The expression ‘environmental consciousness’ describes an awareness of, or sensitivity to, the environment (Oosterman : 2008). This developing outlook comes in a variety of different guises. In the realm of architectural theory it takes many forms such as; regionalism, primitivism, bio-philism (Wilson : 1993), biomimicry, (Pawlyn : 2001) and sustainability.
Until recently architectural theory and ideas about green design have occupied two separate realms. “Sustainable architecture” or “ecological design” were understood as very particular forms of architectural expression and, although not marginal to practice, were subjects peripheral to the mainstream discussion that constituted theory (Owen and Dovey : 2008). Environmental concerns were seen as technical issues that could be measured – like any other part of building technology. Questions of meaning, culture and aesthetics were seen as qualitative issues that were subject to reason and individual judgement, like other philosophical concerns.
Given that the Bruntland Commission Report was published in 1987 one might assume that the question of sustainability would feature significantly in the theory texts produced in since this period – but they did not. As James Wines (Wines : 2000) has argued; “It has been a peculiar characteristic of structuralist, post – structuralist and post-modernist philosophical discourse that virtually no hint of environmental awareness has appeared in the theoretical work of our leading voices in literary criticism and philosophy.” However, in the last five years there has been evidence of a shift in thinking. We are witnessing a convergence of “environmentalism” with more specific ideas about how we live together (urban theory) and what constitutes good design.
These ideas have flourished alongside a renewed interest in natural systems as a model for ‘design thinking’ and for inter- disciplinary practice. The particular focus on the term “ecology” and its use. While policy makers and politicians have relied heavy on the ‘sustainability’ to describe a range of issues from environmental protection to social equity – in the field of architectural theory “ecology”– nominally the study of the relations between living organisms and their natural environment- has been adopted to give form to a range of philosophical concerns. This trend is expressed most explicitly in “Ecological Urbanism” (Mostafavi : 2010) produced by Graduate School of Design at Harvard University. Within this massive anthology (656 pages) are essays by a number of important American and European architects and academics.
Some of the ideas expressed were rehearsed in Nature, Landscape and Building for Sustainability, the Harvard Journal Reader (2008), but this book, Ecological Urbanism, marks a substantial change in the status of ecological concerns within the field. “That Nature has returned with a vengeance in architectural theory and practice goes far beyond the transmutation of the Vitruvian qualities …” notes Preston Scott Cohen, in one of the books more critical contributions. “The relation of architecture and nature found in the abundant literature on sustainability rests on the moral imperative provided by the current environmental crisis, which sets, as in Greek tragedy, the finitude of natural resources against the dismal and infinite cycle of human production and consumption. From this agon emerges the quest for a responsible architecture,” he adds.
Cohen’s assertion that the ecology provides a moral imperative for a new ethical architecture is supported, if unconsciously, by many of the other contributors. “Our historical cultural relationship to our environment is poised to transform significantly over the next short period of time,” writes Prof. Stanford Kwinter. This situation provides, an “unprecedented challenge to the design community to serve as an organising center for the variety of disciplines and systems of knowledge whose integration is a precondition for connecting them to clear political and imaginative and most important, formal ends.” Currently Harvard academics like those above, along with their peers at Princeton, Cornell, Colombia, and a handful of thinkers from Delft, London, Zurich and Milan appear to have something of a hegemony on the generation of new ideas about architecture.
The Ivy League institutions are not the sole source of new ideas – these are generated internationally and come from practice, the academy and other disciplines. However, they have the resources and crucially the publishing houses that allow them to set the agenda. Staff and visitors have been engaging with questions of the environment in their studios and practices for more than a decade. However, until the publication of “Ecological Urbanism”, the environmental question was understood as a second order concern. In the theoretical discussions about how to make buildings, questions of context, programme, form and technology (digital and traditional) took precedence. Similarly in texts dealing with cultural context and the meaning of architecture – the reduction of energy consumption and the preservation of the natural environment formed a small part of thesis on the post-modern condition.
A large number of theory texts did address a change in the relationship between man and nature or argue for a re-evaluation of the benefits of modernisation. But until very recently ecology was seen as one of many restraints to be addressed rather than an opportunity to construct a driver for the discipline. Key text books such as Kenneth Frampton’s Modern Architecture A Critical History is now in its Fourth Edition (Frampton : 2007), does not ignore the question of climate change and environment but they are discussed in relation to context, topography, landscape and regionalism. Despite the fact that Frampton wrote about the destructive aspects of capital in the 1970s his concerns developed into an argument for a more rooted- place specific architecture rather than a green one.
The book deals with sustainability in the final chapter but the issue is addressed as a technical question of the reduction of energy consumption in use and embodied energy. It occupies a subsection after topography and morphology and before a much larger section on materiality. Environment policies and regulations that have a direct impact on building construction have been developing since the Brundtland. Successive changes to the building regulations and the launch of initiatives to measure environmental performance such as BREEAM in 1990 in the UK and LEED in 1998 in the USA have changed the way architects have specified products and developed detailed designs.
Since The Whole Earth Catalogue was first published in 1968 there have been people writing books about how to design energy efficient building, however, the evolution of mainstream “theory” of ecological architecture is new. The paper looks first at architectural theory and the development of some of the particular attitudes that support “ecological thinking”. Secondly it analyses the content of these ideas and then, thirdly, discusses the potential impactions for the discipline and the profession.
The evolution of ecological thinking
It’s possible to track back and draw a line through a series of sources that have dealt with the environment and design – from the 1960s John McHale (1968) and Ian McHarg (1969) to Buckminster Fuller (1969) and Reyner Banham (1971,1984). From that line it’s also possible to produce a narrative that suggests that environmental consciousness or ecological thinking has always been with us – for at least half a century.
Many “Green Architecture” books begin with a brief chronology of the “movement” which begins with John Ruskin and Ernst Haeckel or goes back further to 18th century Germany and the origin of the word sustainable or Nachhaltigkeit. In this popular narrative, the thoughts of the Victorian Romantics are indistinguishable from Aldo Leopold reflections on the depression, the Hippy’s spaceships pods and environmentalist of today. These histories suggest a historical continuity is rarely justified. Some are founded on the premise that throughout human history man has been in harmony with the natural world. This happy equilibrium was interrupted by the industrial revolution and the modernisation (Brody and Owen : 2011).
In reality the current ecological should be situated in our current conditions – particularly the peculiar conditions of no or exceptionally low growth in UK and USA and much of Europe. As Slavo Zizek writes – the “ecology of fear” is an emerging feature of contemporary thought which, in Zizek’s has “every chance of developing into the predominant form of ideology of global capitalism”. In the immediate period after the Second World War architecture theory was concerned with the attempt to assert new foundations for the discipline following the savage critique and unravelling of the Modern Movement.
In the 1960s and 70s this took the form of a debate between those that saw the future of architecture as grounded in scientific and those that maintained an understanding of the discipline as an aesthetic one. Recession and the Arab Oil Crisis of 1973-4 inevitably had an impact on the popular and professional imagination – but attempts to develop a new architectural language founded on a rather dystopian view of environmental catastrophe on “spaceship earth” were limited in their impact. By the 1980s theory was dominated the two strands of Post-Modernism and Traditionalism, the protagonists of the former arguing that architecture must continually move with the times and the later suggesting a return to the past as a source of solace. After which point it’s difficult to talk about theory – as a meaningful reference point (Nesbitt : 1996).
In her comprehensive text on contemporary theory Nesbitt describes “a proliferation of theoretical paradigms and ideological frameworks”. It’s more appropriate to understand architectural ideas since the 1990s as subject to strands of thinking – most of which find their source outside of the disciple (Vidler : 2011). In this context the emergence of “pragmatism” has been significant. Pragmatism is an idea promoted largely in the USA.. Some would argue that it is a set of ideas that has already lost its purchase (Vidler interview 2012). However, the idea implicit in the pragmatist thinking that after critical theory we deserve – no theory – but practice, data and intelligence remains influential in some quarters. What is interesting is that pragmatism represents one of the first schools of thought to place environmental concerns at the core its ideas rather than an afterthought.
The pragmatists preoccupation with the contingent nature of social life has a strong connection with ecological concern. So for example Michael Speaks in his essay on Design Intelligence (Krista-Sykes : 2010) describes James Corner’s field operations activity in the following way: ‘These “field operations” trigger the emergence of new forms of natural and urban life that evolve over time into self- organized artificial ecologies teaming with life”. Under the aegis of pragmatism architecture is understood as part of an ongoing process of using systems to manage or balance activities, the use of resources and the production of waste. “The building” and ‘the designer’ have a less privileged position in this narrative. This new ecological pragmatism presents a number of questions for those involved in making buildings and producing architectural theory.
New Ecological Thinking
The character of discussions around sustainability has always been a little unsatisfactory because the subject under discussion was so large and to a large extent a technical discussion. Martin Pawley writing in the Architects Journal in 2000 wrote; “It is perhaps as well at the outset to discuss particular terms in use today – “sustainable development” and “sustainability”. Both are contentious. Their scope extends beyond the built environment and is now firmly embedded in the socio-political arena. This ascendancy has been rapid while various definitions fail to satisfy critics…
The first is an oxymoron, the second ill-defined and impossible to achieve.” Since Pawley made this observation – it noticeable how the term “ecology” has become increasingly popular among writers of theory- if not among policy makers. One of the key texts that is a consistent reference point for many of the writers in the Ecological Urbanism anthology is the work of Felix Guattari, in particular his book – The Three Ecologies which was first published in 1989. As such it provides a starting point for the analysis of the components of the ecological – as far as they relate to architecture.
The Three Ecologies (Guattari : 2008) is a very short text, some twenty pages long and it opens with a quote from Gregory Bateson, the polymath with a particular interest in anthropology, social scientist and cybernetics. “There is an ecology of bad ideas, just as there is an ecology of weeds” wrote Bateson. The fact that Guattari opened The Three Ecologies with this quote points to a number of conclusions. Firstly his enthusiasm for Bateson and following on from that an understanding of the term “ecology” which does not refer to relations between animals and plants – but to systems – in particular good and self sustaining systems. Thirdly, again like Bateson, the author links the question of ecological systems directly to ideas and the self.
Rethinking the relationship between man and nature
Guattari argues that we should put aside conventional ways of understanding politics and production and review the current condition in terms of three ecological registers – the environment, social relations and human subjectivity. Implicit within this approach is that the old polarity of man versus nature is no longer a framework for understanding the world. In an invitation to dance, Peter Buchannan’s 2008 essay he writes; “This is a big choice we face to move from the ego to the eco, from acting on the world to acting with it.” Guattari and Buchanan understand the post modern condition is one in which individuals relationship to the world around them (or nature) needs to be rethought.
Rather than conceiving of human actions, including planning and architecture, as means of transforming the context in which we live, we need to work with natural systems to come to an accommodation. This has implications for the way in which we build and the understanding of the role of the architect. On the same point Mostafavi (Mostafavi : 2010) cites Bateson’s argument that contrary to the ideas of Darwinism and natural selection – the unit of survival is “organism plus the environment”.
In summary Zizek summarises this thinking in less enthusiastic tones; “The lesson this ecology is constantly hammering is our finitude: we are not Cartesian subjects extracted from reality, we are finite beings embedded in a bio-sphere which vastly transgresses our horizon.”
Ecology as a systems theory that suggests a different approach to knowledge
In Notes on the Third Ecology Stanford Kwinter (Kwinter : 2010) looks at the informal economic and social networks operating in the slums of Mumbai. His existential longing for the slums sense of “connectedness” leads the writer to a position in which the slum is understood as a model for economic and social organisation and as a model of the systems approach – which is deemed to be, in some ways, superior to the mechanistic operations of the post- enlightenment society. “The Dharavi quarter is but one such site where these activities are part of an ancient ecological and urban web,” writes Kwinter.
The idea that ancient and organic forms of human organisation are better than the places created by the scientific and rational methods planning and visionary design is not a new idea. In the 19th century it was a marginal idea, in the Post war period, and more particularly since the end of the Cold War it has become a mainstream idea.
However, through ecology the polemic against key elements of the conventions of western thought has become sharper. “In place of the Cartesian subject, whose being is solely defined by its thinking, Guattari has “components of subjectification’ who engage with real ‘territories of existence’ that is with the everyday domains of their lives and actions. These alternative processes of subjectification are not rooted in science but instead embrace a new ‘ethico-aesthetic’ paradigm as their primary source of inspiration,” argues Mostafavi in the introduction to Ecological Urbanism.
Ecology as a radical reassertion of subjectivity through experience and emotion
The exploration of the self in The Three Ecologies provokes strong associations with the phenomenological trend in architectural writing that evolved from Norberg Schultz’s writings. Throughout the text Guattari makes it clear that one of his main criticisms of the contemporary elite is that they are only interested in technical solutions to material problems – they have no interest in human relations of personal feelings. Guattari is particularly critical of contemporary domestic life and the relations between men and women which he describes as “poisoned by the gangrene of mass-media consumption”.
In conclusion he argues that the imbalance in our private lives and our inner life (the self) are linked to our relationship to the natural world. “It is the relationship between subjectivity and exteriority – be it social animal, vegetable or Cosmic – that is compromised in this way, in a sort of general implosion and regressive infantilization.”
This critique is very close to the architectural critiques of from the 1970s from the Modern Movement. Aldo Rossi’s (Rossi : 1981) rambling discussions of the atmosphere and experience of a place recorded in his Scientific Autobiography express many of the same sentiments and anxieties about a failure of modern thought to engage with experience and emotion.
When he published his first book De- architecture – in the 1990s – James Wines argued that architects should look at CG Jung on collective consciousness. Architecture should leave behind modern design conventions and develop those appropriate for the ephemeral information age and the mass media. Talking about the 1970s and 80s Wines says: “This hermetic situation in architecture has been much like the tendency of psychology to base its analyses on an interpretation of the mind as a sanctuary for introspection and narcissism.
Today, in contrast, the rapidly growing field of eco- psychology is displacing this limited perspective through the realization that mental disorders are frequently the consequence of humanity’s alienation from nature,” (Wines : 2000). It is not that surprising that as an environmentalist Wines would argue that a readjustment of mans relations with the natural world will lead to psychological benefits. Guattari imagines a world in which psychiatrists operating like artist, no longer “haunted by an outmoded idea of scientificity.”
The consequences of ecosophy
In The Three Ecologies Guattari talks about the possibility of ecology giving rise to an “ethico-aesthetic” outlook. Buchanan describes the development of ecological thought as the “exciting gift” from sustainability to architecture. According to Buchanan sustainability gives architecture ‘purpose and dignity as it addresses very real and urgent issues so that after a couple of decades of wallowing by some of its most influential figures in fashions of form and theory, it will once again inspire influence in the shaping of our environment and culture.” What precisely meant by this is unclear. However what is clear is that the linking of ecology, ethics and aesthetics suggests that ecology may provide a mechanism for a reconsideration of the purpose of architecture.
These changes are not insignificant; the emergence of ecology and “ecosophy” provides a mechanism through which the role of the architect, our understanding of design and the purpose of the discipline is in the process of being redefined. Central to this thesis is the argument that human history must be reframed. Humanities well-being is no longer understood to be provided by material progress and personal freedom, but on the idea of accommodation to natural constraints. Historically it has been understood that architects concern themselves with product (the building) while engineers are more concerned with process (management and infrastructure) (David MacKay).
These traditional definitions are already being called into question by changes in procurement. The pragmatists in the US have already substantially redefined the role of the architect as a researcher; collecting data, establishing connections and a operating the computers that deliver the parametric decision making processes. The beauty of the ecological mindset is that it fits very comfortably with the pragmatists approach. Despite the fact that Guattari is interested in subjectivity – it is not the creative subject in the conventional sense that he is extolling – but the troubled subject, looking for ways in which to make peace with the world in order to establish an inner balance.
Art is reconceptualised not as act of individual will and intellect – but as the therapeutic outcome of a largely unconscious process. The place of the architect in this world – is not as the constructor of new worlds – but as the therapists supporting clients in their attempts to feel comfortable in the environment as it naturally given. The idea that there is a given and essential connection between ethics and aesthetics – is perhaps the most beguiling and most significantly flawed idea in the toolbox of the ecological thinkers. No-one ever properly explains the connection.
The assumption seems to be that decision about how we should live are equivalent to judgments about how we should look, the feelings evoked by a space . Politics is reduced to a question of taste – and ethics becomes an excuse for an elite view of the contribution of the profession – who no longer knows how to detail a window – but it fully equipped to guide the public into better personal and social relations. As Pyla writes Dutch magazine Volume: “Perhaps the key issue here is to be vigilantly aware that as a concept and as a practice sustainability is constantly running the danger of turning into a totalising doctrine that subsumes critical thinking.
Wolfgang Sachs made a general comment about current trends with exactly this warning: “As governments, businesses and international agencies raise the banner of glocal ecology, environmentalism changes its face. In part, ecology – understood as the philosophy of a social movement – is about to transform itself from aknowledge of opposition to a knowledge of domination…”. With this in mind Pyla goes on to ask two very important questions; “Can architects have partnership with techno-scientific fields without subsuming design to managerial-ism and anti-intellectual postures? Can ecological problems be debated in architectural circles without resorting to eco-determinants?” (Pyla : 2008)