. This argument can always be dissected into an existential argument and a scientific one. We must change – on the one hand because we are morally obligated to do so towards the world, and on the other hand because we prefer to survive as part of ecosystem Earth.
Despite fine-sounding words, ecology in architecture seldom goes any farther than paying lip service to these arguments. Reality speaks a different language. Since architecture is generally also real estate, it is bound hand and foot by the demands of ft market. The maxim is always ‘more’, ‘faster’ and ‘cheaper’. The claim made on natural resources continues to exceed the supply. In architecture alone, for example, more wood is consumed worldwide than is replaced by planting. The turnover rate of buildings is increasing and the write-off time is growing correspondingly shorter. The renewed focus on the consumptive demand side as a criterium of building production prevents true planning for a lowered production volume or lesser space requirements. Nor is there much toehold for a durable future in the plannable space between buildings. On the contrary, suburbanization is rising, with corresponding implications for infrastructure and car usage. The volume of traffic movement is growing in duration and numbers. Vehicle journey distances are increasing all the time. All that generally remains is a desperate output of regulations that are knocking their head against a brick wall, and non-committal moral patronization in the form of political pep-talks and TV awareness-campaigns. Nobody really slows down, so the path of least effort is further investment in sustainable environmental technology, together with a bit of ‘nature management’, the craft of running nature or whatever is left of it within its prescribed zones as a business.
You hear it from every quarter: the 21st century is going to be the era of ecology. Radical decisions cannot be put off. Architecture has hitherto devised only a small repertoire of ‘solutions’: regionalism, alternativism, biologism and – naturally – the countless high-tech designs. Practically all these approaches set store by showcasing the ‘right’ outlook in their iconography. And that may well be exactly the problem.
Ecology is invisible. As long as ecology is recognized in building only as a separate aspect, and as long as the builders insist on making a show of it, their efforts will by definition remain marginal. Besides ridding the discourse of guilt feelings and doommongering, and besides the efficient implementation of suitable measures, the important thing now seems to be to investigate ecology as a vital dimension of tomorrow’s building task. Ecology should not be seen as a correction but as a new mandate for architecture. With the synthetic power needed for this, the classical opposition between ecology and architecture as an art form could be transformed into a splendid union.
This article was originally published in Archis, # 2, 1999