The ancient Greek writer Plutarch records an incident from the Spartan king Leotychidas’ visit to Corinth. The king was led to a room for dining and entertainment. He was impressed by the coffered ceiling and he asked, apparently with some irony, if square trees grew in the area.1 Although a king, he considered squared logs to be a blatant display of wealth and luxury.

Often in history, societies have modified their environment in an ostentatious way to demonstrate their might and particularly the power of central authority—or have resorted to the display of modifications to the environment motivated by responses to rather practical needs. The huge and perfectly joined granite boulders forming the fortification wall of Osaka Castle, built in the sixteen-twenties, visualized the power of the Tokugawa Dynasty through the display of their builders’ ability to handle with absolute accuracy weights 1,000 times heavier than that of their own body. And during Nikita Khrushchev’s visit to the USA, President Eisenhower showed his guest the motorways leading to the suburbs of Washington, the utilitarian and popular equivalent of the geometric gardens and walkways of Versailles built by Luis XIV three centuries earlier.

When does a human construct stop being primarily a liberation tool from the constraints of nature and become first and foremost a symbol of strength? Are the huge infrastructure projects that dot the earth’s surface today outrageous demonstrations of power or, on the contrary, simply necessary?

The fact that without them, the survival of large groups of people and life in cities would be impossible does not offer sufficient legitimation to any technical project, either today or in the past. Alexander the Great rejected Dinocrates’ proposal, to construct a city in the bosom of a huge statue resembling him because the city would not be sustainable. Long before climatic change and global warming caused by human activity, the voices calling people to live in harmony with nature were many. We find one of these in the oldest surviving treatise on architecture. Vitruvius echoing the Stoic philosophers’ views—later summarized by Seneca—regarded construction activity an integral part of humanity, and placed it in historical perspective:

“It was the discovery of fire that originally gave rise to the coming together of men, to the deliberative assembly, and to social intercourse. And so, as they kept coming together in greater numbers into one place, finding themselves naturally gifted beyond the other animals in not being obliged to walk with faces to the ground, but upright and gazing upon the splendor of the starry firmament, and also in being able to do with ease whatever they chose with their hands and fingers, they began in that first assembly to construct shelters. Some made them of green boughs, others dug caves on mountainsides, and some, in imitation of the nests of swallows and the way they built, made places of refuge out of mud and twigs. Next, by observing the shelters of others and adding new details to their own inceptions, they constructed better and better kinds of huts as time went on.

And since they were of an imitative and teachable nature, they would daily point out to each other the results of their building, boasting of the novelties in it; and thus, with their natural gifts sharpened by emulation, their standards improved daily. At first they set up forked stakes connected by twigs and covered these walls with mud. Others made walls of lumps of dried mud, covering them with reeds and leaves to keep out the rain and the heat. Finding that such roofs could not stand the rain during the storms of winter, they built them with peaks daubed with mud, the roofs sloping and projecting so as to carry off the rainwater.

That houses originated as I have written above, we can see for ourselves from the buildings that are to these days constructed of like materials by foreign tribes….

Furthermore, as men made progress by becoming more expert in building, and as their ingenuity was increased by their dexterity so that from habit they attained considerable skill, their intelligence was enlarged by their industry until the more proficient adopted the trade of carpenters. From these early beginnings, and from the fact that nature had not only endowed the human race with senses like the rest of the animals, but had also equipped their minds with the powers of thought and understanding, thus putting all other animals under their sway, they next gradually advanced from the construction of buildings to the other arts and sciences, and so passed from a rude and barbarous mode of life to civilization and refinement.

Then, taking courage and looking forward from the standpoint of higher ideas born of the multiplication of the arts, they gave up huts and began to build houses with foundations, having brick or stone walls, and roofs of timber and tiles; next, observation and application led them from fluctuating and indefinite conceptions to definite rules of symmetry. Perceiving that nature had been lavish in the bestowal of timber and bountiful in stores of building material, they treated this like careful nurses, and thus developing the refinements of life, embellished them with luxuries.”

Construction activity helped humans in their first steps not only because its products offered them security and protection from unfavorable weather conditions, but also because its practice sharpened their mind and improved their abilities.

Well conceived and disciplined building, which is worthy of the label “architecture,” in the long run became associated with some of the finest aspects of civilization, and has been regularly regarded as one of these; but it should not be practiced unrestrainedly—especially today. Vitruvius already introduced the concept of economy to architecture, considering it to be one of its fundamental principles; the term he used is distributio. Economy is achieved when all of the means at our disposal are used carefully—i.e., the building materials (preferably local, so that there is no need to transport them from afar) and the available land. It is achieved when we take into account the geomorphology of each site and the climate of the region. Moreover, economy is achieved when the buildings are constructed to meet the needs that are worth being met, and when they are appropriate for the people for whom they are intended—social criteria are of crucial importance.

As Vitruvius has pointed out, responsible environmental management has two pillars: moderation in our demands and know-how in our practice.

Moderation is a quite vague concept indeed. On the one hand, there might be consensus in regarding as wasteful some of the overambitious building projects realized in Spain since the nineteen-nineties and two-thousands, today dubbed “white elephants”; or that it is rather unacceptable to close down hospitals because they are environmentally unsustainable or to argue in favor of reintroducing slavery as more environmentally friendly than washing machines and vacuum cleaners. On the other hand, our reluctance to endure some cold in winter or some heat during summer in our homes and workplaces, as long as we can change the temperature by switching on the central heating or the air conditioners is quite controversial. It seems, though, that in all cases our response is similar: we would rather try to make hospitals as effective as possible in terms of energy consumption, and central heating and air conditioners as environmentally friendly as possible.

We rely heavily on technological advances (whose impact is quantifiable and therefore can be precisely assessed) in our effort to reduce our ecological footprint, probably partly because they are much easier to achieve than changing our attitudes. We are increasingly able to see wind turbines and photovoltaic power plants around us. Our edifices are becoming smarter, and building materials are increasingly helping in conserving energy. Architecture starts to contribute actively to the effort for ecological sustainability by seeking and incorporating new technologies; and by offering new, more environmental friendly, solutions to the tasks ahead. But a fully elaborated, really green, architecture, which produces its own, distinct building forms, has yet to emerge.

At the dawn of the age of environmental responsibility, architecture is struggling to demonstrate its active role in our pursuit of sustainability— a nonetheless rather contradictory task for an activity that traditionally modifies nature for our species’ short-term benefit.

Admittedly, already much of what is built today displays—to which degree deliberately, is open to debate—the new priorities we have to adopt. Since the late twentieth century, the dominant trend in architecture lauds the capabilities of the contemporary building industry without highlighting the visible and often flamboyant differentiation of human artifacts from the creations of nature. Curved lines and twisted surfaces and the swarm aesthetics increasingly substitute for the straight lines and the strictly horizontal and vertical surfaces of our ordinary multistory buildings with rectangular openings, which have ended up connoting the distance between opera di mano and opera di natura, rather than rationality and efficiency as they once did.

This trend has its origins in the nineteen-eighties. It was established on the theoretical foundation of deconstruction, the philosophical movement that wanted to demonstrate and subvert the rigidity and the impasses of the allegedly sterilized formal thinking developed in the West in recent centuries. The architecture of deconstruction destroyed the purity of geometric shapes, the rigor of their composition, their metaphysics. It replaced them with the confused lines of the draft drawing and the uncertainty of the layers.

Later on, parametric design started to be increasingly used for generating forms; although many do not look like it, such forms are in fact the product of the strict logic of mathematics and not of some more or less arbitrary decisions of the conventional “creator”—although computer programming probably resorts to as many personal choices as the design of decorative elements in the Beaux Arts buildings. Curved and twisted to this or to that direction, mysterious but legible, contemporary buildings talk to us about our agony to create something special, something different from the sea of trivial constructions surrounding us, but also something not establishing its identity on the display of humans’ superiority over (the rest of) nature.

One of the most interesting buildings of the new era is the Osanbashi Port Terminal in Yokohama, designed in the mid-nineteen-nineties. Its architects, Foreign Office Architecture, developed their concept on the program’s requirement to fully separate the movement of departing and arriving cruise ships passengers, their luggage, staff, and visitors.

Quai Branly Museum, Paris, Jean Nouvel & Patrick Blanc, 2004
Quai Branly Museum, Paris, Jean Nouvel & Patrick Blanc, 2004

Passengers are led via gently sloping ramps from the entry level to the check-in level. The visitors taking their stroll—usually people living nearby—without really noticing their ascent end up on the decked roof where they are offered a unique view of the impressive harbor, while beneath their feet, the level zero of the wharf is dedicated exclusively to serving ships. The floors, the walls and the ceilings form a continuum, a radicalization of the baroque aesthetics when the walls evaporated into the curved ceilings; thus, the configuration of the building undermines the rigor of the statement that it is an artifact constructed on clear principles conceived by human mind and by human hands, and make it appear as born from the ground.

Waste incineration plant, Hiroshima, Yoshio Taniguchi, 2005

The idea to use plants and earth for building insulation is an old one. While green roofs have been around since the time of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, green façades are quite a novelty, apart from some grown-over rural buildings. They are found more and more often in our cities; despite their looking quite “natural,” they employ advanced technology and specialized know-how. Quai Branly—the museum of African, Asian, Oceanian, and American cultures in Paris—a work by Jean Nouvel from 2005, in which a large vertical garden designed by Patrick Blanc was incorporated, is a prime example of this trend.

Roughly at the same time Quai Branly was being designed, the city of Hiroshima decided to build a waste incineration plant. Its design was assigned to Yoshuo Taniguchi—the architect of a new wing of the New York MoMA—who implemented a radical idea. What distinguishes this plant from others of the same purpose is that it invites the people of Hiroshima to visit it for a walk, and reach the sea in a zone where the city’s waterfront is devoted almost exclusively to commercial activities. In doing so, it calls upon us to realize how necessary it is to apply our most advanced knowledge to not destroy the very conditions of our lives; and to reconcile with something that people normally do not want to know about—that we produce waste, and that we must dispose of it properly. It is no longer an option to throw garbage somewhere out of sight as people in the past often had the luxury to do: in the voids of the compact urban fabric in Çatalhöyük 8,000 years ago; out of our window in medieval towns (the repeated threats of punishment for those who did it indicate only that this practice was widespread); in Thames and in the Seine in early nineteenth century; in the air in the twentieth century.

Throughout history, architecture gave shape sometimes to one, sometimes to the other aspect of the complex relationship between humans and their natural environment. Sometimes architecture has expressed vividly our power to modify nature, and sometimes it has attempted to turn our attention to what we lose by doing that—prime examples are the formal French and the English garden respectively. It was relatively recently, though, that it became apparent that the latter was just a visually pleasing manipulated nature that had only some attributes of real nature.

New ideas began to take shape, as demonstrated in the case of New York’s old dumping ground at Staten Island. When it reached its capacity in 2001, the city’s authorities decided to turn it into a large park. This was not a completely original idea: in Japan the transformation of former dumps into golf courts was common practice. For the design of the new park, the Fresh Kills Park, concepts have been employed that were developed in late twentieth century; the borders between nature and artifact were blurred to a degree never achieved in the English garden. The final form of the park was not predetermined in detail, but would largely result from the dynamic balance that will be reached with the passage of time between carefully selected plant species. The park in itself points out that the global community has to rethink the concept of human “creation” and redefine its limits. The arrogance contained in the attempt to fully subdue our environment to more or less arbitrary mental schemes is dangerous for the future of humanity and a host of other species. The same stands for the attempt to fully control the image of our surroundings, since the result is nothing but a visualization of our intention to alter our environment according to our occasional preferences without respecting the necessities of nature.

But parks are parks; trees and bushes produce oxygen either meticulously manicured or grown wild. Buildings are buildings; it is still doubtful whether there will ever be a zero-emission edifice from conception to demolishment.

The Osanbashi Terminal Port of the Yokohama harbor, Quai Branly in Paris, or the waste incineration plant in Hiroshima invite us to reconsider the relation between our artifacts and the environment; they will probably need significant improvement in their energy efficiency, though, to meet tomorrow’s standards; and their overall ecological footprint (including their construction) is by no means small. Depending on our point of view, we may consider that there is—or that there is not—a mismatch between the quantifiable and measurable characteristics of these buildings and their formal features; that these buildings are actually respecting the environment or that they just pretending to respect it. Depending on where we will shift our focus—to the factual data or, on the contrary, to the power of images to make us think about ourselves and our world and to appeal to our consciousness and imagination to encourage us to maintain a more ecologically responsible attitude—we can conclude that there is (or there is no) mismatch between their identity and their shape; i.e., that their architecture is either an architecture of truth or an architecture of falsehood. Architecture is such a multifaceted activity and its assessment so complex that it can allow this suspicion linger above it, without losing its luster; at least for the time being.