Monday, 23 April 2012

Why sustainability isn't just another 'ism'

Something has bothered me for a long time: Why I have felt that issues of climate change, and especially serious issues of sustainability (as distinct from green tech-bling) are not just another of the contestable issues in architecture? I have been unwilling to engage in an impassioned debate about it, because I simply had not got to the heart of the matter.

Federal Building, San Francisco by Pritzker winner Thom Mayne.  Rating in the bottom 15th percentile for user satisfaction, and barely able to raise a LEED rating.  But lauded as sustainable by the architects.
I think the following snippet gets me closer. It is a quote from an otherwise lightweight contribution by David Schlosberg to the Conversations* web site. Read the whole article here.

Climate change challenges the whole enlightenment project – the dream that reason leads us to uncover truths, and those truths lead to human progress and improvement.

We imagine we live in a rational, enlightened society. In such a place, experts would identify issues to be addressed, and goals to be reached, in response to our creation of climate change. Scientific knowledge would be respected and accepted (after peer review, of course), and policy would be fashioned in response.

The reality is that we frequently have direct intervention explicitly designed to break the link between knowledge and policy; we have seen just how easy it is for power to trump and corrupt knowledge, on a global scale. In fact, organised climate change denialists, and the political figures that support them, have done more to damage the ideals of the enlightenment than any so-called postmodern theorist.
My emphasis. Because my problem as an educator is that I have seen the Architecture profession mostly operate in climate change denial mode for at least thirty years.  And worse, I have watched the architectural academe evolving to a greater and greater concentration of ‘theorists’ who give the profession the justification for their attitudes and practices.

Arguably, the entrenched mechanisms of esteem in the Architecture profession play exactly the same role in 'trumping and corrupting knowledge', as Schlosberg implicitly attributes to the miners’ influence on Australian federal politicians. This diagnosis is not new; Wayne Attoe identified it in his 1978 classic, Architecture and Critical Imagination, albeit more as a corruption of knowledge by 'architecture as a business.'

There is an undeniable rise of 'green' imperatives in commercial architectural practice, but I still see more effort put into resisting commitment to actual sustainability, than progress towards it. And I see little or no evidence that architectural academia is about to abandon its collusion in characterising sustainability as marginal to true architecture. Sooner or later, we won't have that luxury.

* The Conversation is an independent source of analysis, commentary and news from the university and research sector viewed by 350,000 readers each month.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

In my opinion, this 'resistance' to clear commitment to sustainability through bold and substantial changes to architectural design process and practice certainly operates within these 'corrupt' economic and political contexts mentioned by Schlosberg. Due to the doubt injected into the general conscious of society by climate change deniers, inconsistent policy, and distortion of climate related facts and figures, significant commitments to sustainable change seem to be avoided. As suggested in your article, ‘Knowing half or half knowing’ (posted 05/10/13), exact knowledge within the architectural sphere can sometimes be reduced to ‘general’ knowledge, especially in the science of climate change and sustainability.

The “power” that “trumps and corrupts knowledge” comes in both economic and political forms. While Australia’s own Prime Minister denies human caused climate change, America’s previous Bush administration had an active role in encouraging scientific doubt of climate change and climate data. An investigation headed by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that "nearly half of all respondents [climate scientists] perceived or personally experienced pressure to eliminate the words 'climate change,' 'global warming' or other similar terms from a variety of communications” (Francesca Grifo, Union of Concerned Scientists, quote sourced from

As radical design theorist Tony Fry suggests in his phrase of ‘sustainment’, a significant shift in the depth of knowledge and action on that knowledge needs to occur for a new age of an sustainability enlightenment. In his conception of ‘sustainment’, embracing sustainability is an inherent characteristic of a design, not an add on, as it is typically treated. In this light, sustainable architecture would be an all encompassing vision and deeply informed in all aspects, that focusses on the use as well as the construction of the building: “while buildings that have been designed to take energy and environmental performance into account are unquestionably superior to those that do not, this does not mean they are sustainable. For the ability to sustain turns on three things: the nature of the building itself; how building users use it; and what the building is used for.” (p. 188, Design Futuring: sustainability, ethics, and new practice, Tony Fry, 2009).

As architecture exists within these economic and political conditions, it is ailed with similar corruptions. An architectural design can seek various environmental ratings, consider more environmentally friendly materials and features, and use “green imperatives”, but these are merely ‘additional’, rather than fully integrated and embraced. This is not a systematic change as encouraged by Fry or enough to heed Scholsberg’s question of adaption in regards to inevitable environmental changes. I fear your conclusion may be correct, that system deep changes will only arise when there is not other option.

3. An online example of Tony Fry's work can be found at