Aesthetics of
Sustainable Architecture
Sang Lee [ed.]
The purpose of this book is to reveal,
explore and further the debate on
the aesthetic potentials of sustainable
architecture and its practice. This
book opens a new area of scholarship and discourse in the design and
production of sustainable architecture, one that is based in aesthetics.
The chapters in this book have
been compiled from architects and
scholars working in diverse research
and practice areas in North America,
Europe, the Middle East and Asia.
While they approach the subject
matter from different angles, the
chapters of the book help clarify the
key principles behind en­­viron­mental
concerns and sustainability in architecture. At its very core, Aesthetics of
Sustainable Architecture underlines
the connection that exists between
our approach to the environment
and sustainability on one hand, and
our approach to certain aesthetic
propositions and practices on the
Aesthetics of
Sang Lee [ed.]
Aesthetics of Sustainable Architecture
Aesthetics of
Edited by
With contributions by Sang Lee
Nezar AlSayyad
Gabriel Arboleda
Vinayak Bharne
Keith Bothwell
John Brennan
David Briggs
Luca Finocchiaro
Kenneth Frampton
Marie Antoinette Glaser
Anne Grete Hestnes
Glen Hill
Stefanie Holzheu
Louisa Hutton
Daniel Jauslin
Ralph L. Knowles
Kengo Kuma
Sang Lee
Giancarlo Mangone
Elisanetta Pero
Matthias Sauerbruch
Patrick Teuffel
Harad N. Røstvik
Matthew Skjonsberg
Minna Sunikka-Blank
Foreword by Kees Doevendans
010 Publishers, Rotterdam 2011
Table of Contents
Durability in Housing – The Aesthetics of the Ordinary 198
Foreword 6
Environmental Issues as Context 213
Introduction 7
— Elisabetta Pero
The Aesthetics of Architectural Consumption 26
Magic, Inc. – Reframing the City 227
­— Glen Hill
— Matthew Skjonsberg
What Does Sustainability Look Like? 41
Constructing Sensuous Ecologies: Beyond The Energy Efficiency And
­— Matthias Sauerbruch and Louisa Hutton
Zero-Carbon Argument 243
— Marie Antoinette Glaser
— Giancarlo Mangone and Patrick Teuffel
Solar Aesthetic 50
— Ralph L. Knowles
Symbiosis and Mimesis in the Built Environment 259
— Luca Finocchicaro and Anne Grete Hestnes
The Architecture of the Passively Tempered Environment 66
— Keith Bothwell
Aesthetic Potentials in an Open Network Inventory System 272
— David Briggs
Qualitative and Quantitative Traditions in Sustainable Design 80
— John Brennan
Notes 285
Contributors 311
Urbanization and Discontents: Megaform and Sustainability 97
— Kenneth Frampton
Landscape Aesthetics for Sustainable Architecture 109
— Daniel Jauslin
Building Envelope as Surface 120
— Sang Lee and Stefanie Holzheu
The Sustainable Indigenous Vernacular: Interrogating a Myth 134
— Nezar AlSayyad and Gabriel Arboleda
The Qanats in Yazd: The Dilemmas of Sustainability & Conservation 152
— Vinayak Bharne
The Vernacular, the Iconic and the Fake 168
— Harald N. Røstivk
Natural Architecture 179
— Kengo Kuma
The Concept and Aesthetics of Sustainable Building in Japan 186
— Minna Sunikka-Blank
Acknowledgements 315
­— Kees Doevendans
­— Sang Lee
Aesthetics of Sustainable Architecture originates from the project Sustainable
Brainport, a collaboration of the Municipality of Eindhoven, the Design
Academy Eindhoven and the Eindhoven University of Technology. For all three
institutions, sustainability in architecture and urban design has been very
important for many years. We are grateful to the Municipality of Eindhoven
for supporting and engaging the Design Academy and the University in this
effort through the initiation of the Sustainable Brainport project.
On a broader perspective, Sustainable Brainport ushers in a new stage for
Eindhoven, the leading knowledge center of the Netherlands and once the city
of Philips. For over a century, many groundbreaking innovations have emerged
from Eindhoven, benefiting society and culture worldwide. Sustainable Brainport indicates Eindhoven’s transition from industrial manufacturing toward a
city of knowledge. It also lays a foundation for the city’s new innovations in order
to meet the challenges of a sustainable future.
In the course of the Sustainable Brainport project, we found it essential to
confront questions on how the sustainable design of buildings and cities may
shape the aesthetics of a society in economically and culturally appropriate ways.
With the Aesthetics of Sustainable Architecture, we finally have a volume that
will help us understand the substance of what it means to design and to build
in a sustainable way, one that will contribute to the aesthetic constructs of the
twenty first century.
On behalf of Sustainable Brainport, Sang Lee was invited to lead the project
and to serve as the editor of this volume. Here he gathered a distinguished
panel of architects and scholars, bringing together for the first time a collection
of writings that specifically involves sustainable architecture from an aesthetic
perspective. We believe this book presents a valuable source for the development
of theory and practice in sustainable design for architects, urbanists and designers.
As sustainable design and development have emerged as one of the most compelling in the architecture of our time, as well as in society and politics at large,
it is important to explore the changes that have occurred in the architectural
profession as a result. Given the level of attention that is paid to sustainable
design and development today, it is relevant to ask whether sustainability has
become an intrinsic part of the discipline as a whole. Accordingly, we may ask if
the heightened awareness of sustainability functions simply as an addendum to
the practice of architecture, or if it affects the discourse of the profession in a
more fundamental way. And finally, we may ask how these trends change the way
we situate the built environment in relation to the natural one, if at all.
As a first step toward addressing these questions, Aesthetics of Sustainable
Architecture attempts to trace the key concepts that underlie what it means to
design in a sustainable way. At their very core, the principles of sustainable design
are rooted in the building’s relationship to the site and its environmental conditions such as topography, vegetation and climate. These principles are common
to the consideration of the built environment as a whole, and to a large extent,
architecture as praxis already includes specific propositions of how the artificial,
man-made environment may be designed and constructed in relation to the
natural environment. What varies from project to project is how well, and to
what degree, these relationships are maintained.
Since the beginning of the twentieth century, not only what we regard as
the disciplinary discourse of architecture but also the techniques of design
and construction have undergone rapid, extensive transformations in terms of
sophistication as well as complexity. These transformations are linked to the
rapid pace of industrial and technological development that has characterized
the current age and its prevailing market economy model. These developments
underlie many of the world’s most serious environmental problems, and have
greatly impacted our approach to the design of the built environment and its
operations in ways that have moved us farther away from a sustainable position
in nature. However, these same trends may be harnessed to offer new approaches
to sustainable design. What then is the role of architecture in responding to
current environmental problems? The chapters in this collection will present
historical, theoretical and technical positions in order to confront this question,
and address how the renewed consciousness of environmental concern in
architecture may develop, given the challenges of the current age.
At the same time, as the overarching title of this book may suggest, the aesthetic dimension is intrinsic to any impetus that brings about great transformations in the design of the built environment. If one were to consider sustainability
as such an impetus, would it transform the aesthetics of architecture and the built
environment in any substantive way? Or is sustainability simply incongruous
to, and to be shunned by, the aesthetic apparatus of architecture? The chapters
in this collection will also attempt to address these questions while proposing
thoughts on how sustainability is indeed an aesthetic issue, and how the notion
of sustainability may provide a form of aesthetic thinking that is fundamentally
implicit to the discipline. Therefore, the primary intent of this book is to offer
certain views on how the issues of sustainability and aesthetics may be related
together in architecture.
In recent years, the so-called greening of architecture has produced a new
class of experts and professionals. Sometimes they work in parallel with architects, while other times they perform in the background the work of effectively
making a building design green after the architect’s work is done. Given these
trends, it is important to ask whether sustainability is indeed an area that is
best left to this new class of experts and professionals or if every architect should
engage it as an integral part of the design process. Alternately, should every
architect become familiar with sustainability simply in order to become more
marketable and to get more work? Current trends – including the implementation of evaluation standards such as LEED, BREEAM and C2C certification, and
the increasing commodification and marketing of anything green as sustainable –
suggest that it is an opportune moment to reconsider and reevaluate what
sustainability means to the discipline of architecture, while clarifying some of
the core issues that surround it.
Any one of the above questions could form a substantial volume in itself, in
order to do justice to the weight and scope of the subject matter. Despite the
danger of becoming superficial and glossing over crucial issues, this collection
is meant to function as an opening or a springboard, so to speak. As the title
suggests, the book draws together a collection of diverse articles that relate to
aesthetics while dealing with sustainability and the underlying thoughts that
connect the two. In many instances, it is clear that the central ideas behind the
environment, sustainability and the design of architecture have often been oversimplified and increasingly misrepresented, hampering discussion and debate
in the field.
The greening trend may be attributed to the extremely rapid commodification
of everything green, a development motivated by the kind of economic opportunities that tend to appear with new, desirable technology in the current age
that is centered on providing product services rather than production. On one
hand, environmental problems are increasingly viewed within a narrow set of
lifestyle choices, and on the other hand, in reference to our prevailing market
economy model that is taken for granted as the de jure standard. Environmental
problems are seen in aggregates that are composed of parts to be improved upon
and replaced, while the structure or the kind of complex, intertwined compositions that make up the problems are often not considered. The fundamental
position underlying sustainable development appears to be that the current
model of unbridled production and consumption may be sustained as long as
we do not destroy our environment in the process. In a sense, it appears that
sustainability is increasingly becoming part of the apparatus that is dedicated
to the maintenance of the status quo, ultimately supporting actively the maintenance of a wasteful, consumption-intensive economic superstructure.
Many debates on sustainability and environmental issues center around the
suggestion that we can alleviate our problems by replacing a selection of materials and technological components, such as the fuels for electricity and transportation, the kind of engines in our cars or the kind of light bulbs in our homes,
swapping them out with more efficient versions. Certainly these changes would
help in some respect, but fundamental questions remain in regard to architecture: What are the structural issues of sustainable development and how do we
address them in the design of the built environment? Can we simply replace the
bits and pieces that make up the built environment in order to make it sustainable? And what kind of aesthetic changes and potentials do we find in a structural revision of the industrial capitalist model, a model where architecture and
design are often at the receiving end of the causal relationship?
In response to these questions, we can turn to the work of various institutes,
thinkers and advocates who have been frontrunners in the field of sustainability.
For example, the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) founded by L. Hunter Lovins
and Amory Lovins in 1982 proposes a design intensive, productivity-oriented
approach emphasizing maximized efficiency of the systemic structure under
the framework of Natural Capitalism (NC).1 The RMI declares that its vision is
‘a world thriving, verdant, and secure, for all, for ever.’ Furthermore its mission
is ‘to drive the efficient and restorative use of resources’ in a manner that is ‘nonadversarial and trans-ideological, emphasizing integrative design, advanced
technologies, and mindful of markets.’2 Implementing the visions of NC would
have real, concrete implications for the discipline of architecture, as well as for
the society and the economy at large. It is important to ask what the discipline
and aesthetics of architecture would be when it is produced under such a
In addition, another recent highly influential contribution to the sustain­
ability debate is the book by William McDonough and Michael Braungart,
Cradle to Cradle (C2C).3 In this book, the authors examine and illustrate the
inherent problems in the existing industrial economy which they call a ‘cradle
to grave’ model and attempt to propose an alternative that is centered on
closed-loop services of production, delivery and reclamation.4 Both NC and
C2C propose a fundamental revision of our current model of industrial development, moving away from the patterns of disjunctive production and consumption toward a cyclical process where nothing is discarded or wasted. The idea of
a cyclical system of production, use and re-production, as opposed to a linear,
dead-end process of production, consumption and discard, is a key consideration of both propositions. With NC and C2C, we can glimpse what it would
mean to address the structure of the complex, intertwined compositions that
underlie today’s environmental problems instead of addressing them on an ad
hoc basis.
from that which is sensed.5 Baumgarten first develops a position that sensory
perception can produce a valid form of knowledge, and later formulates aesthetics as an investigative work on art and beauty. In essence, Baumgarten proposes
that what we sense and perceive, the exteriority of an object, is a manifestation
of the invisible or intangible qualities of its interiority, and therefore, that studying the connection of the two presents a meaningful approach to gain a certain
kind of knowledge. Subsequent to Baumgarten, in the work of Immanuel Kant,
we find the artist who exercises his freedom of material and technical choice in
producing a work of art that leaves an imprint on nature. And this way, a work
of free art does not possess an end other than to itself. But here the beauty is
found in the work’s purposiveness, and the experience of beauty arises from the
sense that a given object serves and fits a given purpose.6
In the 19th century, Karl Bötticher and Gottfried Semper provide tectonics
as a form of aesthetics.7 For Bötticher (a student of Schinkel) architectonics is
an interplay of social and cultural as well as material and physical forces. The
coalescence of these forces determines the purpose of architecture. For Bötticher,
the balance of such forces is embodied in the structural order (Kernform)
and expressed by the spatial enclosure (Kunstform).8 After Bötticher, Semper
(a student of Gauss) discusses ‘Four Categories of Raw Materials’ and the kind
of construction that is inherent in each one, categorized in four classes of ‘textiles, ceramics, tectonics (carpentry) and stereotomy (masonry).’ For example,
he describes the textiles combined with plasticity (ceramics) and lattices (tubular construction) as giving shape.9 Here, the weaving of narrative, structural,
material and environmental aspects serves the purpose of architectural enclosure
as mediation that is indivisible from its composition.
In the 20th century, from the work of modern masters to the work of today’s
theorists and practicing architects, the extent of aesthetics in architecture is
indeed overwhelming. Without delving into the aesthetics and architecture of
this dense century, for the purpose of this book, let us suffice it to propose that:
Aesthetics of architecture refers to the expressions in built form that closely relate
to the way in which the form is not only conceived but also produced in relation
to a certain purpose and its context. In regard to the relationship among form,
function and context, a built form should inform and express the principles of
its programmatic, structural, material and spatial qualities. And an aesthetic
is supposed to emerge from, as well as be embodied in, the order that ties them
together as an indivisible whole. Therefore, in short, if a building or an environment is designed and built to be sustainable, it should inform how it was conceived and situated, and what makes it be so under what kind of conditions.
And in the presence of such a work, it should be perceivable and/or understandable that it serves and fits such purpose.
Then there are the lessons of the vernacular that profess returning to the
kind of living that used to be more intimate and less intrusive to nature as the
way to mitigate our current environmental problems. In line with the vernac­
ular traditions, we find the arguments for localization and self-sufficiency of
production and consumption. In this scenario, the built environment will
sustain itself within what would be considered a local scope. However, one
crucial issue is whether or not and how the vernacular traditions are appli­c­
able and relevant to today’s context. Or for that matter, is it feasible to simply
pick and choose the kind of useful elements from the vernacular catalogue
regardless of their cultural and environmental origins? In regard to the vernacular being equated with the sustainable, the vernacular is thought to have
maintained a harmonious existence in relation a region’s natural resources and
climate, and therefore, that the vernacular building process was local, thereby
Against such a complex backdrop, many of the articles in this collection
discuss emerging models of design and production that incorporate ideas for
replacing existing technologies with more efficient ones as well as ideas for
new innovations and inventions. However, they are not purely technological
and attempt to locate themselves within the broader discourse of the field. It is
undeniable that we must develop appropriate technological means to address
the environmental problems attributable to architecture. However, typically,
this approach has overlooked the kind of research and investigation needed to
situate sustainable innovations within the wider aesthetic framework of the discipline, a framework which, in itself, has become a moving target with rapid
changes in the discipline’s technological and economic superstructure. This
approach has also overlooked the structure of today’s complex environmental
problems while focusing on the development of single components and elements.
Therefore, this volume also attempts to address how to locate sustainable thinking – as well as sustainable technology, innovations and mechanical systems –
in perspective within the discipline of architecture, while incorporating them
in a way that is concurrent with disciplinary aesthetics.
For this book, the notion of aesthetics – a vast area for which this is in no
way an adequate venue – starts with a general question: How do we sense and
perceive our world and further develop an appreciation of it? Departing from
this very basic question, one could say that aesthetics in itself is a discipline of
reflecting on art as mediation between culture and nature. Without extending
the question of what aesthetics may mean in general terms, it would be useful
to cite a couple of key notions that may be pertinent to architecture and sustainability; these notions address the relationship between sensory perception
(the subjective) and quantifiable measures (the objective), and furthermore,
they address the role of architectonics in informing the relationship between
the expression of material culture and the environment.
The 18th century philosopher who coined the term aesthetics, Alexander
Gottlieb Baumgarten describes aesthetics as a form of knowledge that is gained
With this scope of architectural aesthetics in mind, the idea of environmental
consciousness is framed in this volume by two complimentary concepts: sustainability and durability. Sustainability refers to a process that can be main-
tained and continued for a certain duration, or hypothetically speaking,
indefinitely. Being sustainable means that the conditions needed to drive the
process can be met, allowing the process to continue into the future. Durability refers to the state of an object. Being durable means that the way an object is
made allows it to function for the duration of the purpose it is intended to
serve (and possibly beyond) without breaking down irreparably.
Being sustainable, ideally, means that the structures and relations necessary
to sustain the process will be available so that it does not exhaust itself or come
to a halt due to degradation or some form of failure. On the other hand, durability stands for a method of building that maximizes an object’s span of usefulness. In this case, durability is more focused on materials, techniques and
assemblies of production in relation to the supposed use of the object. Obviously,
the two distinctions, while contrasting, are also complimentary. They may even
be characterized as one and the same: a process cannot be sustainable if one
cannot foresee how well and how durably the aggregate of various constituents
will perform over the course of the supposed lifespan, while no durable measures can be accomplished if one cannot sustain the continuity of materials and
techniques without interruption.
In order to provide a concrete and substantive approach for designing architecture in a sustainable and durable manner, these concepts may be combined
with the three main strategies of ecological thinking, namely, conservation,
efficiency and regeneration.10 First, conservation attempts to reduce the amount
of resources and materials that are spent in the processes of production and
consumption, thereby extending the reserves of limited resources. In architecture as well as in daily life in general, this translates to minimizing waste and
saving materials through the strategies of reclamation and recycling.
Next, efficiency is directed at maximizing the output or production that can
be obtained from a given unit supply of materials, resources or energy. With a
strategy of efficiency, we can expect to extract more use from each unit that we
consume. In architecture, efficiency may be expressed in the kinds of machines
and devices that we use in buildings, such as the furnaces or radiators for
heating that are designed to output more heat energy per unit of energy spent.
Another common example of efficiency is the km/liter rating for cars. By definition, the strategies of conservation and efficiency form a duality, and they serve
a common goal: that of slowing down the depletion – and therefore extending
the useful lifespan – of our existing supplies of materials and resources.
The third strategy, that of regeneration, attempts to return materials and
energy back to the sources from which they came in order to compensate for what
we extract, use and consume in our industrial processes, thereby ‑replenishing
limited natural reserves. This strategy includes, for example, the regeneration
of such resources as forests for timber, aquifers for water and other natural
resources that are necessary for farming and food supplies. Obviously all three
aspects – conservation, efficiency and regeneration – must be seen as com­
plimentary to one another and dealt with simultaneously on a comprehensive
scale in order to produce architecture that is both sustainable and durable.
Ultimately this book offers a look at the connective territories that exist in
current design practice that includes aesthetics, material economic logic and
the quality of life it is supposed to provide. All design practices, however small
or large they may be, attempt to create certain values by locating their production within a context of users and their cultures. These values also spring from
social, political and economic environments in place among private businesses
and are imprinted in public policies and directives. These two parallel value
tracks influence many levels of design, from small ordinary objects to the scale
of urban or regional planning. While the work of individual architects or
designers may be focused on the practice of aesthetics and the functionality of
the everyday objects and buildings they produce, in this collection, the primary
question is placed on how such practice may be situated within the principles
of designing for sustainability. Given the current debates on sustainability in
the design of the built environment, how can one approach the question of
what we consider beautiful and useful, and how do we evaluate and judge such
objects or processes? In essence, what value track is created with the pursuit of
sustainable design?
Published within the past few years, one can easily find countless books
dedicated to sustainable design and sustainability. The topics they deal with
range from ethical and philosophical issues, to technical manuals and DIY
guides for sustainable lifestyles. However, what are the actual ramifications of
sustainable design on the aesthetics of architecture and how we construct our
built environments? Is sustainable design adequately represented by technical
issues and devices that are supplementary and to be hidden and covered? Can
sustainability be implemented as a patchwork of remedies on an ad-hoc basis
as we move on? Is the urgency for sustainable design perhaps a call to Arcadia,
for a return to a kind of simplicity in our civilization and for a way of living in
tune with the laws of nature? Or as some do argue, does sustainability have
little to do with the aesthetics of architecture?
One major obstacle to the understanding of sustainability in architecture is
the dominant perception – generated through media snapshots and certification
processes such as LEED – that sustainable design may be accomplished by putting
together a set of prescriptive parts and measures. There is no doubt that media
exposure, evaluation and certification measures have helped to raise general
awareness and consciousness of sustainable design. However, this has also promoted an intense marketing of the sustainable before the actual substance of
the term could establish a firm footing in common architectural practice. In
today’s culture of commodification, the appearance of sustainability has become
as important, if not more than the actual substance of a given design. Therefore,
one of the most fundamental challenges in the practice of sustainable architecture is to develop contents that emphasize a more holistic construct of sustainability, to contain the focus on marketable bits and pieces that often do not
add up.
Today, the common view of sustainable design may suggest that a range of
mechanistic parts and measures can be put together in a way that is similar to
selecting appliances from a catalogue. These may be thought of as environmental
appliances. The problem with this appliance logic is that, in reality, it is isolated
and detached from the consideration of the production-delivery-consumption
chain that is currently in place, which has clear environmental problems. In this
sense, the widespread view that sustainable design can be accomplished through
a form of mechanistic assembly presents yet another obstacle to approaching a
more substantive perspective of the subject matter.
The chapters in this book point to a set of interrelated and fundamental
issues of our current approach to the use of energy, materials, water and technology. The first issue, regarding the kind of energy we use and how we use it,
has remained at the forefront of environmental and sustainability debates since
their inception. It is well understood that our current environmental problems
arise, by and large, from the extensive use of fossil fuels such as coal and petroleum, and from the resulting mass emission of greenhouse gases such as carbon
dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane that occur with their use. In addition, the
release of solid particles, the byproducts of energy consumption and industrial
production, pollute the atmosphere and pose health threats to humans and all
living organisms.
Due to the atmospheric changes that have resulted from our energy use, it is
expected that catastrophic climatic events will occur more frequently, the most
serious of which will be an increase in the temperature and acidity of ocean
waters. Clearly, the connection between design and energy use is evident in the
production and operation of individual buildings, and in the larger built envir­
onment with its extensive networks for utilities and transportation. If we were
successful in changing our patterns of energy use on a widespread scale, how
would this affect the practice of architecture from a design standpoint? What
role could architecture play in making these changes come about? And what
aesthetic potentials are present in the consideration of sustainable or renewable
energy, its use and conservation for the field of architecture?
The second issue concerns the extraction, production and assembly of
various materials that are used in architecture, detailing the span of their useful
lifecycles. As the issue of materials is directly connected to that of energy use,
concepts such as embodied energy and potential recyclability represent two
energy-related aspects that are important in determining material qualities.
Aesthetic features and potentials have come to be measured in relation to materials’ visual qualities, but also in relation to their performance, durability and
potential hazards. Within the context of the propositions in C2C, for example,
the use of certain materials represents a selection process that includes a given
material’s prospects to fit within a cyclical model of use and reuse: its pro­
duction and use should foresee and incorporate the potential for continued
iterations in the future.
Furthermore, in relation to materiality, recent technological developments
have made it possible for architecture to incorporate various so-called hightech materials with attractive performance properties – such as those with high
strength-weight ratios and insulating capabilities, and those that are environmentally inert. As the selection and assembly of materials are intimately tied to
the aesthetics of architecture, what aesthetic potentials can be found in these
current trends of materiality? How can materials be used and approached in a
way that improves the sustainability of architectural design? And in the end,
can architecture have a positive impact on the way that materials are extracted
and produced?
The third issue concerns water sources and consumption, directly translated
in terms of drinking water, sanitation and irrigation. Obviously, the way our
buildings and cities are designed has immediate impacts on the amount of
water we use, how our aquifers, rivers and streams are diverted and how rapidly
we deplete or pollute our supplies. Many regions of the world are faced with
diminishing aquifers, leading to food shortages from declining crop production,
as well as health impacts attributed to water pollution. These include the spread
of waterborne diseases due to poor sanitation, and the destruction of fish and
wildlife due to the release of industrial chemicals and everyday urban run-off.
In some geographical contexts, the lack of clean water for drinking, bathing
and agriculture poses perhaps a more immediate threat to human life than the
one posed by other environmental changes. In order for architecture to be sustainable, it must regard water renewal cycles from a conservation standpoint.
Can architecture and urban development be designed in a way that conserves
water, using as little as possible, while ensuring that clean water is returned to
replenish our aquifers, rivers and streams?
The fourth issue deals with technology and its role in the design process,
touching on how the latest design technologies and tools affect architectural
thinking and approaches toward a new materiality and architectural aesthetics.
Given the recent advances in software and hardware engineering, we have access
to more rigorous and accurate means of design and simulation. We use advanced
technologies in order to design more efficiently, to produce designs that are
optimized for specific uses and performance as well as for the discovery of previously unknown forms. However, the codification schemes and procedures
inherent in these technologies not only impact how efficiently we design and
produce, but perhaps more importantly, how the historical canons of architecture may change in regard to the discipline’s aesthetic foundations. Whether
the latest means of design and simulation are implemented in order to increase
the efficiency of labor, to increase economic return or to maximize the pure
performance of the project, it appears certain that what we use to design has
changed the way we conceive of the design process and its objectives in a profound way.
In this regard, what is the relationship between the use of new technologies
in design and environmental consciousness? Do we simply use these tools in
order to design and manufacture more products, more cheaply, in less time?
In the first chapter of the book, The Aesthetics of Architectural Consumption,
Glen Hill argues that the modern era has ushered in a damaging scenario in
which architecture must increasingly participate in the endless search for new
aesthetic trajectories. In doing so, the already existing architecture is subject to
what he describes as aesthetic obsolescence, where the architecture is viewed as
waste long before its functional life is over. Hill considers that sustainable
architecture is not immune from this pressure to become an aestheticized commodity with an ever-decreasing life span.
Hill argues that the early radical environmental architecture of the 1960’s
and 1970’s often focused less on aesthetics and more on changing people’s ways of
living. However, more recent sustainable architecture has shown a greater interest in participating in the aesthetic economy, rather than focusing on changing
people’s ways of living. It has instead focused on developing technological strategies to maintain unsustainable ways of living for the lowest resource and energy
cost. It is now common to claim that all architecture should be technologically
sustainable, and with this claim the potential radicalism of sustainable architecture is blunted as it is brought within the mainstream aesthetic economy.
One potential way out, Hill suggests, might be found in the poetic aspect of
architecture. Because architecture, like all of the arts, has the capacity to reveal
its world, architecture with its poetic capability may yet be able to reveal and
respond to how unsustainable the commodification process has become.
In What Does Sustainability Look Like? Matthias Sauerbruch and Louisa
Hutton, who have focused their practice on environmentally engaging yet aesthetically rigorous buildings, present their views on the state of architecture in
relation to environmental problems and on how to approach them. They open
the discussion by stating that the West, with its culture of excessive consumption, is largely responsible for the state of ecological damage on the planet. In
response they suggest that developed countries have to lead in the creation of
efficient energies, and at the same time, to change their wasteful patterns of
behaviors and lifestyles. They argue that changing lifestyles is the most effective
way to reduce energy and carbon emissions, and suggest producing the kind
of carbon-free products that are so attractive that people will want to use them.
In their view, people will accept such products when they demonstrate that
a reduction in consumption does not necessarily mean a reduction in quality.
This approach might be an opportunity ‘to create a new rapport with society
at large and to respond to the needs and imaginations of normal people without falling into the traps of cliché and kitsch’ while addressing environmental
Sauerbruch and Hutton call for architects to express this changed paradigm
by using an appropriate and positive architectural language that signifies a new
beginning in relation to the environment. They believe that the challenge for
architects is to develop a language in order to create spaces that communicate
with people on an intuitive level. To this end, they argue, when architects
employ space, surface and light intelligently, they will be able to fulfill more than
just the goals of efficiency and economy, while moving toward the creation of
architecture that is both sensuous and sustainable.
In the chapter entitled Solar Aesthetic, Ralph L. Knowles, a pioneer of the
solar envelope zoning method, chronicles and reflects on the experiments and
research projects he has focused on for the past fifty years. His chapter begins
with the idea that solar cycles can inform the production of natural forms for
building, while introducing his pioneering work on the solar envelope zoning
method. He argues that solar cycles have shaped human civilization and its rituals for millennia, and that designing around these cycles and their rhythms
presents one way to create architecture that is engaged ‘in a dialogue with nature.’
The chapter, composed of three parts, demonstrates how building forms can
be derived from observing the sun’s path and how such forms can be applied
in different contexts and configurations. In the first part, Knowles describes
the experiments conducted at Auburn University in 1962. These experiments
plotted the formal potentials of sunlight, gravity and the combination of the
two. In the second part, Knowles explains the subsequent developments from
his work at the University of Southern California. In this phase, he explains
how the study focused on ‘the aesthetic consequences of generating uniquely
adaptive forms by following the sun’s path to satisfy specified conditions of
incident solar energy’ by working ‘directly with earth-sun geometry to generate
In the third part of the chapter, Knowles introduces the concept of Inter­
stitium that is the culmination of his work on finding the space formed by the
sun’s trajectory. The concept, he explains, ‘supports the design of dynamic architectural elements that connect directly to the rhythms of nature.’
Do we fuel and accelerate the rampant excesses in consumerism as a result?
What potential does the latest digital technology offer for the design and production of both space and objects in regard to the sustainability of our built
environment? Is there an inherent logic in the relationship between efficiency
and form, as for example the proponents of the biomimetic process would
suggest? For this category, the chapters are focused on the fundamental changes
in design, manufacturing and use brought on by technological advances, and
how such changes influence and reinforce the practice of sustainable design and
its aesthetics.
While addressing this set of interrelated and fundamental issues, the
chapters in the book can be grouped in terms of historical cases (Nezar Alssayad,
Gabriel Arboleda and Vinayak Bharne); theoretical positions (Glenn Hill,
Kenneth Frampton, Sang Lee, Stefanie Holzheu, Daniel Jauslin and Matthew
Skjonsberg); design and use (Ralph L. Knowles, John Brennan, Keith Bothwell,
Marie Antoinette Glaser, Minna Sunikka-Blank and Elisabetta Pero); emerging
technologies (Luca Finocchicaro, Anne Grete Hestnes, Giancarlo Mangone,
Patrick Teuffel and David Briggs); and personal reflections (Matthias Sauerbruch,
Louisa Hutton, Kengo Kuma and Harald N. Røstvik).
In The Architecture of the Passively Tempered Environment, Keith Bothwell
discusses how buildings that work passively to regulate the environment have
historically provided comfort for living and a haven against the extremes of the
natural climate. He argues that the principles of the passive approach were
established as far back in history as the Renaissance architectural treatises, and
that even today, they provide a valid basis for the design of sustainable architecture. Despite this legacy of passively conditioned architecture, Bothwell finds
that the knowledge and principles that underlie the approach are regularly
compromised by unnecessary aesthetic and personal prejudices with no apparent
rationale. This results in buildings that do not perform as well as they are supposed to in terms of regulating the environment and climate, while expending
more energy than expected. Therefore in his article, Bothwell explores the field
of passive environmental design, focusing on the fault lines that occur between
knowledge, understanding, intention and achievement in the process of
designing sustainable buildings, fault lines that prevent recent buildings from
reaching their full capacity to reduce carbon emissions.
Next, John Brennan positions his chapter Qualitative and Quantitative Traditions in Sustainable Design from the perspective of the home where he finds a
historically definable narrative for ecologically conscious domestic design,
approaching the topic with theoretical discussions and examples from his own
practice. Brennan’s chapter addresses the relationship between architecture and
the deployment of technology, as underscored by sustainable principles. At the
core of his chapter is a differentiation between scientific reason and technological control, citing the work of the social theorist Jürgen Habermas. Based on
these propositions, he seeks to situate the so-called trends of eco-design within
the quantitative traditions of domestic architecture.
In the context of his article, Brennan sketches out some persistent and fundamental questions: What exactly constitutes sustainable architecture? Should
the definition be divorced from the notion of technical performance? Can any
kind of architecture be sustainable if it meets defined quantitative, technical
benchmarks? He states that he has come to believe that external variables such
as landscape, climate and response to social and economic criteria for sustain­a­
bility are more important than measurable performance and stylistic appearance.
Based on his understanding of established scholarship, Brennan attempts to
determine how the quantitative and qualitative traditions may exist together in
sustainable architecture in both historic and practical terms. The chapter concludes with the notion that there is no seamless clarity from theory to practice,
and that sustainable design should discount neither scientific empiricism nor
the rich, qualitative experience in architecture.
In the chapter, Urbanization and Its Discontents: Megaform and Sustainability,
Kenneth Frampton regards the fundamental environmental problems that are
inherent in our current patterns of automobile-based suburban sprawl, and in
our current model of architectural academia. In response, he proposes the theory
of the megaform. His argument begins with a criticism of the excess typical of
contemporary societies, especially in the US, and of the subsequent failure
to create more equitable, environmentally coherent urban conditions. In his
criticism, he cites a series of apparent problems and dangers that the current
model of development faces, and sets out the basis of sustainability as natureculture interplay. This interplay, he argues, may be established through the
place making potentials of the megaform, and here, Frampton distinguishes
between object-forms and place-forms. He continues with the idea that the
current model of architectural academia is detrimental to the discipline’s full
engagement with the issues of sustainability, due to its emphasis on individual
creativity. This may led to the production of forms that, while aesthetically
pleasing, tend to miss the potentials of sustainability on a fundamental level.
Frampton concludes that there is no inherent disconnect between environmentally responsive and sustainable design, and the kind of design that is culturally stimulating and aesthetically expressive. Sustainability can be framed as
an inspiration to enrich and deepen the aesthetics of architecture, rather than
as a restriction upon its aesthetic potentials.
Daniel Jauslin, a practicing architect and researcher focused on landscape,
opens his chapter Landscape Aesthetics for Sustainable Architecture by citing
three of the most prominent architects today in regard to sustainable architecture and its aesthetics. They express their skepticism as to whether or not there
is such a thing as aesthetics in sustainable architecture, or for that matter, if
architecture can indeed be sustainable. Against such a setting, Jauslin illustrates
what he believes to be the landscape perspective’s inherent relationship to the
natural environment, the principles behind it as well as the potentials that the
landscape perspective holds for sustainable design.
In this chapter, Jauslin first discusses the kind of professional and political
impetuses that have made sustainability one of the most compelling changes to
face the profession of architecture. He argues that the mandate for a sustainable
environment did not come about by choice of the architects and planners, but
rather, that sustainability is imposed on the profession by the necessary, external
forces that influence it. To bridge the gap that exists from current practice to
sustainability, Jauslin traces the thoughts and principles of landscapes and territories that have developed since the 1960’s, highlighting how they are indeed
highly pertinent to sustainable architecture. This approach views the landscape
as a human interface with nature, as a basis for the design of sustainable architecture and a new context for sustainable aesthetics.
The chapter Building Envelope as Surface by Sang Lee and Stefanie Holzheu
first traces the role that building envelopes play in terms of their functional
and presentational qualities, while drawing from a deep historical perspective
of what enclosure has meant from the earliest times. They cite three models of
building envelopes, namely, the modernist, the Venturian and the mimetic as
examples of how the notion of building envelopes has evolved over time, with
changes in the architectural discourse. Next, they propose a conceptual construct of building envelopes as surface. This discussion is based on the Leonardo
Surface, a concept proposed by the analytical philosopher Avrum Stroll along
with the theory of direct perception by the ecological psychologist James
Jerome Gibson.
Subsequently, Lee and Holzheu discuss the philosophical and theoretical
dimensions of surface as a concept in relation to Hans-Georg Gadamer and
Jacques Derrida. Here, they introduce the notions of mimesis presented by the
two philosophers as exemplary in considering the sustainability of architecture,
while at the same time, analyzing and critiquing the current mechanistic
practice of mimetics in architecture. They propose that being sustainable is, in
essence, being mimetic of nature’s mediations and relations, while the concept
of surface provides a way to establish intimate relations between nature and the
built environment.
In the chapter entitled The Sustainable Indigenous Vernacular: Interrogating
a Myth, Nezar AlSayyad and Gabriel Arboleda, in response to the advocates of
vernacular architecture, argue that vernacular and indigenous traditions are
often assumed to be grounded in the types of practices that produce sustainable
built environments. They describe how the theoretical tradition that connects
climate and the vernacular has often held that architecture originated as a
product of necessity and not as a product of aesthetic requirements. It was this
tradition that nurtured the myth that vernacular architecture is sustainable per
se, while contributing to the maintenance of this myth to the present day.
They recognize the need to learn from vernacular traditions that optimize
local building materials to provide culturally specific climate comfort, while
simultaneously finding an ecological balance of appropriate resource consumption. It is true that many vernacular buildings provide effective and cheap ways
of dealing with climate, and that the use of natural and local building materials
has been the most distinguished element of these traditions. However, AlSayyad
and Arboleda argue that the widely held claim that equates the vernacular with
sustainability by default warrants a critical re-evaluation.
To further understand what sustainability means within the regional and historic context of the present day, they analyze a series of case studies that focus
on vernacular buildings in different continents, citing four distinct vernacular
building techniques. They suggest that the contemporary fascination with the
vernacular and its equation with sustainability may be simply characterized as
an appreciation of its superficial appearances rather than of its actual sustain­able
After AlSayyad and Arboleda, in the chapter The Qanats in Yazd: The Dilemmas
of Sustainability & Conservation, Vinayak Bharne discusses the situation in the
ancient city of Yazd in Iran, proposing that the re-emergence of sustainable prerogatives in architecture and urban design has re-surfaced the potential importance of vernacular infrastructure traditions. While metropolitan regions rely
on modern infrastructure and rural habitats continue to depend on indigenous
systems for economic reasons, it is in the transitional layer of expanding historic towns such as Yazd where the issue becomes explicit. Overall, the spread
of modern conveniences and modern approaches for water extraction, including dams and mechanized pumps, has contributed to the abandonment of
vernacular systems, and to the abandonment of their strategic preservation
and reuse.
In this chapter, Bharne explores the dilemmas of sustainability and strategic
conservation surrounding the historic qanats (subterranean water channels)
and ab anbars (reservoirs) of Yazd in Iran. He includes the traditional roles of
this 3,000-year old arid water system and the reasons for its decline within the
socio-political changes of the country. Furthermore, he speculates on the alternatives for preserving qanats and ab anbars, weighing them against the realities
of Yazd today. In so doing, Bharne’s article addresses the cultural, ethical and
practical dimensions of conserving vernacular infrastructure in a time of looming global water crisis, while seeking to locate a place for such infrastructure
within the context of contemporary city making.
With the provoking title, The Vernacular, the Iconic and the Fake, Harald
Røstvik presents his personal observations and reflections as they relate to sustainable architecture. In this chapter, Røstvik criticizes the state of what he
characterizes as indifference and misrepresentation in the profession of architecture in relation to sustainability, as well as the kind of romantic views of the
vernacular and the celebration of the iconic that, taken together, may limit a
true engagement with sustainability. He argues that despite the palette of
advanced digital design tools at hand, architects often resort to repeating and
replicating familiar aesthetic forms instead of pursuing innovations toward
sustainability; he finds that the very coding systems of these tools encourage
repetition. Røstvik goes on to discuss sustainability in the context of various
aesthetic traditions including the tight box, the glass box and timber construction. He finds that such trends often miss the substantive issues, and furthermore, that their continued application hinders the search for aesthetic potentials
that are inherently present in designing buildings in a sustainable manner.
In Natural Architecture, Kengo Kuma provides personal reflections on some
of the pointed question he comes across often. First, his central position as a
practicing architect is that it is not meaningful to discuss whether a given
material is good or bad for the environment without considering the context
within which it is used. Therefore, for him, being natural does not automatically mean that a material is good or for that matter sustainable. And being
artificially produced or petroleum-based does not automatically mean that a
material should be avoided.
Originally published in a collection of his essays sharing the same title, Kuma
discusses a few examples of his own work and argues that the materiality and
the so-called scientific measures in sustainable design are meaningless if they
are not considered in a culturally specific context. A given culture determines
the way certain material parameters are set up and therefore affects the way
they are understood; the approaches, materials and designs that may lead to
energy conservation and other sustainability measures in one context may
not be applicable in another. He argues that this is the kind of complex background in which the concept of sustainable architecture should be framed.
Minna Sunikka-Blank, in the chapter drawn from her research work, The
Concept and Aesthetics of Sustainable Building in Japan, sets up a question: If
most environmental technologies are not visible or relate to a building envelope
only, which sustainability measures really do have an impact on architecture?
Based on her policy analysis and research visit to Japan, Sunikka-Blank describes
the concept and aesthetics of sustainable building in the Japanese context. This
includes the material-as-concept approach, based in terms of timber, structure
and adaptability in both vernacular and contemporary architecture. This also
includes her finding that despite the lack of insulation typical in Japanese homes,
the average household consumes around a third as much energy for heating
and cooling compared to that in the UK or Germany. Here Sunikka-Blank
describes the energy strategies of Japan in relation to the passive approach and
in relation to the behaviors of home energy use, discussing how these may
inform sustainability.
In the chapter, Sunikka-Blank goes on to discuss the conceptual differences
that exist between the Western and Japanese principles of sustainable building.
She speculates whether the Japanese examples, based on the use of raw materials, minimalist aesthetics, passive solar strategies, filigree construction and
visual connections to nature, could offer contrasting ideas to our usual ways of
sustainable building. Her argument in this regard is framed in contrast to the
more prevailing Western model that calls for excessive insulation and capsulelike buildings, isolating themselves from the environment.
Marie Antoinette Glaser, a social anthropologist, lays out in Durability in
Housing – The Aesthetics of the Ordinary, the case of a housing complex in Zürich
where it is evident that the notions of durability, conservation and long-term
use are crucial in the development of a sustainable environment. She begins
with the idea that housing is an everyday cultural practice, and it is not possible
to separate aesthetics from the perspective of use in a residential building. Use
is defined as a physical situation of being, located in a place of specific identity.
Glaser argues that enduring, sustainable buildings are dynamic and durable,
able to change and adapt over time rather than being limited to one kind of
use. With her study of the housing complex in Zürich, Glaser observes that
residents enter into a relationship and identify with the living space, potentially
changing it, while simultaneously, there are constants that remain little changed
over the course of time, namely, the building elements, spatial structures, and
some usages and functions.
She states that peoples’ lives leave traces in the houses they occupy, and these
traces of usage can provide important information about the prerequisites and
conditions for the longevity of residential buildings. In her view, therefore,
usage forms the primary modi of architecture, as we perceive architecture through
use in a way that is synonymous with tactile engagement. Glaser proposes an
aesthetic position that defines beauty as a process of long-term use and habitu-
alization. Therefore, through durability, a specific kind of beauty in residential
buildings can be sustained over time, as they are used and re-used over multiple
Elisabetta Pero’s Environmental Issues as Context attempts to re-evaluate the
term context from the viewpoint of environmental issues concerning sustainable
architecture. She argues that the idea of sustainability is determined not as much
by the technological elements of building design, as those originating from a
building’s appropriate insertion into the environment. This appropriate situating
is carried out by the intelligent and critical application of building traditions.
She goes on to state that such an application means thinking in terms of the
notion of beauty that is shared among the kind of buildings that are built to last
and to remain durable.
In this chapter, Pero contends that a building should be able to accommodate the contemporary needs that are placed on it while also staying flexible.
However, within this perspective, the crucial factor is how to design buildings
in such way that the construction is durable not only in the physical sense but
also in the contextual sense. Pero contends that in order for this to happen,
architects must incorporate the environment’s concerns as a legitimate part of
the notion of context. By citing the works of notable architects in Milan, Pero
illustrates past approaches that have been exemplary in their use of contextual
composition and technical articulation toward addressing environmental issues.
Matthew Skjonsberg opens his chapter, Magic, Inc. – Reframing the City, by
asking if the time has come to reframe the city. He begins with the reevaluation
of our senses of what the city should be, based on the idea that the Greek root
of the term aesthetics indicates the cumulative input of all our senses. Furthermore, he argues that the intuitions such as justice, wellbeing and satisfaction
are all included in our sensorial sphere. Skjonsberg bring these two streams of
thought together with the idea that aesthetics inherently includes a sense of
ethics, a position that should inform city making. He continues with the idea
that in the current city, the relationship between our sensory (or sensual) experience and the underlying reality is often strained; we do not recognize the real
dangers that exist, while perceiving hazards that in reality, are not so.
Skjonsberg proposes that architects have the ability to reframe the city in
such a way as to emphasize the hidden cause and effect of things, essentially
using architecture to unveil a hidden reality. To enact this approach, he calls
for a new strategic alchemy in the context of architecture as a discipline, one
that uses clever combinations to produce powerful beneficial effects. This
approach constitutes a kind of faith on the part of scholars’ and practitioners’
ability to work within and yet to subvert the systems of governance, economics
and construction in which they are situated. In such works of faith, Skjonsberg
argues that success will be evidenced by both the work’s evolutionary nature
and its demonstrable relationship to context and precedent.
Giancarlo Mangone and Patrick Teuffel, in their collaboration, Constructing
Sensuous Ecologies: Beyond The Energy Efficiency And Zero-Carbon Argument,
propose that designing for the sensuous aspect of human interaction with the
environment is a key issue in sustainable architecture. In their view, contem­
porary buildings are designed in a static way with respect to the ecosystem,
typically unable to respond to dynamic environmental changes. As a result,
they develop detrimental and parasitic relationships to the ecosystem. This
condition leads in significant performance losses for the local natural environment, productivity and creativity, communal and individual wellbeing, as well
as for the overall fiscal costs of the building itself. Mangone and Teuffel assert
that a more productive approach is to redefine buildings as constructed habitats
that engage the local ecosystem and its dynamic processes in an active and
interconnected way. This perspective shifts the focus from designing an object,
to developing and optimizing the ecological processes of a constructed environment as habitat.
In this chapter, Mangone and Teuffel argue that the concept of sensuous
ecologies helps produce innovative and optimally performing designs. The sensuality-based design approach encourages the exploration of intrinsic performance potentials and results in the development of multi-sensory and engaging
constructed habitats, where the built environment can sustainably evolve the
social, economic and natural ecologies of the contextual site.
In Symbiosis and Mimesis in the Built Environment, Luca Finocchiaro and
Anne Grete Hestnes explore thoughts surrounding the application of advanced
digital modeling technology in architecture. They emphasize that digital tools
have modified the creative process in which architecture is conceived, influ­
encing the aesthetics of the resulting project. In their view, the quantitative
comparison between the exterior and the desired internal conditions determines
the spatial composition and thermal behavior of the building. In this comparison, nature can inspire new models of environmental behavior and form through
biomimetics. The forms of nature express aesthetic manifestations of specific
needs, while helping to establish the building’s symbiotic relations with the
exterior environment.
On the basis of physical principles, Finocchiaro and Hestnes assert that the
aesthetics of sustainable design can be captured as an equation of forms and
dimensions in relation to environmental variables. Constructing based on such
equations contains in itself the notion of beauty; and in order to access these
equations, mimesis and symbiosis can play crucial roles in informing the
internal logic of the artificial environment. They conclude that the aesthetics
of sustainable design is an evolving process in which biomimetics points to a
coherent evolution of both form and function. This embodies the processes
of evolution, and ultimately, may allow architecture to achieve symbiosis
with nature.
In the last chapter of the book, Aesthetic Potentials in an Open Network
Inventory System, David Briggs proposes that there is an opportunity to explore
the aesthetic choices that architects make in the design process, and to understand the way that global and local environmental systems are impacted. To this
end, and to help mitigate environmental problems, Briggs argues that architects
must aggressively find ways to influence industrial processes. This includes
taking responsibility for various building materials and their measurable impacts
on the environment, with the idea that ultimately, architectural design can feed
back and shape the systems of resource extraction, manufacture and supply.
Briggs argues that architects are responsible for the materials they use; they do
not just sit at the receiving end of the line.
In this perspective, Briggs proposes integrating the creative process with an
open network that responds to market forces and environmental consequences,
so that the architect can incorporate both creativity and the conditions that
define a building’s sustainability. With poor oversight of manufacturing processes
in developing nations, as well as the challenges inherent in resource management
and extraction worldwide, this chapter is aimed at highlighting the technical and
software tools that are currently available – and those that could be developed
further – in order to reach a more comprehensive approach to sustainable design.
In this time of heightened environmental consciousness, it is crucial to rethink
our material way of life for which architecture is indeed a large measure. As we
shall see in the discussions that follow, sustainable and durable architecture does
not simply consist of discrete changes and replacements that can be checked
off of a punch list or selected from a catalogue. It is apparent that architecture,
as the most distinctive form of human work, will only be able to contribute to
the sustainability of the built and natural environment by changing its fundamental position within the apparatus that defines the present model of material
economy and culture. In this, architecture occupies a unique place as not only
an expression of civilization and its aspirations, but also as what situates us in
the natural world. This is inherently an aesthetic position. I hope that this book
will serve to establish a closer look at the relationship between sustainable
architecture and its aesthetics.
The Aesthetics of Architectural Consumption
— Glen Hill
The Freedom to Consume
Since the inception of modernity, architecture has increasingly become both a
primary site of commodity accumulation and one of its most significant commodities. This process has implicated architecture in ever-increasing patterns
of energy and resource use, contributing significantly to what is now viewed
as a global condition of unsustainability.
The exponential increase in architecture’s contribution to unsustainable
consumption is starkly illustrated in the shift in housing expectations from the
beginning of the twentieth century to the present.1 In Australia, although household size almost halved over the course of the twentieth century,2 the floor area
of the average home more than doubled,3 resulting in a dramatic increase in
per capita resource consumption. As house size grew, so did the material quality
of the domestic environment. The first wave of mass domestic technologization
– following the provision of service infrastructure at the beginning of the twentieth century – saw the introduction of internal bathrooms and laundries and
labor saving appliances such as refrigerators and washing machines. Kitchen
size and the standard of kitchen appointments increased, while the number of
bathrooms per house proliferated. Energy consumption multipliers, such as
the number of light fittings and power outlets per room also increased incrementally. The thermal environment of internal spaces was more closely controlled
by supplementary heating and cooling, and by the end of the century, domestic air conditioning became commonplace.4 The domestic privatization of
previously shared public facilities also had a dramatic impact on resource consumption. Outdoor recreational services that were previously provided by
public parks and playgrounds were duplicated with the basketball hoops, soccer
practice nets and play equipment that populated private suburban backyards.
A proliferation of backyard swimming pools, replicating the services that were
previously provided so efficiently by public swimming pools, not only multiplied the consumption of resources required for pool construction but also
created an ongoing burden of energy use for a vastly underutilized commodity.
Previously shared indoor recreational facilities, such as social clubs, pool halls
and cinemas, were also privately replicated, appearing as pool rooms, bar areas,
and cinema and media rooms within the home. Exacerbating all of these new
trajectories of domestic consumption, the frequency of home renovation and
replacement also increased. And (as if it could be worse) rather than renewing
only deteriorated or non-functional portions of the home and reusing existing
furnishings and appliances, the so-called ‘Diderot effect’5 meant that with each
home renovation or new home purchase, home occupiers aspired to acquire
a ‘total look’ of new matching suites of home furnishings and fittings, multiplying consumption, redundancy and waste.
While in pre-modernity, overt consumption was often displayed in the architectural opulence of a small number of elites, modernity brought the unprecedented
and environmentally calamitous phenomenon of the mass consumption of
architectural opulence. Here a critical inversion in the conventional understanding of the relation between modernity and consumption must be highlighted.
It was not simply that greater numbers of individuals gained a greater capacity
to consume because of burgeoning technological and economic development,
allowing for increased resource consumption. I suggest the reverse is true.
Technological development, and the momentously changed lifestyles of modernity had, at their very foundations, the necessity for individuals to consume.
To appreciate this, it is critical to understand the fundamental difference between
the project of modernity and the condition of pre-modernity.6
In the pre-modern view, one’s place within a given social order was considered immutable. For example, in the traditional Hindu caste system there
was an acceptance that the caste one was born into was fixed for life. Shifting
between castes – from a Vaishya (merchant caste) to a Brahmin (priestly caste)
for instance – would not just be impossible, it would simply not show itself as
a possibility. The only sanctioned way to gain the regard of one’s peers was to
be as good a member of one’s caste as possible.7 Whether in Asia, Europe or
elsewhere, the pre-modern world defined itself by adherence to a fixed, often
god-given order, binding all parts of society: ruler and ruled, master and
servant, husband and wife, child and parent.
In contrast to the inertia of the pre-modern world, in modernity we find ourselves, as Marshall Berman recognized, ‘In an environment that promises adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world – and at
the same time, that threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know,
everything we are.’8 Modern life, David Harvey argues, is ‘Suffused with the
sense of the fleeting, the ephemeral, the fragmentary, and the contingent …
modernity can have no respect for its own past, let alone that of any pre-modern
social order.’9 In modernity, there is neither commitment to a geographic place
nor acceptance of placement within a social order. We are physically migratory,
readily relocating ourselves, our family, our home and our workplace. And we
are socially migratory, changing our occupation, our level of education, our body,
our friends, our spouse and with that even our children.
In terms of Martin Heidegger’s concept of the ‘projectedness’ of being,10
it can be argued that in the shift from the pre-modern to the modern, the project
of being itself has shifted. I refer here not to one project among many that society hands over to us, but rather, to the overarching project within which all
other projects of everyday life are nested, and in terms of which all other projects
make sense. In the pre-modern world, the overarching project might be described
as an acceptance and a commitment to the place one has been given. In line with
Heidegger’s concept that the projects already projected ahead of us are normally
unnoticed, this central project of pre-modernity would not be thematically
Architectural Consumption
The Aesthetics of Architectural Consumption
pursued as we might pursue a goal. Instead, it would be so self-evident, so
ubiquitous as to be transparent. Only in the event of transgression would it
disclose itself.11
The enlightenment eroded and eventually supplanted this pre-modern commitment to the given. As Harvey points out, in contrast to the stability of the
pre-modern world:
Enlightenment thinkers welcomed the maelstrom of change and saw the tran­
sitions, the fleeting, the fragmentary as a necessary condition through which
the modernising project could be achieved. Doctrines of equality, liberty, faith
in human intelligence (once allowed the benefits of education), and universal
reason abounded.12
The removal of a (god-) given place as the ground for being left a void which
each individual in modernity must now build over. Where in pre-modernity
our place was given, in modernity we are free to make our own place. This has
brought with it both the freedom and the anxiety that is the condition of modern
life. To slightly misuse Jean-Paul Sartre’s words, ‘we are condemned to be free.’13
The Consumption of Aesthetics
How then have we proceeded with the project of making our place within the
radical freedom of modernity? One dominant way in which an individual’s place
has been constructed is through consumption bound to aesthetics. This is certainly
not the route advocated by enlightenment thinkers, and yet aesthetic­ally organized consumption has shadowed the enlightenment project from its outset.
Georg Simmel noted that from the early Renaissance, the aesthetic qualities
of a person’s mode of dress increasingly operated to construct the public face of
their personal identity.14 In medieval Europe, dress styles were relatively stable,
and played a role in communicating a person’s place within the fairly fixed social
order. From the latter half of the fourteenth century, the lower social ranks
began imitating the style of dress of the upper social ranks, though difference
was still maintained through variation in the quality of fabric and detailing.15
By the sixteenth century, servants were attempting to follow more closely the
style and quality of their masters’ dress. Resentment was aired in the claim that
if servants were allowed to be ‘fashionable,’ it would become impossible to tell
‘who was the mistress and who was the maid.’16 The only recourse the upper
social ranks had for this incursion onto their public identity was to keep changing dress style in order to maintain a visible difference. The (now familiar)
result was the ever-quickening cycle of fashion transformations.
Like clothing, buildings in pre-modernity played a role in communicating
the occupant’s place within the social strata of a community. Rules dictating
the aesthetic qualities of buildings not only maintained the legibility of the
occupant’s station, but also helped suppress consumption associated with aesthetic competition. Transformations during the early modern period – such as
the growing wealth of the merchant class and the dissemination of concepts of
egalitarianism and individualism – saw the weakening of the commitment to a
(god-) given social order, the erosion of the notion of decorum in buildings
and clothing, and the reversal of previously powerful prejudices against unneces­
sary consumption.17 With these changes, architectural aesthetics, like sartorial
aesthetics, were freed to become a commodity in the struggle for place and the
regard of others.18
Modernity’s dissolution of the decorous relation between building form and
use(r) not only allowed those aspiring to social mobility to exploit traditionally
established relationships between aesthetics and status (by dressing or building
like an aristocrat for example), it also made possible the invention of new aesthetic trajectories for both traditional and non-traditional building types. Jean
Nicholas Durand’s use of a mathematized classicism at the close of the eighteenth century is often identified as a key moment in undermining the meaning
and authority of the classical tradition. In the nineteenth century, the arbitrary
relation between form and program was highlighted in the historicist application of a smorgasbord of styles to potentially any building type. In the early
twentieth century, the cubist forms of heroic modernism managed to briefly
cloak the arbitrary relation between aesthetics and function.19 But in the latter
part of the twentieth century the full potential of a capricious relation between
form and program was revealed in the playful aesthetics of post-modernism.
The aesthetic economy of late modernity, freed from any necessary relation with
program or context, now offers a vast range of aesthetic trajectories that can be
exploited in the constant search for place and the regard of others.
In this way, the epochal shift from pre-modernity to modernity did not
merely set free the genie of consumption previously held in place by traditionally accepted relations between form, use and user, and by instruments such as
sumptuary laws. Rather, faced with the void left by the removal of one’s given
place, modernity had at its very foundations the necessity for individuals to
consume in order to construct their place. If the overarching project of being
for the pre-modern world was to be in a way that is appropriate to one’s (ascribed)
place, then in modernity the overarching project of being is to be in another(’s)
place. In other words, in modernity we have already projected ahead of ourselves
the possibility that we can – and indeed should – be other than what we are, in
another place than where we are. Consumption, bound to an economy of aesthetics, is the most expeditious way to try to be in another(’s) place.
The Aesthetics of Modernity
The term aesthetics arrives with modernity. The pre-modern world did not have
a conception of aesthetics as it is now understood. There was certainly a conception of beauty, but beauty was not a matter of sensory affect or taste, as it
became in modernity. In pre-modernity, for a thing to be beautiful it must
appropriately reflect the given-ness of the moral order of a tradition or of God.
Hans-Georg Gadammer says simply that for the pre-modern, to be beautiful
was to be good.20 Thus when Vitruvius insists that architectural beauty is
The Aesthetics of Architectural Consumption
achieved through proportion, he is referring not only to the proportional system
embodied in the classical orders, but to spatial use, spatial layout and ornamentation being in proportion to its context and to the station of its occupants.
Likewise, a medieval church was beautiful not because of the sensory pleasure
invoked by its vertical spatiality, rich statuary and stained glass, but because of
its didactic capacity to orient mortals toward heaven and to provide a visually
legible moral education to an illiterate congregation.
Sir Henry Wotton’s now familiar seventeenth century translation of the
Vitruvian term venustas (Latin, meaning beauty) as delight is symptomatic of
the shift toward the modern sensorial notion of aesthetics.21 The Shorter Oxford
Dictionary captures the evolution of the modern meaning of aesthetics as:
‘Received by the senses’ (1798); ‘Of or pertaining to the appreciation or criticism
of the beautiful’ (1831); and ‘Having or showing refined taste; in accordance
with good taste’ (1871).22 This transformation of meaning reflects a larger shift
in self-understanding that occurred at the outset of modernity, where, for the
first time, the perceiving subject was conceptualized as separate from the surrounding world of objects. Once separated, in order for a subject to have knowledge of an object, the subject needed to receive sensory data from the object,
hence the 1798 definition of aesthetics. With the separation of subject from
object, the object itself could be conceived as having particular aesthetic qualities that made it appear beautiful, leading to the 1831 definition of aesthetics.
Finally, once it was conceived that beauty arrives from the objective qualities of
the object, then those subjects capable of perceiving the objective qualities were
deemed to have taste, hence the 1871 definition of aesthetics.
The current discourse of aesthetics reflects the confusion caused by modernity’s separation of subject and object. In contemporary texts on aesthetics, the
term aesthetics may refer either to subjective experience (the sensation of encountering beauty) or the qualities of the object (the characteristics that give rise to
the sensation of beauty). The complexity arising from this fluidity of meaning,
combined with differences of use in multiple disciplines, leads to unwieldy
definitions of aesthetics such as the following:
The term ‘aesthetic’ has been used to designate an experience, the quality of an
object, a feeling of pleasure, classicism in art, a judgment of taste, the capacity of
perception, a value, attitude, the theory of art, the doctrine of beauty, a state of
the spirit, contemplative receptivity, an emotion, an intention, a way of life, the
faculty of sensibility, a branch of philosophy, a type of subjectivity, the merit of
certain forms, and an act of expression.23
This [opposition] … is a misconception, and in fact a contradiction. Science,
technology, and aesthetics belong together. The development of scientific objectivity depends … on the subject responsible for the project of science. In other
words, the more objective reality becomes, the more subjective must be the position of the individual who encounters in modern science by definition, as it
were, only his or her own projection of reality. One might conclude that objectivity in science is in fact the product of human subjectivity.24
Other post-structuralist scholars have also been critical of attempts to discuss
aesthetics either in terms of an objective set of characteristics that account for
the beauty of a thing, or as a subjective sensation of beauty that arises in the
encounter with a beautiful object. Alternative interpretations, such as those
offered by Martin Heidegger (which shall be returned to at the end of this chapter), not only disclose the weaknesses in the subject-object account of aesthetics,
but also demonstrate how the subject-object account itself belongs to a metaphysical understanding that has led to modernity’s reduction of the earth to a
mere resource.
The Production of Aesthetics
Dalibor Veseley’s critique of architectural aesthetics recognizes how the subjectobject dichotomy has created an apparent opposition between objectively quanti­
fiable domains such as science and mathematics, and the subjective realms of
feelings, imagination and beauty – the domain now occupied by aesthetics.
Veseley argues that this is a false dichotomy, as it is the experience of subject­ivity
that simultaneously discloses the possibility of objectivity:
If, as an interim position, we accept Wotton’s intuitive insight that the character
of modern aesthetic experience is delight rather than classical notions of goodness
or appropriateness, then in modernity, aesthetics defines itself in relation to the
sensorial. Delight, as a noticed pleasurable sensorial affect, also implies the possibility of its other, the noticing of a negative sensorial affect. Accordingly,
aesthetic experience in modernity could be said to be the noticing (as pleasure,
repulsion, elation and so on) of the look, feel, sound, taste or smell of something,
where the look has become hegemonic.
But noticing architectural aesthetics is not our primary experience of architecture. On the contrary, architecture has a tendency to withdraw into the
background of daily life.25 Walter Benjamin, concurring that architecture is
seldom noticed thematically in everyday experience, contrasted the experience
of architecture with that of art. Art, Benjamin observed, is most commonly
encountered in what he described as a state of ‘absorption’ – a deliberate and
thematized noticing of the art.26 Whereas architecture is most often encountered in what he described as a state of ‘distraction’ – where the architecture is
not the focus of thematic attention, but forms the background for other focal
activities.27 Considered in terms of Heidegger’s insight that we are pressing
toward nestings of generally unnoticed projects, architecture encountered in a
mode of distraction can be seen as the facilitator of these projects rather than
their theme.28 For example, the architecture of a domestic living room (now
dominated by the presence of the TV screen) provides the unnoticed background
conditions – the appropriate weather protection, acoustic insulation and thermal comfort – to allow us to undistractedly attend to a TV show.
Yet when architecture is reflected upon, noticing, particularly noticing the
The Aesthetics of Architectural Consumption
Contemporary architectural theorists have suggested that the proliferation of
ever-changing styles that now populate the aesthetic economy has resulted in
the irrelevance of style itself.31 However, the discussion to date would suggest
that the reverse is true: that the ever-quickening pace of aesthetic change is a
manifestation of the importance of the competitive positioning of both architect and client within the aesthetic economy. Significantly, while the aesthetic
trajectories that proliferate in late modernity no longer carry traditionally
agreed upon meanings, they nevertheless still carry meaning. Each look has a
significance that can be interpreted with precision by a particular community
in a particular context. Regardless of whether it is clothes, architecture or any
other aestheticized commodity, there exists a refined capacity to recognize what
is new or old, what is cool or passé, what will (make us) fit in or (make us) stand
out in a given context.
Stanley Fish’s concept of ‘interpretive communities’ offers a theoretical
framework for understanding the different valuations of aesthetic trajectories,
and how they transform over time. An interpretive community is a group who
shares a particular interpretation in a particular interpretive context. But, as
Fish points out, an interpretive community is ‘not so much a group of individuals who shared a point of view, but a point of view or way of organizing experience that shared individuals.’32 Interpretive communities are ephemeral and
fluid, with individuals disaggregating and re-aggregating around different interpretations in different contexts. At one moment an individual may be part of
one community in terms of their political orientation, and at another moment
be part of a quite different community in terms of their sporting or sexual
orientation. As well as changing their interpretive communities in relation to
different issues, individuals can be seen to change their interpretive communities
in relation to the same issue over time: as they age and mature, change interests
and affiliations, or as they respond to the transformation of interpretive communities themselves. In terms of aesthetics, an aesthetic interpretive community
would be an ephemeral aggregation of interpreters who share a similar interpretation of a particular aesthetic trajectory, in a context where aesthetics is at
issue. This might be as simple as a shared like or dislike for a particular aesthetic
in a particular context.
An interpretive community’s shared aesthetic interpretation is never simply
the product of the material qualities of the object being interpreted, but is instead
constructed by the authority of the discursive formations of the context of interpretation.33 Considering again Simmel’s illustration of the maid and the mistress in early modernity, it is evident that the aesthetic attraction of the mistress’
clothes is not a natural outcome of the quality of the clothes themselves.34
From our context in the twenty-first century, we might agree that the clothes
used fabrics or colors in interesting ways, that they were well made or that they
had good thermal properties. But we would be unlikely to think, ‘I want to
wear those clothes!’ So too the maid’s desire for the clothes is authorized by
aspects that exceed the quality or performance of the clothes themselves. In
terms of the earlier discussion, it might be said that the maid desires the regard
of others that she anticipates she will receive when wearing the clothes. The
look of architecture, is given prominence in the architectural imagination. It is
here that Cynthia Davidson recognizes architecture’s envy of art.29 Architects,
she suggests, desire their architecture to remain noticed, like art, and not to disappear into the background of habit. In modernity, not just the architect’s but
also the client’s cachet is dependent upon maintaining their architecture’s aesthetic presence. However, because it is inevitable that with everyday use architecture will eventually withdraw into the background, then the most effective
way for an architect to ensure their work remains noticed is to maintain the production of difference; that is, to keep producing fresh work. This opens a path
toward an aesthetic economy of architecture in which the need for constant
production of the new is matched with the need for its endless consumption.
While in pre-modernity, architectural form was guided by the authority of
tradition, the shift from pre-modernity to modernity removed the authoritative architectural vocabulary of the past – including the canons of the Western
Classical tradition – and left a void in the guidance of architectural form. The
ever-changing aesthetic trajectories of the modern aesthetic economy filled
that void, and facilitated the ongoing construction and reconstruction of identity for both the consumers and producers of architecture. A multitude of
aesthetic trajectories now constitute the aesthetic economy. In the Australian
architectural context, there currently exist numerous intersecting, overlapping
and competing aesthetic trajectories in various states of prosperity or decay.
Aesthetic trajectories that might be identified include: minimalist and modernist
bar-code architecture, digitally generated mesh, filigree and media screen architecture, folding architecture and occasional remnants of Deconstructivist architecture, among others.
The suggestion that architects today draw from, and contribute to, an
aesthetic economy that is constituted by the circulation of multiple aesthetic
trajectories is clearly opposed to the conception of aesthetics as the organic
outcome of the socio-cultural, economic, environmental and technological
possibilities of a particular architectural context. While context-specific contin­
gencies such as functional requirements, available technologies and site conditions will circumscribe the range of aesthetic outcomes that are possible, they
cannot determine them. Even within the boundaries of what, at any historical
moment, is technologically possible and culturally thinkable, there is still an
unlimited number of aesthetic trajectories that might be brought into being in
the development of a design outcome.30 An architect would for example have
little problem developing a number of different aesthetic outcomes for the
same project brief. Likewise, design competitions provide evidence of contemporaneous architects deploying different aesthetic trajectories for an identical
program, in an identical technological, cultural and environmental context.
Interpreting the Aesthetic Economy
The Aesthetics of Architectural Consumption
clothing’s form, authorized by its association with the station of the mistress,
constructs an anticipation of the regard of others, for both the maid and her
peers. As previously argued, deploying aesthetics to secure the regard of others
is integral to the necessity of constructing one’s place in modernity.
In the early modern period, the maid would have gained her understanding
of the world of the mistress as a site of desire through her intimate involvement
with that world. In late modernity we now have a smorgasbord of places that
might show up as desired, but few of these would be understood from first-hand
experience. The actual understanding of places of desire has been augmented,
and often entirely replaced, by the authority of multitudinal forms of media.
In an architectural context, an interpretive community of, for example, homebuyers might have their aesthetic preferences organized by lifestyle television
programs, home-maker magazines or the media portrayal of suburban life itself.35
Similarly, the aesthetic preferences of a particular architectural interpretive
community might be constructed through the authority of a narrow range of
architectural journals, professional architectural awards and competitions or
the discourse of star architects. And an interpretive community of avant-garde
architects might look beyond architecture, to find authority in the discourse
and practice of art, as was historically the case with modernism.
Relations of authority among interpretive communities generate flows of
aesthetic influence. In the sartorial fashion industry, for example, an interpretive
community of off-the-rack fashion designers may find authority in the aesthetic
innovations of haute couture fashion collections. The aesthetic trajectory of a
couture collection might therefore be reinterpreted and appear in an off-the-rack
line in a later season. In a more everyday context, a teenager’s fashion choices
might be little influenced by their parents’ interpretive communities, but greatly
influenced by their own peer group. In an architectural context, authority might
cascade from the interpretive communities of avant-garde architects, to mainstream architectural interpretive communities, to non-architectural interpretive
communities. In the Australian context, it is evident that the proliferation of
faux-historic project home styles, particularly in the Queen Anne style (or
Federation style as it is referred to in Australia) is the outcome of reinterpretation by successive strata of interpretive communities: first the valorizing of
postmodernism by international avant-garde architects in the 1980’s, followed
by the historicist post-modern house designs of mainstream Australian architects, and ending in the faux historicism of a multitude of suburban homes.
The imperative of belonging to contextually appropriate aesthetic interpret­
ive communities is revealed in everyday situations where allegiance to particular interpretive communities could result in outcomes ranging from unspoken
acceptance or rejection, to vocal admiration or ridicule. The consequence of
not belonging to appropriate, authorized and normalized interpretive communities might range from personal discomfort to tangible disadvantage. Dressing
inappropriately might, for example, impede securing a job or advancing in
employment, while designing in an outdated architectural style might result in
less saleable or rentable buildings or fewer future commissions. From Vitruvius
to Venturi, Corbusier to Koolhaas, the ubiquity within architectural history of
attempts to promote one aesthetic position over others evidences the importance
of belonging to successful aesthetic trajectories.
The appearance of ever-new aesthetic trajectories within the aesthetic economy mitigates against long term alignment with any particular trajectory. In
modernity, the valorizing of new aesthetic trajectories, which in the same movement marginalizes existing trajectories, is evident in every authorizing discourse:
from professional architectural journals which almost exclusively celebrate the
new, to architectural histories which focus on inflection points where new aesthetic trajectories emerge from the midst of the old. The continual arrival of
new aesthetic trajectories within the aesthetic economy may be seen as a potential threat or opportunity, as new trajectories may burgeon and old trajectories
may wane. Survival – and I use this word without hyperbole – not only involves
navigating existing aesthetic trajectories, but occasionally jumping ship to new
trajectories when existing trajectories are devalued by the new.
The constant devaluation of the old in the flux of the aesthetic economy is
the engine of aesthetically grounded consumption. Not just success, but everyday survival, depends on temporary alignments with contextually appropriate
aesthetic trajectories. This formulation rejects aesthetic theories that contend
that objects have inherent beauty, that some subjects might have special faculties of taste or that some designers might have special gifts of creative genius.
Instead, this argument posits that the immediate, potent and visceral response
to an encountered aesthetic trajectory is the result of already belonging to an
interpretive community aligned with that trajectory, or, that the aesthetic arrives
as part of a discourse that has authority for that interpretive community. Either
way, the valuation of the aesthetic can be seen as constructed, subject to variation from one interpretive community to another and subject to change over
time. Modernity’s valorization of the new, bound to the perception that creating and adopting the new can bring the regard of others, ensures the constant
appearance of the new within the aesthetic economy. But as new aesthetic trajectories come into being and are adopted, older aesthetic trajectories lose their
capacity to engender regard (and might even bring stigma) and as such, they
are devalued.
The continual creation and adoption of new aesthetic trajectories is far
from innocuous, as the environmental impacts are significant. On one hand,
the acquisition of the new stuff that arrives with each new aesthetic accelerates
resource consumption and ecosystem destruction. On the other hand, older
stuff is forced to become waste long before its functional life is over. This burgeoning aesthetic obsolescence means that human waste is increasingly aesthetic
waste. Aesthetics, as it manifests in modernity, has thus become the driver of
the reciprocal conditions of consumption and waste.
The Aesthetics of Architectural Consumption
The Aesthetic Economy of Sustainable Architecture
Because sustainable architecture is most often considered in terms of technical
performance, discussion of the ways in which aesthetics relate to sustainability
has been limited. In the few cases where the role of aesthetics has been discussed
in relation to sustainable architecture, the arguments often prove slippery. For
example, Edward Winters’ recent book, Architectural Aesthetics, which proposes
positive possibilities for architectural aesthetics, uses a particular work of sustainable architecture as a key illustration. Winters begins with a big claim for
the architecture he is about to discuss:
Let us conclude this chapter with an example of a work of architecture which I
take to be as important as any in the contemporary world. Its importance lies in
the fact that it establishes an aesthetic by instantiating a moral view.36
Winters concludes his assessment of the house with the assertion that:
It is the fact that the house is built with authority and responsibility that we
engage with it at an aesthetic level. Its beauty resides in the political and moral
objectives that it rightly pursues.39
With this assertion, the moral and aesthetic dimensions of Winters’ argument
appear to have been separated. As I understand him, Winters appears to be
saying firstly that the architects have been morally responsible in their choice
of sand bags and straw bails (local materials with low embodied energy and
good thermal performance), and secondly they have used these materials to
create architecture in which ‘we find aesthetic pleasure.’ Besides the obvious
problem that the author cannot know whether or not ‘we’ find aesthetic pleasure in the building, the argument seems to have been reduced to the rather
bland claim that the strategies of sustainable architecture, such as energy and
resource conservation, should be used in a way that is aesthetically pleasing.
The first sentence reiterates the previous claim that the building’s pleasing
aesthetic arises from the deft control of architectural form (demonstrating the
authority of the architect), combined with the use of morally appropriate sustainable design strategies (demonstrating the responsibility of the architect).
The final sentence however contradicts the previous argument that the building’s pleasing aesthetic arises from formal manipulation of the materials and
passive design strategies, and suggests instead that the building’s beauty is the
outcome of its moral stance, that is, its use of sustainable design strategies.
Winters’ discussion leaves us with two irreconcilable claims. The first, that
the building’s beauty is an outcome of its ‘moral objectives,’ aligns with the premodern view that to be beautiful is to be good. The second, that the aesthetic
pleasure engendered by the building is the outcome of the formal disciplining
of the sustainable technologies to produce order rather than clutter, implies
that moral objectives are insufficient to produce beauty. The implication is that
if moral strategies and materials are integrated into one aesthetic trajectory
(order) they produce beauty, but if they are integrated into a different aesthetic
trajectory (clutter) they do not. This evidences a forgetting, common to modernity, that the positions we hold to be truths are instead the parochial product
of belonging to particular interpretive communities.
Winters’ argument has not been rehearsed simply because it contains contradictions. His claims are important because they mirror significant tensions that
have arisen in the discussion of aesthetics in relation to sustainable architecture
over its short history. In the 1960’s, responses to the ecological crisis were most
prominently manifested in movements advocating radical alternatives to the
established order, an order that was identified as the source of the crisis. Architectural manifestations of these reactionary positions, such as Drop City at the
level of the community, and the Autonomous House at the level of the individual, were radical departures from the normalized ways of living at the time.40
Because this architecture was often produced through incremental, bottom-up
processes, the aesthetic of these movements was often that of disorder, or to use
Winters’ term, clutter. For example, in 1974 the first Australian autonomous
house, influenced by the early work of Brenda and Robert Vale,41 was built on
marginal land on the University of Sydney campus by students and staff of the
faculty of architecture.42 It was demolished only a few years later. The reason
cited by the university administration was its ‘unsightliness.’43
From the beginning of the 1970’s, when a spate of professional architectural
conferences around the world focused on the environmental crisis,44 environmental architecture was promoted within the profession. One promotional
strategy was to introduce a new category of design awards for environmentally
This seems promising, as Winters links aesthetics to a moral position and not
to the potentially problematic notions of taste, genius or inherent beauty.
Winters continues:
The building is the house designed and owned by Jeremy Till and his partner
Sarah Wigglesworth. It is an energy-efficient, sustainable building. But what is
remarkable about the building is that its sustainability and its energy efficiency
are not merely the kind of additional features that are unsightly and merely
functional clutter.37
Here Winters has, at least momentarily, set aside the promising moral view of
the building’s significance in favor of a formal view that the building’s significance lies in its ability to subsume the sustainable technologies within the visual
order of the architecture (rather than exposing them as clutter). However, by
valorizing this formal strategy it would seem that Winters is simply articulating
a perhaps unrecognized prejudice in favor of one aesthetic, order, and against
another, disorder. The next step in Winters’ argument reintroduces the moral
aspect of his claim:
This house, built of bails of straw and sand bags, among other things, takes the
political and moral strand of energy and makes a work of architecture in which
we find aesthetic pleasure.38
The Aesthetics of Architectural Consumption
In her recent article discussing the place of aesthetics in sustainable landscape
architecture, Elizabeth Meyer reviews competing professional attitudes toward
sustainability in current landscape architectural practice.47 As an outcome of
reviewing these stances on sustainability, Meyer suggests that a new aesthetic
sensibility is emerging, and with it a new role for aesthetics. The new aesthetic,
she suggests, is not pretty or ordered. On the contrary, she argues that: ‘Anti-
quated conceptions of landscape beauty as generic, balanced, smooth,
bounded, charming, pleasing and harmonious persist and must be re-examined.’48 The new aesthetic instead requires ‘framing messy landscapes.’49 Its
‘sustainable beauty’ Meyer argues ‘will be of its place whether an abandoned
brownfield site, an obsolete naval shipyard, or a lumbered forest.’50 The new
aesthetic thus reflects an understanding of nature not as ‘balanced, ordered
and harmonious,’ but instead as ‘dynamic,’ manifesting ‘resilience, adaption
and disturbance.’51
But if this were the limit of Meyer’s claim for aesthetics, it would amount
to little more than Winters’ position except that the aesthetic prejudice has
been reversed, with disorder being privileged over order. However Meyer has
a strategic reason for promoting this new, confronting aesthetic. Concurring
with Benjamin’s understanding that in everyday experience architecture is generally not the focus of attention, Meyer claims that ‘designed landscapes are
usually experienced while distracted, in the course of everyday urban life.’52
Mirroring the architects’ previously described wish to resist this withdrawal
into the background, Meyer suggests that landscape architecture should be
designed ‘so that it draws the attention of an urban audience distracted by
daily concerns of work and family, or the over-stimulation of the digital world.’53
The opportunity opened by resisting withdrawal from presence and encouraging ‘a spatial practice of noticing’54 is that landscape architecture might then be
able to reveal the ecological ground of human dwelling, or in Meyer’s words,
‘lead to new awareness of the rhythms and cycles necessary to sustain and regenerate life.’55 For Meyer, the way in which landscape architecture could gain the
attention necessary to perform this act is through the deployment of this grittier, messier aesthetic. As Meyer states, such ‘new challenging forms of beauty
can lead to attentiveness.’56
The call for an aesthetic that will be noticed returns the discussion full circle
to the earlier theme of this chapter. The difference though is that the earlier
discussion presented aesthetics as seeking to be noticed as part of an unending
quest for the regard of others in the context of an ever-changing aesthetic
economy. Now however it is being suggested that architecture might be capable
of revealing something beyond the social standing of the owner, the pleasure of
the viewer or the genius of the maker. Referring to the revelatory potential of
landscape design as its art, Meyer points to the possibility that this art might
contribute to the revealing of something foundational in relation to the environmental crisis itself. In Meyer’s case, this is the revealing of ecological systems as
the ground for human existence.
The rejection of modernity’s aesthetic categories and the claim that art has
the capacity to reveal the ‘ground of being’ is central to Heideggers’ stance in
relation to art. Discussing both Heidegger and Benjamin’s rejection of modern
aesthetics, Krzysztof Ziarek suggests that:
Moving the discussion beyond aesthetic categories means not only relinquishing
the paradigm of the subject as the governing cognitive scheme, with its corollary
considerate architecture. A separate category was considered necessary because
it was feared that the environmental architecture of the time would not be of
a design quality that would be competitive within mainstream award categories.45 While these strategies were genuine attempts to bring environmental
considerations to mainstream architectural production, they also had the effect
of drawing radical or marginal environmental practice into the normalizing
regime of the architectural establishment. Aesthetically, the architecture awarded
under the new environmental categories tended not to be disordered and cluttered.46 Thus, Winters’ tacit advocacy of a particular aesthetic prejudice can be
seen as a manifestation of a longer history of the aesthetic normalizing, and
perhaps also the de-radicalizing, of environmental architecture.
The deployment of sustainable strategies and technologies is now so commonplace in architectural practice that there are often calls for the removal of
the conceptual separation between architecture and sustainable architecture.
All architecture, it is argued, should be sustainable architecture. In terms of
aesthetics, the authority of sustainability is now such that the formal attributes
of particular active and passive design strategies are generating their own influential aesthetic trajectories. Examples include the extensive use of twin glass
façades to create a ventilated cavity housing shading devices and maintenance
walkways, and the use of fixed and dynamic sun control louvers and screens to
an extent where they become the dominant external aesthetic of the building.
The integration of sustainable strategies and technologies into global architectural practice gives the appearance that architecture is becoming more sustainable. However, it might instead be argued that sustainable architecture has
been captured by the commodifying forces of late modernity of which the aesthetic economy is a driver. Rather than instantiating a sustainable way of living,
as significant early environmental architecture attempted, sustainable architecture now focuses on technological strategies to maintain an arguably unsustainable way of being for the least energy and resource cost. By drawing sustainable
architecture into the aesthetic economy, sustainable architecture is subject to
the processes of endless aesthetic devaluing and aesthetic obsolescence. Inversely,
the authority of the formal strategies of sustainable architecture now contributes to the devaluing and revaluing of aesthetic trajectories in general. Thus
through its incorporation within the aesthetic economy, sustainable architecture participates in the burgeoning cycle of consumption and waste that
underlies the environmental crisis.
The Sustainable Art of Subverting Aesthetics
The Aesthetics of Architectural Consumption
notions of beauty, taste and genius, but, and primarily, exploring the link
between the poetic in art and the poetic in experience.57
In this view, art, or more precisely the poetic dimension of art, is not a passive
thing to be looked at. It is instead active: it works. The work that art does is to
reveal its world. All of the arts, including architecture, have the potential of a
poetic dimension that might do this work. But what does it mean for a work
of art to reveal its world? Marcel Duchamp’s artwork, entitled Fountain, from
his Readymade series, provides one example of this possibility. The work, a factory-made urinal placed into an art gallery, reveals that it is not the quality of
the work but its context within an art museum that makes it art. The work
thus discloses the world of modern art making, art collection and art display
that constitutes the artificially constructed ground of art itself. In doing so it
simultaneously subverts that world, and thereby brings into question the commodity value that is placed on all art.
Following the arguments in this chapter, what might be hoped from sustainable architecture, or more properly its poetic aspect, is the capacity to reveal
the unsustainable ground of our world and architecture’s role within it.58 If
sustainable architecture is to be truly sustainable it cannot simply be an assemblage of energy reducing technologies wrapped in a delightful aesthetic package.
This approach simply draws architecture back into the world of the aesthetic
economy, a world of endlessly competing interpretive communities, commodification and ultimately the environmental cost of aesthetic obsolescence and
Examples of architecture that might have the capacity to reveal the world in
this manner were hinted at earlier. Drop city, whose confronting presentation
of an alternative way of living, housed within an architecture constructed of
human detritus, cannot help but invoke its other: the squandering affluence of
developed cultures. A more recent illustration, one that fits more comfortably
into contemporary aesthetic trajectories, might be the series of projects for marginalized communities, created by Samuel Mockbee’s Rural Studio. The Mason’s
Bend Community Center, for example, with its sweeping walls of recycled car
tires below, and its fish scales of recycled car windscreens above, not only reveals
a world of prematurely wasted human artifacts but also a world of prematurely
wasted human lives.
The aesthetic dilemma of sustainable architecture can have no simple resolution. The discussions to date, and the illustrations provided, leave many
questions unanswered. How, for example, can architecture that stands forward
from its context in order to reveal its world avoid being transformed into yet
another spectacular aesthetic trajectory competing for attention in the commodified aesthetic economy? The danger seems unavoidable. Nevertheless, the glimmer of hope remains that architecture may still have some capacity, in a world
overwhelmed by the forces of commodification, to reveal those very forces.
What Does Sustainability Look Like?
­— Matthias Sauerbruch and Louisa Hutton
It is clear that the central issue at the beginning of the 21st century is the question of climate change and the foreseeable scarcity of resources. All other
global problems are by and large connected to this core challenge. Only if we
can find ways to cope with the rising demand of an expanding global population do we have a chance to maintain life, as we know it. Western societies have
been leading the way in the establishment of relatively stable, democratic and
free political systems but they have also been leading the culture of excessive
consumption that is largely responsible for the ecological damage on the planet.
The North has become an ecological debtor to the less developed South. And
while the less developed countries are fast catching up in terms of democra­
tization as well as the consumption-based economic model, it is undoubtedly
the North that has to accept its leading role emphatically and demonstrate
that fair societies can be sustained without exhausting the planet.
Generally speaking, the two options that bring us forward in the campaign
to reduce our oversized ecological footprint are a reduction in demand and
technological innovation. Only with considerable innovation in the technologies of energy production and/or carbon capture will we be able to meet demands
in a sustainable way: thus, highly developed countries have to research the efficient use of (renewable) energies at every level and they have to reduce energy
consumption at the same time. However, the latter will require behavioral
change; that is, people will have to review their lifestyles.
Construction as a field obviously has to contribute to this change and hence
the most pressing question for architects right now is how they can help, and
how this activity may affect their thinking and professional habits and conventions. Again, the same two directions seem worth considering: the passive
reduction of unnecessary energy consumption through intelligent design and
the active application of energy-saving or energy-producing technology. One
of the key questions in this is the scale of operation: does it make sense to apply
these technologies on the level of individual buildings? Should one try to harvest energy in a decentralized system on every roof or should one concentrate
on the optimization of centralized power plant systems? The figures suggest that
the latter option is clearly more efficient and effective, but experience also shows
that the former is faster and much more adaptable. So, as we proceed through
the years of experimentation and learning, it is probably wise to explore all
possible options simultaneously on all scales.
The new paradigm has to affect our conception of buildings beyond the
understanding and application of these new technologies. We have to learn to
think in life-cycles; we have to rediscover climate as a generating factor for design;
we have to understand how our buildings operate and we have to see them as
living entities. In this there are obviously quantifiable aspects, which are being
What Does Sustainability Look Like?
explored everywhere with increasing intensity. How much insulation, what
percentage of glazing, what type of solar protection, what type of ventilation,
what heating or cooling system – all of these questions can be answered with
the appropriate calculations. However, beyond the quantifiable there is an
agenda for quality.
Architecture, more than any other cultural medium, is an expression of its
time. Once a new building has been erected, it is likely to last for generations;
the sites we know today bear the hallmarks of the past in which they were created. If architecture is consciously or unconsciously a receptacle and expression
of the culture of a society at a particular time, then each new concept or design
for a building holds both its present and its futurepast. Naturally, this also
means that an interest in these contents and a critical relationship to them is
necessary for one’s own work; if the product of our activity manifests into what
future generations will measure our present age by, then we ought to give it
some thought.
It is futile to ask whether the social and cultural phenomena of an age are
reflected in its architecture, or whether architecture and its architects to some
extent give an age its form. We would consider that the former case is more
likely, although in some fortunate cases a form may develop as a thought gains
currency, so that they become almost synonymous with one another.
We must see buildings as things that ought to last at least fifty years or longer,
and one of the questions that we therefore ask ourselves is what may guarantee
this longevity. Solidity seems the obvious answer and, indeed, well-chosen
materiality and appropriate detailing help in this respect. However, when you
observe which buildings are maintained, kept and cherished by people, it will
not just be the solid ones but also those that are loved for what they are: buildings that are practical, spacious, that surprise and delight; buildings that form
a positive part of people’s lives; buildings that are more than mere scientific constructions. After all, our general aim in the preservation of the environment
is about wellbeing for this and future generations. Wellbeing is largely judged
subjectively by every individual according to his or her sensual perception.
Hence we deliberately try to address the senses with our buildings, and aim to
stimulate a condition of bodily response. Our work with volume and color – at
least partly – follows this agenda, as does the manipulation of material, light and
space. It is here that we hope to be able to influence the behavioral aspect of
sustainability. A change of lifestyles is still the easiest way to reduce energy and
carbon emissions: if we were to walk and use bicycles; if we reduced air travel;
if we were happy with one house and one car; if we ate local food and less meat.
The chances that these behavioral changes will happen voluntarily are slim,
One phenomenon of our age’s culture that cries out to be physically manifested, since it is so present in everyone’s consciousness, is without doubt our
interest in sustainability and ecology. This interest stems from a concern
regarding the wasteful and careless treatment of the natural environment, as
well as a worry about the survival of the planet and its population. Disaster
scenarios about the imminent overpopulation of the world, the exhaustion of
natural resources, about climate changes and their resulting natural catastrophes
are all familiar accompaniments to any consideration of this subject. Building
as such is affected by this without a doubt: for one thing, built structures are
the greatest enemy of the natural environment, contributing to the waste of
land and resources, as well as the excessive use of fossil fuels and pollution of
the atmosphere. Carefully thought out buildings can indeed slow down the
catastrophic change of our environment.
The alternative is to create a carbon-free product that is so attractive that
people will want to have it. If something can really be shown to be consuming
less, after considering the whole life-cycle, while being highly attractive at the
same time, people would accept it. Architecture is a perfect area where one
could apply such a combination of reason and seduction. Architecture can literally be an advertisement for these alternative lifestyles and show that reduction in consumption does not necessarily mean a reduction in quality.
Architecture itself, in its capacity to create places with sensuous atmospheres,
will be a convincing compensation for the loss of old-style luxuries, and can
thus be the avant-garde of a different world through the physicality of its
This is a very refreshing perspective for a profession that has all but disappeared from the mainstream of cultural engagement – partly because its own
discourses seem to have detached themselves so much from people’s everyday
lives. This might therefore be an opportunity to create a new rapport with
society at large and to respond to the needs and imaginations of normal people
without falling into the traps of cliché and kitsch.
For another thing, architecture is present everywhere; it is more suitable
than any other discipline to act as a medium to express a change in the antagonistic relationship between nature and civilization in a visually comprehensible
way. Architecture could become an agent of a changed attitude and practice in
dealing with nature and its resources. Besides serving the purposes of their
owners and users, buildings have to fulfill a fundamental duty toward society,
that is, toward the urban environment in which they are located. If this built
environment that constantly surrounds everything changes, the people within
it will change as well.
That a turn of this sort would become necessary was clear at the latest after
the publication of The Limits of Growth sponsored by the Club of Rome in
1968.1 However, another twenty years or so were to pass until the majority of
society really responded to the book’s conclusions. In the meantime, a variety
of fringe groups had prepared the ground. Consequently, eco-architecture was
difficult to integrate in its early years. It tended to be practiced by apolitical
loners, and was anti-establishment, anti-industrial, anti-urban and characterized by a yearning for some vague notion of a pre-civilization state. Another
twenty years since then, the world has become digital and global; the rate of
What Does Sustainability Look Like?
technological progress has accelerated enormously and inexorably; and climate
change is well on its way. At the beginning of the 21st century, architecture
also started to react significantly to the paradigm change. In this context, it is
possible to identify three main trends in Europe.
First, the orthodox green groups of the late 1960’s still exist. The ideas that
tended to be propagated by hippies in the past are now the domain of experts
who want to come to grips with them in a scientific manner. This approach
emphasizes the quantifiable aspects of building rather than the qualitative ones.
In Germany, the main result of their activities has been the enactment of energyconservation laws, which drastically reduce the permissible energy consumption of buildings. In Britain and the US similar organizations have also set up
schemes to evaluate and list what is sustainable in building, awarding credits
according to listed criteria so that buildings fulfilling enough of these criteria
can be BREEAM (UK) or LEED (US) certified. Among the aspects for which
credits can be awarded are the use of recyclable materials, the use of renewable
energies, integration with public transport, the provision of bicycle parking
and neighborhood support. These lists are very useful as planning aids, even
though they include some items taught in first-year design seminars: solar
orientation, adequate natural lighting of all work areas and massing the building to reduce surface area.
Beyond that, these lists are of little use as blueprints for a new type of architecture: they are no more than compilations of functional requirements, directives on ways of working, summaries of measurable quantities that ultimately
give no information about the architectural quality of a building. On the contrary, architecture and its aesthetics tend to be looked at skeptically in such circles. And with a heavy focus on the technical and quantifiable aspects of
building, we already see a tendency in German municipalities that a building
may be reduced to a temporary storage of materials that will become building
waste in the future.
Second, the political movements that sprang up in the late 1960’s initially
included ecology in their programs only as a topic of secondary importance.
The Left revered the city of the 19th century and supported numerous initiatives
to preserve it. This reverence was often linked to criticism of the excessive property speculation at the time, and to criticism of a post-war policy that – owing
to its almost naïve trust in technology and progress and its desire to change
and improve (almost) everything that had gone before it – destroyed much
of what deserved to have been kept. This reverence for the 19th century city
increased along with criticism of capitalist society in general, and of its mistakes
in the areas of town planning and architecture in particular. And from this
criticism grew the myth of a better past that ought to be re-established in a new
urban framework. Hand in hand with this new conservatism came a deeply
rooted skepticism toward progress and technology, and a yearning for an undisturbed identity, especially in Germany.
For many people, even today, the term sustainability is connected not just
with the desire for a responsible approach to the natural resources of the planet,
but also with a yearning for continuity and familiarity. In the contradiction
between the momentum of global development and the wish for personal
stability, the aesthetics of the past seem to promise an obvious way out of the
dilemmas of the present. This is why sustainability in architecture is closely
associated with the way things have always been. After all, such problems as
environmental pollution, resource shortages and alienation from other people
didn’t exist before, so can’t we simply go back to the good old days? This instinctive and erroneous conclusion is deliberately maintained by historically eclectic
architecture out of sheer opportunism. It conveys the message that what looks
like an old building also functions like one, and that what looks old will also
last longer.
Thus people’s unease about nature is assuaged, since their own willingness
to accept real change is low. They would really prefer to save the planet without
changing their habits of wasteful consumption. That is why the term sustain­
ability has spread so quickly throughout the retail industry, applied to consumer
goods from books to clothes, from food to cars. Everything is organically farmed,
carefully processed, fairly traded, good for one’s health and more ecologically
safe than ever. The message this broadcasts is that you can have both: unbridled
satisfaction and ecological correctness. Here, sustainability is not a question of
doing without, but of improved quality that justifies a higher price and also
placates the conscience. The classical clichés of luxury (old, monumental buildings, for example) come together with added ecological value in an iconographic
coherence that does not require any explanation.
The third trend influencing the shape of sustainable architecture covers an
entire genre, dedicated to incorporating ecological building in the tradition of
a language that stands for technology and progress. In this case, the performative
aspect of building – the fact that a building, like a car or a machine, should be
judged according to its performance data – leads to the false conclusion that
ecological architecture should develop exclusively from the consideration of
functional form. Form follows performance arouses memories of the early years
of functionalism and Le Corbusier’s appeals to the architectural profession, in
which he invoked the beauty of pure engineering construction (in contrast to
the eclecticism rampant at the beginning of the 20th century) and seemed to
suggest that beauty could virtually be calculated. The impression given here is
that ecology is a question of cleverer technology. Progress lies in optimized
systems; of course this would also include developing materials to the limits
of their capacity. Today the process begun by Buckminster Fuller is looking for
new models in bionics, with the idea that buildings could behave like animals
or other natural organisms. Here too, iconography plays a critical role. Buildings
with biomorphic forms are supposed to function like living organisms as well.
Given the relatively primitive nature of building, there are few respects in which
this comparison with complex living organisms can hold valid. The synergy with
nature remains a mere intent, however; behind the mimicry of engineering,
What Does Sustainability Look Like?
supposedly approaching the natural, one glimpses what in reality is the pure
chauvinism of feasibility, a wishful thinking to out-maneuver nature with what
are effectively its own means and thus to consolidate power over it. If the things
created in the course of doing so ultimately fail to satisfy the requirement of
sustainability in their performance and expression, this will be, so to speak, a
natural side effect.
Thus it is imperative that every sustainable building carries the message of
‘change that we can believe in’ – a quote from a different field altogether. That
is not to say that buildings have to be new for newness’ sake, but it is clearly
the challenge for this and future generations of architects to express the changed
paradigm in which we find ourselves, using an appropriate and positive architectural language that signifies a new beginning.
It is certainly correct that numerous ecological aspects are quantifiable and
that therefore, the success of different architectural strategies is to some degree
measurable. And it certainly is not wrong that components developed wholly
on the basis of their functionality – in response to climate, for example – may
develop a performance-related aesthetic. At the same time, however, in the
assessment of what could be sustainable there still remains a large area that is
not measurable, which is left to the subjective judgment of individuals: to the
designing architect on the one hand and the subsequent user on the other. The
ecological movement came into being to create a world worth living in for this
generation and for those to come. It is left up to our own personal experience to
determine exactly what an environment worth living in is. To put it more precisely, to a large extent the quality of life offered by the built environment can
be measured only by our own personal sensory apparatus. The term comfort
which is frequently used – even by engineers – to describe such aspects as user
satisfaction at the workplace is evidence of the ambiguity of our way of looking
at such things. Sustainable architecture therefore has to address and stimulate
the senses of its users.
What makes the scientist feel uneasy should be a welcome challenge to the
architect, because it means that a space for interpretation has opened up for
architects to ply their proper trade. What is needed are built spaces where
material quality, lighting and color stimulate the senses; spaces on a scale that
evoke feelings of shelter and security, as well as astonishment and surprise;
spaces that do not fob off the fear of an uncertain future with the same old
clichés, but seek to allay it intelligently, transparently and comprehensibly. A
building ought to be able to react intelligently to the needs of its occupants, but
also, the occupants ought to learn to understand the building. The primary
instrument in this is bodily perception, which also opens the way to an intellectual understanding of ecological concepts. That is why we should not just ask
ourselves what sustainability looks like, but also what it feels, sounds and smells
like, and ultimately what it really is: what is the character, the personality of
Given our work, it is obvious that we are interested in Gottfried Semper’s
argument that the external wall – in its role of both enveloping and dressing a
structure – takes precedence over construction regarding both the form and
content of architecture.2 Whereas Semper discusses the provision of atmosphere,
accomplished as the wall defines a spatial enclosure and gives protection from
the elements, we – not necessarily concerned with the discussion around tectonics – arrive at a parallel understanding of the façade’s potential within the
context of sustainability.
Like Semper, we hold color to be highly suitable for affecting the qualities
of space. The façade of a previous project that we termed City Dress comes to
mind – the lightness of its mantle together with the optical association of a
woven textile seems to refer to Semper’s starting point. Considering wellbeing
to be part of the sustainable agenda, it is obvious that the contribution that a
building skin can make in this respect is of prime importance. Apart from effect,
however, around the discussion of a possible aesthetic of sustainability there
are also performative aspects to be considered. In low-energy architecture in
particular, it is the façade that acts as the mediator between the external climate
and the internal environment. What only a couple of decades ago may have
been a single exterior wall with some insulation and a damp-proof membrane
has now become a porous, reactive and most likely layered zone between inside
and out that accommodates all the elements necessary for the supply and control of natural ventilation and sun-shading. As opposed to hermetically sealed
walls, these active devices encourage a user-controlled environment and make
the building become more like a living organism, in allowing its inhabitants
to decide for themselves the appropriate degree of air, light, shade, view and
Aesthetically speaking, such layered skins, inviting an exploration of proportion, rhythm, form, material and color, begin to provide the material to
establish their own identity. Evidently for us, color again plays a prominent role
in this. Using color against color, namely polychromy, and so creating a visual
space out of contrasts in tone, hue or saturation that advance or retreat in
relation to one another, one can manipulate surface and depth to emphasize
or counteract the bas-relief that the layered façade offers. So color can serve to
achieve both a heightened plasticity that invites corporeal engagement or its
opposite, a flat surface that suggests mere optical involvement.
Just as Amédée Ozenfant explored in full size mock-ups the phenomenon
he termed color solidity,3 the use of color in architecture can support and
emphasize the actual physical manifestation of space. We are interested in what
could be deemed its opposite, that is, the use of color to upset both the surface
and the habits of the viewer as it teases and irritates the eye to make one aware
of the act of perception itself. One could call this the instability of the surface,
that is, the deliberate use of optical depth that, after initial destabilization,
can sharpen one’s senses to ultimately reaffirm one’s awareness of oneself and
the space one inhabits. This may ultimately play into the agenda of sustain­
ability again, by reaffirming the bodily being of a person within the confines
What Does Sustainability Look Like?
of architectural space, as well as allowing an architectural point to be made.
Accepting the pervasion of the two-dimensional image as a cultural convention
today, it is difficult to imagine that a purely corporeal and haptic relationship
to architecture may still be possible. We hence do not try to deny the conflation
of three-dimensional reality onto the screened or disembodied view, but we strive
to stimulate one’s bodily – and one’s intellectual – engagement through the
transition from one mode of perception to another, or indeed through oscillation
between the two.
A façade that has significant depth is optically reduced to a flat surface when
seen from a distance. At a distance, therefore, one’s engagement with such a
building is similar to that with a screened image: it is purely an optical relationship, not a bodily one. Through the instabilities of color, though, which may
appear as one’s eyes flit over the surface, the flatness of the same may be called
into question as it appears three-dimensional. However, upon closer approach
and as the physical reality becomes clearer, the two-dimensionality of that surface – or of elements within that surface – becomes undeniable. On the other
hand, with increasing proximity, the more three-dimensional, corporeal and
scaled in relation to oneself the façade actually becomes as one’s moving body
and roving eye complicitly unite in the act of perception. Ultimately, one’s comprehension is completely transferred from the visual to the corporeal as the eye
is subsumed within the bodies of building and viewer. Architecture can be experienced again for what it is: the art of three-dimensional space that, to a large
degree, actually escapes two-dimensional representation.
The Museum Brandhorst in Munich, completed in 2008, is a useful example
in this regard. The façade comprises a series of vertically hung glazed ceramic
sticks that are offset a small distance from a bi-colored, horizontally folded metal
wall such that the flat-on and oblique views offer completely different impressions. While the former allows clear recognition of the layered façade, the latter
presents a running together of the front surfaces of the sticks, transforming space
and material into a fine-grained polychromatic surface that, in its iridescence,
seems almost immaterial. Walking along the building with one’s eyes skimming
over the glazed sticks, one’s perception fluctuates between the corporeality of
palpable space and touchable material on one hand, and the visuality of spectral surface on the other. The result, for us, is a new dimension of optical and
corporeal engagement, an intense and not-to-be-divided entanglement of
visual and bodily perception. In the search for an architectural language that
is appropriate to the shifting paradigms of sustainability and today’s condition,
the architectural work in the age of mechanical reproduction, we have aimed to
integrate the façade’s performative role as climate conditioner with its reduction
to surface into a single narrative. So the ecological relationship of the building
to its (natural) environment forms a positive and non-apologetic part of the
cultural relationship of the building to its (constructed) environment.
Ecological correctness is often accompanied by a sour puritanical expression,
as if something has to taste bitter in order to do us good. By contrast, industrial
strategies aim for a kind of harmless luxury such as the cars of the future that
are supposed to travel in excess of 300 km/hour while emitting no pollutants
into the atmosphere. The truth probably lies somewhere between the two.
Without doubt, ecological building will have to incorporate the intelligence of
technological development. On the other hand, it has to express its qualities
in the intelligent economy of reduced means, because obviously the luxury of
sustainable architecture cannot be bought at the price of increased consumption. Less really has to be more – variety and beauty have to be found in what
is simple. However, this beauty cannot stem from clichéd images, as Le Corbusier
correctly noted, nor is it born of the rigor of rational thought alone, as we have
seen in the products of functionalism. The challenge presented to architects at
the moment is to develop a language of their own from the various tasks they
face, using the available means, their intuition and a determination to create
spaces that communicate with people on an intuitive level. The architectural
media available to them are the classical ones of space, surface and light, which
have nothing more to offer than their concrete presence, but, if used intelligently,
will do more than just create buildings that fulfill their purpose in an efficient
and economic form. They can help to generate an architecture that opens up
such freedom of imagination that it will be loved for generations to come.
What Does Sustainability Look Like?
Solar Aesthetic
­— Ralph L. Knowles
What are the aesthetic implications of designing with nature? This question is
being asked with growing insistence as architects explore the need to conserve
energy. At this critical time of energy use and worldwide urbanization, architects
are being challenged by such leaders in the field as Edward Mazria who has
called for ‘a dialogue with nature’1 to answer the problem. This paper explores
some possible outcomes of such a dialogue. What might buildings look like if
we accept the challenge to have an open and honest relationship with nature?
What patterns would they display? Would we meet them with recognition and
empathy or pass them by with indifference? Would they interest us, please us
and bring us joy, or would they be ordinary and lacking in quality? These aesthetic questions hold real, practical meanings for sustainable life.
Given the awakening interest in a new architectural aesthetic, a design
research project initiated at the Auburn University School of Architecture in
1962, supported by the Graham Foundation, takes on fresh meaning today. It
was concerned with illustrating the force effects of natural phenomena, spe­
cifically sunlight and gravity, on form. These forces are clearly reflected in the
growth and patterns of nature. The sunny sides of slopes exhibit different plants
and animals than shady slopes. Natural structures, such as sand dunes, reflect
the forces of wind and gravity. Buildings are subject to the same natural forces
that have caused differentiation in nature, but they rarely acknowledge these
forces in built form. Exploring a new architectural aesthetic was not the purpose
of the 1962 work. Rather, the purpose was to test a proposition: that a building
made in balanced response to natural forces will exhibit differentiation useful
for crucial legibility in the city setting. The idea of urban legibility came from
an earlier reading of Kevin Lynch’s influential book, The Image of the City, in
which he asserts the importance of providing vital cues for successful orientation
and free movement. The Auburn study tested my belief that the essential clarity
and legibility Lynch sought was to be found in designing with nature.
The study began with no prior idea of resulting form. In fact, throughout the
study, novel shapes and structures seemed to emerge as if by a self-organizing
process of natural growth and transformation, not by design. As it turns out,
preconceptions of form would very likely have been wrong and surely would
have interfered with the integrity of the work. However, simply in order to facilitate a beginning point and a reference for graphing the different effects of
natural forces, the Auburn study selected five basic geometric forms with a range
of surface configurations and orientations: a cube, an ellipsoid, a tetrahedron,
a prism and a hyperboloid of revolution. While not actual building forms in
themselves, these geometric forms provided an architectural idiom for analysis.
The Auburn study progressed in several phases. The first phase graphed the
impact of sunlight on form, the second graphed the impact of gravity and the
third graphed the combined forces of sunlight and gravity. The fourth phase
sought to apply the concept of form differentiation to a simple program for an
office building. The study, though limited to an examination of only two natural forces and completed almost fifty years ago, evokes images of differentiated
form that we can identify with and understand today.
In the first phase, a technique for graphing the varied effects of sunlight uses
a system of projecting planes to shield the basic form during prescribed hours,
a technique applicable to daylight design.[1] Planar generations are derived from
the geometry of the basic reference form. The resulting graphs have both static
and dynamic components. The planes are themselves static, but the forces they
respond to are dynamic, changing the graph’s aspect by the day and the season.
The results are asymmetrical, horizontally differentiated graphs, applicable for
a 30-degree north latitude location.
The gravity studies use a similar graphing technique of projecting planes.[2]
Hypothetical floor loads are applied regularly to the surface of each form in such
a way that they affect each point at the same elevation equally. But unlike the
sun graphs that tend to be horizontally differentiated in response to orientation,
the gravity graphs are mostly symmetrical and vertically differentiated in response
to accumulating loads. The gravity graphs also lack the dynamic component of
the graphs produced with the sun.
Although there may be a hierarchy of force action, buildings are rarely affected
by a single force. Sun and gravity graphs are therefore combined to form a
complex of double-acting planes describing simultaneous but differently acting
forces.[3] Both the number and the dimension of planes become adjustable graphing elements. Accordingly, longer or more numerous planes indicate greater
force effects. In an ideal solution, each plane acts simultaneously to provide for
sun control and gravity loads. But in the study, the more usual case is where only
a portion of any plane is double acting, with either sun or gravity dominating
the remainder. The graphs are compared based on their different percentages of
double-acting planes.
The last phase of the study applies the understanding of form differentiation
that comes out of the sun-gravity studies to the design of an office building.[4]
The building program calls for public spaces at the top and street levels, with
smaller private spaces in between. Unlike the previous phases of the study in
which planes are presumed to have only length and breadth but no thickness,
this phase assumes a concrete structural system in which thickness and material
strength are varied as well as the plane dimensions. The study only looks at the
building’s outer support system and not at the interior spaces or the services that
it would provide.
While it was completed nearly fifty years ago, the implications of the Auburn
study for architectural and urban design are now being rediscovered. The
concept of a building as an ecological form, differentiated in response to natural
forces, points to a new aesthetic. The result of this aesthetic will not be distin-
Part I: The Auburn Study, 1962
Solar Aesthetic
of Architecture]
1 Sun graph. [Auburn University School
2 Gravity graph. [Auburn University School of
3 Sun-Gravity graph. [Auburn
University School of Architecture]
guished by a common expression of form as was the case with Modernism,
made possible by massive injections of energy that isolate people from the natural clues in their surroundings. Instead, varied patterns and forms that engage
our inherent capacity to feel the diversity of nature will characterize this new
Part II: The USC Study, 1967-1969
The Auburn study was followed by a second design research project that graphs
the effects of sunlight in three dimensions. This project was conducted at the
University of Southern California (USC) Natural Forces Laboratory between
1967 and 1969 under a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Accordingly, the first part of this chapter describes the aesthetic consequences
of controlling sunlight on select geometric forms with the Auburn study. This
second part, instead of beginning with existent forms, describes the aesthetic
consequences of generating uniquely adaptive forms by following the sun’s path
to satisfy specified conditions of incident solar energy. The USC study works
directly with earth-sun geometry to generate form. Linear elements representing the summer rays of the sun first generate a single warping surface between
8 AM and 4 PM at a 34-degree north latitude location.[5] Similar generations for
the other three seasons result in separate south-facing surfaces that are inclined
at different angles toward the sun. Converting the solar lines into smooth form
results in the form having a particular incident solar energy profile over the
course of the year.
5 Summer, Equinox, Winter 8 AM to 4 PM;
Generated form [Model by M. Pearce]
4 Building. [Auburn University School of Architecture]
a Form in Nature If we are to confront the aesthetic questions of solar form, we
must begin with nature. While the establishment of a new aesthetic was not the
original purpose of the studies undertaken at Auburn University and USC in the
1960’s, a fresh look at the work has been prompted by a lifelong wonder and
fascination with the differentiated patterns and forms of nature. Vertical differentiation of color in plankton responds to separate portions of the sunlight
spectrum penetrating to different ocean depths. A similar phenomenon can be
observed in a rural wood or a great redwood forest. In contrast to such vertical
changes, horizontal differentiation can be observed in the feeding territories of
Scottish red grouse or in the sideways ambulation of a river. To be aware of these
differences is to participate in the beginning of a new solar aesthetic.
b Patterns of Life While moving in this direction, it is important to note that
the differentiated patterns of nature were important in setting the patterns of
indigenous human life; it is not alien to think that nature’s patterns could be
strongly entwined with today’s architectural forms. One example of indigenous
life can be seen with the Piute families of the Owens Valley in California. The
Owens Valley is cradled between the precipitate granite heights of the Sierra
Nevada escarpment on the west, and the more gentle sedimentary slopes of the
Inyo-White Mountains on the east. Vegetation changes in quick steps from
Solar Aesthetic
sub-alpine forest at the higher elevations to grassland on the valley floor. Over
the centuries, in response to this richly diversified world, Piute families migrated
yearly, following exclusive pathways from one side of the valley to the other and
back again, stopping in a different plant community to fish, to hunt or to forage
depending on the season. While the modern face of the city is quite different
than the Owens Valley, we still encounter differentiated patterns – both natural
and human-made – in our surroundings on a daily, seasonal and yearly basis;
how we experience and respond to these patterns has a great deal to do with
It is important to note that synthesizing solar form
in the laboratory must begin with an explicit, underlying objective. Sand and
soil will automatically transform in a laboratory wind tunnel or on a water table.
But producing a solar form on a sun machine requires an objective. For example,
some of the pyramids of ancient Egypt were designed with very specifically
placed openings leading deep into the tomb, allowing for the penetration of a
celebratory shaft of sunlight at one instant on a particular day of the year; harnessing this shaft of sunlight was one of the main objectives of the architecture
itself. But in order to make a solar form that acts purposely over time, the process of generation must relate hours to days and days to seasons. The form above
is generated to equalize summer and winter solar incident energy, a strategy
that is inherently applicable to passive solar design.[5]
Interestingly, the work done at the Natural Forces Laboratory in the 1960’s
suggests that the structure of a solar form has a favorable perceptual scale.[6]
Pure shapes can be purposely generated in relation to the dynamic geometry of
the earth and sun but eventually, for habitable forms at least, architectural reference must be made to the ordering principles of construction and to the scale
implications of use. Consider the hypothetical example of an oblate spheroid,
a form that when inclined southward at the correct angle presents approximately
the same silhouette area to the sun over time. As the size of the constructing
increment decreases while maintaining a constant overall volume, an approximation of the pure form is approached. Plotting the volumetric subdivisions of
space against the desired behavior of the form as a whole shows that eventually
the curve stabilizes, requiring no further subdivision. It appears that this phenomenon coincides with our visual recognition of an oblate spheroid, and that
an inherent scalar relationship between form and function is evident in the work
on solar form.
Habitable solar forms will likely require a differentiated structuring increment.
A large model of the earlier form equalizing summer and winter incident solar
energy helps to demonstrate three-dimensional differentiation of the form.
Structuring increments at the surface of the form are relatively small, scaled to
maintain the perceptual and functional boundaries of the pure solar form.
Interior increments are likely to become progressively larger for the collective
use of shared space. While the structuring increments shown in the examples
thus far are all based on the cube, further study might suggest alternative spacefilling geometries.[7]
Whether we are conceiving a single building or an entire community, constructing great frames and trusses or sculpting the earth and major landfills,
today’s building technology allows larger structures with greater shaping freedom than have heretofore been available to architecture. The result is an
unprecedented ability to respond with subtlety to the sun’s energy through form.
As communities of plants and animals vary in the natural landscape, so too we
might expect diverse ecological domains to evolve on the surface of large solar
forms. Depending on slope and orientation, ecological domains will be systematically differentiated from each other, and each will have an overall contextual
role to play. All of the following examples are shown as simple mass models but
c Patterns of Perception Most relevant to the subject of this section, the reexamination of early studies focusing on the generation of uniquely adaptive
forms, it is important to note that nature’s differentiated patterns helped set the
patterns of human perception over the course of time. Our understanding of
the environment through physical sensation evolved in a differentiated natural
world; the proof of this lies in our survival. Over evolutionary time, we learned
to notice the differences essential to our orientation and free movement. Our
survival required us to understand more than merely an orderly repetition of
parts in a landscape, where we might have to guess to find our way. Instead, we
learned to look for a structural relationship of some kind in which there was a
clear choice among parts or sets of parts suggesting boundaries and directionality. Finally, we would have felt best oriented and most comfortable if we could
understand the form, implied or actual, of those aspects of the environment
that were critical to our survival. With that understanding, we could go beyond
the tasks of mere day-to-day survival and progress to other things.
d Laboratory Studies A desire to learn and teach more about ecology and the
differentiated natural world led to the establishment of the USC Natural Forces
Laboratory in 1967. With a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts,
the laboratory was first set up as an essential part of the third-year architecture
design studio. Three kinds of simulation tools were designed, built and used by
students as integral components of the design process. Sun machines, wind
tunnels and water tables of various types occupied the studio space along with
traditional drafting tables. The point of using these tools in the Natural Forces
Laboratory was to answer questions such as: why do north and south slopes in
the landscape look different? To understand this pattern, topographic models
were built of real sites, placed on the sun machine and studied over virtual time.
Why are windward and lee slopes different? To understand these effects, sand
was eroded in the wind tunnel to simulate dune formation. Why do streams
ambulate? To understand this and other differentiated effects of water acting
on the earth, soils of different composition were eroded on water tables.
e Synthesizing Solar Form Solar Aesthetic
[M. Klingerman, D. Moser and R. Selvidge]
9 Solar form landscape.
10 Indian courtyard house; left, midday in summer
and right, midday in winter. [Kavita Rodrigues]
G. Togawa]
6 Generation drawing,
generation model, pure form
and incremented form. [Model by
7 1 cube, 64 cubes, 4,096
cubes and optimization. [Ralph
8 Solar form massing – southwest, west and
cutaway. [Models by P. Ohannesian, G. Shigamura and J. Talski]
further study will likely suggest the need for systematic penetration of the
masses to expose their deep spaces.[8] Clearly, there are aesthetic consequences
to the large size and shaping freedom that can be achieved with solar forms,
given today’s building technology.
Time has changed the meaning of this work, which began almost fifty years
ago with a single objective: to control incident solar energy, both light and heat,
through adaptive forms. As pure forms developed over the following two years,
perceptual problems of scale emerged that were never resolved during the course
of study. Now, with regard to the aesthetic consequences of the original work,
it is clear that structuring pure form can become a nature-based way to humanize
scale on several levels. First, as nature sets the patterns of our perception through
differentiation, so too a repeated structuring increment provides the beginning
of visual order; second, natural variations of the increment offer visual clues to
ecological domains, providing directionality and choice; and finally, actual or
implied visual limits provide an awareness of form, and of our place within the
environment. The aesthetic implications of large size can thus be architecturally
resolved by applying the scale of our evolved patterns of perception.[9]
Part III: A Natural Architectural Language
After considering the work of the Auburn and USC studies undertaken in the
1960’s, this section considers the aesthetic potentials of establishing an architectural ‘dialogue with nature’ today. The first part of the section, Rhythm & Ritual,
shows traditional sheltering rituals as precedents for an increasingly important
and undervalued role: that of individuals maintaining comfort in their dwellings
by adjusting their private living patterns to suit natural rhythms. The second
part of the section, The Solar Envelope, shows studies of enhanced design possibilities resulting from a presumed public policy of solar access for energy and life
quality. The third section, The Interstitium, combines these two different levels
of involvement, private and public, to form a natural architectural language.
Not since Modernism has there been an architectural aesthetic with any staying power. Though exact dates are hard to pin down, and in important respects
it has never gone away entirely, Modernism is generally reputed to have begun
somewhere in the last decade of the 19th century with critical attacks on the
eclectic and theatrical architecture of the time, and to have ‘died’ at the beginning of the 1970’s with the first oil crisis. Since then, as Professor James Steele
points out, ‘… the half-lives of subsequent movements seem to have diminished
radically.’2 One problem may be the lack of an ethical underpinning in subsequent movements. Modernism was initially driven by a perceived moral obligation to rid the world of wasteful decoration, and by a real sense of duty to
follow the stripped-down example of industrialization to house an expanding
world population. Since Modernism, however, subsequent aesthetic positions
such as Post-Modernism and Deconstructivism have been driven by extreme
subjectivity. In the meantime, we have generally recognized the dangerous
circumstance of worldwide climate change and the real need to follow a new
ethic of sustainability in architecture.
Solar Aesthetic
However, up to the present day, architecture has not been able to find an
aesthetic expression of sustainability. Surely there have been important steps
taken by some design pioneers who have used the elements of building with
skill and imagination to conserve energy while enhancing the quality of life.
But more usually, the building industry has settled for add-ons to rooftops like
photovoltaic arrays while the buildings themselves remain conventionally stylistic. Architecture has also developed energy-related, numeric standards for
measuring the outcome and performance of buildings, but these steps have
not been sufficient to evolve the language of natural symbols that is essential
to establishing an aesthetic expression of form.
a Rhythm & Ritual To remedy this situation, we may look to the rhythms of
sheltering rituals to supply the syntax for a new and natural language of architecture. As we occupy dwellings, we make certain adjustments for comfort in
response to changes in the natural environment. We repeat these adjustments
in concert with the unique rhythms of weather and climate in a particular setting. Through repetition, simple adaptive actions like moving to a shady porch
or adjusting a sunscreen rhythmically connect and reconnect our experience of
architectural elements in a dwelling. Ritual acts of sheltering do not permanently alter the formal order of a building. Instead, they constitute a second and
less explicit order of architecture, what Professor Leonard Bachman has called
‘performal.’3 Over time, the development of this implicit order can free our
individual thoughts, our creative imaginations and our celebrations of life within
the context of a particular place. The following examples are classed under three
headings: rituals of migration, transformation and metabolism.
I Migration Rituals of migration supply syntax for a natural language by rhythmic­
ally ordering our experiences of different parts of a dwelling. In this example,
ritual migrations follow the sun to rhythmically connect different levels in a traditional courtyard house of northwestern India.4 [10] There is a tall central courtyard and two upper-level flanking courtyards on either side. The high summer
sun enters all three courtyards at midday, but it does not enter the adjacent living
spaces because of effective overhangs and sunscreens. By contrast, the midday
winter sun is much lower in the sky and cannot enter the courtyards. It does, however, enter the upper spaces of the house, all the way to their back walls, lighting and heating them and keeping them comfortable in the cold, dry winter air.
The spatial organization of the house, in concert with the sun’s relative movements, supports vertical migrations. In summer, the family occupies mainly
the lower spaces of the house during the hot daytime hours but in the evening,
everybody moves to the roof and the upper courtyards. Here, the women of
the house wet the hot surfaces to cool them and the children beg to be sprinkled.
When the water games are over and the surfaces quickly dried, the family settles
down for the evening to chat, to share the day’s events, to tell stories and finally
to sleep under the starry desert sky.
While there is a daily migration in summer, there is as well a more general
migration over the course of the seasons. The lowest spaces of the house are
mainly occupied in summer and the highest spaces in winter, but in between is
where the greatest seasonal changes occur. While the ground level is mostly dark
and the upper levels mostly light year-round, the second level experiences rapid
changes as the sunlight passes quickly up and down inside the central courtyard
during the fall and spring equinoxes. In a yearlong search for thermal comfort,
the second level acts as what Labelle Prussin might call a ‘territorial passage,’ a
spatial counterpart to a pattern of social behavior – a ritual.5 Rituals of transformation supply syntax by rhythmically ordering our experiences of different
phases of a dwelling.
II Transformation In addition to migration, people have ritually transformed
their dwellings for comfort, temporarily changing the most basic spatial order.
The Berber family adjusts tent walls, removing them to admit summer breezes
and securing them in winter to resist cold blasts of air. These seasonal adjustments rhythmically connect and disconnect inside and outside life. In summer,
with the tent walls removed, the family inside can look out and passing neighbors can look in. Their children can run in one side and out the other, into the
next tent and out the other side of that one. But in winter, with the tent walls
in place, people can no longer look in or look out. The confinement is probably
most difficult for children who still want to run around, jump and play, generating chaos by stepping in the dinner being prepared on the tent floor. It is at
this point that grandmothers step in for a round of stories, telling of their own
childhoods and recounting the history of the group.
The traditional Japanese house, or minka, is probably one of the most complete examples of ritual transformation, expanding and contracting space with
the seasons. With a post and beam system, the walls are free to come and go
because they don’t carry gravitational loads. In winter, walls divide the space of
the house into relatively small compartments creating rooms that are more easily
heated, where people share body heat or the warmth of a brazier. Close social
gathering characterizes wintertime life.6
Rituals of human habitation match rhythmic changes in the formal order of
the dwelling. In summer, the walls are removed and the space opens, becoming
lighter and better ventilated. Space expands, even out into the garden, and the
patterns of life change. The family is freer to move about. They can still see each
other across the open space, but they are no longer restricted in their movements,
which become more private and more individual. While these alterations are
taking place in the qualities of space and behavior there is, at the same time, a
symbolic change in the hanging scroll in the tokonamo, or the decorative alcove
of the house, a change that ritually celebrates the passing seasons. Rituals of
transformation supply syntax by rhythmically connecting our experiences to
special places and activities in a dwelling.
Solar Aesthetic
III Metabolism The third mode of ritual adaptation is metabolism, the chemical
and mechanical conversion of energy. Traditionally, this long-established sheltering ritual connects life to a central hearth. In winter, the family gathers
around the warmth of an open fire where they perform small household tasks,
talk of the day’s events, plan for the next day, tell stories and sing songs. By
contrast, in summer, the hearth looses its hold. The family’s movements extend
outward to other parts of the house, and to the outside world. As with migration
and transformation, changes in the rituals of habitation match natural rhythms.
But today we have mostly lost this ordering link with nature. Recent metabolic
means have freed us from nature’s rhythms, but have left us with no matching
syntactic rituals to replace the ones that once connected our lives directly to a
dwelling. Centralized heating and cooling mean that we no longer have to move
around or sit by a fire for comfort. Our closed dwellings require no regular
changes in their formal order to maintain a steady state. We no longer live by
the rhythms of nature.
We now convert energy in remote power plants, distributing energy as electricity through vast, centralized systems of connecting wires. Yet these systems
are highly vulnerable. They fail because machines break down and because nature
destroys them. They are vulnerable to the manipulations of price and supply by
unscrupulous corporations. And finally, such systems are inefficient due to the
fact that the long-distance transmission of electricity wastes energy through the
production of heat as electricity moves through the wires. It must be said, however, that while such systems display the problems of vulnerability, they have
freed architecture to explore design ideas other than basic protection from the
elements. Architects obviously have something more in mind than basic shelter.
For example, glass volumes of different shapes and sizes, while thermally harmful, dramatically reflect the surrounding city. Yet their occupants are continuously and automatically protected in spite of this stylistic indifference to nature.
Still, we must ask, is this freed architecture worth it?
We might justify the total energy dependence of buildings that we consider
important or crucial in some way. But what about the countless unnamed
other buildings in that region and around the world that are energy dependent
as well? Centralized energy delivery and use has not only produced a ritual disconnect with nature; it has resulted in the development of countless buildings
with representational indifference to the environment. Every building looks
pretty much like every other building. No building is oriented, juxtaposed or
otherwise related to its surroundings as an adaptation to weather and climate.
Worldwide, the relationship to nature is irrational, chaotic and arbitrary. The
result of this universal arbitrariness is not only an unprecedented and unsustainable pattern of energy consumption, but also a condition of widespread
aesthetic confusion about what we see. Buildings that are indifferent to their
surroundings offer no clues to orientation, left from right or up from down.
We may have difficulty distinguishing places and buildings, even our special
place and location within a building itself. Two buildings, one perfectly situated
b The Solar Envelope While private sheltering rituals offer an implicit architectural order, publicly guaranteed solar access supports an explicit order of natural
symbols. The designer, without fear of future overshadowing, can purposely
differentiate buildings and urban forms in graphic response to the sun’s movement. One side of a building will not look like another and one side of a street
will not look like another. Streets, buildings and spaces can take on directional
character where orientation and cues to natural time and phenomena are clear.
The symbolic elements that especially emerge with solar access are not like
columns that represent the trunks of sheltering trees or arches that represent the
protecting cave. Rather they are sun and wind screens, courtyards and terraced
roof gardens, clerestories, porches and atria, elements and spaces that adaptively
reflect the rhythmic interplay of nature and human habitation as a basis for
aesthetic appreciation.
The Solar Envelope offers one effective way of publicly guaranteeing solar
access. Most existing US solar access laws use some version of a solar plane to
guarantee sunshine to adjacent properties. Sloping from high on the south to
low on the north, the solar plane intersects the top of an imaginary reference, a
shadow fence that represents the height to which overshadowing to the north
might be allowed without unduly restricting the neighbor’s chance to use the sun.
But if sunshine is to be guaranteed to neighbors on sides other than the north,
the result is a solar envelope, an imaginary construction representing the largest
volume that can be put on the site without casting unwanted shadows on surrounding properties above the shadow fence.[11]
The height of the shadow fence and the period of guaranteed solar access are
variable; they can differ depending on the land use and the community values.
Generally, lower shadow fences and longer periods of assured access are more
desirable for housing than for either commercial or industrial uses. Higher land
values with greater building density might justify higher shadow fences and
shorter periods of assured access, with increased building volume under the
Terracing naturally results when the solar envelope is applied on a hillside.
This example illustrates a site with a steep slope resulting in a density range of
only 7 to 18 dwelling units per acre (17~44 du/ha). Houses closely follow the
solar envelope as it slopes to protect the existing structures located further
and another rotated 90 degrees in the wrong direction in relation to the environment can look alike, thus reducing the basis for aesthetic appreciation to a
reading of the pure object, without the benefit of context.
The problem of arbitrariness, of architectural randomness resulting from an
over-reliance on mechanical means can be answered by intentionally connecting
architecture more directly to the sun, the ultimate source of our vision, our
warmth, our energy and the rhythms of our lives in relation to it. This means
implementing a rational zoning policy to guarantee direct access to sunshine for
Solar Aesthetic
11 Solar plane and solar
envelope. [Karen Kensek]
12 Shadow fences. [Ralph Knowles]
16 Context. [USC School of Architecture]
13 Terracing. [USC School of Architecture] 14 Density. [USC School of Architecture] 15 Continuous solar envelope. [USC School of
Architecture] downhill; this leads to the design of natural symbols by shaping development
to suit the particular land form and land uses of the site, complementing what
is directly next-door.[13]
Higher land values require greater density, as seen in this example with a
range of 38 to 72 dwelling units per acre (94~178 du/ha). Solar envelope rules
can be adapted for higher density by shortening the period of winter solar access
from six hours, as seen in the hillside project, to only four hours, the minimum
generally required for passive design. In addition, shadow fences can be raised
from 8 feet (2.4 m) to 10 feet (3 m) on adjacent housing, and raised to 20 feet
(6 m) on commercial properties. In this example, solar envelopes are purposely
dropped at the side property lines to provide channels for the free flow of Pacific
breezes to cool and ventilate the city downwind.[14]
A third example employs solar envelopes that run continuously across the
side property lines to gain volume and to achieve higher densities of 76 to 128
dwelling units per acre (188~316 du/ha). The continuous solar envelope matches
the size and shape of the adjacent projects. Neighboring designs tend to contain
a similar range of explicit, symbolic features: these include a consistent use of
clerestories; the layering of space for summer sun-control on the east and west
elevations; roof terraces that seasonally extend urban living areas for recreation
and for growing small trees, fruits, vegetables and flowers that attract birds,
bees and butterflies; and the inclusion of courtyards that can serve a collective
function and provide room for private gardens.[15]
In this way, the symbolic relationship between nature and architecture is
rationally ordered by context. Two adjacent designs, one taller than the other,
share an envelope that continues across a side property line. The difference in
size and shape between the two buildings results from what is adjacent to each
separate parcel. Over one site, the envelope is quite low because the shadow
throw is only 20 feet across an alley. Over the other site, the envelope slopes
sharply upward because shadows can be cast downward into a large space occupied only by light-rail train tracks. While the two projects have different designers, the solar envelope supports a continuity of form, resulting in a consistency
of narrative flow.[16]
The architect Eduardo Catalano has said, ‘Works that are
dynamic … invite our participation in their lives.’7 His reference was to a great
mechanical flower that he designed for the Plaza Naciones Unidas in Buenos
Aires. By opening and closing daily with the sun, the flower suggests a different
version of solar-access zoning called the interstitium, a term borrowed from the
interstitial layer of the human lung that expands and contracts as we breathe.
When applied to zoning, the interstitium makes possible the design of major
architectural elements that are dynamic, ones that change our aesthetic appreciation of a building in major ways. Instead of understanding a building as a
fixed part of the landscape, we can become aware of the rhythmic changes in
its formal order, its silhouette and in the number and relation of its parts. The
difference can provoke and intensify our awareness of the moment between
what we saw the hour, day or season before, and what we see now in the pres­
ent. The interstitium supports the design of dynamic architectural elements
that connect directly to the rhythms of nature.[17.1]
An application of this dynamic concept shows two solar envelopes over a
typical urban site, a low one for winter and a higher one for summer, both generated to provide 6 hours of solar access to surrounding properties. The space
between them is the interstitium that pulses rhythmically, expanding and contracting, growing and decaying with the seasons.[17.2] The formal order of a
building is not necessarily fixed under the interstitium. In an example of
program change, the dark shape diagrammatically represents a basic building
configuration that follows the shape of the winter envelope. But within the
interstitial space, a rooftop theater and a corner marquee temporarily extend
upward under the summer sky without denying year-round solar access to surrounding properties.[17.3] There are possibilities for adjustable climate control
within the interstitium as well. The basic shape of a courtyard building follows
the winter envelope. But in summer, wind scoops reach upward to capture
the westerly winds coming off the Pacific Ocean, or a sunscreen rises to offer
c The Interstitium Solar Aesthetic
In Closing
This chapter followed the idea of a solar aesthetic from its inception nearly half
a century ago with two studies: the first conducted at Auburn University in 1962,
concerned with illustrating the force effects of sunlight and gravity on form;
[Karen Kensek]
[Karen Kensek]
17 Geometry of interstitium.
18 Application of interstitium
on a typical LA corner site.
[Karen Kensek]
19 Interstitium zoning.
summer shade in the courtyard. The interstitium increases the likelihood of
merging syntactic rituals with dynamic architectural symbols, of merging an
implicit with an explicit order, in a natural aesthetic language.[17.4]
A more detailed example of how interstitium climate control might occur
is shown with this example designed for a typical corner site in Los Angeles.
Following the orthogonal geometry of the US Land Ordinance of 1785, the site
is bounded on the north and west by streets, and on the east and south by residential properties.[18.1] A winter envelope for this site is high on the north and
west, lower on the east and south. It rises where shadows can extend across the
street toward commercial properties, with 20-foot (6 m) shadow fences, and
drops toward the adjacent residential properties, with 10-foot (3 m) shadow
fences.[18.2] The basic shape of an office building that fills the winter envelope
is shown with its courtyard open to the winter sun. We might imagine places
for chatting and coffee breaks surrounded by small trees, shrubbery, flowers and
water features, a place where office workers can sit in the sun or in the shade
depending on their preference and the time of day. To expand the available
choice for comfort, they can follow rhythmic shadow boundaries, migrating
east and west by day, north and south by season. This ritual extension of choice
allows at least some work regularly to be done in a garden.[18.3] The higher
summer envelope is separated from the basic building mass by the interstitial
space where it is possible to design a dynamic system for climate control.[18.4]
A movable shield transforms the courtyard with the seasons. As the shield
expands and contracts, people feel and act differently in a sunlit and open space,
as opposed to a shady and sheltered one. The open courtyard in winter admits
the warming sun, extends the view to the sky and shrinks pupils of its inhabitants to pinpoints. Leaves of a tree or vine appear in dark outline, their shadows
spreading across a patio floor. In comparison, the raised shield of summer captures west winds off the Pacific Ocean, cooling and ventilating the courtyard
and protecting the space from the hot summer sunshine. It darkens and quiets
the space. Sharp contrasts give way to suffuse light, sharp shadows give way to
cool shade. A rhythmically changing architectural order invites our ritual celebration of the place. The interstitium extends our awareness of the moment
between what we saw and what we see to the urban landscape.[18.5]
If the various districts of a city are zoned using the interstitium, we can
visualize a kind of landscape with a low, undulating profile in the winter.[19.1]
A higher profile will appear in the spring and fall with an additional layer of
architectural space.[19.2] The summer results in a still higher profile with a
third layer of space. Along these lines, we can imagine an urban landscape that
rises and falls with the seasons like the breathing lungs of a living thing.[19.3]
and the second conducted at USC between 1967 and 1969, concerned with the
aesthetic consequences of generating uniquely adaptive forms by following the
sun’s path. These studies take on fresh meaning today, as architects try to find
practical solutions and an architectural language to underpin the development
of a more sustainable life. In this search for meaning, we have filtered the idea
of a solar aesthetic through the lens of traditional sheltering rituals, and through
the lens of ideas related to the solar envelope and the interstitium. It is clear
that in order to avoid the arbitrariness and chaos of most urban development,
and to complete the aesthetic promise of a genuine dialogue with nature, architecture must ask certain basic questions. Does this place look as though people
occupy it? Where is it? What is its rhythm? What is its life? If we cannot answer
these questions, we must think again about our strategies for policy and for
design. In this task, we can turn to the sun.
The work shown in this chapter was done over the years in collaboration with the following:
Part I Professor William H. Turner and the students of the 1962-63 fourth year design class of Auburn
University School of Architecture.
Part II Professors Pierre Koenig and Emmet Wemple and students in the USC School of Architecture.
Part III Professor Richard D. Berry and students in the USC Solar Studio. Professor Leonard Bachman,
after graciously reading an early draft, made many truly helpful suggestions that have found their way
into the Interstitium section. Professor Karen Kensek generated the computer images that add to the
Interstitium section.
Solar Aesthetic
The Architecture of the Passively Tempered
— Keith Bothwell
People have always delighted in buildings that work passively to modify the
interior environment, providing a haven against the extremes of the outdoor
climate. The principles of this approach were enshrined in the Renaissance
architectural treatises and are widely agreed to be the basis for sustainable architecture. Despite this body of knowledge, these principles are often compromised
by aesthetic predilections and personal prejudices that have no apparent rational
foundation, resulting in buildings that do not perform nearly as well as predicted
or expected. Exploring the field of passive environmental design, this chapter
focuses on the fault lines that occur between knowledge, understanding, intention and achievement during the process of designing sustainable buildings,
fault lines that prevent recent buildings from reaching the full capability of
passive design to reduce carbon emissions. Victor Olgyay prefaces his seminal
work Design with Climate with the following:
To meet the problem of climate control in an orderly and systematic way requires
a pooling of effort by several sciences. The first step is to define the measure and
aim of requirements for comfort. For this the answer lies in biology. The next is
to review the existing climatic conditions, and this depends on the science of meteorology. Finally, for the attainment of a rational solution, the engineering sciences
must be drawn upon. With such help the results may then be synthesized and
adapted to architectural expression.1
to evolve, through generations of building practices and self-conscious traditions; it is embodied in the core principle of the Modern Movement, Form
follows function; and it is found in nature, the ultimate repository of functional
design, where countless biological systems have been tried and tested over millennia. Like nature, passive design has an inherent beauty, elegance and rightness
born from adopting functional forms and the efficient and frugal use of available
materials. This brings us full circle, as the characteristics of passive design are
also those of sustainable systems.
Although we understand the principles of how to design environmentally
sound, low-energy buildings, a rift occurs somewhere between the boardroom,
the design studio and the completed building. I suggest that professional preju­
dices and personal preferences distort the original passive design strategies, compromising the performance of completed buildings. I will attempt to identify
how and where some of the discontinuities occur.
Passive Design
These remarks may cause some discomfort for architects, who assume it to be
their role to shape and form buildings. But Olgyay is careful in his choice of
words and there is much room to maneuver within the synthesis and adaptation
of the scientific results to achieve a particular aesthetic expression.
To some extent, this chapter is the story of two battles. The first is a battle
between opposing approaches to environmental control in buildings. Olgyay
and his followers in the bioclimatic tradition over the last five decades stand on
one side, facing those on the other side who favor the universal technique of
regenerative power. The second is an internal battle between our conscious intentions and subliminal inclinations. In this battle, our rational selves, which seek
good functional performance, stand in opposition to our subconscious aesthetic
predilections, which favor symmetry and repeated patterns. An awareness of
these conflicts may help to illuminate why many buildings designed to be
low-carbon emitters are not performing nearly as well as conceived or expected.
Olgyay’s bioclimatic approach is rooted in site, climate and human culture, and
is more commonly known today as passive design.
Passive design is pertinent and important for a number of reasons: it is the
basic foundation for sustainable building; it has evolved over time, and continues
The area of passive environmental design is widely acknowledged to be the
foundation for genuinely sustainable buildings. Passive environmental control
relates to the way in which the orientation, section, materials and envelope of
a building – the form and fabric of the building itself – create comfortable
conditions inside, without mechanical devices such as air conditioning or heat
pumps. For example, a building in a temperate climate can be kept cool during
a hot summer if it has good day lighting to prevent the need for heat-generating
lamps, shades to guard against solar penetration, an interior lined with high
thermal mass materials and a tall section with both low and high openings to
flush the building with cold air at night. In practice, most buildings combine a
mixture of both passive and active measures to temper the internal environmental
conditions – buildings which are known as mixed-mode or hybrid. The extent
to which passive features dominate the mix is a measure of the ultimate energy
efficiency of the building.
Popular perceptions of what constitutes a sustainable building often center,
erroneously, on embellishments like green roofs and the technologies of renewable energy, such as photovoltaic panels, wind turbines and heat pumps. These
views stand in conflict with the genuine low-carbon capabilities of buildings,
their passive design characteristics. The imagery associated with renewable technologies has a certain allure that passive design features – such as large south
facing windows or high levels of insulation – cannot possibly acquire. Howard
Liddell, a green architect with 30 years of work in passive design, is highly critical of the gadgets and technology, or eco-bling, often associated with sustainable
architecture. As Fionn Stevenson explains:
Liddell tackles the worst offenders of the latest architectural fashion accessory –
‘eco-bling’ – and offers refreshingly low-key alternatives … We are reminded that
each comes at a price, and mostly are not worth paying for … Liddell articulates
a cast-iron case for the economic advantages of passive building principles and
The Architecture of the Passively Tempered Environment
avoiding eco-bling, pointing out that the use of extra insulation and the right
technologies can remove the need for much of the heating and mechanical
engineering services that normally go into buildings.2
Despite the popular misconceptions outlined above, the principles of sustainable
architecture using passive design techniques are now widely understood: provide plenty of daylight, natural ventilation, free cooling and free solar heating.
The formal implications inherent in this approach imposes constraints on
architects’ freedom of expression to create whatever form of building they like.
In the passive design approach, the rules and principles that guide the orien­
tation of the façade, the depth of plan, the form of the section and the disposition of materials cannot simply be ignored – and certainly not when you lack
the mechanical means for ventilation, heating and cooling. In so-called primitive societies, passive design is integral to the variety of indigenous architectures
that have evolved to cope with different climatic conditions around the world.
In hot dry climates, thick walls with small windows and narrow streets keep
the sun out and provide thermal mass to dampen temperature extremes. In
hot humid climates, lightweight perforated walls allow cooling breezes to pass
through, and overhanging roofs prevent sunlight from entering. Passive environmental control introduces only a modicum of comfort in such extreme climates
but can create ideal conditions in more moderate ones. Before the age of cheap
fossil fuels, these passive design methods were about the only means by which
to modify the extremes of temperature for many people. Decisions made by early
societies to design buildings to work passively and to use local, low embodiedenergy and biodegradable materials were not made with proto-environmentalist
notions in mind. Rather, those strategies evolved out of necessity. When the
resources of materials, labor and fuel were scarce and expensive, they were used
frugally and deployed efficiently. Today, the cost of materials and energy, in
contrast, is so low that we use far more than we actually need with little awareness of how much we actually waste.3 The techniques adopted by vernacular
builders are also characteristic of modern approaches to sustainable design that
minimize the use of materials and energy, and which are grounded in climate
and culture. This approach is inherent in the principles of bioregionalism and
critical regionalism.
Since the time of Vitruvius and Pliny, architects have delighted in buildings
that work passively, providing comfort and pleasure by virtue of the characteristics of their enclosures and orientations. Pliny, in the first century AD, was
proud of the way his Laurentine villa responded to the climate:
It faces mainly south, and so from midday onwards in summer (a little earlier in
winter) it seems to invite the sun into the colonnade … This room is very warm
in winter when it is bathed in sunshine.4
of an elegant and appropriate section and plan to temper the internal environment in John Hayward’s Octagon House, and the integration of environmental
control in the buildings of Earnest H. Jacob.5 He later goes on to extol the
environmental virtues of Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, somewhat surprisingly, as it is fully walled with single pane glass. This praise is partly
a result of its under-floor heating – a novel feature at the time – which makes it
comfortable in the depths of winter, but also a consequence of its perfect microclimatic surroundings in the summer. The house is set on the edge of a bluff to
catch the breeze, with its glass walls shaded by trees to the south and west.
Writing before the 1970’s oil crisis and before the full flowering of the environmental movement, Banham makes little distinction between the expression of
passive control in building form and the mechanical or electrical inputs which
might supplement or override this. In fact, he positively celebrates the arrival of
mechanical and electrical solutions in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as
this loosens the constraints imposed on architects and engineers, who previously
had to incorporate large voids in section and plan to manage the volumes of air
essential for natural ventilation. Banham’s tripartition of environmental management into Conservative, Selective and Regenerative modes is a useful analysis:
the Conservative mode retains heat, particularly solar energy; the Selective mode
provides adjustable or movable elements such as shutters and windows to exclude
or include air or solar rays; the Regenerative mode uses external forms of energy
to provide heat, cooling or ventilation.6 The first two modes correspond to the
passive mode of environmental control. In contrast to Banham, Dean Hawkes
makes the distinction between Selective (passive) and Exclusive (mechanical)
modes of environmental control:
During the twentieth century, mechanical and electrical service systems reached
a state of development at which they could replace all of the elements of the
natural environment in buildings. At this moment the essential nature of architecture was fundamentally challenged. The historical struggle of all buildings to
connect inside to outside could be replaced by the flick of a switch.7
Reyner Banham, in his seminal work of 1969, takes similar pleasure in the architectural expression of environmental functions. He delights in the deployment
Hawkes’ sense of sadness at the almost universal triumph of the Exclusive mode
is evident in these words. However, despite the advances in technology and the
availability of cheap energy for the last two centuries, it remains the expert view
that environmental design should be founded on the same basic principles as
those espoused by Vitruvius and his Renaissance followers. In 1995, the German
architect Thomas Herzog drafted a manifesto for sustainable design that was
signed by Europe’s leading architects.8 The manifesto stressed that the passive
approach should take priority over technological solutions:
It should be possible to meet comfort requirements largely through the design of
the building by incorporating passive measure with direct effect. The remaining
energy needs in terms of heating, cooling, electricity, ventilation and lighting
should be met by active systems powered by ecologically sustainable forms of
The Architecture of the Passively Tempered Environment
Other distinguished practitioners in the field have come to the same conclusion,
regarding the first key design step in achieving sustainable architecture. The
leading environmental engineer Max Fordham emphasizes the requirement to
put passive strategies first, starting with good daylighting:
In a modern building the demand for heat can be reduced to almost nothing.
It can be equated with the metabolism of a building. A significant share of the
demand for electricity is for lighting, and natural light is passive solar energy.
So good natural light, which enables the electric lighting to be switched off for
daylight hours … should be a first design requirement. … Other demands for
electricity should not be necessary for the building itself, but are needed to bring
all the benefits we expect from industrialisation.10
We have seen that according to Herzog, Fordham and others, it is far more
effective to reduce carbon emissions and conserve energy by employing passive
design principles first to light, heat and cool buildings. Only secondly should
we employ renewable energy technologies to meet any shortfalls in energy
Our increased desire to save fuel – coupled with recent developments in
mathematical, physical and software modeling capabilities – has renewed our
appreciation of the traditional techniques of passive design and our understanding of the principles that underlie that approach. These principles have been
widely disseminated and are generally well understood by architects and their
consulting environmental engineers. However, the performance of buildings
often fails to live up to expectations, even in cases where the central objective
was to produce an exemplary, low-energy project. We shall see that the influence
of aesthetic sensibilities may be deflecting designers off course.
Commenting on the philosophy of Design with Climate, after referring to
Olgyay’s book as ‘one of the wisest books ever written about the environmental
function of architecture,’ Dean Hawkes suggests how to characterize the
approach in relation to the work of Feilden Clegg Bradley:
This is an architecture of orientation, cross section and envelope. The principal
rooms face southwards. The cross section presents a high south façade to the sun
and a low one to the north. The envelope is generally highly insulated and, to the
south, is elaborated by high-performance glazing and internal and external
shading devices. This might appear to be analytical and reductive, a formula for
literal representation of the devices of environmental management but, right at
the outset, the design reveals an understanding of the primacy of inhabitation in
making architecture.11
students are inspired not by designing for performance but by star architects,
he remarks:
If you build in the performance well, you almost have to build the diagram …
if you build the diagram then it works, but it is also boring … so a certain
amount of license has to be given for deviations … to what extent do you allow
the variations to affect the performance of the building? It’s a difficult aesthetic
decision, and sometimes if you get too rigorous with your performance criteria
your client will say, ‘well, you know, you’ve designed just a box for me!’ 12
Peter Clegg, notable for his sustainable designs, says something similar when
asked what deflects his firm from achieving low-energy buildings:
There is a tendency for architects to be more interested in the other aspects [not
the sustainability aspects] of the design … good architects would all subscribe to
sustainability but they wouldn’t put it at the top of the list and let it really drive
all of the decisions … there would be compromises … ‘I’d really like to get a lot
more glass in that elevation because of this, that or the other’ whereas you risk it
being overglazed or ‘I want this to be a blank wall’ … aesthetics can compromise
Aesthetic preconceptions and preferences of this kind are inherent human
tendencies that can be traced all the way back to ancient Greece. John Onians,
the renowned historian who introduced neurological perspectives in art and
architecture, attributes the clear distinctions between the Ionic temple model
from Samos and the Doric model on the mainland to the distinct cultural and
military heritage of the architects who designed them. Onians argues that this
was not a conscious decision of the designers, but a result of the neural program­
ming of their brains, and their sensory perception of the given environment:
It was the brain’s genetically driven predisposition to pay attention to things that
seemed secured or threatened its survival and its tendency to form neural networks
specializing in phenomena in this area that led to the development of a tendency
to see convergences in the appearances of these very different sets of objects.14
The latent fear of producing a reductive architecture from the too-rigorous
implementation of passive design strategies, hinted at here by Hawkes, is echoed
by others. It seems that it is not enough for architects to design buildings that
perform well; they must have some other special factors that make them unique
and perhaps iconic. When it is suggested to Ken Yeang that architecture
Onians explains that the Samian temple’s central line of columns, distinctly
different front and rear elevations and the sail-like coils of the Ionic capitals are
all subliminally related to the forms of ships – symbols of naval power and secur­
ity for this seafaring people. On the mainland the ultimate symbol of power
was a phalanx of soldiers, hence the Doric temple’s serried ranks of columns
with their flutes and arrises resembling the ‘hollow-ground blades of spear and
This theory suggests that although we share some aesthetic preferences in
common with all other human beings, each culture and subgroup has its own
particular conception of beauty. Further down the scale, as individuals, we all
have our personal, unique, aesthetic responses based on our own particular
experiences. Our neural networks are thought to be in a constant state of flux,
The Architecture of the Passively Tempered Environment
with their connections changing continuously. Familiar images form impressions
which over time reinforce each other, like warm water eroding a pattern of hollows in jelly: when a new memory arrives it flows most easily into the pattern
already formed.15 The memories already laid down therefore respond more posi­­
tively to similar memories and images in the future. As a result of this neuroplasticity of the brain, one set of aesthetic sensitivities will emerge in one culture,
and a different set will emerge in another culture or group at a different time.
The work of neuroscientists and neuroarthistorians like Onians offers a clue
to our current investigations. One cause for the failure of buildings to live up
to their expectations might lie in the very nature of what it means to be human
– the proclivity of the human brain to seek out patterns, to look for rhythm and
symmetry and to find repeated motifs – in both the natural world and the built
environment. So strong is this natural tendency that it fundamentally alters
our rational aims, objectives and judgments. For example, in seeking out a mate
our brains are programmed to look for symmetry and regularity, as these are indicators of good genetic stock. This tendency may explain why we also perceive
and look for similar characteristics in buildings, even though they are completely
unrelated to good building performance. This effect has been at work ever since
mankind progressed beyond subsistence societies. In those economies, when
questions of survival and the need to minimize resource use were paramount,
there was little room for aesthetic sensibilities. As human societies began to
flourish and surpluses of resources and time became available, people began to
indulge their innate preference for aesthetic concerns – namely symmetry, proportion and pattern – when designing and making buildings and when crafting
objects. Societies make a significant shift away from established patterns of building when their economies develop to become less dependent on local resources,
leading them to:
… rely less on vernacular wisdom and increasingly consider fashion and taste
as the prime motivators of their architecture. The result is increased consumption
of materials from further afield and introduction of architectures that are less
appropriate for the local climate.16
forward benefit of improved physical comfort, in ascribing medical, intellectual
and other powers to the cooling effects provided by the Costozza caves and
ducts.19 ‘For these architects and patrons, pneuma was fundamental for establishing physical and spiritual harmony between the human body, a building,
and the cosmos.’20 Palladio well understood the need to balance the size of
windows to maximize comfort and optimize daylight – therefore not too large,
nor too small:
If the windows are made smaller and less numerous than necessary, [the rooms]
will be made gloomy; and if they are made too large the rooms are practically
uninhabitable because, since cold and hot air can get in, they will be extremely
hot or cold depending on the seasons of the year, at least if the region of the sky
to which they are oriented does not afford some relief.21
We now occupy an extreme of that position. A large proportion of the energy
we expend and the resources we consume is unnecessary for our comfort, wellbeing or happiness – the excess blubber referred to by Elizabeth Farrelly in her
book, Blubberland: The Dangers of Happiness.17
Treatises by Vitruvius, Palladio and others outline various principles of passive design – in terms of orientation, window size and location – but the reasons
for these prescriptions are often clouded by mysticism or cultural practice. For
example, Vitruvius names twenty-four winds for regular points of the compass,
whereas in reality, the winds are far more fickle.18 Allusions to the health and
spiritual benefits of design features obscure the genuine reasons for their use:
to achieve comfort in an unfavorable climate. Barbara Kenda seems to conspire
with the treatise authors, rather than to acknowledge the obvious and straight-
The establishment of particular visual and symbolic systems – Le Corbusier’s
five points – suddenly took precedence over the movement’s original ideals,
based on truth to materials and form follows function. Le Corbusier’s ideal of a
universal house is at odds not only with these tenets but also with some of his
climate related work at Chandigarh and elsewhere:
At this moment of general diffusion, of international scientific techniques, I propose: only one house for all countries, the house of exact breathing. The Russian
house, the Parisian, at Suez or in Buenos Aires, the luxury liner crossing the
Equator will be hermetically sealed. In winter it is warm inside, in summer cool,
which means that at all times there is clean air inside at exactly 18°C. The house
is sealed fast! No dust can enter it, Neither flies nor mosquitoes. No noise! 24
However, significantly, Palladio’s aesthetic sensibilities, in common with architects today, override his climatic rationale when it comes to the overall com­
position of buildings, as ‘[Palladio] proceeds without further reference to
orientation to rule that all the windows of a floor should be the same size as
those of the largest room in the suite.’22
Where the early treatises might have been compromised by superstition and
religious belief, today, stylistic prejudices and preferences interfere with practical
objectives. At both times, the imposition of a controlling order emasculates the
efficacy of the original design conceptions. For example, Colin St. John Wilson
claims that the Modern Movement’s ostensible aims for a pragmatic and rational
architecture, where form followed function, was hijacked by Le Corbusier and
others who turned it into an aesthetic style:
It is the thesis of this book that the [Modern] Movement did not die but rather
that its authority was usurped, right at the moment of its emergence into public
identity, at the foundation of the International Congress of Modern Architects
… The functional has also been debased into its very opposite – once again a
‘style’ to prolong the old ‘Battle of the Styles’ by the very people who should have
protected its fundamental humanity.23
The Architecture of the Passively Tempered Environment
1 Photo of South Elevation, Wessex Water Building, Bath, UK. [Mandy Reynolds & Buro Happold]
2 Floor Plan, Wessex Water Building, Bath, UK. [Bennetts Associates]
[Bennetts Associates]
Although many architects followed Le Corbusier’s stylistic lead, others such as
Alvar Aalto and Hans Scharoun remained firm to the Modern Movement’s
essential principles. Some contemporary British architects continue to develop
this other tradition of modern architecture with buildings whose forms and
sections carry forward the regionally rooted, environmental control strategies
embraced by Frampton. For example, Rab Bennett’s Wessex Water office building in Bath – an exemplary low-energy building – is orientated so that its long
elevations face due north and south for easy solar shading.[1]
The building has a restricted plan depth for good daylighting and ventilation,
high thermal mass ceilings to create a thermal flywheel effect in combination
with night cooling and an optimized proportion of window to insulated wall
area to minimize overall energy consumption, balancing heat loss with light
gain.[2, 3]
The building form and architectural elements of Feilden Clegg Bradley’s
National Trust Headquarters in Swindon, although a deep plan building, is
similarly orchestrated to optimize orientation, roof form, ceiling heights and
details to minimize energy consumption. The sawtooth roof profile is aligned
due east-west, despite the site’s non-cardinal orientation, so that the glazing,
pitched to face due north, is shaded by overhanging photovoltaic panels on the
south-facing slopes. The brick built north-west and north-east elevations are
characterized by either deep reveals or brick nibs to provide shading from low
sun angles.[4, 5, 6]
Some other recent buildings, such as Michael Hopkins’s Inland Revenue
building in Nottingham or Norman Foster’s Greater London Authority (GLA)
building in London, originally trumpeted as green, end up performing no better
than the unsustainable forms they are designed to supersede.26 Although the
Inland Revenue building was designed with passive principles in mind for
cooling, daylighting and effective solar shading, some of these strategies have
3 Typical Section, Wessex Water Building, Bath, UK.
Contrasting starkly with Le Corbusier’s proposal for a universal house for all
climates is the notion of the bioregion and its architecture – in tune with local
climate, materials, culture, skills and economy. Kenneth Frampton eloquently
discredits the approach of universal technique, with his theory of critical regionalism, which encourages a localized, responsive and humanistic architecture.
Here, Frampton talks about how the design of openings can respond to the
temporal changes in climate and light:
A constant ‘regional inflection’ of the form arises directly from the fact that in
certain climates the glazed aperture is advanced, while in others it is recessed
behind the masonry façade … Here, clearly, the main antagonist of rooted
culture is the ubiquitous air-conditioner, applied in all times and in all places,
irrespective of the local climatic conditions which have a capacity to express the
specific place and seasonal variations of its climate. Wherever they occur, the
fixed window and the remote-controlled air-conditioning system are mutually
indicative of domination by universal technique.25
been compromised in the finished building. Every elevation of the building,
whether facing north, east, south or west, and whether or not shaded by other
parts of the same building complex, is provided with exactly the same configuration of solar shading devices – deep reveals, light shelves, louvered balustrades
and inter-pane venetian blinds.[7]
This combination of devices serves to all but eliminate any view of the sky
from large parts of the interior. This is not what one might expect in a building
bioclimatically designed, which would typically exhibit variations in façade,
specific to the orientation of the sun’s path. To be effective against the low
evening sun, the louvers should be vertically arranged on northern façades, in
contrast to horizontal shades on the southern façades to exclude the sun from
high angles.[8]
In this building there is clearly a great deal of redundancy, with more than
three elements providing solar shading. More importantly, however, all these
devices serve to significantly reduce the amount of daylight entering the building,
the maximization of which was one of the major objectives of the brief.
The Architecture of the Passively Tempered Environment
[Feilden Clegg & Bradley Studios]
4/5 Axonometric Sketch/Floor Plan Building,
National Trust Headquarters, Swindon, UK.
6 Building Section, Heelis Building, National Trust
Headquarters, Swindon, UK. [Feilden Clegg & Bradley Studios]
7 Typical Façade View, Inland Revenue, Nottingham, UK. [Keith Bothwell]
8 Plan of Building Complex, Inland Revenue, Nottingham, UK. [Keith Bothwell]
sunlight. The surface area of the external envelope – through which solar gain
and heat loss pass – is minimized by the use of a spheroid form which is skewed
southwards to reduce the solar gain. This form is further modified by overhanging successive stories of the office floors on the south side of the building in a
stepped profile to provide solar shading to the office floors below. The sophisticated development of these passive strategies results in a complex arrangement
of twin wall glazed cassettes, each one of unique geometry and incorporating
double glazing, insulated panels, external single glazing, integrated blinds and
opening vents. Following extensive computer modeling of sunlight hours and
solar data, further sophistications fine-tune the glazing height of each internal
panel, related to azimuth and altitude angle, in order to limit solar gain to
acceptable levels. The manual operation of a low level damper by the adjacent
office worker will automatically open the outlet damper in the ceiling and
switch off the mechanical ventilation system in that zone.[9, 10, 11]
At first impression, this approach appears to be laudable and well-intentioned,
but there are design choices that do not match the strategy. For example, when
the proportion of glazing to insulated wall area in the inner leaf is carefully
optimized to limit solar gain, one questions why the external leaf is fully glazed.
In summer this will unnecessarily bring unwanted heat into the cavity between
the leaves, some of which will undoubtedly make its way to the interior. And
the building form is spherical, when it is far easier to exclude solar rays in rectilinear buildings with elevations facing due south. Foster claims that the overall
building form contributes to consuming only 25% of the energy normally used
by a high specification office building:
The building’s unusual form, and complex geometry, has been generated as a
result of thorough scientific analysis, aiming to reduce both solar gain and heat
loss via the building’s skin, thus reducing the building’s energy needs … The
building will be naturally ventilated, with openable windows in all office
spaces. Heat generated by computers, lights, and people will be recycled … The
combination of all these energy saving systems means that there will be no need
for boilers or chillers in the building.27
At the design stage, Foster’s GLA building located on the Thames and opposite the Tower of London, was claimed by its architects and engineers to embody
the best principles of low-energy design. The form of the building is clearly
based on passive design principles with the assembly chamber facing due north
in order to benefit from natural light and to embody the transparency required
of today’s democratic institutions, while at the same time, excluding excess
Unfortunately, following the completion and occupation of the building, it was
found to perform no better than the average office building in terms of energy
use and certainly nowhere near the originally touted best practice credentials.28
In the Nottingham building, it is clear that aesthetic prejudices have overridden the rational design process, with an arbitrary desire for every elevation
to look identical. This is so, despite the distinctly different functions of each
elevation, and despite the different solar control requirements for south-facing
façades when compared to those that face west or north. Other factors are at
play in the GLA building: the engineer claims that the increased energy use has
been the result of a doubling of office staff working in the building, plus building managers who do not know how to control the building. Passive buildings,
despite their apparent simplicity, do require a sophisticated understanding of
The Architecture of the Passively Tempered Environment
[Foster and Partners]
10/11 Building Section/Wall Section Detail, GLA Building, London.
9 Exterior View, GLA Building, London. [Nigel Young & Foster and Partners]
revisiting previous patterns and forms, and developing and refining them further over time. Just as one can immediately recognize one signature architect’s
buildings and distinguish them from the designs of another, the same applies
to the two architects whose buildings we have just examined. Hopkins’ heavy
masonry pier motifs in the Inland Revenue building can be seen earlier in the
Lords cricket stand, concurrently in the Glyndebourne opera house and later
in the Portcullis House for British members of parliament. Spheroidal forms
are seen in Foster’s Reichstag building, later transformed to suit the exigencies
of site and program in the British Museum and Swiss Re buildings before emerging yet again on the banks of the Thames. These aesthetic themes are the visible
manifestation of underlying neurological processes – processes that bring us
pleasure when we reprise familiar patterns.
their different modes of operation under varying ambient conditions to make
them work in an optimum manner. But one cannot easily dismiss the suspicion
that the building’s fully glazed external skin, and its spheroidal form, may have
something to do with its deficiencies.
In the work of most architects a characteristic style emerges, which evolves
and changes from one project to the next. Rather than reinvent the wheel
designers build on what they have done before, which is a normal and natural
process. They are motivated by the pleasure and satisfaction they get from
Considering the aesthetic beauty inherent in passive design – which echoes
that of nature – let alone the environmental imperative of adopting its prin­
ciples as widely and as deeply as possible, we should continue to seek out the
fault lines that interfere with its application on a wider scale. In all periods,
from ancient times to the present day, the basic principles of passive environmental design have been well understood to varying and increasing degrees.
Despite common misconceptions, these principles are widely acknowledged
to form the foundation for truly sustainable architecture. Buildings produced
according to these principles have provided not only comfort in adverse climates,
but also aesthetic pleasure for those who appreciate their fitness for purpose –
buildings that are fine-tuned to respond elegantly, effectively and efficiently to
their locale and to their climate over the different seasons.
Sometimes, however, the basic design principles are in conflict with the personal desires and preferences of designers and clients who want just that little
bit more: the desire for an elegant plan, for consistency and order, for shiny
materials like glass and metal or for repeated motifs that have become familiar
friends. These inclinations are not just whimsical preferences but are neurologically programmed into our brains. The external and internal battles will continue,
but there are indications that environmental performance will improve as the
skills of architects increase and the models they use become more reliable. If a
humanistic and rational approach based on passive design is rigorously and
logically pursued, the resulting aesthetic should perhaps be allowed to emerge
as a natural outcome of the process. And maybe that will be even more beautiful than the patterns that our neurological maps are trying to impose.
The Architecture of the Passively Tempered Environment
Qualitative and Quantitative Traditions in
Sustainable Design
— John Brennan
discounting neither scientific empiricism nor the richness of the qualitative
experience in architecture.
Defining the Sustainable
The notion of sustainable development has quickly become one of the defining
narratives of our age. It is an expansive term, open to interpretation in an almost
infinite number of ways. As architecture often holds an uncompromising mirror
up to the values of the societies to which it belongs, trying to explain how architecture responds to the competing and often contradictory dimensions of sustainability in urban development presents a unique challenge.
In this exploration of sustainable development, we follow a simplified
categorization put forward by Max Fordham who defines the environmental
response of buildings in a way that distinguishes between buildings where
people live and buildings where people work.1 Following this approach, I propose to examine the aesthetics of sustainable architecture from the perspective
of the home. There is a tradition of ecologically aware domestic design that
spans fifty years and facilitates a narrative that can be based in a defined historical context. As sustainable theory is multi-threaded, this approach allows us
to reflect on the theoretical discussions with examples from my own work as
a practicing architect, mediating between theory and practice in the field.2
This chapter will examine the sometimes difficult relationship between architecture and the deployment of technology, and specifically, with sustainable
principles in mind. At the heart of this inquiry is a differentiation between
scientific reason and technological control that is well explained by social theorists such as Jürgen Habermas. Based on this foundation, I will seek to situate
what is normally constituted as eco-design within the quantitative traditions
of domestic architecture.
Many of the buildings designed by my practice over the years have engaged
the question: What exactly constitutes sustainable architecture? Should the definition be divorced from the notion of technical performance? Can any kind of
architecture be sustainable if it meets defined quantitative, technical benchmarks?
In conceiving and building a series of residential projects over the years – against
the backdrop of contemporary debates in sustainable design – I have come to
believe that a building’s measurable performance and stylistic appearance are of
less importance, when compared to external variables such as landscape, climate
and response to social and economic criteria for sustainability.
I will attempt to draw from an established body of scholarship in order to
determine how the quantitative and qualitative traditions can, and indeed
should, exist together in the field of sustainable architecture. We illustrate these
relationships in both historic and practical contexts. The conclusions do not
have a pristine clarity that comes from the seamless application of theory to
practice, but rather, demonstrate the possibilities for sustainable design by
It is difficult to establish a meaningful narrative to describe the aesthetics of
sustainable architecture without first referencing the contested nature of what
we consider sustainable development. This section explores some of the critical
relationships between architecture and sustainability, as both display almost
infinite reserves of complexity and ambiguity. Sustainability is a term that is
intensively deployed across diverse academic fields in the arts and sciences.
Architectural research cultures embody a similar breadth of interpretation.
Critics and commentators often posit their own interpretation of what makes
sustainable architecture from a position firmly rooted in their own disciplinary
In recent years, sustainability has become synonymous with the Bruntland
definition to ‘meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability
of future generations to meet their own needs.’3 In seeking to engage with social
and economic as well as environmental realms, this definition can be interpreted
across a spectrum of practice, and is almost incomprehensible in its breadth.
Andrew Blowers, for instance, refers to sustainability as a ‘concept whose strength
lies in its vagueness.’4
We would observe that the production of architecture has much in common
with the way in which we view sustainability. Both terms span diverse knowledge
fields. In architecture’s case, this entails reconciling the inherent tensions
between the disciplinary concepts of ‘firmness’ and ‘delight’ since the time of
Vitruvius. In Academic Tribes and Territories, Tony Becher posits a framework
encompassing disciplinary clusters, and differentiates between bodies of ‘hard’
and ‘soft’ knowledge.5 In this sense, the profession of architecture very much
lies between the ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ while trying to negotiate a path between measurable performance and aesthetic appreciation. When discussing how architecture has endeavored to find an academic identity, Giles Oliver notes that ‘This
yearning has centred on creating a distinct disciplinary validity and obscured
the multi-disciplinary character of architecture’s production and thought.’6
How then is sustainable architecture to be described if, like Oliver suggests,
we see a narrowing of the discourse in the field? To answer this question, we will
examine how architecture and the environmental tradition are viewed by a
selection of key critics who have contested the role of science and technology
in sustainable design to varying degrees.
Simon Guy and Graham Farmer state that sustainable architecture is a ‘contestable concept.’ They observe a privileged, techno-centric agenda in the way in
which architecture is described that offers little room for the sensibilities of culture
and place. They assert that the so-called green building trend is entirely a social
construct, and classify it as series of eco-technic, -centric, -aesthetic, -cultural,
-medical and -social states.7 Technology is compartmentalized within the realm
Introduction: Mediating a Quantitative Tradition in Architecture
Qualitative and Quantitative Traditions in Sustainable Design
of the -technic in the hands of architects such as Norman Foster, Richard Rogers
and Renzo Piano, while it plays no part, for instance, in Guy and Farmer’s
exposition of an eco-centric architecture. Kiel Moe questions the ‘sustainable
myths of the energy crisis.’ His observation that the deployment of technology is
hermetic and isolating offers, to an extent, a valid critique of design practice.
However, he remarks, ‘There is no real energy shortage – there is only a crisis of
human choices as to our energy practices.’8 There are clear opportunities for
writers such as Moe to find contestable elements in widely held narratives such
as global warming and resource depletion, but these opportunities run the risk
of seeming contrarian in the face of intensifying global pressures related to energy
cost, security and supply.
Susannah Hagan’s seminal book Taking Shape seeks to articulate architectural
expression within an environmental tradition, using the typologies of symbiosis,
differentiation and visibility.9 Symbiosis describes an environmentally responsive architecture through existing forms of representation. Differentiation refers
to the development of form that reflects natural processes more overtly, and
which will start to produce distinctive, new architectural forms of its own.
Finally, Hagan speculates that the term visibility ‘suggests the possibility of new
forms, or the yoking of certain existing formal experiments to environmental
modes of operation.’10 In this, Hagan seeks to catalyze new perceptions and
practices in sustainable design with a ‘level of formal invention superfluous to
configuring an environmental control system as efficiently as possible.’11 Unlike
Moe or Guy and Farmer, Hagan observes that:
There is no reason why environmental design’s science based inquiry and architecture’s traditional concern with form should not co-exist. Indeed why architectural form should not be enriched by an environmental agenda as long as that
agenda is not prescriptive.12
Her careful exposition of the relationship between architectural design and the
environment includes a place for both the empirical and the quantitative. In
relation to wider discourses on sustainability, her terms of reference are firmly
rooted within an environmental tradition. She asserts that ‘when applied to
architecture, the term sustainable currently refers to environmental sustainability.’ Following the work of Hagan, the quantitative traditions in architecture
can mediate design with the goals of sustainability, without necessarily dominating design through the use of technology.
A Quantitative Tradition
I do not like ducts, I do not like pipes. I hate them really thoroughly, but because
I hate them thoroughly, I feel they have to be given their place. If I just hated them
and took no care, I think they would invade the building and completely destroy
it. I want to correct any notion you may have that I am in love with that kind
of thing.
– Louis I. Kahn 13
It is not an understatement to say that many of today’s commentators distrust
the controlling tendencies they find are inherent in the deployment of technology in architecture, and specifically distrustful of the impacts on design. Kahn
speaks for many architects in a disdain for the technological necessities of
building services, although few perhaps follow through on his advice to consider them carefully. Much is written about the contentious role of technology
in society. Such a distrust of technology is recounted by Philip Bray14 in Theorizing Modernity and Technology where he covers how scholars such as Thomas
Heidegger have described technology as enframing, to suggest it develops an
internal logic, untroubled by any form of social or cultural mediation. Such a
reading of technology makes it essentially antipathetic to any notion of a qualitative design process.
This section will illustrate an alternate sense of design that feeds from a long
tradition of quantifying levels of consumption, with the goal of moving toward
a more productive discourse on the deployment of technology in architecture.
Prior to the mid-twentieth century, overt evidence for quantifying and minimizing consumption in the design and operation of buildings was sporadic. In
Green Shift, John Farmer lucidly examines the relationship between architecture
and nature from the time of Vitruvius, seeing an inherent minimization of consumption in older building processes.15 In recent times, the modern movement
has been more concerned with the control of nature through technology than
on the quantification and minimization of consumption, perhaps best described
by Reyner Banham in The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment.16 This
book frames the modern movement and its antecedents not in terms of form
and style, but in terms of the development of mechanical and electrical systems.
It describes architecture as being driven by technical change and by the deployment of new technologies such as air conditioning. However, in The New EcoArchitecture,17 Colin Porteous links the technology driven work of the modern
masters to a wider environmental tradition; he traces a clear path from Banham’s
blanket engagement with technology to contemporary interests in low-energy
and bioclimatic building. Porteous links much of the work of Corbusier and
Frank Lloyd Wright with a sensibility for bioclimatic phenomena, such as harnessing sunlight and finding the best use of a site’s microclimate for the benefit
of the building. However, there is a sense of over-optimism in associating the
plan libre and the prairie style with a high degree of sustainable probity.
The quantitative tradition in sustainable architecture engages buildings
with a sensitivity toward the problems associated with an unfettered consumption of finite resources. The first book to popularize such concerns was Silent
Spring,18 but the seminal work is found in Limits to Growth.19 A keystone of the
book was the identification of exponential patterns in population growth and
the impacts on what were deemed finite natural resources. The work has a
Malthusian bleakness and the simulation model reflects the limits of the computational power available at the time. What was dubbed the limits to growth
debate informed many nascent environmental movements and pressure groups.
Qualitative and Quantitative Traditions in Sustainable Design
The autonomous house on its site is defined as a house operating independently
of any inputs except those of its immediate environment … In some ways it
resembles a land-based space station which is designed to provide an environment
suitable for life but unconnected with the existing life-support structure of earth.26
The emergence of an autonomous architecture is important to contemporary
design discourses because of its strong roots in the quantitative tradition.
Robert and Brenda Vale’s seminal work The Autonomous House looks back to
the pioneering research undertaken at MIT with a series of demonstration
buildings27 that harnessed passive solar energy. In an age of bountiful fossil
fuel, these structures remained thoroughly speculative. However, quantitative
imperatives in terms of orientation and the configuration of solar collectors
ensured that they displayed much of the spatial and material character that
we now associate with energy conscious design.[1]
The Vales’ book is painstaking in its measured deconstruction of a home into
a series of complex environmental systems of power generation, water consumption and re-use and waste recycling, with only a few pages of the book being
devoted to the social implications of a house’s autonomy. The book finishes by
offering a building design, simple and compact in form, orientated to the
south with a sunspace running the length of the principal elevation, and with a
pitched roof that features active solar collectors and an aero generator nearby.
[Courtesy MIT Museum]
1 MIT Solar House 4, completed in 1959, displaying active solar technology on the roof.
2 Project for an Autonomous House by Robert and Brenda
Vale, 1975, a key design exemplar of the autonomous
tradition. [John Brennan]
3 Tressour Wood House. [Colin Wishart]
Living in Arcadia: The Autonomous Vision
4 Tressour Wood House, section showing the central location of the
woodburner. [John Brennan]
Environmental ideologies split into distinct strands that can be referred to
as ‘light green vs. dark green’ or ‘environmentalism vs. ecologism.’20 A nuanced
and contemporaneous reading of this can be found in Francis Sandbach’s The
Rise and Fall of the Limits to Growth Debate.21 He outlines an environmental
ideology that places significance on quantitative measurement and prediction,
articulated through critical documents such as Edward Goldsmith’s Blueprint
for Survival.22 Sandbach notes that ‘Ecological calculations aimed at elucidating the ecosystem’s carrying capacity imply that political consensus may be
achieved through a comprehensive, objective and value free scientific analysis.’23
Much of the architecture through this tradition came in part from an ‘antiestablishment environmentalism’ where the concern was one of ‘alienation
and social control as a product of science and technology..’24 A fundamental
ideological aim was to construct frameworks to provide a social control of technology, and this manifested itself in an imperative for non-polluting housing
and the imperative to utilize renewable resources. In this, we find the establishment of a recognizable, if not entirely coherent, body of dwellings that form
the first examples of a self-conscious green architecture. Publications such as
Radical Technology25 and journals such as Undercurrents bring together buildings
that include Alexander Pike’s unrealized Autarkic House, Robert and Brenda
Vale’s Autonomous House and the more anarchic counter-cultural enclosures
by collectives such as the Street Farmers.
The section is the primary way in which the behavior of the house is communicated, showing a clear relationship between the sunspace, the building envelope
and the heat storage system. It displays many of the characteristics we associate
with self-styled eco-homes that we encounter today.[2]
It would be facile to label the Vales’ autonomous house as being captive to
technology; the architecture also resonates with the counter-cultural forces
that shaped green architecture at the time, with an ideological aim to provide a
social control of technology. I propose to explore the legacy of the autonomous
tradition through the Tressour Wood house, located in the southern highlands
of Scotland and designed by the author in 1992.28 The house was completed just
as a wider environmental sensibility was emerging, described by Pauline Madge
and others as an ‘Ecological Design’29 that embraced localism, material impact
and the principles of ‘building biology.’30 It draws on many of the design typ­
ologies of the autonomous tradition as described earlier, and the house was
conceived primarily in section, with orientation and passive solar gain as the
dominant organizing principle. The enclosure is simple and compact, with
heating provided by a single wood-burning stove. Ecological design methodologies were explored through local sourcing and local construction of much of
the building components, which introduced a wider environmental perspective
to the project. In addition, the house also incorporated issues such as material
toxicity and embodied energy in its design.[3]
Operation of the house was an early, salutary lesson in the social challenges
of pervasive technology in the home. The wood stove was designed and positioned in order to heat the whole house in conjunction with high levels of
insulation, and it was placed in the center of the open plan ground floor as an
aesthetic element in its own right. Even though the house was heated adequately
by just the stove, within two years, the owners added electric heaters on account
they were unwilling to load and fire the stove early every morning in cold seasons.
This simple failure showed quite clearly a conflict between what users might
expect in the use of their building and the extent to which the autonomous
equipment could be deployed. The wood burner sat as the dominant focus of
the open living space, but as a piece of technology, its mode of operation lacked
the kind of automation the owners expected and dictated how the house was
to be inhabited. Although innovative in many ways, the case of the Tressour
Wood House indicates that technology, however basic, needs to be mediated
and negotiated, not ignored, within the context of the inhabitants’ pattern of
The ecological probity of a dwelling is most immediately found in what is
measurable. Critically, it also confers status and value to the building as a cultural and aesthetic component embedded in its community. Rather than argue
if such eco-technical buildings are simply social constructions, as Guy and Farmer
would have it, there is a more absorbing relationship in ecological architecture
that touches on the quite difficult interface between science, technology and
architecture. In this section, I examine the theoretical basis for developing a
positive engagement between the quantitative and qualitative worlds that
define sustainable design.
The social theorist Jürgen Habermas provides critical insights in this field,
having had a long engagement with the role of science and technology in
society, as well as an interest in the ebb and flow of the counter-culture in the
second half of the last century. At the heart of his investigations lies a multivalent view of science that he developed into three domains of interest. His first
is the domain of technical engagement, where the measurable and the empirical have roles in predicting and responding to our environment; this corresponds
to what we normally understand as the rational pursuit of science. His second
domain is that of practical engagement where social knowledge is constructed
through consensus and agreement. Finally, Habermas refers to the third domain
of emancipatory knowledge that is based on self-reflection.31
In the context of understanding the currents that mold sustainable architecture, the critical attraction to Habermas’ three domains lies in their inclusive
and connective qualities. The role of science to explain the natural world, and
the role of technology to intervene in it, are both tempered through social engagement. Habermas accepts the fundamental role of science to identify and explain
phenomena such as climate change, which is then to be mediated by social
experience. Habermas’ work responds effectively to a public discourse around
sustainable development, which is significantly framed in quantitative terms
of consumption and conservation. This is the intellectual climate in which architecture should operate.32
In reflecting on how architecture relates to Habermas’ three domains of
interest, the first step is to engage design methodologies within scientific and
empirical fields of knowledge. This provides a foundation for architecture to
assess the needs of the society in which it is situated, and to seek strategies that
promote sustainable development within it. The resulting practical engagement
relates to Habermas’ second domain, where social knowledge is constructed
through consensus and agreement. Herein lies the challenge of mediating technology in the realm of architecture and sustainability. As sustainable architecture
can be defined by its engagement with technology, many commentators seek
to codify it as a spatial and aesthetic response. However, for a building to be
sustainable, I argue that it needs to respond empathically to preconditions that
are assessed through both the technical and practical domains. Habermas’ state
of emancipatory knowledge lies beyond the control of either technology or the
building designer. Here, the limits of context and culture must be recognized
to allow us as individuals to meditate on what sustainability actually means,
providing room for knowledge and self-reflection.[5]
Habermas’ work resonates with the inherent complexity of the many narratives that endeavor to explain sustainable strategies in architecture. His emphasis on the mediation of technology through both society and the individual
The Role of the Measurable
Qualitative and Quantitative Traditions in Sustainable Design
5 Habermas’ domains of knowledge. [John Brennan]
The different streams of thought and traditions inherent in the discipline of
architecture are often seen as divisive, where the relation between technology
and design is subject to constant attrition. Habermas again offers ways of
moving past this condition of binary opposites. Theories and positions that
often appear contradictory are in fact legitimate when viewed in relation to
one other, while privileging scientific knowledge not merely as a social construct but as a foundation for many social frameworks, including the practice
of architecture. Habermas sees a ‘practical engagement’ with reality where we
act with a degree of confidence based on empirical investigations and frameworks. Viewing technology with suspicion – as an instrument and agent of
control in nature and society – often negates the role of the quantifiable and
empirical in shaping architectural discourse.
Many eco-design traditions have, at their core, a measure of autonomy that
has clearly found ways of expressing itself as architecture, often with a distinctive style that very much represents the ideology of the designer and the owner.
When we look at the Vales’ first autonomous house, technology is certainly
dominant. A distinctive characteristic of many green dwellings has been an ideological commitment by the owner to the building in terms of the systems for
heating and cooling, lighting and the re-use of resources in certain defined ways
in order to meet quantifiable standards. In addition, the consumption of energy
in the design, construction and occupancy of green dwellings has been at the
heart of defining their architectural identity.
How do the descendants of the autonomous tradition reveal themselves
today? The Vales’ first house was self-consciously experimental, yet it influenced
the form of what we would recognize today as a stereotypical eco-home. The BRE
(Building Research Establishment) Innovation Park lies in Watford at the northeastern edge of London and holds a collection of prototype homes to research
how the emerging UK Code for Sustainable Homes can be realized.33 A total
of four dwellings were erected, sponsored by contractors and building product
manufacturers. Quite divergent design methodologies are found in two of the
buildings, the ecoTech Organics House sponsored by ecoTECH Swedish Sustainable Homes Ltd., and the Kingspan Lighthouse sponsored by the Kingspan
Group and designed by Sheppard Robson with ARUP engineering.[6]
The ecoTech building is starkly utilitarian with its form and detail making
no effort to hide its modular nature. The Lighthouse home is much more expressive while working within the same plot area. Here, a clear degree of ambition
on the part of the architect employs distinctive forms and materials that suggest
a measure of environmental probity. Although the ecoTech building contains
more accommodation, the Lighthouse provides a spatial richness both internally
and externally. It is, as Hagan would describe, a differentiated building in that
its design communicates its sustainable intent and functionality. The dwelling’s
form is informed by a ventilation strategy that uses stack effect and mechanical
heat recovery. The internal volume is designed to optimize air movement, whilst
the stack is carefully articulated and made transparent to privilege the environmental response of the building through its architectural expression. Externally
the building is clad predominantly in uncoated timber, certainly not to respond
to any context but to communicate a narrative of low environmental impact.
Its rawness seeks to convince us of a benign journey from raw material to
building component. In contrast, the ecoTech building is simply finished in a
white render that obscures any effort toward an environmental probity.
Looking to their empirical behavior and performance, the more formally
expressive Lighthouse is in fact designed to the higher level 6 CSH (Code for
Sustainable Homes) than the starkly functional ecoTech home with the level 4
CSH rating. This suggests that even when built as a research platform, an ambition toward making distinctive architecture does not need to be compromised
by the goals of environmental credentials. It seems more likely that uninspiring
utilitarian housing design is driven more by financial motives than by the notion
of technological or environmental conviction. In this sense, there is substantial
room for architectonic and aesthetic ambition in sustainable design strategies
encourages a pluralistic and multivalent approach to the field. It thus allows
discourse to at least co-exist across what are often strictly defined academic
territories. We should accept that Habermas’ definition of a technical engagement and the rational pursuit of science is a progenitor of what he refers to as
practical engagement. At this stage, social knowledge is constructed through
debate and an arrived consensus.
The environmental behavior of buildings can be described as a series of
measurable physical phenomena. Social discourses in sustainability, themselves
informed by scientific imperatives, then dictate how the manipulation of the
physical processes inherent in a building should manifest themselves in architectural expression. I would contend that the nature of sustainability narratives
are so embedded in the qualitative world, that for a building to be sustainable,
it must be empathic to Habermas’ technical and practical domains. Such an
approach does not negate the experiential or the phenomenal as Habermas’
state of emancipatory knowledge lies firmly embedded in the individual. There
is thus an inherent freedom for us all to make our own constructions of the
sustainable, but Habermas also recognizes that social and practical engagement
requires a role for the quantitative.
Living in a Quantitative Climate
Qualitative and Quantitative Traditions in Sustainable Design
Mediating Technology
The autonomous tradition has had a strong influence on the expression and form
of the sustainable architecture we see today. One of the strengths of the autono­
mous tradition is its clear design elements: visible placement of renewables and
active power systems, section as the primary design generator, compactness of
form and the use of raw materials such as planted roofs and untreated timber.
These characteristics of the autonomous tradition have made it easy to dismiss
it as being technically deterministic, limiting architects’ freedom in design and
aesthetics. In addition, the means of production in the autonomous tradition
are in themselves hermetic, with little dialogue with wider visual and cultural
architectural narratives that engage matters such as context, composition and
proportion. This concluding section reflects on how buildings designed today
in the environmental tradition can mediate between the quantitative and qualitative narratives. In part, this is a journey through some of my own practice,
moving on from an autonomous tradition to strategies that use more diverse
cultural agendas to develop sustainable architectural design.
A required starting point for this dialogue is to move beyond an autonomous
mindset. The idea of a closed, self-sufficient world often expresses itself in architecture that is essentially introspective in character. Here, form is dictated by
performance criteria and a mechanistic interpretation of site and climate as vehicles to harvest natural forms of energy and reduce exposure. In breaking away
from such architectures of utility, Dean Hawkes’ exposition of ‘exclusive’ and
‘selective’ modes of building behavior offers clear direction.36 An exclusive form
of operation describes a building in which the environment is fully controlled
and ‘artificial.’ Building forms are compact to reduce exposure to the external
environment, and the operation of windows and doors are closely controlled.
Although originally meant to describe the operation of sealed, conditioned
workplaces, such characteristics could be directed at many zero-carbon methodologies, and in particular, the emergent PassivHaus standard. On the other hand,
6 BRE Innovation Park showing the Lighthouse building to the left and the ecoTech building to the right.
[John Brennan] 7 Corrieburn Wood House, Ullapool, internal-external response and protection. [John Brennan]
8 Corrieburn Wood House, Ullapool, protected western face and outlook down the valley. [John Brennan]
today that were in many ways not possible within the autonomous tradition,
which held technology and quantitative performance at the forefront.
This is not to say that architectural form and style are not mediated by
quantitative standards. In the UK CSH system, credit points are awarded for the
‘efficient use of building footprint’34 that refers to operational energy use in
indirect proportion to the compactness of form and to the exposed surface area
of the building envelope. Some emerging typologies such as those originating
from the German PassivHaus Institut 35 of Darmstadt, Germany, place great
emphasis on the compactness of form and performance of the building envelope,
especially with respect to air infiltration. This emerging typology often operates
according to its own accreditation standard that interrogates building design
through the criteria of operational energy use in a way that is both rigorous and
exclusive, setting the parameters so narrow that freedom and flexibility in design
are highly circumscribed.
the concept of selective forms places more emphasis on passive energy collection, a variety of means of ventilation and building form that is mediated to
maximize a relationship with the external environment.37 In short, the selective
mode of building is necessarily rooted in an intimate understanding of the given
site context and its climate.
In the climatically exposed northwest corner of Scotland, the making of
protective environments is embedded in the vernacular, where a clear threshold
between the inside and outside worlds undoubtedly provides the exclusive modes
of design. However, the importance of intangibles such as view and outlook
depends on a more porous relationship between the external and the internal.
Corrieburnwood House, completed in 200038 was designed in the selective tradition, even though the original program essentially called for an autonomous
building. It is set in a site of high wind and sea exposure where severe wind
speeds and low summer temperatures make it easily favor a hermetic approach
to the building envelope.[7]
However, the site offers exceptional views up and down a steep sea inlet, and
thus the building seeks an open relationship with the external sphere. With
spectacular views of a sea inlet, the design called for a protected external terrace,
partly with a sunspace that acts as a semi-climatic buffer for the building interior.
The house design thus offers four mediating stages: from the outside, to the
sheltered courtyard, to the semi-climatic sunspace and to the interior. There is
little in the way of sophisticated technologies such as heat recovery, with passive
solar gain being distributed about the house through the manual operation of
opening windows.[8]
Qualitative and Quantitative Traditions in Sustainable Design
The house form is derived from a subjective need to relate the site and its
vistas toward the natural elements, rather than from a position of hermetic
volume according to the performance criteria alone. It hovers around Hagan’s
definition of a differentiated building, in which form is informed by an environmental sensibility that is both subjective and objective. The building was designed
with integral passive solar collection spaces, photovoltaics, high levels of insulation and low impact construction materials. However at the same time it is not
utilitarian, being mediated by what Habermas refers to as practical engagement.
Instead of reducing exposed surface area, it curls around itself to produce a
protected external social space. It turns its back to the wind, but in a way that is
as much symbolic as it is quantifiable in measurable benefit.
The discourse that revolves around site responsive architecture can be opened
to include a dialogue with both the physical and cultural landscapes. This can
be described as a series of frameworks that Margaret Somers calls ‘dimensions of
narrativity.’39 In the context of the Scottish Highlands where the work of our
practice is located, the landscape includes the remote beauty that was fashioned
from precipitous economic and social decline as well as from nature. Instead of
a diverse human ecosystem, the attraction of the Highlands depends very much
on a countryside emptied of people. The perception of a landscape’s beauty is
what Somers refers to as ‘public narratives’ whose role it is to record and recount
shared memory. In this case, the dominant public narrative revolves around an
embedded perception that the area’s traditional cottages of the past should be
literally interpreted to define vernacular building in the Scottish Highlands.
Margaret Somers talks additionally of ‘metanarrative’ where considerations
of expansive cultural and philosophical contexts are used to engage with the
particularities, in this case, of site and location.40 Our work on the Urray House,
located north of Inverness,41 was a conscious attempt to connect environmental performance with a deep reading of landscape and context. It starts with an
interaction with an almost universal metanarrative, that of the relationship of
light to building. A traditional Scots vernacular dwelling engages primarily
with shelter and protection, to create an internal world that is insulated from
the harshness of the external world. As Peter Davidson notes in The Idea of
North, ‘One element of life that Scottish writers take for granted is that the
weather needs to be constantly negotiated.’42
However, the long reach of light on a midsummer’s night would do well to
penetrate the protective depths of a traditional Scots home. Therefore, in the
design of the Urray House, we tried to recognize the specific qualities of the
sunlight from high latitudes: its low, dissecting qualities in midwinter and its
high altitudes of longevity in midsummer. Internally, the environment of the
Urray House is the antithesis of a dark, vernacular interior, as it is drenched in
northern light.[9, 10]
The house embodies a design strategy that seeks to tie environmental agendas
to environmental context and to the subjective qualities of northern light. Sustainable building form does not need to differentiate itself through the overt use
Along with a rediscovered sensitivity toward landscape, the social nature of
emerging discourses in sustainable architecture can be seen as the mediator
between the quantitative and qualitative worlds. In Flexible Housing, Tatjana
Schneider and Jeremy Till43 make the case for adaptability in the design of
homes as fundamental for achieving the elusive goals of social and economic
sustainability.44 According to them, a home that is able to change and adapt
over time will lead to the formation of more stable communities. Although
still an evolving field, the concept of ‘super adaptability’ in housing is recognized by regulatory authorities as a future driver for sustainable and low
carbon developments.45
Sustainable architectures are often profoundly influenced by the technologies that are incorporated in them. Therefore, it may be sensible to return to
Habermas’ work at this time. Many of the buildings examined in this chapter
illustrate a close relationship between the designer and client that reflects
Habermas’ interest in how we all search for a sense of personal, emancipatory
understanding in relation to how we construct our personal environments.
However, many architectural commissions do not have such close, symbiotic
relationships that can result in the bespoke homes becoming truly emancipatory. In most cases, it can be seen that the relationship between the owner and
the architect does not reach a close symbiotic state. As a result, the architect
designs the home in a way to anticipate the client’s future needs. However to
quote Steward Brand’s adage, ‘all buildings are predictions and all predictions
are wrong.’46
A critical design framework for achieving adaptability in sustainable design
lies in Stewart Brand’s model for ‘shearing levels of change.’ In How Buildings
Learn, he describes how architecture should not be seen as static, but rather as
a series of interconnected systems such as structure, skin and services that change
and mutate at different rates. Till and Schneider, in respect to adaptability, speak
of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ modes of flexibility. Hard flexibility lies in an architectural
language of, for example, sliding doors and folding partitions, allowing for
almost instantaneous changes in function. For an architect, this allows a more
proactive, and some would remark, more controlling role in the way that housing is actually used. This approach produces distinctive forms, such as the
Schröder House by Rietveld, and remains a persuasive design methodology
for architects today. More difficult to define is the term soft flexibility. It is, to
an extent, an admission of the obvious yet undiscussed point that architects
of environmental iconography (exposed solar collectors, for instance) as Hagan
would perhaps have it, but instead, can differentiate itself with an almost
intangible response to place and environmental phenomena. The Urray House
illustrates that buildings designed to maximize compactness of form and constructed of highly energy efficient assemblies can resonate with cultural sensibilities as well.
‘Long-Life, Loose-Fit’ Revisited
Qualitative and Quantitative Traditions in Sustainable Design
[Nick Sharp]
9 The Urray House, massing and interior variations. [John Brennan]
10 The Urray House, exterior view. [John Brennan]
11 WholeLife House for Scotland’s Housing
Expo 2010. [Nigel Rigden]
12 WholeLife House, adaptable annex block.
cannot and should not control how a house is occupied. Their role should be
more to provide space that can change and adapt over time. For this to be
facilitated, a ‘relaxed attitude’ to planning and technology is called for,47 where
adaptability is enabled through the generous provision of spatial definition
rather than through the specifics of technological solutions.
The WholeLife House, designed and constructed for Scotland’s Housing
Expo,48 is an example of how the basics of spatial organization can produce
dwellings that anticipate changes through the application of soft flexibility.[11]
The form of the house is divided in two: a core dwelling with living, kitchen and
sleeping accommodation and an annex block that allows varying degrees of
interdependence with the core building. Deliberately, the functions of the annex
are not clearly defined. It can be entered directly from the lobby of the building,
with services provided for kitchen and bathroom facilities. None of the partitions are load bearing so that the annex can be opened or subdivided easily.
Some uses of the annex could include extra bedrooms for a large family, a home
office or a living space for young adults and elderly relatives. The permutations
and combinations of such a building are complex; they are intentionally unpredictive as to how a family would choose to use the space.[12]
Even though the WholeLife House includes elements such as a passive solar
sunspace, this element is integrated within the main body of the house rather
than being displayed as a singular, applied element. What we learned from this
example is that energy reduction strategies that prioritize compact building
forms do not necessarily engage with wider drivers for sustainable development,
including the social drivers of sustainability.
Looking back to the time of the Autonomists, Alex Gordon, President of
the Royal Institute of British Architects, coined the term ‘long life, loose fit’ in
197249 to describe a way of designing low energy, low impact buildings.50 As a
definition of where we might see the form and expression of sustainable architecture developing over the long term, it is an observation that is as relevant
today as it was then.
This chapter establishes a framework to engage positively with a quantitative
tradition in sustainable design. Architecture shares a challenge that is also
inherent in many other disciplines: that of mediating the tension between the
rational and intuitive worlds, where the role of technology is neither negated
nor privileged. To an extent, this challenge lies at the boundary and intersection of disciplines for those who are involved in the production of sustainable
buildings. To work within dominant public narratives that define low-carbon
architecture, designers must be empathic to how buildings are simulated, measured and benchmarked for their technical performance, and how they interface
with technology. The autonomous tradition became significant in environmental
discourses in 1970’s, and the tradition is formally expressed in architecture that
is predicated on the elimination of unnecessary consumption. The descendants
of the autonomous tradition today, such as those we see at the BRE Innovation
Park, still reflect a dominant role for technology in sustainable architecture.
Through our practice, I have found that it is difficult to classify sustainable
buildings according to form and style. The buildings presented in this chapter
follow a chronological development, from the autonomous tradition of the
Tressour Wood House to the more complex and nuanced readings of what sustainable architecture should represent today; in many ways, I believe this development mirrors the progress of wider debates in the field. All of the homes
embrace the quantitative tradition, in that they are founded on a sensibility to
reduce resource impacts. However, they go beyond the quantitative tradition
to explore relationships between internal and external space, light and landscape, and space and adaptation; all of these elements are essential in developing
a meaningful and sustainable tradition in architecture.
Technology can hold a tight grip on the boundaries within which architecture
can freely express its aesthetic purpose. When the quantitative and qualitative
worlds that architecture inhabits are seen as mutually exclusive, this lies in
opposition to the transdisciplinary nature of sustainable development. Buildings
that might call themselves sustainable while following a hermetic design process
will find it difficult to engage the field of sustainability in a meaningful way.
Jürgen Habermas’ work on empirical knowledge – and its mediation through
the realms of practical and emancipatory knowledge – helps define a formal
framework to reconcile some of the fault lines that exist between scientific and
Qualitative and Quantitative Traditions in Sustainable Design
cultural practices. While a Vitruvian reading of architecture revolves around
the ideas of firmness, commodity and delight, Habermas has something to contribute. He provides a fundamental view of science as underpinning cultural
discourse, bringing the certainty of resource consumption and the environment
to the consideration of building behavior; in other words, he contributes to the
sense of firmness in architecture. The way that buildings are programmed and
designed as social objects is mediated through Habermas’ domain of practical
engagement, embodying much of what we refer to as commodity in architecture.
And finally, Habermas discusses the way our personal engagement with architecture lies within the domain of emancipatory knowledge, as we find within
ourselves delight in the built environment.
Making architecture that responds to the many sustainable narratives that
flow through contemporary society cannot easily reside in defined professional
or academic traditions. It does not make for hermetic theoretical constructs with
which to frame design processes. Instead, it follows the same paradoxical and
sometimes counterintuitive path as sustainable development weaves within our
wider social and cultural environments.
Urbanization and Its Discontents: Megaform and
— Kenneth Frampton
Since the opening of the twenty-first century and its highly intensified globalization, the cultural and ethical dimensions of sustainability have emerged as
a compelling impetus for architecture in order to mediate the contradiction
between the drive for economic maximization and the fragility of the natural
environment. Today, we are only too aware of the so-called greenhouse effect
resulting from the excessive emission of carbon dioxide and other heat trapping gases into the atmosphere, largely caused by our profligate dependency
on fossil fuels. The concomitant phenomenon of global warming has surely
become one of the more traumatic transformations in the otherwise seemingly
progressive trajectory of industrialized society. This negentropic predicament
is accompanied by other equally intractable contradictions: among them, our
capacity for technological, most notably digital, control of every conceivable
aspect of our daily lives while remaining incapable of adequately recycling waste;
our excessive commodification of everything and our ever-escalating inability
to control the consumption of non-renewable resources, while remaining unable
to create a more equitable distribution of wealth. The profession of architecture
alone cannot be held responsible for such dysfunctional circumstances at the
level of public policy. However, it is nonetheless clear that it can only benefit
the quality of life when environmentally intelligent design helps to cultivate a
discourse of architecture, so that architecture may begin to approach the envir­
onment in a more responsible and responsive manner.
Although we are aware that some 5 percent of the world’s population –
namely the current population of the United States – consumes 25 percent of
the world’s energy,1 we are generally less cognizant of the fact that in the United
States, buildings, both residential and commercial, consume nearly half of all
energy that is produced each year,2 while the various modes of transportation
account for roughly one quarter3 in terms of automobile, rail and air transportation. In our buildings much of this unrestrained consumption of energy is
obviously attributed to artificial lighting, heating and cooling and to the universal deployment of digital equipment that is left running at all times. It is
equally sobering that a large part of our landfill is made up of building waste:
this type of waste supposedly accounts for 60 percent of the non-industrial
waste stream in the United States.4 Statistics of this kind – more than any other
type of information – bring home the need for establishing a more nuanced,
symbiotic approach to the design of architectural form.
In the United States, there remains a strong tendency to deny the reality of
the environmental impacts of global warming and to continue with the maximized consumption of non-renewable energy. This denial is evident in the reluctance of the United States government to introduce and enforce progressive
Urbanization and Its Discontents: Megaform and Sustainability
environmental regulations with respect to all forms of production and consumption; their general, reactionary obtuseness is accompanied by architects taking
the position that sustainable design has no place in the disciplinary aesthetics
of architecture. Such an attitude is categorically perverse, given that responding
symbiotically to the exigencies of both climate and context has invariably served
as a mainspring for significant tectonic invention since time immemorial.
Despite this recalcitrance, the last few decades have seen the emergence of a completely new breed of environmental engineers who are becoming as essential
today for the refinement and articulation of architectural forms as structural
engineers were during the first half of the twentieth century.
One can hardly reflect enough on the paradoxical, critical polemic advanced
by the ecological advocate Peter Buchanan. He insists that there is no such thing
as sustainable architecture or an aesthetic of sustainability, and that instead,
sustainability arises out of a subtle, often imperceptible interaction between built
form and the ambient forces that impinge upon its surface.5 What this assertion posits is a nature–culture interplay in the deepest possible sense that looks
to establish a continuous system of feedback and modification, not only with
respect to each individual building but also with regard to the discipline as a
whole. Needless to say, it is exactly at this juncture that the issue of sustaina­
bility begins to unsettle many of our more cherished views of the discipline with
regard to the nature of architectural design and the current scope and mandate
of architectural education. The hallowed ground of our so-called creativity and
the aestheticized stronghold of architectural academia may well require nothing
less than a direct frontal assault if we are ever to establish an effective antidote
to the status quo of professional practice that it largely serves to legitimize.
In regard to aesthetic implications and sustainability, there exists an enormous
divide between the digital camp that looks to natural systems for so-called
form-finding or generative strategies, and the other, more open-ended line that
looks to nature to determine how a building and its environment should work
together symbiotically. As Susannah Hagan has characterized the gap between
the latter day aesthetic avant-garde and the committed environmentalists, ‘The
intellectual pyrotechnics of the former are missing in the latter. The intellectual
consistency of the latter is missing in the former.’6 This divide stems from a difference between the avant-garde belief that genuine tectonic creativity is solely
dependent on arbitrary forms of individual, subjective expression, however
much they may be derived from scientific procedures, and the environmentalist
conviction that architecture must, on the contrary, be grounded in a deeper
commitment to finding a homeostatic balance, requiring more restraint toward
an individual’s will-to-form. This latter view is contingent on the cultivation of
a material culture that is not only ecologically grounded but also self-effacing
in its concern for an ethically and critically consistent position.
Sustainable structures cover a wide range of technical means and environmental forms. These include such high-tech, high performance, energy-conserving
structures as Norman Foster’s Commerzbank headquarters realized in Frankfurt,
Germany in 1997, as well as low-tech, low-cost assemblies such as the Australian
firm Clare Design’s (Lindsay and Kerry Clare) Cotton Tree Housing realized in
Queensland, Australia in 1994. It is significant that the low-tech approach presupposes a more collective socio-cultural modus vivendi, and at the same time,
depends upon interstitial elements as though they are both part and parcel of
the same ecologically sensitive approach. The built ecosystem is seen to function
as an active artificial interface with nature. The idea that a building should
respond to its surrounding natural environment and to the local mores of construction brings us back to the wider socio-cultural dimensions of the sustainable
approach, particularly as they may engage with the universal placelessness of the
The competition among the world’s megalopoli to erect skyscrapers of
excessive height for the dubious honor of realizing the world’s tallest building
has certainly been one of the most pronounced architectural phenomena of the
past few decades. This competition is related to the branding of cities, as is the
case with the spectacular instant city of Dubai with its 160-story, 800-meter high
Burj Tower designed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. As a context for such
extravagance, we know that global megalopoli are ever more burdened with debt,
poverty and human misery compounded by burgeoning pollution, particularly
in the Third World. Such strange anomalies occur in relation to the explosive
and unsustainable growth of urbanized populations. To this we may add the
alarming prediction that by 2020 in China alone, some 300 million of the rural
population will migrate to new or existing urban areas.7 A transfiguration on such
a scale will only exacerbate the fact that many Third World cities are among the
most polluted in the world. With equally wasteful consequences as far as petrol
consumption is concerned, cities in the United States continue to lose population in their centers while constantly expanding their suburban hinterlands
with little or no provision for public transport. The negative socio-ecological
nature of such settlement patterns is only too familiar.
Despite the dystopic prospect of an ever-expanding horizontal motopia and
vertical megalopoli, we have to acknowledge the positive effects associated with
the increased use of digital technology, which seems to have raised the general
quality of current architectural production in terms of efficiency, materiality
and technique. Although urban sprawl remains as prevalent and uncontrollable
as ever, the one-off architectural work today is of higher quality than it was some
twenty years ago. In the meantime, even though architects increasingly assess
their work against a constantly improving global standard of technical and cultural sophistication, the principles of sustainability in design have remained
largely restricted to the ad hoc assembly of various mechanical devices and surfaces for energy conservation (including exhaust heat exchangers, plantable
roofs and air-tight insulation) and energy extraction (including geothermal
heat pumps, solar heat collectors, photo voltaic panels and wind turbines).
Within this present realm, where technology has generally improved architectural work while the principles of sustainable design remain far from holistic,
Urbanization and Its Discontents: Megaform and Sustainability
it is important to examine the ideas of topography, sustainability, morphology
and materiality. The vagaries of fashion notwithstanding, the terms topography
and sustainability allude to practices that in some measure resist the commo­difi­
cation of the environment, while morphology and materiality, on the other
hand, allude to practices that arbitrarily mimic the biomorphic processes in
nature or those that emphasize the expressivity of superficial affectation as an
end in itself. Both syndromes occur frequently, at the expense of forging an
appropriate articulation of architectural form in terms of space, structure,
orientation, function and environmental implications.
Between the topographic approach to architecture, which pertains to the
contours of the earth’s surface, and the morphologic approach, which seeks to
emulate the structures of biological and botanical forms, there exists a plastic
affinity that has been of consequence for architecture ever since the Baroque
period. It is obvious that the Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao
exists quite independently of anything that takes place within the interior. In
other words, it is paradoxically detached from any kind of interstitial biomorphic organization that is as much a formative presence in architecture as it is
in nature. This is apparent in the disjunctive and inelegant conditions that
the shape engenders, from the perverse, inconvenient system of pedestrian circulation that leads from the river walk to the main entrance, to the total indifference the building displays toward the topographic context in which it is
situated. We may count among its infelicities not only the ill-proportioned toplit galleries, but also the wasteful and crude steel frame that had to be devised
in order to prop up the extravagant configuration of the titanium skin.
In Zaha Hadid’s car park and public transport terminus at Hoenheim-Nord
on the outskirts of Strasbourg completed in 2001, the topographic dimension
takes precedence over the sculptural, and the tectonic nature of this exceptionally
sensitive intervention presents a three-dimensional megaform that is as poetic
as it is efficient.[1] Hadid’s three other recent projects, namely the Afragola
high-speed train station projected for Naples, the BMW assembly plant in Leipzig
and the Phaeno Science Centre at Wolfsburg could all be said to be works of a
similar kind: the sculptural aspect of the form animates the exterior while the
horizontal topographic dimension is largely reserved for the disposition of the
internal space.
Likewise, the London-based Foreign Office Architects (FOA) (Alejandro
Zaera Polo and Farshid Moussavi) developed their design for Yokohama International Port Terminal of 2002 on the basis of a topological interplay between
earthwork and roofwork. The superstructure provides not only for a precise
spatial articulation of the interior but also for its phenomenological character.
Here, the tectonic interplay between earthwork and roofwork is so symbiotic
as to become a multi-layered topography, rising and falling along the length of
the pier. Here it is the superstructure, rather than the earthwork, that lends itself
most readily to being treated as a topological surface. Here one encounters a
hybrid program that in addition to being a ferry terminal it also serves as a
promenade-pier and a public park, while housing an auditorium within its
cavernous internal space.[2]
According to Robert Somol in his 12 Reasons to Get Back into Shape,8 the
gratuitous adoption of amorphous shape distinguishes itself from the structural
generation of form. Despite the exuberant sophistry with which he elaborates
on the attributes of shape-making, what Somol presents is an unabashed, valuefree advocacy of shape as an end in itself, irrespective of the content or context
of the work at hand. The main theoretician of the morphological cult of shape,
rather than form, has been the architect Greg Lynn. He appropriately recognized
the fundamental role to be played by such morphological paradigms as the
invention of differential calculus and the evidence of dynamic indeterminacy in
nature as revealed through mathematical modeling. However, as far as architecture is concerned, certain unavoidable problems arise out of this kind of analogic­­al
reasoning. The problems center on the dubious stratagem of positing the metabolic processes of nature as the basis of a new architecture, and on the implicit
repudiation of building culture as it has emerged over time as a pragmatic
response to the constraints of climate, topography and available resources, not
to mention the implacable forces of nature that always undermine the durability of the man-made environment.
The space-endless9 megalopolis, often taking the form of a rather chaotic,
suburbanized land settlement, had already become a de facto universal reality
in the second half of the twentieth century. This form of development was
clearly accelerated in the United States by the federal subsidization of the interstate freeway system in conjunction with the deliberate depletion of the transcontinental railroad system. That it was carried out at the behest of the oil and
automotive lobbies is common knowledge, as was the gutting of the sustainable,
electric, suburban railroad system that once fed a large part of the greater Los
Angeles area. At the same time, this enforced dispersal of freestanding objects
would lead to a totally unintelligible environment.
The French urbanist Françoise Choay recognized early on that space-endlessness was a universal aspect of worldwide megalopolitan development, and
one which, were it not for the graphic signs distributed throughout its labyrinthine systems, would not be negotiable.10 The placeless megalopolis, particularly
where it is flat, tends to be bereft of any significant landmark, so that unlike the
traditional city or the nineteenth century metropolis in its prime, we would not
be able to find our way around its miasmic substance were it not for graphic
coding. This is the fundamental difference between the metro­politan city of the
nineteenth century and megalopolitan urbanized region of the twentieth.
All of this makes us recognize that today the field of urban design manifests
itself primarily as a theoretical discourse. As a result, it is largely a non sequitur
when it comes to spontaneous urban development and the rather unsustainable
form that it normally assumes. The paradox is that urbanization, or rather suburbanization, continues its unremitting expansion across the surface of the earth
with hardly any attempt to check its expansion through the implementation of
Urbanization and Its Discontents: Megaform and Sustainability
1 Site Plan, Hoenheim-Nord Terminus and Car Park, Strabourg, France,
Zaha Hadid Architects, 2001. [Roger Rothan]
2 Transverse Sections, Yokohama International Port Terminal, Yokohama, Japan,
Foreign Office Architects, 2002. [Foreign Office Architects]
3 Sketch for Barre à Marne, Marne la Vallée, France, Henri Ciriani,
1980. [Henri Ciriani]
4 Transverse Section, L’Illa Complex, Barcelona, Spain, Rafael Moneo
and Manuel de Sola Morales, 1992. [Rafael Moneo & Manuel de Sola Morales]
rational design. This stands apart from the instrumental realization of necessary
infrastructures without which the urban and sub-urban fabric could not be
sustained including sewerage, water, power and above all, highways. Apart from
infrastructural planning and the seemingly spontaneous sub-division, piecemeal
development and wholesale proliferation of ill-assorted freestanding objects
that follows in its wake, no form of culturally significant place-creation emerges.
The proliferation of random and incoherent objects – no matter how green
each individual object may purport to be – in an uncontrollable sprawl is at
the core of the unsustainable situation. This is true in terms of material continuity but also, and more crucially, in terms of social and cultural urban form.
Sustainability in this regard is tied to a strategy that integrates the built form
into its specific context of climate, topography and vegetation, as well as its
specific culture.
This brings us to the potential of the megaform as place-form as opposed to
object-form that is to say as an antidote to the unsustainable placelessness. The
term megaform refers to the form-giving potential of certain kinds of horizontal
urban fabric capable of effecting some kind of topographic transformation in
the megalopolitan landscape. While the term may read as synonymous with the
term megastructure coined by Reyner Banham in his highly influential 1976
study Megastructure: Urban Futures of the Recent Past, the two may be differentiated in terms of the relative continuity of their forms. Thus while a megaform
may incorporate a megastructure, a megastructure is not necessarily a megaform. The main difference resides in the emphasis placed on the overall form
and its intrinsic spatial order. What is more, much of the essential attribute of
the megaform is based in the overall horizontal thrust of its profile taken together
with the programmatic place-creating character of its spatial aspect.
The megaform may be defined as: 1 a large form that extends horizontally
rather than vertically; 2 a complex form that is not articulated into a series of
structural and mechanical subsets; 3 a form that is capable of inflecting the existing urban landscape in terms of its strong topographic character; 4 a form that
is not freestanding but rather one that insinuates itself as a continuation of the
surrounding topography; and last but not least, 5 a form that is oriented toward
a densification of the urban fabric.
Beyond the dense historical core, a megaform may be identified as an urban
nexus set within the space-endlessness of the megalopolis. Henri Ciriani’s concept
of une pièce urbaine, as first formulated in his so-called Barre à Marne or Noissy
I complex in Marne la Vallée in 1980, certainly seems to have been conceived
along these lines, and something similar may be claimed for Rafael Moneo and
Manuel de Sola Morales’ L’Illa Block in Barcelona in 1997. This project is typical
of a megaform in that, apart from its predominantly horizontal profile, it is a
mixed-use development comprising a shopping frontage on the Avenida, a threestory central mall running down the entire 800 meters of the building, a rental
office, a hotel and a school. It is perhaps crucial that the office space is fenestrated in such a way that it could in theory be converted into residential use.
The L’Illa block is well served by multi-story parking below grade so that as a
commercial strip, it is able to attract consumers living in the inner suburbs and
even further afield just as much as those living in the center of the city.[3, 4]
In this regard, we may say that the L’Illa block manifests a quasi-catalytic
function in as much as it appears to be capable of stimulating further, unforeseen
consequences in the surrounding urban fabric, corresponding in this sense to
Manuel de Sola Morales’ concept of urban acupuncture. That is to say, a topographic but limited and realizable civic intervention that is inserted into the
fabric in such a way as to fulfill the double function of healing existing dysfunctional conditions in the urban structure, while going on to stimulate positive future activity and development. This concept suggests that the horizontality
of the megaform should be capable, by virtue of its program, of serving as a
civic microcosm. One may suggest types that have the potential for engendering
such forms, with great applicability, within the contemporary megalopolis:
shopping malls, air terminals, transport interchanges, hospitals, hotels, sports
facilities and universities.
The idea of megaform on a more regional scale was first elaborated as a
strategy by Vittorio Gregotti in his concept of the anthrogeographic landscape, as
set forth in his book Il territorio di Architettura (The Terrirory of Architecture)
in 1966. One of the antecedents of this approach was Friedrich Ratzel’s turnof-the-century concept of anthrogeographic form. Ratzel was the first to fully
recognize that the romantic notion of a pristine and untouched nature had
long since ceased to exist and, that instead, what we inherit today is an artificial
nature that is just as man-made as the built form by which it is marked, except
perhaps for the vast untamed domain of the ocean.
Gregotti’s strategic concept of an earthbound architectural territoriality
led him to posit a panoramic topographic megaform in his proposal for the
University of Cosenza in 1978-80. This admittedly rather utopian proposal
envisaged five comprehensive faculty megastructures set against a north-south
administrative spine incorporating public transit and other amenities; the horizontal emphasis was composed of long perimeter blocks of low-rise terrace
houses.[5] This layered low-rise megaform is a landscape in itself, in categorical
opposition to the proliferation of ill-related objects by which it is surrounded.
One may also cite other instances in which pragmatically hybrid megaforms
have either been applied to or projected for the existing urban fabric. These
include the 1978 proposal for the main rail terminus in Zürich by Mario Botta
and Luigi Snozzi, where the covered platforms of the existing terminals are curtailed by a bridge building over the tracks, running along the line of the buried
Sihl River. A comparable megaform for a mixed-use administrative and cultural
center was projected also by Botta and Snozzi for Perugia in 1974.[6]
The Canadian architect Arthur Erikson was also committed to the idea of
the megaform as a catalytic intervention when applied to the existing urban
fabric. This is evident in the case of his 1983 Robson Square development
inserted in the deteriorating downtown of Vancouver, British Columbia, and
in the compact university campuses that he designed and realized for the universities of Simon Frazer and Lethbridge respectively over the years of 1979 to
Stephen Holl has repeatedly touched on similar preoccupations, first in the
megaforms that he projected at the scale of the American continent, and then
more practically, in his residential work in the Far East, including the various
integrated residential enclaves that he designed for Fukuoka, Japan in 1992.
More recently, Holl realized the Vanke Center in Shenzen, China which he calls
a horizontally laid skyscraper, in effect a hybrid building wherein different kinds
of uses are accommodated within a single structure comprising a hotel, offices,
condominiums, rental offices, recreation spaces and a cafeteria. This rectilinear
megaform is raised above the ground as a gently undulating cantilevered suspension structure. Its status as a landmark is only too evident when viewed against
the backdrop of the mountains to the rear of the city. Although the elevation
of the building makes it appear unduly brutal as megaform, its spread-eagled
formation provides space for a park and for civic amenities of various genres.[8]
Megaforms may also be conceived of as cities-in-miniature in order to
emphasize the structure of the existing topography and to establish identifiable
places. The Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta demonstrated this approach
on a number of occasions, from the stepped formation of his Camino Real
Hotel overlooking the beach in Ixtapa in 1981, to the Renault assembly plant
that he realized as an ochre-colored, virtually windowless horizontal form in
the arid landscape of Gomez Palacio, Durango in 1985. Similar large-scale megaforms set against dramatic topographies can be found in a great deal of Latin
American work, from Lina Bo Bardi’s bridge-like Museum of Modern Art completed for the center of Sao Paulo in 1968, to the even more dramatic 108-room
linear dormitory block for the European astronomical research center designed
by the German architects Fritz Auer and Carlo Weber, completed in 2002. The
latter, cutting across the remote wastes of the Atacama Desert in Cerro Paranal,
Chile, constitutes a testament to Gregotti’s thesis that architecture begins with
the marking of ground as a primordial means of establishing order.
Given our entropic motopian culture on one hand, and the imperative to
inlay the building form with the constituents of a given site – and especially
with the ground – on the other, the potential of using the megaform as a sustainable strategy of remedial urban densification is compelling. As architects,
we hardly need to indulge in the further proliferation of freestanding objects
that are disconnected from the environment as well as from their neighbors
for the sake of presumably autonomous aesthetic merit, or to indulge in the
further manufacturing of images that are demanded by the standing regime
of economy and aesthetics. We must see the crucial role of the site as an envir­
onmental context, most notably its topography, as a primary defining marker
of a place in all its aspects. This view is further pronounced if we fully utilize
the capacity of technology to simulate, synthesize and model the immediate
surroundings of a given building. By such an agency we may come to fully
Urbanization and Its Discontents: Megaform and Sustainability
[Arthur Erickson]
5 Aerial View & Longitudinal Elevation, University of Cosenza, Cosenza,
Italy, Vittorio Gregotti, 1980. [Vittorio Gregotti]
6 Aerial Perspective, Rail Terminal Extension, Zürich, Switzerland, Mario Botta and
Luigi Snozzi, 1978. [Mario Botta & Luigi Snozzi]
7 Transverse Section, Robson Square, Vancouver, Canada, Arthur Erickson, 1983.
8 Solar & Site Diagrams, Horizontal Slyscraper, Vanke Center, Shenzen,
China, Steven Holl, 2009. [Steven Holl]
integrate, in a more effective and symbiotic way, the variables that define the
inherent aesthetics of the site-building relationship, including the ecology,
geology and hydrology of the given environmental context in order to minimize, as far as possible, the potentially destructive impacts of building on the
As for the individual aggregate of architecture, the concept of megaform
returns us to the passive hybrid approach that is found in a great deal of
building traditions. One can easily recall the time-honored orientational preferences in certain regions, the habitual provision of overhangs or even the implementation of stable thermal mass through the manipulation of vents, shutters
and sliding screens so that one is able to maintain optimal conditions inside
the building, irrespective of the season. These methods rely on large, doubleglazed, insulating openings that are fully exposed to low-angle sun in the winter,
while being shaded by adjustable canopies or exterior blinds from the impact
of radiant solar heat in summer. Plan configurations that adopt shallow floor
depth reduce the need for artificial light, and under temperate conditions, allow
one to adjust the interior climate through manually operated windows. The
latter provision is even mandated by law in certain European countries. Here,
the potential of the passive hybrid approach is clear, especially with regard to the
so-called hi-tech and generative architectures where various combinations of
sensors, actuators and rather simple control algorithms may be employed to
compensate for the fluctuating discrepancies between the internal and external
conditions not only to achieve thermal comfort, but to identify aesthetics sensibilities as a fundamental condition of our relationship to the place we inhabit.
In regard to what Catherine Siessor has characterized as eco-tech structures,11
they tend to ignore, almost by definition, two time-honored attributes. First is
the issue of embodied energy, all but spontaneously incorporated into vernacular building, and the second is the virtually unquantifiable precept of ‘long life,
loose fit’12 in contemporary building practice. This precept was naturally integral
to the load-bearing masonry structures of the past, bequeathing us a legacy of
eminently adaptable buildings mostly dating from the 18th and 19th centuries,
many of which we have been able to put to new uses. Such residual value is
more difficult to achieve today on account of our minimal space standards and
commitment to the paradoxically inflexible lightweight building techniques.
Sustainable buildings should be generically adaptable rather than utilitarian or
encumbered with gratuitous formal gestures that soon become dated. Above
all, they should be made of low-energy materials that weather and age, rather
than high-energy synthetic substances that are often unable to withstand longterm exposure to natural conditions without continual maintenance. Sustainable
architecture is impossible without a close integration with its environmental
context. Therefore, sustainable architecture must address such factors as microclimate, topography and vegetation, as well as the more familiar functional and
formal concerns addressed in standard practice.
Notwithstanding the contributions of individual buildings, it is the application
Urbanization and Its Discontents: Megaform and Sustainability
of sustainable paradigms at the urban scale that is destined to be the critical
factor over the long haul. The urban scale obviously contains, structures and
facilitates two of the most energy consuming aspects of our life: the built envir­
onment and the use of automobiles. Understandably, one may remain skeptical
of energy-efficient structures when we are faced with our failure to reduce commutation by car that continues to prevail throughout the megalopolis. With all
the highly politicized debates on the deleterious environmental consequences
of the automobile-based lifestyle, we slowly begin to see a gradual shift towards
various forms of non-polluting propulsion systems.
There is no manifest reason why environmentally responsive and sustainable
design should not be culturally stimulating and aesthetically expressive. Sustainability and its implicit aesthetics ought to be rightly regarded as a prime inspir­
ation to enrich and deepen our emergent culture of architecture, rather than as
some kind of restriction upon, or as something separate from, the fullness of
its aesthetic and poetic potential.
Landscape Aesthetics for Sustainable Architecture
— Daniel Jauslin
No, No and No. Three times No is the answer to the question: is there currently
such a thing as aesthetics in sustainable architecture? This answer is drawn from
the discussions of three architects who are acclaimed practitioners and thinkers
in the field. If we assume that aesthetics is something that all architects pursue
in one form or another, it would appear that, currently, sustainability is not an
integral part of it. One of the acclaimed architects considered in this chapter
is Rem Koolhaas, a Pritzker laureate and one of the founders of OMA, a highly
regarded practice in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. He opened his keynote
lecture at a Harvard University conference on sustainability in 2009 with the
following statement:
I did not assume that anyone in the academic world would ask a practicing
architect in the 21st century, given the architecture that we collectively produce,
to participate in a conference on ecological urbanism.1
During his lecture, Koolhaas showed a photomontage of a massive wall of skyscrapers set in the desert, including some of OMA’s own designs.[1] If we asked
Koolhaas the hypothetical question: ‘Does the aesthetics of architecture contribute to a sustainable world and its ecology?’ He might answer: ‘No. Architecture
is rarely sustainable as a human activity.’
The second acclaimed architect considered in this chapter is Peter Eisenman.
During the Eisenman + Wigley IV lecture at Columbia University in 2009, he
made the following statement regarding the US Green Building Council’s rating
system2 while discussing the meaning of architectural practice in the context of
the current financial crisis:
Some of the worst buildings I have seen have Gold, Silver or Platinum LEED
Certificates … and they are awful, architecturally. They are depressing … They
may optimize ecological constraints today but they don’t do anything for the
culture in terms of the excess required for architecture … Architecture has always
been about an environmentally possible way of being. Hence the buildings that
last throughout the history of architecture.3
Although Eisenman might agree that great pieces of architecture – the kind
that last for centuries – possess certain aesthetic qualities, if we asked him the
hypothetical question: ‘Does sustainable architecture possess durable aesthetics?’
Eisenman might answer: ‘No. Sustainable buildings do not possess lasting
The third acclaimed architect considered here is Wolf Prix, co-founder of
the Coop Himmelb(l)au in Vienna.[2] He presented a striking statement during
the opening lecture for the 2009 Münchner Opernfestspiele (Munich Opera
Landscape Aesthetics for Sustainable Architecture
This statement led to a major uproar among German Architects and a policy
debate or die Grundsatzdebatte in the prominent German newspaper, Die
Süddeutsche Zeitung.6 If we asked Prix the hypothetical question: ‘Is there such
thing as aesthetics in sustainable architecture?’ He might answer: ‘No. By definition, there cannot be.’
To summarize current debates on the aesthetic possibilities of sustainability
in architecture, we may conclude that today, there is no consensus as to what
these possibilities are or whether they exist at all. At least this is the conclusion
that may be drawn from the unauthorized summaries of three of the most
prominent architects in the field. Their remarks are quite recent – made within
the past few years – and quite behind schedule if we consider that sustainability
has grown to become a firmly established and often compelling issue in the fields
of science and politics over the past two decades.
On a wider scale, the United Nations committed itself to the goal of sustainable development and environmental protection on a global scale when it passed
Resolution 38/161 in 1987. In the process, the UN established its own definition
for sustainable development:
Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without
compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.7
One decade later, the Kyoto Protocols8 established energy efficiency as an important policy agenda of many of the UN member states. While definitions of sustainable development and energy efficiency were established at the level of
international policy making more than 20 years ago, it seems that on the whole,
the profession of architecture still disregards the impact of sustainable development, while failing to connect the notion of sustainability to the notion of
As a practicing architect, it is clear that these problems may stem from fact
that environmental destruction does not appear to be a matter that can be ameli­
or­ated or resolved through architectural aesthetics. And in fact, that addressing
environmental destruction would curtail aesthetic possibilities. For many
architects, sustainable design has become an issue not because it is integral their
own desires for aesthetic experimentation or development, but because of the
new legalities imposed by building regulations and the economic ramifications
of the real estate market. As of 2011, we could say that current architecture is not
willing to meet the challenges of sustainable development, environmental protection and energy efficiency in a proactive manner, given the widespread
assumption of the substantial aesthetic compromises that would be required
to do so.
However, it is important to step back from the profession of architecture
1 Collage for the lecture by R. Koolhaas,
Sustainability: Advancement vs. Apocalypse,
OMA 2009. [OMA] 2 Wolf D. Prix of Coop
Himmelb(l)au. [Associated Press]
Sustainability belies signification – and it is therefore not possible to generate
‘aesthetics’ from the term sustainability. There is no such living aesthetics of
sustainability as that of modernist architecture.4, 5
and look at the scope of the problem, in totality. The human species can be
considered an exploded ape, the only primate capable of leaving its natural habi­
­tat and spreading throughout the globe, even to the most remote and hostile
regions in terms of elevation, temperature, precipitation and isolation. Since
World War II, the world’s population has grown by 4.5 billion, reaching 7 billion
today.9 Needless to say, the impact of providing architecture and infrastructure
to these 7 billion people has had a profound – and almost geologic-scale – impact
on the natural environment. Concomitant with the rise in population, the
dominance of the urban lifestyle has spread. The size of world’s urban population has grown five-fold since 1945, surpassing the world’s rural population for
the first time in history during the first decade of the 21st century.10 Humans
are now a predominantly urban-dwelling species.
The biologist Jelle Reumer introduced the term exploded ape to compare
humans to an invasive species in fauna, or what we call allochthonous species in
flora.11 Invasive species become rampant in a habitat when there are no natural
predators or when such predators have become extinct. Except in very rare situ­
ations, Reumer concludes that the human species is out-of-place, invasive and
virulent in an inappropriate habitat. By profoundly altering the habitat in
order to satisfy the trends of population growth and urbanization, we invade
and ruin the habitat for other species, leading many to extinction.
In some cases, architectural theory reads like the testament to the exceptional
behavior of our species, focusing on the virtues of global proliferation and control over the natural environment. In nearly every classical and modern treatise,
architecture is understood as counterpoint – if not an opposition – to nature.
Architecture has been conceived ex negativo from the Wild ever since Vitruvius
The men of old were born like the wild beasts, in woods, caves, and groves, and
lived on savage fare … they began … to construct shelters … and so passed from
a rude and barbarous mode of life to civilization and refinement.12
The major problem of environmental consciousness in architecture is that it
lacks awareness of our modes of sustenance extending beyond their immediate
necessities. Often, we refer to the polarity of nature versus culture, and architecture is firmly in the camp of culture, by definition. Architects tend to view aesthetics as their professional entitlement, and therefore as a matter of authorship
Landscape Aesthetics for Sustainable Architecture
that carries a certain freedom of interpretation and expression. Architecture
ends up being a matter of subjective preference disconnected from the context
of the natural condition. The matters of subjectivity and preference, and the
resulting lack of perception focused on the natural condition, have everything
to do with the aesthetics of architecture.
In order to advance the cause of environmental consciousness in architecture, what appears necessary is neither an exclusive commitment to sustainability nor a commitment to another avant-garde aesthetic. However, playing
up the polemics of opposition between sustainability and the avant-garde will
not lead to a resolution. Rather, a renewed environmental consciousness may
be triggered with an aesthetic sensitivity toward the natural environment that
provides the context for each piece of architecture, developed in tandem with
a wider understanding of the human dimensions and aesthetics qualities
implemented in the built environment.
A very different way of dealing with the polarity of nature and culture can
be seen in the perspective of landscape. German art theorist and activist Bazon
Brock defines landscape as the aesthetic human appropriation of nature.13 The
role of aesthetics in landscape is not to separate natural forms from the cultural
realm, but to reconnect them. Drawing inspiration from the inherent terms
of aesthetics in landscape, the architectural discipline could develop a real alternative to the invasive practice of architecture where the dichotomy of nature
and culture is profound. With inspiration from the landscape perspective, it
may be possible to shift the position and approach of architecture toward nature,
moving from an approach of opposition to one of integration. Such a renewal
is clearly outside the scope and potential of avant-garde aesthetics alone.
A common recognition of where our efforts should lead in terms of environmental consciousness seems to be absent from the education, socialization and
profession of architecture. In fact, the question of how a building, city or landscape will be perceived by its users and inhabitants is the key question that
underlies most of our design work. Designs that please human perception tend
to trump the consideration of the natural environment. However, no matter
which side of the discourse they fall on, most architects agree that architecture
should contain certain aesthetics, and most decision makers agree that finding
a sense of sustainability is a prerequisite of any planning or architectural activity.
But the relation between these two priorities – aesthetics and sustainability –
changes according to the theoretical and practical views of different actors in
the process of building.
Achieving sustainability in the architectural and building fields appears to
be inevitable as a matter of governing policy, regardless of the preference of
individual architects. In 2010, the European Union adopted a new energy
direct­ive with a relatively short-term goal: ‘by … 2020, all new buildings shall
be nearly zero-energy consumption buildings.’14 This policy results from the
political commitments made during the Copenhagen summit in 2009, based
on the European Union’s affirmation of the Kyoto Protocols. Here, ‘nearly
zero-energy’ implies that the impact of architecture on climate and the environment could be reduced to negligible levels if the policy’s directives were formally
legislated and enforced. More likely than not, legislation along these lines will
bring the discipline of architecture to a crossroads. Most practitioners and
students of architecture today will probably not be able to meet the specific
challenges of this legislation with the means provided to them at the present time.
The kind of buildings envisioned in the European Union policy may not be
the kind of buildings that are designed by architects: they may be designed and
built by highly specialized engineers and contractors, assembled with an incompatible mix and match of specialized mechanical components. In this future,
terms such as architectonic and aesthetics may be nothing more than the quaint
adages of an anachronistic practice.
Although the debate on sustainability is complex, it is possible to define its
boundaries and focus the inquiry on the most relevant aspects. Substantively,
we should not focus the debate on whether, as a discipline, to give in to political pressure or change the priorities of architecture; we should not endeavor to
find an ultimate priority between aesthetics and sustainability; we should not
wish for the recent legislation imposed on architecture, such as the European
Union’s 2010 energy directive, to disappear; and finally, we should not work to
make the components of sustainability invisible, as some German architects
suggested in the policy debate in reaction to Wolf Prix. Instead, the most relevant and obvious challenge is the integration of both aesthetics and sustainability
at the core of each architectural project, and throughout the philosophy of the
Again, the landscape perspective may be able to unite the seeming
dichotomies of nature versus culture, aesthetics versus sustainability, showing
that these dichotomies do not have to reside at the core of the discipline. Already,
some practitioners of contemporary architecture have been strongly influenced
by the concept of landscape. In 1966, Vittorio Gregotti postulated that architects should focus on territories rather than architectural space.15 And since the
late 1980’s, architects have developed a wide range of process-oriented approaches
to architectural design that include cartographic methods such as mapping,
and surface-oriented methods such as folding. These methods expanded beyond
the academic circles and into professional practice during the 1990’s. Although
most of these methods took compositional and philosophical detours and do
not implement a purely territorial approach, they are fundamental to a consciousness that is changing the discipline in significant ways: a consciousness that
views the organization and composition of architectural space as landscape.
Concomitant with this rise in landscape-oriented consciousness is a research
framework that can be characterized as the ‘architecture of landscape methods,’16
developed to investigate and understand architecture that has been designed as
landscape. Within this research framework, the interior volume of a building
and the exterior landscape surface surrounding a building do not merely interact.
Instead, the building is designed as an artificial landscape, as a continuation
Landscape Aesthetics for Sustainable Architecture
and augmentation of the natural one. This idea of landscape defines the exterior surfaces as well as the interior surfaces, and through these methods, the
relation of landscape to architecture is in fact turned inside out.
A specific focus of landscape architecture is placed on understanding the
formative elements and qualities implicit in the landscape, and on developing
architectural design methods and strategies in consideration of them. With the
implementation of this approach, landscape architecture consists of a range of
natural, cultural, urban and architectonic constituents.17 There is an obvious
correlation between content and form: the location where the content resides
is what connects the landscape to the architectonic in terms of material, topographic, technical, cultural and economic substance. Form involves the way in
which the elements are assembled into a composition, based on the development of a variable but intimate relationship between object and context.18, 19, 20
In this way, the modalities of landscape architecture are employed in the design
of architectonic constructs, in order to formulate a set of design tools that are
appropriate to the challenges of designing the built environment in relation to
the natural one. The idea of landscape in fact defines an aesthetic mediation
between the natural and artificial worlds.
The design methods of landscape architecture are particularly useful; they
can be contrasted to architecture in terms of how they strategically approach
spatial design. While most pieces of architecture carry a distinct building program forward from the outset of the design work, landscape approaches start
from the topography of the site. We can distinguish four distinct attitudes
toward composition, all of which relate to the site. These attitudes summarize
the basic concepts of the landscape approach in terms of four categories borrowed from the work of Sébastien Marot.21
should express the incompleteness of design rather than being presented as a
final, fixed state.
c Spatial sequencing provides an intrinsic narrative of landscape where the
physical design is often connected to certain spiritual storytelling or ritual processions that have evolved through history. In recent times, the dynamics of
mechanization, speed and communication have changed our perception of
narrative and sequencing, and as such, have changed our approach to sequencing
the landscape.26, 27 More historic qualities such as topography, circulation, the
horizon and the picturesque continue to relate to spatial sequencing as well.
d Context refers to the dense functional, visual and spatial relations and points
of reference that are connected to a landscape. In landscape architecture, relational structuring means the rearrangement of spatial references or the interweaving and joining of disparate elements. A designed landscape is supposed
to create a context rather than simply reacting to one. The important peculiarity
of landscape architecture is its potential to derive programs from the relations
of various elements in a place, a way of place-making based on the form and
context of the landscape, rather than on form following function.28
focuses on the natural and induced dynamics of landscape transformation. The effects of nature and time, but also the effects of design strategies,
influence how to approach a site and induce it to grow in a certain direction.
Working from this perspective includes the observation, preservation and
manipulation of the social and ecological systems present in the landscape. The
resulting work of landscape architecture is expected to structure potentials, and
While there are four distinct attitudes toward composition in landscape architecture – as described in the work of Sébastien Marot – currently, no such overarching attitudes can be described in the discipline of architecture. The approach
taken to design in landscape architecture and architecture diverged, especially
as landscape has occupied a theoretical blind spot in the architectural discourse
since the end of the 1970’s. However, we could refer to four comparable modalities displayed the work of key architectural theorists of the post-World War II
period. Anamnesis was certainly important to Aldo Rossi29 in his preoccupation
with history as well as in his self-reflective approach to architecture and the
city. Process was a key element in the theories and designs of Peter Eisenman.30,
31 Bernard Tschumi’s influential work on the architecture of events in his
Manhattan Transcripts32 essentially refers to spatial sequencing. And Colin Rowe’s
Collage City is a critique of the state of placelessness in the modernist city, representing a call for context.33
The significance of Marot’s landscape method for the disciple of architecture
lies not only in its holistic, topographer’s perspective, but also in the potential
to become an antidote for the disorder of modalities in the production of
architecture. In this regard, it is important to note the specific order that Marot
has laid out: from drawing on anamnesis to consciously setting up the process,
he then involves the spatial sequence and finally culminates in the context. The
four modalities result in a program that is connected to building an aesthetic
understanding of the given landscape intervention. Such an approach includes
building an awareness of the necessary scale and the sustainable impact that the
landscape intervention will have on neighboring systems.
a Anamnesis integrates the history that led to the present state of a landscape,
as traces of history are visible and legible in most landscapes. We could consider the different stages of time22 and focus on the process of moving from an
untouched natural wilderness, to agrarian cultivation and then to gardening,
taken along with the kinds of higher spiritual senses and symbols that accompany the process. The idea of nature with constantly changing means of representation and interpretation is a central theme throughout the history of
garden design and landscape architecture. We could see the landscape as a
palimpsest23 of different layers24 in various models, as illustrated by the strati­
fication of various natural, cultural, infrastructural and built layers.25
b Process Landscape Aesthetics for Sustainable Architecture
3 Two libraries in Jussieu by OMA, competition entry, 1992. [Hans Werleman]
4 Villa VPRO by MVRDV in Hilversum, 1993-1998. [Daniel Jauslin] 5 Rolex Learning Center in
Lausanne by SANAA. [Daniel Jauslin] 6 Yokohama Ferry Terminal by FOA, 1995-2002. [Daniel Jauslin]
One could easily attribute the aesthetic shortcomings – if not altogether
failures – of sustainable architecture to the problems of integrating the divergent modalities of a project into a set of closely linked relations. The current
demand for sustainable development compels architecture to be inclusive of
various modalities – including the highly technical, aesthetic, cultural and
environmental – that have the potential to coalesce into a holistic system for
architectural work. The landscape perspective could provide an important line
of thought for the development of architectural theory, a line of thought that
has been largely missing in the modernist discourse. Certainly over the past three
decades, we have witnessed various architects’ experiments and trials along the
trajectories of the four landscape modalities, arriving at individual and often
intuitive interpretations of the architecture-landscape relationship. However,
the landscape perspective could summarize a whole range of apparently disparate
approaches toward architecture, advancing the field of architectural theory in
relation to aesthetics and sustainability.
The division between the disciplines of landscape architecture, architecture
and urban design has been questioned on many fronts. Certain architects have
designed parks with the concepts of anamnesis, process and context, such as the
two different proposals for Parc de La Villette in Paris by Bernard Tschumi and
OMA, as discussed by the architects and the critics alike.34, 35 While at the same
time, landscape architects have started to create a new breed of constructed landscapes that are in fact urban places, such as the Schouwburgplein in Rotterdam36
or the Lijdsche Rijn Park in Utrecht, both designed by West 8. As seen in these
examples, blurred boundaries are evident between the disciplines of landscape
architecture, architecture and urban design.37
For example, Rem Koolhaas describes the OMA’s design for the libraries at
Jussieu, Paris in 1992 as ‘a vertical, intensified landscape, urbanized almost like
a city,’38 presenting a new approach for the relation of architecture and landscape.[3] In the simplified version of MVRDV’s Villa VPRO in Hilversum – where
‘the landscape is the building’39 – this new relationship is even clearer.[4] With
the Rolex Learning Center in Lausanne by the Japanese firm SANAA of Kazuyo
Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa,40, 41 [5] the building’s provision of a landscape for
people42 is not a goal in itself, but a means to an end: to create a human environment in relation to nature. And in the Yokohama Ferry Terminal designed by
the Foreign Office Architects FOA, there is a strong link between the formal
and the geographical.43 [6] In fact, this building presents a crucial indicator in
the development of aesthetic approaches to sustainable architecture. The design
of the Yokohama Ferry Terminal develops a human envelope of transitory
space into a completely new type of public building. It has a very clear tectonic
language, grounded in the reading of context and integration of the building
program with a spatial process of formation. The building mediates between
the realms of landscape, urban fabric and architecture, effectively mending the
division of context and object.
If we turn to Japan, it is possible to illustrate a different conception of space
that has been cultivated in traditional temples, gardens and shrines and which
continues to influence Japanese architecture to the present day. The designs of
many modern architects such as Taut, Tange, Isozaki, Ito, Ando, Kuma, Maki
and Hasegawa44 bring the building and site together within an inclusive configuration of the landscape.45 [7, 8, 9] Their designs display a completely different
relationship in this regard compared to the contemporary work of Western
architects. In Japan, the basic conception of space is defined by its openness to
the landscape. This conception is striking and immediately apparent in the
design of traditional Shinto shrines: in their most reduced form, the torii is
simply a frame in the landscape, inviting spirits to enter a sacred area marked
by a piece of architecture that is, in essence, an opening. This approach stands
Landscape Aesthetics for Sustainable Architecture
7 The Naoshima Museum by Tadao Ando, 1990-2010, located to the left inside the hill, and view on the Japanese
inland sea. [Daniel Jauslin] 8 Grin Grin Park with Visitor’s Center by Toyo Ito in Fukuoka, 2002-2005. [Daniel Jauslin] 9 Forest and Sea Sliding Walls in The Water Glass House by Kengo Kuma in Atami, 1995, with a view on the Villa Hyuga,
interior by Bruno Taut, 1936. [Daniel Jauslin] 10 Detail of the World Energy Map drafted by AMO for WWF, 2011. [AMO]
Developing the aesthetics of sustainable architecture is necessary, and probably the only path left in the future of architecture – aside from the complete
absence thereof – that can begin to address the impacts of providing architecture and infrastructure to the world’s population of 7 billion. Designing for
sustainability is a unique opportunity. It does not indicate the end of architecture as an aesthetic system, nor does it indicate an imposition on architecture’s
creative enterprise. In fact, designing for sustainability is an aesthetic project at
its heart, where aesthetic systems can be used to form a symbiotic relationship
between the city and its surroundings. If we understand architecture as part of
the topological space of landscape, we will also be able to understand our place
within the relational system between the natural and built environments. This
new approach cultivates an understanding of landscape as a human interface
with nature, presenting a means by which to design architecture in a sustainable
manner, along with a renewed context of sustainable aesthetics. If we cultivate
our spatial relationship to the environment as both a design method and a context, we will be able to gain a much wider understanding of architecture in terms
of its range and scale, thereby reclaiming the responsibility for its programmatic
and contextual correlations as a discipline.
In a sense, architecture practiced as a landscape method will be closer to an
art form more than to a technological accomplishment, and indeed, Yes will be
the certain answer to the question: is there such a thing as aesthetics of sustainable architecture?
in stark contrast to Western temples, where sacred space tends to be found in
enclosed, restricted chambers. The different approaches to space in the Japanese
and Western building traditions may have something to do with the absence in
Japan of such spatial definitions as the cella, a cannon of Western architecture.
According to architecture historian Kenneth Frampton, one concept for
topographical and topological urban interventions is the megaform, as introduced by the Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki.46, 47 The megaform foresees
an architectural intervention as a strategic device for re-structuring areas of
high-density urban fabric, referred to as urban acupuncture by Manuel de SolaMorales. These interventions are configured as surface, epidermis or skin.48
Frampton points out an essential link from megaform to sustainability that has
yet to be worked out in its entirety. The link lies in developing the strategic
character of the design, situated in the landscape in such a way as to bridge aesthetics and sustainable development with a holistic measure of environmental
considerations as context.
In a nascent step toward establishing a method that bridges architecture and
landscape, it may be helpful to redraw the maps in order to plot our paths.
This approach is exemplified in the recent work that AMO has done in concert
with the World Wildlife fund.49 [10] But going beyond this, we ultimately need
new geographies, not of boundaries and borders that demarcate but new geographies of topological space, geographies of landscape.
Landscape Aesthetics for Sustainable Architecture
Building Envelope as Surface
— Sang Lee and Stefanie Holzheu
discourse. Such a discourse should include the very basic, underlying composition of our relationship to the natural and living environments. The building
envelope as surface provides a key component of that relationship.
The building envelope occupies a special position within the strategies of sustainable design. It is not only the primary building element that is exposed
directly to weathering, but also a crucial part of architectural design that determines the formal qualities of the building. In the Vitruvian triptych, the building
envelope contributes more to the venustas or to the delight in the building’s
beauty than others. The building envelope is also expected to help regulate the
climatic, thermal fluctuations of the building. Therefore, the development of
building envelopes has focused on the combination of both the climatic
appropriateness and the affectation of a given building. The building envelope
is expected to shelter and preserve the interior conditions and to express an
aesthetic intent at the same time.
This chapter, presented in three parts, will establish a conceptual framework
for the design of building envelopes in the context of thoughts on sustainable
design. First, we will trace key historical ideas and developments in order to
clearly establish what a building envelope is, and how it has been conceived.
Within these discussions, we will summarize three main aspects that the building
envelope is designed to address: functional, technical and energetic. We will
conclude the first part by discussing the pronounced features of three exemplary
architectural models as they relate to building envelopes, namely, the modernist,
Venturian and biomimetic models.
In the second part of this chapter, we will explore the notion of surface. We
will speculate on what could be derived from this notion in relation to building
envelopes, and in relation to sustainable thinking at large. This discussion will
include the notions of surface proposed by Avrum Stroll and James J. Gibson,
and drawing from their theories, we will formulate the idea of the building
envelope as surface.
In the third part, we will explore mimesis – as applied for example to the term
biomimetics – as one of the key propositions in today’s environmental awareness,
that is, how we learn from the dynamic conditions of natural, living organisms.
Here, the primary intent is to reevaluate and critique the current practice of
biomimetic approaches in architecture. We will attempt to construct, by drawing
from the theories of Jacque Derrida and Hans-Georg Gadamer, a perspective of
mimesis pertaining to architecture as a kind of relationship to nature.
In consideration of the discussions made throughout this chapter, the conclusion will offer a view to a particular conceptual framework, one that contributes to the design of building envelopes in the context of sustainable design.
The intent is to move away from a mechanistic view of sustainable design, and
to approach it in a manner where sustainability emerges as a condition rather
than as an object. We believe that today, the prevailing view of sustainable design
consists of various prescriptive components without offering a comprehensive
Part I: Making Enclosure – Historical Ideas and Developments
In architecture we can observe two paradigmatic modes of providing shelter.
The first one is the condition of a void where shelter is found in a cavity, being
formed by erosion, excavation and subtraction, be it natural or man-made.
Here the enclosure is defined by the hollowed out space in a solid. The second
is the so-called primitive hut. It is an assembly that consists of a distinctive frame
structure, reminiscent of vertical tree trunks and an overhead cover of the tree’s
crown.1 These two archetypes provide the principles of enclosure: a solid, loadbearing construction analogous to cutting out a cavity in a solid material – the
subtractive stereotomy – and the frame structure analogous to constructing
a skeleton of vertical and horizontal members on which covering elements are
added in order to provide a protected interior – the additive tectonics.
The spread of one model or the other depended on the social and cultural
aspects of the local environmental contingencies such as the climate, the available sources for energy and food and the need for protection from natural forces
and other animal species. More importantly, the two models can be considered
in terms of the nature of each respective enclosure. The cave model is one-sided
and reflexive. An example of the reflexive surface can be traced to the murals of
the Lascaux cave dating back more than 17,000 years, where the dwellers
chronicled their relationship with the outside world. The primitive hut model
can be characterized as projective in that the membrane consists of two sides,
the interior and the exterior. In this case, the membrane stretching over the
skeleton is that of duality by which one can conceive of the hut from the outside
and suppose its interiority; at the same time, the interior surface informs its
dwellers of the conditions outside.
What is important to note here is that, in either model, the notion of enclosure imagines, inscribes and produces habitable solids and voids that are simultaneously cerebral and emotional of one’s own necessities and desires in order
to dwell inside. In these two models, our modes of dwelling have long been those
of the surficial. The idea of dwelling as surficial is not an idea of demarcation –
marking out and occupying geographical territories – but of constructing at once
intellectual and emotional relations with one’s own environment.
Today, the concept of sustainability underlies an approach to the development
of buildings, cities and the broader built environment in a way that can ensure
the long-term viability of resources including food, energy, materials and water,
now, in the near future and hopefully, for indefinite posterity. The building
envelope is closely associated with energy savings in individual buildings: it is
the first plane of contact to the outside world where most heat losses or gains
occur, and therefore, the building envelope is a predominant factor in the control of energy consumption throughout the entire life cycle of a building. At
Building Envelope as Surface
the same time, the building envelope has been thought to provide the separation between the conditioned interior and the uncontrollable exterior climate.
In both aspects, highly functioning building envelopes are crucial for the
building’s overall performance and for contributing to sustainability.
Building envelopes can be characterized in terms of three major aspects of
design concerns: the functional, the technical and the energetic. In combination,
these aspects determine what an observer sees and recognizes as the aesthetics
of a building. They form a crucial concern in the design process, if not entirely
an overriding one. Also, these aspects of building envelopes are closely related
to the local conditions of a site in terms of geographical location, prevailing
climate, material availability as well as the kind of intangible, contextual issues
that exist such as the tendencies of ideology, politics, economics and thus, the
social and cultural practices of the population.
The functional aspects elaborate on the building envelope as a shield, with
a primary role of protecting the interior from the detrimental effects of the
exterior: they include keeping the interior habitable from the extremes of heat
gain and loss by conduction and radiation, keeping water out and controlling
airflow. In addition, the overall appearance of the building can be regarded as
one of the functional aspects of the building envelope, as historically the appearance and function were intimately linked. On one hand, this stems from the
prevailing materials and techniques of the locale, and on the other, from what
the dwellers inscribe on the surface in order to express their belief systems,
narratives of their life, or simply what they consider beautiful and sublime
in and around them. The function of the building envelope as a substrate for
expression can be said to be the most primordial and yet also the most ana­
lytical of architecture.
The technical aspects arise from the construction point of view, as the building envelope must be assembled with appropriate materials and techniques so
that it complies with the functional aspects while maintaining its structural
integrity relative to gravity and lateral forces. The technical aspects therefore
impart the material and structural qualities in the way the functional aspects are
handled. With regard to the measures of durability and sustainability, the technical aspects imply what has been accumulated up to the point of use for the
materials that are assembled in the building envelope, including how the material is produced, handled and put in place, whether or not it is safe to use and the
extent and severity of the adverse side effects in its production and subsequent
use. In addition, the technical aspects indicate how adaptable and accommodating the building envelope is to different uses by incorporating operable
openings, devices such as blinds or foils that block or filter sunlight and air, and
the degree of material resistance to weathering, wear and tear.
Directly pertaining to energy, the building envelope is expected to perform
a key role in regulating the transmission, absorption and containment of energy
in a building. Today, the energetic aspects of the building envelope form a key
factor of sustainable design: it is through the building’s outermost enclosure
a The Modernist Model Given these considerations in relation to the building
envelope, it would be worthwhile first to set the discussion within the context
of modernist architecture that has predominantly shaped the face of our buildings and cities over the last century. Since the advent of modernist architecture
to the present day, the one persistent dictum by Louis Sullivan has become
the defining marker of modernist thinking: the union of form and function.
According to this dictum, the building’s external form is supposed to reflect its
internal structural logic. The aim here is to achieve a union, or at least an agreement, between the interior spatiality and the exterior enclosure; the elevation
is seen as the representative of the venustas that also expresses the building’s
utilitas and firmitas. However, the development of modern steel frame construction has resulted in the separation of façades from their role in carrying the
that significant energy losses, gains and savings could occur. Therefore, energetic
performance often provides a crucial design criterion for a building envelope
and in one manner or another, all envelopes and enclosures have evolved to deal
with energy flow. For example, in a hot and humid climate, screens and louvers
are used in combination with a lightweight timber frame construction that is
raised above the ground to facilitate ventilation. In a cold climate, the building
volume is enclosed in massive, insulating walls with limited openings in order
to contain the heat inside.
The building envelope, as seen through the divisions of its functional, technical
and energetic aspects, forms the fulcrum of sustainable thinking and aesthetic
considerations. Today, technologically speaking, the building envelope also
represents the highest concentration of advanced and so-called high-performance
materials and assemblies that function in the consideration of energy production, conservation and efficiency. The building envelope is the most up-to-date
part of architecture where the constant pursuit of doing more with less defines
the architectural cutting-edge. This points directly to the two core strategies of
sustainable thinking, conservation and efficiency.
Building envelopes seen in these terms fulfill a role that mediates between the
interior and the exterior of the building. In this instance, the primary purpose
is for regulating the enclosed space in terms of the thermal range: in summer,
in conjunction with the outside geography and vegetation, the envelope should
let in cooler air while in winter, relative to the sun, the envelope should contain
heat from solar infrared radiation. Instead of isolating the interior from the
outside conditions, the building envelope should facilitate and take advantage
of the exterior variations in temperature, humidity and airflows. And from the
interior, the building envelope is expected to provide a pathway for relating to
the outside world in terms of vista, for example, or the visual presentation for
approach and entry. The provision of a view and a relation to the outside world
– through the medium of the building envelope – has prompted as much
impetus in locating a building with respect to a given site as the issues of geography, solar orientation and vegetation.
Building Envelope as Surface
building’s weight, as seen with modern curtain walls. The primary purpose of
modernist building envelopes has become increasingly directed at implementing
an impervious plane designed to maintain a clear separation of the building’s
interior from the exterior climate. This stems from the idea that the unpredictable and therefore undesirable conditions of the natural climate must be kept
outside, and that the interior must be kept constant in order to achieve comfort.
Irrespective of the kind of architecture they may be present in, all non-load
bearing building envelopes have had the same objective with little variation: to
provide a barrier that seals the building volume from outside wind and water
while providing a medium of exterior visual expression that is freed from the
impositions of the structural loads. In stark contrast, the architecture for sustainability, as practical requirements and ideological propositions, calls for the kind
of building envelopes that are breathable and permeable. These requirements
and propositions of sustainability contrast with the vision of Le Corbusier that
the outside is volatile and unclean, and that we should seal ourselves from it
inside the building where everything is clean and conditioned in response.2
Under the modernist model, the building envelope is essentially a mechanical
device that can be operated in order to regulate and control exchanges between
the interior and the exterior environments. The windows are opened or closed
depending on exterior conditions or the building can be sealed from the exterior if needed. By means of thermal breaks and insulating layers, one could
minimize the thermal exchanges that take place between the interior and the
exterior. As it is hung like a curtain, the modernist building envelope is thought
of as a membrane-barrier rather than as having the solidity and thickness that a
wall may indicate. Yet, through the use of large glass panes that have become
available with the advent of modern float glass production, the building envelope can be made visually transparent, letting in unobstructed natural light
and outside views. In this sense, the modernist model of the building envelope
– with its non-load bearing curtain walls – can be characterized as both
mechanical and optical; as a plane that separates the interior from the exterior
while simultaneously connecting the two in terms of the visual and tactile experience; as a model that allows a very limited form of exposure to the outside
The other crucial, conceptual and obvious development of the modernist
model is that the building envelope is no longer intrinsic to the logic of the
structure, but made to exhibit its own autonomous logic and aesthetics. Even
though the building envelope may inform certain clues to the building’s structure and programmatic organization, it is no longer directly reflexive of them.
Therefore, the role that the building envelope plays in the appearance and
expression of a building becomes independent of the structural composition
for building design.
Hence, the modernist building envelope becomes a crucial component that
is at once a separative device and a connective, optical device, driven to maximize
its transparency and minimize its physical presence. Satisfying these conditions
is regarded as the essential design objective for the modernist building envelope.
And also, in this view, the history of modern architecture can be seen as a
history of shedding material heft by making it lighter, stronger, more insulating and more transparent. While the combination of reduced materiality and
heightened performance is by and large consistent with the principles of industrialization – in that one should produce the maximum function-performance
assemblies with the minimum expenditure of materials and labor – the design
of building envelopes also presents the building’s environmental and aesthetic
positions in the most direct manner. This is true in terms of how it responds to
climatic variations, and in terms of how it expresses form as an aesthetic configuration.
b The Venturian Model Subsequent to the modernist curtain-wall, in Robert
Venturi’s theory, we find a conceptual construct in which the building envelope
provides an agent that is expected to represent and transmit messages by means
of flat and thin façades. Throughout the history of architecture, Venturi argues,
building façades have been made to communicate ideas and stories by means of
material and tectonic making, such as stone carvings, mosaics and fresco murals.3
This development points to a conceptual articulation of building façades where
the substantive separation of the medium and the content takes place. Here the
medium is the actual, physical and material presence of the façades themselves,
while the content consists of visual effects, messages, signs and other elements
that are superficial to the façades.
What the Venturian model offers for the building envelope, primarily in
terms of façades, is the notion that it is a communicative device that is expected
to signify, symbolize and convey certain narratives, messages and information.
In Las Vegas, for instance, Venturi finds building façades that are designed for
visual effects that promote fantasy and desire; they are conceived as media that
contain information or stories about what the building does, what the building
means or what it appears to be.
c The Biomimetic Model Today, active research and experiment toward the
architecture of sustainability is grounded in the realms of the virtual and the
bionic. With regard to building design in general and to building envelopes in
particular, the virtual provides a convincing means of testing and simulating
designs, while the bionic provides the basis on which the algorithms for sustainability, for doing more with less, may be modeled. With the rapid development in these two areas of engineering, shorter product life cycles, shorter
development times and higher resource efficiency are just a few keywords that
appear in the context of sustainable design that is focused on biological models.
Within the discussions of sustainability, the primary purpose of the virtual
is to measure, compare and simulate the environmental conditions to which a
piece of architecture will be subjected, which in essence codifies many of the
important variables of architecture. Virtual software applications with a wide
Building Envelope as Surface
range of possibilities for simulation and analysis are used to optimize the performance of buildings. These allow for a building’s design-performance relationship to be simulated, visualized and analyzed in the framework of the building
environment as a part of the design process. For example, the software application for energy analysis can quantify the energy consumption of various cycles
of a building along with the resulting CO2 emissions. The application can also
measure and simulate the degree of thermal insulation and heating and cooling
The bionic is characterized by the use of material, functional and structural
configurations that are based on the organic solutions found in nature. The
features that distinguish bionic architecture can be characterized in three main
categories: material creativity, optimized production and adaptability. As a general condition, the work of nature is held to be beautiful because each entity,
both living and non-living, is thought to be formed in its appropriate place
according to the immutable laws of nature. In our view, the rationale behind
bionic architecture concurs with this awareness; it regards nature an appropriate
template for architecture. Nature provides a key for achieving architectural
materials that are beautiful, durable and strong, highly efficient and yet environmentally appropriate, and can be used in a wide range of flexible, adaptable
applications. Thus, considering these two threads in combination, the virtual
and the bionic are regarded to offer the possibility for building envelopes to
achieve a new intensity in technological and morpho-tectonic sophistication,
and above all, a coherent ideological construct.
Currently, the virtual and the bionic are drawn together closely within the
biomimetic model of architecture, which is based on the processes of natural
selection, evolution, adaptation and optimization. The biomimetic model
attempts to abstract the principles that lie behind a species’ capability to sustain
itself by adapting and evolving its physiological composition in relation to the
habitat over time. This model proposes that building envelopes are increasingly
analogous to biological organs, for example biological skins that respond to
environmental conditions and function in specific ways. In this instance, the
building façade may be conceived as an assembly of dermal layers, each one
corresponding to a particular performance criterion, and each one optimized
through a virtual process that is analogous to natural evolution.
The biomimetic model propagates that the process of natural evolution has
been refined over millions of years and provides a highly refined approach for
the design and engineering of the built environment. Common examples
include the physical and behavioral features of various animals and insects that
are specific to their particular environments. The primary strategy of this model
is to devise a certain degree of sensitivity and automaticity in the operation of
the building envelope in regard to the various so-called parameters that contribute
to the relationship between a building and its environment, both natural and
artificial. At the same time, the notion of emergent and generative systems,
often codified as virtual models and simulations, points to the kind of self-­
The three models of building envelopes presented so far can be summarized as:
the modernist envelope that informs the logic of the building’s program, space
and structure, i.e. ‘Form follows function;’4 the Venturian façades that signify
and communicate, i.e. ‘Form accommodates function;’5 and the biomimetic,
emergent and/or generative systems that respond and adapt to environmental
or parametric conditions, i.e. Form is function.
At this point, the three models can be hypothesized in terms of surface. The
first conception that is relevant to the discussion, what the analytical philosopher
Avrum Stroll describes as the ‘Leonardo surface’6 termed after Leonard Da Vinci’s
description of surface in his notebooks, posits that a surface is not a material
presence but an abstraction. It not only separates but also binds two different
entities or states, such as air and water. Surface as an abstraction is also an interface. It is a shared boundary with no ‘divisible bulk’ that marks the theoretical
differentiation between two substances.7 At the same time the surface expresses
the manner in which the substances fluctuate relative to certain influences or
forces, as observed in the way the surface of a lake may ripple from the wind,
for example.
The building envelope can be thought of along this conceptual line as a
surface that belongs to both the interior and the exterior of a building, and therefore, as a surface that demarcates a separation, while at the same time joining the
building and its exterior environment together in a manner that is inseparable.
In addition, similar to the example of a lake surface exposed to wind, the
building envelope is a dynamic and indexical condition where the interaction
of the building and its environment is manifest in the resolution of the surface.
In this sense, we can conceive of a building envelope that not only possesses
certain materiality but also, and more importantly, embodies the dynamic
exchanges that occur between the interior and the exterior.
Based on the conception of the Leonardo surface, we can discuss the environmental as well as the tectonic dimensions of the building envelope and its
façade as mediation. One historical mediative function is to be reflective of the
kind of building and the kind of occupants that reside therein, by means of
decorating and inscribing the façade. With images and patterns the façade can
become expressive of the underlying narratives or conventions – ideological,
political, social or cultural – of a given building, its occupants and its context.
Apparent to this mediative function is also the environmental dimension, in
terms of the materiality and construction methods that are characterized by
the kind of available resources and their extraction and consumption. In this
way, the dynamic conditions that surround a building become embodied in
the mediated building envelope. Conceived as a surface, the building envelope
stabilizing and self-regulating configuration of building envelopes that are
supposed to embody the notions of material and structural efficiency, formal
expressiveness and environmental adaptability in one seamless entity.
Part II: Building Envelope As Surface
Building Envelope as Surface
not only reflects the external variations through its materiality and use of local
resources – again retuning to the idea of ripples on a lake – but also projects its
internal conditions through the use of images and patterns; we can conceive of
an envelope that in essence promotes a certain kind of equilibrium through
mediation and interface.
In parallel to Stroll’s conception of the Leonardo surface, according to the
psychologist James J. Gibson, we perceive objects directly (or simply pick them
up) by means of surface. Gibson’s view contrasts with the one that problematizes
the integrity of visual perception with the idea that we perceive things in steps
from retinal, to neural and then to mental.8 While it is demonstrable that the
appearance of a given object’s surface does not always coincide with the actuality
of the object – for example, that foreshortening or oblique views may radically
alter the appearance of the actual geometry – Gibson posits that what we see
when we encounter an object is a material surface. In essence, that our visual
perception of an object is direct and achieved through surface. Despite the fact
that Gibson’s view has been disputed as empirically unprovable, various surface
conditions do contribute crucially to our understanding of the world in an ecological manner.9 In this sense, we can formulate a position applicable to architecture, one that conceives of the building envelope as surface, or more specifically
using Gibson’s terminology, one that conceives of the building envelope in
relation to media and substance.10
With Stroll’s theory of the Leonardo surface taken in combination with
Gibson’s theory of surface and visual perception, we can imagine the kind of
building envelope that is:
a Immaterial or of minimum material presence that belongs to both the
interior and the exterior;
b An interface that mediates between the interior and the exterior, reflecting
the relations and flows between the two;
c A membrane that at once separates and connects media and substance,
ephemeral and permanent, dynamic and static;
d A primary means of understanding the ecological and the built environments, to locate ourselves within the web of relations of which we are a part.
physical manifestation of the building envelope as surface, working from the
conception of materiality in an ecological sense.
Here we can speculate on what such an ecology may mean in relation to the
building envelope as surface. If we extrapolate from Gibson’s theory of visual
perception, an ecology is characterized by the way we perceive the composition
of the world around us. This world would be composed of surfaces that divide
and join the media and the substance, surfaces that allow us to find location
and meaning through invariants and affordances. We can conceive of an ecology
as being comprised of invariants that constantly locate our place in the physical
environment such as the light and heat of the sun, the direction of the wind
and the precipitation of rain and snow. At the same time, we can conceive of an
ecology as being comprised of affordances that allow us to identify and connect
to the more intangible senses of meaning and purpose.
Part III: Surface Aesthetics and Mimesis
In addition, the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s notion of fold may provide
a useful construct that describes the relation between the interior and the exterior, describing the façade as an active agent. Not unlike the Leonardo conception of surface, the fold offers a connection and an interface between matter and
affectation. The fold articulates the connective tissue of two states – interiorexterior, object-environment, media-substance – as a process of folding and
unfolding. Conceived in this sense, the building envelope is simultaneously
connecting and separating, permeable and impervious, constant and fluctuating.
A building envelope conceived as a surface-fold can be viewed as a condition
where two states co-exist in a smooth and continuous relation, where the transition between the two is indivisible. What is crucial here is to establish the
Drawing from the discussions of the so-called model of biomimetics or biomimicry in architecture, it would be appropriate to consider mimesis further.
One of the fundamental problems inherent in the current use of the term
mimetic is that it often refers to literally mimicking, imitating and emulating
certain natural organisms and/or conditions. When applied to the discussions
on architectural sustainability, this position, that we can imitate and replicate
biological organisms in nature in order to deal with our needs and problems,
misleads and distorts the fundamental issues in sustainability. By focusing on
what the entity does or how it performs, the biomimetic, in its prevailing form,
ignores what and how such performance has come to be in relation to our needs.
The approach focuses on solving or correcting the problems we have, as well as
on providing synaptic excesses by means of developing so-called systems of
interactivity. However, in the end, there is a lack of critical discourse, resulting
from focusing only on how useful such biomimetic inventions could be for
satisfying our needs and solving our problems in pursuit of a more sustainable
built environment.
On all three fronts, the prevailing biomimetic view appears to argue for producing additional tools and implements without attempting to fundamentally
tackle the root cause of the unsustainable conditions inherent in our current
patterns of development, transportation, energy use and economics. An apt
analogy may be that, instead of confronting the underlying causes of symptoms,
the failing organs of the body are replaced and the stagnating body is propped
up by mechanical devices that perform each discrete function. To address the
issue of sustainability, what matters is our relationship to natural organisms and
environments, not the usefulness, performance or affectations of such contrived
mechanical organs installed in order to satisfy our excessive needs and to reinforce our dysfunctional so-called lifestyle. This is not unlike what Slavoj Žižek
describes as ‘The ultimate perverse vision’ of the human body as a collection of
organs ‘as in those unique utopian moments of hard-core pornography’ in
Building Envelope as Surface
which the (woman’s) body is ‘thus transformed into a multitude of “organs
without a body,” machines of jouissance…’11
While it is one thing to learn from what a natural organism does in order to
adapt and survive in an environment, it is something entirely different to recog­
nize if and how such replication is indeed pertinent to deal with our atrophic
relationship to nature. In a sense, the foundation of biomimetics should be the
question of how we relate ourselves and our built environment to the network
of natural relations – including those of plants, animals, water, topography and
the prevailing patterns of the weather, for example. However, the current motivation behind biomimetics appears to be intent on how to fix our problems or
on how to make our life more convenient and entertaining by fetishizing the
organs without a body and by turning them into the machines of jouissance.
This kind of biomimetics, stemming from our lack of meaningful relationship
to nature, will only reinforce the view that biological organisms should serve us
to maintain and continue the patterns of our excess and waste. In a sense, many
of the so-called biomimetic designs result in nothing but a teleological exercise
that ultimately would not contribute to a sustainable condition.
For this discussion we can turn to Jacque Derrida’s article, Economimesis,12 to
provide a view of mimesis, or of being mimetic, that we consider pertinent to
the discussion. In the text – originally written in part as an analysis of Kant’s
distinction of nature and arts – Derrida posits, ‘Mimesis here is not the representation of one thing by another, the relation of resemblance or of identification
between two beings, the reproduction of a product of nature by a product of
art.’13 Derrida continues, ‘The artist does not imitate things in nature, or, if you
will, in natura naturata but the acts of natura naturans, the operations of physis.’14
Besides Kant’s distinction between liberal or free arts (die freie Kunst; freedom,
no exchange value) and applied or paid arts (die Lohnkunst; necessity, exchanged
for money) that Derrida mentions in the text, the question is what it means
to participate in ‘the operations of physis.’ If we were to consider Derrida’s
proposition in the context of our discussion, it appears that the work of mimicking is in essence the work of forming an intrinsic relationship with the way that
natural phenomena unfold.
In addition to Derrida’s physis, in Truth and Method, Hans-Georg Gadamer
provides yet another clue as to how we can approach mimesis. According to
Gadamer, mimesis is in fact a celebratory play,15 an enactment or performing of
an act that is embedded in the experience and appreciation of the world. And
this enactment manifests itself in the praxis that consists of participation in an
attempt to render the world meaningful in some way.16 What Derrida mentions
as the operations of physis, Gadamer characterizes as Festspiel that is an enactment and a participation in the emergent patterns of nature. The notion of the
dynamic and emergent Fest and Spiel is crucial in the relationship between art
and nature because: first, the so-called conditions of reality are inevitably interconnected and therefore interactive; second, Festspiel is an event of becoming
and transformation by means of performance; and third, it always includes the
consideration for others besides oneself. This is to say that the world and the
works of art in it are characterized by the understanding that we inevitably
participate in the unfolding of events in which we are transformed in relation
to the dynamics of our environment.
In consideration of Gadamer and Derrida, we can project what being mimetic
in architecture may be. The theories of the two philosophers provide a specific
and concise view of surface as the mediator of the unfolding of nature, physis,
and at the same time of enactment in the play between an entity and its environment, Festspiel. In this line of thought, it appears that being biomimetic is
not about imitating and replicating what a biological organism does in order
to adapt to an environment and its changing conditions. Neither is it about
imitating the ways of natural organisms in an attempt to cover up the problems
that are symptomatic of our conflict with nature. Instead, it is about how we
situate ourselves and establish an intimate relationship with the biological
environment. Removed from this end, biomimetics will be nothing but a perpetual reiteration and versioning of copies’ copies.
Common in the aesthetic evaluation of architecture is the assessment of
geometrical harmony, proportion, symmetry and order with respect to the
prevailing worldview. Composition based on such an aesthetic order has been
applied and practiced for a long time in order to impart properties such as
beauty, grandeur and power in everyday objects, buildings and cities, in other
words, in built ecologies. The primary component of sustainable design is the
building envelope, the surface through which the building is interfaced with
the natural environment. In addition, the building envelope is also an agent
by which we situate and establish our relationship, mimicking and enacting
our presence in relation to the currents of nature. But how important are the
aesthetic qualities in the design of building envelopes and in regard to the
issues of sustainability? For that matter, in this line of thought, can we really
discuss aesthetics as such? In this case, is aesthetics simply a network of relations and of finding the appropriate position for our built environment within
such a network?
Persistent demands for efficient and flexible building envelopes will continue
to encourage the use of new materials and technologies in order to minimize
consumption and to conserve energy. In this process, efforts to maximize the
performance of building envelopes will continue along with efforts to reduce
their material presence, and at the same time, building envelopes will be
expected to express the aesthetic intent of buildings. Indeed, central to building envelope design is the question: how do we conceive of the envelope in
relation to both our necessity to create interiority and the ecologies in which
such interiority is situated?
In contrast to the conception that the building envelope is primarily a barrier, the concept presented here is based on the perspective that the building
Building Envelope as Surface
envelope is inherently both the interior and the exterior. Therefore, it is not
only indexical of the building’s form and contents but also dynamic and active
in the fluctuating relationship between the building and its environment.
However, the prevailing notion of responsive, adaptive or mimetic building
design appears to simulate the translated conditions of the natural world more
than the mediative qualities found in the relations between the human elements
and the environment. In other words, the building envelope seen as a kind of
mimesis should be more reflexive and diagrammatic than representational and
If one looks to the natural environment and its organisms without being
exclusively formal, it is possible to find unique approaches that deal with similar
problems that are currently facing architects in their consideration of designing
for sustainability. The current approach, centered on emulating natural conditions in terms of mechanistic affectation, seems to fall short of the potentials of
surface to both mediate and embody. The concept of the building envelope as
surface, as seen in both an abstract and physical sense, indicates that it can act
both as an agent of equilibrium between the interior and the exterior, and as an
apparatus within which certain mediative relations are imbedded.
In most cases, we encounter and approach a building in relation to the
façades, in relation to the surfaces of architecture. And in our everyday lives, we
are surrounded by architectural surfaces that function in seemingly contradictory manners. They compel us to pay attention and admire their visual qualities,
and yet at other times, they emphasize the manufacture of economic value
engineering. In this relationship, we can criticize the apparent superficialization
of the building envelope, purely in terms of the visual and the optical, in other
words, for the purpose of producing a (green) skin without the body that is both
hypocritical and dishonest. We can also criticize the fetishization of so-called
interactive building envelopes. In this instance, the building envelope serves as
an extension of an architecture that is driven by the novelty of effects that soon
exhaust their purpose.
Both of these tendencies in the design of building envelopes today are
missing the essential point: the superficialization of building envelopes fulfills
only the function of a mantle that simply covers up an increasingly excessive,
obese body, while the mechanization of buildings and building envelopes fetishizes ‘the desubjectivized multitude of partial objects’17 in the form of misdirected mimesis and interactivity. However, if we return to the construct of
surface as mediation between matter and affectation, the building envelope can
be seen, in essence, as the unfolding of various relations and forces between the
building and its environment. This unfolding provides not only the aesthetic
qualities of the building but also an approach to the environmental conditions
that ultimately dictate the terms of human habitation. This vantage point suggests the kinds of tapestries that display narrative, structural, material and
environmental expressions, while serving the purpose of architectural enclosure
as the surfaces of mediation, indivisible in their composition. From this concep-
tual standpoint, buildings are enveloped in surfaces – not by skins – that should
register and interface the interior and the exterior.
The conception of surface in this sense presents the structure, the building
envelope and the façades that are interwoven together, and thus, the role of the
building envelope is no longer arbitrary. With this conception, the weaving and
pleating that takes place in order to envelope is done in the context of a certain
technical maturity, where the environmental variables of a given site are
addressed, and where the aesthetic qualities are inherently imbedded. From this
point of view, the kind of performance and expression that is achieved is not
simply superficial and passive. The design of surface is blended with the very
essence of architecture in a way that radically departs from the position where
the building envelope is seen as an additive, redundant drapery.
Sustainable architecture points to the articulation of surface as a means of
sublating the disparate views of the interior-exterior relationship with the one
that helps weave, pleat and mediate a series of environmental forces and phenomena. With today’s digital technology and its virtual capability, and with
new construction techniques and new materials, it is possible for the construct
of surface to become synonymous with the building design process itself. The
surface, as seen in this light, not only provides the membrane of communication
and exchange but also embodies the quintessential qualities of human space
that exist in intimate relation to the natural environment.
Many thanks to Andrej Radman for his critical comments.
Building Envelope as Surface
The Sustainable Indigenous Vernacular:
Interrogating a Myth
— Nezar AlSayyad and Gabriel Arboleda
this examination with regard to current discussions on sustainability and the
indigenous vernacular in architectural and urban theory.
Genesis of an Idea: The Indigenous Vernacular is Sustainable
In the 1656 Glossographia Anglicana Nova, which features one of the earliest
appearances of the term ‘vernacular’ in relation to ‘dwelling and settlement’ in
an English dictionary, Thomas Blount equates vernacular not only to ‘national,’
but also to ‘natural,’2 therefore hinting that the concept of sustainability (as in
‘natural’) is by definition implicit in the notion of vernacular dwellings and settlements.
However, it is critical to introduce another aspect to this definition: the aspect
of time. When is the indigenous vernacular sustainable? Through the centuries
of architectural and urban writing up until the late 1970’s, the connection
between these concepts largely excludes the notion of time. Authors propose a
timeless connection in the context of mythical legends about early man and the
origins of architecture. However, in a second – and partly overlapping – moment
of architectural and urban theory developing by the early 1800’s, it becomes
common for authors to propose that the environmental benefits of the
indigen­­ous vernacular are a fact of the present era. The relation between the
two concepts thus becomes temporal. In a third moment, one of theoretical
eclecticism ranging from the early 1980’s to the present day, authors invoke
both notions of timelessness and temporality.
It has become commonplace in architectural and urban literature to characterize
indigenous vernacular1 dwellings and settlements as sustainable.[1] Yet, what
are the actual limits of this conception when some of the world’s most serious
environmental, social, economic and political problems center on traditional
settlements today?
From Vitruvius to present-day writers, authors have repeatedly invoked
four of what we now call the sustainability principles of indigenous vernacular
traditions. These include material and site appropriateness, the notion that
materials are used in a way that secures their constant renewal and supply,
while appropriately fitting in and relating to the surrounding environment;
climate responsiveness, the idea that indigenous vernacular dwellings and
settlements are, by virtue of their forms and materials, responsive to changing
climate conditions; socio-economic advantages, the notion that traditional
community building processes foster social bonds and lower building costs;
and adaptability, the idea that these dwellings are flexible, expandable and
Case examples that support the sustainability principles abound, and some
of them have become true classics, often reinvoked in literature: the environmental appropriateness of Amazonian malocas, or longhouses; the climate
responsiveness of the Cameroonian Mousgoum house; the socioeconomic
advantages of community building in the Palauan club house; or the adapt­
ability of the Baluch nomadic structures in Iran.
In this chapter, we examine the relationship between the concepts of sustainability and the indigenous vernacular, and how this relationship developed
throughout the history of architectural and urban ideas. By doing that, we
propose a model for analysis that incorporates the variable of time into the
discussions that link both concepts. Are the environmental advantages of the
indigenous vernacular attributable to a mythical, ageless era as many authors
propose? Or instead, do these environmental advantages apply to present­­day indigenous vernacular traditions?
To address the latter question, which is the main focus of our inquiry, we
will compare the above cited four sustainability principles – identified as commonly proposed by authors throughout history – against current issues affecting indigenous vernacular dwellings and settlements around the world. With
this analysis in mind, we reflect on whether the historical consensus regarding
the environmental advantages (or sustainability as theory now terms it) of the
indigenous vernacular remains applicable today when traditional communities
are faced with current global pressures of social, economic, environmental and
political change. We end by reflecting on the lessons that may be learned from
In the first historical moment, that of timelessness, the connection that theorists
make between indigenous vernacular dwellings and settlements and the
characteristics that we now term as sustainable practices excludes the variable of
time. This moment extends from the first century BCE to about 1979 (or between
the works of Vitruvius and Christopher Alexander). For many theorists in this
time period, the sustainable practices of the indigenous vernacular are ageless;
they are not tied to historical events but to a myth of origins, following an
ahistorical and a-temporal narrative.
The notion that the indigenous vernacular is sustainable might have its roots
in the writings of Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (ca. 80-70 BCE to ca. 20-15 BCE), the
first architectural writer to connect the indigenous vernacular to the notion of
environmental advantage. In the second of his Ten Books, Vitruvius writes about
the buildings constructed by ‘foreign tribes,’ carefully describing the Anatolia
Phrygians’ earth building technology[2] and concluding that the use of this technology ‘makes their winters very warm and their summers very cool.’3
However, there is an element of a-temporality in Vitruvius’ observation.
The Roman author assumes that the architecture of vernacular-speaking peoples
of Asia Minor and Europe provides a true representation of the way that houses
were built at the beginning of time.4, 5 Thus, time does not pass for the vernacular in Vitruvius’ appreciation. This makes Vitruvius a pioneer in assigning the
The Sustainable Indigenous Vernacular: Interrogating a Myth
1 The stereotypical image of the sustainable indigenous vernacular;
mud construction from Sudan in the early 1900’s. [Photographs in Marcellin
Boule and René Verneau, eds., L’Anthropologie Paraissant Tous les Deux Mois Vol. 17 (Paris:
Masson et Cie., 1906), 140.]
2 An 1816 illustration based on Vitruvius’ description of the building by the
Colchians in present-day Georgia (B), and the Phrygians in Anatolia, Turkey (C).
[Illustration in Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, De Bioul [trans. L’Architecture de Vitruve] (Brussels: Chez Adolphe Stapleaux,
1816), 494.]
notion of a-temporality to the indigenous vernacular and its environmental
advantage – an idea that would reach one of its most sophisticated realizations
with Christopher Alexander’s 1979 book, The Timeless Way of Building.
Between Vitruvius and Alexander, one can trace the transmission of
a-temporal notions through twenty centuries of architectural and urban
theory, with nascent connections being made between indigenous vernacular
traditions and their local environments, climates and materials. For instance,
in the first of his Ten Books in 1452, Leon Battista Alberti argues that men first
thought about roofs as protection from the sun and rain, and about walls as
added protection from ‘piercing colds, and stormy winds.’6 The first house,
Alberti later adds, was built in materials that today we typically associate with
sustainable and indigenous vernacular buildings: mud, reeds, bulrushes and
timber.7 The Renaissance author also speaks about how ‘the ancients’ gave
utmost importance to ‘the climate or air’ of a given region before settlement,
and how the sun and wind are the main factors behind the climate differences
in places such as Egypt, Libya, Ethiopia and Arabia.8 In the Second Book, while
invoking the advantage of natural materials, Alberti praises the durability of
wooden building and cites examples of very long lasting woods and vines used
in the building traditions of India and Tunisia. He adds that ‘the Vine exceeds
even the Eternity of Time itself,’9 thus returning to the theoretical invocation
of a-temporality in connection to indigenous traditions.
We find similar lines of thought emerging in the centuries to come, with
the writings of Filarete,10 Francesco Milizia,11 Joseph Gwilt,12 Eugene
Viollet-le-Duc,13 Camillo Sitte,14 Banister Fletcher,15 and Lewis Mumford.16
In 1964, opening his influential Architecture Without Architects, Bernard
Rudofsky rejects time as a variable in the indigenous vernacular, which is for him
‘nearly immutable.’17 The environment is one of the main features of Rudofsky’s
classic book. He praises the climatic advantages of underground houses in
Tungkwan, China; the cool narrow alleys in Zanzibar; the interior courts in
Marrakesh; and the coolness and warmth in the covered streets of Benabarre,
Spain, Gubbio, Italy and the Kharga oasis in the Libyan Desert. Rudofsky cites
other numerous examples. However, while explaining the connection between
environmental sensitivity and indigenous vernacular traditions, the author
ratifies his belief in their timelessness, declaring that ‘as a rule, the origin of
indigenous building forms and construction methods is lost in the distant past.’18
The link made between indigenous vernacular traditions, sustainability and
timelessness reaches its most theoretically elaborate point with the work of
Christopher Alexander. For Alexander, timelessness is in fact the distinctive
element that characterizes the environmental aspects of indigenous vernacular
dwellings and settlements.19 He confers so much importance on the notion of
timelessness that he elevates it into a design method known as ‘the timeless way
of building.’20 Alexander argues that traditional builders were able to understand
the importance of nature, constructing their dwellings and settlements following
a creative process similar to that of nature, a pattern that not only avoided
damage, but instead improved the natural landscape.21 The main premise of
Alexander’s method is that when designers follow the appropriate logic, the
‘timeless way,’22 the resulting dwellings or settlements ‘could be Roman, Persian,
from Mohenjo Daro, from medieval Russia, Iceland, Africa,’ thus embodying a
‘timeless character.’23 The connection that Alexander makes between sustain­
ability (as in natural and regenerative patterns), the indigenous vernacular and
timelessness is thus explicit, and with his work the idea of timelessness reaches
the apex of a historical trajectory that began with Vitruvius.
In the second moment of historical thinking, a time variable is firmly introduced
into discussions of the indigenous vernacular. The narrative of traditional peoples
settling according to natural principles and the characteristics of their environment, climate and materials continues, but the discussions are grounded in the
writers’ present time. Discussions no longer focus on men at the dawn of time
The Sustainable Indigenous Vernacular: Interrogating a Myth
but on specific contemporary communities engaged in sustainable dwelling
and settlement practices around the world.
For example, praising the advantages of earth building techniques in 1802,
French architect Jean-Baptiste Rondelet reports to have seen in the French
Alps ‘very old houses built of adobe, which had never been plastered on the
outside and yet resisted the bad weather.’24,25 The description is of Rondelet’s
present time. Another author, American architectural critic and writer Barr
Ferree, asserts in 1890 that climate is indeed what determines the shape of
dwellings, social factors being secondary. Ferree argues that this fact applies
to both developed and primitive peoples of the nineteenth century,26 hence
temporalizing his hypothesis. Not only does Ferree geographically localize
his examples in a very precise way, citing Central Asia’s Tartars, Peru’s Conibos,
Vanuatu’s Tannese and Argentina’s Abipones, he also gives them a temporal
quality: the building practices that Ferree describes happen in his present day,
and not in a remote and undefined era.
This now-temporalized narrative becomes fully mature in Revolution of
Environment, the 1946 work by Erwin Anton Gutkind. For the German architect,
planner and theorist, the industrial revolution forced humanity to focus on the
quantitative aspects of life (mass production) and to forget about the qualitative
side.27 There is a present necessity, Gutkind argues, to look at the sense of
humanness that traditional peoples develop through their ‘organic attachment
to Nature’ in their methods of building and settlement.28 For instance, Gutkind
explains that in current African villages ‘life is rooted in Nature in a direct and
concrete way’ and that while ‘Man can animate Nature; he cannot dominate
and change it.’29 The organic, natural and harmonious way of settlement organization that Gutkind describes in the African villages of the Baluba or the
Baholoholo is of the present time, and not in an ageless, undefined era.30
This temporal narrative becomes highly developed in the late 1960’s with the
work of two classic authors of indigenous vernacular architectural studies, Amos
Rapoport and Paul Oliver. Rapoport’s seminal House Form and Culture 31 is a
complex reflection on the present condition of indigenous vernacular building.
Rapoport concerns himself with present people who dwell in places like Africa
or Oceania, and how they come to decide whether their houses are to be square
or circular; their roofs flat or sloped. In connecting such concern with the
environmentally appropriate methods of building seen in traditional societies,
Rapoport brings some of the assumptions that authors like Sitte, the early
Mumford or Alexander make about an ageless era firmly into the present. He
argues, for example, that ‘the effects of primitive man on landscape are minimal’
and that among traditional peoples ‘there is no sharp distinction between man
and nature. The primary world view is of harmony with nature rather than of
conflict or conquest.’32 He supports these ideas by providing a wealth of
contemporary examples, like those of the Pueblo, the Maya, the Matmata, the
Ashanti and the Yokut, among others.33
The present is such a central concern for the British architectural theorist
Paul Oliver that in his celebrated Encyclopedia, he only includes entries about
‘vernacular architecture which has been in use in the 20th century.’34 From his
early work on architectural theory, Oliver makes a strong case for the necessity
to look at indigenous vernacular dwellings differently, not as a-temporal masterpieces as Rudofsky does, but as a response to specific community needs, among
which are those conditioned by the environment and climate.35 The idea of
present needs is constant in Oliver’s research on indigenous vernacular dwellings
and settlements. He reflects on these needs not only as preconditions for vernacu­
lar architectural forms, but also for professional architects to study vernacular
building. Oliver develops this idea in detail in his 2006 book Built to Meet Needs,
where he advocates for ‘appropriately supporting vernacular traditions to ensure
sustainable solutions’ to the vast demands placed on architecture in the present
day.36 He adds that ‘much can be learned from the most sustained of all forms
of architecture: the vernacular traditions.’37 Oliver reaffirms his ideas under the
‘vernacular architecture’ entry of the Oxford Companion to Architecture, where
he asserts that indigenous vernacular traditions ‘have proved themselves to
be sustainable, with their use of natural and renewable resources, their climatic
and environmental sustainability, and their capacity to adapt to change.’38
The Sustainability of the Indigenous Vernacular: Four Main Principles
The discourse of timelessness and temporality, in regard to the sustainability of
the indigenous vernacular, is still important in recently produced literature. In
fact, since the 1980’s, architectural and urban literature has eclectically combined
the theoretical traditions of timelessness and temporality, with many authors
and practitioners championing some of the main historical ideas of both, as
previously described. Furthermore, the amount of recent literature defending
the general notion that the indigenous vernacular is sustainable is so vast that
it would be impossible to make a detailed survey here, but the most prominent
defenses of the notion appear to hinge on the following four points:
a Indigenous dwellings and settlements are adaptive to their natural environments, making use of natural, raw materials. For more on this see Moshe
Safdie,39 Richard Register,40 Allen Noble41 and 7group.42
b Their construction is responsive to local weather and climate conditions.
For more on this see Glenn Murcutt,43 Dominique Gauzin-Müller 44 and
Ralph Knowles.45
c Traditional societies have been able to successfully keep the equilibrium
between population, resources and environment. For more on this see James
Steele46 and Richard Rogers.47
d Indigenous dwellings can be easily transformed in response to changing
conditions. For more on this, see John Taylor.48
Thus, these common traits in the discourse constitute the four agreed-upon
sustainability principles of indigenous vernacular dwellings and settlements:
material and site appropriateness, climate responsiveness, socio-economic
The Sustainable Indigenous Vernacular: Interrogating a Myth
The first principle with respect to the sustainability of indigenous vernacular
buildings and settlements concerns the use of natural, local building materials
and a close connection between building and place. This principle involves two
claims: first, that the surrounding environment provides the necessary materials,
and that they are used in ways that allow for their renewal and constant supply;
and second, that they are site-specific, perfectly situated within the surrounding
environment and in harmony with it.
The first component of this principle is based on the idea that traditional
societies make the best use of their available natural resources, balancing resource
consumption and production. Natural building materials, the argument goes,
are more appropriate because they are not harmful or wasteful. They are
renewable, recyclable or naturally decompose, returning to nature at the end of
a structure’s useful life. Therefore, architectural and urban theorists conclude
that the use of natural materials is restorative and regenerative, reducing contamination and environmental degradation and taking place in the context of
a cyclical ecological process. They also conclude that traditional societies manage
these materials in a way that allows for regeneration and therefore does not
exhaust natural resources.
An often-cited example concerns the dwellings in the Amazon River basin,
especially those of the semi-migrant Eastern Tukano Ufaina people in Colombia.
A group of Ufainas traditionally lives in a maloca, monumental thatched structures which in the early 1900’s were reported to house more than two hundred
people under a single roof.49 [3]
According to anthropological literature, a maloca-unit group traditionally
stays in a given place for ten to fifteen years. Then, as local resources become
scarce, the group moves to a place with fresh supplies, especially with regard to
fish and game, about one day’s walk from the previous site where it will build a
new maloca.50 It is to be expected that the Ufainas will only return to the site
of a previous maloca after many years, when that place has fully recovered from
the impact of their presence and when natural resources have been replenished.
Contrasting with this description, today’s Eastern Tukano remain deeply
Spent Among Cannibal Tribes (London: Constable and Company, 1915), 120.]
Principle One: Material and Site Appropriateness
3 A maloca or longhouse, as photographed in the early 1900’s in southern Colombia’s Huitoto
territory. The large number of dwellers standing in front provides an idea of the monumental
scale of this palm-thatched structure. [Photograph in Thomas Whiffen, The North-West Amazons: Notes Of Some Months
advantages and adaptability. The principles can be roughly summed up in one
statement: Indigenous vernacular dwellings and settlements are sustainable
because they make appropriate use of local resources to ensure climate comfort
at low cost, through the production of structures that are easily adaptable to
changing conditions in a socially cohesive way.
However, it is important to examine the limits of this notion when some of
the world’s most serious environmental, social, economic and political problems
currently center on traditional settlements. In order to explore the present-day
relevance of the notion, we will analyze each of the four sustainability principles
in a number of vernacular dwellings and settlements long proposed as best
examples of sustainability in the indigenous vernacular.
affected by a decades-old armed conflict that is now expanding internationally
toward Venezuela and Ecuador – a conflict that involves the American and
Colombian governments, leftist FARC guerrillas and right-wing AUC paramilitary
groups. This threat is present for other indigenous peoples of the Colombian
Amazon as well. The Eastern Tukano migration territory – part of a dense forest
that is rich in water, oil and medicinal resources – is one of the areas where this
armed conflict has been most intense in recent years. Its impact on the Eastern
Tukano and other indigenous groups is nearly indescribable, encompassing
massacres, forced enrollment of indigenous children in militias, forced displacement and a general disruption of traditional patterns of life including the ability
to build malocas. Hence, given today’s geopolitical situation, the Colombian
Amazon’s indigenous peoples seldom have the luxury to develop the kind of
natural relationship to their surroundings described in the early 1900’s, let alone
the luxury to develop and maintain the kind of material culture that is in tune
with their environment.
The literature on indigenous dwellings and settlements has idealized similar
situations of migration in relation to a careful balance between consumption
and production cycles in other places around the world. One such case
involves Botswana’s nomadic Central Kalahari San, or Basarwa. Given that the
Basarwa have no permanent access to water, at the end of the rainy season they
move to an area rich in melons, a fruit that provides them with a water substitute
during the early dry season. Then, during the late dry season, they scatter
throughout an area that provides them with plants to survive on until the next
rainy season.51
Yet again, the reality of the Basarwa today is rather different. Beginning in
1997 the Botswana government started to remove Basarwa peoples from their
The Sustainable Indigenous Vernacular: Interrogating a Myth
own territory, claiming that they had shifted from traditional hunting and
gathering practices, and that their newly adopted agricultural activities negatively
affected the environment of the Central Kalahari, a natural reserve since 1961.
However, Basarwa supporters counter that the removal is really an attempt by
the government to protect the interests of tourism and mining industries in the
reserve. Even though in 2006 Botswana’s High Court ruled that the removal of
the Basarwa from their land was illegal, as of 2010 the government still had not
allowed the majority of the resettled Basarwa to return to the Central Kalahari
reserve. Thus, the idealized Basarwa cycle of resource use and migration so often
cited in the literature has been severely disrupted.
The two examples above, from the Colombian Amazon and the Central
Kalahari, highlight current shortfalls in the notion that indigenous vernacular
dwellings, settlements and patterns of resource use are well adapted to the
environment. Today, many traditional communities cannot settle in locations
that provide the best relation to place and resources; instead, they settle wherever they end up after displacement by armed conflict, industrial pollution or
hostile government policies. Their capacity to migrate and conform to the natural cycles of use and regeneration of local materials has been disrupted and
diminished in dramatic ways.
The second component of the principle involves the idea that indigenous
vernacular dwellings and settlements are site-specific, perfectly situated and in
harmony with the surrounding environment. However, one can find ample
evidence to counter this notion and thus refute the generalization that they are
site-specific. Already by the 1960’s, the anthropologists John W. M. Whiting
and Barbara Ayres were arguing that most of the world’s indigenous vernacular
dwellings did not appear to be well adapted to their surroundings. Likely, this
was a result of forced changes to settlement patterns, as mentioned above. In
cross-cultural survey work, Whiting and Ayres studied a statistically representative number of cultures among the 700 listed in the Ethnographic Atlas and
concluded that an absolute correlation between house form and the surrounding
environment did not exist. On the whole, Whiting and Ayres observed that
house form depended less on the local environment and more on the social
aspects of each culture, such as whether the family organization was nuclear or
extended, the group nomadic or sedentary and the pattern of marriage poly­gyn­
ous or monogamous.52 Thus, a more correct generalization for contemporary
indigenous communities would be that house form responds to social organ­
ization, not to the environmental imperatives of the site.
Similar findings are reported in the work of the anthropologists Bronislaw
Malinowski,53 Reo Franklin Fortune,54 Margaret Mead55 and Gregory Bateson56
who worked with traditional groups in the mountainous and coastal regions of
Papua New Guinea. The building and settlement descriptions provided by
these anthropologists show that among the traditional groups of Papua New
Guinea, building form was not a necessary, direct or invariable consequence of
the surrounding environment. Elements such as social conventions, gender
roles and the economic functions of buildings predominantly shaped the area’s
vernacular buildings and settlements. These examples make it difficult to uphold
today’s generalization that the indigenous vernacular is primarily designed to
sit harmoniously within the surrounding environment.
Evidence thus exists that today there is no longer a close connection between
natural resource management and the indigenous vernacular, and as a general
rule, there is no longer a close connection between building and site. First, issues
of resource depletion due to geopolitical conflict and corporate interest – and
the combination of the two – are restricting the ability of indigenous communities to exploit their environments in ways that guarantee both resource renewal
and the continuation of traditional patterns of subsistence, building and settlement that are in harmony with nature. Second, and partly as a consequence of
the previous condition, today’s indigenous vernacular dwellings and settlements
do not primarily respond to the environmental characteristics of the site. As
seen in the anthropological studies from Papua New Guinea over the past few
decades, traditional communities are basing their formal decisions less on
environmental appropriateness, and more on social considerations.
Principle Two: Climate Responsiveness
As for the second principle, current theorists agree that indigenous vernacular
dwellings and settlements are efficient climate regulators because indigenous
technologies such as mud and thatch are more responsive to drastic temperature
shifts. Buildings employing these technologies, they argue, remain cool inside
when it is too hot outside, and warm inside when it is too cold outside. Authors
add that this applies at the urban scale as well, particularly in desert habitats,
where dwellings with massive walls and light colors set in narrow alleys provide
successful examples of passive thermal control.
A major problem with this notion is that it ignores the impact of global
climate change in two major ways. First, it ignores how the politics of climate
change have deeply disturbed indigenous patterns of settlement. And second,
it assumes that the climate pattern remains stable in a given traditional settlement, as it used to until a few decades ago.
One example of the politics of climate change and its impact on indigenous
traditions is seen in contemporary water wars – geopolitical conflicts over access
to dwindling water sources. These conflicts have changed people’s lives in two
societies that are often cited as classic examples of shelter adaptation to climate
and environmental constraint: the east African Samburu and the central
African Rizeigat, or Rizekat. The classic architectural description of the nomadic
Samburu of Kenya is that they move with their houses (main poles and furniture
objects) every month or two in search of water and fresh pasture for their cattle
and goats.57 Today, however, the situation of the Samburu is far more complicated.
Their area of migration originally comprised parts of three countries – Kenya,
Somalia and Ethiopia. In addition to political, economic and environmental
problems that have deeply affected this group, severe drought has led to vicious
The Sustainable Indigenous Vernacular: Interrogating a Myth
[Gabriel Arboleda]
5 A so-called microwave, a low-income housing structure with the roof
and walls constructed from corrugated metal sheets in El Salvador, 2004.
4 Two sides of the narrative of climate responsiveness. On the left, the
much celebrated mud structures of Taos Pueblo, New Mexico. On the
right, some 200 feet west of the previous structure, a collapsed wall due
to excess rain in 2005. [Gabriel Arboleda]
intragroup conflict among Samburu families over water access, and traffic in
small arms from Somali militias has allowed it to escalate to fatal levels.
Intending to end the conflict, the government carried out violent pacification
attacks; during the course of these attacks in 2009 and 2010, members of the
military and the police tortured, raped and killed unarmed Samburus in such
a systematic and widespread way that, in the opinion of Human Rights Watch,
these attacks ‘could rise to the level of crimes against humanity.’58
A second paradigmatic example of climate adaptation concerns the Rizeigat
of Chad and Darfur. These groups have been described as migrating with their
houses – comprised of oval tents – every two to three months during the dry
season in search of fresh pasture and water for themselves as well as for their
camels and cattle. During the rainy season, they move up to the surrounding hills
to avoid floods. In the course of their migration, the Rizeigat sell animal produce
and buy other products, and at the end of each migration cycle they are careful
not to camp at the same location as they did the previous year to avoid the
insects flying around old trash sites.59 Yet, the current reality of the Rizeigat is
far more complicated. Already by the 1980’s their area of migration had become
restricted and their periods of stay in each place shorter, because drought and
desertification as a consequence of climate change limited the availability of
pasture for their animals.60
But the real turning point in Rizeigat life – as in the lives of other traditional
groups in this area – has been the Darfur conflict, in which access to resources,
including water, was a triggering factor. Today, some of the stops in the Rizeigat
seasonal migration are epicenters of this conflict. For example, the Rizeigat
trading post of Kebkabiya is now a refuge for internally displaced people, and
as of 2004 the refugee population was three times greater than the resident
population.61 Fighting on the side of the government-backed Janjawiid,
Rizeigat groups have been responsible for brutal crimes against humanity perpetrated on the Fur, Zaghawa, Masalit and other ethnic groups in the area.
The second problem with the notion of climate responsiveness is that it
assumes the climate is stable in indigenous settlements today, as it was in past
decades; it assumes that a given environment is dry or wet during a given part
of the year, and that drought or rain occurs at consistent, predictable times.
Today, this is not the case in many traditional settlements that were once praised
in architectural and urban theory for their climate responsiveness. This includes
the settlements of the Philippines Ifugao who were affected between 2009 and
2010 by increased rainfall that caused constant and deadly landslides; the Niger
Fulani who were harshly hit in 2010 by a severe drought that caused an unexpected famine; and the Malaysia and Indonesia Dayak who were recently
affected by unpredictable weather changes, including both decreased annual
precipitation and flash floods.
Today, it is difficult for traditional builders to tell when the rainy season or
the dry season will start, while flooding and droughts do not have the predictable
patterns that they once had in the past. It is difficult to adapt to such conditions.
Furthermore, as indigenous vernacular dwellings are designed for a stable
climate, they are far more vulnerable to unpredictable climate fluctuations. Such
vulnerability becomes critically manifest in aspects such as the structural resistance of buildings. Regardless of how thermally efficient it may be, mud construction easily collapses when it is exposed to more rain than usual.[4]
In fact, the collapse of indigenous mud buildings has been constantly reported
since the early 2000’s in places such as central Ghana, Zambia and Sri Lanka.
In 2003, flood levels as high as twelve feet destroyed centuries-old traditional
buildings, as reported by the international NGO Mercy Malaysia.
Such conditions are partly the reason why many traditional settlements built
in mud and other natural materials have been replaced, their residents preferring
to build in industrial materials such as corrugated metal roofing sheets and
concrete blocks. Although the design of structures in modern materials usually
makes these very hot or cold for their environments, in situations of building
collapse, climate comfort ceases to be a top priority. Perhaps, given that human
climate perception and tolerance is partly an idiosyncratic factor,62 traditional
The Sustainable Indigenous Vernacular: Interrogating a Myth
communities around the world seem to have become more tolerant of poor
climate-conditioning in their dwellings in recent years, as they move toward the
use of modern materials due to a concern for the durability and safety of traditional structures in mud and other natural materials. For example, take the case
of Salvadorian rural communities living nowadays in tiny metallic shelters that
feel so hot on the inside they have been popularly dubbed as microwaves.[5]
The paradigm of climate responsiveness in the indigenous vernacular has
been deeply disturbed, first by geopolitical situations related to access to natural
resources including water, and second, by changing climate patterns which make
traditional materials and dwellings inefficient, unable to cope with the current
realities of excess rain or drought.
Principle Three: Socio-economic Advantages
The third principle that contemporary authors associate with the indigenous
vernacular and the notion of sustainability is that vernacular buildings and
settlements offer great socio-economic advantages. There are two main reasons.
First, indigenous dwellings are low cost because they are generally self- or community built, and that translates into immediate savings in labor. In addition,
the natural building materials (mud or grass, for instance) may even be free if
they are obtained from the user’s own land. Second, the construction process
of indigenous vernacular structures has great social significance, as communal
work both demands and stimulates bonds among the community members
Indigenous building practices based on community labor traditionally took
the form of tax (mandatory labor contributions from each household to the
community), exchange (members of the community mutually involved in
building each other’s dwellings) or ritual (traditional celebrations that involve
building). However, given that most traditional societies have either adopted
or been integrated to a market-driven economic system, particularly after the
1944 Bretton Woods conference,63 these forms of free community labor are not
as central as they used to be. Consequently, the initially invisible economic
cost of traditional self-help labor has now become evident.64 Generally speaking,
indigenous vernacular building practices are so labor intensive that the time
invested in construction surpasses any savings that can accrue in the cost of
materials.65 The extensive time investment comes from the fact that most
indigenous vernacular structures are complex. Consider the intricate roof structures of the traditional Timor Ema house, the highly decorated clan house walls
of the Lake Toba Batak in Sulawesi (Indonesia) or the complex carpentry of
the Palauan clubhouse in Micronesia. Structures like these are very elaborate
and ornamented, using technologies that demand the slow drying, curing and
hardening of materials. In addition, these structures demand constant maintenance, repairs and even full rebuilding after a short time span.
Due to the shift toward a market economy in traditional communities, the
sophisticated task of building or repairing indigenous vernacular structures now
increasingly relies on individual owners, as opposed to being a community enterprise as it was in the past. Individuals must take time aside from their paid labor
to engage in this demanding work, which becomes prohibitive financially
without communal support. Because this restricts the ability to work on cash-­
procuring activities sometimes for weeks, more and more traditional builders
are shifting to faster industrial techniques and materials. For example, the
Cameroonian and Equatorial Guinean Fang people have been progressively abandoning their rather sophisticated and slow to build rammed-earth wall-building
systems. Instead, they are now building with sawn wood boards, prefabricated
concrete blocks or corrugated metal sheets, all of which involve construction
processes that take a very short time to assemble, and cost a lot less to complete.
As the investment of time and the quality of work required to build indigen­
ous vernacular structures immediately translates into a substantial economic
burden, today, traditional building techniques often turn out to be unaffordable
to the very communities that developed them. It is indeed paradoxical that
indigenous vernacular aesthetics have become the marker and preference of
wealthy urban elites, private companies and governmental institutions in
many places around the world. To provide a few examples, in Ecuador, largescale Amazonian structures in traditional palm thatch are nowadays only
affordable to eco-hotel operators, oil companies, banks or the government. In
a similar case in Guyana, enormous traditional community houses, benabs, are
now less common in indigenous villages than in urban settings, where they are
used as conference and meeting centers. In Colombia, the high levels of labor
specialization in bamboo-building have made the work of bambuseros, or
bamboo builders, equivalent to that of artists, and high-quality bamboo housing
is now so expensive that it is normally reserved for the very wealthy. And in
Thailand, not only the cost of labor but that of materials has made old, rural
houses a precious commodity. As a result, many of these houses built using
now-hard-to-find woods have been bought, relocated and reassembled in urban
centers to accommodate wealthy foreigners or upscale stores, or simply placed
as display objects in open-air museums.[6]
In sum, building an indigenous vernacular structure today is a highly expensive endeavor, because of the generalized shift to a market economy among the
world’s traditional communities. The sophisticated craftsmanship, as well as
the constant maintenance, repairs and rebuilding, vis-à-vis the fact that this
type of work can no longer be self- or community-based, have made the indigen­
ous vernacular unaffordable to its originators. These issues challenge the widely
acknowledged notion in architectural and urban theory that indigenous vernacular dwellings and settlements are socio-economically sustainable.
Principle Four: Adaptability
The fourth principle, that of adaptability, is referred to in terms of three separate
qualities: the indigenous vernacular may be flexible, in that it allows internal
space redistribution; expandable, in that it can accommodate new uses or users
The Sustainable Indigenous Vernacular: Interrogating a Myth
6 A very elaborate traditional central Thai house, on
display at the Arts and Crafts Village, Bangsai Arts
and Crafts Centre, 2009. [Gabriel Arboleda]
7 A modern concrete brick structure in the
middle of a traditional homestead of grasswoven and thatched roof houses in Cotopaxi,
Ecuador, 2008. [Gabriel Arboleda]
8 Traditional structures such as the one at the
center of this image are giving way to modern
ones in this indigenous Ecuadorian Andes
settlement, 2009. [Gabriel Arboleda]
through easy extensions; and portable, in that a main structure and its covering
surface may be disassembled and transported.
In exploring these assertions, it is necessary to consider two critical issues
affecting indigenous vernacular settlements today. First is a common trend for
rapid population growth mirroring that of the world population, but in some
cases at an even faster rate. Second is a generalized pattern of social change in
traditional societies, with a critical shift from big, extended families to individual,
hearth-based ones. The latter may include the breakup of an extended family
unit with 150 members living in a single longhouse – such as among the Malaysia
Iban or the Colombian and Ecuadorian Tukano – into individual families
numbering about ten members, where each family demands a separate dwelling.
The current pressures stemming from population growth and social change
tend to challenge the theoretical adaptability of indigenous vernacular buildings.
How, for instance, can an extended family house be transformed to house
individual, nuclear families? And how can it be further expanded when these
families grow? If we accept the theoretical notion that the indigenous vernacular is adaptable, then the immediate assumption is that buildings should be
able to change according to different needs over the course of time. Yet, only
the simplest indigenous vernacular dwellings are adaptable enough to allow for
these types of changes – including the seasonal shelters of the Nunggubuyu
in northern Australia, and the tent-like structures of the nomadic Tuvinian in
Siberia, the Nogay in southern Russia and the Baluch in Iran, Afghanistan,
Pakistan and Oman.
The adaptability problem thus extends to buildings that are circular, and to
those that have hipped or polygonal-form roofs. In these cases, it is difficult
to transform the structure without major rebuilding. And even in the case of
rectangular buildings, transformation is simple only when the form can be
modified by a simple addition along the longitudinal axis; transverse additions
present complexity because of the need to disassemble the roof and reassemble
it later. This situation is particularly critical in the case of thatched roofs, where
even simple transformations are difficult without complete rebuilding, otherwise the new roof will be prone to leaking. Likewise, structures in mud or stone
demand significant structural transformation to avoid the potential for collapse
once the adaptation or expansion is complete.
The community houses of the Kejia people in China’s Fujian province are for
example difficult to change because of their form, comprised of a structure
with a closed circular courtyard, and their rammed earth technology. The same
follows for the Tui’que Huë’e, the Secoya house in the Aguarico River region of
Ecuador, a rectangular house with semi-octagonal endings. Expanding it would
require completely disassembling one of its intricate polar-geometry endings,
extending the rectangular portion, and then rebuilding the ending.
Clearly, trying to adapt these houses is more difficult than simply building a
second house from scratch. This is the reason why many traditional communities
today avoid radically altering their dwellings, instead opting to build completely
new and separate structures whenever the need for more space arises. One such
case is the Ecuadorian Cotopaxi Quichua’s woven-grass house. When more
space is needed, this Quichua group builds a completely new structure around
the existing one, as opposed to modifying it. A Cotopaxi Quichua expanded
house is thus a cluster of separate houses, but often, the new structures added
are modern ones built in concrete bricks.[7]
This points to another critical issue regarding the difficulty of adapting
indigenous vernacular types of housing. In a good number of cases, the only
way for a community to respond to new and changing life conditions is to
abandon their traditional type of housing altogether, adopting a modern one
that is more easily adaptable.[8]
This is the case with the above-mentioned Secoya in Ecuador, an indigenous
community that, in only a couple of years, changed essentially all of its trad­
itional housing stock to the corrugated metal cladding common among urban
The Sustainable Indigenous Vernacular: Interrogating a Myth
migrants. The case is dramatic because the Secoya made this transformation in
a single, massive move once they managed to obtain enough funding and materials to engage in it.66
Another obstacle to adaptability appears when the indigenous vernacular
house is inextricably linked to traditional social, cultural or ritual aspects, and
this link is manifest through the symbolism of the building structure and its
spatial distribution. Once the society’s culture and the associated rituals change,
it is difficult to adapt the house to new uses and traditions. When the logic of
its structure and its spatial distribution lose their original meaning, the house
itself no longer makes sense. Such a case can be found in the Wanukakan big
houses in Sumba, eastern Indonesia. These houses are not supposed to be
changed because each structural column serves a ritual purpose. Thus, the house
columns as well as the other structural elements are supposed to remain fixed
in location and number, with no additions or changes allowed. A related condition pertains to the ancestral house of the Wewewa (also on Sumba Island),
where the original house form is connected to a family lineage. In order to
preserve the continuity of family links – in particular the connection of distant
relatives to the family heart – the Wewewa house must either stay unchanged
or a completely new option must be found; the traditional cultural and ritualistic
patterns allow no in-between adaptations.
As the examples above show, indigenous vernacular buildings are not easily
adaptable in the face of generalized population growth and social change among
traditional communities. Physical restrictions in the modification of indigenous
vernacular buildings, not to mention social ones, make it difficult to adapt these
buildings to changing needs. Because of that, modifications are not happening
as frequently as architectural and urban theorists have traditionally proposed. It
is not uncommon for traditional communities to adopt modern building types,
forms and materials when facing new conditions.
The Myth of Sustainability in the Contemporary Indigenous Vernacular
We have set out to explore whether the connection between the indigenous
vernacular and sustainability presently holds true, and with this aim, we analyzed
four principles of sustainability frequently invoked in both historical and current
architectural and urban theory. These principles include material and site appropriateness, climate responsiveness, socio-economic advantages, and adaptability.
We found evidence that the notion of sustainability formulated around the
indigenous vernacular does not hold true as a general norm today. Circumstances
in traditional communities have radically changed – politically, economically
and environmentally – especially since the 1944 Bretton Woods conference
that promulgated an idea of development centered on modernization and economic growth.
From the analysis of the four principles above, it is evident that recent architectural and urban literature has been inadvertently echoing old theories that
celebrate the environmental qualities (or the sustainability, as preferred nowa-
days) of the indigenous vernacular under the assumption that these theories
remain valid. In other words, literature has continued to celebrate the notion
that the indigenous vernacular is sustainable, in terms of its relationship to
the natural environment, socio-economic context and function, while in good
faith overlooking the environmental, geopolitical, cultural and social trans­
mutation of the communities it uses as examples.
By overlooking these changing conditions, the discussion on sustainability
and the indigenous vernacular has limited itself to purely formal attributes,
hence becoming for the most part a discussion on aesthetics. However, when
environmental, economic, political and social issues are incorporated into the
discussion, the limitations of the form-centered approach become evident. The
so-described pristine harmony between the aesthetics of human settlements
and the forces of the natural environment belongs to another era, and represents
neither the prevailing condition nor a meaningful applicability in the present.
As the evidence seems to demonstrate, the theoretical sustainability principles
of the indigenous vernacular are frequently inapplicable in today’s context, and
therefore the generalization that the indigenous vernacular is sustainable is no
longer valid. With this consideration, the inherent aesthetic qualities of the
indigenous vernacular appear rather superficial, disconnected from a myth of
origins, and altogether manipulative when the intent behind the promotion
of such qualities is to use them as a hallmark of sustainable living.
By defending and proliferating this generalization, even unknowingly and
unintentionally, some architectural and urban theories may be engaging in the
fabrication and diffusion of the sustainable indigenous vernacular myth. To truly
reevaluate this myth, it will be necessary for current scholarship to revisit the
time variable and to consider the changing socio- and geopolitical context of
the debate. The discussions connecting the indigenous vernacular and sustainability should move beyond the practice of blindly praising the sustainability
of traditional communities as an attribute that is also applicable today. Efforts
must be made to reassess the numerous case studies that theory still invokes as
paradigms of sustainability – to check the examples against the current situations
on the ground in those formerly exemplary communities.
In many cases, the building and settlement practices that may have been
sustainable in the past are no longer so because the natural and built environments in most of the world’s traditional communities have been profoundly
affected by diverse factors. These range from global climate change, irreversible
destruction due to industrial development, urbanization and the modernization
of traditional environments, to the fundamental transformation of commerce
and finance by the market economy, just to name a few. By and large, these
factors have ended the sustainable prospects of indigenous practices. Architectural and urban theories need to integrate a deeper reflection about present-day
environmental, economic, political and social issues into current discussions of
sustainability and the indigenous vernacular.
The Sustainable Indigenous Vernacular: Interrogating a Myth
The Qanats in Yazd: The Dilemmas of
Sustainability & Conservation
— Vinayak Bharne
There have been times when the design of hydro-infrastructure has been inseparable from the cultural identity of a place. The conscious aestheticizing of the
modes of their services has not only domesticated their technical and utilitarian
dimensions but also formed proprietary territories and communities with profound social dimensions. One thinks of the aqueducts and fountains of Rome,
the mosaic-clad water tanks of Khiva, the acequias (water channels) of New
Mexico, and the tirthas (sacred reservoirs) and vapis (sacred wells) of Varanasi.
These infrastructures did not just supply water; they also created compelling
urban artifacts whose image was indelibly linked to the social, political and
cultural pride of their respective habitats.
In a period of hydrologic uncertainty, do such archeological and vernacular infrastructural systems offer alternative strategies for contemporary city design? Is
the global urban water crisis a profound opportunity not only for excavating
the deeper functional workings of such vernacular systems, but also their relationship with regionally authentic cultural identities? To what degree have
these systems and their communities been designed to adapt in the face of
massive urban growth and disruption? Can historic infrastructures – in places,
developing and industrialized – be re-purposed for contemporary sustainable
design? Can visionary design approaches towards their reuse in turn yield
practical policy approaches towards their implementation?
The city of Yazd, situated 1,215 meters above sea level, at the confluence of
the Dasht-e-Kavir and the Dasht-e-Lut deserts in Iran is the setting for this
exploration.1 Despite its notorious historic cityscape of lanes, domes, terraces
and wind-towers, the ingenuity of its urban workings remains relatively lessknown. Beneath and around this desert habitat lies an ancient network of subterranean water channels stretching some 16 km from the urban core. They are
visible only as linear man-made earth-scapes of sequential intermittent wells.
They tap water from the distant mountain aquifers and guide it into the peripheral fields, the subterranean domed reservoirs within the fabric, and eventually
the individual wells and tanks within the monuments and dwellings. If Rome
had its aqueducts and Spain its acequias, then Yazd has its qanats, an ante­
diluvian network of dendritic hydro-infrastructure that explains its seemingly
counterintuitive origins and sustenance away from a river, lake or stream.2 [1, 2, 3]
While the reasons behind Yazd’s isolation remain dubious, its historic origins
date back to the time of Alexander the Great, a millennium before the emergence
of Islam. It was conquered by the Arabs in 642 AD, and subsequently became
an important station on the caravan routes to Central Asia and India. Spared
from destruction by Chengiz Khan and Tamerlane, who expanded its military
walls, it flourished in the 14th and 15th centuries, though its commercial success
and stability were never translated into any significant political status. With
its seclusion and harsh climate sparing it of recurrent foreign invasion, it also
became the adopted artistic and intellectual enclave of the Zoroastrians. Eventually, like other towns of Iran, it gradually fell into decline as a provincial outpost up until the extension of the railway line under Iran’s last Shah.
Today Yazd is a sprawling urban landscape some thirty times its historic core.
Its qanats, once the only water source of a compact agrarian desert habitat,
remain alive largely on its outskirts, serving its exurban agricultural fields. Within
the historic core, most lay abandoned and buried with rock, earth and dirt
affirming their losing battle to modern infrastructure. Incapable of supplying
the vast quantities of water supply for the growing city, their constant maintenance has made them not only unreliable, but undesirable compared to the
convenience of modern plumbing. Surviving through the indigenous skills of
muqannis (qanat-makers) who continue to maintain them on a requested basis,
Yazd’s qanats stand at the critical juncture of the city’s past and future. Studying
their potential is therefore not just about contemplating Yazd’s future, but also
about the dilemmas of social, economic and environmental sustainability versus
cultural desire, characteristic of so many cities across the world.
The Qanat In Retrospect
While the qanats’ origins remain shrouded, they are speculated to have existed
in Iran as early as the first millennium BC, evolving over the centuries with the
overarching goal of transferring water from source to destination while minimizing evaporation and retaining potability. This is a significant challenge in
Yazd’s hot, dry climate, where its distance from the Oman Sea and Persian Gulf
results in minimal rain and high evaporation. Diurnal temperatures fluctuate
from 50˚ to -20˚ Celsius within 24 hours, and seasons vary from a long hot
summer (mid-March to mid-September) to a cold winter (October to February).
In 2009 it rained from January to September, recording a minimum of 2 mm
in June to a maximum of 59 mm in September, with an annual total of approximately 125 mm.3 The average annual rainfall in the whole of Iran is approximately 242 mm which is less than one third of the global average annual rainfall
(approximately 860 mm), and even this minimal precipitation is not consistent
throughout the country.
The Zagros Mountains crossing the Yazd province gather snow in the winters
and trap water in their crevices forming a subterranean aquifer, and this is where
the qanat took its birth. Experts surveyed the mountain vegetation and soil
deposits mapping a potential source-well. Vertical shafts of successively increasing depths were dug at 50-meter intervals and horizontally connected by subterranean tunnels approximately 1-meter wide and 2-meters high, gently sloped
to ease flow.[4] Water was directed first into the surrounding agricultural fields
and the remainder was directed towards the city.4 [5]
The Qanats in Yazd: The Dilemmas of Sustainability & Conservation
[Vinayak Bharne & Biayna Bogosian]
7 Rostam Giv Ab Anbar, one of the largest and most
well-preserved ab anbars in Yazd today. [Brian McMorrow]
6 Section through ab anbar. [Vinayak Bharne & Biayna
1 Historic cityscape of Yazd with the Zagros Mountains in
the backdrop. [Brian McMorrow]
[Brian McMorrow]
2 Historic cityscape of Yazd with mosques and
monuments rising above the horizontal mud habitat.
3 Possible morphology of Yazd in the pre-Islamic era. The settlement is shown in black surrounded by agricultural fields
and the qanat network. [Vinayak Bharne & Nicole Friend] 4 Traditional process of qanat construction. [Vinayak Bharne & Biayna Bogosian] 5 Anatomy of the qanat system – beginning with the mountain aquifer to the left and ending in the dwelling to the right.
Historically, the first contact of qanat and city happened at ab anbars, subterranean cylindrical reservoirs designed to stabilize low water temperature, withstand water pressure and resist earthquakes. Typically, a linear stairway descended
from the sardar (entry) to the pasheer (platform) at the foot of the faucet used
to retrieve the water. The specific faucet depth determined the water temperature,
with some ab anbars accommodating multiple faucets at various intervals
along the stairway. A semi-circular brick-lined dome with central escape vents
helped cool the water through convection while protecting it from dust and
pollution.5 And badgirs (wind catchers) helped maintain fresh air circulation and
prevent water deterioration. No one was given direct access to the water; it was
always drawn beneath the ground level using the pasheer, thereby minimizing
water contamination.[6, 7]
These ab anbars played a pivotal role in the urban structure of Yazd. Distant
qanats split into a distribution network of smaller canals called karez bringing
water to a hierarchy of city-center and neighborhood-specific ab anbars. Their
specific locations within this hierarchy determined both their size and character:
smaller neighborhood reservoirs were usually endowed with fewer badgirs;
larger city-center reservoirs often served by six or more. Each ab anbar provided
water to a limited number of streets and houses, defining a distinct community
shed around it.6 While there are no verifying records, it is apparent that the
formal complexity of Yazd’s historic communities was in fact ordered around
existing qanats and ab anbars. Each dwelling was located within easy reach of
their only water source, the community incrementally evolving around this
infrastructural armature. As evident from the extant examples within the historic core ab anbars thus configured the formal structure Yazd’s historic neighborhoods in as much as its numerous mosques and madrassas.
As the qanat’s eventual destinations, Yazd’s traditional dwellings each had
their own domestic ab anbars located within enclosed courtyards. They held
around 50 cubic meters of water. They would be filled once every two weeks, and
cleaned of sediments once a year. When a domestic ab anbar needed filling, the
mirab (local water manager) would record the formalities and open up the specific qanat or karez from the reservoir leading to the dwelling.7 The water would
first fill the pool within the courtyard, and then the storage tanks located in the
The Qanats in Yazd: The Dilemmas of Sustainability & Conservation
Over the past six decades, the role of qanats in securing and supplying water has
been diminishing across Iran, even as motorized wells and dams have gained
dominance. Qanat use has decreased ‘from 70% prior to 1950, to 50% around
1950 and to 10% in the year 2000.’9 Today, Yazd’s principal water supply comes
from the Zayandeh River in the city of Isfahan some 200 km away. A number
of modern tunnels redirect water from the Karun River (Iran’s largest river that
also starts in the Zagros Mountains) to the Zayandeh, facilitating water supply
for the growing populations in both Isfahan and Yazd provinces. No new qanats
Bharne & Biayna Bogosian]
8 Section of traditional Yazd dwelling. [Vinayak
9 Badgir. [Mahgol Sarrafzadeh]
10 Growth of Yazd. The black dots are the principal ab
anbars. Note the shrinking numbers of ab anbars relative
to urbanized land. [Vinayak Bharne & Biayna Bogosian]
[Vinayak Bharne & Nicole Friend]
The Qanat’s Decline
11 Growth of Yazd, showing the shrinking qanat network and
agricultural fields ca. 1979, top and ca. 2011, bottom. The primary
qanats are shown as white dots. The grey patches are the fields.
The spatial organization of the dwelling was a climatic diagram of summer
and winter spaces centered on this domestic water source. In the hot, dry
summers, inhabitants spent the day in the cooler basements connected to the
badgirs (wind towers), or in the vaulted summer rooms around the courtyard
oriented north to keep the sun away. At night they would sleep on the roof
under warm quilts while the cool night winds would circulate through the open
doors and wind catchers, drawing the heat from within the house. In winter,
the wind catchers were closed off to prevent heat loss. The activity shifted to
the south-facing winter rooms around the courts. Their glass doors captured
the low winter sun storing heat within their thick walls helping to maintain a
warmer temperature during the cold nights.8 In buildings with wealthy owners,
the badgir and water storage systems were combined to create the effect of a
water cooler. The air draft created by the badgir was circulated over a small
pool or reservoir in the basement, now converted into a gathering room. With
the temperature of the flowing water in a karez generally lower than that of a
standing pond the temperature drop could be as much as 20˚ Celsius.[8, 9]
The ownership of the numerous karez varied from private to communal. In
the case of a long karez, the land above could have several owners with some
landlords endowing the karez routes partially or wholly to the served community.
Wealthy families that could afford to have land holdings at the head of the karez
distribution system took the best water supply not just for agricultural purposes
but also for the maintenance of ornamental gardens. The poorer citizens had
land further down the route, with the poorest subsisting on trickles of muddy
water. The ownership and distribution rights of these networks have developed
over hundreds of years, and survive to this day, with water distribution determined
by a salaried official who is elected by the users or appointed by the government.
As a macro infrastructural form that unified the region and dwelling, qanats
and ab anbars transformed the arduous processes of obtaining, storing and
distributing water within a desert to a publicly visible civic art. On the social side,
while the qanat’s complex ownership became the contested territory of political
power and social hierarchy, its public punctuation as dramatic ab anbars became
the centers and local monuments of the various urban communities. There was
a lot more to Yazd’s historic hydro-infrastructure in its complex intersection
with architecture, urbanism, administration and public life.
have been built using traditional methods since 1963.10 This is also apparent in
the shrinking numbers of ab anbars relative to the spread of urbanized land.
Of the 3,300 qanats within the Yazd Province, around 3,000 are increasingly
polluted from industrial discharge, and less than 500 badgirs don the city’s historic roofscape.11
One obvious reason for the qanat’s decline was Yazd’s rapid urbanization.
Until circa 1925, Yazd had grown at a steady pace. The historic core had expanded
southward avoiding the northern desert and dissolving into the outer agrarian
villages. Further growth continued due south-west and by 1979 (towards the
end of the White Revolution in Iran) it had enclosed the historic core to the
east and west. But subsequently, in as less as three decades, rapid urbanization
transformed Yazd into a sprawling modern city occupying an area of 16,000 km2,
accessible by road, rail and regular flights from Tehran and major towns, with a
population of over 423,006 (per the 2006 census).12 Modern urbanity’s shifting
desires coupled with the qanats’ inability to supply the vast quantities of water
for the growing city left it undesirable.[10, 11]
The qanat’s erosion was also in part a political phenomenon. With the advent
of the White Revolution and its Land Reform Program against feudalism in
1963, the government began purchasing agricultural land from feudal owners
and selling it back to the peasants at a much lower price. The Shah changed the
system of land ownership, breaking up large traditional holdings, leading to
confusion about the ownership rights and maintenance responsibility of the
karez beneath the land. Water distribution and ownership traditionally controlled
by a select few now came under a much larger purview, and subsequent government intervention had to be geared towards giving this larger demographic
their fair share. With simultaneously increased agricultural production necessitating the drilling of source aquifers, many qanats began to dry out or became
seasonal, even as the drilling industry attracted more people into the city.
Over the past decades, hundreds of motor-equipped wells have been excavated
as replacements for qanats. Worst of all, they have been randomly drilled without consideration for the original location of qanats. In Iran, in 2000, of the
70 billion cubic meters of provisioned groundwater, merely 12% (8.6 billion cubic
meters) was allotted to qanats, with most given to wells.13 Ironically, wells have
a shorter life span (a maximum of 50 years) when compared to qanats, and their
excessive excavation has led to the drying up of both wells and qanats, contributing to drought and increasing water shortages. And while wells have been
mostly constructed by the private sector, the Iranian government has been responsible for the construction of dams as the other qanat counterpart.14
Consequently, the skilled labor for the construction and maintenance of
qanats has severely declined due to extremely low wages, poor insurance benefits as well as a general dissatisfaction with their social ranking. Many have left
for the larger cities as construction workers, digging deep wells for black-water
absorption in new development sites, and as a result the agricultural and participatory qanat-based patterns of life have been gradually disappearing.
Today, houses in Yazd are no longer organized around a courtyard, but a
central covered hall with a separate entrance from the front garden to ensure
privacy for women. This hall often has a higher ceiling to buffer the dwelling
from the sun, with operable clerestory windows to expel hot rising air. The
traditional north facing aivan (the raised veranda for enjoying morning and
evening breezes) though present is often air-conditioned, making it in effect, a
year round living room for the family. With emerging development increasingly
oblivious to anything indigenous, the culture of the qanat despite all conser­
vation efforts is dying, of not almost dead.
Saving The Qanat – Scenarios & Challenges
What is the place of qanats and ab anbars as alternative models of development
in Yazd today? What is their promise as sustainable infrastructure for the longterm future of the city? In a post-industrial milieu, are there significant reasons
for keeping alive this ancient system? Is qanat-conservation a romantic whim
or practical wisdom? The following scenarios attempt to examine these questions
from multiple strategic viewpoints, each gauged through the filters of cultural
and technical feasibility.
a Incentives For Preservation Within The Historic Core A few areas of Yazd’s historic core continue to be served by qanats today. But going by the track record
of the past few decades, it is only a matter of time before these systems will be
abandoned. The overarching question in the core therefore centers on whether
or not qanat preservation and maintenance can be successfully incentivized.
Qanats are fragile subterranean systems, and unless maintained, do not lend
themselves to easy retrofit or reuse once abandoned. While it is possible to
enhance active or recently dormant qanats by updating the substructure with
steel or concrete piping and monitoring mechanisms to gauge their water levels,
such steps require highly specialized labor and significant cost. The unpredictable
water supply from a typical source-aquifer dependent qanat does not justify
such specialized preservation.
However, with the historic core having undergone a significant transform­
ation over the last few decades, the qanat’s preservation needs to be re-assessed
in this light. In his 1973 study of Yazd’s old town, architect Mehdi Kowsar
had observed that its dominant low-income demographic had suffered from
the increasing departure of the wealthy middle class and the municipality’s
subsequent disincentive towards maintaining the old town’s infrastructure
and facilities.15 Today, the dominant demographic within the core is still lowincome, but with the restoration of the historic quarter of Sahlebne-Ali (that
has consequently attracted the schools of art, architecture and urban studies of
the University of Yazd), and the transformation of the Malek-o-Tajjar house
into a hotel in 2000, the value of Yazd’s historic monuments has increased
tenfold.16 [12]
Amidst this renewed historical consciousness, opportunities for civic engage-
The Qanats in Yazd: The Dilemmas of Sustainability & Conservation
[Vinayak Bharne & Biayna Bogosian]
12 Panorama of the historic core showing one of the principal avenues that connect the old town to the
surrounding modern city. [Mahgol Sarrafzadeh] 13 Diagram showing qanats as a parallel grey water infrastructure.
The horizontal lines at the base indicate the qanat; the dotted line indicates the modern water supply.
ment and participatory governance can hopefully help enhance qanat awareness
and preservation. Select neighborhoods in New Mexico for instance are mandatorily served by traditional acequias offering citizens an alternative lifestyle
by choice. They are owned and managed by public and private organizations,
and maintained through regulated community participation.17 Such choices
within Yazd’s historic core can generate a deeper appreciation of qanats and offer
residents the choice of paying their rents partially or fully through contributions
towards their upkeep. Policies that incentivize the qanat’s use through subsidized
housing alternatives (such as the 1975 master plan’s unimplemented recommendation for subsidizing property taxes by 20% for 10 years for residents who
contribute to the restored fabric) remain far more important to the qanat’s
continuing sustenance.
historic adobe habitats. Ablution water from numerous mosques also offers a
unique opportunity to integrate sustainability with cultural practices.
Abandoned qanat networks already in place could be reactivated, saving significant expenditure on what would otherwise be an infrastructural installation
from scratch. They could carry grey water for adequate processing. Others could
bring back this processed gray water to ab anbars for storage. Others could
return the water to tanks below homes and buildings to be used for flushing
toilets, watering gardens or direct it to larger destinations such as urban parks.
The idea of qanats an ab anbars as grey water infrastructure could retain the
original workings of the system for a contemporary cause, empowering their
reuse, rebuilding and maintenance. New qanats and ab anbars could be built
to localize water collection on a neighborhood basis, with their capacities and
performance monitored with modern technology. They could significantly
reduce the load on Yazd’s current water supply through large-scale waste water
management, merging a desert culture’s reverence for water with a contem­
porary sustainable distribution system nurturing a variety of functions.[13]
There are, however, significant challenges to this proposition. As a gravity
dependent system, qanats are always sloped towards the destination such as an
ab anbar or a dwelling. Thus within an existing qanat network, grey water recycling from dwellings to ab anbars would require a reverse water flow against
gravity, thereby needing electrical pumps. The cost and un-tested performance
of such hybrid systems weighed against the convenience of durable modern
installations remains a significant question.
Also, gray water recycling through passive means is most efficient when done
on a lot scale, that is, when the water is treated within or near the site where it
is returned. Thus while qanats and ab anbars as grey water systems are justifiable
on a lot or even a block scale, their large scale application as a city-wide system
remains untested and therefore technically dubious.
c As Storm Water Collectors b As Gray Water Recycling Networks Recent concerns over dwindling groundwater reserves and costly sewage treatment options have generated increasing
global interest in the reuse or recycling of grey water, for domestic use and
commercial irrigation. Grey water is the wastewater generated from domestic
activities such as dish washing, laundry and bathing, and is significantly less
contaminated than black water that contains fecal matter and urine. In Yazd,
such grey water could come from a number of sources. Besides dwellings, rain
water collection, however little, from roofs particularly in Yazd’s modern
concrete developments is something that would not have been possible in its
Compared to the complexity of grey water distribution, qanats and ab anbars are much more applicable as storm water collectors.
Storm water is the water that hits the ground during rainfall. In Iran up to 70%
of the total rainfall per annum evaporates, amounting to a loss of around 300
billion cubic meters of water. Around a third of this is lost as surface water. The
remainder of the total volume of the annual rainfall (60-75 billion cubic meters)
penetrates the ground. In short, a third of the country’s annual rainwater is
wasted, even as the volume of water demand in Iran has shown an incremental
increase from 40 billion cubic meters in 1960 to 75 billion cubic meters in
2000.18 Thus, the most vital resource for securing water in the growing cities of
Iran is groundwater.
Traditionally, qanats have always collected wastewater penetrating into the
soil thereby saving more water on an annual basis. If modern piping could
direct storm water to ab anbars for storage, connecting qanats or karez could
direct the water via gravity flow to various destinations, from necessary treatment
The Qanats in Yazd: The Dilemmas of Sustainability & Conservation
d As Cultural Memory Beyond its old town, Yazd’s sprawling landscape struggles for an identity with neither citizens nor public officials seemingly willing
to mandate strategies and visions for alternative growth models. Apart from
standard planning documents and policies, there is no larger framework for
aesthetic or physical urban design, let alone any deeper idea about how and
why one builds in the desert.
One noteworthy strategy in this regard is the enrichment exercise proposed
by American architects William Morrish and Catherine Brown for another
sprawling desert city, Phoenix, Arizona in the late eighties.19 They conceived of
a strategic fusion of public infrastructure and public art into a new cognitive
mapping system to ameliorate the vast distances of disoriented sprawl. It thus
co-opted the very transportation and irrigation networks that had enabled sprawl
by giving them a cultural legibility. Since then, the city dump has become an
‘instructive sculptural presence in the form of a new reclamation and recycling
building,’ the Squaw Peak Parkway serves as an armature for major art installations and various sprawl neighborhood streetscapes are playful abstractions of
the place’s history.20
Perhaps like Phoenix then, it should be the Yazd Arts Commission that
inherits the leading role as the aesthetic urban designer for the city. The
Commission can implement a new vision for the city’s sprawl through public
art projects that pull together public agencies, citizens and designers. It can be
sponsored by a budget allocated specifically for public art in qanat-related
projects paid for by public funds. This emphasis on indigenous infrastructure
can create an unparalleled opportunity with simultaneous aesthetic and conservation dimensions.
If reactivating qanats and ab anbars as infrastructural systems seems dubious,
14 Qanat landscape of sequential intermittent wells. [Masoud Abtahi,
15 Diagrams showing the growth of po­­
tential exurban neighborhoods, each within one quarter mile radius
pedestrian sheds around new ab anbars. [Vinayak Bharne & Biayna Bogosian]
Courtesy of Biayna Bogosian] 16 Qanat-builders at work today. [Masoud Abtahi, Courtesy of Biayna Bogosian]
facilities, and dwellings to parks, re-using their exact traditional workings for
new purposes. But in an industrialized landscape, one obvious challenge is that
of water contamination. Surface water with industrial pollutants could land
up being absorbed into the substrata eventually impacting the aquifer. Further,
abandoned, dormant or ill-maintained qanats filled with filth for years are
dangerous conduits for storm water. They will require scrupulous cleaning and
testing to meet the required hygienic standards, raising the costs of such efforts.
Further, such an operation whether on a small or large scale, would require
substantial documentation and mapping of the precise location and condition
of the existing qanat network. Unlike modern infrastructures, which are clearly
delineated within the public or private parcels of the city, qanats criss-cross the
sprawling street pattern as well as the private properties of the growing city.
With several buried under recent buildings, such efforts would have serious
impacts on existing development, re-surfacing the same complex traditional
questions about the private versus public rights of owning, operating and
maintaining specific portions of these underground conduits from the land
above them.
can they at least contribute to Yazd’s image and identity as iconic cultural landmarks? Qanats are visible above ground only through their sequential inter­
mittent wells, creating a unique land pattern at various scales.[14] Communal
gardens and open spaces, if incorporated around these existing patterns, can
both increase their awareness and celebrate qanats as local and regional civic
art. The dramatic formalism of existing and newly built ab anbars can likewise
lend itself to generating a parallel cognitive system throughout the city accommodating a number of communal uses from internet cafes to restaurants.
While some may criticize such approaches as overly nostalgic or kitschy, such
incentives can help expand the current preservation rubric to not simply
restore but reactivate these infrastructures as civic artifacts, and thereby celebrate
their history in participatory and open ended ways.
e As New Development Parallel to Yazd’s numerous mosques, ab anbars historically added a formal layer of order to the city, with various communities
organized around their local water source. Could new ab anbars help establish
a similar spatial order in new exurban development? Their locations could help
establish walkable neighborhood sheds akin to Clarence Perry’s ¼ mile radius
‘Neighborhood Unit.’21 [15] The extant qanats at the city’s fringe could become
The Qanats in Yazd: The Dilemmas of Sustainability & Conservation
integrated into parks and streetscapes, creating formal armatures for new development. They could be expanded into a new karez network using traditional
construction techniques, with new ab anbars strategically introduced within the
new development to store the water for irrigating its open spaces. In exurban
low-income schemes, a ‘sites and services’22 approach could regulate the layout
and funding of the qanat and ab anbar apparatus through a public agency, with
incremental habitats built through self-help-self-build processes. The same extant
ex-urban infrastructure that could be engulfed in sprawl could now become the
framework for sustainable urban growth.
The idea of qanat-builders as intrinsic participants in urban development
is in fact an echo of their ancient tradition.[16] They could be involved in the
early planning phases as experts on the location and viability of old or new
qanats and ab anbars. Such trends could generate a significant employment
base within Yazd’s real estate market allowing the amalgamation of traditional
building techniques with modern methods. The challenge, of course, is that
such ideas will need significant political and administrative incentives to get
them off the ground. Effective branding among other things will constitute a
key part of this effort, with new developments involving qanats and qanatbuilders needing to find ways to inspire citizens to want to live in them. It may
seem like a distant possibility today, but no planning effort can anticipate the
vagaries of public sentiment. If qanats and their builders can remain marginalized on the one hand, they can also become the force behind a renewed public
environmental consciousness.
the qanat was providing a substantial amount of water, the community was again
divided with social tensions, and the qanat’s future remained dubious. Qanat
conservation, especially in agrarian and rural areas, must therefore be done on
a case by case basis after analyzing the social pulse of the community.
Agriculture and agricultural land has diminished significantly with the city’s
dramatic growth, and several qanats have died as a result. Ongoing efforts such
as combining qanats with modern irrigation techniques like drip irrigation to
enable high value crops and increase farmer incomes are important in this regard.
But from a qanat conservation standpoint, the bigger question is: what decisions
does Yazd need to make to conserve its remaining agricultural lands?
For municipalities and regional jurisdictions across the world, the gradual
erosion of agrarian land by sprawl has been one of the greatest environmental
challenges. Greenbelts and Urban Growth Boundaries (UGB), despite their
varied degrees of success, have persistently separated agriculture and urbanism
as two disparate worlds. More recent practices have challenged these notions.
The rhetoric of ‘Agrarian Urbanism’ for instance has sought, among other
things, to empower new exurban development towards the sustainable production of food.25 It has called for cohesive forms of development along the urban
fringe, liberating land for agricultural use and merging the house, farm and
field as integrated prototypes for different conditions along the urban edge.
Any attempt to merge agriculture and development in Yazd, no matter how
theoretically sustainable, would open up a plethora of challenges. Integrating
farming into development would not only need significant political retooling,
but more importantly a cultural acceptance of changing lifestyles and co-­
existence with the low-income agricultural labor demographic. Further, it would
need additional means of gathering, supplying and reusing water to fulfill the
needs of both living and farming, thereby threatening the current singularity
of the qanat within the agricultural hinterlands. Stringent agricultural easements
and locally administered policies aimed at discouraging piecemeal and isolated
exurban sprawl may be Yazd’s best bet towards this goal.
f As Agrarian Systems Qanats remain alive in Yazd’s exurban agricultural fields.
With their proximity to the mountains and the source aquifer, the existing
qanat network is economically and environmentally far more efficient than wells.
Though the cost of excavating a qanat proves to be more than double that of a
deep well with pumps, qanats, if regularly dredged and repaired have proven to
have an almost unlimited life span, compared to the typical 20 year life span of
a well.23 Conserving qanats as agrarian and rural infrastructure is therefore an
absolute necessity, and ongoing efforts such as the UNESCO-organized ‘International Training Course on Qanats’ held in July 2007 to create awareness on their
cultural and technical aspects represents a positive step in this direction.
But there are socio-cultural challenges to qanat conservation in rural areas.
The long-term sustenance of a qanat is only possible thorough communal willingness and participation, a challenge hardly limited to Yazd. In the 2000 pilot
program for qanat renovation in the Syrian village of Shalalah Saghirah, east of
Aleppo, inter-clan disputes and ambiguous ownership patterns deterred initial
communal consensus on the qanat’s restoration. It was only after much discussion and field work that the haqoun (‘holders of the right’) were persuaded to
settle their differences.24 The qanat was cleaned, with its technical impact
measured by a flow meter, and sixteen young community members trained for
its upkeep. But when the project team returned in the summer of 2002, though
g As Drought Water Systems According to Mohammad Reza Haeri, if Iran
enters a period of lasting drought, with the majority of the country’s rivers being
seasonal, Yazd’s river-dependent water supply will have an extremely poor stand.
Iran’s rivers and surface springs will dry up rather quickly, and since motorequipped wells evacuate aquifers rapidly, they too will be threatened and eventually dry up. Iran’s dams, though more drought-resistant, will rely on their
geographical characteristics and maintenance consistency for long-term sustainability, especially with soil erosion being a serious problem. Dams constructed
in the 1960’s today retain a much lower water reservoir, and even dams engineered
with the utmost precision are apt to suffer damages caused by drought.26
In a drought, qanats are bound to be far more resilient. They do not dry up
rapidly, as they evacuate the aquifers at a gradual pace. When every drop of
water is critical, qanats return water to the aquifers, while dams evaporated it.
The Qanats in Yazd: The Dilemmas of Sustainability & Conservation
Qanats are far more energy efficient since there is virtually no need for electric
power or pumps. Qanats do not impair the quality or quantity of the groundwater since they are utilized gradually and assist in keeping the balance of
ground water in the various layers of the earth. Moreover, qanats bring freshwater from the mountain plateau to the lower-lying plains with saltier desert
soil. The salinity of the soil is thereby naturally controlled, helping to mitigate
desertification. Qanats may be the final frontier for a city like Yazd in case of
a serious hydrological crisis. It may be the qanat’s future that determines Yazd’s
eventual destiny, and not the other way around.
The future of vernacular hydro-infrastructure remains a complex subject across
the world. The case of qanats, within or beyond Yazd, is particularly complicated
since they are fragile, subterranean systems that are far more difficult to construct and upkeep compared to other indigenous forms of hydro-infrastructure
such as acequias or aqueducts. The scenarios discussed above affirm the complex
rhetoric and uphill climb surrounding the qanats’ future. Whether as aesthetic
artifacts from a bygone era, contemporary tandem water systems, exclusive
agrarian infrastructures or emergency water systems, this discussion affirms that
the long-term promise of qanats makes them deserving of more than a marginal
life. Their future does not rest within an exclusive cocoon of preservation, but
at the complex intersection of history, sustainability, strategic conservation and
public life.
However, the sustainability of the qanats’ future must be assessed holistically
from an environmental, social and economic standpoint. From an economic
standpoint, qanat conservation is an expensive proposition compared to its
low performance efficiency, given Yazd’s recent scale and pace of urban growth
and development. But conversely, its low expenditure in comparison to the high
maintenance charges of wells and motor pumps provides a definite advantage
in rural areas, making the qanat a safer long-term water source for the city’s agricultural lands.
From a social standpoint, qanats remind us that the urban water crisis will
demand significant shifts in our perception of water, its use and its related infrastructure. They remind us that the attitude towards obtaining, distributing and
using water, the very lifeblood of any community, is a thing to be celebrated
and not hidden, and that the mainstream expression of urban infrastructure as
utilitarian footnotes needs to be transformed, so that they become visible armatures for the cultural and spiritual enrichment of people.
From an environmental standpoint, two aspects transport the qanat to the
top of the sustainability chart: first, their long term dependability and viability
as drought-resilient systems; second, their ability to conserve the optimum
amount of water from a limited source through minimal evaporation. These
qualities are worthy enough to justify their strategic conservation in a time of
climatic and hydrological uncertainty.
There is no doubt that qanats will die in many cities. The question is: will
they survive in others? As indigenous artifacts set on the seeming path to
extinction, perhaps in their eventual death, their value will finally be realized
giving them a chance for new life. Whatever the case, their destiny is intrinsically
tied to a city’s decisions and directions regarding future growth patterns, and
the extent to which these places will succeed in transforming their petrified
bureaucracies towards socio-cultural appropriations for a time of unparalleled
environmental and economic crisis. The task at hand is to mediate the ongoing
dialogue between tradition and modernity, and unapologetically choose between
the volatile whims of mainstream urbanity and the deeper wisdom of sustainable
policies, patient capital and long-term investment. The qanat’s eventual destiny – whether as an active agent in the future of sustainable city-making or as
a long-forgotten anachronism – will emerge from this choice.
This chapter emerged out of an earlier study titled: In Praise of Qanats: Towards an Infrastructural
Urbanism in Yazd by Vinayak Bharne & Biayna Bogosian, published in the Association of Collegiate
Schools of Architecture 2010 Conference Proceedings. I wish to thank Biayna Bogosian for her
invaluable partnership during the early phases of this research.
I wish to thank Arash Kalantari and Mahgol Sarrafzade for helping me clarify key ideas and concepts
during the formation of this paper, and Nicole Friend who helped create some of the drawings. I also
wish to thank Brian McMorrow who generously let me use his beautiful photographs for this paper.
The Qanats in Yazd: The Dilemmas of Sustainability & Conservation
The Vernacular, the Iconic and the Fake
— Harald N. Røstvik
Romance of the Vernacular
Once upon a time, all architecture was seemingly sustainable. Overcrowding
was not a challenge and waste was absorbed naturally. If we were to imagine
the world of the vernacular, we often imagine that it was better, more balanced
and free of environmental aggravations. But this is simply a fantasy. It is true
that prehistoric men and women used what they found in their surroundings
to survive and to shelter themselves from the natural elements. Their structures
consisted of local materials that blended well with the landscape. For millennia,
mankind gathered together in structures built from natural materials including
sundried earth, stone, wood, woven mats and skins. Some of these traditions
persist to the present day, as over one-third of the world’s population continues
to live in earthen buildings.1
If we reflect on them in terms of so-called aesthetics, these structures are characterized by considerable restraint with regard to building techniques and the
use of available materials, having a sensitive dialog with the land. These char­
acteristics underlie the notion that traditional and vernacular forms of building
are also sustainable. In addition, it appears that the everyday architectural
expressions that emerged throughout history were mostly logical: while building
their homes and settlements, people used materials that were available in the
region, and the region was determined by the means of transportation. Over
time, the means of transportation and trade networks evolved, increasing the
range of building materials available for use. An aesthetic of sophistication
emerged, drawing from the use of new materials such as brick, mortar and glass.
These processes have continued into the present. Today’s industrial, financial
and economic systems offer architects access to an almost limitless range of
building materials that are produced globally, many of which have to be transported around the globe to reach the construction site.
However, is it possible or even meaningful to ask the question: was vernacular
architecture really sustainable? Locally harvested materials certainly were, but
it is important to consider the full picture in any appraisal of sustainability.
For example, many vernacular heating and cooking methods degraded interior
air quality, and would have proved fatal after long-term exposure. Waterborne
diseases were rampant and territorial violence was common. And the laborintensive building methods of stacking bricks or ramming mud required a great
number of men and a large quantity of supplies in order to feed such manpower.
Our respect for the vernacular is based not only on an idealized perception of
prehistoric settlements, but also an idealized perception of 19th century pastoral
landscapes, characterized by modest houses and well kept gardens for the newly
affluent middle class in the green suburbs. Pictures from this period are indeed
lovely and charming, given the landscape and garden, the harmonious scale of
the buildings, the solid natural materials and the richness they expressed. Now,
such buildings remain in rural areas that are not heavily developed, far from
the city’s skyscrapers. However, in the counterpart to this pastoral setting – the
19th century quarters of the working class vernacular – the widespread living
conditions that arose as the industrial revolution took its toll are clear.[1] The
real face of the period was in fact neither pretty nor admirable; the quality of
human life in the majority of houses and settlements was appalling. The romance
of the vernacular – be it for prehistoric settlements or for 19th century pastoral
landscapes – has always been a detached one, seen from a comfortable distance
away from the stench and the soot.
Mass Consumption of the Iconic
With the advance of materials, design tools and construction techniques, as well
as the advance of global communication, industry and transport, architecture
took on new forms and overcame the vernacular. Architecture is no longer tied
to a specific culture, place or palette of locally available materials and rituals.
The process of globalization has produced new architectural forms, as well as a
new class of professionals often called starchitects 2 who have created some of the
most recognizable buildings of our time. However, in regard to the starchitects’
buildings, the only issue that seems to matter is the production of architecture
that is spectacular (aka the wow-factor), no matter what the local situation may
be in regard to the culture and natural climate. It is again all about romance,
conceived from a comfortable distance. We see the outcome of this romanticglobal ideal in many of the recent iconic buildings, most notably in Frank
Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, which spurred the expression
The Bilbao Effect. Several of his other titanium-clad variations followed, such as
the Hotel Marques de Riscal in La Rioja, Spain and the Disney Concert Hall
in Los Angeles, California. These buildings would not have been possible without the use of advanced design technology and highly sophisticated systems for
construction and management. However, given the level of technology invested,
it is surprising that they express little interest in environmental variables. It is
important to ask: is the creation of a sustainable relationship between a building
and the natural environment best left to the engineer to sort out as an afterthought? If advanced technology was invested not only to create spectacular
designs but also to ensure the sensitivity of those designs in relation the natural
environment, we would be able to admire the starchitects’ designs as examples
of a seamless symbiosis of form, materials, techniques and the forces of the
In the vernacular, we see the development of certain types of structures and
settlements that are replicated in great numbers by the builders of the time.
Most of them have their roots solidly planted on the ground, thus marking a
certain era in a certain location and leading to an archetype that is bound by
the clear limitations of the local culture, climate, environment and available
materials. The traditional vernacular stands in strong contrast to the tremen-
The Vernacular, the Iconic and the Fake
2 Energy-autonomous design proposal for the Stanvanger Concert House, Harald N. Røstvik and Tombazis &
Associates Architects; the building design provides solar PV modules suspended on tension cables and natural
ventilation by a wind tower that supports a viewing platform. [Harald N. Røstvik and Tombazis & Associates Architects]
1 Working class housing from ca. 1880, Moss Side, Manchester, UK. [Harald N. Røstvik]
dously accelerated expansion in the range of possibilities available to architects
and builders in the present day. However, it is interesting to think of what is
vernacular or archetypical about architecture in our own time, and it may be
that a surprising number of designs are environmentally damaging and ultimately
These characteristics seem to mark current architecture on a global scale. As
a result, when it comes to balancing the need for sustainable thinking with a
license for aesthetic autonomy in architecture, it is timely to ask if architects
actually impede sustainable innovations rather than advancing them. Here, the
notion of innovation indicates not only the self-referential and intensive kind
but also the kind that is related to the external forces that problematize the internal logic of the so-called aesthetic system.[2] In many ways, there is perhaps little
change from project to project that results in the transgression of the disciplinary
borders of architecture, and thereby, little expansion of the field toward new
and innovative solutions to environmental problems.
Despite the marvels of advanced design tools, their coding systems often
reinforce and maximize self-referential repetitions and replications; this selfreferentiality leads to archetypes that limit innovation. The puzzling outcome
of such practices is that the resulting buildings do not show much consideration
for their surroundings. They are similar to aliens that have landed in the middle
of an open field, engaged strongly in theories and aesthetics but not in the
environment they landed in. Yet in an apparent contradiction, when these build-
ings capture something of the iconic, sublime or spectacular, they do seem to
elevate their surroundings, making their neighborhoods richer by drawing people
in to see and experience them.
Again focusing the discussion on Frank Gehry’s titanium-clad designs, while
the unique shape may create the contrast necessary to achieve a sublime effect,
one must wonder, for example, why the potential for using the mirror-like metal
cladding as a giant photovoltaic skin was not developed, given the powerful
technology at hand. It is striking that however advanced the design technology
and however wide the range of design variables and materials may be, architecture is still about the architect’s personal preferences, whims and aesthetic
regimes. One would have thought that the knowledge and the experience now
available would have resulted in a completely different perspective. The current
stream of technology-driven aesthetics in architecture appears to stifle innovation
– that is, of course, except for innovation in the area of form-making – contrary
to the tremendously rich array of materials and techniques that could enable us
to venture beyond the limited, self-referential aesthetic regimes developed by
individual personalities.
It is striking to argue that the disciplinary tradition of architecture – in terms
of its forms, programs, materials and techniques – is now stunted by the degree
of its own success. In this sense, current architecture may be compared to automobile design where a particular model’s formula for success is repeated over
and over with only minor variations through time. But, however much we
The Vernacular, the Iconic and the Fake
demonize the automobile industry for the environmental problems it creates,
we know that the industry is as design intensive as architecture, and has been
able to adapt to the changing environmental, natural, social and economic forces
that affect it in more innovative ways than architecture has. What limits the
search for workable and sustainable designs in architecture is not the capacity to
understand the surrounding environment that a given piece of architecture is
supposed to respond and fit in to, but the type of practice driven by individual
personalities and their implementation of self-referential aesthetics.
The personalities of architecture are nothing but a straitjacket that immobilizes
the free relation of ideas and innovations that could bring us closer to achieving
a kind of widespread and environmentally relevant aesthetics. While at the same
time, it is obvious that architecture should adapt to the conditions that frame its
existence. Here I am drawing two threads of the argument together: first, that personality-driven practices tend to develop regimes of aesthetic integrity that trump
other variables, requiring strict servitude; and second, that the aesthetic limitations of architecture are imposed, rather too conveniently, on a design process
that is supposed to be transformative and which could ultimately be sustainable.
Today, sustainable architecture does not explore the full range of potentials
that are available, be they in the areas of form-making, engineering or design.
We are still eager to hide the materials and products that make buildings sustainable and in tune with the environment. This tendency attests to the suspicion that the high tower of architectural aesthetics does not hold the notion of
sustainability as part of its œuvre, and that sustainable design does not have a
place in architecture as a form of aesthetic praxis. We talk of buildings with
integrated solar systems in their exterior envelopes – be they thermal collectors
or photovoltaics – but these components are often deployed as if they were roof
shingles or ceramic tiles. There is an urge to oppress new possibilities when it
comes to sustainable design while fitting them into the conventional aesthetic
vocabulary that has, paradoxically, become irrelevant given the very existence
of these new possibilities.
ings to stop breathing, can they really be considered sustainable? With the proliferation of tight box enclosures, architecture faced a new set of challenges and
health hazards stemming from poor indoor air quality, humidity, condensation,
insufficient air circulation and filtration, and airborne fungi. While the tight box
is a valuable concept for reducing the energy needed to heat and cool buildings,
it is not an approach that can stand on its own. Implementing it in a way that
is disconnected from the consideration of other environmental variables does
not lead to sustainable designs. This brings us to the following questions: is the
tight box only appropriate for use in climates with harsh winters, and ultimately,
is it really adaptable or a dead end?
Benchmarks and Efficiency
Houses that were sheltered in earth, naturally ventilated, with roofs covered in
grass and with small greenhouses on the side emerged as symbols for the new
aesthetics of living. This represented one direction in the search for architecture
that was environmentally conscious. The other direction was more technologically driven, represented by high-tech materials and techniques. Environmental
control components were directly integrated into building façades offering new
opportunities for formal expression, and buildings that combined highly insulated, airtight enclosures with air recirculation systems appeared. Under this
direction, it was considered wise not to heat or cool the interior air, while relying
on mechanical systems to recycle heat; these measures formed the basis of the
tight box concept.
Certainly these measures reduced energy bills, but seeing as they caused build-
Furthermore, the downside of the tight box concept can be underscored in terms
of the calculation methods used to determine a given building’s energy performance.3 Obviously, a tight box building would score quite well based on the
projected energy consumption per unit area or volume per year. This is ensured
by good insulation, reasonable window size and thermal recovery rates that
can reach 70 to 80%. But more often than not, we are blinded by the numbers
and do not investigate the other ramifications that surround the particular
benchmark data. For example, we may focus on thermal recovery in our energy
calculations while ignoring the large floor area of a building, along with the concomitant need for energy expenditure in the production, transport and construction of building materials.
This is significant given the fact that floor area has risen dramatically over time.
In Norway in 1967, the average residential floor area per person was 29 m2. Only
three decades later, in 2000, it reached 51 m2 per person.4 These increases can
be seen as parallel to the proliferation of automobiles. Although individually,
automobiles have become far more energy efficient, the number of automobiles
in the world is growing exponentially, mainly in developing nations and in
emerging markets such as China and India. As such, the individual gains in efficiency per automobile are lost manifold. And while individual buildings may
be more energy efficient per unit area or volume, the sheer amount of square
meterage built every year ensures that worldwide energy use related to architecture is on the rise.
Although there are parallel problems between architecture and automobile
design, we can look to the automobile industry for potential solutions as well.
New electric vehicles are smaller and lighter than their petroleum-based, internal combustion counterparts making them much more energy efficient as
summarized by the US Department of Energy.5 Although electric vehicles have
shorter life spans, they can be scrapped and recycled more efficiently than their
internal combustion counterparts because of their simpler design. In the same
manner of thinking, creating buildings that are smaller, lighter and highly recyc­
lable is in everyone’s interest. Those in the construction industry will gain high
profit margins; architects will find new challenges and opportunities in terms
The Tight Box
The Vernacular, the Iconic and the Fake
The Sustainable Glass Box?
With the advent of modern technology, architects have come to struggle with a
different kind of challenge: the glass box. Apart from the pros and cons of using
glass as the primary component of a building envelope, the glass box is a building type whose feasibility is intimately connected to the harnessing of cheap
energy. The effect of the glass box has been powerful, elegant and smart. It was
quickly established as the de facto indicator of modern designs in architecture,
providing a living and working environment that was full of light and a sense
of liberation. The most substantial benefit was free passive solar energy and huge
thermal mass; in some cases, the glass façade area would exceed the building’s
floor area.
This aesthetic archetype of modernism, whether a glass box or a glass tower,
is quite logical in its rationale of structure, materials and effect. Contemporary
iterations include Foster and Partners’ Swiss Re headquarters, the so-called Gherkin
in London, and the Torre Agbar by Jean Nouvel in Barcelona.[4] While their
creators claim that these buildings are designed to be energy efficient by incorpor­­
ating natural ventilation and lighting, it appears that the underlying logic
and rational are not as solid. One could argue that the main point of investing
powerful technology and great cost in these buildings was not to accomplish
sustainable designs, but to accomplish interesting aesthetic features, while the
quintessential qualities of a glass skyscraper remained unchanged. Again, the
central importance of creating the iconic seems to take priority in the design
process. It is important to ask: how do we reconcile the apparent contradiction
of creating excessive problems – including the problem of re-inventing the glass
box – in order to solve them again with powerful technology and at great cost?
3 WGM TV & Media Center, Battaramulla, Colombo, Sri Lanka,
Harald N. Røstvik and Kahawita De Silva Ltd.; in addition to
generating electricity, the solar PV system also helps collect
rainwater and shade the roof. [Harald N. Røstvik]
4 Jean Nouvel’s Torre Agbar in Barcelona, Spain; the tower
employs an intricate system of operable translucent louvers that
regulate the natural ventilation of the façade. [Harald N. Røstvik]
of the relationship between aesthetics, techniques and materials; and developers
and owners will save on construction and operation costs. These prospects
should be strong enough to forge a new mode of collaboration while pushing
architectural design toward a more sustainable model.[3]
And in addition, a new aesthetics might emerge through this process: an aesthetic of efficiency not only in terms of energy consumption, but also in terms of
how architectural space is conceived, designed, constructed, demolished and
recycled. Architects have an obvious responsibility to push their work toward a
more holistic direction, and away from conventional practice that is limited by
their aesthetic regimes and methods for calculation and evaluation. In order to
engage in this new process, the discipline of architecture must shed two of its
current molds: that of a service industry, and that of a creator of lifestyles and
images. As far as the indications go, the lifestyles and images created thus far are
not sustainable, as illustrated when architects with a strong focus on sustainability
end up designing mansions with only a thin veneer of so-called sustainable mater­
ials to be occupied by only a handful of people and their luxury cars. The term
sustainable has become another designer label and lifestyle cliché, and in the end,
it falls very short of the promise envisioned by the first environmental pioneers.
In frigid Norway, glass boxes have been problematic due to their heat loss in
winter. But even during the relatively cool, temperate seasons throughout the
year they can create heat problems as well. The Nordic sun is of a low altitude;
it hits the glass box almost horizontally, causing the cooling capacity to skyrocket
to unnecessary and excessive levels. For example, at the Oslo Opera House, the
glass façades were so oversized in the name of sustainable natural light and openness that they caused excessive solar thermal gains. 400 m2 of the glass surface
area of the ground floor restaurant on the west side of the building contains
integrated solar PV panels. But in an energy wasting building such as this one the
solar PV panels supply less than one percent of the total energy that is needed
for the entire building. In a rather farcical way, the oversize glass façades of the
building prompt the use of external louvers or internal curtains, which in turn
force the use of electric lighting for the interior. Moving away from the sustainable goals of the building, the glass-skinned Oslo Opera House relies on electrical
lighting even during beautiful, sunny days in spring.[5]
At the moment, there is a tremendous drive for development in the solar
energy industry. While pioneering architects have struggled with the design of
well integrated, glass covered solar systems for decades, a new solution has
emerged quite silently and steadily: the evacuated tube solar collector system.
The Vernacular, the Iconic and the Fake
5 Snøhetta’s Oslo Opera House; despite 400 m2 of solar PV panels integrated into the glass façades, the
system delivers less than one half a percent of the building’s energy needs. [Harald N. Røstvik]
6 Garmo stave church from 1100 AD in Sandvigske Samlinger, Lillehammer. [Harald N. Røstvik]
If we consider the Nordic timber tradition as a kind of vernacular-iconic architecture, how do we approach its materials and techniques in today’s context?
Timber construction is about to have a renaissance in Nordic countries, fueled
by arguments for its sustainability. Certainly, timber construction in the region
possesses a distinctive, vernacular aesthetic that has been developed for centuries
in relation to the particular environment and climate near the Arctic Circle.
Timber construction in this part of the world is nothing new: it was the building
material of the stave churches in the Nordic tradition from 1100 AD on, and
the fact that 28 of the 750 churches that were estimated to have been built are
still standing is a testament to their structural and cultural durability. Some
Norwegian examples were even carefully disassembled and exported to Iceland
for reconstruction.[6]
Today, timber construction is faked as something new: a new kind of sustainable architecture with renewed aesthetics. Yet compared to the profound
examples of timber construction in history, the quality of what is delivered
today is highly questionable, to put it mildly. One popular argument in support of renewing the timber tradition is that much of the wood used in Norway
is cultivated, harvested and supplied locally, therefore removing the need for a
long transport process and the concomitant use of fuels and energy. However,
the claim of environmentally sound and sustainable forestry practices in Norway
is highly dubious, casting a shadow of doubt on the sustainability of today’s
timber buildings.
First, forestry involves a set of complicated processes that often seem contradictory when viewed in terms of sustainability. For the most part, the timber
used for construction purposes comes from healthy trees that would have continued to absorb CO 2 naturally if they were left to grow in the forest. Harvesting trees for construction purposes means that the forest needs to be replanted
and renewed. However, while the timber from old forests is of excellent quality
for use in construction, it could take up to half a century for the newly
replanted trees become mature enough for this use. And in the waiting period,
there is reduced forest area available to absorb CO 2, although preserving this
function of forests is critical to addressing worldwide greenhouse gas problems.
The bottom line is that the pace of replenishing a cleared forest cannot keep up
with the demand. From this point of view, timber construction in most cases
is hardly sustainable.
Second, the use of timber construction in many Norwegian buildings is by and
large cosmetic; they are developed in the same manner as standard commercial
buildings without a clear focus on sustainability, and then outfitted with a veneer
of timber. The resulting effect – that of an attractive timber building – appeals
to many, given the allusion to the vernacular Nordic aesthetics. Some even make
their way to the cover of glossy lifestyle magazines as fine and tasteful examples
of sustainable architecture. In this regard, we have already reached a point
where image making – the making of a sustainable illusion – is more important
than the actual substance of the architecture itself. The fact of the matter is that
these buildings are no more sustainable than the average concrete building
around the corner, and should not be pitched as such; branding them as something they are not actually stifles real progress in the field of architecture.
While it is widely believed that timber is a sustainable building material in
Norway, it is hard to find concrete indications, measures and statistics to support this belief. What we do find in Norway is that many of the high-profile,
While most architects equate integration to the hiding and masking of tech­
nology, the evacuated tube system represents a highly efficient and promising
aesthetic element for architectural design. The system is not flat like standard
photovoltaic panels; it contains round glass tubes of approximately 100 mm in
diameter, each with its own heat collector. Many of the tubes arranged next to
each other form a kind of louver-like appearance. Even though from a conventional design standpoint the system is harder to incorporate, adopting an experimental approach to design that takes advantage of new technologies, their forms
and their aesthetic potentials will be a rewarding work. The two types of solar
energy collectors available today, the thermal and the photovoltaic, are now
offered in a wide range of shapes, sizes and colors. In essence, the aesthetics of
sustainability in our age points to more intelligent designs that incorporate not
only the full range of environmental variables, but also the aesthetic capabilities
of technological elements to their fullest extent. This may be the appropriate
starting point for re-envisioning the quintessential qualities of the glass box.
The Nordic Timber Tradition
The Vernacular, the Iconic and the Fake
so-called sustainable timber buildings of recent years have turned out to be
hollow, when viewed against their initial claims of environmental sensitivity.
Third, timber buildings constructed in Norway today are, by and large, not
durable. In order to promote the use of timber in architecture, the campaign
Norwegian Wood6 was launched with the goal of promoting exemplary timber
buildings, both large and small. One scheme consisted of developing a large
number of affordable row houses that boasted the typical hallmarks of sustainable design such as low energy and high efficiency. However, as seen from the
outside, their appearance does not indicate a distinction from other standard
housing projects. And when the houses became occupied, it was apparent that
one fundamental concept of sustainability was ignored: that of universal design.
The wisdom of universal design, exemplified by the loose-fit, foresees a building’s
use and re-use for generations, and hence, its structural and cultural durability.
As today’s timber buildings are built to tight commercial specifications, just as
any other kind of building, they will not hold up in terms of value or usability,
lacking one of the essential qualities of sustainable architecture: durability.
This essay points out some of the contradictions in the field of architecture
regarding those concepts that are widely held to be sustainable, including the
vernacular and the iconic, and those of various aesthetic traditions including
the tight box, the glass box and the use of timber. It goes on to discuss the profession that, in large part, is dedicated to aesthetic expression yet reluctant to
engage with sustainability on an integral level. In this regard, we should hope
that a change in course will take place sooner than later, one where sustainable
thinking becomes a crucial part of architecture’s comprehensive aesthetic system.
In the development of this system, sustainability will present rich potentials for
innovative designs that incorporate not only the fundamental principles of
architecture – including form and space – but also sustainable materials and
techniques as intrinsic prerequisites for the discipline. Overall, the practice of
architecture must recognize and take advantage of the opportunities that sustainable thinking presents, through a regime of aggressive and proactive experimentation. We all know that sustainable design is about much more than adobe
bricks, planted roofs, timber cladding and the romantic-iconic of the vernacular.
Natural Architecture
— Kengo Kuma
Does Natural Architecture Mean Sustainable?
Whenever I have the opportunity to work on projects outside of Japan, I am
always surprised by the keen interest in Japanese architecture and architects that
I encounter. While trying to find the underlying reason for this interest, I started
to understand that it is based not only on the austere aesthetics of Japanese architecture, but also on the aspects of sustainability and the deep respect for nature
that are inherent in Japanese architecture. In my work outside of Japan, I have
encountered an interest in simple design as well as an evaluation and expectation
that Japanese architecture will deal with natural elements from a position of
respect. Japanese architecture is viewed as a response – or even an antidote – to
the deep and longstanding criticisms of Western-centric architecture.
Indeed, we could even say that the powerful Western-centric tides in architecture – especially spanning from the Industrial Revolution to the twentieth century
Modernism, and to the present day – have contributed to the environmental
degradation and urban malaise that we now face on a worldwide scale. I believe
that traditional Japanese architecture can be thought of as an antithesis to the
Western-centric model, regardless of whether or not there is scientific proof to
underlie the belief. I would not be surprised if the methods and techniques of
traditional Japanese architecture were indeed scientifically proven to help alleviate
the environmental challenges of today. In the context of these challenges, it is
not meaningful to argue between nature and architecture in terms of vague
aesthetic theories. The scientific aspects of architecture are more crucial and relevant than the kinds of aesthetic theories we use in our designs; aesthetic theories
alone are no longer sufficient in relation to the widespread, severe environmental
problems that architecture must respond to today.
Environmental Issues and Architecture
Following my lectures, I am often asked about my designs in relation to certain
scientific aspects of sustainability. A typical question may be: ‘Timber architecture is nice, but doesn’t it contribute to deforestation?’ In response, I argue that
forests and timber production can be truly sustainable if we harvest and replant
trees both systematically and locally. If we do not follow sustainable methods
of timber production, we will not be able to sustain the health and longevity of
our forests. This is true even if we cease building architecture with timber due
to the wide demand for a variety of wooden products, as well as current patterns
of deforestation associated with urban and rural development. Another process
is at work as well. In order to avoid the high cost of harvesting local trees in places
like Japan, Europe and North America, the demand for cheap, imported timber
from the rainforests of South Asia and South America has increased ever higher.
Ancient rainforests are depleted in unsustainable ways in order to meet the
Natural Architecture
HELICO Co. Ltd.]
1 Takayanagi Community Center. [Mitsumasa Fujitsuka, HELICO Co. Ltd.]
2/3 Interior View/Light Effect of the Washi Screen. [Mitsumasa Fujitsuka,
world’s constantly increasing demands for timber, and unnecessary greenhouse
gas emissions are accumulated during timber production and the long transport
process from the rainforests to construction sites. We are all familiar with the
fact that the ancient rainforests of South Asia and the Amazons help to reduce
global warming by absorbing CO2. Meanwhile, the forests in Japan – which may
provide a sustainable and local source of well-managed timber – are neglected
and overgrown. After my lectures, I try to respond to questions regarding my
designs and their relation to sustainability as courteously as I can. However, it is
important to note that our forests will remain in jeopardy, regardless of whether
or not we continue to build structures in timber.
Washi Architecture and Environmental Load
Another recurring question focuses a building that I designed in Takayanagi,
Niigata prefecture using traditional Japanese paper, washi.[1, 2, 3] It is common
for people to ask: ‘Certainly washi lends an ephemeral quality to the building.
But isn’t it a waste of energy for heating and cooling when we use such a material for the building envelope, given its lack of thermal performance?’ From
the standpoint of Western architecture, a building envelope made of thin washi
seems to be extremely unreasonable and impractical. Many of my Western
colleagues are shocked to learn that the building is in fact located in an area that
is very cold in winter, with heavy snowfall.
I address this question with the statement that I am often skeptical of engineering calculations. I have experienced that projections of environmental loads
based on engineering calculations vary a great deal – sometimes they are not
even comparable to one another – depending on how we set the relevant
parameters, assumptions, variables and their ranges of acceptability. Building
materials that may be considered undesirable according to the outcome of
environmental number crunching in one time and place may, in fact, be considered good in another. Calculations pertaining to environmental conditions
could be interpreted as either positive or negative, depending on the built-in
assumptions that lie behind the calculations themselves. I believe that the reality
of environmental issues today depends strongly on how we set up and evaluate
our data and statistics. The parameters and assumptions that underlie the evaluation of the washi building in Takayanagi vary greatly from those that are commonly used to evaluate Western buildings. The widespread suspicion of reliable
materials like washi – those that lie outside of the standard Western building
palette – casts an unfavorable shadow on both architectural practice and architectural research, especially when these suspicions are based on engineering
calculations. I am confounded by these problems and constraints, considering
that I serve as a professor at a university of technology.
can be seen between Western and Japanese cultures. In the West, the thermal
comfort of a building is understood in terms of the average temperature of the
interior air mass at different times of the day, and throughout different seasons.
When a room feels cold, the entire air mass is heated. However, if this Western
method was used to heat a traditional Japanese building made with washi paper
screens, it would certainly lead to a waste of energy. In the Japanese context,
there are many different ways to create physical warmth inside a building that are
inherently cultural – and therefore, inherently linked to architectural aesthetics
– that do not involve heating the entire volume of the interior air mass. We can
take for example the kotatsu, which is essentially a table with a thick blanket skirt
that touches the floor, with a radiator or a heater mounted underneath the
tabletop. When you sit at a kotatsu, you feel very warm and comfortable even
when the ambient room temperature is quite low; the kotatsu provides the
sensation that your lower body is warm, while your head remains cool and clear.
This is the kind of wisdom that is offered by traditional Japanese architecture
that I try to rediscover and reintroduce in terms of today’s architectural and
environmental contexts.
Although washi architecture might be branded as an energy wasting building
form from a Western point of view – which emphasizes a building’s mean
ambient temperature and heating the entire air mass – the same material is
efficient and comfortable from a traditional Japanese perspective. Through these
discussions, it becomes clear that it is problematic to standardize the world
according to one unified performance criteria, denying the unique technologies
that each culture employs in its architectural forms and materials.
Is Plastic Necessarily a Bad Material?
Often, I explain environmental issues in terms of cultural differences. In reality,
the definition of human comfort varies from one culture to another, and this
The third question centers on the use of building materials that are supposedly
natural. Few complain about the architectural works that I have made of such
materials as timber, stone or washi, as these are generally regarded as natural
materials. However, sometimes I design with plastics. I have been interrogated
as to my motives for using plastics – a supposedly bad or artificial material – in
Elements of Technology and Culture
Natural Architecture
4 Inflatable Tenara Teahouse, Museum für Angewandte Kunst, Frankfurt. [Kengo Kuma &
5 Interior View, Inflatable Tenara Teahouse. [Kengo Kuma & Associates]
6 View of Ceiling, Inflatable Tenara Teahouse. [Kengo Kuma & Associates]
my designs rather than something more desirable such as marble or fine timber.
However, it is important to ask if the division between natural and artificial
materials – and the subsequent implication of good and bad materials – is so
clear. Plastics are primarily derived from petroleum, a naturally occurring
substance formed from ancient microbes and the remains of other beings that
lived millions of years ago. When we say that the plastics derived from petroleum
are bad, this characterization does not address the inherent material qualities of
the plastics themselves – including their durability, lightness and appropriateness
for use in certain kinds of design. Rather, it addresses the environmental side
effects of their production and later discard. I feel that the characterization of
plastics as a bad material is due to a dichotomous viewpoint that is very common
in Western ways of thinking, where it is convenient to draw a clear line between
the good and the bad. I believe that in order to solve architectural problems, it
is crucial to be able to overcome and design beyond this dichotomous viewpoint.
This will allow us to explore the use of many types of materials, based on an
evaluation of their inherent qualities.
For example, when I was commissioned to design a teahouse in the garden
of Museum für Angewandte Kunst in Frankfurt, I chose to use a new type of
polyester called Tenara.[4] At first, I wondered if I could use clay, washi or
bamboo, but the director of the museum, Dr. Ulrich Schneider, told me that
Germany was not like Japan. He insisted that if such soft materials were used
the teahouse would be destroyed overnight by vandals and other potential
abuses. To solve this problem, I felt that I should perhaps offer him a teahouse
in concrete! Instead, I proposed a design using Tenara, a polyester material that
is inflatable and deflatable depending on the needs of the building. Using Tenara,
the teahouse could be stored when not in use, addressing the curator’s concern
for damage, while still being able to render the light atmosphere of a teahouse.
[5, 6] Tenara was the most suitable material for this design. Indeed, it is a petroleum product – usually considered to be artificial, therefore implying bad – but
it allowed the form to expand and fold with flexible movements. This material
helped me solve the problem of vandalism, while at the same time, making the
teahouse’s form more similar to an animate being than to traditional, hard and
stiff forms of architecture.
Once, Frank Lloyd Wright proposed a vision of organic architecture, which
consisted of fluid surfaces and vague boundaries between the inside and the
outside of forms. Without materials such as Tenara, it would be impossible to
explore the design potentials of organic architecture, and it would be impossible
to express the kind of lively, breathable, membranous ambience achieved in the
teahouse. Those who are having tea inside of the membrane feel at ease, as if
they are being swallowed by a benevolent living being, or that they are sitting
inside an organ. While the teahouse illustrates the use of plastics in design –
challenging the dichotomous viewpoint of good and bad materials – we also face
negative connotations in the use of shape-memory alloy and other metals in
architecture. During the same period when we developed the teahouse, we
developed architectural forms that change shape according to the temperature.
While these trials have real consequences for developing architecture that
responds to temperature in environmentally appropriate ways, metals can be
considered bad and unsuitable materials for architecture under a dichotomous,
Western perspective.
Water Bricks
I have also received quite a few questions about the Water Brick project, commissioned by the MoMA in New York, where I employed plastic water containers.[7, 8]
I have had the idea of using water bricks for architecture in mind for quite some
time, initially being inspired by the adobe bricks used in Anyo-ji in Shimonoseki.
Traditional masonry and adobe brick structures can be easily erected without
using cumbersome construction machinery, and can even be done as a DIY
Natural Architecture
7 Plastic Water Brick Installation, The Museum of Modern Arts,
New York. [Kengo Kuma & Associates]
8 Detail, Plastic Water Brick Installation. [Kengo Kuma & Associates]
Instead of struggling for architecture that is 100% natural and sustainable,
I believe that we have experiment with a variety of materials and forms in
our designs, knowing that the results will never be perfect. I also believe that
we should formulate practical solutions that offer a certain balance in the
way we produce and use our materials and resources. Achieving this balance
includes acknowledging and practicing the kinds of ideas that may be un­­po­pu­­
lar – including opening the door for timber, thin materials in building envelopes,
culturally-specific methods for heating and comfort, and the use of plastics
and other artificial materials – otherwise there is no hope for a new architecture,
and no hope for the experimentation necessary to arrive at practical solutions
to the environmental problems we now face. This is a humbling thought when
we consider natural architecture in the truest sense of the term.
project without specialized expertise or professional help for construction.
However, in reality, masonry bricks are too heavy to be assembled into a building
by one person, and the lack of structural performance during earthquakes is a
problem as well. While trying to reconcile these problems in my search for lighter
and more manageable building blocks, I came across some strangely shaped
plastic tanks at a road construction site. These plastic tanks contained water, and
they were placed to prevent people and cars from entering the construction site.
When empty, they are light and easy to transport to the construction site; when
they are filled with water, they make a heavy barrier; and when the construction work is complete, they are drained of water, moved to a different site and
reused. I decided to use water containers as a simple and flexible construction
system in architecture, and started designing prototype water bricks similar to
LEGO TM blocks. The water bricks developed through these trials can be assembled
to build high walls, and when they are filled with water, they become heavy
and structurally stable. I also came up with a water circulation system that runs
through the water bricks for heating and cooling. As a strong and stable architectural material, they can be applied to different parts of a building including
the walls and the foundation. In this sense, they are quite different from conventional architectural components that are usually defined for specific applications. Yet at the same time, I cannot be fully confident that water bricks are
suitable for widespread use in architecture, as they are indeed made from
petroleum-based plastics. I feel uncomfortable when I think of the possibility
that they will become as commonly used as ordinary bricks, given the environmental side effects of their manufacture, use and eventual discard on a large scale.
The question is, would it be possible to make architecture that is 100% natural
and sustainable? Given the nature of our industrial production system, all the
materials we employ in architecture affect the natural environment in adverse
ways and varying degrees during the processes of extraction, production, transportation, construction and use. I find it difficult to trust the claim that certain
materials are 100% natural and therefore environmental friendly and sustainable.
[Translated from Japanese by Chihiro Iishi and Gaku Takahashi.]
Natural Architecture
The Concept and Aesthetics of Sustainable
Building in Japan
— Minna Sunikka-Blank
There is widespread debate about what constitutes ecological design.1, 2 The
aesthetics of sustainable architecture have been associated with green roofs and
earthy materials, but also with high-tech eco-gadgetry and installations such as
solar collectors, building automation systems and double-skin façades. Given
the amount of diversity it is important to ask: what environmental measures
really have an impact on architectural aesthetics? Innovative energy strategies
can be highly visible or hidden in architectural design, or, they may be more
related to land use than to buildings.3 For example, highly efficient heat exchange
systems can work on the land use level, where waste heat is exchanged in a microgrid between different building typologies. These systems do not have a visual
impact. In Helsinki, an innovative project uses the waste heat generated by
computers in an IT center as a district-wide heating source for up to 500 households. What do these kinds of technically successful projects have to do with
Despite the lack of insulation, an average Japanese household consumes
around a third of the energy for heating and cooling compared to its counterparts in Germany or the UK.4 When modernism was still more of a method
than a style, Japanese aesthetics (japonaiserie) played an important role in the
context of both American and European post-war modernism by providing a
theme to fill the absence of a dominant stylistic principle.5 Could Japanese
aesthetics – supported by current trends in technological innovation – offer
something to be learned in the field of sustainable architecture?
This chapter analyzes the aesthetics of material use and passive energy strate­
gies in Japanese architecture. The research is based on case studies selected
from a number of projects visited during a research period in Japan in 2009,
and interviews with policy-makers and academics at the Japanese Ministry of
Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), the Institute of Industrial Science at
the University of Tokyo.
The Architectural Institute of Japan (AIJ) defines a sustainable building as one
that is designed:
to save energy and resources, recycle materials and minimize the emission of toxic
substances throughout its life cycle, to harmonize with the local climate, traditions,
culture and the surrounding environment, and to be able to sustain and improve
the quality of human life while maintaining the capacity of the ecosystem at the
local and global levels.6
production of waste, and in supplying energy from renewable sources. Furthermore, the emphasis on harmonizing buildings with the local climate, tradition
and culture of the surrounding environment highlights a consideration that is
often made in the context of good design rather than in the context of sustainable building per se. In this chapter the AIJ’s approach to sustainability is adopted,
above and beyond technical measures. It should be considered that the policy
development described in this article is based on the situation in Japan in 2009
and 2010.
Firstly, the aesthetics of sustainable material use in Japanese architecture is
addressed in relation to timber, structure and adaptability. Secondly, energy
strategies, namely passive solar measures and patterns of energy use and behavior, are described. It is clear that the culture, social conventions and values of
Japanese households are distinct, impacting the overarching trends of material
and energy use in buildings. The aim of this article is not to advocate transferring any measures as such, but to comprehend one alternative approach for the
aesthetics of sustainable building.
Material as the Concept
With this definition, sustainability is implicit in the environmental sense through
the goals of minimizing energy demand, the use of natural resources and the
Indigenous Japanese architecture is characterized by the use of materials that
are natural, weak and sensitive with low embodied energy such as local timber,
bamboo, paper (washi), rope, woven straw or willow. These materials are often
left untreated and exposed. From an environmental perspective, the low embodied energy of these building materials is important due to the fact that the
average life span of a Japanese home is 26 years, compared to 44 years for a home
in the US, and 75 years for a home in the UK.7 Although still valued as an aesthetic
ideal, the use of indigenous materials is hardly visible in the development of
Japanese cities today: ‘The Japanese house is dead.’8 Although many local governments support the use of local materials with subsidies, it is estimated that no
more than 50% of new homes in Japan are constructed of timber. Even when
they are, the timber used is largely imported and not necessarily aesthetically
pleasing or sustainable.
However, there are examples of contemporary architecture where the design
concept is based on material. In the Hiroshige Ando Museum (2000) by
Kengo Kuma, local wood is used in an unconventional manner. The building
achieves contemporary lightness and the compositional clarity of traditional
Japanese architecture both in plan and in elevations. The character of the minimalist building relates to its enclosure, a brise-soleil built of Japanese cedar.[1]
The wooden lattice consists of untreated timber battens of 30 mm x 60 mm,
spaced at 120 mm. The lattice acts as a filter for light making the timber, which
usually appears as a massive and heavy material in sustainable architecture, nearly
translucent.[2] Due to the carefully considered proportions of each component
in combination with large transparent surfaces, the visual effect is minimalist,
light and sharp instead of earthy and organic. The use of wood in a building as
large as the Hiroshige Ando Museum was not without problems, however, and
The Concept and Aesthetics of Sustainable Building in Japan
4 Shop Area, Yoshijima House. [Minna Sunikka-Blank]
1/2 Exterior View/Interior Hall, Hiroshige Ando
Museum. [Minna Sunikka-Blank]
3 Exterior Space, Hiroshige Ando Museum. [Minna
5 Interior View, Yusuhara Town Hall. [Kengo Kuma & Associates]
6 Detail of Structure, Yusuhara Town Hall. [Kengo Kuma & Associates]
a new technique for treating Japanese cedar for fire retardant products had to
be developed, patented and approved.
In the Hiroshige Ando Museum, the filigree construction is supported by a
steel structure. This is in line with indigenous Japanese architecture, where the
secondary and primary members of the lattice structure are often exposed; the
aesthetics and spatial order often relate to a structural system that can dominate
the composition. In the Hiroshige Ando Museum, structural steel and timber
members are readable though the lattice, giving scale and proportion to the
space.[3] The result is a layered, filigreed structure with large openings in the
timber lattices responsive to natural light and to the surrounding landscape.
The strong presence of materials in Kuma’s work results from a solid know­
ledge of material properties and dimensions. (He suggests, ‘In the studio, we are
separated from construction and separated from nature.’) The size of building
components – which Kuma talks about as particles – is an essential part of materialization which can make a building merge with its environment, as seen in
the filigree lattice at the Hiroshige Ando Museum. The aim of particalization
is not to make the boundaries of an object transparent, but to relativize the
appearance of architecture so that the experience becomes relative and capable
of change, depending both on the light and the subject. Breaking a surface into
particles and erasing architecture is one of the main themes of Kuma’s thesis of
‘anti-object’ architecture, in opposition to ‘photography architecture’ which is
determined by its communication to the media.9 Both Tadao Ando and Kengo
Kuma – in the Kiro observatory and a competition entry for the Jewish museum
in Warsaw – have explored the theme of ‘erasing architecture’ by minimizing the
impact of buildings on vulnerable sites by hiding or sinking their structures.10
Moving back to examine the underlying vernacular tradition, it is important
to note that Japanese carpentry developed to an exceptionally sophisticated level;
until the adoption of Western construction methods in the 19th century, no
buildings were made of stone.11 Habitually, indigenous Japanese buildings had
a platform timber frame and a post-and-beam (hashira) structure rather than a
heavy log construction. Indigenous woodwork is rooted in the kiwari-jutsu
proportional systems established by medieval carpenters: the column spacing
was set to 197 cm, and the cross section of the column was set to 1/10 of the
column spacing. The foundations of a post-and-beam structure were light, and
if a building was demolished, its footprint was very small. The kiwari system
was tuned to the measurements of the tatami flooring mats made of compressed
straw, and these measurements continue to affect the size of Japanese rooms.
The Yoshijima house in Takayama is an example of a traditional timber frame
town house (machiya) that was re-built by Nishida Isaburo in 1907 with dynamic
flying beams, center pillars, posts, and primary and secondary structures that
are visibly exposed in the void space of what used to be a shop area. Natural light
is received from the upper windows.[4]
In the Yoshijima house, one of the main columns (daikokubashira) at the
center of the building supports most of the weight of the roof and, in the case
of an earthquake, balances the load. Inside the house, some columns are free of
the load bearing function and have no more than a furnishing or decorative
purpose, as in the alcove pillar (takobashira). While Le Corbusier saw the history
of Western architecture as the struggle with the window, Ueda sees the history
of Japanese architecture as the struggle with the pillar – and the pillar as the
last vestige of ancient tree worship. However partly due to current fire regulations, pillars are disappearing from view and moving inside of walls, changing
the aesthetics of Japanese architecture.
Incidentally, the exposed structure in the Yoshijima house is not dissimilar
to the Yusuhara Town Hall by Kengo Kuma (2006), where a lattice structure of
glulam beams with a span of 18 meters strongly characterizes the interior architectural space.[5] Due to the use of local timber and the characteristics derived
from indigenous architecture such as exposed primary and secondary members,[6]
passive solar strategies, the use of PV’s and natural ventilation in the summer,
the Yusuhara Town Hall achieves the highest environmental assessment rating
for building environmental efficiency with CASBEE (Comprehensive Assessment
System for Built Environment Efficiency), an environmental assessment system
that has become the definition of sustainable building and quality assurance in
Japan.12 A life-cycle assessment (LCA) and field survey conducted in three stages
(production, construction and maintenance and operation) demonstrates that,
compared to a usual city hall, the building achieves a 54% reduction in life-cycle
costs – yet the building has a strong visual identity emanating from its sustainable
In traditional Japanese post-and-beam architecture, as seen in Yoshijima
house, there is a strong element of modular thinking connected to aesthetic proportions. Technically, the modular platform structure allows the plan to grow
intuitively, according to needs. Traditional Japanese buildings seem to be
designed from the inside out: the continuous matrix-like rooms are connected
directly to each other, separated by movable screens and added according to
functional need. Consequently, the form of a building seems to develop from
functional need first, rather than from an underlying formative style. The clear
division between load bearing and space dividing elements makes a building
easy to dismantle and adjust, clearly serving the goals of adaptability.
In fact, a traditional Japanese home is practically a one-room structure that
can be partitioned by shoji, opaque sliding screens (fusuma), or further divided
with small wooden fencelike partitions (kekkai). Tatami rooms, typically living
and guest spaces, do not have a specific function that is determined by the objects
placed within them; or they are named after the floor surfaces (wooden room,
tatami room or earth room) and the space itself is multifunctional. The Yoshijima
House, for example, is divided into five areas: business spaces with an earth
floor; a tea room and four guest rooms upstairs that could be combined to one
large hall; spaces used by the servants and employees; buildings where sake was
brewed; and seven tatami rooms that were used as multifunctional living spaces.
Different surfaces dividing the space are emphasized and linearly articulated
Japanese houses are notoriously uncomfortable in winter, and even new buildings like the Hiroshige Ando Museum become very cold in winter according
to the staff. There were no thermal regulations for buildings in Japan before
1980, and a large number of buildings are still exempted.14, 15 Regulations have
caught up to the need somewhat – thermal requirements have been sharpened
by 50% over the last two decades. In the Tokyo region, for example, the heat
loss factor was halved from 5.2 W(m2/K) in 1980 to 2.7 W(m2/K) in 1999.
However, since 2009, thermal regulations have been limited to large developments (currently buildings over 300 square meters) and exclude most of the
residential sector. The interviews conducted at the Ministry of Economy,
Trade and Industry (METI) as part of this study indicate a reluctance to impose
thermal regulations on private households or to disadvantage the construction
industry with additional regulations. In addition, the maximum floor area
allowed under the current regulations is measured from the center of the wall,
so insulation thickness reduces the usable living area; this is a major barrier to
providing insulation in high-density areas. Yet despite these conditions, household energy consumption in Japan is very low compared to that in Western
In Europe, energy concepts are often described in relation to reducing the
temperature difference between the inside and the outside of buildings, and
increasing the effectiveness of heating systems. In Japan, energy concepts are
traditionally based on avoiding overheating in the summer months. Japanese
energy concepts have been characterized by an old saying by Yoshida Kenko
(1283-1350): it is important to make it a principle to consider the summer season
as the main factor in building a house – in winter it is possible to live in most
buildings anyway. In fact the whole concept of a wall in Japan is more of an
opening than an enclosure.[8] A wall is seen as a lattice fence whose lightness
serves ventilation in hot and humid summer months – there is an ideal of wallless houses where a whole façade of shojis or fusumas can be opened for ventilation.[9] In the Yusuhara Town Hall, the concept of wall-lessness is evident in
large openings that are based on traditional upward swinging shutters (shitomido)
that allow for cross-ventilation during the summer.
Passive energy strategies that make allowances for the local climate have an
important role in reducing the problem of overheating in the traditional Japanese
home, and consequently, in its aesthetics. As seen in examples of indigenous
architecture like the Yoshijima house, long eaves, an elevated ground floor,
shades made of bamboo curtains, wooden latticework to protect the bay windows (demado) and plants all have important roles in the reduction of thermal
with columns, beams, cross beams, window frames and handrails. In Japanese
architecture, depth is traditionally expressed by means of layered planes and
a flat composition of sliding screens.[7] Horizontal layers tend to have more
visual emphasis than vertical walls.
Energy Strategies
The Concept and Aesthetics of Sustainable Building in Japan
8 Exterior Layers of Enclosure, Yoshijima House.
[Minna Sunikka-Blank]
[Minna Sunikka-Blank]
[Minna Sunikka-Blank]
7 Layers of Interior Screens Walls, Yoshijima House.
9 Opening of Screen Walls from the Interior, Katsura
Villa. [Minna Sunikka-Blank]
10 Roof Overhang, Hiroshige Ando Museum.
load, while at the same time, giving visual depth and subtle variation to the
façade. The space under the eaves (entgawa) surrounding an inner garden balances the transition between artificial and natural, blurring the visual boundaries between inside and outside, and providing an intimate feeling of nature
even in an urban environment and a protected outdoor circulation route. In
new projects like the Hiroshige Ando Museum, Nezu Museum and One
Omotesando in Tokyo, passive solar strategies continue to be integral to the
buildings’ aesthetics.[10] However, the long eaves that used to have an indispens­
­able role in Japanese towns providing passageways (inubashiri) and sheltered
semi-public spaces are shrinking (typically from 90 cm to 40 cm) or are dis­
appearing altogether.
With indigenous Japanese architecture, like the Yoshijima house, the inner
gardens are used to provide light and ventilation to a deep plan. Gardens are
habitually considered one of the finest features of a Japanese house, and despite
their particularly small size (a traditional tsubo garden is not more than 3.3 m2)
they provide visual enjoyment, contentment and unity with nature when viewed
from inside the house.[11] Unlike a baroque garden that imposes its geometry
on a site, a Japanese garden borrows and builds on the characteristics of the surroundings. Consecutively, architecture plays an imperative role in garden design;
the most aesthetic and picturesque elevation of a building often opens up toward
the garden.
In the Katsura Imperial Palace, for example, the exterior resembles the formation of flying geese, where all the rooms face the pond at a uniform angle set
back to the left and right, providing light and ventilation rather than a clearly
defined or a dominant form on the outside. In sustainable architecture, gardens
can provide daylight and self-controlled natural ventilation, but just as importantly, they can provide associations to the environment, the climate and the
changing seasons for users that spend more and more time indoors.
These days, however, it would be difficult to eliminate the need for artificial
cooling in hot and humid climates, one reason why the Passivhaus concept has
not gained ground in Japan. Air-conditioners are installed in 87% of Japanese
houses, and the average household owns 2.3 air-conditioning units – although
their energy use is limited by disciplined behavioral patterns.16 If air-conditioning
cannot be avoided, it should use renewable energy sources. So far, one of the
most successful applications of renewable energy has been in the form of ground
source heat pumps, supported by nighttime electricity tariffs and government
Disciplined energy use behavior seems to be the main reason behind the low
household energy consumption in Japan, where greater fluctuations in comfort
levels are accepted. Indoor room temperatures are kept between 18 and 20 °C,
and nighttime room temperatures can be as low as 10 °C, although in colder
climates like Hokkaido, higher average temperatures are common. Lowering
the indoor temperature does have a great impact on energy consumption. In
Britain, for example, for every degree that the thermostat is turned down, heat
loss decreases by about 10%, and turning the thermostat down from 20 °C to
15 °C would nearly cut heat loss in half.
Traditionally, the Japanese prefer to heat one room rather than a whole house.
Heating the whole house is considered a wasteful behavior – and due to the low
or nonexistent insulation levels found in most houses, it is. The difference in
energy use patterns between Japan and Europe can be described in the different
concepts of personal heating versus spatial heating, respectively. The Japanese
prefer to heat one room or to use appliances like convectors or the traditional
kotatsu heating, a low table with an electric heater under the table covered with
a kilt; the overwhelming majority of Japanese households use the kotatsu.[12]
There is a strong culture of turning off heating and cooling systems, as well
as lights, when their use is not necessary. This has been supported by a traditionally communal way of living, but the lifestyle in Japan is in flux, and has become
more individual over time. In general, the Japanese seem to have a good grasp
of energy consumption compared to the residents of European countries.17
This may be pragmatically due to a monthly billing system that provides a better
grasp of the actual energy consumption. However, it can be said that due to
patterns of culture and behavior, the transparent, ephemeral structures that work
in Japan should, in fact, be applied with great care in Europe where occupants
are used to higher insulation levels.
The Concept and Aesthetics of Sustainable Building in Japan
13 A House in The Kobunaki Ecovillage.
[Minna Sunikka-Blank] 14 A row of houses in rural Japan. [Minna Sunikka-Blank]
12 Kotatsu Table. [Minna Sunikka-Blank]
[Minna Sunikka-Blank]
11 View of the Inner Garden, Yoshijima House.
The aim of the chapter is not to suggest the Japanese house as a model for sustainable architecture. Climatic and cultural differences such as disciplined
energy use would make such a suggestion absurd. First we need to ask: are there
lessons to be learned from indigenous architecture that are feasible even inside
Japan? The Kobunaki Ecovillage in Omihachiman City, Shiga Prefecture, gives
an example of Japanese sustainable housing in current practice. Most of the
homes in Kobunaki have walls with around 160 mm of insulation, passive solar
strategies, natural ventilation, individual heat pumps, high efficiency appliances,
rainwater tanks and structures that are earthquake-safe – but the architecture
of the buildings is rigid.[13]
The interviews conducted in Kobunaki indicate a number of barriers to sustainable building in Japan. Three levels of management bureaucracy – at the
government, prefecture and city levels – presented major barriers to the project,
and forced changes to the master plan during the development process. Also,
land prices in Japan are very high, leaving little room in the budget for anything
that can be considered additional such as environmental measures. In Kobunaki,
government subsidies were limited to information dissemination, with some
support for the use of local wood and solar panels. All green areas and vegetable
gardens in the development are privately maintained, since the local government
cannot afford the cost of their maintenance. Public transport to Kobunaki has
been introduced. However, it is poorly managed, leading households to be
dependent on private cars. The use of sustainable materials seems to be limited
by the liability issues of the construction industry as well – if local materials and
craftsmanship are used there is a risk of complaint, which is why contractors
prefer to use more standardized products. Due to these circumstances, the ecohousing area of Kobunaki contains few references to the sustainable characteristics of Japanese indigenous architecture.
Large contractors that dominate the mostly prefabricated housing market
in Japan seem to be interested in the market potential of sustainability,
although it is too early to speak of any large-scale implementation. Examples
of sustainable homes launched to the market include the Carbon Neutral
House by Sekisui House, and a large housing development by Toyota. The
sustainable buildings often make use PV’s, passive solar strategies, natural ventilation and intelligent home energy management systems. According to the
interviews conducted at the Ministry, large architectural offices such as ARUP
understand sustainability as a business opportunity, but this knowledge is more
limited in smaller design practices.
Furthermore, by tradition, the maintenance and renovation of houses has
not been strong in the Japanese ownership culture. The market for used houses
is limited; only 12% of annual real estate transactions involve existing houses,
compared to 81% in the US.18 In fact, over the past 24 years the resale value of a
Japanese house decline to almost zero, which means that in reality, investment
in most environmental measures exceeds the lifecycle of a building.19 Consequently, the renovation rate remains low: the ratio of house renovation to
housing investment is 11% in Japan, compared to 65% in the UK and 41% in the
US.20 This is true despite the fact that according to the Housing Demand Survey,
half of Japanese families are not satisfied with their house, and a majority are
not satisfied with energy efficiency and sound proofing in particular.21 The
rebuilding and relocation culture in Japan is seen to follow the natural model of
regeneration associated with traditional wooden structures. However, the lack
of incentives to renovate creates an actual threat to sustainable building, not
only in terms of the environmental consequences of waste and the use of new
resources, but in terms of economic sustainability, where a long PPT commonly
exceeds the life cycle expectancy of a building.
It must be recognized that the examples provided in this chapter are selective.
While the architecture of Kuma can offer lessons translated from the indigenous
tradition into contemporary minimalist architecture, it must be emphasized
that the reality in Japanese cities and rural areas is different, and much of the
sensitivity and sustainability of indigenous architecture has been lost.[14]
Japanese architecture has usually been evaluated in relation to two polar
approaches, and it must be remembered that minimalist aesthetics are fairly typical for upper-class architecture. The dualist division of tastes can still be seen
in Japan: in the authentic, minimalist and tranquil honmono that is light and
transparent – as seen in the Katsura Imperial Palace and the Yoshijima house –
and the more vulgar, populist and kitschy ikamono, later expressed in modernist
The Concept and Aesthetics of Sustainable Building in Japan
brutalism.22 Modernist photographs and writings of the Katsura Imperial Palace
that drew attention to Mondrianesque patterns and surfaces chose to ignore
less minimalist and kitschy curved roof planes and detailed decorations. The
presentation of Japanese aesthetics continues to be selective: in photographs,
Hiroshige Ando is often portrayed as unattached, but in reality it is located in the
center of a rather mundane village and, aside from the main façade, enclosed
by a parking lot.
Yet, despite the reservations mentioned above, the sensitive use of sustainable
materials with low embodied energy and a certain logic of minimization drawn
from the Japanese indigenous could offer new and contrasting ways to approach
the aesthetics of environmental architecture. There is a risk that visually enclosed
envelopes are becoming our legitimized form of sustainable building. From an
architect’s point of view, it may seem unfair to draw smaller windows while TV
screens are getting bigger and the number of electronic appliances is increasing.
While Japan may urgently need thermal regulations itself, its example of passive
solar measures, natural ventilation and person-specific heating concepts could
offer alternatives for Western policies that are currently moving in a different
direction: focusing on high insulation thickness, small openings, sealed envelopes
and mechanical ventilation.
Consequently, a methodological question remains in how to include the
unquantifiable softer aspects of sustainability in environmental performance
assessments that are currently used – in the absence of better methods – to legitimize what is considered sustainable. In the Japanese building assessment tool
CASBEE, environmental performance is not only measured in terms of load
but also quality. Environmental quality consists of the indoor environment
(including acoustics, lighting, thermal comfort and air quality), service quality
(including adaptability, flexibility and durability) and the quality of the outdoor
environment. Environmental load refers to energy, materials and the off-site
environment. Compared to BREEAM (UK) or LEED (US), there is a fundamental
difference in terms of the absence of biotopes in the assessment: no compensation for green space is encouraged, and an urban environment is presumed,
including a reduction for the heat island effect.23 It is possible that by relating
design and environmental quality to environmental load in the assessment of
building performance, themes like aesthetics and user perception could be established more firmly in the field of sustainable architecture, inspiring designers
think beyond technical measures for achieving sustainable goals.
sustainable architecture. Kuma’s buildings demonstrate the intent of minimization – as opposed to minimalism’s simplification of form – that aims at criticizing
and minimizing matter, a concept not alien to the basis of Japanese aesthetics,
described by Bruno Taut as simplicity ‘almost to the point of poverty.’24
Material-based environmental minimization could underlie a change of paradigm,
contrasting with our usual methods of energy-focused sustainable building
which seem to strive toward excessive insulation and mechanical ventilation. In
an approach characterized by material as the concept, the use of natural and contextual materials would drive the sustainable design concept, rather than it being
driven by technical measures added later in the project. This would be an
approach to sustainable design led by architects, instead of by engineers. Mechanical and technical aspects of sustainable building comprise just one part of the
complex issue of design that depends on and draws from the cultural perspective.
The research was supported by the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation Small Grant and a Fellowship
at the Centre for Research in Arts and Humanities (CRASSH) at the University of Cambridge.
Despite the lack of insulation, an average Japanese household consumes around
a third of the energy for heating and cooling compared to a German or UK
household. Recognizing the limitations of any kind of cultural transformation,
this paper suggests characteristics from contemporary Japanese architecture (as
seen in the Hiroshige Ando Museum by Kuma) and the Japanese indigenous
(as seen in the Yoshijima house) as one alternative approach to the aesthetics of
The Concept and Aesthetics of Sustainable Building in Japan
Durability in Housing – The Aesthetics of
the Ordinary
— Marie Antoinette Glaser
When it comes to cultural practices of the everyday, such as housing, it is not
possible to regard aesthetics without regarding the perspective of use. In contrast
to design, use is a physical situation of being attached to a specific place and
identity. Houses that have existed for a long period of time necessarily go through
many transformations, with successive generations changing the ways they are
occupied and used. Generally, what guarantees a building’s longevity is its
dynamics and ability to change – the possibility for it to have more than one
kind of use. Specifically in relation to housing, diverse exchange processes take
place between a house and its users: the residents enter into a relationship with
the living space, possibly identify with it or change aspects of it, and end the
relationship at a later point in time. Simultaneously, some constants may remain
over the course of time including the physical building elements and spatial
structures. People leave traces of use in the houses they occupy, and these traces
can provide important information about the prerequisites and conditions that
underlie the longevity of housing in general.
In his Kunstwerk essay, Walter Benjamin considers the double reception of
buildings as highly significant:
Buildings are received in a twofold manner: by use and by perception. Or better:
tactilely and optically …On the tactile side, there is no counterpart to what is
contemplation on the optical side. Tactile perception comes about not so much by
way of attention as by way of habit. As far as architecture is concerned, The latter
largely determines even the optical reception of architecture, which spontaneously
takes the form of casual noticing, rather than attentive observation.1
a long-term demand for the viability of artifacts that we now term sustainability.
With the progress of time in the 20th century, these long-term ideals were
replaced with the ideal of timeless aesthetics as part of the Modernist view to
reform all facets of life through good design. The Modernist ideal of a carfriendly, relaxed town with a separation of functions – built from industrialized
construction products – proliferated in the post-war period. However, one
possibility was thoroughly excluded from this conception: that of eternity. Some
objects, which nevertheless outlived the others, became monuments having a
new function, that of a ‘fixed point of memory in the sea of the transient.’ For
the architect Aldo Rossi, the community at large finds its:
… permanent expression in a town’s monuments. As primary elements of
municipal architecture, they are signs of collective will and represent as such
fixed points in urbanistic dynamics.2
Rossi ascertains that a town’s dynamics have:
… a greater tendency to further development than to preservation; that monuments during the course of this development … remain preserved and even have
a stimulating influence on development.3
Vitruvian categories of beauty (venustas), appropriateness (untilitas) and solidity
(firmitas) in architecture were still present in the 19th century – consequent to the
long, slow process of the development, use and removal of buildings – creating
Rossi develops a theory of permanence through these ideas, the theme of which
is that a monument such as the Palazzo della Ragione in Padua, one that has
retained ‘a visible shape from the past’ but changed its function over time has
‘in doing so, remained alive.’ Furthermore the quality of permanence defines
a monument’s survival ‘which is based on its urbanistic reminder-value from a
historical perspective of art and architecture.’ Rossi describes permanence – a
lasting form of the past – in a positive sense because it makes the past relevant to
us today, while he makes a distinction between monuments and other forms of
buildings that remain, yet are ‘the isolated and the displaced.’ Rossi describes
residential buildings as constantly changing signs of everyday life and the expression of urban dynamics. However, he excludes residential building from his
‘theory of permanence’ and asserts that the conservation of residential areas contradicts a town’s dynamic development process.
Nevertheless, some of Rossi’s thoughts on the viability of monuments are
topical. First, the idea that urban phenomena are based on the characteristics of
individuality, location, design and memory. And second, an interest in the qualities that have been retained since the time of construction: the remaining
desiderata point to the attention made to the perspective use.4
A broad new discussion about the qualities of the sustainable started in the
1970’s when criticism of the ecologically destructive patterns of mass consumption in the post-war period became apparent. Against this backdrop, discussions
began in architecture in the 1980’s regarding the longevity of buildings and their
impact on sustainability. In the periodical The Architect,5 arguments were made
that people within the dominant ‘mass consumer society’ should think about
sustainability and erect more durable buildings ‘contrary to the transient spirit
As discussed by Benjamin, contemplation and habitual use form our primary
modes of reception for architecture. As part of the aesthetic whole, visual perception traditionally dominates over tactile perception, however, Benjamin’s
radical proposal is that the latter actually determines the former. Architecture
consists of phenomena that we perceive consciously and unconsciously through
habitual use over time. From this results an aesthetic position that defines the
notion of beauty as a process of long-term habituation and use. Durability signifies a specific kind of beauty in architecture that stems from the intimate traces
of long-term use: un-perturbed, un-exceptional and un-faddish.
Durability and Sustainability: Theoretical Issues
Durability in Housing – The Aesthetics of the Ordinary
of the time.’ In his essay Modernity of the Durable, Vittorio Lampugnani advises
people to analyze existing traditions and building practices in order to create
lasting solutions for housing construction: ‘It is only from tradition that objects,
buildings and towns that possess the quality of sustainability can develop.’6
While Lampugnani emphasizes simplicity and comprehensibility as timeless
qualities in architecture, his notion of ‘simplicity’ does not refer to the reductive
formalism of the ‘radical modernists’ who turn towns into geometric schemes,
to the avant-gardes’ focus on abstraction or to the anonymous simplicity of vernacular architecture in the sense of Rudofsky. Instead, Lampugnani’s traditional
sense of simplicity is based on the use, not on the building form. He condenses
the answers to countless requirements and desires7 that are still being developed
in architecture. For a building to be sustainable its form can hardly be fashionable or avant-garde, because ‘Things are permanent when they are neutral and
simple enough to leave space for our changing, multi-faceted lives.’8 Over time,
what remains are those buildings that proved themselves to be of lasting value,
and not those that stand out as experiment. The kind of unperturbed, inconspicuous houses that possess the qualities of simplicity and comprehensibility
of structure that Lampugnani discusses are ‘the result of careful reclaiming and
utilization of tradition – not as a stylistic category, but rather as an handed down,
tried and tested method of converting requirements into designs.’9
Instead of a catalog of prescribed answers, Lampugnani demands ‘uniqueness’
instead of ‘universality’ in building, moving toward the ‘exemplary and general’
instead of the ‘tailor-made.’10 For these reasons, he is criticized as dealing only
with the ‘aesthetic of sustainability’ in architecture, simply on the ‘surface,’ and
for dealing too little with the qualities of ‘building itself,’ including engineering,
construction and how material is used.11
Against the backdrop of sustainable thinking since the 1970’s and 1980’s, the
sense of urgency regarding global climate change has been widely addressed by
the media in recent years. And discussions regarding the careful use of resources
and the principles of durability have come to demand attention in consumer
products, architecture and construction. This is especially true with such technologies as the BIM for managing finances over the duration of construction
and the patterns of material flow. In general, the challenge of achieving durability has become less centered on new construction, and more on finding intelligent ways of updating existing buildings. While questions regarding the careful
use of resources in construction are common, they are limited to saving energy
by structural and mechanical means: environmental analyses of existing engineering practices are not common and the possibility of engineering structures
for smart, long-term use is rarely considered. However, it is precisely these kinds
of perspectives that bring to planners and investors the long-term prospects of
sustainability and durability. If a building is cherished, it will house many meaningful uses over the span of generations.
Based on the combined ideas of Rossi and Lampugnani, the notion of sustainability includes the physical, cultural and social qualities of a building – and
the underlying qualities of durability. For architects, what stands out in these
considerations is the investigation of constructive conditions to question a
building’s context – in terms of its culture, ideals and concepts – and how a
building will used by the residents, owners and the public at large. From this
perspective, a new and comprehensive view of sustainability emerges: the central
issue is neither purely technical nor bound to aesthetics. In order to make use
of the term durability, I will propose and refer to a basic model of five levels,
particularly in regard to social and cultural dimensions.12 In addition, the terms
durable and sustainable will be used synonymously to mean those that last: things
that are continued and maintained over a long period of time, ideally spanning
generations. Here the term sustainability possesses an additional cultural
dimension, referring to social values, norms and ideas.13 A house is sustainable
when it is appreciated and loved for a long period of time by successive residents,
or when it is handed down to posterity until it enters the cultural memory of a
society. A house is durable if it supports existing values and ideals, while at the
same time, being integrated into those of subsequent generations.
This article contains two basic premises. First, in Switzerland and other West
European countries, one of the key issues of the 21st century will be how to
define the strategies for dealing with the existing building stock. The majority
of this building stock is residential and rented, as is traditionally the case in
Switzerland. In Zürich, almost 60% of the residential buildings were built in
the period of the ‘construction boom’ from the 1950’s until the end of the 1980’s.
The major part of Zürich’s building stock is older than thirty years, and only
20% of all apartments were built after 1970.14 Zürich was chosen as exemplary
city for this article because of its high percentage of cooperative and communal
housing.15 Such co-ops and communities build and invest with a strong interest
in a long-term perspective and quality housing. In this article, the notion of
durability over the whole lifecycle of a building is focused on developing an
integral and critical understanding of enduring residential buildings and their
strategies for maintenance, while rethinking the factors of building appraisal
and enriching future strategies for action.
Second, there is little knowledge about how the residents use and assess
housing during the course of its lifecycle, or how the owners deal with properties over the long term; this is important, as the way buildings are maintained
contributes decisively to their longevity. There are, however, no well-grounded
studies on the way that buildings are dealt with both socially and individually.
Which criteria are responsible for residential buildings standing the test of
time over a long period? Which criteria make a building suitable for daily use?
Overall, these questions are difficult for architects to visualize in the projects
they design.16 Architects generally leave the completed, still unused building
before the residents move into it, and usually, they do not return. In order to
gain knowledge on whether or not residential buildings function in a lasting
way, a building would have to be studied on location, without applying any
preconceived architectural or historical opinions. One would have to interview
Durability in Housing – The Aesthetics of the Ordinary
the residents, as they are the ones who use the house and know whether it is
suitable for living. Likewise, the maintenance personnel of a building can provide their expertise on maintenance and care over time; their responsibilities
are enfolded in the building itself, inscribed in its history of qualities.17
This article is based on research conducted at middleclass, multifamily housing estates located in Zürich with regard to their history of use, meaning and
value over time.18 Specifically, the article discusses a highly valued residential
settlement owned by the municipality of Zürich, the Zurlinden Estate of 1919,
concentrating on the notions of quality in both the social and cultural dimensions. It begins with a discussion of the theoretical background and the principle
elements of the study’s multidimensional approach. A particular house-biography
compiled at the estate illustrates the application. The article concludes with
exemplary principles of enduring quality in housing drawn from the study of
the estate.
Roderick Lawrence states that, in general, the interrelations between the
architectural, cultural and social dimensions of housing have been overlooked
in architectural research.19 Comprehensive research in residential buildings
requires an integrative approach to bring the interrelations between human ideas
and values, and the design and use of residential buildings, to light. One example
of the integrative approach, house-biographies, employs a method of ‘thick
description,’20 evaluating residential buildings through the lens of their inhabitants and owners, combined with an assessment of public perception over time.
The history of the building’s maintenance and repair is connected with that of
appraisal and economic validation. The narrative of acceptance is not always
steady, consistent or enduring, but of fluctuations of highs and lows over the
course of time. The purpose of the investigation is neither to write a ‘pure construction history’ or a socio-critical study. Rather, it is to demonstrate what
happens in between, among the structures and the people who are involved with
them over time, in the most diverse ways.
As far as residential buildings are concerned, it makes sense to talk concretely
of the ‘house’ as a relational and processual space. The existing research on ‘house’
and ‘home’ has developed into a vast field of literature.21 In the context of
house-biographies, the term ‘house’ – following the work of the cultural historian Karl Schlögel – defines the ‘small unit … in the middle between the large
space: street, neighborhood, town, countryside and the smaller unit: flat, room,
interior.’22 ‘House’ refers not only to the ‘built space’ consisting of materials
and construction, but also to the cultural and historical dimension of the ‘lived
space.’ The latter includes the way that people treat the built space, including
the use, appropriation, relocation, modification, tactile and visual perception,
appreciation, emotion and conceptual and planning-related discussions. The
spatial term ‘house’ does not only comprise the instances within the property
lines where the building was erected. It also includes the infrastructural, social
and spatial aspects that provide a context where the building and the residents
form their relationship. The longevity of residential buildings therefore means
The Zurlinden Estate was the first urban apartment building in Zürich that was
built following a design competition; its type and style make it an exemplary
character of housing construction. The estate has maintained a sense of consistency despite the changes in social living in the surrounding neighborhood, and
has produced a concentrated strategy of consistent maintenance based on the
simple standard of durability and attention to detail. On one hand this strategy
has made low rent prices possible in that the maintenance strategy prevented the
need for major repairs. On the other hand it also guarantees the kind of living
space and neighborhood that tenants identify with and stand up for, including
decisions concerning overall renewal. The owner’s maintenance strategy, along
with the involved tenants who identify with the neighborhood, all make their
mark on Zurlinden in terms of its built and lived space. They contribute decisively to the way the estate is appreciated, and therefore to its durability and
From 1914 onwards, the municipality of Zürich found itself confronted with
an increasing lack of affordable rental housing, as private construction activity
had come to a standstill. The construction of communal residential buildings
was still in its early stages. Common initiatives in housing construction – such
as the establishment of building cooperatives to create less expensive apartments
– were just starting to form.26 In the middle of the 1920’s, Zürich attempted in
vain to stimulate private residential construction activity. In the case of the
Zurlinden estate, there was strong pressure for the local authorities to act by alleviating the housing shortage. The task was so pressing that the municipal council decided to organize an architectural competition in order to obtain the best
possible solutions. The architects Bischoff & Weideli27 won the competition
with their design related to the monumental axis of Sihlfeld cemetery’s gate
and adopted a perimeter block structure, which was, and still is, typical of the
neighborhood. The present municipal housing administrator still sees the
the lived and built spaces of houses, and emphasizes those aspects that both
change and remain constant over time.23
As a consequence, recent research on housing integrates the ‘living’ house into
its scope. The seminal study – the first in construction research24 of the housebiography – focused on the ‘Berliner Mietshaus’ rental housing in Berlin in the
19th and 20th centuries; it was conducted by the architect Johann Friedrich
Geist and deals with the residents in relation to the history of the building and
the context of the city’s cultural history. Where Geist remains historically oriented
due to a lack of people to discuss the Berliner Mietshaus with, the opportunity
arises in the current study to establish contact with long-term residents, and to
explore their use and experience of the house, the apartment building and its
surroundings in a ‘living’ way.25 A particular house-biography of the Zurlinden
Estate illustrates the application of these theories and methods, leading to the
principles of quality and durability in housing drawn from this example.
Zurlinden Communal Housing Estate, Zürich
Durability in Housing – The Aesthetics of the Ordinary
Housing Administration Archive]
1 The site plan of the Zurlinden Housing Estate in Zürich in the context of 1900’s urban block
perimeter. [Zurich City Housing Administration Archive]
2 The floor plan types of 1917 provide apartments with a living room and two bedrooms. [Zurich City
character of Zurlinden today: ‘If one enters [the estate] from the outside, it is
clearly evident that it possesses its own identity through its size alone.’28 [2]
Solid Basic Material With a Straightforward Building Standard
The housing development was constructed for working families, and constructed
to inexpensive, simple standards.29 There was a shared bath, laundry and drying
room in the basement of each building, a drying room in the attic and wooden
compartments, common in the region, that resemble poultry coops.30 The
choice of materials for the interior was typical of the period such as wooden slat
or parquet flooring in the rooms, ceramic tiles in the kitchens and simple
wooden wainscots along the walls. As early as 2006, the architects who were
commissioned to update the buildings commented on their existing and original interiors, stating that ‘The apartments displayed a simple but very meticulous design.’31 Considering the fact that the specifications of most houses built
in the early 20th century do not meet today’s Swiss standards of floor area,
domestic equipment, amenities and insulation,32 the upgrading of the Zurlinden
estate was exemplary because of the ‘soft’ way it was handled. Substandard conditions were upgraded, but this was done on a moderate level.
were initially chosen for construction, proved to be durable and robust.34 After
forty years, between the years of 1959 and 1962, the first extensive maintenance
of the façade was carried out due to ‘normal signs of wear and tear’ while
‘Further major expenditure’ was expected and planned for subsequent years.35
This work included modernizing the kitchens, which had remained in the original simple configuration, but with outdated, inefficient appliances and fixtures.
At this time, installing new baths and fireplaces had become unavoidable, since
the communal baths had become culturally obsolete and therefore in a poor
condition. As a result of the estate’s careful design and consistent maintenance
strategy, between 1960 and 2006, it was possible to reduce the regular upkeep
cycle for Zurlinden36 without incurring any serious consequences to the buildings, while keeping the rental costs unchanged and low. This was possible because
of the regular and economic approach to maintenance and repairs.
In 1986, the building was added to the official registry of culturally significant
objects in Zürich to be protected for their communal importance. An approach
characterized by ‘gentle renewal with regular maintenance work’ emerged as a
strategy for the years to come.37 A survey of Zurlinden conducted in 1996 after
80 years of habitation confirmed ‘very durable basic materials, well-preserved
roofs but in need of update. The plumbing pipe work in need of update.’38 This
demonstrates an aim to optimize the life-cycles of various components together,
in order to determine the ideal timing for repair, and therefore to prevent high
costs in the maintenance process. The Housing Administration of the
Municipality of Zürich works on the basis of long-term planning. Their plan for
Zurlinden included structural upgrading in 2006 to 2007; installation of central
heating in all apartments; renewal of the entire plumbing and piping system;
combining smaller units to create four-room and five-and-a-half-room apartments; and reserving fifteen apartments close to an elevator for the disabled.
Maintaining the basic but durable materials and the straightforward design of
Zurlinden – directed at keeping the rental prices affordable while preserving the
integrity of the buildings – remains a high priority for the coming decades.39 [3]
Public Participation in Housing Renewal and Upgrading
The Zurlinden estate experienced a few interventions to update the buildings
in the 1960’s before the first major maintenance work was carried out. From
today’s point of view, the earlier interventions were ‘rather more reserved with
maintenance. Maintenance was oriented more to individual components or
individual measures rather than to the whole package.’33 The materials, which
In addition to the design, construction and administration, one crucial factor
must be emphasized when assessing the durability and longevity of the Zurlinden
housing estate: the way the tenants’ interests are reflected in the process.40 The
local administration integrates the involvement of Zurlinden’s tenants in important decisions as an additional means to maintain to the quality of the housing.41
They are given the opportunity to become actively involved in the design of
their own living space, along with the option to carry out their own adaptations.
This increases the tenant’s ties to an apartment, creating a sense of identification
and the apartments tend to be treated with care.42 The old building standards
and low rental prices have served to compensate many tenants for the investments
they have made in updating their apartments.
The tenants’ interest in maintaining the buildings was so high that a com-
Extended Cycles of Renewal
Durability in Housing – The Aesthetics of the Ordinary
Renting Affordable Apartments for Different Social Groups
Over time, a change took place in the social status of the tenants living at
Zurlinden, from the original group of worker families to the present group, which
consists of freelance craftsmen, employees, students and workers. The proportion of families has remained constantly high over the years. Interest in the
apartments and in the estate as a whole has remained, even increasing with the
development of the surrounding area into an urban lifestyle neighborhood for
young families:
People have always been interested in these apartments. They are affordable. The rooms are well planned, the position is good, the apartments are family-friendly;
they are surrounded by a park.49
3 A typical street façade with one entrance door after the renovation in 2006. [Marie Antoinette Glaser]
4 The original doors from the kitchen to the balcony with a view to the street. [Annelies Adam]
prehensive and expensive plan to combine more apartments into larger units
was rejected due to the tenants’ fear that it would lead to higher rental costs.
Even in the early stages of the renewal project, active tenants took on the initiative to communicate between the administration and the rest of the tenants
about the planned measures so that it would be possible for the tenants to carry
out some of the alterations themselves and guarantee the costs. These arrangements occurred when converting the rooms in the corner flats and equipping
the apartments with new kitchen furniture – a measure that surely satisfied
both parties, both the tenants and the administration alike, over the long term.43
Interestingly, through this dialog, the tenants rejected the new kitchens that
were proposed by the administration for cost reasons, and also because the
appearance of the new kitchens did not appeal to them.44 The administration
concluded that the tenants identified strongly with the ‘old’ house, agreeing
to their rejection of this particular aspect of the renewal.45
Maintaining the original material had to be accounted for during the last
major renewal work at Zurlinden, conducted in 2006.46 The architects who won
the commission to plan the work intended to improve the floor plan in a way
that was easy to implement, and to accommodate all of the plumbing and electrical work between the kitchens and the bathrooms in an efficient way. The
new plan has brought the ninety-year-old housing development up to modern
technical standards. However, the building material was hardly changed; many
of the original building elements such the interior doors, wood wall paneling
and certain parquet and stone flooring materials were maintained. Original
details such as the small windows-within-a-window47 in the kitchen and the twotone paint on the kitchen walls were reconstructed.48 However, signs of wear and
tear on the floors had to be deliberately tolerated by the residents as they were
not addressed in the upgrade.[4]
affordable options for living space in the city. Property is rented out in accordance with guidelines, which demand a mixture of tenants from different social
groups to create a sense of social ‘coherence.’52
In municipally administrated housing estates throughout Zürich, the principles of mixing and social ‘coherence’ have changed the tenant make-up of the
estates, from the original majority of Swiss families through the 1960’s, to an
increased proportion of non-Swiss residents.53 At Zurlinden, these trends were in
line with general changes in the neighborhood, where an increasing number of
immigrant families were settling. A new group of tenants moved in during the
1990’s after a period of high fluctuation, possibly caused by the simple standards
and the fact that the buildings were in need of renewal and repair. This group
consisted of young, single, well-educated, childless freelance people and artists
who became interested in the traditional worker and family neighborhood. The
administration ascertained a further stage in the development of tenants during
the complete renewal in 2006, when predominantly young Swiss and foreign
families moved in. Over the years, housing conditions at Zurlinden have
remained fundamentally unchanged, and these are viewed as an expression of
appreciation by the tenants.54 During the analysis, it became noticeable there
were some very long tenancies, some of which endured for 50 years or longer.
Due to the fact that the landlord is the city, Zurlinden’s administration acts in
accordance with the costs-rent model currently in effect, and the rental prices
remain comparatively inexpensive.50 In the highly competitive Zürich housing
market,51 the local authority plays an important balancing role by providing
Adaptation Strategies: Consideration, Community, Creativity and Flexibility
As the original flooring, wall surfaces and doors were deliberately kept in the
apartments, and the original paint was maintained in the kitchens, the character
of the old building remains constantly present. However, the opinions of the
Durability in Housing – The Aesthetics of the Ordinary
Administration Archive]
5 The original kitchen and wood-burning oven in the 1960’s. [Zurich City Housing
tenants differ with regard to the present materialization. The simplicity, high
degree of sturdiness and durability of the materials were predominant in the
administration’s selection of the materials to be preserved. However, the age
of the building materials in general calls for tenants to exercise a degree of creativity and tolerance when adapting to their apartments. Materialization has an
influence on patterns of living: wall coverings influence the way that individual
rooms are furnished, and also make certain styles of furnishing or patterns of
use in certain rooms impossible. All of the tenants questioned in the study report
defects in their apartments that need to be tolerated, including cracks in the
flooring and noise from other apartments. For example, the transmission of
sound through the flooring is still a problem, even after the renewal work, which
calls for the tenants to take appropriate measures with their living arrangements
and their use of space. If the social network functions well, it is possible to develop
bottom-up adaptation strategies within the community of tenants for living
with certain material defects in the building.
When the long-term tenants of Zurlinden were questioned about their use of
space, the spacious kitchen-cum-living room was frequently mentioned as a
feature of living quality, both in the past and in the present.55 With an area of
11 m2, the kitchen can be used in a variety of ways: as a place for work, retreat
and gathering around the kitchen table. The spatial structure of the kitchen
allows the tenants to furnish it in a variety of ways, and it receives ample light
from the window and the balcony door facing the street. In the 1960’s, the
kitchens were brought up to date from their original, simple standards, but continued to remain simple in comparison to the kitchens in most private or cooperative housing developments in Zürich at the time. Since the 1960’s, the kitchens
have been fitted with an old cooker, sink, draining board and cupboard, and
between 1962 and 1996, the only upgrades that have been carried out are those
by individual tenants.56 Originally, the kitchen stove was the primary heating
source for the apartment which compromised the quality of living; this poor
heating source was compensated with additional heaters at the tenants’ expense.
After the renovation in 2006, this problem ceased to exist, much to the tenants’
6 The inner courtyard. [Marie Antoinette Glaser]
The Kitchen – Simple but Spacious Heart of the Apartment
Flexibility of Use and Personalization of Spaces
In the context renovating old housing stock, the sustained potential of the
Zurlinden apartments is grounded in their inherent adaptability57 facilitated by
the arrangement of the rooms and the floor plan.58 The dimension and arrangement of the rooms allows the tenants to use them in different ways: the living
space can be used very flexibly because the living room and bedroom have the
same approximate area of 16 m2, and both look over the quiet inner courtyard.
What was originally a child’s bedroom, for example, can become a spare room
after the child moves out, then a storage room at a later point in time.59 The
bedroom and living room can be swapped around, and the additional surfaces
in the rooms, such as the large wooden windowsills, provide spaces where private objects can be placed; these spaces for personalization are another important
feature of quality, often mentioned by Zurlinden’s tenants.60 [6]
The generous room dimensions and well-conceived floor plans at Zurlinden
continue to provide a high standard of living to the tenants today. One aspect
of quality is the size of the rooms – 14 to 16 m2 – which allows them to be used
Durability in Housing – The Aesthetics of the Ordinary
flexibly and freely. Originally, the most common type of apartments had three
rooms. One room was equipped with a built-in cupboard, which was often
removed by the tenants to create additional room for a child’s bed. The original
four-room apartments had a permanent built-in cupboard in the hallway, and
families residing in these units particularly appreciated the additional storage
The Socio-spatial Relations – the Block, the Surroundings and the Green Spaces
As this study of the Zurlinden estate shows, the key concepts – focused on the
construction, management and social aspects of multifamily housing – support
the appraisal of a building’s durability. The key concepts are crucial for maintaining the quality and durability of investment prospects and use for decisionmakers, investors and residents alike. Non-profit investors such as local
authorities, housing cooperatives or even for-profit investors such as pension
funds or real estate holding companies may consider these findings when deciding whether to demolish or to renew a building. The perspectives of the residents
and users are often overlooked in the decision-making process, despite the fact
that their perspectives could provide a clear picture of the social value of the
building under consideration. This is apparent in the case of the neighborhood
networks and their efforts to support and maintain the Zurlinden housing estate,
an estate that is old-fashioned yet socially rich and economically viable.
The perspectives presented in this study of the Zurlinden housing estate
underlie the key concepts of durability and sustainability for multifamily
housing, focused on three different areas: construction, management and social.
At first sight, the Zurlinden estate gives the impression that it merges with the
surrounding urban block structure. This interlocking of neighborhood and
building can also be analyzed as the residents of the surrounding neighborhood
use the hidden inner courtyard of the housing estate as a green space, spending
time there along with the residents of Zurlinden. However, this is not always
without conflicts, as semi-public space and public space are limited. The intrinsic perception of the housing estate focuses on the division of social space into
parts; as such, the estate is not experienced as one integral unit, but rather as a
perimeter block settlement with different entrances, or even as a row of streets.
The perception of spatial structure in the Zurlinden housing development
and the surrounding areas is differentiated by axes, as seen in the rows of streets,
and by areas, as seen in the public Fritschiwiese and the inner courtyards. According to their proximity to these axes and areas, different qualities are perceived
by the tenants living in different blocks at Zurlinden.
The central courtyards form the housing estate’s semi-private exterior spaces,
which are accessible to the local public, since the entrance gates are not locked
during the day. These courtyards add to the high quality of life in the development and ‘have the character of an oasis’ in the city.61 A nursery school and a
crèche use the large children’s playground in the courtyard. Residents in the
adjacent block use the large courtyard in their leisure time, above all in the evenings and the summer months.62 The public park of Fritschiwiese used to provide an important place for outdoor relaxation to substitute for the absence of
outdoor space in the apartments, but recently, the park has become a meeting
place for many other residents in the neighborhood. The interviewees at
Zurlinden feel the loss of the private intimacy of this space. Many of the elderly
residents now consider the Fritschiwiese to be an ‘area for foreigners’ and avoid
it completely, in contrast to former times. One reason for these new cross-cultural
encounters is the way that the social structure and demographics have changed
in the housing developments surrounding Zurlinden since the 1990’s.63
Although some residents feel a strong sense of identification with the housing
estate as soon as they glimpse the façade from the street, other residents whose
apartments face the noisy street tend to disassociate themselves from the street
and the exterior façade in order to feel at home in their flats.64 Although
Zurlinden is located in the city, the residents describe the surrounding area as
rural: ‘This is a proper residential neighborhood. And the people in the street
say ‘Hello’ to each other like in the country side.’
c Social Ensuring the participation of tenants in the process of housing renewal;
giving tenants the possibility to personalize their home interiors when doing
personal upgrading work; enhancing social adaptation strategies to overcome
the defects of older buildings by encouraging communication among neighbors and creativity, flexibility and negotiation in the use of living space.
These concepts provide not only the effective basis for designing and man-
a Construction An architectural concept that is sensitive to the urban location;
the choice of durable materials of high quality, built to simple but exact standards; a spatial organization of apartments that allows for flexibility in their use
through the concept of adaptability;65 an apartment size that is defined by
sufficient space for flexible use, and not by sheer floor area; a kitchen-cum-­
living room at the heart of the apartment; adequate storage and space for
personal effects; the provision of multiple options for connectivity with doors
and passageways inside the apartment; construction and floor plans sensitive
to visual and aural privacy; and access to clearly defined private, semi-public
and public spaces in the immediate outdoor environment that are available
for multiple uses.
b Management A rental practice that is differentiated according to the qualities
of the apartments; a diversity of tenants from various social groups including
those of different age, health, employment, income, family size and nationality;
long-term planning strategies for repair and renovation that include the residents
as key partners; and client-oriented communications with the residents, with
personal contact to resolve immediate problems which may take the form of an
on-site superintendent.
Durability in Housing – The Aesthetics of the Ordinary
aging housing estates but also the fundamental premise, in parallel to the
design practice, necessary to achieve durable and sustainable living conditions
that are also beautiful and healthy. Everyday residential buildings – those built
in the past with different funds for different social groups – can shed new light
on the questions of sustainability, quality and durability of architecture. Everyday architecture is marked by the demands of usability over the course of many
years, along the lines of what the Swiss architect Michael Alder mentions about
the qualities of architecture in general:
If someone builds a house, the contractor is the first inhabitant; after maybe 20
years other people will live in it. If I design a house, I start from the premise of
rooms, which I do not determine more exactly; they can be used in different ways
and what they are is decided by what the inhabitants do with them.66
At the beginning of the new century, we require new strategies for dealing with
the buildings of the last hundred years. Those erected during the post-war period
are now being renewed, requiring up-to-date measures. The problem cannot be
solved by a policy of replacing older buildings with new ones, even if ecological
construction methods are used in the process.
The strategies for sustainability must include the long-term use or reuse of
existing buildings over the course of their life-cycles. Discovering and promoting
everyday residential buildings that continue to adapt and provide a good quality
of life for their residents is crucial. House-biographies provide new insights into
the qualities that constitute long-lasting buildings, addressing the important
question: what has stood the test of time? Neither uncritical maintenance nor
uncritical destruction should be allowed to determine today’s planning practice,
and it is important to note that longevity can also become an obstacle to urban
development and densification. Studying durability therefore means reviewing
things in the present without remaining anchored in the past.
Environmental Issues as Context
— Elisabetta Pero
Sustainable Living: the City, Density and Forms
In Milan, the websites and papers for homebuyers are full of real estate listings
such as this one:
Property for Sale in Trezzo sull’Adda, Milan
A highly desirable area with tree-lined avenues, bicycle lanes, quiet streets with
easy parking; great attention to detail with superior materials and finishes; the
property also features independent access through a private garden, a large living
room, a spacious kitchen, two bedrooms with full size bathrooms, a wine cellar
and a garage in the basement. The windows are impact resistant and perimeter
and indoor burglar alarms are also available.
These listings describe for many what is probably their dream home, but above
all, they represent the kind of residential planning and development schemes
that are widely endorsed by Italian municipalities. Due to the fact that available
land for real estate development has become limited in cities, and therefore
excessively high in cost, many people have left the cities to find new homes in
the suburbs. However, once outside the city, people often realize they have moved
to places that are too isolated to attract and sustain the quality of life they expect,
and often, that the suburbs are unsafe. Throughout Italy, daily commutes from
the suburbs to the cities are congested and arduous.
These trends of suburbanization coexist with a general increase in ecological
awareness and tighter environmental regulations. In response, some experimental areas of urban residential development have adopted the use of recycled
materials, along with mechanical systems for solar energy and water recycling.
Even though the two trends coexist – one characterized by traditional suburbanization and the development of single-family homes; the other characterized
by experimental development in the urban areas – suburbanization is clearly a
stronger and farther-reaching force at the present time.
Experimental urban development has grown from the critical reflections that
some architects have made, regarding the contemporary urban context as an
appropriate structure for sustainable development. This trend is based on the
observation that the number of homes using active and passive energy systems
should increase, while the design of individual homes and their surrounding
areas should be reconsidered. However, it remains difficult to consider which
forms, densities, designs, technologies and materials these revisioned habitats
should take. Already, a wide range of solar energy products exist that are integrated into the construction of traditional homes, however, the design of these
energy-saving systems is primarily aimed at reducing their impact on the aesthetic
elements of traditional homes. In considering experimental urban development,
different possibilities exist in regard to reconciling architectural features with
Environmental Issues as Context
the inclusion of energy-saving systems and sustainable or recycled materials.
In addition, designing low-energy buildings does not simply mean applying
technologies to a design in retrospect, at the end of a project. It also means
devising kits of modular elements that can be assembled from the ground up
into various configurations, according to individual tastes.1 Along these lines,
Roberta Morelli argues:
Some experiments effectively present excessive processes of simplification with
respect to the complexity of the aspects involved, suggesting where the architectonic choices are reduced to identification with the accessories of a construction
that loses an identity of its own, because it is completely estranged from where
it stands.2
Two aspects are important to the exploration of aesthetics in sustainable architecture: the city and its density on one hand, and the form of individual buildings on the other. These two aspects must be considered both discretely and
jointly, as they lie at the center of far-reaching ramifications that underscore
current debates on sustainability. Namely, can the city be regarded an adequate
form of contemporary living on which to develop the principles of sustainability?
And through this process, should the identity of the city be preserved, and on
what criteria should these decisions be based?
The City as a Form of Sustainable Living
Oriol Bohigas defends the city as an appropriate structure for sustainable development. In an article entitled Ricostruiamo le Mura (Let’s Reconstruct the Wall)
he maintains:
… the expansion of cities cannot take place without rules. On the contrary, they
can expand on three fundamental conditions: multi-functionality, i.e. spaces,
neighborhoods, squares, streets and so on cannot be classified only according to
their presumed purposes of use; compactness, i.e. there must be no physical or practical separation; legibility, i.e. each place must be immediately comprehensible
for those who live there.3
According to Bohigas, it is important to preserve and develop a traditional
understanding of the city. He characterizes as the standard bearer of urban design
a type of development that gives collective space the leading role, and consequently, ‘any action of redeveloping an existing city or building new neighborhoods must start from the reconsideration of collective space, the form of which
is determined by various factors but in particular by the transformations of the
He goes on to specify that the Modern Movement has not been conditioned
by this context, instead, devising and giving rise to autonomous architectonic
Almost all the new typologies have been developed as modules of blocks or towers
in a non-urbanized territory, in the abstraction of a landscape which is neither
properly urban nor suitable for the formal tradition of the existing one … This
is why another line of research would seem advisable for residential typologies
… that start from the conditions of the identity of places and urban recognizability.5
If some consider cities to be autonomous bodies with lives of their own, inevitably
destined to expand to the extent that it becomes preferable not to speak of
individual cities at all but of regions and the infinite city, others like Bohigas
would take a different view. They maintain: a city that survives through history
is one that lays down rules to regulate the extent of its development.6 Milan,
which stands for a highly built-up region stretching from Turin in the west to
Venice in the east, was chosen to host the 2015 Expo, Feed the Planet, Energy for
Life. Following the debates and reflections arising from the Expo, Milan began,
for the fist time, to discuss the need to increase the density of its existing territories, while structuring a more innovative and appropriate relationship between
its urban and rural contexts. Milan’s Territorial Governing Plan (Piano di
Governo del Territorio, or PGT), slated for approval, discusses the need to activate
processes of urban regeneration to increase the city’s current density. The intent
is to launch a process that is no longer based on the idea of concentric urban
development, but on a territorial vision of the habitat. Within this the new territorial vision, interstitial voids are highlighted as strategic places to increase the
density of residential and public functions.
Façades and Energy Efficiency
Reflections on the potential forms that sustainable architecture could take, and
in particular, on the potential forms of sustainable homes in an urban context
must be placed within wider and more critical debates on the notions of contemporaneity. The dynamic and volatile global economy has impacted contemporary architecture in many important ways: among them, by fostering a certain
approach to architecture as spectacle, and the tendency to place scientific discoveries and engineering innovations at the forefront, promoting the technocraticization of architecture. Laura Thermes maintains that:
… in contemporary architecture, living in a cultural condition in which there is
no common conception of beauty, the architect who wants to show his achievement
cannot concentrate his energy on form, unless this means making it a talking
point. To attest to having produced something more innovative, he can only act
on a technical level, the only one which according to a generally held opinion
allows agreeing on meanings which can gain a widespread consensus.7
The identity of a city is not only rooted in the meaning and image of its public
buildings and monuments, but also in the mundane and everyday fabric of its
residential areas. Contemporary architecture of the home is concerned with
the production of designs that are domestically recognizable, given the incorporation of new technology and energy-saving concepts. A resident needs to be
Environmental Issues as Context
able to recognize his own home in ways that are both literal and figurative.
Along these lines, Paul Ricoeur suggests a transformation of the verb recognize
into its passive voice to be recognized: ‘I actively recognize things, persons,
myself; I ask, even demand, to be recognized by others.’8 In this sense, the
façade of a building plays an important role in its ability to be recognized, both
by its inhabitants and in the context of the city. The concept of recognizability
could serve to redefine Vitruvius’ concept of venustas, by opening up the idea
of beauty in ways that are not only based on material interiority, but also on
the relationship between the home those who inhabit it. According to Nicola
Emery, this dualism, between the autonomy of a project and its responsibility
for relationship defines the idea of ‘difficult architecture’ in that it ‘has to be
able to harmonize two laws which are almost opposite to one another and this
is why good architecture is always threatened by a sort of paradox, or by an
antinomy that makes it essentially difficult.’9
Raffaele Pugliese summarizes the continuous and conflicting process of city
building in two different positions put forward by the Abbé Laugier in 1755.
The first position is that:
If we want a city to be well built we must not abandon the façades of homes to
the whims of private individuals. Everything that looks on to the street must be
defined and subject to the design laid down for the whole street by the public
authorities. Not only must it be laid down where building is allowed, but also
how building is to be done.10
to wonder, ‘How does one define the term ornament and where is the dividing
line between ornament and mere texture?’13 Given these trends, recent transformations in architectural design have been triggered by the need to save energy,
and their visible components – new materials, techniques and systems – are
concentrated on building façades. These transformations are valuable in creating
a recognizable image for the homes in a given city with an effective formal
synthesis of civic values, technical qualities, aesthetic qualities and a high degree
of efficiency, all drawn together in the façade itself.
Environmental Questions and Context
The second position is that ‘everyone is entitled to have their say on what is built
in public.’ Considering these two divergent positions, Pugliese states that:
Between these two different points of view, discussion can be opened on the inevit­able
need that building a city, in particular its public space, has to be the result of unitary and collective decisions, which in the case of Laugier are restricted to the established authority, as the interpreter of the social will, and in the case of the popular
saying, are the result of a shared process of progressive refining of common taste.11
Context can provide a valid foundation for the above-mentioned formal synthesis. This is based on the idea that sustainable forms consist of technological
elements, along with the establishment of an appropriate relationship between
the building and its environment and the intelligent and critical application of
a given building tradition. The notion of sustainability points to the creation of
buildings that meet contemporary demands for programmatic flexibility, while
at the same time, staying durable and resistant within a given cultural and environmental context.
Context has profoundly influenced architectural discourse and production
since the end of the Second World War. Through his investigations of how different cities destroyed during the war were to be rebuilt, William Curtis reconstructs the debate on the subject of context, highlighting the nuances proper
to individual European countries from Germany, France, the Netherlands and
Italy.14 In the rebuilding of Italy, Ernesto Nathan Rogers coins the term environmental pre-existence:
… we can accuse criticism of formalism when, in appreciating with a hindsight
the meaning of a Brazilian building, it does not take into due account the fact
that the building is in Brazil; reciprocally, we must accuse the architect of formalism when he does not absorb a priori in his work the particular and characteristic
contents the environment suggests to him.15
Overall, façades play a fundamental role in building the identity of a city. The
potential to respect urban areas while renewing them requires a profound understanding of which characteristics of façades have contributed to the construction
of dense and compact habitats. It includes the establishment of a recognizable
image for the city’s public spaces and private houses, representing the civic – in
the sense of belong to the city – value of each within the collective habitat.
Understanding these characteristics is a way of keeping the city alive, preserving
it from the centrifugal forces that scatter homes over the territory.
Today, the design of façades is enriched by the potentials offered by new
materials and techniques. As Christian Schittich points out, ‘the façade materials
range from traditional bricks and timber to new forms of glass construction
and iridescent metal skins, and in many cases, a specific texture is involved.’12
The rang of materials has generated work on façades that led Oliver Domeisen
By environment, Rogers refers to a set of cultural values in which new forms
are historically situated.
Today, the growing awareness that energy resources are limited has forced
us to concentrate not only on the anthropic traces of our territories and their
cultural implications, but also on their natural and geographical implications.
Provocatively, we could announce the end of the anthropocentric habitat,
which places human needs at the center of design. The anthropocentric habitat
was strongly envisioned by Le Corbusier in his design for the Tsentrosoyuz in
Moscow in 1928, and through his idea that buildings in Russia, Paris, Suez and
Buenos Aires, along with boats that cross the Equator, should be hermetically
sealed: heated in the winter and cooled in the summer so that pure air at 18°
Centigrade circulates through them at all times. The end of the anthropocentric
habitat would foster an architecture that does not aim to resist nature, but to
Environmental Issues as Context
enter into dialogue with it through the production of buildings that are decidedly
not hermetically sealed.
Early industrialization started a revolution in the building industry that was
interpreted by architecture’s Modern Movement with the fervent enthusiasm of
the Enlightenment. For the first time in history, architects had the chance to
build homes for all, quickly, at all latitudes and with higher standards. This new
architecture had to express new spiritual attitudes:
This architecture cannot be subject to any law of historical continuity. It has to
be new just as our state of mind is new … Architecture is being detached from
tradition. We have to start all over again.16
After the Second World War, the prevailing architecture concentrated on rules
rather than individual vision for the basic reasons of shelter and survival.
Construction was standardized based on relatively neutral modernist building
configurations. These provided a solution for the problems of shelter, hygiene
and function, but Curtis notes that they:
… often lacked humanity and urban sensibility. The new order seemed destined,
with or without architects, to create objects that were scattered and isolated,
hostile to the models of the traditional European city and in general void of any
sense of identity. The problem was no so much a lack of talent but the absence of
an acceptable set of rules to organize the city … The void was not filled by the
diagrammatic versions of pre-war urban visions built in the 1950s, indifferent
to the variations in climate, culture and topography.17
In Italy in 1950’s, as in other European countries, a critical position re-emerged
that called for the needs of particular situations and places to be considered
in architectural design, and according to this, the modernist legacy was to be
revised. Writing in 1955, Nathan Rogers states in Casabella that:
The notion of the ‘maison de l’homme’ … evolves beyond the abstract and indiscriminate pattern of the ideal man: it becomes richer by acquiring the sense of
human history in its dramatic events of the past, and spreads to recognize the
distinctive individualities of modern society (and, therefore of the popular classes)
which only now find the strength to emerge. These contents cannot be inserted
without any effect on appearances, as forms are modeled, immediately, on them,
in the physical representation.18
Given this history of thought, it is important to ask whether sustainability –
understood as an environmental issue strictly connected with the concept of
context – can continue within the reflections of the Modern Movement, and
the reactions to it after the Second World War. One appealing hypothesis places
sustainability in continuity with Rogers’ arguments. It maintains that just as
modernist architects gave shape to new construction in concrete, steel and glass
from heavy industry, contemporary and sustainable architects can give shape
to intelligent buildings based on electronics and information technology. These
intelligent buildings would accommodate the goal of living in greater symbiosis
and harmony with nature, instead of the modernist notion of being sheltered
from it. In part, this goal has already been accomplished by the transition from
industrial standardization to digital customization that allows the design of
more flexible and adaptable buildings.
Energy and the Revision of Environmental Pre-existence
Rogers also suggests that ‘The Step to Make’20 is not exiling technique as something exterior to the project. But rather, taking control of technique fully, to the
extent that it can be transformed on contact with culture. ‘Adaptation must be
possible despite these conditions imposed by modern life and it is here that technical considerations must find the appropriate language to guarantee that a
building stands there, in exactly that spot, and not anywhere else.’21
These ideas provide the possibility to update Rogers’ concept of environmental
pre-existence through reflections on the identity of the home and reflections on
today’s environmental and ecological issues. Could these reflections update certain paradigms of the architectonic? The question of identity is closely connected
to Rogers’ theory of environmental pre-existence, and it provides a compelling
agenda for architecture in the context of today’s globalized world. In addition,
the question of urban civic identity can also find new opportunities in the context of today’s environmental and ecological issues, with respect to orienting the
scattered city.
Façades of Milan between Efficiency and Conservation
According to Rogers, the assumptions of the Modern Movement were inherently
sound, but they had to be recognized as activating an evolution. Without falling
into any contradiction with the original approach, he proposes:
… carrying on those same principles to further consequences: this method helps
us to broaden the horizons of research and to include new and coherent results.
The functional relationship between utility and beauty … expands, influencing
larger areas, where cultural exchange becomes more intense, more sensitive and
more dramatic: in essence, more human.19
Current technological abilities to measure the characteristics of a city – including
its cultural and environmental characteristics – taken along with the knowledge
of building techniques that confer both a lasting and durable nature to homes,
may provide the orientation necessary to develop new forms of sustainable
building. These advances may be based on studies of the use of new facing materials and the types of construction details necessary for buildings to function,
integrated with reflections on the recognizability of the home. These studies can
contribute to defining new forms of sustainable homes, while providing guidelines for preserving and updating the energy efficiency of existing homes within
the context of individual cities.
In particular, the firms of Cino Zucchi Associati and Consalez Rossi Architetti
Associati have recently worked in this direction in Milan. Their designs are
Environmental Issues as Context
decidedly aligned with the reflections of the large number of architects who
rebuilt Milan after the bombings of the Second World War, and with the city’s
later expansion. Among the most important architects of the post-war period,
Gio Ponti laid down his program of architecture in Domus, the magazine he
founded in 1928, by stating a philosophy of living aimed at reformulating the
idea of the modern home:
The Italian home is not the cozy and protected shelter of dwellers against the
harshness of the climate … Its design does depend solely on the material needs of
living, it is not only a ‘machine à habiter.’ The so-called comfort is not in the
Italian home only in the things that meet the needs and comfort of our lives and
the organization of services. Its comfort is something superior, it gives us back the
measure of our own thoughts; it encourages healthy habits through its simplicity.22
In this regard there is a larger moral ramification that confronts architects: the
home is not only a problem of art or technique; it is a problem of civilization. In
Ponti’s words, visionary, poetic and interesting tensions can be perceived when
architects work from an anti-dogmatic and a-specialist approach. His reflections
are aimed at redeeming architecture from the formal abstraction of a certain
rationalist culture. In a sense, redeeming architecture from ‘an impatient search
for a technical civilization capable of expressing the intrepid taste for the new
to which he attributed value, characterizing the myth of a culture ready to continually be reborn from the ashes of its past.’23
An exemplification of Ponti’s ideas can be seen in his use of the light façade.
Ponti believed that civilization in general – and therefore architecture as well –
proceeded from a heavy period to a lighter one. The ideas underlying his beliefs
remain under debate, unsettled to the present day:
… it would suffice to think of two very immediate examples such as Mario Botta
and Herzog & De Meuron … who propose two different hypotheses on the role
of technology as a motor of different hypotheses linked to form: on the one hand
the idea of monumentality linked to the concentration of matter, on the other
an idea of de-materialization linked with the autonomy of the skeleton of the
With the Palazzo Montecatini, built between 1935 and 1938, Ponti’s façade aims
to exalt the regularity of the openings through the use of:
… horizontal and vertical alignments of the windows and openings … well represented by the abacus of the stones. The two materials produced by Montecatini,
slabs of marble and aluminum, become the protagonists of the entire building,
being translated into an interesting means of communication and icon of the
group … all the window frames are exactly flush with the marble slabs of the
façade, in order to eliminate the window as a hole, as a contour of smashed-in
With the design of the Palazzo Montecatini, the aim was to remove all impressions of heaviness, taking architectural lightness to a new level synonymous
with the progressive lightness of civilization. In addition to looking for an image
of architecture appropriate to his time and place, Ponti was also looking for an
incorruptible form of architecture, unlike the simply plastered images of modernity that tended to deteriorate quickly – both physically and culturally. As such,
Ponti’s consideration of the heavy/light can be associated with the consideration
of the lasting /ephemeral. Today, the globalized economy impacts architecture
by demanding schematic solutions to the factors such as speed, industrialization,
repetition of elements and ease of transport; these pressures act in concert so
that the entire building process has been transformed by them.
Moving back to the consideration of deterioration, the heavy/light and the
lasting /ephemeral, the overall impression today is that buildings are not designed
to last as long as they used to in the pre-modern period. Their deterioration is
not just due to the lack of material solidity, but due to the fact that architecture
seems ready to become an ephemeral art, or in a more sinister light, one of the
society’s consumables. According to Raphael Moneo, ‘This is one of the reasons
… why architecture today often has recourse to a superficial image of its past:
contemporary society does not believe that its creations can last. What counts
is the first impact of a building and not how long it will last.’26
Another topical and interesting theme developed by Ponti, which remains
relevant to the present day, is the value of light moving from the interior of the
building to the façade. He believed that the façade should be designed taking
into consideration how it would look during the day and the night. The window
was seen as a standard hole in the wall, but also, as a passage for the nocturnal
projection of light streaming from inside the building and through the decorated
window. In terms of window design, Ponti envisioned a frame with movable
and fixed parts, with a very thin cross-section of aluminum or wood containing
shelves for objects, small collections of ceramics, vases or books so that the light
streaming from the house reflected the culture of those living in it. In the apartment building on via Dezza (1956-57) he concretized the idea of the expressive
home by rejecting the uniform repetition of standard plans.[1] In some way,
another contemporary theme appears here as well: that of the expressive flexibility
of use. The balconies at via Dezza create the fixed point on which to play with
the variations of the openings, corresponding to the variable size and flexibility
of the apartments.
The research conducted by two other Milanese architects, Mario Asnago and
Claudio Vender, is strongly linked to the work of Gio Ponti and his theoretical
positions. The long-standing collaboration of Asnago and Vender, from 1923 to
1970, left its mark on the city of Milan, as they designed a considerable number
of buildings in the center and in the area of the first residential expansion. Their
production concentrated on light façades in particular. At first sight, their façades
may seem ordinary, but after careful observation, there emerge gaps, imperceptible shifts and different dimensions. Fulvio Irace criticized the illogicality of
Environmental Issues as Context
[Elisabetta Pero]
1 Gio Ponti, House in Via Dezza, Milano, 1951. [Elisabetta Pero]
2 Asnago & Vender, Residential Building in Via Faruffini, Milan, 1953.
3 Consalez Rossi Architects, Social housing in Via Civitavecchia, Milan,
2000-05; Façade studies. [Consalez Rossi Associati] 4 Consalez Rossi Architects,
International Social Housing Competition in Via Cenni, Milan, 2009; Street
façade showing bioclimatic greenhouses. [Consalez Rossi Associati]
these differences in a letter to the Building Commission by stating, ‘Asnago
and Vender explained how their poetics consisted precisely of working on these
imperceptible differences of axiality, with the introduction now and again of a
slight variant in the constructive logic of the whole.’27
According to Cino Zucchi, while the invention of gaps and shifts seems to
be markedly Mannerist in nature, they are underlain by a great comprehension
of place and made in the attempt to create continuity between the building and
its environment.28 For example, the counterpoint between the form of the roof
and the position of the building often appears like a comment on the building’s
position within the city or, in other situations, the building bends to follow the
exposure of the sun, to open views or to create spaces of great environmental
quality. In the residential building on Via Faruffini (1953) the façade is characterized by openings of different shapes and dimensions, in part recessed with
respect to the façade and in part flush with it.[2] The window frames are made
of wood, iron and anodized aluminum, while the overall building is faced with
white ceramic tiles. Replying to the technical commission that opposed these
variations, the architects used expressions in such a way as to ‘destroy an excess
of verticality … not to increase the repetition of windows … animate the architecture which otherwise would be arid and inexpressive.’29
Consalez Rossi Architects, in their social housing project on Via Civitavecchia
in Milan, completed in 2010, consider the urban role of the home comprehensively in their design of the building plan and the façade.[3] The plan and the
façade were designed in parallel, being adjusted and tweaked gradually and incrementally. Another design produced by Consalez Rossi Architects, the International Social Housing Competition in the Via Cenni area,[4] is attentive to the
relationship between the building and its context, and through this relationship,
the building explicitly opens up to the issues of energy efficiency. The project
statement expresses the wish to build places that can represent new identities
for the urban home, both socially and environmentally, through:
… a better quality of life and relations and that represent, even symbolically, a
way of life that is more attentive to the needs of the environment. The first, founding thought, concerns the composition between the reasons of the urban design
and the rules of orientation of the bioclimatic design. From this point of view,
the desire to create sequences of fluid and enjoyable spaces, which design without
enclosing them, the private and the public parts of the neighborhood, had to
confront a main exposure (south ~30°) which was binding for the correct bio­
climatic functioning of the homes.30
good exposure, does not reach the necessary angle, both for reasons of exposure
and for the projection of shadows at the most unfavorable times.31
However, the provision of bioclimatic elements does not prevail over the reasons
for the urban design deemed fundamental for the correct functioning of this
new portion of the city:
The design consequence is the identification of a prevalence of exposure, which
defines the fronts useful for bioclimatic functioning. In this way, 60% of the surface of the buildings is optimal, whilst the remaining 40%, although with a
The complex thus identifies parts of the building that adopt a regenerative
approach, with greenhouses that accumulate heat and mediate thermal exchange
with the exterior, and parts that pursue a conservative objective, limiting thermal
exchanges with the exterior.
Since the 1990’s, the work of the Studio Albori has pursued a great interest in
developing both identity and environmental context in the design of the home.
This interest is exemplified in one of their buildings on Via Altaguardia, designed
for a housing cooperative.[5] Using a traditional building process, the Studio
Albori articulated the block with different figures and materials, excavating it
to localize and characterize each individual residential unit in opposition to the
idea of a standard. With this design, the relationship between the street and the
courtyard was challenged, effectively domesticating the exterior of the building
Environmental Issues as Context
5 Studio Albori, Residential building in Via Altaguardia, Milan, 1993-99. [Gianni Berengo Gardin]
[Studio Albori]
[Studio Albori]
6 Studio Albori, Farm building renovation, Ispra, 2010.
7 Studio Albori, School campus with a rainwater recovery
pool, Rome, 2005. [Studio Albori]
8 Studio Albori, Solar House in Vens, Val D’Aosta, 2010.
facing the street, while evoking a collective dimension of views to the courtyard.
In addition, many elements of the building are borrowed from the economicallybuilt homes of the 1920’s and 1930’s. The building’s internal façade enters into a
dialog with the façades of the individual homes through the use of open walkways, evoking the sense of a running balcony with elements that are actually
verandas. The architects associate the Paulonia tree that was maintained along
the street frontage with the pre-existing local and historical environment. This
provides the character of a garden to the entrance of the building, anticipating
a new attitude toward housing design that is further developed in some of their
more recent work.
However, there are detractors to the Studio Albori’s project. Giacomo Borella
defines the building at Via Altaguardia as the offspring of an approach that is
‘rationalist and abstract’ which he considers unsustainable, revealing an extraterrestrial approach to building that is profoundly far from what would be necessary to achieve harmony with the earth. According to Borella, architecture’s
inclination to devolve toward abstraction and stylization has adversely influenced
the theme of ecological sustainability.32 As such, ecological sustainability has
been reduced to yet another technocratic scheme neutralizing the potentials of
regeneration, which if fully developed, would have introduced an opening in the
collective imagination of the discipline and moved it toward a more sustainable
Despite the theoretical criticism, the Studio Albori’s work on sustainability
is animated by a renewed approach to contemporary design. In opposition to
dematerialization, Borella uses the term ‘architecture as maintenance’ in reference
to the various projects by the Studio that have inserted new bodies into existing
buildings. The dimension of architectural maintenance in a city frames two
major questions: first, how to limit the seemingly deleterious and infinite process
of urban expansion; and second, how to undertake ecological conversions of
the existing building stock. Answering these questions is crucial in the wealthy,
overdeveloped and energy-devouring parts of the planet that were built up in
the second half of the last century. They outline a picture where the re-elaboration
and re-articulation of the existing the city – focused on architecture of widely
differing scales – plays a decisive role in achieving a measure of sustainability. The
Studio Albori’s definition of architecture as something that finds its path time
by time is an expression that echoes the case by case of Rogers. The architects
experiment with seemingly mundane architectural features such as the downpipe
on an architectural scale, time by time, for innovative designs with sustainable
Usually invisible in contemporary architecture, the Studio Albori transforms
the downpipe into an element that can characterize the building façade, highlighting its role in recovering rainwater. Research along these lines can be seen
in the conversion of a small farm building located on Mount Ispra into a holiday
home.[6] The massive vertical stone structure of the original building is maintained and consolidated. And the missing façade has been reconstructed with a
new, stratified façade. The renovation includes a large wooden frame that casts
shade in the upper part of the building, while stacks of firewood collected from
the surrounding forest provide the lower portion of the façade. The base of the
building is made of Poroton® brick, with large doorframes surmounting it. A
wood-burning stove in combination with a solar collector heats the house, while
the frame structure serves an additional insulating function. The prominent
downpipes on the façade characterize the front of the holiday home and the
collected rainwater is fed to a swimming pool for the owner’s children.
The Studio Albori’s experimentation with building façades has continued
with the Nursery School and Creche in Rome in progress since 2005 [7] and
with the Solar House in Vens in Val D’Aosta in 2010.[8] The position and prominence of the Studio may entail them being called to work on projects outside
of the city, while at the same time, tackling complex architectural issues within
the constraints of contemporary urbanity.
Since the end of World War Two, a prominent group of Milanese architects
has contributed to the construction of the city with great professional commitment and technical expertise. The reflections by Asnago and Vender on the identity of the city, that architecture should be produced in close connection with
the technical innovations of the period and synthesize both civic and technical
competence, have yet to find their heirs. Connecting this history to the issues
of environmental sustainability may engender a new, experimental direction for
the building of homes in Milan today. As Rogers would say, it is an experience
that has gone on in continuity with the Modern Movement, and with regard
to the productive situation of the period, based on preserving the dignity of
the habitat and on building sensitively within it.
Magic, Inc. – Reframing the City
— Matthew Skjonsberg
Aesthetic Perception as an Interpretive Act
The ideal backbone of architecture is the creation of functional habitats for Homo
Sapiens: giving form to a society where the polarities of entropy and complexity
are acknowledged, in which evolution and succession can take place. The physical artifacts of the discipline invoke a long tradition of references – employing
illusions, allegories and poetic heritages – while evolving a legacy of building
form, public space, infrastructure and access to nature. Is the tradition of
reframing still useful for architecture in today’s society, where every imaginable
reference has been commodified as cliché and entertainment? And what is the
relevance of architectural aesthetics in an era of social and environmental crisis?
In recent times, the common use of the term aesthetics has come to carry the
connotation of being superficial or for appearances only. The Greek root of the
term, aisthesis (αἴσθησις), means the cumulative effects of sensory perception
and intuition, along with the intellectual or logical cognition gained from that
which is sensed. Aisthesis deals not only with the anatomic composition of our
five sensory organs, but also with our cognitive sensibilities, which are of great
significance in the evolution of our social structures, built environments and
artifacts. In short, sensibilities inform our ethics: our expectations of propriety,
integrity, wellbeing and justice. While they are shaped partly by external factors,
over time, they accumulate and come to define our very attitudes toward life.
Working from the etymological origin of the term aesthetics, aisthesis, we can
say that ethics are intrinsic in any form of aesthetic expression, either consciously
or unconsciously.
Magic, Miracles and Medicine
In 1940, the science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein published the novella
Magic, Inc.1 [1] This is an allegorical work, a social critique couched in humor.
It highlights the antagonistic relationship between populist labor unions and
secretive military industrial interests, illustrating insightfully how both, when
narrowly pursued, can disrupt society and act against the common good.
Heinlein begins by writing how magic, a kind of organic technology so to speak,
is a commonplace skill openly practiced by various disciplines. Several powerful industrialists collude and found Magic, Inc., a profit-driven racket disguised
as a non-profit organization based on exploiting popular support for the unions.
Initially recruiting, then finally coercing specialist magicians to participate, they
drive up prices and extort insurance payments from their bewildered clientele.
Through various machinations, legislation is enacted giving them a monopoly
on magic, effectively putting all honest magicians out of business. The unlikely
hero – a building contractor turned shopkeeper – enlists the help of a white
witch to break the monopoly of Magic, Inc. The allegory emphasizes that magic,
Magic, Inc. – Reframing the City
1 Magic Inc., originally published under the title, The Devil Makes the Law in the September 1940
issue of Unknown. [Street & Smith Publications, Inc.]
as much as current technological or medical knowledge, deals with forces that
are beyond our understanding. While the complex and interrelated nature of
reality commonly defies our fragmented attempts at comprehension, we can
recognize the corrosive effect of unscrupulous power on those who wield it
over others.
This reference to a science fiction novella from 1940 is not gratuitous. Architecture and science fiction are two disciplines perhaps uniquely dedicated to
the future. They are disciplines that implicitly speculate, assume and even structure a certain kind of reality in the future. Although architects are not generally
considered political activists, when they yield to unscrupulous economic interests as opposed to standing for genuinely sustainable objectives they become,
however unwittingly, the technical enablers of a biased and unjust environment.
Power manifests itself in many ways, drawing from the mysteries inherent in
the complex nature of our reality, including the mysteries surrounding health
and sickness. These mysteries were commonly addressed through a belief in
magic in former times. As society evolved a faith in religious miracles, magic was
largely displaced by religious policies enforced by the church, and the church
itself became a distinctly powerful and political institution.2 Likewise, the belief
in miracles3 has largely been displaced by current beliefs in medicine and tech­
nology. Early medical practitioners were effectively scientific alchemists who
were implicitly at odds with the authority of the church. It seems their adoption
of Aaron’s rod as the symbol of medicine was a clever way of shielding their
evidence-based discipline from the faith-based authority of the church and its
political regimes. Today, the uneasy relationship between science and religion
is still a source of political division in society. However, riding the wave of current
medical beliefs, profiteering pharmaceutical and insurance industries have grown
to politicize and control the institution of medicine – of which we, as laypersons,
have little knowledge or control.
Aside from the genuine differences between magic, miracles and medicine,
there is a notable similarity in peoples’ attitudes toward each: many people wish
for effects that satisfy their subjective desires and preferences while remaining
ignor­ant, often willfully so, of the underlying causes and the wider effects to
impact on both other people and the world in general. Interestingly, a similar
disconnect can be seen in the field of architecture. Can architects afford to
operate with such indifference, with a lack of sincere interest in the relationship
between their work and its consequences, between cause and effect?
Certain implications for architecture’s evolving scientific paradigm can be
drawn from the field of medicine. Both fields require clarity of intent and an
awareness of why the work is being done; both benefit from imagination and
faith while at the same time benefitting from a commitment to scientific
methods. Bringing all of these aspects together scientifically and artistically is
necessary in order to establish the new.aesthetics of sustainability. On a cautionary level, architects can learn from the deeply compromising economic collusion
between the pharmaceutical, insurance and medical industries. And on a more
instructive level, architects can learn from how the rigorous educational methods
and licensing requirements of medicine exemplify the rigor of medicine’s ethics.
With the current demand for demonstrable sustainability in architecture,
architects may develop a similar rigor of evidence-based practice – a correlation
between its ethical framework, a knowledge-based method of materialization
and an assessment methodology capable of scientifically evaluating the results
of its performance.
Therefore, it is important to ask: what is a reasonable basis for establishing an
ethics of sustainable architecture? Ostensibly, both architecture and medicine
hold the common good as their main objective, and investigations in both fields
might begin with the dictum ‘First, do no harm.’ In medicine there exists the
explicit holistic ideal of reducing symptoms first in order to provide physical
and psychological comfort, followed by invasive care if necessary only after carefully weighing the risk of causing further harm. This means that active treatment
is a last resort in medicine – an idea that coincides with Frei Otto’s assertion
that the most sustainable architecture is no architecture at all.4 But it is important to consider whether this conservative approach holds true in the face of
widespread environmental or social catastrophe. This question may be a good
place to start in order to gain a sense of the aesthetic, and therefore ethical,
implications of sustainable architecture.
It has truly been said that asking how is as important as asking what in regards
to ends and means, causes and effects. Sincerely pursuing answers to both questions can enable the discipline of architecture to move toward an evidence-based
discipline with an acceptable degree of scientific integrity, thus validating the
Magic, Inc. – Reframing the City
legitimacy of its asserted artistic license. If evidence is the basis used to substantiate belief, then what evidence can be provided to effectively address beliefs –
whether social, religious or economic – that persist despite the accumulation
of compelling evidence of their irrationality? And with evidence-based inquiry,
how can the city be reframed to champion the common good through social
and environmental justice?
Based on the interaction of sensory organs and genetic predisposition, perception isis inextricably linked to individual interpretation. Both nature and nurture
play a role, and together they constitute a behavioral predisposition – an attitude – informed by experience, intuition and DNA. It appears that the quantum
ambiguity that lies between seeing and believing provides evidence of Aristotle’s
statement that ‘nature abhors a vacuum.’ Our brains are expert at finding and
attributing meaning, and in the absence of meaning, we are very likely to create
it ourselves. While we embody the cumulative tendencies of untold inherited
legacies, aesthetic perception is an interpretive process shaped by individual
habituation. Both our sense of belonging and our sense of autonomy are valid,
and through inference and association we are constantly engaged in the interpretive, aesthetic act of perception.
On a fundamental level, what is the relationship between perception and consciousness, and can we really trust our senses? We know from experience that
the flavor of a perfectly formed tomato on the supermarket shelf cannot compare with that of a more wild, asymmetrical and homegrown tomato from the
garden; the ambiguity between seeing and reality is directly mediated by a history of conscious experience. Furthermore, color does not exist outside of our
ability to perceive it – color is a subjective experience, governed by the context
in which it is perceived. There is no redness or blueness in the natural world.
There are only the affinities of light as a form of energy. And we interpret those
perceptions in order to guide our behavior.
It is generally acknowledged that any one perceptive organ is not entirely independent and autonomous. For example, our sense of taste becomes severely
limited if we lose the sense of smell, or the hearing is sharpened with the loss of
sight. In other words, the intermodality of the senses indicates that the so-called
perception of sight is in fact not purely of vision but a combination of other
sensorial influences that we may as well consider illusions. To be taken in by
illusions is not just curious and puzzling; it appears to be key to our success as
a species. Far from being a disadvantage, illusions are a powerful and necessary
shortcut found at the heart of Homo sapiens’ most sophisticated perceptual abilities. Implementing illusions in novel scenarios may be the best way to establish
a difference between their potentials for appropriate use and manipulative
Consciousness itself is an emergent phenomenon, resulting from a subtle
interplay of patterned electrical impulses between distinct regions of the brain.
Empathetic feeling is first enabled by perception, and is therefore pre-conscious.
Our subsequent emotional – or ethical – response further enables or obstructs
a sense of empathy. As in the study of epigenetics, in which DNA is seen not
only to carry inherited characteristics but also to change in response to experience, our brains physically change in response to experience through a mechanism known as neuroplasticity. Most of us are familiar with the idea that the
loss of one sense can result in the amplification of others. Likewise, sensorial
plasticity can occur wherein one sense actually adopts the use of another that
is absent. A blind person using echolocation actually takes advantage of the
brain’s visual cortex in processing the spatial description of location from
sounds. And this use is not temporary – it becomes permanent. Neuroplasticity not only impacts those whose senses are impaired; it has the potential to
affect all of us.
One remarkable example is the feelSpace belt, a research project conducted
at Osnabrück University in Germany.5 [2] The feelSpace belt is arrayed with
vibrating pads that constantly buzz at one’s waist, indicating the direction of
north in response to the earth’s electromagnetic field. After a short time, the sensation and interpretation of these vibrations becomes second nature, and eventually it is possible for a subject to use the feelSpace belt to navigate complex
pathways with remarkable accuracy. The feelSpace belt creates an altogether new
and learned sense for the navigation of the physical world.
Studies like this may inform architects the symbiotic or intermodal sensorial dimensions, the ones that may access, stimulate and instill architecture.
In addressing this possibility, we do not need to resort to mysticism or pseudoscience; we can look to everyday technologies that have recently opened communications between large segments of society, as illustrated by the ubiquitous
‘map of the internet’ (used graphically on the cover of this book). How can architecture be used to foster a greater sense of empathy and social consciousness?
And is the evolution of individual consciousness analogous to the evolution of
a collective consciousness, as such, in society itself?
While we began by questioning how to ‘reframe’ the city in terms of the
senses, it is useful to point out, even without taking various modes of subterfuge
and secrecy into account, what we perceive does not point directly to what it
is – as we have noted previously, reality is subject to interpretation. To further
complicate matters, in the context of the contemporary city the relationship
between sensory perception and the underlying actuality of objects and spaces
is often strained; we are unwittingly manipulated by the artificiality of our envir­
onment beyond credulity, leading us into situations where to trust our senses
can be counterproductive, if not altogether unwise. For example, an otherwise
useful sense of caution is aroused unnecessarily by the experience of heights in a
glass elevator, or by the dramatic presence of armed guards and security cameras.
In forwarding our objective to reframe the city, what if intentional emphasis
were placed on such processes of cause and effect, highlighting the interplay
between our senses and the artificial environment of the city in a manner that
The Physiology of Perception: To Trust One’s Senses
Magic, Inc. – Reframing the City
2 Prototype of the feelSpace belt by the Institute of Cognitive Science, Department of
Neurobiopsychology, Osnabrück University, Germany. [Institute of Cognitive Science, Department of
Neurobiopsychology, Osnabrück University]
In the evolution of the city – from early agricultural settlements to the contemporary metropolis – there have been occasional intuitive leaps of informed imagination that have contributed to the practice of city-making at a fundamental
level. These leaps have drawn from other disciplines and realms of philosophy.
Richard Sennett coined the term ‘domain shifts’ in order to describe the
transfer of knowledge from one discipline to another.6 Often, these shifts leave
traces in language itself that are surprisingly familiar: cantus firmus (of a distinctly
geological analogy) in the discipline of counterpoint musical composition, and
urban fabric (connoting a weaving of discrete layers and strands) in relation to
urban design.
Innovations in the craft of city-making are also enacted by shifts in scale,
although these changes are of a somewhat different nature than ‘domain shifts.’
Fundamental to the inherited legacy of city-making is the notion of the city
wall – you are either inside the city or outside of it. In retrospect, one can easily
imagine the agrarian’s stacked stone fence, initially used to keep animals in or
out, giving rise to a defensive fortress wall over time. But the difference between
a defensive wall (military) and a garden wall (grape vines) is obviously more
than a difference in size – it is a difference in intent. Fundamentally, the wall is
a control device, consuming one space and producing others. Given the current
aspirations for the sustainable city, it is important to ask: what are the limits to
such notions of control devices, and will they remain a useful part of the identity of sustainable cities? Clearly benefit may still be found in privacy walls as
much as in seawalls to protect coastal regions. Yet, because walls are associated
with social and political control – from the Great Wall, to the Wailing Wall, to
the Berlin Wall and the US-Mexico Wall of Shame – it appears that one of the
challenges for our generation will be to conceptualize city-making without the
use of walls that operate aggressively in a social sense.
Arguably the most effective form of social order is produced voluntarily,
through the means of mutual understanding and common sense, including selfcontrol, self-preservation and an understanding of the implications of one’s
actions toward one’s neighbors. Such voluntary order can be exemplified by
conscientious activities like recycling, shoveling snow from your sidewalk or
restraining yourself from behaving in ways that disturb or harm others. Of course,
there are many areas of overlap between these voluntary forms of control and
forms of control emanating from external sources – namely from law enforcement or the implicit threat of retribution. However, both forms have their
limits set by ethics. One noteworthy limit to the ambition for control was
established by international law in 1976 when the United Nations passed the
Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques.7
An interesting implication of this resolution for architects and planners is
that while they may concern themselves with affecting the environment at the
micro scale with an eye on how, over the long run, their choices do have cumulative environmental consequences at the macro scale. Regulations such as the
UN Convention do not account for such cumulative effects of unregulated,
aggregate activities and for the effects of inadvertent environmental modifications over the long run. These are regarded, in the parlance of the insurance and
actually reveals the hidden nature of the city itself? This could become the
objective of architectural research and urban design with regard to sustainability.
In principle, if we regard the problems of affectation as, at least in part, illusory,
a new perspective emerges on how cities can be reframed in regard to the principles of sustainability as representation and reality in a dynamic equilibrium.
Signs and symbols have a role to play, bearing the countenance of principle and
creating an architectural vocabulary consisting of elements recognizable in their
signification and demonstrably effective in their performance.
Current architectural endeavors should seek a new strategic alchemy – clever
correlations that yield powerful performance benefits. In the context of architecture, alchemy constitutes a kind of faith in the discipline’s ability to work within
and simultaneously to subvert the systems of governance, economics and materialization that shape the modern city. Success in this regard can be measured
by the demonstrable relationship between design intent and actual performance.
By defining aesthetics as an interpretive act that encompasses the totality of
human perception and cognitive empowerment – our holistic, internalized ‘sense’
of the world around us – the relationship between aesthetics and the projective
qualities that architecture assumes for the future is transformed. The strategic
correlation of actuality and affectation can provide an antidote to a clichéd
and commercially exploitative architectural repertoire. Given these views on
perception, aesthetics and architecture, what is the concomitant face of sustainability in architecture?
Identity and the City: What is the City and for Whom?
Magic, Inc. – Reframing the City
legal industries, as force majeure or acts of God – faith is, in this way, used as a
pretense by which to externalize culpability. While law may establish the limits
of a discipline, the effectiveness of any law depends on its enforceability. Activities beyond the law are regarded as the prerogative of those capable of effecting
change on the scale of acts of God. There are a number of such cases worth considering, including those of geoengineering, the questionable science behind the
deployment of stratospheric sulfate aerosols, and the practice of establishing
such high-risk technologies as nuclear facilities in earthquake-prone regions or,
arguably, in any region of the earth at all. We see that the high risks involved in
these endeavors – risks that reach the scale of acts of God – are institutionalized,
and disasters linked to them are routinely exploited as economic opportunities
by corporate interests.
In this context, we must view the cumulative development activity of architects and planners, that of city-making, as a means to an end: fundamentally,
the city is a communal survival strategy for Homo sapiens. In today’s cities, we
expect the advancement of equal opportunity, freedom of movement and more
or less universal accessibility for citizens in terms of both physical and social
space. Simultaneously, however, citizens have come to accept rather constant
levels of surveillance and control. Given this situation, how do we envision the
infrastructure of justice in a sustainable city? Can a sustainable city safeguard
the justice of its citizens with such rudimentary means as transparency, openness and illumination, or is surveillance and control essential? This issue is at
the heart of the discipline’s debate about how and of what the city should be
Those who profess greater openness through an honor-system are often characterized as naïve (bleeding-heart communists) or as calculating (cold-hearted
capitalists). Those who argue for increased security are often criticized as being
intolerant of diversity, such as those belonging to the National Rifle Association,
or as power grabbing, such as those advocating blanket security legislation like
the USA Patriot Act. We can say that public trust in law enforcement actually
acts as a restraint to powers that would otherwise overreach the edifice of justice.
But when it comes to the control of resources in the semi-public sphere, we see
that the term ‘semi-public’ is actually a euphemism for ‘private’. Control that
is based on law fundamentally determines the form and shape of any public
space. The means of control and the processes of city-making are often directly
analogous. Given these trends in thought, it is also important to ask: how
do we determine the social sustainability of cities, and how do we assess their
The Politics of Sustainability: Hybrid Public Space as Catalyst
They hang the man and flog the woman
That steal the goose from off the common,
But let the greater villain loose
That steals the common from the goose.
– English folk poem, ca. 1764
The earliest use of the term ‘commons’ in the English language may be found
in the Carta de Foresta (1217), a supplement to the Magna Carta (1215), in which
the rights of common access to royal lands were assured. While this remained
in effect on paper until 1971, a steady stream of pro-enclosure acts since the
1500’s consolidated land for the use of the gentry, exclusively for their benefit.
Subsequently, industrial and other economic interests have successfully enclosed
and privatized not only the physical milieu (land, water and natural resources)
but also the social commons (education, housing and health care) and the
creative commons (knowledge, patents and copyrights).8 In modern society,
individualized property ownership is mediated through a market exchange; this
form of ownership has effectively colonized public infrastructure as well,
including the infrastructure for water, energy, transportation, prisons, hospitals
and telecommunications. Boston Review contributor David Bollier wrote in his
essay Reclaiming the Commons:
The commons refers to that vast range of resources that the…people collectively
own, but which are rapidly being enclosed: privatized, traded in the market,
and consumed. The process of converting the…commons into market resources
can accurately be described as enclosure because … it involves the private appropriation of collectively owned resources. Such enclosures are troubling because
they disproportionately benefit the corporate class and effectively deprive ordinary
citizens of access to resources that they legally or morally own. The result is a
hypertrophic market that colonizes untouched natural resources and public life
while eroding our democratic commonwealth.9
What role does architecture have in evaluating, questioning and implementing
its professional prerogatives with regard to the commons: common land,
resources, rights and justice? And especially, how should architecture balance
the needs of its clients – be they public or private parties – against the needs
of society at large?
The early twentieth century was an era, not unlike our own, when public
mistrust of authority ran high. There were several widely publicized events that
galvanized public opinion against the oppressive conduct of early industrialists
who acted against the common good and in collusion with the state. The Ludlow
Massacre in 1914 marked the tragic conclusion to a record-setting fourteenmonth miners’ strike. The Colorado National Guard was prompted by represen­
tatives of the Rockefeller family’s mining interest to break up the camp of over
1,200 striking miners, resulting in destruction and death.[3]
Magic, Inc. – Reframing the City
3 Ruins of the Ludlow Colony near Trinidad, Colorado, following an attack by the Colorado
National Guard, 1914. [Bain News Service, Collection of The George Grantham Bain Collection, the Library of Congress]
The Ludlow Massacre created a tremendous wave of notorious publicity for
the Rockefellers. In response to widespread public hostility they hired Ivy Lee,10
a public relations pioneer who launched a disinformation campaign asserting
that an overturned stove had burned the union camp and not the industrialist’s
hired thugs. Lee described his work as perception management, and he was highly
successful at it.
Despite, or as a result of, the power of the Rockefellers and other corporate
interests, labor unions eventually became an established institution to represent
the rights of oppressed and exploited workers, and they have largely succeeded
in maintaining those rights to the present day. However, narrowly implemented
union interests have also compromised measures that ensure the public good
through the practice of occupational protectionism. For instance, when in order
to save vast amounts of water the State of Minnesota replaced thousands of conventional urinals in public buildings with new waterless models, the plumbing
union sued the State, arguing that they held contracts for the right to supply
water to the State’s urinals. The union prevailed, and their workers were paid to
replace the waterless urinals with a conventional watered variety. This action
nullified the State’s legislative efforts to conserve water in public facilities, which
would have clearly benefitted the broader public good, and set a precedent that
was successfully used by plumbing unions in other states as well.11
To date, much of the pioneering research in the development of effective
criteria for sustainability is proprietary, such as the fee-based C2C certification
process. Their industry and government supported counterparts – such as LEED
and BREEAM – perform a delicate balance, advocating rigorous criteria for
sustainable development while appeasing established industrial interests. As
in any industry, sustainable development is subject to market branding and
the manipu­lation of perception. Given these challenges, it is important to ask
whether a singular measure for sustainability is possible. Is it reasonable to
attempt to evaluate sustainable development in terms of justice and the public
good when corporate and occupational economic interests continue to take
control of powers? In addressing these questions, we can turn to Jane Jacobs,
who advocated public space interventions as a basis for evidence-based strategies:
I stay away from visions of cities of the future. Any city at all that is worth learning
from and considering has parts that work. So what should we study? We should
study the parts that work! … And the greatest asset a city can have, or a city
neighborhood can have, is something that makes it different from anywhere else.
Don’t think it can be done with wishful thinking or pretty words … Everybody
needs networks of other people, and it is impossible to make a community without networks.12
Networks are social, and therefore inevitably political in nature – public policy
both enables and limits these networks with the provision of physical space and
communication infrastructures. It does so both according to the influence of
law enforcement and those tasked with private security. Such networks are now
part of the highly contested realm of the commons. In his seminal book, The
Craftsman, Sennett recounts that the painter Edgar Degas is once supposed to
have told Stéphane Mallarmé, ‘I have a wonderful idea for a poem but I can’t
seem to work it out,’ whereupon Mallarmé replied, ‘My dear Edgar, poems are
not made with ideas, they are made with words.’13 Likewise, public space withmay be conceptualized with ideas and words, but it is made with physical space,
materials and infrastructural networks.
While in the US, Britain and elsewhere, populations have grown accustomed
to the presence of security in their common public spaces, the means used by
authorities to maintain control are sometimes overreaching and surreal. Whether
referring to actions taken to maintain control on Tag der Arbeit (Labor Day) in
Zürich14 or during the G20 Toronto Summit in 2010,15 these events show that
when broad powers are granted to secure public space, they are often abused at
the expense of civil rights. As such, creating an assurance of public trust in the
commons is clearly a key metric of performance for public space.
Considering Jane Jacobs’ advocacy of public space, a practical example can
be found in a skatepark recently designed by our studio.16 At the outset, the
municipal client required a peripheral fence and security cameras. We suggested
a different strategy, and a meeting was convened with the municipal attorneys
to discuss the issue. As the conversation progressed, the group assembled came to
the conclusion that, indeed, the fence and cameras actually increased the liability
of the city as they falsely implied a measure of security by the city authorities.
If someone managed to enter the park and subsequently became injured, neither
could they get out nor could others reach them to offer assistance. Ultimately,
rather than fences and cameras, the provision of more lights and more paths in
the park was agreed to be the best solution. While this stark reversal – from a
Magic, Inc. – Reframing the City
fenced and monitored approach, to security achieved with illumination and
accessibility – was rationalized by perceived liability, it fundamentally represented
a shift in attitude. This is just one example of the kind of shifts that architects
can make within the domain of their practice to ensure that the public trust is
maintained. And, undeniably, the results of this approach to architecture look
and feel better: more like a commons.
about the freedom that comes with that, for everybody concerned. And when the
children themselves latch onto something active and free, like skateboarding, that
shouldn’t be automatically disapproved … No, this is a healthy thing … And
that is part of freedom.20
The ‘exclusive appropriation’ referred to by Jefferson has been increasingly sought
after by corporate interests, often under the guise of ‘disaster relief.’18 Making
the distinction between ‘the appearance of truth’ and ‘the truth of appearance,’
Neil Levine’s Modern Architecture: Representation and Reality19 powerfully illustrates the legacy of modern architecture as emerging from the iterative relationship between representation and reality. He works chronologically, beginning
with the English garden, and drawing a red line through the works of Boullée,
Soane, Schinkel, Pugin, Labrouste, Viollet-le-Duc, Semper, Sullivan, Wright,
Mies and Kahn. The red line he draws highlights figures who have dealt with the
expressive reality of architecture in the context of emergent industrial powers.
Each of these architects allied themselves with power, while at the same time
advocating the public trust. Each faced their own struggles within the realm
of this particular kind of architectural alchemy. The legacy of these architects
continued in groups of architects such as Team 10 and the Texas Rangers, whose
influence was widely felt, as they became critical academics and educators at
key institutions of architecture. But while Colin Rowe’s ideal of ‘transparency’
led him to seek compositional principles in the so-called aesthetic arts, Jane
Jacobs’ early work on cities developed an implicitly ecological conception of social
value – closely connected to economic and political goals while emphasizing
the intrinsic good of the community. Her later works developed an explicit set
of ethics, arguing that governance and market exchange required two parallel
schemes of values and virtues. Jacobs stated the following in a 2003 interview,
one of the last before her death in 2006:
Toronto City Council adopted a pedestrian charter, which states that walking is
the most sustainable method of transportation, and it should be everybody’s right.
So everything … should take into account what it does to pedestrianization.
[So] you don’t have to put the children into cars for everything … It becomes
Politics are at the heart of policy – it may be inevitable that in order to advocate
for bike lanes in cities, one must confront political resistance from auto clubs
and the financial interests they represent. A careful understanding of the objectives of each interest, and their relations to law, politics and economics is necessary to ensure that the rights of each are maintained. Fundamental to this
understanding is the relationship between corporate proprietary knowledge
and the emergence of open source culture. The complex proprietary framework
of copyright law, while protecting some rights, poses a challenge to maintaining
a vital discourse of ideas and interpretations.
Consider, for example, how in 2007 the business model of the music industry
was completely rewritten. Radiohead, one of the biggest bands in the world
at that time, left their label EMI and released their new record on the Internet.
Furthermore, they let their fans decide how much to pay for it in a manner
similar to church donations. Within a matter of weeks, DJ Adlive released a remix
of Radiohead’s material. But when he posted the songs on his website, DJ Adlive
got a cease-and-desist letter threatening a lawsuit. Radiohead didn’t issue that
letter – it was issued by Warner /Chappell Music, Inc., the music publishing
company that owns the rights to the material. Radiohead told the company to
back off, and then released their raw studio files, both video and audio, to the
public for use by anyone to download, remix and distribute freely.21 At this point,
the wall had fallen: the music industry is now driven to evolve with media, by
necessity and from within. The discipline of architecture faces similar pressure;
the challenge of giving form to social space is embodied by the parallel rights of
the individuals and institutions that will ultimately inhabit them.
On the other hand, because of the aggressive profiteering of the pharma­
ceutical industry, hospitals and others in the medical field, certain safeguards
for the public’s wellbeing have been implemented by law. These include reducing
the cost of life-saving treatments, and the implementation of expiry dates on
the patents of new drugs. These are beneficial outcomes for the public good.
They do not negate the fact that medicine is a for-profit industry, relying on a
supply of patients and the implementation of proprietary knowledge to cure
them. Due to its inherently opportunistic nature – relying on clients instead
of patients – architecture also carries the stigma of being a for-profit, technical
enabler, providing physical form to established institutions and their proprietary
knowledge. Can beneficial outcomes for the public good be gleaned by legislation from architecture that is opportunistic and for-profit, in a similar manner
as that seen in some aspects of the medical industry? And how can this type of
industry be implemented alongside that of open source culture for the benefit
of the common good?
Transparency and the Open Source Ideal: Architecture’s Legacy of
That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral
and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have
been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like
fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and
like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of
confinement or exclusive appropriation.17
– Thomas Jefferson, 1813
Magic, Inc. – Reframing the City
Heinlein’s allegory of collusion and exploitation in Magic, Inc. can be
taken as a symbol of the consumer city, where the resources of rural regions,
and of the population in general, are relentlessly exploited for profit by
corporate interests. While a drift in the direction of the consumer city is pronounced, some architects have consistently found ways to subvert this trend
through a practice for common good – contributing to the evolution of sustainable initia­tives for infrastructure, buildings, public space and natural
resources. And their ethics are often visible in the aesthetics of their designs.
However, it is possible that the trend of selling sustainable development as a forprofit brand has inadvertently provided the incentive for many architects to
gloss over the severity of environmental issues, instead of implementing fundamental changes in their approach to city-making. Through all of this, architecture’s saving grace may be its physical presence: when you touch something, it
touches you back. This physical, sensual interaction informs our ethics; we feel
intuitively that to cause pain to others is unjust. Likewise, developing a comprehensive system of sustainable aesthetics would encompass a deep understanding of how the built environment – over which architects have control –
impacts the physical and social lives of others, and would involve informing
our senses about our relationship with the natural environment in broad and
direct ways.
The power of aesthetic perception lies in its directness. It is one thing to feel
the wind, to smell it, to sense the vastness of origin and destination implied by
its movement over the surface of the earth; it is another thing altogether to know
values for annual wind speed or precipitation. An ethical framework draws
from both types of knowledge. It depends on the ability to anticipate cause and
effect and to make deliberate choices in relation to this. Perspectiveperspective
and counterpoint were two aesthetic breakthroughs in the arts during the
Renaissance – what would be the comparable achievements in the discipline of
sustainable architecture? These breakthroughs will arise from initiatives that
actively forward the cause of justice and equity in city-making. One such initia­
tive is the establishment of an interdisciplinary modeling framework to ensure
the quantifiable verification of sustainable performance. A challenge in this regard
is how to assess – and therefore how to quantify – violation of the public trust
by deception, manipulation, and falsification.
The discipline of architecture is clearly at a crossroads. The current distinction
between architects, landscape architects, engineers and urban designers is
relatively recent, and it often appears to impede the development of sustainable
initiatives. At a recent public debate between advocates of New Urbanism and
Landscape Infrastructure at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, the pretense
of these disciplinary distinctions was contentiously debated. After an intensely
polemic discussion, the moderator Michael Sorkin concluded the event with
the following statement:
Let’s make humane, equitable, sustainable and beautiful cities … Cities need
to supply their own food, energy, water, thermal behavior, air quality, move-
ment systems, building and cultural and economic institutions. This urban
self-sufficiency is a means to political autonomy and planetary responsibility.
Sustainable, equitable, and beautiful …22
Sorkin put his finger on the need for architecture to transcend disciplinary
polemics, successfully emphasizing the need for architects to be tuned in to the
development of a sustainable urbanism that is capable of championing public
interest, public space and engaging the public imagination. However, his urbancentric assertion that cities can be self-sufficient is analogous to the isolated
city-state, and as such is conceptually obsolete. Sustainable, contemporary cities
will acknowledge their reliance on the environmental health of the overall region.
Just as conventional medicine is complemented – not displaced – by chiropractic,
acupuncture and homeopathy, the scope of architecture’s interest does not end
at the city wall; it holistically encompasses the surrounding rural and natural
regions as well.
In transcending disciplinary polemics it is important that the distinctions
that gave rise to such disciplinary differentiation not be merely ignored, but
rather that they be essentially integrated within the architectural discipline.
Just as the seed must die that the plant may grow, the ‘object’ attitude of architecture must die in order that an ‘ecology’ attitude might take root and grow.
For example, when Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux coined the term
‘landscape architecture’, the psychology of perception was at the heart of their
disciplinary aspirations. In 1881 Olmstead wrote to Charles Eliot Norton that
the few people who were familiar with his views seemed to feel ‘that I have
original and peculiar ideas and am not only what I want to be, the expounder,
indicator and applyer of views which are – not views at all but well established
science…it is absurdly incomplete to say as I do that the prime object of art is
to affect the emotions.’ In his last year of professional practice he felt isolated
and lacking support from scientific writers, and in a report to the city of Hartford he described the unsatisfactory state of the discipline’s theoretical science:
The objective point of the practice of the art, the commodity which its practitioners
undertake to supply is a certain effect or class of effects on the human mind. There
must be a psychological science of the subject and you may have reasonably
expected me to teach you the outlines of this science. But I have to tell you that
after much study and discussion I am satisfied with no presentation of it that
has come to me. In the larger part, my practice has been based on the teachings
of personal observation and experience that certain conditions being attained
certain effects follow.23
We live in an era that has seen the blossoming of both the psychological and
physiological sciences, and any aesthetic theory that is relevant to our age will
champion the very health of the human organism.
We have seen that justice thrives when the public trust is maintained –
equitable and shared public place-making is necessary to the common interest
Magic, Inc. – Reframing the City
of all. Deep sustainability will be scientifically based on the sense-enhancing,
aesthetic empathy of inclusive discretion, rather than sense-deadening exclusion
and control.
To paraphrase Heinlein’s protagonist in Magic, Inc., architects too ‘are out
to make a legitimate profit – that their services are sought shows that they are
useful.’ However, it is up to architects to determine to whom their professional
work will be of use. By engaging the public trust, the profession of architecture
ought to thrive in the new scientific paradigm – the ethics and aesthetics of
sustain­ability being nothing less than the ethics and aesthetics of justice, made
material through the art of architecture.
Constructing Sensuous Ecologies: Beyond The
Energy Efficiency And Zero-Carbon Argument
— Giancarlo Mangone and Patrick Teuffel
An Introduction to Sensuous Ecologies
Buildings are generally considered to be static, abiotic components of the constructed or natural ecosystems in which they are situated. They are typically
designed as the inert backdrops for the dynamic biotic and abiotic components
and processes that inhabit and engage them. This perspective regards building
systems and processes in terms of isolated design parameters, ignoring a building’s inherent ecological interrelationships and interconnections with the
mutable, complex ecosystems that it inhabits. These include local systems of
infrastructure, socio-cultural dynamics, natural organisms and natural processes.
Resultant design solutions are typically unable to respond to a site’s inherently
dynamic environmental changes, and tend to develop parasitic relationships
between buildings, building systems and their ecosystems; such parasitic relationships generate significant performance losses. These losses affect the local natural
environment, community and occupant well-being, and the initial and operational fiscal costs of the building itself.
A more adept perspective is to redefine buildings as constructed habitats:
as active, interconnected environments that engage the local ecosystem and its
dynamic ecological processes. This approach focuses on the interrelationships
of the external (and internal) biotic (and abiotic) components that generate
such processes, while providing spaces and programs based on the inhabitants’
needs. This suggests an innovative design methodology grounded in the context
of the natural processes of a given site. The concept of a building is thus reconceived as the ever changing, dynamically responsive confluence of constructed
ecologies (interrelationships and processes) that occurs within and around a given
ecological area (the building). Typically isolated components such as mechanical,
plumbing and electrical systems are reconsidered for the active, interdependent
roles they play in the ecosystem, and for the benefits they can provide beyond
the basic provisioning of water or electricity. This perspective shifts the focus of
design away from how to design a building as an object toward how to develop
and optimize the ecological processes and systems of a constructed habitat. All
of these ideas contribute to the notion of sensuous ecologies.
A Focus on Ecological Processes
The construction of sensuous ecologies involves the rigorous integration of
inherent site conditions into the design process – including the ecological
systems, bioorganic and natural processes and energy flows that occur in and
around the site. This process generates innovative and optimally performing
design solutions through the development of symbiotic relationships and connections among the variant and seemingly independent processes of the occu-
Constructing Sensuous Ecologies
pants, the built environment and the natural environment. Constructing
sensuous eco­logies results in the development of multi-sensory and engaging
constructed habitats that sustainably evolve the social, economic and natural
ecologies of their contextual sites. This design approach inherently encourages
exploration of the performance potential of incorporating ecological behaviors
– multivalent, adaptive, sensuous, spatial, parametric and systemic – into the
design process.
In order to design optimally performing constructed habitats in a rigorous way,
we must establish a robust metric system for performance evaluation at the
beginning of the design process. Thus, it is necessary to review the effectiveness
of current performance goals in the building industry to determine how they
relate to the development of sensuously constructed habitats.
In this endeavor, it is necessary to evaluate current goals for sustainable design
and to place current arguments related to energy efficiency and the control of
carbon emissions into perspective. In general, these goals are focused on generating net zero carbon or a potential energy surplus in the built environment. To
this end, one of the most cost-effective measures for reducing global emissions
of carbon dioxide is to improve the energy efficiency of buildings. Thermal
conditioning systems account for approximately 50% of the energy consumed
in buildings, making these systems ideal candidates for improving energy
efficiency and reducing the operational cost of buildings.1, 2 The performance
of energy efficient technologies such as solar panels and glazed wall assemblies
continues to improve, while the initial cost of these technologies continues
to decrease. It is projected that renewable energy technologies powered by
wind, water and solar inputs will be able to address the world’s total energy
demands more reliably than current energy sources. Some models predict a 92%
reduction in energy-related CO 2 emissions in the future, compared to the
emission levels seen in 2005.3, 4 These factors indicate that current sustainable
design goals focused on attaining net zero carbon and energy surplus can be
achieved through advances in building technologies, advances in building
energy sources or through a combination of the two. However, it is important
to note that aspects such as minimizing adverse solar radiation inputs and
energy loads, as well as connecting occupants to their contextual environments,
are unnecessary to achieving these goals. The approach leads to hermetically
sealed building environments that disconnect their occupants from the natural
An evolving disassociation between buildings and their natural site conditions
is increasingly evident in current practice. Projects may be hailed as pinnacles
of sustainable design, ground breaking and LEED platinum certified simply by
checking off a list of typical appendages such as solar panels, plantable roofs
and rainwater collection schemes. Although meeting current sustainable design
goals, these projects fail to resolve the underlying and deeply negative impacts
that today’s buildings impose on the economic, social, natural and ecological
contexts in which they exist.
In order to redefine the performance metrics of sustainable design, it is necessary to look beyond today’s energy and carbon-related goals. A design’s
performance should be evaluated based on its potential to generate measurably
positive symbiotic environments, and on its potential to work toward the creation
of mutually beneficial relationships among the natural, social and economic
ecologies that exist. Attention must be paid to these relationships at the level of
the constructed habitat, the local ecosystem and the global environment. But
how does one rigorously evaluate a design’s effects on these various eco­logical
Certain ecological economists, such as Herman Daly and Robert Costanza,
have developed a conceptual framework that, when applied to architecture,
suggests evaluating design solutions based on three categories of influence: the
natural environment, the social parameters and the economic parameters that
are involved in a project.5, 6 William McDonough, among others, has found in
his work that valuing social and natural parameters as much as economic ones
during the initial conceptual design phase yields significant fiscal surpluses while
generating innovative design solutions. He notes that companies that typically
focus only on the economic bottom line – those that consider natural and
social benefits as an afterthought – are detrimental to the performance, quality
and cost of the resultant design solution.7, 8 The individual weight and influence
given to the three general evaluation categories (environmental, social and economic) and the individual parameters within each category should be identified
and determined by the project design team. They are project specific, as the
environment of each site is composed of unique conditions and issues. Although
these three categories should be considered equally in the design process – and
considered as part of the overall project objectives – individual factors within a
project will dictate which specific categories and parameters need to be more
heavily weighed or given greater attention. This is similar to the performance
of an ecosystem, in which key species and processes have greater effects on its
performance and integrity than others.
In order to generate a metric system for evaluating and designing constructed
habitats, we can turn to the work of ecologists who recognize that natural ecosystems are sustained by their ecological integrity and inherent biodiversity.
Ecologists define integrity as an ecosystem’s ability to perform nature’s services,
evaluated in terms of biodiversity, stability, resilience, sustainability and naturalness. Among these five criteria, biodiversity is considered to be the most
important factor, and thus it is the primary metric for evaluating the integrity
of a given natural ecosystem.9, 10 Like ecosystems and other ecological processes,
constructed habitats are highly complex, interdependent and constantly in flux,
albeit in different ways. All are continuously acting and reacting with a diverse
range of individual and systemic components and processes. Ecologists have
determined that the integrity of a natural ecosystem is dependent on the degree
Establishing Performance Design Goals
Constructing Sensuous Ecologies
of dynamic and complex interrelationships therein. This makes it difficult to
objectively distinguish parameters and processes that advance, from those that
diminish, the quality of an ecosystem. This also makes it difficult to define and
evaluate the performance of overall systems and processes.11 Given the parallels
that exist, similar challenges are likely to arise when establishing the metric
system for evaluating constructed habitats.
Despite these challenges, ecologists do measure the performance of ecosystems by their ability to ‘support and maintain a balanced, adaptive community.’12
Transferring this to the built environment indicates that constructed habitats
and ecosystems – including the building systems, components and processes
that comprise them – should be evaluated based on their flexibility and ability
to adapt to current and future changes. At the same time, they should be able
to support and maintain the building’s necessary programs and functions at a
high level of performance.13 Thus, a building’s performance must be evaluated
on a wide range of factors and scales: from the level of the microhabitat, or the
individual spaces and systemic processes of a building, to the level of the local
and the global environment.
In order to approach different metrics and scales in the evaluation of built
environments, ecosystems can be classified into two categories: natural and
constructed. A natural ecosystem refers to the biological community in a given
area, the abiotic components of the environment and the biophysical feedback
that is generated through their interactions; taken together, these interactions
produce and regulate every life supporting function on the planet. These include
climate regulation, water filtration and nutrient and energy cycles. Natural
ecosystems such as rainforests, deserts and prairies sustain both human and
natural communities without producing negative natural, social or economic
effects.14 Every natural ecosystem is at some risk of modification and degradation
by human activities. High-risk ecosystems, the ones in danger of losing their
distinct biodiversity and ecological integrity, are becoming increasingly prevalent. They are found primarily in regions with high human population densities
or high levels of natural resource exploitation. Currently, direct habitat alter­
ation – including loss, degradation and fragmentation – is the primary cause
of damage to the integrity and biodiversity of natural ecosystems. The artificial
introduction of alien species is the second most important cause.15
of the constructed ecosystem as well. To cite one example out of many, natural
ecosystems act to reduce solar radiation and replenish local aquifers. When sites
are developed, these are typically replaced with stretches of barren, non-porous
concrete topography which cause downstream flooding, municipal sewer
overflow, topsoil degradation and increases in the urban heat island effect. Constructed separation – removing nature from human processes, perception, interactions, and environments – reduces people’s awareness of the adverse effects
of their parasitic interactions with the natural environment and has led to a
lost sense of place.16, 17, 18, 19 Humanity’s disconnect from nature has led to the
perception that humans are not an interdependent component of nature, and
contributes to the widespread misconception that the exploitation of natural
processes and ecosystems does not affect the performance of constructed ecosystems. As these perceptions persist and constructed ecosystems continue to
subjugate natural ecosystems on a worldwide scale, levels of pollution will continue to rise, threatening local and global economies, agricultural supplies and
communities, while the problems of climate change and toxicity of the land,
air and water will continue to pose very real threats for human survival.
Although it is common practice, this subjugating approach to development
is certainly not required. It is possible for constructed ecosystems to be developed in symbiotic ways, when natural ecosystems and processes are understood
as valuable design elements. This perspective reconnects natural and human
processes and environments, considering them to be interdependent, and in the
end indistinguishable. The development of symbiotic ecosystems will generate
more effective and mutually beneficial interrelationships while promoting a
sense of place through the preservation and experience of natural environments.20
All of these aspects provide direct benefits and values for a building’s users.
Detailing Metrics of Importance
When constructed ecosystems such as buildings, cities and regions are developed,
natural ecosystems are actively subjugated in the process. The integrity of natural
ecosystems is compromised and their biodiversity is dramatically reduced; they
are no longer able to generate and regulate their own biogeochemical cycles,
produce raw materials or sustain life for the various species that rely upon them.
Furthermore, the potential benefits and values that could be derived from the
innate natural processes and components of the contextual site are displaced.
This detrimentally impacts not only the natural ecosystem but the performance
The effects of an individual building on the local natural environment can be
evaluated based on their potential for contributing to local biodiversity and
natural processes and systems. Most buildings are posited within pre-existing
built environments and their design should be considered based on the scale of
the natural and constructed ecosystems that exist within these environments.
Scale consists of metrics derived from a given location, providing one way to
evaluate a building’s performance in regard to the interrelationships of external
(and internal) biotic (and abiotic) components and processes. Buildings must be
of an appropriate scale for these interrelationships to exist, and as such, scale is
integral to grounding a building within the context and processes of a given site.
Next, the social ecology of the built environment provides metrics pertaining
to the contextual environment and its inhabitants, highlighting a myriad of
potentially symbiotic ecological interrelationships. When constructed habitats
are built with these metrics in mind, they can help form a sense of place and
community, while improving the quality of life, mental health and physical
health of their inhabitants by providing spaces for communal engagement and
Natural Ecology Metrics: Ecosystem Scale
Constructing Sensuous Ecologies
social services. Sensitively addressing the social metrics of a site will benefit
productivity and creativity, among other potential social parameters that may
be engaged.21, 22, 23
In regard to the metrics of economic ecology, in order to evaluate a project’s
economic performance, it is important to note that a building’s operational costs
significantly outweigh initial construction costs. They account for up to 75% of
a building’s lifecycle costs.24 The development of innovative, highly performing
constructed habitats, systems and processes can significantly improve a project’s
economic performance. To this end, current building practices are not always
the most efficient or the best performing, especially when the innate natural
processes of the contextual site – along with their innate values – are subjugated
and displaced. Every non-farming industry in the US has improved productivity
since the 1970’s except for the construction industry, which has experienced
steady productivity declines.54 The creation of sensuous ecologies may provide
one way to reverse this trend.
Design Process for Constructing Sensuous Ecologies
The construction of sensuous ecologies relies upon exploring the performance
potential of multivalent ecological systems (environmental, social and economic)
and integrating them into the design process. Investigating performance-based
strategies during the pre-design process will have the greatest impact in terms
of simplifying construction, decreasing the building’s initial and operational
costs and reducing the build schedule. However, in order to effectively incorporate ecological systems into the performance-based design process, it is essential for the individual project members to be well versed in how these ecological
systems function. Ecological components always result in a complex matrix of
interdependent processes and components, bridging the environmental, social
and economic worlds; this poses a substantial difficulty in identifying the
influence of individual components and evaluating their interrelationships. In
addition, variations between these components do not occur in a linear fashion,
and therefore, making slight and seemingly insignificant changes to one may
significantly affect the others.
In relation to the building design process, it is important to understand,
represent and evaluate the performance of individual project parameters as interrelated parts of larger systems within the constructed habitat; and to understand
that the constructed habitat itself is nested within still larger systems, including
the contextual ecosystem and the global environment. In the development of
sensuous ecologies, those participating in the design process must rigorously
determine the potential beneficial interactions between various parameters that
may have been previously considered as unrelated. This process will reveal gaps,
disjunctions and conflicts between variant parameters that could negatively
impact the performance of the constructed habitat as a whole.
The typical, linear practice of designing a geometrical building form and
visual envelope is significantly more inefficient than the design process pro-
posed here; the typical, linear practice attempts to force the building infrastructure and other project parameters to fit within a given site. In contrast, the
ecological design process leading to the creation of sensuous ecologies allows
for effective performance optimization through the development of symbiotic
interrelationships between the building and the site. The resulting design outcome is more malleable and responsive to the performance analyses generated
during the conceptual design process. This is because the function and design
of individual parameters, as well as the overall design options, can be adjusted
without having to fit within predetermined project constraints, such as the
visual and geometrical character of already designed spaces and forms. This
flexibility is achieved by giving priority to the processes and interrelationships
that the building will engage in over the design of individual programmatic
and spatial considerations. This approach to the allocation, design and development of space – including the building envelope and its forms and programs –
results from investigating the potentials for integration. This leads to a more
exploratory and investigative design process, helping to generate innovative
design outcomes and interactions between the occupants, the building and the
natural ecosystems within a newly constructed habitat.
Why Sensuous?
Ecosystems are intertwined matrices of sensations and perceptions, a collective
field of physical experiences lived through many different perspectives.25
Merleau–Ponty defines an individual’s perception as an on-going interchange
between one’s sensually engaging body and the entities that surround it.26 As
people inhabit their contextual environments, they become attuned to the
inherent qualities and characteristics of the perceived objects. Natural ecosystems are inherently sensuous environments that engage the body through the
variant sensory perceptions of ecological processes. This engagement is at the
basis of developing symbiotic interrelationships and interconnections between
humans and the natural environment. The research in biophilia and restorative
environments, for instance, has shown that human interaction with the inherently dynamic and sensually stimulating natural environment helps to promote
people’s physical, intellectual and emotional well-being.
This is because the stimuli from variant animate and inanimate natural processes have informed the development and evolution of human beings’ physical,
emotional, problem solving, critical thinking and constructive abilities; they
have been fundamental to human health, maturation and productivity for millennia.27, 28, 29 It is only within the last 5000 years that human civilization has
progressively severed its connections with the natural environment. The development of technology and constructed, man-made environments has come to
isolate, mask and remove the natural environment, replacing it with the principally non–stimulating, sensually bereft one that civilizations have chosen to
develop and inhabit. The past two centuries have been exponentially destructive
in this regard. Mechanized living dominates people’s environmental existence,
Constructing Sensuous Ecologies
obviating the potential to sense the natural environment and deterring people
from occupying and interacting with the external environment. The widespread adoption of air conditioning, for example, has led to the thermally constant, sealed interiors of buildings and vehicles, all but eliminating the benefits
derived from human sensory connections and interactions with the temperature changes of the natural environment.30, 31, 32 Humanity’s current sensory
deprivation has led to the loss of a sense of place.33, 34, 35 However, developing
habitats that interweave the natural ecosystem with the constructed ecosystem
is one approach that has the potential for creating environments with much
more intensity and nuance than current static ones permit.36
In addition to the approaches drawn from the field of economic ecology
discussed above, attention restoration theory provides another means to consider
the performance of sensuously constructed habitats from the perspective of their
human inhabitants. Directed attention is required for critical thinking, problem
solving and creativity, but an individual’s directed attention progressively
diminishes as the mental effort becomes prolonged, leading to a condition called
directed attention fatigue (DAF). DAF causes people to become easily distracted,
impatient, less willing to help others, hasty, irritable and more impulsive. Human
productivity and effectiveness are thus directly linked to one’s directed attention,
and there are very real economic consequences for DAF. This form of mental
fatigue can be addressed with restorative environments.
Four general qualities determine the performance of a restorative environment: being away, fascination, extent and compatibility. Being away is more of
an abstract concept than a physical one. It is focused on getting away from
unwanted distractions that require sustained, directed attention. If one moves
to a different environment but is still focused on old thoughts, then the new
environment will not be restorative. However, a familiar environment viewed
from a different perspective or frame of mind can be restorative, which can lead
to the development of functionally dynamic spaces.37
Fascinating stimuli are environmental elements, events or processes that
people find engaging and attractive. They inhibit boredom and function as distractions, allowing time away from prolonged, directed attention. There are two
types of fascinating stimuli: soft and hard. The soft fascination stimuli are effortless without directed, involuntary attention, thereby allowing one to achieve
relief and restoration.38 Natural phenomena such as waves crashing against a
shoreline or the view of a fiery sunrise are the most common examples. The hard
fascination stimuli are events and objects that require significant attention such
as a soccer game, movie or immersive virtual game environment; these have been
found to be less restorative. Recovering from DAF involves removing so-called
cognitive clutter and restoring the capacity for directed attention and reflection
in order to refresh one’s mind. This process is similar to various meditation
processes and may involve reflections on a person’s ‘life, priorities, possibilities,
actions, and goals.’39
Next, the environment must provide a certain extent; it must be coherent and
sufficient enough to allow one’s senses to engage in stimulating exploration, be
it real or imagined. For example, relatively small areas can be designed to provide
a sense of extensity, making them seem larger, such as Chinese and Japanese
gardens. Compactness, such as when occupying a cave, may even generate a
feeling of inhabiting a different world. Extent can also function on a more conceptual level. For example, historical artifacts provide a sense of connection to
the past and its people and environments, thus linking the viewer to a larger
world of mental engagement.40
And in the end, the environment must be compatible with what people want
to do, allowing them to perform their desired activities effortlessly. Prompt and
useful feedback from the environment is necessary in order to help achieve one’s
purposes. This is necessary for the design of restorative environments, otherwise,
they end up only as momentary diversions or distractions, being irrelevant and
inconsequential. Natural environments are perceived as being highly restorative
for the myriad of purposes they provide, such as the potentials for observing
animals and plants, hiking, camping and meditation.41
Highly performing restorative environments can help regenerate direct attention even if the amount of exposure is brief. Research has shown that restoration
can take as little as ten minutes, but in general the amount of time it takes to
fully restore the level of direct attention varies.42 When they are well-conceived,
restorative environments stimulate the kind of activities that promote mental,
social and physical health, which in turn increase efficiency, productivity and
economic value.43, 44, 45, 46 The degree of sensual engagement – or the degree of
direct interaction with the environment devoid of distractions – determines
the environment’s restorative capabilities. Direct interactions are more sensually
engaging: they may include the feel of the sun and wind on one’s skin while
listening to the rustle of leaves, as opposed to looking at a tree from the window
of a static office space. Through the design approach and methods proposed here,
it is possible to construct sensual environments that are hybrids of restorative
spaces and socially collaborative spaces, functioning at the level of individual
buildings and at the level of the community; current built environments have
failed to foster such restorative conditions. 45, 46 The key is to redefine buildings
as constructed habitats: as active, interconnected environments that engage the
local ecosystem and its dynamic ecological processes.
Why Multivalent?
Each building process, component and system is typically designed to perform
a single, specific function; once a person’s senses become accustomed to these
functions, they are no longer sensually stimulating.47 Infrastructure systems
such as those for water circulation are usually designed to be hidden from view,
save for their casings. Typically, the architect’s aesthetic design focus rests on the
visual expression of the building’s geometry, leading to design schemes that fail
to engage or incorporate the potential of other sensory perceptions. This failure
is detrimental to the overall sensual quality and performance of the project.
Constructing Sensuous Ecologies
Why Natural?
In addition to the benefit of preserving natural ecologies for their roles in climate
regulation, water filtration, nutrient and energy cycles and various other life
sustaining functions, the incorporation of dynamic natural site conditions into
the built environment can generate a greater understanding of – and a greater
connection with – the inherent processes of the local environment. This approach
helps define a greater sense of place for a building’s inhabitants. Naturally
occurring inputs from the site such as vegetation, wind, water and solar energy,
among others, can be incorporated into the design process as posi­­tive performance inputs that inherently engage the human senses. For example, occupants
of naturally ventilated buildings prefer temperatures that are more closely related
to the local exterior environment and accept a significantly wider temperature
range as thermally comfortable. They inhabit and directly interact with the
exterior environment more than the occupants of air-conditioned buildings.
Natural ventilation also results in significant building lifecycle cost savings, along
with allowing for thermally dynamic interior envir­onments.48
With regard to natural thermal control, establishing a shifting porosity in
the building envelope is key to establishing a connection between the building’s
internal and external thermal qualities throughout the year. In winter, the
building envelope may be closed to the outdoors for heat retention; in summer,
the building may become porous, with a greater amount of external sensory
stimuli infiltrating the building and interacting with its occupants. An exterior
vegetated courtyard or a micro forest – drawing from and preserving the natural
vegetation, soil, hydrology and geology of the site – could be implemented.[1]
Such a design element could provide a naturally ventilated system for fresh air
that connects the occupants to their environment, while providing a seasonally
changing source of fascination. Vegetation arranged as a courtyard or micro
1 Design for a dynamic, vegetated courtyard. [Symbiosis Architecture]
On the other hand, in biological systems, multivalent infrastructure is the norm
rather than the exception. Tree branches function as a spatial network of material transport, an integrated component of the tree’s solar shading as well as
its evapotranspiration thermal conditioning system. These systemic functions
facilitate high fascination stimuli through a variety of interactions with the
natural site conditions: the branches sway in response to local wind conditions
while the leaves filter the transmission of light and harvest solar energy. Dynamic
patterns of shadow are cast on the ground below while the leaves release moisture
into the atmosphere, cooling the surrounding local environment.
Incorporating multivalent interactions into the building design process, such
as those from biological systems can be translated to the design process, and
generate innovative spatial typologies that are more responsive to the potential
building programs and the needs of their occupants. In essence, the innate
processes of the building’s infrastructure are inherently dynamic; they can be
conceived as potential fascination stimuli, being designed to sensually engage
the building’s occupants.
forest can help filter air pollutants, lessen noise transmission, reduce summer
solar heat gain and serve to infiltrate the building with various aromas, all while
stimulating the inhabitants through seasonal changes. If the space is enclosed
in the winter, it can be utilized in the colder months as an occupiable, passive
solar heat gain system. This will reduce the building’s cooling and heating loads
throughout the year, reduce the size of the mechanical HVAC system and ducts,
and increase the quantity of usable space that mechanical rooms typically occupy.
Natural site conditions can thus be utilized as multivalent components of the
building’s infrastructure, thereby reducing project costs and leading to a more
dynamic and sensually stimulating environment.
Why Spatial?
In today’s architectural projects, natural site conditions are typically incorporated
into the design process as additive surfaces, taking the form of components
such as green roofs, solar panels and thick thermal walls. However, a different
approach emphasizing the incorporation of natural site conditions as sensuous
spatial components of the building’s infrastructure is significantly more effective.
Building processes and systems can be designed to allow occupants to sense and
perceive, and consequently understand, how the systems and processes function.
This direct engagement with building infrastructure generates more sensuous,
restorative environments.
For example, designing a pool that contains a certain quantity of water needed
to supply a set of fixtures is an indirect spatial element. Bodies of water naturally
generate informal spaces that foster social interactions. As the building occupants
observe the pool over time and perceive the water level fluctuating, as well as
changes in the quality of the water, they will become directly engaged with their
water resource in a spatial way. Alternatively, if the pool collected rainwater
Constructing Sensuous Ecologies
2 Sensuous Water Circulation System. [Symbiosis Architecture]
3 Water Circulation Typologies. [Symbiosis Architecture]
4 Overall Building Water Circulation System. [Symbiosis
from the building’s roof, the occupants would become sensually engaged with
the natural rainfall fluctuations of the site. The connection between the occupants and the site’s periodic precipitation could be further reinforced by distributing water to the pool through a network of channels, designed in a series of
fluctuating visual stimuli. If future building codes allowed for exposed water
circulation, water could fall at distinct heights and on a variety of materials. This
would provide a range of acoustic stimuli as well and a mask for noises, helping
to reduce occupant stress and improve overall perforance.49 As such, the circulation and storage of the building’s water resources can be designed as sensuously
perceptible elements.[2, 3, 4]
At the same time, more direct and occupiable infrastructure systems can
also function as restorative environments while incorporating the natural ecologies of the site. This leads to more effective design solutions – in terms of both
costs and performance – that can result in innovative programs for user and
system interactions. For example, this could take the form of a spatial, occupiable
thermal mass similar to a cave, built with dense materials such as concrete to
maintain a steady temperature throughout the year.[5] Alternately, this could take
the form of a spatial, occupiable micro forest incorporating the site’s natural
ecologies, as discussed above.
Considering typically negative natural inputs as potential positive design
inputs leads to innovative and more efficient results. Since the thermal mass
should be shielded from solar radiation in the summer, this would inherently
be a low light level, high contrast environment. This unique spatial typology
could also lead to innovative, sensuously engaging programs that provide new
opportunities to make building processes perceptible to, and interact with, the
occupants. The inherent acoustics of the space would be similar to that of a cave,
providing a calm auditory environment that focuses and accentuates singular
sounds – such as the dripping, cascading, or falling of water – providing auditory feedback response based on the space’s material and spatial properties. For
example, a rainwater gutter system that emits flowing paths of light as water
circulates would be accentuated in this high contrast environment. Likewise, the
rain hitting against the building would reverberate through the cavernous interior environment, effectively masking non–desirable sounds and generating
sensuous stimuli, while acoustically interlinking the occupants with the variant
natural processes of their contextual environment. This leads to the question of
how engaging occupants’ senses can generate feedback for the system, resulting
in highly responsive environments.
The contextual ecosystems that people inhabit are in a constant state of flux.
Climate change is leading to more extreme weather conditions with less frequent
but heavier rainfall each time. Seasonal fluctuations of temperature are becoming
more intense and more extreme. Surrounding buildings and environments
continuously transform through redevelopment, demolition, and construction
projects. In such a destabilizing environmental context, when evaluating the
potentials of responsive infrastructure, one should consider how biological and
natural systems constantly adapt – and thereby optimize – their performance
in response to feedback from dynamic environmental stimuli. This should be
considered at three temporal levels: in real-time (within seconds), over months
or years (in a biological developmental process) and finally over several generations (in species evolution).50
At the scale of the constructed habitat, programming spaces to effectively
accommodate their occupants’ needs is one of the key design drivers for a built
environment. Occupant needs change over the course of the day to accommodate different situations and required tasks for a specific user; these can also
change over the course of weeks, due to different functions or events taking
Why Adaptive and Responsive?
Constructing Sensuous Ecologies
5 Cave Infrastructure Spaces. [Symbiosis Architecture]
6 Pedestrian-activated light field. [Howler+Yoon Architects]
ecosystem and its dynamic ecological and social processes will be more adapt­
able than buildings produced through the existing, static process of design and
For example, Howler Yoon Architecture designed an acoustically and visually
responsive urban pedestrian environment for the Athens 2004 Olympics, called
White Noise/White Light. The design team constructed a grid of semi-flexible,
vertical fiber-optic strands that individually responded to the movement of
pedestrians by emitting white light and white noise when pedestrians passed
between them.[6] This design solution developed a visually and acoustically
engrossing, sensuous, restorative and fluctuating field of bending light and white
noise, effectively masking the surrounding urban noise pollution and creatively
incorporating human circulation processes as a parameter of the responsive
environment. At the building level, incorporating such responsive systems would
not only generate high fascination stimuli but could also contribute to the multivalent utilization of mechanical and other infrastructure spaces as restorative
environments for sensuous experience – drawing patterns of human movement
in to interact with patterns from nature.
In all, the examples provided here – the micro forest, the water bodies, the
cave-like thermal mass and the pedestrian environment – are all examples of
single components that could be incorporated into broader and more inclusive
systems in the pursuit of sensuously constructed ecologies. At their basis, these
systems would draw on the interrelationships and interconnections that exist
between buildings and the mutable, complex ecosystems that they inhabit.
place within the building; or they can change over the course of months or years
in response to the fluctuating contextual environment and the shifting occupancy
of the building.51 As such, building systems and spaces should have the potential to adapt to varying functions based on the real-time program needs of their
occupants. Responsive design solutions mean allowing for creative solutions to
a broad range of endemic design problems, such as adapting to unpredictable
local climate conditions and occupant needs in the future. This also includes
rigorously determining the performance benefits and design potentials of incorporating various ecological processes. And in the end, buildings that are constructed as habitats: active, interconnected environments that engage the local
Constructing sensuous ecologies redefines what is conventionally perceived as
the built environment through an exploratory-experimental design process,
producing a systemic network of constructed habitats. These habitats consist
of constructed and natural processes, systems and parameters that are innately
interdependent; at the same time, they directly contribute to the quality of
their occupants’ well being, the quality of the global environment and the quality
of its myriad of ecosystems. The focus of the sensuous design process is the
development and optimization of ecological processes, building systems and
system components, highlighting their relationships within an environmental
context. This process reevaluates how people interact with and benefit from
individual project parameters; it fosters and strengthens connections between
the human and natural environments. In order to generate positive, symbiotic
built environments it is essential to incorporate the valuable ecological systems,
processes and components that exist within a given site. This approach evolves
the purpose of design from merely accommodating human processes and
needs to one that balances and interrelates various ecologies (environmental,
social and economic). Each project parameter or requirement can be seen as a
potential asset to the design process, rather than a negative limitation. As the
range of parameters grows, the system becomes more effective and resilient as a
Constructing Sensuous Ecologies
whole in relation to its contextual ecosystem.52, 53 Project parameters are reconsidered as innately sensuous, multivalent, natural, spatial and responsive. This
approach results in the development of highly performing form-places that blur
the boundary between natural and constructed ecologies. The results are more
effectively defined by design parameters such as microclimatic boundaries and
environmental stimuli, rather than through typical mechanistic boundaries
and divisions that result from the current design process.
Symbiosis and Mimesis in the Built Environment
— Luca Finocchiaro and Anne Grete Hestnes
The Scottish biologist D’Arcy Thompson, in his book On Growth and Form,
argues that the form of any organism can be read as a diagram of forces, ‘not
merely the nature of the motion – according to kinetics – but also the conformation of the organism itself.’1 Any living form bears the physical record of all
the different external forces that were exerted on it during its growth and evolution. The balance between the external forces and the internal disposition determines the robustness or the fragility of form in its continuous evolution. D’Arcy
Thompson’s book gives a clear understanding of the production of form as a
meaningful process. Robert Venturi, in his book Complexity and Contradiction in
Architecture, quotes Thompson and associates architectural design to the growth
of a vegetable, influenced by external forces and internal genetic code.2 Sustainable design presumes the same equilibrium between the external and the internal
prerequisites of form. But in the physical dimensions of the environment,3 external forces become tangible and quantifiable variables that make the production
of form dependent on technology. The notion of sustainability stands for the
external-internal symbiosis in regard to nature, based on a rational use of available
resources and technologies. In sustainable thinking, architecture is bound by
the scientific principles of the physical environment; these principles influence
the way built forms are produced as well as their aesthetics, the way they affect.
Le Corbusier compared the idealized built form to a soap bubble that is
‘perfect and harmonious if the air is evenly distributed and perfectly ordered
from the inside.’4 However, to achieve sustainable design, the built form cannot
be determined by conditions of insular interiority. It must be conditioned by
the external environment and by the need to engage in bi-directional breathing
through the medium of its materials. Sustainable design requires:
… a change in our approach toward materiality, away from an understanding
of material as exclusively physical and tangible, to include both the physical and
the non physical – climate, sound or economics as well, as wood, steel or glass …
This expanded notion of materiality liberates built form from a dualist approach
that separates … production from perception.5
While questioning the use of materials, sustainable design also calls into question the use of a unique system of dimensions in the production of form, as
dimensions have a direct impact on the ability of a form to engage with its
Achieving spatial continuity between the interior and the exterior – and
the consequent dematerialization of physical boundaries – is also an objective
dimension of sustainable design. Temperature, humidity and air speed values
represent the perceptible manifestation of climate outside of form. They also
characterize the desired climatic conditions inside of form. The quantitative
Symbiosis and Mimesis in the Built Environment
comparison between the exterior and the interior, considered to be the basis
of sustainable design,6 rests on the analysis of these environmental parameters.
Their values also inform the science underlying the production of sustainable
form, leading to forms that achieve a balance of forces in ways that are verifiable
through calculations and simulations; the goal is to enhance the disposition of
all the components within the form and the overall environmental sensitivity
of the form itself. Essentially, the qualities of sustainable design lie in achieving
the exterior-interior balance.
Le Corbusier was aware that the way form follows function affects the way
that form is perceived. For him, the movement of the human eye inside of form
was the basis of its perception, while the relationship of movement and perception was structured by the architectural plan. Le Corbusier defined the plan as
‘the generator, carrying in itself the promise of sensation. Without plan is disorder, arbitrariness.’7 For Le Corbusier – working from the position of modernist
principles – the architectural plan provided a primary tool for experimenting,
evolving and elaborating a new aesthetics in architecture.
However, sustainability imposes a new set of principles on the production
of architectural form and aesthetics in response to the consideration of environmental variables. Sustainable forms have to enter into a symbiotic relationship
with the natural environment and engage in the act of breathing. Breathing is
achieved by implementing an exterior-interior dialogue through the maximum
use of natural light, the movement of air and the flow of energy. These natural
phenomena may be controlled with air stratification, stack effect and cross
ventilation, conduction and the reflection of light and sound. Ideally, sustainable
forms would adapt to the environment in a manner analogous to a living organism, responding to the context and seeking balance with its climate, culture and
nature. While Le Corbusier focused on the architectural plan in his explorations
of form, today’s sustainable architects may focus on the architectural section
instead, in order to achieve the objectives of breathing, symbiosis and the effective control of environmental phenomena. In the instance of sustainability, the
section reveals the formal characteristics, dimensioning and composition needed
for sustainable architecture.[1]
Early attempts to consider the environment in architectural form can be seen
in Candilis, Josic and Woods’ 1964 design for the Berlin Free University. The
architects stated that their design was ‘an attempt to discover structuring principles that might be used for the organization of the physical environment.’8
They aimed at inserting environmental concerns into the modernist imperative
that form follows function. In the Berlin Free University, the principles adopted
in the production of form guarantee the presence of small fragments of natural
air and light within the perimeter of the building. This fragmentation provides
the form with the ability to breathe, while enabling the creation of a more
perfect microclimate within the perimeter of the building that draws from – yet
substitutes for – the existing climate on the exterior. The resulting typology
was described as a mat-building due to its horizontality, and due to its implica-
tions of infinite expansion across the landscape. Criticism of the typology
centers on the idea that the mat-building is an environmentally deterministic
model for architecture. However, in these early explorations at the Berlin Free
University, the mat-building ‘provided a means through which the outside
could be controlled, much in the same way as the interior environment was
climatically controlled.’9
The design of Le Corbusier’s Venice Hospital was based on the production
of form from the interior, and the building is identified as part of the matbuilding typology.[2] In the Venice Hospital, the form represents the physical
expression of the internal functional program, while the circulation system was
used to determine the arrangement of the functional units. The form was
strategically designed to increase the building’s flexibility, but environmental
considerations were made as well. In dimensioning the overlapping circulation
grids, Julián de La Fuente, a project architect of Le Corbusier at the time,
appealed to the study of the climate charts of Venice. The resulting organization
was characterized by a remarkable continuity with the Venetian urban fabric,
and in that continuity, the building’s breathing became implicit with the climatic
patterns of Venice. Both the Berlin Free University and the Venice Hospital
represent two significant examples of how the development of form is affected
when embedded with environmental concerns. In mat-buildings, the external
boundary is fragile and less valuable: the form itself loses significance. Environmental sensitivity is instead identified with the circulation grids on which the
functional program is organized. The grids, the internal code, guarantee the
growth and survival of the form.
The goals of functional and environmental performance suggest the use of
different principles in the production of architectural form; this contradiction
unavoidably creates tensions in the design process. Venturi asserts that those
tensions ‘help make architecture,’10 giving the wall an architectural meaning as
a spatial record of their resolution. ‘Since the inside is different from the outside,
the wall – the point of change – becomes an architectural event.’ When those
tensions do not find a solution in the wall, the envelope dilates itself until it
includes in-between spaces, and those interstices give ‘the exterior and the interior
a different order; an exterior not coinciding with the interior.’11
According to Venturi, the development of form represents an outside-in
process as opposed to a functional program where form grows from the insideout; this approach tends to dissociate performance and form. A similar approach
is true in sustainable design, where forms are tuned more strongly to the characteristics of the external environment than to the building’s internal program,
contrasting with the modernist dictum that form follows function. In sustainable design, the building form becomes a tool for the environmental control of
comfort parameters, to mediate between the external-natural environment and
the internal-artificial one. As a consequence, the environmental and functional
performances of form may be dissociated within the building and allocated to
different architectural components.
Symbiosis and Mimesis in the Built Environment
1 Hall 26 for the Deutsche Messe AG, Hanover (Thomas Herzog).
The section is a tool to control and improve the internal environmental
conditions. [Dieter Leistner, Thomas Herzog and Partners]
2 Le Corbusier’s Venice Hospital. [Luca Finocchiaro & Anne Grete Hestnes]
3 Akademie Mont-Cenis, Herne, Germany (Jourda and Perraudin). The form, as an environmental
performative device, is independent of the functional program. [Luca Finocchiaro & Anne Grete Hestnes]
4 SOKA BAU office building, Germany (Thomas Herzog) showing a different patchwork of
elements, each one with its own function. [Thomas Herzog and Partners]
In the Akademie Mont-Cenis in Herne, Germany, designed by the Lyonese
architects Françoise-Hélène Jourda and Gilles Perraudin, the form is an environmentally performative device that is totally independent of the functional
program. The Akademie consists of a timber truss and glass structure that forms
a shell, covering nine independent pavilions inside. The structure is almost
completely devoid of shading devices, aside from the photovoltaic panels integrated into the roof glazing to limit solar radiation. The external shell is devoted
to the creation of a microclimate for the pavilions inside.[3]
While the use of in-between spaces for environmental control in architecture
is nothing new, two fundamental ideas distinguish the Akademie from more
common type of integrated atria: the indeterminacy of the Akademie’s energy
strategy, and the total structural separation of its interior and exterior components. First, unlike most energy concepts, the architects do not clearly define a
specific energy strategy. The climatic factors are all simultaneously reflected in
contradictory conditions in order to underline the possibility of adapting to any
external environmental condition. In essence, the possible thermal corrections
inside the shell are infinitely variable. The second fundamental characteristic is
the total structural independence of the shell from the nine interior pavilions
where the different functions are located. On one hand, it can be said that the
contents lose significance: the pavilions are fragile in comparison with the container that is designed to survive functional changes. This characteristic is
physically expressed in the abstraction of the architectural components that constitute the shell: their homogeneity signifies uncertainty and unpredictability
of both the external and internal events. In contrast, the complex volumes of
the pavilions located inside the simpler container go against the tenet of an
intimate agreement between form and function.
Within current approaches to sustainable design, previously useless com­
ponents – in terms of their ability to interface with the environment – have
become useful for initiating the potential of breathing at all scales of the project.
Even in programs driven by the total environmental functionalism of form,
new architectural expressions do have the potential to take place, based on
the establishment of new forms that are sensitive to the conditions of the surrounding environment. While the goal of sustainability may bring about discrepancies in the production of forms, forms do have the potential to acquire
new architectural meanings that go beyond the modernist imperative of form
that follows function.
Working from the general objective of sustainable design, the exterior skin
will continue to channel and filter natural air and light into the interior, and
building components will be conceived as organs for the body, contributing to
the growth and the continued viability of the body as a whole. The constituent
organs will be proportionate, based on a system of principles to establish a
symbiotic relationship between the body and the external environment. The
composition of these elements will flow from an understanding of the external
environment, defining the strategies for air stratification, heat radiation, conduction, convection, evaporative cooling and the transmission and reflection
of daylight.
However, despite these ideal approaches to sustainable design, the physical
aspects of the environment are often contradictory; the mechanisms needed to
facilitate natural light may be different than those needed to facilitate heat and
airflow, often leading to contradictory directions and the application of various
complicated details in architectural form. As a consequence, different performance criteria are delegated to specialized equipment forming a patchwork of
mechanical elements.[4] Such fragmentation is often resolved in the application
of multiple skins. This current pattern of fragmentation and specialization is
analogous to the gradual dematerialization of the physical boundaries of form
Symbiosis and Mimesis in the Built Environment
made possible hundreds of years ago by the understanding of the dispersal of
static loads, as implemented in Gothic cathedral structures.
In sustainable design today, such mechanical complexity is usually
delegated to various engineers or experts throughout the different stages of the
design process in order to perform calculations, simulations and evaluations.
Today they rely on specialty software in combination with 3D modelers in order
to delve into the kind of complexities that were impossible to deal with only
twenty years ago. The numeric parameters that result from these evaluations
are fundamental to the development of meaningful and environmentally sensitive architectural forms. Engineers use advanced software to determine the
positioning of architectural components within the three dimensions of space,
based on a quantitative comparison between the exterior environment and the
desired interior conditions, and on the overall thermal performance of the
building. In this design process, successive iterations – alternating between cause
and effect – are essential to achieving the maximum efficiency of optimized form.
Within this digital approach, architects still maintain the primary role of
form-giver and the author of the final product, consistent with their underlying
aesthetic philosophies. Along with the use of digital tools in the design process,
algorithms and mathematical equations bring their own aesthetic layers to the
project regardless of the design intent of the architect. Some ‘see in the computer a chance to liberate architecture not only from the old formal rules but
also from the creator ego.’12 Current digital trends have inevitably influenced
the process of form-making and formal composition. Therefore, in sustainable
design, the physical performance of a building should be, in essence, inseparable
from its physical shape: architecture, engineering and aesthetics are supposed
to be integrated through the use of digital tools, into one.[5]
However, the formal outcomes of these digital processes are still intimately
tied to the designer’s understanding of environmental behavior and performance,
as well as to the designer’s aesthetic decisions. In a recent study conducted at
the Harvard Graduate School of Design by Lagios, Niemasz and Reinharton,13
the researchers found an infinite number of different but related shapes that
could be generated in parametric space. And out of this infinite number, they
were able to isolate a single shape that embodied the optimal criteria to resolve
the given architectural prerequisites, relative to the analyzed parameters. However, one shortcoming is that such a solution is only valid within the range of
parameters held constant during the analysis. As the authors of the study discussed in their work, there is no ‘single, ideal performative solution that will
reveal itself during the process and which consequentially “has” to be used by
the designers.’14 In addition to this, they also found that it is rather difficult to
control a large number of parametric variables simultaneously. While ‘some
designers might be inclined to use’ parametric analyses ‘as a form-giver for their
designs,’ the researchers suggest that ‘others might use it to understand how a
building form reacts’ in order to evaluate the impact and robustness of specific
parameters. Consequently, the aesthetics of sustainable architecture may not
be considered an objective scientific exercise that provides the single most suited
version to the given requirements. In this case, the outcome depends on the
subjective aesthetic choices, albeit highly informed, of the designer as the author.
In general, the energy efficiency of form is based on two complimentary
criteria: the optimization of environmental behavior on one hand, and the
maximization of internal thermal performance and its technical apparatus efficiency on the other. The first criterion refers to a morphological approach that
relies on passive strategies for environmental behavior, such as cardinal solar
orientation, surface geometry and compliments to reduce infrared radiation;
these strategies minimize energy consumption through the building envelope
by means of composition. The second criterion refers to an engineering approach
that defines the technical characteristics of form, maximizing the efficiency of
climate control equipment and devices. In recent years, the traditional boundary
between the two approaches has become less clear, moving toward a more integrated one and pointing to the kind of architecture that is no longer analogous
to a body on life supporting machines. Under the current tenets of sustainable
design in combination with digital technology, the form and its technology
should be integrated, and together, adapted to environmental variables. The
technical equipment is no longer considered to be grafted on at the end of the
project; rather, the technology is integral to the formal logic of the building from
the beginning. Calculations and simulations for energy efficiency and environmental sensitivity have become the means by which the formal exploration of
new architectural scenarios can take place. But, ‘The point is that the architect
thinks more about the technical consequences of the forms he designs and
the engineers have to consider more the aesthetic results of their concepts and
The term Archi-neering, [6] coined by Helmut Jahn, Werner Sobek and
Matthias Schuler, envisions a total integration between the disciplines of architecture and engineering. Implicit in this term is the potential to overcome the
traditional boundary between the low-tech and the high-tech as two possible
alternatives for sustainability. Archi-neering, as low-tech architecture, is based
on maximizing inputs from the environment and its resources and materials,
however, the approach also considers the possibility of resorting to technology
to reinforce the dialogue between the interior and the exterior.
The current potential to integrate architecture and engineering indicates that
the disjunction between the internal conditions of a building – its function,
structure and services – and the kind of technical equipment needed to sustain
them, will disappear. In essence, form and performance will converge and this
integration occurs through the permeability of the building envelope and the
provision of different devices that respond to natural phenomena, so that the
overall form may adapt its breathing to the climatic variations of the given environment. Often, the result of this approach is a building that is simple in shape,
yet complex in technological content. One example is the California Academy
of Sciences building by Renzo Piano.[7] This building responds to environmental
Symbiosis and Mimesis in the Built Environment
5 London City Hall (Foster & Associates). The form was
conceived to optimize the thermal performance in relation
to the sun. [Foster & Associates] 6 The roof structure of the
Sony Center, Berlin (Helmut Jahn). [Maurizio Fedullo]
7 California Academy of Science, San Francisco (Renzo Piano Building Workshop). [RPBW, Nic Lehoux]
8 Commerzbank Headquarters, Frankfurt (Foster & Associates). [Luca Finocchiaro & Anne Grete Hestnes]
variables in such a way that the term high-tech cannot be identified with the
kind of environmental controls that are appended to the body as an afterthought. Instead, the building represents a transformative process in which the
traditional static envelope is made adaptable through its inherent morphology,
engineering and technology.
Within this approach, characterized as the total environmental functionalism
of form, the artificial environment becomes more organic, while its aesthetics
become closer to the adaptation found in nature. Over the past few decades,
the accelerated development of advanced materials and techniques has led to
the emergence of sophisticated artificial codes for the built environment. Such
codes contribute to the design of rigorous, adaptable envelopes, significantly
raising the intimacy between form and climate. At the same time, this process
makes less clear the once familiar relationship between the climatic context
and the construction materials and techniques of vernacular architecture. For
example, new airtight and highly insulating envelopes have the potential to
replace the vernacular compact shapes in frigid climates, providing a range of
new architectural possibilities. In addition, due to the availability of new materials and techniques, the characteristics of a given vernacular may be extrapolated
and integrated into new systems in different combinations and contexts. Passive
strategies that were once closely connected to specific climates and locales may
now expand beyond their applicable geographic boundaries.
The aesthetics of sustainable design is thus an evolving process crucially
connected to the technological development of new materials and techniques.
However, it is important to return to the more subjective ideas of beauty when
considering sustainable design. For Euclid, the aesthetic experience of form,
especially the sense of beauty, was most perfect when the geometric properties
of form could be described in terms of numbers. From this position, Jürgen
Schmidhuber describes and postulates an algorithmic theory of beauty that takes
the subjectivity of the observer into account. Schmidhuber states that ‘among
several observations, classified as comparable by a given subjective observer,
the aesthetically most pleasing one is the one with the shortest description.’16
This conception of beauty is based in simplicity and inherently linked to the
extent of attention by the observer, and to the ability to understand the meaning
of form through certain regularities such as repetitions, symmetries and selfsimilarity.
Sustainable design presumes a rational approach in the production of form.
The use of advanced algorithms and digital modeling provides architects with a
rational means to implement order and harmonic relations among the various
components. Mies van der Rohe classified as true those forms that were built
according to the logic of their materials; for him, this notion of truth represented
a fundamental requirement of beauty. In sustainable design, forms that can be
said of as true go beyond material rationality to enter into a sensitive dialog with
the environment: truth lies in avoiding the superfluous and the redundant, in
accordance with nature, while preserving what is essential. Truth may lie in
finding the balance between the external and the internal, without engaging in
pointless exercises of self-referential form-making. The affective qualities of
sustainable design are not only based on rationality and order, but also on environmental sensitivity and lightness, achieved through the maximization of the
interior-exterior dialog.[8] In this way, the skin of sustainable forms is often
characterized by a pronounced permeability, while the internal space is adaptable
and sensitive to the external environment.
The recurrent analogy of sustainable architecture to living organisms does not
come from a romantic idea of achieving a peaceful reconciliation with nature.
Instead, this analogy is based on the view that architecture should be part of
nature, brought into symbiosis with environmental forces in order to move the
artificial world closer to the organic one. Extending the analogy between architecture and living organisms is the practice of applying the logic and values of
Symbiosis and Mimesis in the Built Environment
systems found in nature to sustainable architecture. In his observation of bees,
Colin Maclaurin, a mathematician in the 18th century, states that ‘the perfection of mathematical beauty is such that whatsoever is most beautiful and regular
is also found to be the most useful and excellent.’ Particles of cells, tissues, shells
and bones all ‘have been moved, molded and conformed in obedience to the
laws of physics.’17
Over the past few decades, the field of biomimetics has drawn, as the term
implies, from natural forms and processes in order to deal with artificial human
problems. It is based on the Aristotelian assumption that if there is an answer
to a problem, it has probably already been found by nature. The biomimetic
process of mimicking natural organisms is based on understanding and abstracting the underlying functional principles of biology. The resulting forms are seen
as the manifestations of the specific necessity for self-preservation that is thought
of as aesthetic. As discussed by Dennis Dollens,18 Janine Benyus refers to biomimetics as:
… the technical term used in biochemistry, biology, pharmaceuticals, and by
material scientists in their quest for properties in living organisms and natural
systems that can be extrapolated from observation and scientific analysis, in
order to recreate those properties for industrial, medical, and biological products.19
In architecture, this view of biomimetics points to a means of achieving sym­
biosis, an instrument for the production of sustainable forms. However, architecture represents another reality altogether when compared to the natural world.
Architecture is part of the artificial, built environment, a synthetic parallel to
the natural world that is conceived, designed and constructed by people in ways
that are often unconscious of – and in conflict with – the natural world. In this
sense, architecture would require a set of approaches that are different from other
disciplines that have more direct connections to biomimetics.
The other component of architecture that is inspired by natural forms is the
so-called ‘digitally grown architecture.’20 This type of architecture is conceived
of as grown, as opposed to being assembled of standardized parts. Its designers
will have to develop and produce each form as a unique whole, specific to a given
project and context. For example, Dennis Dollens acknowledges that in order
to realize his experimental models inspired by natural forms, it is necessary to
develop advanced materials that possess biological properties that do not exist
in the present day. He emphasizes that these kinds of forms should not be seen
as buildings but as ‘concepts and experimentations in design research.’21 As
such, they cannot be adopted for the built environment as they cannot be supposed to fulfill the kind of architectural requirements related to the function
and materiality necessary for human habitation. This inevitably results in the
production of digital forms that embody only the superficial appearance of
nature’s phenomena, without being able to function as buildings.
The potential benefit of incorporating biomimetic processes into architecture
can be framed as a way of finding ‘a more efficient use of materials or … the
development of lighter components and structures integrating different performances.’22 For example, living organisms may inspire new architectural models
for the optimal response to thermal variations, as a way of finding optimal solutions for responding to the natural heat source of the sun. However, the call for
environmental responsiveness in architecture, derived from the adoption of
natural forms, can be misleading. Often, natural forms are simplistically translated to the appearance of architecture, and this translation does not add up to
any measure of environmental sensitivity or sustainability other than that they
look organic and natural.
Another compelling argument for taking inspiration from the organic world
is that nature integrates and adapts technical, functional and aesthetic values
in the most efficient way possible, based on millennia of adaptation and optimization. Architects have attempted to translate these properties into sustainable
design through methods such as botanical algorithms. However, the growth of
forms within these algorithms is continuous, undisturbed and most of all,
unnaturally pure. The discrepancies and disturbances that occur in nature are
either conveniently excluded or impossible to model due to the infinite variations
of complexity. In their homogeneity and perfection, the so-called digitally grown
forms do not mimic the natural world or confer any benefits from the natural
process of adaptation to architecture. Indeed, the resulting forms are contrary
to the actualities of the organic world, where responses and adaptations to natural events, both nominal and catastrophic, often determine the outcome of a
species’ form and function. Such a simplistic approach results in unbridled
randomness, contradicting the fundamental basis of biomimetic processes.
In current practice, architecture as a discipline has accumulated the foun­
dational knowledge necessary to advance the project of sustainable design; the
exploration of natural forms has been meaningful in this process. The increasing
ubiquity of advanced 3D modeling and simulation software has enabled architects to conceive of highly complex forms, to analyze their structures and to
evaluate their behaviors in relation to natural phenomena. The use of software
has also altered the creative process through which architecture is conceived,
and modified the aesthetics to which a project may be referred. When combined
with environmental consciousness, 3D modeling is often directed toward affective form-making, alluding to the goals of sustainable architecture. However,
the projects produced in this way often differ in regard to language, concept
and design approach. It is therefore necessary to reflect on the position of sustainability in the current technocentric architecture, in a way that goes beyond the
etymology of the terms biomimeticism and sustainability. Simplistic approaches
to biomimetic form-making, with no regard for environmental factors and scope,
are devoid of the process necessary for substantive mimesis. These approaches
reduce architecture to bare visual affectation lacking the design’s relationship to
the natural processes it purports to reflect. In this way, sustainable architecture
is hollow and only skin deep.
The recurrent identification of organic forms with the notion of sustainability
Symbiosis and Mimesis in the Built Environment
has generated quite a few misconceptions about the word sustainable. Today it
… hardly essential that a sustainable architecture look naturalistic. It seems that
a building that looks like a natural organism, or is generally softened in appearance, is apt to be considered more environmentally responsible (or responsive)
than a conventional tower or box.23
With the appearance of a certain organic-looking vocabulary, the kind of design
that appears organic is promoted as sustainable. However, such an application
of biomimetic processes, resulting in an allusion to sustainable design, is tantamount to 21st century mannerism where a hotchpotch of overestimated
techniques are devoted to producing only the appearance of environmental performance. Bio-mannerist design processes will never attain a meaningful basis,
as the physical dimensions of the environment are rational and quantifiable. And
the inefficiencies of form will be spontaneously exposed when analyzed against
the environment. This provides a means of testing and improvement, where an
inefficient form can ‘either change its relative proportions or find new materials’24
in an effort to move toward a more concrete measure of sustainability, and away
from affectation inspired by organic and natural forms.
Artificial forms can be likened to pathogens whose environmental presence
needs to be artificially controlled, and this is especially true where architecture
and engineering seem to diverge. The formalistic manipulation and misuse of
mimetic principles has resulted in the appearance of a new category of professionals. The climate engineer, for instance, is such a new professional, special­
izing in the improvement of the environmental behavior of architectural
form. The role of the climate engineer resembles that of the archaic architect,
genuinely devoted to shelters in an antagonistic view of human against nature.
Along with the climate engineer, architecture runs the risk of relinquishing
another meaningful disciplinary basis, as the responsibility for structure becomes
the domain of engineering.
In reconciling with nature, sustainable architecture means an adherence to
the physical dimensions of the environment, with a distinctive inherent logic
in the production of form. However, this does not imply recourse to a specific
formal language of one kind or another. Returning the term sustainability to its
original meaning will impose a more specific and more coherent scope on architecture, from which certain projects might inevitably be excluded. In a work of
architecture the relation to the actual, physical dimensions of the environment
determines the degree of sustainable logic, or the lack thereof. In many ways,
sustainability is an exact science that may be critically evaluated and rigorously
The term aesthetics has been characterized as anything that is perceived
through the senses and as the recognition of certain beauty. But as a matter of
fact, the aesthetics of sustainable design is in many ways an equation of forms
and dimensions, relative to the given environmental variables. The construction
of a new artificial world on the basis of such equations, in a way that is sensitive to the natural one, carries in itself the notion of beauty. In this equation,
mimesis and symbiosis do have a crucial role to play in informing the internal
logic of the artificial environment, bringing the artificial environment to a state
where it becomes an inherent constituent of the natural one. But in architecture,
mimesis does not necessarily imply symbiosis; symbiosis with nature does not
necessarily suppose mimesis. Those two concepts, however intimately related
in the organic world, are not necessarily connected in the built environment.
The internal genetic codes of the natural and the human-made still differ too
much. However, the aesthetics of sustainable design is an evolving process that
is tightly linked to the development of new architectural components, materials
and techniques; when applied to architecture, biomimetics does point to a
coherent evolution of both form and function that embodies this process of
Symbiosis and Mimesis in the Built Environment
Aesthetic Potentials in an Open Network
Inventory System
— David Briggs
Since computer aided drafting systems were developed for architects, the
design and documentation process has transformed from pencil and ink drawings
to sophisticated virtual models. Digital technology has provided a remarkable
means for reducing production time, cross-referencing consultants’ work,
making design changes and constructing virtual models for visualization and
presentation. Some professionals believe that the computer is no substitute for
design talent, and merely a tool for enhancing and reinforcing the architect’s
vision. Others suggest that without the easy manipulation of digital forms, the
range of aesthetic potentials will be limited. Setting aside the merits of both
arguments, a new opportunity has arisen with digital documentation that is
currently in the infancy of its development: the opportunity to explore how the
aesthetic choices made by architects during the design process can be shaped by
materialization processes and by global and local environmental systems.
With regard to so-called sustainable design, there are extensive resources
available for selecting the right materials and designing the most efficient energy
systems to minimize a building’s impact on the environment. Architects such
as Walter Stahel and William McDonough1 have proposed that we go a step
further and consider our buildings as part of a complex and closed-loop economic system, moving forward to design the output (waste) of our buildings
as the nourishment (food) that ensures the metabolic health of the system.
The foundations of this ‘cradle-to-cradle’ approach, described in a 1976 report
titled The Potential for Substituting Manpower for Energy by Walter Stahel and
Genevieve Reday,2 focus on non-linear industrial processes that support job
creation, economic competitiveness, resource protection and waste elimination.
The report lays out a broad vision of sustainable development that addresses
the issues of ecological, economic and social compatibility. Adopting this vision
and implementing it in architectural projects tends to occur only in cases where
an enlightened client mandates a fundamental change in the way that architects
conduct their practice. However, if architecture is to help mitigate our mounting
environmental problems, then architects must aggressively expand their influence on industrial processes and take responsibility for the decisions they make
while designing and detailing buildings. For example, the aesthetic choices
made in the early design stages should be valued by their direct impact on the
environment. By integrating the creative process with an open network that
responds to market forces and environmental consequences, the architect can
meld creativity with the set of conditions that defines a building’s sustainability.
At the global scale, an enormous amount of energy is expended during the
processes of manufacturing and construction, and environmental systems are
damaged by the consequences of modern industry. International trade agreements and access to cheap labor markets have opened the door for wealthy
societies to construct their communities with materials shipped to them from
the other side of the planet. With poor oversight of manufacturing processes in
developing nations – along with the significant pollution created by antiquated
factories and shipping traffic in addition to the catastrophic effects of clear cutting, strip mining and other raw material extraction practices – it is compelling
to consider how wealthy nations merge their concern with the upstream effects
of resource management with the downstream effects of industry. And how do
developing nations establish an economic value for their resources while maintaining fair trade and labor practices? Though they may be less conscious of the
larger implications of their decisions, architects should move to embrace these
and other challenges through the design process.
Whether dealing with global or local issues, the odds seem stacked against
architects who are trying to address environmental problems by researching the
chain of custody for building materials or weighing the costs and benefits of
energy systems. Given these challenges, an architect’s designs tend to be guided
by personal values, independent project objectives and third-party rating systems.
The intent of this chapter is to highlight the tools that are currently available and
to further develop – both within and beyond the profession of architecture –
a broader approach to sustainable design.
Current Technology
Despite the rapid advance of digital technology over the past couple of decades,
the existing digitized design process lacks two essential elements. First, it lacks
direct means for architects to measure how a project’s materials and systems
will impact the physical environment, including the effects of harvesting and
mining on ecological systems, and the associated impacts to water use, air pollution and waste. Second, it lacks direct means to measure the adverse impacts
to local, regional and global milieus that result from the physical alterations to
the environment, brought on by the construction of architects’ designs.
Building a substantive understanding of a project’s environment impacts,
though a massive undertaking, can be achieved by looking at other models of
production and at technology that is currently available in the architectural
profession. Building Information Modeling (BIM) software has enabled architects and engineers to gather a wide range of data on their projects, including
building geometries, spatial relationships, geographic information, projected
energy use and the properties of building components. Based on this data, the
life-cycle costs of a building can be calculated, and levels of performance can
be predicted over the long term.3 Since it is a dynamic model, BIM has become
an extremely powerful tool for use in construction and subsequently facility
management. For example, contractors can generate shop drawings for various
building systems and create schedules for the ordering, fabrication and delivery
of materials and components; building and planning department officials can
Aesthetic Potentials in an Open Network Inventory System
use the models for compliance review; forensic analyses can be conducted to
graphically illustrate potential failures, leaks and emergency plans; and the costs
can be precisely estimated, extracted and updated as the model changes. In terms
of integrating BIM with other forms of digital technology, building components
such as structural steel can include radio frequency identification tags (RFID)
that track their delivery and installation on a construction site;4 construction
process data, such as location and sequencing, can be automatically updated
when linked to field scanning devices; and there is an initiative, for example,
by the BuildingSMART Alliance to integrate BIM with Geographic Information
Systems (GIS) in order to place buildings within the context of real world data.5
A project team – including an architect, contractor and client – that is well versed
in BIM has the capability to rigorously analyze design proposals and subject
them to simulations. BIM, along with the other technologies mentioned, offers
an exciting interface between process and product: it embodies the next stage in
the evolution of digital design in architecture leading to improved and innovative contextual solutions.6 However, one component that is missing from BIM
software is how to accurately assess the impacts of the proposed building design
and its long-term operation on the environment. For example, how do design
decisions impact the availability of building materials, and even further upstream,
how do they impact the supply of raw materials and the environment of the
producing regions? If the design process was dynamically linked and interfaced
with the market network, we would have the basis for creating a feedback loop
and a tool for architects to use in the design of truly sustainable buildings.
These buildings would not only be outfitted with recycled materials and energy
efficient systems, but also, they would be based on explicit choices about how
the building’s design, construction and use will impact environmental systems
worldwide. Paraphrasing Stahel and Reday’s proposal made thirty-five years ago,
architects must seek to integrate aesthetic objectives into a digital, closed-loop
process that supports sustainable systems.
The second objective – raising an understanding of how aesthetic judgments
impact local, regional and global societies – is a difficult challenge. Without
science to provide the substantiated facts of global warming and the serious
predicament associated with our current patterns of resource use, the goal of
designing buildings that are less damaging to the environment and to societies
cannot be measured in a meaningful way. In this regard, a renewed interest in
evaluating our impacts to environmental and social systems in a global context,
coupled with the tools provided by modern technology, enable us to better understand the dynamics of both the natural and artificial worlds, and the linkages
between them. Given such trends, BIM and other energy modeling software
should not only be used to enhance the design process and its productivity, but
to better understand how design decisions impact far flung economies, societies,
infrastructure, ecosystems and natural resources. By expanding the scope of
current modeling software, the architect can choose a solution that better integrates a project’s purpose in relation to the broader goals of global sustainability.
The construction industry has been slow to participate in the digital revolution despite recent progress in the digitization of the design and documentation
process. Under the traditional model, the contractor receives a set of construction documents that are either plotted on large sheets of paper or uploaded to
an FTP site for his use. He will then tabulate the quantity of materials, review the
proposed systems and develop a plan for efficiently sequencing the construction
and installation processes. Once awarded the construction contract, the laborers,
subcontractors and suppliers are hired to execute the project according to the
construction drawings and specifications. Here the contractor simply controls
the building materials that are delivered to the site in order to achieve the design
intent that is outlined in the construction documents, with little regard to the
expenditure of resources required prior to their delivery on site.
In order to expand the use of technology for the construction of better buildings, contractors will need to assume an earlier, integrated role in the design
process. As information on building systems is provided to the architect, the contractor can begin to identify fabrication processes that represent the most appropriate means to achieve the design intent. As with the architect, the contractor
must become aware of how the building’s proposed construction methods
impact certain externalities such as waste by-products, efficient use of materials,
shipping costs and labor challenges. With this information, the architect and
contractor can expand their frontline roles in choosing an appropriate design
scheme, where aesthetics and sustainability are defined by the information
provided by an open network of information.
Open Network
Early in the design process, when an architect begins to consider the formal
qualities of a design, many external decisions are made that will affect the finality
of the finished product. From the outset, the client will present a desired building
program and explanations for the intended use. The architect, working with
various consultants, will determine what kind of structural and mechanical
systems most effectively respond to the client’s needs, and will choose materials
and assemblies that he finds most desirable. Historically, these decisions have
been guided by the architect’s interest in achieving a self-defined aesthetic,
based on his existing body of work and an evolving sense of issues such as proportion, scale and materiality. If BIM is expanded to access a real time inventory
and information system network in order to track the specific attributes of
assemblies and materials, the application could also provide feedback on product
availability, sourcing, pricing and environmental impact at an early phase in
the design process.
Although most models provide cost estimates for assemblies and materials­
– as well as data on their energy efficiency characteristics – they are also capable
of storing information such as the proportion of recycled materials and life-cycle
assessments which could be aggregated into a more holistic model. In this way,
the BIM can become a repository of data-rich information streaming directly
Aesthetic Potentials in an Open Network Inventory System
into it from a variety of sources – from manufacturers, institutes, consultants
and governments – that provide the architect with a series of choices directly
related to the environmental qualifications of a given project. As the collected
data is sorted and the project’s impacts on environmental systems is assessed
(and re-assessed with each design change), the role of the contractor will be to
review the lead times, costs and byproducts of construction for each iteration.
Under this scenario, the architect and contractor work together from the
outset to create viable options to deliver the project while accounting for the
external impacts of its development. The role of the client is to evaluate the
results of this process, and decide how the project will proceed within a broad
framework that more fully represents the true cost of its design, construction
and maintenance. Such evaluations will be made in light of the client’s desired
goals for the project, not only in terms of the immediate and direct costs of
construction, but also in terms of the long-term costs related to the operation
of the building and its environmental impacts.
Inventory management systems already exist, and they are well used in architecture and construction.7 These could be expanded to provide feedback when
information on a building’s material and energy systems are entered into the
model, highlighting specific areas of environmental vulnerability. Feedback
systems could facilitate the review of quantitative data sets regarding the building
materials and their sources, the transportation energy that would be expended
to bring materials to the job site as well as Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS).8
Overall, the goal would be to highlight and keep track of the upstream and
downstream effects of the building design process, which include both environmental and profit-oriented considerations. Using prevailing marketplace conditions a building’s expense, based on its environmental impact, could be derived
as a direct result of the architect’s decisions. Once this information is in hand,
the architect faces a choice: whether to set aside the information and justify a
design’s expense by subscribing to more arbitrary and personal aesthetic preferences, or to adopt a systems-oriented approach that, through the objective collection of data, identifies the causal relationship between the design process,
our current industrial systems and their wider environmental consequences. By
understanding this relationship, the architect can establish a new set of aesthetic
values, taking into account the systemic environmental impact of the construction materials and systems deployed in his design.
In his book Ecology of Commerce, Paul Hawken argues that by eliminating the
income tax system and assigning actual costs to supplies and materials based
on their environmental, social as well as monetary costs, the free market system
would naturally account for the environmental damage caused by the industrial
manufacturing process.9 Although this is a difficult proposition to execute
given the complexities of measuring cause and effect, his proposal parallels the
ideas behind an interactive BIM modeling process and inventory system. The
key difference is found in the role of the architect. In Hawken’s scenario, the
end user is merely responsible for purchasing the cheapest product once the
actual costs of the manufacturing process are factored in. In the BIM scenario,
architecture directly influences the industrial process through a design feedback
loop, where building components are selected based on the BIM network’s
impartial evaluation of environmental impacts. Additionally, by closely incorporating the contractor’s role into the process, the architect would work upfront
with those who would ultimately be responsible for procuring the building
materials and executing the design. The architect would expand his critical role
in choosing an aesthetically appropriate design scheme with the project team
– where aesthetics are defined by the choices made during the design process –
guided by the aggregated data processed in real time by the internet-based, open
source inventory system.
A few applications for tracking the industrial process already exist which can
be held as simplified versions of this new design model. Patagonia, the clothing
retailer, tracks its manufacturing process from raw material to product delivery
in The Footprint Chronicles on its website.10 A consumer can log on and select a
product; the impacts of the product’s design, manufacturing and delivery system
appear along with a comparison between the positive and negative aspects of
its overall manufacturing process. A similar system could be created for building
materials and systems. For example, when planning to specify a product or a
material that has high embodied energy or that is derived from a non-renewable
resource, the architect could view the system for an alternative that provides a
better set of standards. By entering a series of performative parameters that
include the project’s location, performance expectation, durability, quantity and
finish, the architect would receive immediate feedback on the environmentally
relevant aspects of the material, including its indigenous context, method of
extraction, the energy consumption to ship it to a manufacturing plant and to
the site, the downstream effects of the manufacturing process, the possibilities
for reclamation of manufacturing byproducts, the installation methods and
the maintenance prospects. At first glance, this appears to be an overwhelming
amount of information, however, the information for each material could be
evaluated according to a scale that calculates the environmental impact of the
building as a whole, based on the architect’s choices and updated in real time
with the addition of each new material. This could help the architect choose the
kind of design alternatives that are more environmentally optimized.
Several rating systems already exist that quantify the impacts of building construction and occupancy on the environment. These include the United States
Green Building Council’s (USGBC) LEED Rating system, the non-profit Green
Building Initiative’s Green Globes, the Building Research Establishment
Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM) from the UK and a myriad of
other government agency guidelines. Within each system, credits are given for
specifying materials from responsibly managed sources, with lower embodied
energy levels and higher recycled contents. Points are also awarded for energy
Precedents and Rating Systems
Aesthetic Potentials in an Open Network Inventory System
efficient systems and construction projects located within dense urban areas.
LEED Online has evolved to support a new certification system with more direct
data-flow capabilities, which should eventually establish a direct correlation
between BIM models and the LEED Online submission process.11
However, as rating systems developed and clients began to realize the profit
potentials of marketing green buildings, the process has become polarized in the
sense that brand-name architects are commissioned to design signature buildings
which are then subjected to greening by third-party consultants in order to
meet the selected rating system. By abdicating responsibility, the lead architect
is no longer in control of the specific connection between the unique design
aesthetics and the sustainability considerations, and can no longer participate in
the BIM loop. As a result, the challenge of exploring the potential performative
aspects of sustainable design and its inherent aesthetic expressions becomes
Additionally, the rating systems in essence represent the information provided
by the material manufacturers and suppliers, which is certified by their respective testing organizations. There are undoubtedly rigorous protocols in place to
ensure that the claims of sustainability are reliable and accurate. However, just
as the architect can relinquish the issues of sustainable design to consultants
who are peripheral to the essential substance of design, he can also allow thirdparty rating systems to dictate environmental performance and aesthetics
without directly correlating them with the design process.
An application developed for Apple’s iPhone called RedLaser offers new
insight into the way that architects can interject themselves into the production
cycle for construction projects. RedLaser allows the user to scan any bar code
to find product information such as allergens, pricing and the location of suppliers that carry the item, giving the user immediate access to information on a
product’s cost, where it can be purchased and if it is healthy to use.12 This immediate inventory system could be translated to the specification of any architectural trade. In such a system, when the architect selects a material within the
BIM model, the information on price, lead-time, manufacturing origin, shipping
cost, the MSDS, recycled content, maintenance requirements and manufacturing
by-products would become immediately available. For architects interested in
responsible, sustainable design, the information presented confronts them with
a set of values that interface with the BIM software and calculate an overall picture of sustainable standards for a building, which the architect can incorporate
in real time during the design process. As the primary specifier of the project
components along with the consultants, the architect would no longer operate
outside of the production system, but would become an integral part of it. The
architect could guide the building’s development based on a series of decisions
that directly impact the cost, embodied energy, recyclability, operations,
indoor air quality and durability of the construction based on information that
is fed back through the inventory system network. As the project progresses,
the architect could frequently update the model, much in the same way that
computer software is updated. New information would arrive, and the project
would automatically adjust its sustainable performance criteria based on new
market conditions.
The advantages of this open network inventory system are obvious. The
system offers an efficient and measurable way to understand the environmental
benefits of design choices, and architects who subscribe to the system can
influence the manufacturing process by favoring products that quantifiably
reduce adverse environmental impacts. In turn, as these more beneficial products
strengthen themselves through the feedback loop and higher sustainable ratings
are achieved, they become more cost effective through the traditional application
of free market principles. Over time, the initial challenges of the proposition
recede, and the new database of measurable criteria becomes a key intelligence
for the evolving aesthetics of sustainable designs.
As the open network inventory system develops over time with an increasing
user base, it could be expanded to include acknowledged accreditation services
(for example, the Forest Stewardship Council’s FSC labeling on wood products13)
as part of the review of building products, as long as a system of transparency
provides checks and balances to the internal workings of the service’s review
methods. As these accreditation systems come online, architects could make
decisions that extend beyond standard green goals to review how products were
borne out of the manufacturing process. For example, if a boardroom is to be
constructed out of an exotic wood species, the architect can verify over the network if the raw lumber was shipped from a clear-cut tract of land, or if it followed
the procedures of sustainable forestry supported by a chain-of-custody review.
Presently, wood that is responsibly harvested is at a premium, but as direct feedback information becomes available through the inventory system, the incremental cost can be measured against the cost of the project as a whole. As the
system fine-tunes itself and architects actively lead the specification of more
beneficial materials, the need for responsibly managed materials such as tropical
hardwoods will grow. As a result, developing nations with rich resources will be
encouraged to support these practices. As more products meeting the criteria for
sustainability become more available, their costs will be driven lower.
As the system continues to evolve, there would be a natural shift toward the
specification of environmentally responsible materials and energy efficient
systems that offer competitive prices. These materials and systems would integrate themselves into the building’s creative development at stages during both
pre- and post-occupancy as part of the BIM process. As the design industry
transitions to BIM and develops a real time inventory system, an aesthetic will
emerge that has its foundation in the successful application of the inventory
system to the challenges of building design. By creating a baseline and a quantifiable measure of sustainability, the inventory system can guide a project’s core
design intent, materials and systems toward meeting a series of established
guidelines for environmental sustainability. As it becomes easier to meet these
guidelines through the free market tendency of the inventory system to become
Aesthetic Potentials in an Open Network Inventory System
more efficient, the guidelines will respond by providing tighter protocols, more
rigorous material sourcing requirements and by actively encouraging methods
of construction that reduce the amount of material entering the waste stream.
The obvious challenge in creating such a complex system is the overwhelming
amount of data that needs to be stored, sifted through and analyzed for each
project. The processing of this data is well suited to take advantage of so-called
cloud computing, for example, and a data-intensive BIM model could be stored
on a social collaboration platform that is accessed on desktop computers by
web-based applications.14 The convenience, scalability and underlying infrastructure of the cloud computing would support an ongoing feedback loop between
the BIM model and the inventory system as building designs develop within a
parametric model that is embedded with layers of data. As Chris Anderson
wrote in Wired magazine in 2008, traditional models for organizing our world
are disappearing as the amount of available data far exceeds our capacity to
visualize it.15 This is true for architecture: design and construction documents
have moved far beyond the amount of information that was stored in twodimensional pencil and ink drawings. The data that will be processed in the
proposed inventory system will become an impartial intelligence that correlates
massive amounts of information without rendering an aesthetic judgment on
the BIM model; and while the architect cannot visualize all of the information,
it will still be up to him to evaluate the data and make decisions based on the
environmental impacts of the proposed design.
As the BIM model is created for an individual project, each material or system
would be assigned a value, and the values tabulated according to the level of
sustainable measures achieved. Points would also be calculated based on the
externalities of construction, including distance from the project site, chain
of custody, downstream effects of logging and recyclability of the wood, for
example. The BIM model provides an overall picture of the given project’s
measures toward sustainable and durable practice. However, in contrast to the
USGBC’s LEED certification system, it offers a more dynamic data environment
that includes the production and supply chain, as the architect’s decisions during
the design process would actively impact the manufacturing process. By specifying a material in real time and inserting it into a project, the manufacturing
company would receive this information and reallocate inventory based on the
architect’s design decisions. It is critical that the contractor and the client be
included in these early steps of the project, since they represent the parties who
ultimately purchase and assemble the materials. By making critical decisions
and securing these purchases as a project develops, all three parties become collaborative participants in defining the sustainability and aesthetic achievement
of a building design, rather than having the architect simply hand over a set of
drawings for a contractor or client to execute.
Urban Impact
The most profound needs for revolutionizing our digital design process exist
within the world’s cities. Given that construction in urban centers will increase
to accommodate the continuing influx of people, our methods for designing and
building will need to develop beyond their current conventional methods. The
raw materials for construction currently exist outside of cities, and it is likely that
manufacturing facilities will be pushed out of the urban areas as land becomes
more valuable for housing in growing communities. Transport systems for
bringing materials into urban construction sites will be challenged as transportation corridors are expanded to accommodate the growing population. Buildings themselves will require flexibility in their use as the demands of a larger
urban society diverge from their rural roots.
Referring back to The Footprint Chronicles it is important to ask: what are
the regional and global effects of constructing buildings in a city, and how do
they dovetail with the global supply chain? In his book Earth in the Balance,
Al Gore describes three environmental systems that are affected by humankind:
local, regional and global.16 Without a doubt, contemporary design and construction techniques have a tremendous impact on all three. And although it is
convenient to think of them as independent systems, it is apparent they are in
fact closely linked. Almost any project in an urban area is created with systems
and materials that have been sourced from locations a few city blocks away to
thousands of miles away. The resources required to create these inputs are global.
As the world moves toward urban areas with dwindling manufacturing centers,
how does a project stay within its local context, or if it cannot, how does a
project interact responsibly with regional and global environmental systems?
One model proposed for handling the demands of growing urban centers
is the New York City regional foodshed developed by The Urban Design Lab
at Columbia University, which considers the food production capacity of the
New York City metropolitan region.17 Their proposal considers localized land
use, soil type, transportation infrastructure and climatic conditions to assess
production at several scales, as well as actual food consumption data. Additionally,
the initiative allows for the comparison of existing regional production and
distribution with potential regional production and distribution to identify
concrete possibilities for enhancing the capacity of the foodshed.
Similarly, a regional plan could be developed for the sourcing of construction materials and systems for building projects. Although architects currently
have an option to specify materials that are locally sourced – especially if a
project is to be certified under the LEED rating system – architects must rely
on third-party sources to verify a product’s origins. Even though we have bits
and pieces of information on production and supply for the architecture and
construction industry, collectively, a meaningful data system does not exist
that describes the total annual consumption of these materials and systems on
a regional basis. Many databases listing construction material suppliers exist,
but they lack the real-time update capability necessary for architects’ use in
Aesthetic Potentials in an Open Network Inventory System
order to make meaningful decisions during the design process. With the current
accepted rating systems, architects rely on paperwork, reports and testing
to determine the environmental impacts of products. In spite of a plethora of
forward thinking organizations and individuals, along with well established
certification processes, the profession has yet to solve the disconnect between
a building constructed in mid-town Manhattan and the raw materials shipped
to it from another ecosystem thousands of miles away. This disconnect can be
bridged within the design process itself by implementing a collective data network infrastructure.
As one can surmise, even if the manufacturing of building materials across
the globe begins to meet stricter environmental guidelines, the effects of shipping such materials to urban centers remains a logistical and environmental
challenge. Consequently, the costs of foreign materials will remain high relative
to materials that are locally sourced. This is one of the most important contributions of a digitized inventory system: an urban form would emerge as a result
of how buildings are designed, built and used within an open network that can
measure the impacts of urban development on environmental systems. Some
cities are located near areas of rich natural resources while others are far removed
from the raw materials that are required for construction. As the proposed BIM
model is implemented, each city would cultivate an aesthetic by accounting for
its context and its local materials, as well as by making conscious decisions that
reflect the region’s environmental composition when designing new buildings
and retrofitting old ones. The inventory system would allow the architect, contractor and client to steer a project’s development toward a more geographically
specific focus.
principles toward sustainable design solutions. As the materials and systems
with increased sustainability factors are selected at higher rates, the manufacturing process will respond by making more of those items available to the
market, thus reducing their costs. Materials and systems with lower factors will
become more expensive over time. The natural result is that industrial processes
will shift their resources toward creating construction materials and systems that
embody the virtues of sustainable design, including those of increased recyclability, safer manufacturing, local sourcing, well-managed harvesting and mining
procedures and more efficient shipping methods. Within each local and regional
environmental system, the metrics for evaluating these factors will be different
given the uniqueness, and perhaps, the vulnerability of each system’s natural
resources. As a result, aesthetic outcomes will no longer be elevated to a Platonic
view of beauty, but will be connected to the designer’s understanding of how a
project is conceived, built and occupied within the complex web of global ecosystems in which it exists.
With the implementation of the proposed open inventory network system,
early adopters would select products and materials that benefit their projects.
As these projects are built and as the system expands, more projects would come
online with complex models that access the data that best suits their contextual
constraints. Urban planners would start implementing the system, leading to a
more defined and regionally specific character, and to the re-establishment of
an urban typology that counters our modern tendency toward broad cultural
homogenization and the prevalence of repetitive architectural clichés. The emerging urban fabric would reflect a particular society’s place within local, regional
and global ecosystems, as well as a more philosophical character that defines
the essence of a place and its underlying character.18 This character is not simply
a stylistic one, but is embedded in how the citizens see their culture as a reflection of the profound environmental issues that affect their lives.
The current digital software systems used for creating buildings – coupled
with the inventory systems used by many companies – offer new methods for
calculating the environmental impacts of architectural projects. By engaging
with inventory systems, architects can use the software to guide market-based
Aesthetic Potentials in an Open Network Inventory System
Introduction p. 7-25
1 Paul Hawken, Amory B. Lovins & L. Hunter Lovins,
Natural Capitalism (London: Earthscan, 1999).
2 For more on this, see the vision and mission of the
Rocky Mountain Institute, available at http://www.rmi.
org /rmi /Vision+and+Mission. Accessed June 5, 2011.
3 William McDonough and Michael Braungart,
Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things
(New York: North Point Press, 2002).
4 Ibid. p. 111-113.
5 Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten published Aesthetica
in 1735. It was coined after his construction in Greek,
episteme aisthetike, the kind of knowledge that is gained
through the senses. See Patrick Healy, Beauty and the
Sublime (Amsterdam: Sun Publishers, 2003), 7-8.
6 Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment (New York:
Cosimo Classics, 2007) 121.
7 As an introduction to both, see Kenneth Frampton,
‘Chapter 8: Botticher, Sepmer and the Tectonic:
Core Form and Art Form,’ in What Is Architecture?
ed. Andrew Ballantyne (New York: Routledge, 2002),
8 See Mitchell Schwarzer, ‘Ontology and Represen­
tation in Karl Bötticher’s Theory of Tectonics,’ Journal
of the Society of Architectural Historians Vol. 52, No. 3
(Sept. 1993): 267-280.
9 Gottfried Semper, Style in the Technical and Tectonic
Arts, trans. Harry Francis Mallgrave and Michael
Robinson (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2004),
10 The three strategies literally refer to those outlined
in the book by Reyner Banham, The Architecture of the
Well-tempered Environment, 2nd Edition (London:
The Architectural Press, 1984), 22-25.
The Aesthetics of Architectural
Consumption p. 26-40
1 While overall growth in consumption related to
housing during this period has been profound, it has
not necessarily been uniform. Consider for example
Germany’s Existenzminimum movement of the late
1920’s or, more generally, the period of austerity
in much of the West during and immediately after
2 ‘… households have consistently declined in average size, so that by 1996 there was an average 2.64
persons compared with 4.53 in 1911…’ See Australian
Bureau of Statistics: A Century of Population Change
in Australia, Catalog No. 1301.0 (2001). Available at /ausstats/[email protected] /94713ad445ff
139d9!OpenDocument (accessed January 15, 2011).
3 ‘In 1900, the average house was around 150 square
metres. But by 1950 it had grown to 200 square metres,
by 1990 to 250 square metres and by 2005 it had reached
325 square metres.’ See Ross Elliott, ‘Myth #4 Increasing House Sizes Mean Urban Sprawl’ in Residential
Development Council: Property Council of Australia
(Sept. 2007). Available at
au/Article/Resource.aspx?media=461(accessed January
15, 2011).
4 ‘Refrigerated air conditioner sales in Australia
have increased from less than 100,000 units per year
in 1980 to more than 900,000 units per year in 2006.’
See Wasim Saman, Frank Bruno and Ming Liu,
‘Technical Background: Research on Evaporative Air
Conditioners and Feasibility of Rating their Water
Consumption’ in Water Efficiency Labelling and Standards (WELS) Scheme, Department of the Environment,
Water, Heritage and the Arts, by the Institute for
Sustainable Systems and Technologies, University of
South Australia (Sept. 2009).
5 Grant McCracken, Culture and Consumption: New
Approaches to the Symbolic Character of Consumer Goods
and Activities (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana
University Press, 1988), 118-129.
6 ‘Pre-modern’ and ‘modern’ are interpreted here not
as historical periods, but as interpretive perspectives
that appear and disappear within history, and may
co-exist at the same time. This differentiation takes its
cue from Martin Heidegger’s thinking on the change
in the mode of deployment of technology and science
in modernity. Modern science and technology are taken
here as those ‘enframed’ by the ‘essence of technology.’
See Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. William Lovitt (New
York: Harper Torchbooks, 1977), 3-35.
7 Gaining status through ritual performance appropriate to one’s caste for example. See Himadri Roy
Chaudhuri and Sitanath Majumdar, ‘Of Diamonds and
Desire: Understanding Conspicuous Consumption
from a Contemporary Marketing Perspective,’
Academy of Marketing Science Review Vol. II (2006).
Available at /articles/chaudhuri08-2005.pdf (accessed January 15, 2011).
8 Marshall Berman, All That is Solid Melts into Air: The
Experience of Modernity (London: Versa, 1983), 14-15.
9 David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity:
An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (Oxford:
Basil Blackwell, 1989), II.
10 For an explanation of Heidegger’s existential projectedness, see Hubert L. Dreyfus, Being-in-the-World:
A Commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time, Division 1
(Cambridge Mass.: MIT Press, 1991), 186ff.
11 Such transgressions would show up as ‘disturbances’
to our unfolding projects. See Hubert L. Dreyfus,
Being-in-the-World: A Commentary on Heidegger’s
Being and Time, Division 1 (Cambridge Mass.: MIT
Press, 1991), 70ff.
12 David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: An
Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (Oxford:
Basil Blackwell, 1989), 13.
13 Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness: A Phenomenological Essay on Ontology (New York: Washington
Square Press, 1992).
14 Georg Simmel, ‘Fashion,’ American Journal of
Sociology 62 (1957): 541-58. First published 1904.
15 Diana De Marly, Working Dress: A History of Occupational Clothing (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1986).
See also Efrat Tseelon, The Masque of Femininity:
the Presentation of Woman in Everyday Life (London:
Thousand Oaks, 1995).
16 Diana De Marly, Working Dress: A History of
Occupational Clothing (New York: Holmes & Meier,
1986), 41.
17 For an account of the overturning of European
prejudices against consumption in the early eighteenth
century, see Michael Kwass, ‘Ordering the World of
Goods: Consumer Revolution and the Classification
of Objects in Eighteenth-Century France,’ Represen­
tations no. 82 (Spring 2003): 90.
18 Discussing the recognition by eighteenth century
Western thinkers of the significance of gaining the
regard of others, Michael Kwass notes that ‘luxury was
by definition subject to display, its very purpose in
contemporary society to draw the regard of others.’
Michael Kwass, ‘Ordering the World of Goods:
Consumer Revolution and the Classification of Objects
in Eighteenth-Century France,’ Representations no. 82
(Spring 2003): 90.
19 For a discussion of the Modern Movement in architecture as the manifestation of an aesthetic, see Mark
Wigley, White Walls Designer Dresses: The Fashioning
of Modern Architecture (Cambridge Mass.: MIT Press,
20 Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, trans.
Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall (New York:
Continuum, 1994).
21 Henry Wootton, The Elements of Architecture
(Farnborough: Gregg, 1969). First published 1624.
22 William Little, The Shorter Oxford English
Dictionary on Historical Principles, Third Edition
Revised with Addenda (London: Oxford University
Press, 1968).
23 What this large heterogeneous list clearly indicates
is that aesthetics has not been able to define its object.
In some cases it refers to certain characteristics of the
subject or effects on them. In others, it deals with the
qualities of the object, the qualities of an act, or the
analysis of a social practice such as art and even of a
certain period or style of that practice. See Katya
Mandoki, Everyday Aesthetics, Prosaics, the Play of Culture and Social Identities (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007), 3.
24 Dalibor Vesely, Architecture in the Age of Divided
Representation: The Question of Creativity in the Shadow
of Production (Cambridge Mass.: MIT Press, 2004), 249.
25 For a discussion of the ‘transparency’ of everyday
things in the world, see Hubert L. Dreyfus, Being-inthe-World: A Commentary on Heidegger’s Being and
Time, Division 1 (Cambridge Mass.: MIT Press, 1991),
26 Art, it might be argued, is also noticed because it is
infrequently encountered and is framed (quite literally)
as separate from the everyday. See Walter Benjamin,
‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ in Illuminations (London: Fontana Press, 1992),
211-44. First published 1936.
27 Indeed it might be claimed that architecture’s
capacity to be habituated, to become background,
allows the essential possibility of focusing on important things: the new, the different, the flux of life
28 One aesthetic encounter with architecture that is,
however, akin to the aesthetic appreciation of art is, as
Benjamin himself noted in The Work of Art in the Age
of Mechanical Reproduction a tourist’s encounter
with architecture. Here the architecture is the focus
of attention. The tourist accumulates views and snapshots of the architecture as memories and mementos
of the look, sounds, tastes and smells of alien places.
In Heidegger’s terms, architecture becomes the theme
of the tourist’s project rather than its unnoticed facilitator. It is the encounter with the new and the different
that draws the attention of the tourist, as the brevity
of the tourist’s stay does not allow time for the architecture to disappear into habit.
29 Cynthia Davidson, ‘The Placeless Anyplace,’ in
Anyplace, ed. Cynthia Davidson (New York: Anyone
Corporation, 1995), 8.
30 It is impossible to achieve architecture whose form
is solely determined by functional considerations.
Without exception, every step of architectural production also requires aesthetic decisions, minor or major.
31 Concern over the irrelevance of style may indicate
some anxiety on the part of both architectural historians and aspiring avant-garde architects as their projects
are threatened by this myriad of styles: firstly because
the diversity of architectural styles does not allow the
historian any total position from which to catalog,
and secondly because the avant-garde architect cannot
establish a position of difference (and thus leadership)
within the disjunctive diversity of extant styles. See
for example Bart Lootsma’s discussion of the impact
of the explosion of styles in the wake of postmodernism:
Insiders, the Style of Choice (Oct. 2009). Available at /index.php?lang=
(accessed January 15, 2010).
32 Stanley Fish, Doing What Comes Naturally: Change,
Rhetoric, and the Practices of Theory in Literature and
Legal Studies (Durham, NC: Duke University Press,
1989), 141.
33 Discursive formations, as the historical ground
upon which something is or is not sayable or knowable,
are described by Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of
Knowledge (New York: Pantheon, 1972).
34 Even images we might assume to be universally
beautiful, such as aspects of nature, can be shown to be
historically and culturally contingent.
35 For an extended discussion of an example of the
deliberate construction of desire for modernist commodities, see Greg Castillo, ‘Domesticating the
Cold War: Household Consumption as Propaganda
in Marshall Plan Germany,’ Journal of Contemporary
History Vol: 40, no. 2 (April 2005): 261-288.
36 Edward Winters, Aesthetics and Architecture (New
York: Continuum, 2007), 161.
37 Ibid.
38 Ibid.
39 Ibid.
40 Indicating the importance of changing one’s way
of being in this early ecological architecture, the occupants of the Autonomous House built in 1974 at the
University of Sydney stated that, ‘Perhaps true autonomy also means freedom from commercial radio, television, daily papers and advertising which do much to
determine what people think they need. Entertainment
in this house has been largely self-generated, this has
meant making conversation and music which was
found to be more personally productive than accepting
external stimulation. People can be extremely adaptable
to new situations, the absence of former comforts
seems to be quickly forgotten, a good indication of how
non-essential they actually are. The curtain divided
sleeping lofts of the autonomous house, although
lacking aural privacy, are in some respects more private
than conventional bedrooms. The extremely small size
of the spaces means that they are rarely visited, even by
other members of the house and so they remain a space
‘sacred’ to the occupant … The house, then, is not
so much a showplace of alternative technology, but
more the physical manifestation of a particular lifestyle.’ Anonymous, possibly Colin James, University
of Sydney academic in ‘54 Alma Street Darlington’
(c.1977). Available at /architec-
ture/documents/research /autonomoushouse.pdf
(accessed January 15, 2011).
41 Brenda Vale, The Autonomous House, Dissertation
(Cambridge: University of Cambridge, Department
of Architecture, Technical Research Division, 1972).
The catalog date indicates that microfiche of the
dissertation became available to Sydney University
researchers shortly after it was completed.
42 Alternative Technology Unit, Department of
Architecture, University of Sydney, ‘Alternative
Technology: Australian Autonomy’ Architectural
Design Vol. I, no. I (1977): 15-17. Available at http:// /architecture/documents/research /
autonomoushouse2.pdf (accessed January 15, 2011).
Also see Anonymous: ‘54 Alma Street Darlington.’
43 Jim Dale (director), ‘Autonomous House’ 25
minute color film (c.1980) Catalog: http://fmx01dhs. /fmi/iwp/res/iwp_auth.html (accessed
January 15, 2011).
44 The 1972 RIBA conference for example was entitled
‘Designing for Survival, Architects and the Environmental Crisis.’ These conferences were part of a larger
movement of growing awareness and concern over the
perceived state of the environment: in 1971 Greenpeace
was formed; in 1972 the first United Nations
Conference on the Human Environment was held in
Stockholm, Sweden from June 5-16.
45 By 1978 the Victorian Chapter of the Royal
Australian Institute of Architects (RAIA) had introduced
‘Environmental Awards’ as an architectural award category according to Architecture Australia Vol. 67, no. 5
(Nov. 1978): 64. In 1980 the Victorian Chapter awarded
an ‘Energy Efficient Building Medal’ according to
Architecture Australia Vol. 69, no. 6 (Jan. 1981): 39.
‘The National Award for Sustainable Architecture’ still
exists as a separate category in the Australian Institute
of Architecture National Architecture Awards. For
current and previous award winners in this category
(site accessed January 15, 2011).
46 Jury citations indicate that there has been a focus
on aesthetics and technological innovations, rather
than on the way of life instantiated. See current
and past jury citations for ‘The National Award fro
Sustainable Architecture’ available at http://www. /i-cms?page=14552 (accessed
January 15, 2011).
47 Elizabeth K. Meyer, ‘Sustaining Beauty: the Performance of Appearance: A Manifesto in Three Parts,’
Journal of Landscape Architecture (Spring 2008): 6-23.
48 Ibid. p. 19.
49 Ibid. p. 16.
50 Ibid. p. 19.
51 Ibid. p. 20.
52 Ibid. p. 17.
53 Ibid. p. 17.
54 Ibid. p. 20.
55 Ibid. p. 15.
56 Ibid. p. 21.
57 Krzysztof Ziarek, ‘After Aesthetics: Heidegger and
Benjamin on Art and Experience,’ Philosophy Today 41:1
(1997): 5.
58 The ground of our world is for Heidegger a groundless ground or ‘unground’ (Un-grund). For a discussion
of the nature of ‘unground’ see Hubert L. Dreyfus,
Being-in-the-World: A Commentary on Heidegger’s
Being and Time, Division I (Cambridge Mass.: MIT
Press, 1991), 155ff.
What Does Sustainability Look Like? p. 41-49
1 Donella H. Meadows et al., The Limits to Growth: A
Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament
of Mankind (New York: Universe Books, 1972). The
book was commissioned by the so-called Club of
Rome, available at
(accessed April 2011).
2 Gottfried Semper, The Four Elements of Architecture
and Other Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1989), 254.
3 Amédée Ozenfant, ‘Colour Solidity,’ Architectural
Review 81, no. 5 (1937): 243-246.
This chapter was drawn from the introduction to
the monograph of the authors’ practice, Sauerbruch
Hutton Archive (Lars Müller Publishers, 2006) and
‘Twenty Years’ in 2G International Architecture
Magazine, No. 52 (Editorial Gustavo Gili, Apr. 2009),
a special issue dedicated to the authors’ projects.
Solar Aesthetic p. 50-65
1 Edward Mazria, ‘It’s the Architecture, Stupid!’ Solar
Today May/June (2003): 48ff.3.
2 James Steele, Sustainable Architecture: Principles,
Paradigms, and Case Studies (New York: McGraw-Hill,
1997), 229.
3 Leonard R. Bachman, ‘Thoughts Toward a Clinical
Database of Architecture: Evidence, Complexity,
and Impact’ (paper included in the Proceedings for
the 2009 Annual ARCC Spring Research Conference:
Leadership In Architectural Research Between
Academia and the Profession, University of Texas at
San Antonio, San Antonio, Texas, April 15-18, 2009).
4 The digital model was based on a section view of a
house in Paradigms of Indian Architecture by G.H.R.
Tillotson (1998), 166.
5 Labelle Prussin, African Nomadic Architecture: Space,
Place and Gender (Washington DC: Smithsonian
Institution Press, 1995), 23-24.
6 Yukio Futagawa and Teiji Itoh, The Essential Japanese
House: Craftsmanship, Function, and Style in Town and
Country (New York: Harper & Row and Tokyo: John
Weatherhill, 1967), 13-15.
7 Eduardo Catalano, Floralis Generica (Cambridge,
MA: Cambridge Architectural Press, 2002), 2.
This chapter was drawn from the author’s previous
texts. The original versions can be found at http://
The Architecture of the Passively Tempered
Environment p. 66-79
1 Victor Olgyay, Design with Climate: Bioclimatic
Approach to Architectural Regionalism (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1963).
2 Fionn Stevenson, review of Eco-minimalism: the
Antidote to Eco-Bling, by Howard Liddell, Architects’
Journal (Nov. 2008): 44-45.
3 A single liter of oil contains the equivalent energy
content of 35 man-days of hard labor according to
Richard Heinberg. Today we think nothing of burning
a liter of oil undertaking the most trivial errand, when
in the past we would have very carefully weighed that
expenditure of energy.
4 Pliny, quoted in Eoin O’Cofaigh, John A. Olley
and J. Owen Lewis, The Climatic Dwelling: an Introduction to Climate-responsive Residential Architecture
(London: James & James Science Publishers, 1996), 3-4.
5 Ernest H. Jacob’s work is described in his 1894
book Notes on the Ventilation and Warming of Buildings.
6 Reyner Banham, The Architecture of the Well-tempered
Environment, 2nd Edition (London: The Architectural
Press, 1984), 23.
7 Dean Hawkes, The Environmental Tradition: Studies
in the Architecture of Environment (London: E & FN
Spon, 1996), 15.
8 Signatories of the manifesto drafted by Thomas
Herzog included Norman Foster, Herman Hertzberger,
Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano.
9 Herzog, quoted in Sophia Behling and Stefan
Behling, Solar Power: the Evolution of Sustainable
Architecture (London: Prestel, 2000), 237.
10 Max Fordham, ‘More than Zero,’ EcoTech, Ecobuild
Issue 6 (Feb. 2008).
11 Hawkes, quoted in Peter Clegg, Ian Latham, Keith
Bradley and Mark Swenarton, Feilden Clegg Bradley:
The Environmental Handbook (London: The Right
Angle, 2007), 14.
12 From a transcript of the author’s interview with
Ken Yeang on May 11, 2010.
13 From a transcript of the author’s interview with
Peter Clegg on June 23, 2010.
14 John Onians, ‘Greek Temple and Greek Brain,’ in
Body and Building: Essays on the Changing Relation of
Body and Architecture, ed. George Dodds and Robert
Tavernor (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2002), 50.
15 The metaphor of hot water and jelly was originated
by Edward de Bono in his 1969 work The Mechanism
of Mind.
16 Rosi Fieldson, ‘Architecture & Environmentalism:
Movements & Theory in Practice,’ Forum vol. 6.1
(2004): 27.
17 In her book Blubberland: the Dangers of Happiness
(London: MIT Press, 2008), Elizabeth Farrelly traces
the excesses of modern western society, giving many
examples (including architecture) of our excessive,
damaging, and counterproductive ecological footprint,
connecting them to our pursuit of perceived happiness.
18 In Book I of his treatise, Vitruvius describes a wind
rose with 24 named winds at precise 15 degree intervals
around the compass. In contrast, Vincenzo Scamozzi,
in L’idea della architettura universale (1615), named 16
winds at 22.5 degree intervals.
19 The Costozza caves, near Vicenza, supply cool
air to a number of villas via underground tunnels –
a system that inspired Palladio to follow that example
in his Villa Rotunda.
20 Barbara Kenda, ed. Aeolian Winds and the Spirit in
Renaissance Architecture: Academia Eolia Revisited
(Abingdon: Routledge, 2006), 18.
21 Palladio, The Four Books on Architecture (1570), trans.
Robert Tavernor and Richard Schofield (Cambridge,
MA: MIT Press, 2002), 60.
22 Matthew Hardy, ‘Study the Warm Winds and
the Cold: Hippocrates and the Renaissance Villa,’ in
Aeolian Winds and the Spirit in Renaissance Architecture: Academia Eolia Revisited, ed. Barbara Kenda
(Abingdon: Routledge, 2006), 59.
23 Colin St. John Wilson, The Other Tradition of
Modern Architecture: The Uncompleted Project (London:
Black Dog, 2007), 14-17.
24 Le Corbusier, Précisions on the Present State of
Architecture and City Planning, trans. Edith Schreiber
Aujame (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991).
25 Kenneth Frampton, ‘Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance’ in
The Anti-aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, ed.
Hal Foster (Port Townsend, WA: Bay Press, 1983), 26-27.
26 Monitoring results published in the Energy
Efficiency Best Practice Programme, New Practice Case
Study 114: The Inland Revenue Headquarters, BRE 2000
indicates that a typical building in the complex consumed 157 kWh/m2 in 1996, which was about twice
the predicted demand.
27 Statement dated June 8, 1999 from Foster and
Partners’ website, available at: (accessed
February 2, 2010).
28 ‘… the Greater London Authority’s City Hall is
using 50% more energy than intended, consuming
376 kWh /m2 of energy a year rather than its target
of 250 kWh /m2.’ Alex Smith, ‘Ventilated Spleen,’
Building 36 (2005), available at http://www.building. / ventilated-spleen/3055845.article (accessed July
20, 2010).
Qualitative and Quantitative Traditions in
Sustainable Design p. 80-96
1 Max Fordham, ‘Natural Ventilation,’ Renewable
Energy 19, no. 1 (2000): 18. Max Fordham is a building
services engineer with a lifelong interest in the relationship between architecture, environmental services and
2 The author is a partner in the firm of Brennan and
Wilson Architects who specialize in rural and sustainable design in Scotland.
3 Gro Harlem Bruntland and World Commission on
Environment and Development, Our Common Future
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987).
4 Andrew Blowers, ‘Environmental Policy: Ecological
Modernisation or the Risk Society,’ Urban Studies 34,
no. 5 (1997): 845-871. This is an excellent paper that
sets out some of the complexities and contradictions
to be found in sustainable theory.
5 Tony Becher, Academic Tribes and Territories:
Intellectual Inquiry and the Culture of Disciplines, 2nd ed.
(Buckingham: Open University Press, 2001).
6 Giles Oliver, ‘Responsive Practice’ in Architecture
and its Ethical Dilemmas, ed. Nicholas Ray (London:
Taylor & Francis, 2005). In part, Oliver’s work engages
with the challenges that the architectural profession
faces in the UK, in dealing with discipline specialization and new construction procurement methods.
7 Simon Guy and Graham Farmer, ‘Reinterpreting
Sustainable Architecture: the Place of Technology,’
Journal of Architectural Education 54, no. 3 (2001):
140-147. This paper attempted, for the first time, to
identify and codify sustainable design typologies.
8 Kiel Moe, ‘Compelling yet Unreliable Theories of
Sustainability,’ Journal of Architectural Education 60,
no. 4 (May 2007): 24-30. This article seeks to question
the techno-centric stance of sustainable architecture,
with reference to cultural commentators such as Giles
9 Susannah Hagan, Taking Shape: A New Contract
Between Architecture and Nature (Oxford: Architectural
Press, 2001).
10 Ibid. p. 3.
11 Ibid. p. 163.
12 Ibid. p. 97.
13 Louis I. Kahn, ‘Not for the Fainthearted,’ in Louis
I. Kahn, Writings, Lectures, Interviews (New York:
Rizzoli, 1991), 258.
14 Philip Bray, Modernity and Technology (Cambridge,
Mass: MIT Press, 2003), 56.
15 John Farmer, Green Shift: Changing Attitudes in
Architecture to the Natural World, 2nd ed. (Oxford:
Architectural Press, 1999).
16 Reyner Banham, The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment (London: Architectural Press, 1969).
This was the first book to explain architecture through
the development of building services, and how it
affected and molded the emergence of new building
17 Colin Porteous, The New Eco-Architecture: Alternatives from the Modern Movement (London: Spon, 2001).
18 Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (London: Hamish
Hamilton, 1963). Although seen as a precursor to the
key texts that define the environmental movement, it
was concerned primarily with the effects of pollution
on wildlife.
19 Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows, Jorgen
Randers and William Behrens III, The Limits to Growth:
A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament
of Mankind (London: Earth Island Ltd., 1972). This
publication was commissioned by the Club of Rome,
and established an early computer simulation that
worked through twelve global development scenarios
that were modeled over two centuries.
20 Andrew Dobson, Green Political Thought, 4th ed.
(London: Routledge, 2007). This is a definitive and
critical overview of the political ideologies of the green
21 Francis Sandbach, ‘The Rise and Fall of the Limits
to Growth Debate,’ Social Studies of Science 8, no. 4
(1978): 495–520. This paper makes an excellent recent
history of the various strands that constituted the
environmental movement.
22 Edward Goldsmith, ‘Blueprint for Survival,’ The
Ecologist 2, no. 1 (1972).
23 Francis Sandbach, ‘The Rise and Fall of the Limits
to Growth Debate,’ Social Studies of Science 8, no. 4
(1978): 503.
24 Ibid. p. 504.
25 P. Harper and G. Boyle, Radical Technology
(London: Wildwood House, 1976).
26 Brenda Vale, The Autonomous House Design and
Planning for Self-Sufficiency (London: Thames and
Hudson, 1975), 7.
27 Maria Telkes, ‘Space Heating with Solar Energy,’
The Scientific Monthly 69, no. 6 (1949): 394-397.
28 The Tressour Wood House was designed by the
author while working at Gaia Architects in Scotland.
29 Pauline Madge, ‘Ecological Design: A New
Critique,’ Design Issues 13, no. 2 (1997): 44-54.
30 Peter Schmid, Bio-logische Baukonstruktion (Koln:
Rudolf Mueller, 1986). Peter Schmid and others have
formulated strategies of ‘building biology’ whereby the
design, form, construction and materials of a building
were held to have profound consequences for the
health and well-being of the building user. Schmid’s
book is perhaps the best overview of the theoretical
underpinnings and architectural outcomes of this
31 Jürgen Habermas, The Theory of Communicative
Action (London: Heinemann, 1984). This is the key
work by Habermas in relation to this field of inquiry.
32 At a ‘top down’ level, international treaty obligations drafted in respect to addressing climate change
are translated into ‘national outcomes.’ In Scotland’s
case, this includes the reduction of carbon emissions by
80% by 2050, and specific targets for the construction
industry through legislation and statutory standards.
Although techno-centric in its operation, the statutory
obligations and the commercial imperatives provide a
‘top down’ approach, affecting how building design
develops and mutates. In a Scots context, standards
for housing have moved from regulating fabric loss to
include air-tightness and the use of renewables.
33 Christopher Gaze and Mike Clift, Applying the Code
for Sustainable Homes on the BRE Innovation Park
(Watford: BRE Trust, 2008).
34 Department for Communities and Local Government, Code for Sustainable Homes: Setting the Standard
in Sustainability for New Homes (Watford: Communities and Local Government Publications, 2008), 65.
Credit scores are given if the building has a ratio of
internal floor area to footprint of greater than 3:1.
35 See the BRE PassivHaus primer, available at http:// /filelibrary/BRE-PassivHausPrimer.pdf (accessed January 2011). This document
gives a good overview of PassivHaus methodologies
applied in a UK context.
36 Dean Hawkes, The Selective Environment (London:
Spon Press, 2002), 7.
37 Max Fordham, ‘Natural Ventilation,’ Renewable
Energy 19, no. 1 (2000): 17-37.
38 The design of the building structure was undertaken
by the author while working at Gaia Architects. Construction and fit-out was undertaken by Brennan and
Wilson Architects.
39 Margaret R. Somers, ‘The Narrative Constitution
of Identity: A Relational and Network Approach,’
Theory and Society 23 (1994): 605-649.
40 Ibid.
41 This building and its relationship with landscape
narrative is explored in much greater detail in John
Brennan, ‘The Use of Narrative in Contemporary
Rural Architecture,’ Architectural Research Quarterly 10,
no. 1 (2006): 13-23.
42 Peter Davidson, The Idea of North (London:
Reaktion, 2000), 242. This book explores the literary
tradition of describing ‘the north’ in cultural terms.
43 Tatjana Schneider and Jeremy Till, Flexible Housing
(Amsterdam: Architectural Press, 2007). This book is
an excellent overview of a design tradition in adaptable
44 Although researching non-domestic environments,
‘Adaptable Futures’ is conducting useful research into
flexible building and its benefits for sustainable development. A good publication is: Katy Beadle, Alistair Gibb,
Simon Austin, Fuster Alumdena and Peter Madden,
‘Adaptable Futures: Setting the Agenda,’ Adaptable
Futures (2008) available at http://www.adaptablefutures.
com /downloads/Beadle_et_al_2008.pdf (accessed
March 2010).
45 Milton Keynes Development Corporation,
Tattenhoe Park Development Framework Chapter 7:
Super Flexible Housing. Available at Tattenhoe_
(accessed June 2010). This document gives a good
overview of current best practice and innovation in
this field.
46 Stewart Brand, How Buildings Learn: What Happens
After They’re Built (New York: Viking, 1994), 178.
47 Tatjana Schneider, Flexible Housing (Amsterdam:
Architectural Press, 2007), 7.
48 Scotland’s Housing Expo ran in August 2010 in
Inverness. It included 40 exemplar dwellings selected by
open competition to illustrate and encourage innovation in the housing sector.
49 ‘Designing for Survival, the President Introduces
His Long Life/Loose Fit /Low Energy Study,’ RIBA
Journal (1972). No author cited
50 Ibid.
Urbanization and Its Discontents:
Megaform and Sustainability p. 97-108
1 Daniel D. Chiras, Environmental Science: Creating
a Sustainable Future (London: Jones and Bartlett
Publishers, 2001), 167.
2 Ibid. p. 336.
3 Ibid. p. 304.
4 J. Cullen Howe and Michael B. Gerrard, ed., The
Law of Green Buildings: Regulatory and Legal Issues in
Design, Construction, Operations, and Financing
(Chicago: American Bar Association, 2010), 11.
5 Peter Buchanan, Ten Shades of Green (New York:
Architectural League of New York, 2005), 13.
6 Susannah Hagan, ‘Five Reasons to Adopt Environmental Design,’ in Landscape and Building for Sustainability: A Harvard Design Magazine Reader, ed.
William S. Saunders (Minneapolis: University of
Minnesota Press, 2008), 103.
7 Michael Backman, Asia Future Shock: Business Crisis
and Opportunity in the Coming Years (New York:
Palgrave MacMillan, 2008), 4.
8 Robert Somol, ‘12 Reasons to Get Back into Shape,’
in Content, ed. Rem Koolhaas (New York: Taschen,
2004), 86-87.
9 In his 1889 book, City Planning According to Artistic
Principles, Camillo Sitte refers to the Ringstraße in
Vienna as the ‘space-endlessness’ where the main
monuments of the Ring had been built as free-standing
objects rather than as part of a built fabric or bounded
form, similar to those that had once existed in the
medieval city.
10 Françoise Choay, ‘Urbanism and Semiology,’ in
Meaning in Architecture, ed. Charles Jencks and
George Baird (London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1969), 31.
11 Catherine Siessor, Eco-Tech: Sustainable Architecture
and High Technology (London: Thames & Hudson,
12 The term was coined by Alex Gordon, former
president of the Royal Institute of British Architects.
For more on this see: Alex Gordon, ‘Architects and
Resource Conservation,’ RIBA Journal January (1974).
This chapter was drawn from the authors’ previous
writings on the subject matter and reedited for the
Landscape Aesthetics for Sustainable
Architecture p. 109-119
1 Rem Koolhaas, ‘Sustainability: Advancement vs.
Apocalypse’ (keynote lecture presented at the Ecological
Urbanism Conference, Harvard University, Cambridge
MA, April 3, 2009). Available at: /
&Itemid=25 (accessed April 2011).
2 See the USGBC Leadership for Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System
(TM), 2007. Available at: /LEED
(accessed April 2011).
3 Peter Eisenman and Mark Wigley, In Dialogue
Eisenman + Wigley VI (New York: GSAPP Columbia
University, 7.7.2009) Transcript of lecture from
4 ‘Nachhaltigkeit verleugnet Zeichenhaftigkeit – und
daher ist es nicht möglich, aus dem Begriff Nachhaltigkeit “Ästhetik” zu generieren. Eine lebendige Ästhetik
der Nachhaltigkeit gibt es nicht.’ Translation by the
author, original German text courtesy of Coop
5 Wolf D. Prix, ‘Vom Werden und Entstehen Vortrag
Zur Eröffnung der Münchner Opernfestspiele: 2009,’
in Süddeutsche Zeitung (München, 2009).
6 Comparable to political editorials in English-­
speaking newspapers.
7 The Brundtland Commission, Our Common Future
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987). Also Published
as Report of the World Commission on Environment and
Development, Annex to General Assembly document
8 UNFCCC, Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UN: UNFCCC,
9 United States Census Bureau, Total Midyear
Population for the World: 1950-2050. Available at: http://
(accessed April 2011).
10 UN-HABITAT, State of the World’s Cities 2010/2011 –
Cities for All: Bridging the Urban Divide (London: 2010).
11 Jelle Reumer, De Ontplofte Aap (Amsterdam:
Contact, 2005).
12 Vitruvius Pollio, The Ten Books on Architecture,
trans. Morris Hicky Morgan (Cambridge MA, London
and Oxford: Harvard University Press, Humphrey
Milford and Oxford University Press, 1914).
13 Bazon Brock, Ästhetik als Vermittlung: Arbeits­
biographie eines Generalisten (Cologne: DuMont, 1977).
14 EC, Directive on the energy performance of buildings.,
2010: EU.
15 Vittorio Gregotti, ‘La Forma del Territorio,’ Edilizia
Moderna no. 87-88 (1965): 109-112.
16 Daniel Jauslin, Architecture with Landscape Methods:
Doctoral Thesis Proposal and SANAA Rolex Learning
Center Lausanne Sample Field Trip (Delft: TU Delft,
17 Clemens M. Steenbergen and Wouter Reh,
Architecture and Landscape. The Design Experiment of
the Great European Gardens and Landscapes, Revised
and Expanded Edition (Basel, Boston, Berlin:
Birkhäuser, 2003).
18 Clemens M. Steenbergen, Sabine Meeks and
Steffen Nijhuis, Composing Landscapes. Analysis,
Typology and Experiments for Design (Basel, Boston
and Berlin: Birkhäuser, 2008).
19 Steffen Nijhuis, Inge Bobbink and Daniel Jauslin,
‘Landscape as an Architectural Composition: The Delft
Approach,’ in Representing Landscapes Provisional
Title, Forthcoming (Routledge, 2011).
20 Teake De Jong and Van der Voordt, ‘Criteria for
Scientific Study and Design,’ in Ways to Study and
Research, ed. Teake De Jong and Van der Voordt (Delft:
Delft University Press, 2002).
21 Sébastien Marot, The Reclaiming of Sites (New York:
Princeton Architectural Press, 1999).
22 John Dixon-Hunt, Greater Perfections: The
Practice of Garden Theory (Philadelphia: University
of Pennsylvania Press, 2000).
23 André Corboz, ‘The Land as Palimpsest,’ Diogenes 31,
no. 121 (1983).
24 Ian McHarg, Design with Nature, original ed. 1966
(New York: Wiley Series in Sustainable Design, 1992).
25 Inge Bobbink, Land Insight. A Landscape Architectonic Investigation of Locus (Amsterdam: Sun, 2009).
26 Donald Appleyard, Kevin Lynch and John R.
Myer, The View from the Road (Cambridge MA: MIT
Press, 1964).
27 Paul Virilo, La Vitesse de Libération (Paris: éd
Galilée, 1995).
28 Louis Sullivan, ‘The Tall Office Building Artistically
Considered,’ Lippincott’s Magazine March (1896).
29 Aldo Rossi, A Scientific Autobiography (Cambridge
MA: MIT Press, 1984, reprinted 2010).
30 Peter Eisenman, Eisenman Inside Out Selected
Writings, 1963–1988 (New Haven and London: Yale
University Press, 2004).
31 Peter Eisenman, Written into the Void Selected
Writings, 1990-2004 (New Haven and London: Yale
University Press, 2007).
32 Bernard Tschumi, Manhattan Transcripts: Theoretical
Projects (London and New York: Academy Editions
and St. Martin’s Press, 1981 and 1995).
33 Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter, Collage City
(Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1984).
34 Bernard Tschumi and Francoise Choay, ‘Parc de la
Vilette and Critique,’ The Princeton Journal: Thematic
Studies in Architecture Vol. 2 (1985).
35 Anthony Vidler, The Architectural Uncanny: Essays
in the Modern Unhomely (Cambridge MA: MIT Press,
36 Alex Wall, ‘Programming Urban Surface,’ in
Recovering Landscape: Essays in Contemporary Landscape Architecture, ed. James Corner (New York:
Princeton Architectural Press, 1999).
37 Meto J. Vroom, Lexicon of Garden and Landscape
Architecture (Boston and Basel: Birkhäuser, 2006).
38 Rem Koolhaas and Bruce Mau, S, M, L, XL (New
York and Rotterdam: Monticelly Press and 010
Publishers, 1995).
39 MVRDV, Villa VPRO (Barcelona: Actar, 1999).
40 Daniel Jauslin, Architecture with Landscape Methods:
Doctoral Thesis Proposal and SANAA Rolex Learning
Center Lausanne Sample Field Trip (Delft: TU Delft,
41 Daniel Jauslin, ‘Walking on the Moon,’ Mark
Magazine 26 (2010): 11.
42 Ruye Nishizawa, ‘Interview with Kazuyo Sejima
and Ruye Nishizawa,’ SANAA 2004-2008, El Croquis 139
43 Michael Kubo, Albert Ferré and Tomoko Sakamoto,
The Yokohama Project. Foreign Office Architects
(Barcelona: Actar, 2003).
44 This is specifically referring to a visit of the author
to Japan November 2010. A selection of most relevant
buildings in the context of landscape methods include:
Villa Hyuga Interior in Atami (1936) by Bruno Taut,
Peace Memorial Park with several buildings in
Hiroshima (1949-55) by Kenzo Tange, Women’s Library
and Municipal Museum of Art in Kitakyushu (19721974) by Arata Isozaki, Grin Grin Park Visitors Centre
in Fukuoka (2002-2005) by Toyo Ito, The Several Musea
on Naoshima Island (1990-2010) by Tadao Ando, The
Water Glass House (1995) in Atami by Kengo Kuma,
The Kaze-no-Oka Crematorium Nakatsu Oita (1997)
by Fumihiko Maki (see also Maki, cited here) and The
Fruit Museum in Yamanashi (1996) by Itsumo
45 Fumihiko Maki, ISAIA 2010 Asian View: Order and
Wisdom of the Future (Kitakyushu, Japan: Architectural
Institute Of Japan, 2010).
46 Kenneth Frampton, ‘Megaform as Urban Landscape’ (presented at the Raoul Wallenberg Lecture
University of Michigan, A. Alfred Taubman College
of Architecture + Urban Planning, Ann Arbor,
Michigan, 1999).
47 Fumihiko Maki, ‘Some Thoughts on Collective
Form,’ in Structure in Art and in Science, ed. Gyorgy
Kepes (New York: George Braziller, Inc., 1965), 116-127.
48 Manuel de Sola-Morales, A Matter of Things
(Rotterdam: NAi, 2008).
49 Renier De Graaf, AMO, WWF and ecofys, The Energy
Report 100% Renewable Energy by 2050 (Amsterdam:
WWF, 2011).
Building Envelope as Surface p. 120-133
1 Marc-Antoine Laugier, An Essay on Architecture
(1753), trans. Wolfgang and Anni Hermann (Los
Angeles: Henessey & Ingalls, 1977), 12. Also, see
Christian Norberg-Schulz, Intentions In Architecture
(Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997 & 1965), 109-111.
2 Le Corbusier, Precisions On The Present State Of
Architecture And City Planning (Cambridge: MIT
Press, 1991), 66.
3 Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, Architecture
as Signs and Systems For a Mannerist Time (Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 2004), 24-25.
4 Louis H. Sullivan, ‘The Tall Office Building
Artistically Considered,’ Lippincott’s Magazine no. 57
(March 1896): 403-409.
5 Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown,
Architecture as Signs and Systems For a Mannerist Time
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004), 153.
6 Avrum Stroll, Surfaces (Minneapolis: University of
Minnesota Press, 1988), 40-46.
7 Ibid.
8 This theory is also termed Naïve Realism. Gibson’s
theory of ecological perception was criticized as an
indemonstrable and therefore unprovable proposition.
9 Gibson’s ecology consists of invariants, those that
provide constant reference such as the horizon or the
regularity of the paving pattern of a sidewalk, and
affordances, our understanding and recognition as to
what we can do with objects in situations around us.
Furthermore, Gibson’s theory rejects the discrepancy
between appearance and actuality where the sense of
space is derived from the configuration of surfaces.
10 Gibson defines media as the kind of materials such
as air or water that we can be immersed in and move
through, while substance is any solid matter that we
cannot, such as a rock or a concrete wall.
11 Salvoj Žižek, Organs without Bodies: Deleuze and
Consequences (London: Routledge, 2004), 172-173.
12 Diacritics vol. 11 (June 1981): 3-25.
13 Ibid. p. 9.
14 Ibid.
15 Gadamer’s actual term Festspiel is often translated
into English to mean a festival. Here we have emphasized Spiel (play, game, performing, etc.) rather than
Fest (party, celebration, festival, etc.).
16 Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (1974),
trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall
(London: Contiuum, 2006), 112-116.
17 Salvoj Žižek, Organs without Bodies: Deleuze and
Consequences (London: Routledge, 2004), 173.
The Sustainable Indigenous Vernacular:
Interrogating a Myth p. 134-151
1 In this chapter, we use the term indigenous vernacular (in preference to simply vernacular) to refer to a
dwelling and settlement form in which ‘architectural
production was largely determined by local forces’
(Nezar AlSayyad, ed., The End of Tradition? [London:
Routledge, 2004], 10). In the developing world, this
building and urban form historically emerged during
pre-colonial times (Nezar AlSayyad, ‘From Vernacular­
ism to Globalism: The Temporal Reality of Traditional
Settlements,’ Traditional Dwellings and Settlements
Review 7, no. 1 [1995]: 13). The concept of indigenous
vernacular combines two separate ideas, indigenous as
in locally developed (by its Latin roots endo-genus), and
vernacular as in national architecture – as it was
understood in the 1800’s (see Thomas Mozley, ‘New
Churches,’ The British Critic, and Quarterly Theological
Review 26, no. 52 [1839]: 464; George Gilbert Scott,
Remarks on Secular and Domestic Architecture, Present
and Future [London: John Murray, 1857], 1; and J. L.
Petit, ‘On the Revival of Styles,’ The Civil Engineer and
Architect’s Journal 24 [1861]: 195). Thus, the combined
indigenous vernacular refers to a type of dwelling and
settlement that is substantially developed within a
specific territory through either locally originated
(aboriginal) or imported and readapted practices (or
both combined), and which is claimed in nationalist
political discourse to be part of the architectural or
urban stock of a given nation-state, as in the building
of our ancestors. Defined this way, indigenous vernacular architecture is what architectural and urban theory
indistinctly, and to some extents imprecisely, calls
primitive, indigenous or vernacular architecture. On
occasion we also use traditional, a more open category,
to broadly designate the same condition.
2 ‘Proper and peculiar to the House or Country one
lives in; natural,’ definition of the vernacular, capitalization included in the original. See Thomas Blount,
Glossographia Anglicana Nova: Or, a Dictionary,
Interpreting Such Hard Words of Whatever Language, as
Are at Present Used in the English Tongue, with Their
Etymologies, Definitions, &c (London: Dan. Brown,
Tim Goodwin, John Walthoe, M. Newborough, John
Nicholson, Benj. Took, D. Midwinter & Fran. Coggan,
3 Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, The Ten Books on Architecture (ca. 46-30 BCE), trans. Morris Hicky Morgan
(Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1914), 40.
4 Ibid. p. 39.
5 ‘That houses originated as I have written above, we
can see for ourselves from the buildings that are to this
day constructed of like materials by foreign tribes’
(Vitruvius [ca. 46-30 BC] 1914, 39). Vitruvius looks in
detail at several specific examples of indigenous architecture in order to reaffirm such a conclusion, finding
those buildings to be similar to the buildings of antiquity (40). The author also adds that, although mud
and thatch architecture exist in his present, it is a
thing of the past, a ‘reminder of the fashions of old
times’ (40).
6 Leon Battista Alberti, Ten Books on Architecture, 1452
(Complete reprint of the 1755 Leoni edition), Italian trans.
Cosimo Bartoli, English trans. James Leoni (New York:
Transatlantic Arts, 1966), 2.
7 Ibid. p. 26.
8 Ibid. p. 3, 8.
9 Ibid. p. 31, capitalization included in the original.
10 Antonio di Piero Averlino, Treatise on Architecture
(1461-1464), Vol. I, trans. John R. Spencer (New Haven
and London: Yale University Press, 1965), 10. Also see
Vol. 2, folio 4v.
11 Francesco Milizia, The Lives of Celebrated Architects,
Ancient and Modern: With Historical and Critical
Observations on Their Works, and on the Principles of
the Art, Volume 1, trans. Eliza Taylor Cresy (London:
J. Taylor, 1826 [orig. 1768]), xiii.
12 Joseph Gwilt, An Encyclopædia of Architecture: Historical, Theoretical, and Practical (London: Longman,
Brown, Green & Longmans, 1842), 1.
13 Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, The Habitations of Man
in All Ages, trans. Benjamin Bucknall (London:
Sampson, Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, 1876),
381-382, 393-394.
14 Camillo Sitte, City Planning According to Artistic
Principles, trans. Christiane Crasemann Collins and
George R. Collins (New York: Random House, 1965
[orig. 1889]), 167.
15 Banister Fletcher, A History of Architecture on the
Comparative Method, Fourth Edition (London: B.T.
Batsford, 1901), 7. Also see the Seventh Edition
(1924), 1.
16 Lewis Mumford, The Story of Utopias (New York:
Boni and Liveright, 1922), 36.
17 Bernard Rudofsky, Architecture Without Architects:
A Short Introduction to Non-Pedigreed Architecture
(Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964), 2.
18 Ibid.
19 Christopher Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1979).
20 Ibid. p. xv, 519.
21 Ibid. p. xi, 174 & 167. Also, see Christopher
Alexander, Sara Ishikawa and Murray Silverstein,
A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 511.
22 Ibid. p. 519 (1979).
23 Ibid. p. 517 (1979).
24 Jean-Baptiste Rondelet, Traité Théorique et Pratique
de l’Art de Bâtir, Vol. 1, trans. informally by Arboleda
(Paris: Enclos du Panthéon, 1812 [orig. 1802]), 237.
25 ‘J’ai vu, dans le département de l’Isère, des maisons
fort anciennes, construites en pisé, qui n’avaient jamais
été enduites à l’extérieur, et qui cependant avaient
résisté à toutes les intempéries de l’air’ (Rondelet [1802]
1812, 237).
26 Barr Ferree, ‘Climatic Influences in Primitive Archi-
tecture,’ American Anthropologist 3, no. 2 (1890): 147.
27 Erwin Anton Gutkind, Revolution of Environment
(London: Kegan, Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1946), 5.
28 Ibid. p. 10.
29 Ibid. p. 9.
30 Ibid. p. 12-13.
31 Amos Rapoport, House Form and Culture
(Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969).
32 Ibid. p. 75.
33 Ibid. p. 76, 91-92.
34 Paul Oliver, ed., Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World, Vol. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1997), xxvii.
35 See Paul Oliver, ed., Shelter and Society (New York:
Frederick A. Praeger, 1969).
36 Paul Oliver, Built to Meet Needs (Oxford:
Architectural Press, 2006), xxiii.
37 Ibid. p. 42.
38 Paul Oliver, in The Oxford Companion to Architecture, Vol. 2, ed. Patrick Goode (Oxford and New York:
Oxford University Press, 2009), 994.
39 Moshe Safdie, in Form and Purpose, ed. John Kettle
(Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1982), 22-23.
40 Richard Register, Ecocities: Building Cities in Balance
With Nature (Berkeley: Berkeley Hills Books, 2002), 64.
41 Allen G. Noble, Traditional Buildings: A Global
Survey of Structural Forms and Cultural Functions
(London: I. B. Tauris, 2007), 84, 153.
42 John J Boecker, et al. (7group), The Integrative
Design Guide to Green Building: Redefining the Practice
of Sustainability (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons,
2009), 3, 5 & 49.
43 Françoise Fromonot, Glenn Murcutt: Buildings +
Projects 1962–2003 (London and New York: Thames
and Hudson, 2003), 39.
44 Dominique Gauzin-Müller, Sustainable Living: 25
International Examples (Boston: Birkhäuser, 2006), 8.
45 Ralph Knowles, Ritual House: Drawing on Nature’s
Rhythms for Architecture and Urban Design (Washington:
Island Press, 2006), 4.
46 James Steele, ‘The Translation of Tradition: A
Comparative Dialectic,’ Traditional Dwellings and
Settlements Review 7, no. 2 (1996): 19.
47 Richard Rogers, in Cities for a Small Planet, ed.
Philip Gumuchdjian (Boulder, Col.: Westview Press,
1998), 1.
48 John S. Taylor, Commonsense Architecture: A CrossCultural Survey of Practical Design Principles (New York
and London: W. W. Norton, 1983), 63, 125 & 155.
49 Martin Von Hildebrand, ‘Vivienda Indígena,
Amazonas [Indigenous housing, Amazon basin],’
Proa 323 (1983): 12.
50 Ibid., 12-14.
51 Susan Kent, in Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World, Vol. 3, ed. Paul Oliver (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1997), 2140-42.
52 John W. M. Whiting and Barbara Ayres, Inferences
from the Shape of Dwellings (Cambridge, Mass.:
Harvard University, Department of Anthropology,
1966), 12-13.
53 Bronislaw Malinowski, Argonauts of the Western
Pacific: An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure
in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea (London:
George Routledge and Sons, 1922).
54 Reo Franklin Fortune, Sorcerers of Dobu: The Social
Anthropology of the Dobu Islanders of the Western Pacific
(London: George Routledge and Sons, 1932).
55 Margaret Mead, Sex and Temperament in Three
Primitive Societies (New York: William Morrow and
Company, 1935).
56 Gregory Bateson, Naven: An Account of the Problems
Suggested by a Composite Picture of the Culture of a
New Guinea Tribe Drawn from Three Points of View
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1936).
57 Patrick Dujarric, in Encyclopedia of Vernacular
Architecture of the World, Vol. 3, ed. Paul Oliver (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 1988-89.
58 Ben Rawlence, ‘Bring the Gun or You’ll Die:’ Torture,
Rape, and Other Serious Human Rights Violations by
Kenyan Security Forces in the Mandera Triangle (New
York: Human Rights Watch, 2009), 5.
59 Natalie Tobert in Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World, Vol. 3, ed. Paul Oliver (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1997), 2095-96.
60 See Natalie Tobert, ‘The Effect of Drought Among
the Zaghawa in Northern Darfur,’ Disasters 9, no. 3
(1985): 216. Also see Natalie Tobert, ‘Craft Specialisation: A Seasonal Camp in Kebkebiya,’ World
Archaeology 17, no. 2 (1985): 279.
61 For more on this see the United Nations Resident
Coordinator (UNRC), Report on Interagency Mission
to Kebkabiya, Saraf Omra and Tawilla Administrative
Units, February and March, 2004, p. 23-26, available
at (accessed April 2011).
62 An environment that a rainforest dweller, such as
a Mbote from the Democratic Republic of the Congo,
finds cool might be unbearably hot for an Alaskan
Inuit, for example. Besides, the coolness of a dwelling
is not very relevant when Mbote families spend most
of their time outside the house – in fact, using the
outdoors as an extension of the house, hanging some
of their belongings from tree branches (see Allen F.
Roberts, in Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture
of the World, Vol. 3, ed. Paul Oliver [Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1997], 2008). In cases like
this, temperature inside is not a critical issue given that
the house is simply not used that much. But the issue
goes beyond being culturally conditioned, to becoming
personal: some people have more tolerance to certain
temperatures than others because of health issues, body
mass or simply individual preference.
63 A world conference held in 1944 in order to establish
a standardized monetary management structure. It
also established the IMF and the international currency
exchange system that is pegged to the US Dollar.
64 See the work by Hans Harms and Rod Burgess. In
their evaluation of self-help building, an urban form
of community building that originated from traditional practices, Harms finds that it is actually not
cheaper (see Hans Harms, ‘Historical Perspectives on
the Practice and Purpose of Self-Help Housing,’ in
Self-Help Housing: A Critique, ed. P. Ward [London:
Mansell, 1982], 20, 30, 34, 47 & 50-51). Burgess concurs
with this finding (see Rod Burgess, ‘Self-Help Housing
Advocacy: A Curious Form of Radicalism. A Critique
of the Work of John F. C. Turner,’ in Self-Help Housing:
A Critique, ed. P. Ward [London: Mansell, 1982], 61).
65 Indeed, the time spent to construct many traditional
structures exceeds by a multiple factor that needed to
build contemporary structures of similar shape and
66 Their funding came from a negotiation over oilexploration rights with an international oil corporation.
The Qanats in Yazd: The Dilemmas of
Sustainability & Conservation p. 152-167
1 Yazd was called Ke-Se and Issa’ees during the ancient
period of Iranian history. It was renamed to Farafiz
and Yazdan Gerd during the reign of the Sassanian
king Yadgerd I (399-421 AD). The name Yazd comes
from Yazdan and Izad denoting ‘holiness’ and
2 The Qanat is a provincial name specific to Yazd.
Various places have their own nomenclatures: Karez
(Afghanistan), Khotara (Morocco), Foggara (North
Africa), Auyoun (Egypt) and Manbo (Japan).
3 World Weather and Climate Information, http://,Yazd,Iran (accessed January 2011).
4 For more on qanat construction see: A.A. Semsar
Yazdi, Qanat from Practitioners’ Point of View (Tehran:
Mohandesin Moshaver Setiran, 2005). Also see: A.A.
Semsar Yazdi, Proceedings of International Symposium
on Qanat, Volume Two (Yazd: Sherkat Sahami Ab
Mantaqe, 2001).
5 Builders are known to have first constructed the
storage space, and then filled it up with hay and straw
to where they could start constructing the dome. After
the dome’s completion, the straw would be set on fire,
clearing the interior.
6 As is often true with secular public use structures,
one cannot trace the precise origin or patron of most
ab anbar reservoirs in Yazd. Most extant ab anbars can
be traced to the late Safavid and Qajar periods. There
are approximately 75-90 surviving ab anbars in Yazd
today. Some of the important ones are the Seyed Va
Sahra, Masoudi, Hadji Ali Akbari, Khajeh, Golshan,
Rostam Geev, Kolah Doozha, Malekotojar and Mirza
Shafi reservoirs.
7 For more on this see: Javad Safi-Nejad, QanatSelected Scientific Articles (Yazd: Sherkat Sahami Ab
Mantaqe, 2001).
8 Typically the badgir is high enough to trap the breeze
and direct it through a chimney downward to the
building’s lowest level. The badgir openings opposite
the wind create a suction effect, sucking the air out of
the building. When there is no wind, the south face of
the badgir tower heats up and the air rises, sucking the
air down from the north-facing cooler section. At night,
the tower cools down first, and the cold heavier air
settles down through the chimney into the building,
pushing out the warm air through the windows.
9 Mohammad Reza Haeri, ‘Kariz (Qanat); An Eternal
Friendly System For Harvesting Groundwater’ (paper
presented at the In Adaptation Workshop, New Delhi,
November 12-13, 2003), available at
pdf /121103_iran.pdf (accessed January 2011).
10 Hossein Kalantari and Hossein Hatami Nejad,
Renovation Planning of Historical Area of Yazd (Tehran:
Faragostar Publishing, 2007), 200.
11 Abouei Raza, ‘Conservation of Badgirs and Qanats
in Yazd, Central Iran,’ (paper included in The 23rd
Conference on Passive and Low Energy Architecture
Proceedings, Geneva, Switzerland, 2006).
12 According to the administrative division rules, the
Yazd province is divided into 10 districts; each includes
at least one town and a number of villages. These districts are Abarkuh, Ardakan, Bafq, Khatam, Maybod,
Mehriz, Tabas, Sadough, Taft and Yazd. For more see:
World Gazetteer,
wg.php?x=1152404802& men=gcis&lng=en& dat=32&
(accessed January 2011).
13 Mohammad Reza Haeri, ‘Kariz (Qanat); An Eternal
Friendly System For Harvesting Groundwater’ (paper
presented at the In Adaptation Workshop, New Delhi,
November 12-13, 2003), available at /
pdf /121103_iran.pdf (accessed January 2011).
14 For instance, the Kardeh Dam in Iran’s Khorasan
province has an elevation of 67 meters from its foundation, and it is engineered to provide 31 million cubic
meters of water per annum.
15 Mehdi Kowsar, ‘A Master Plan for Yazd,’ Environmental Design: Journal of the Islamic Environmental
Design Research Centre 1-2 (1989): 80-85.
16 Abouei Raza, ‘Conservation of Badgirs and Qanats
in Yazd, Central Iran’ (paper included in The 23rd
Conference on Passive and Low Energy Architecture
Proceedings, Geneva Switzerland, 2006).
17 For more on this see: The Middle Rio Grande
Conservancy District, (accessed
January 2011).
18 Mohammad Reza Haeri, ‘Kariz (Qanat); An Eternal
Friendly System For Harvesting Groundwater’ (paper
presented at the In Adaptation Workshop, New Delhi,
November 12-13, 2003), available at
pdf /121103_iran.pdf (accessed January 2011).
19 Catherine Brown and William Morrish, ‘Western
Civic Art: Works in Progress,’ Places vol. 5, no. 4 (1989):
20 Ibid.
21 The Neighborhood Unit was conceived in 1929 by
American planner Clarence Perry. It represents a fundamental human habitat within a ¼ mile pedestrianshed. In its ideal form, it is a compact urban pattern
with a balanced range of living, working, shopping,
recreational and educational accommodation. For
more on the Neighborhood Unit and its derivatives,
see: Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Robert
Alminana, The New Civic Art: Elements of Town
Planning (New York: Rizzoli, 2003), 84-90.
22 Sites and services approaches have been successfully
implemented in several parts of Asia. Perhaps the most
published project of this nature is Indian architect
Balkrishna Doshi’s ‘Aranya’ Low-Cost Housing in
Indore (1983-1986). Commissioned by the Indore
Development Authority, the project comprises about
6,500 housing units built primarily for the poor, but
it also includes other income groups and has been
planned to house a population of 40,000. For more
see: James Steele, The Complete Architecture of
Balkrishna Doshi (London: Thames & Hudson Ltd.,
1998), 114-129.
23 Mohammad Reza Haeri, ‘Kariz (Qanat); An Eternal
Friendly System For Harvesting Groundwater’ (paper
presented at the In Adaptation Workshop, New Delhi,
November 12-13, 2003), available at
pdf /121103_iran.pdf (accessed January 2011).
24 Joshka Wessels and R.J.A. Hoogeveen, Renovation
of Qanats in Syria, available at /
drylands/docs/Publications/ Wessels.pdf (accessed
January 2011).
25 For more on Agrarian Urbanism see: Philip
Langdon, ‘Newest Eco-development Model: Agricultural Urbanism,’ New Urban Network (2008), available
at (accessed December 2011). Also
see: Charles Waldheim, ‘Notes Towards a History of
Agrarian Urbanism,’ Places (2010), available at http://
(accessed December 2011).
26 Mohammad Reza Haeri, ‘Kariz (Qanat); An
Eternal Friendly System For Harvesting Groundwater’
(paper presented at the In Adaptation Workshop, New
Delhi, November 12-13, 2003), available at http://unfccc.
application/pdf/121103_iran.pdf (accessed January 2011).
The Vernacular, the Iconic and the Fake p. 168-178
1 Jean Dethier, Down to Earth (London: Thames and
Hudson, 1983).
2 The term starchitect is a neologism used to describe
famous architects who have been widely publicized
for their iconic buildings. In use since around 2001,
the terms starchitect indicates the kind of wide media
exposure certain architects receive.
3 A calculation method that considers the area or
volume per person figure underscores that some
buildings are more compact and contain more people
per area or volume than others. Hence, they are more
energy efficient per person.
4 According to the Norwegian architect Gaia Frederica
Miller in her article in Arkitektur N (March 2010),
the methods of calculation and comparison should be
based on energy needs per person using the building,
instead of being based on the building size (m2 or m3).
5 For example, see the US Department of Energy’s
guidelines for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy,
available at
shtml (accessed April 2011).
6 Norwegian Wood was a part of the Stavanger 2008
festival, a European Cultural Capital 2008 project,
aimed at promoting the innovative use of timber in
Norway. Based on this initiative, 20 projects were
planned to be built.
Natural Architecture p. 179-185
This chapter was originally published in Japanese
in the author’s collection of essays entitled ‘Natural
Architecture’ (自然な建築) by Iwanami Shoten
Publishers (岩波書店), Tokyo, 2008.
The Concept and Aesthetics of Sustainable
Building in Japan p. 186-197
1 Ken Yang, ‘Green Design – 2005’ (a background
report for The United Nations Forum on Energy
Efficiency and Energy Security for Sustainable Development: Taking Collaborative Action on Climate
Change, Seoul, Korea, December 2007).
2 Minna Sunikka, Policies for Improving Energy
Efficiency of the European Housing Stock (Amsterdam:
IOS Press, 2006).
3 David MacKay, Sustainable Energy Without the Hot
Air (Cambridge: UIT, 2009).
4 Shuzo Murakami, Mark D. Levine, Hiroshi Yoshino,
Takashi Inoue, Toshiharu Ikaga, Yoshiyuki Shimoda,
Shuichi Miura, Tomoki Sera, Masahiro Nishio,
Yasuhiro Sakamoto and Wataru Fujisaki, Energy
Consumption, Efficiency, Conservation and Greenhouse
Gas Mitigation in Japan’s Building Sector (Berkeley:
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, University
of California, 2006).
5 Arata Isozaki, Japan-ness in Architecture (Cambridge,
MA: MIT Press, 2006).
6 AIJ (Architectural Institute of Japan), Architecture
for a Sustainable Future – All About the Holistic Approach
in Japan (Tokyo: IBEC, 2005).
7 Ministry of Construction, White Paper of
Construction (Tokyo: MLIT, 1996).
8 Atsushi Ueda, The Inner Harmony of the Japanese
Houses (Tokyo: Kodansha, 1990).
9 Kengo Kuma, Anti-object (London: Architectural
Association, 2008).
10 Kengo Kuma, Studies in Organic (Tokyo: Toto,
11 Gunter Nitschke, ‘Architecture and Aesthetics
of an Island People’ in In Detail, Japan, Architecture,
Construction, Ambiences, ed. Christian Schitterich
(Basel: Birkhäuser, 2002).
12 Junko Endo, Shuzo Murakami, Toshiharu Ikaga,
Kazuo Iwamura, Yasuhiro Sakamoto, Tomonari
Yashiro and Kazuaki Bokagi, ‘Extended Framework of
CASBEE: Designing an Assessment System of Buildings
for All Lifecycle Stages Based on the Concept of Ecoefficiency’ (paper included in the Proceedings of the
2005 World Sustainable Building Conference [SB05],
Tokyo, Japan, September 2005).
13 Kazuaki Tsuda, Shuzo Murakami, Toshiharu Ikaga
and Kengo Kuma, Environmental Impact Assessment of
Government Office Based on the Performance Values,
Study on Life Cycle Assessment of Sustainable Buildings
– Part 6 (2009). A research paper translated from
Japanese, provided by the office of Kengo Kuma.
14 Tomoko Hirano, ‘Japanese Building Regulatory
Framework for Energy Efficiency’ (paper included in
the Proceedings of the 2008 World Sustainable Building
Conference, Melbourne, Australia, September 2008).
15 IEA (International Energy Agency), Promoting
Energy Efficiency Investments, Case Studies in the
Residential Sector (Paris: IEA /OECD/AFD, 2008).
16 Shuzo Murakami, Mark D. Levine, Hiroshi
Yoshino, Takashi Inoue, Toshiharu Ikaga, Yoshiyuki
Shimoda, Shuichi Miura, Tomoki Sera, Masahiro
Nishio, Yasuhiro Sakamoto and Wataru Fujisaki,
‘Overview of Energy Consumption and GHG Mitigation Technologies in the Building Sector of Japan,’
Energy Efficiency 2 (2009): 179–194.
17 Harold Wilhite, Hidetoshi Nagakami, Takashi
Masuda, Yukiko Yamaga and Hiroshi Haneda, ‘A Cross
Cultural Analysis of Household Energy Use Behaviour
in Japan and Norway,’ Energy Policy vol. 24 no. 9 (1996):
18 Yumiko Iwafune, Miyuki Yokoo, Hidetoshi
Nakagami and Hitoshi Aida, ‘Study on Residential
Energy Consumption in the World – Western Countries’ (paper included in the Proceedings of the 22nd
Conference of Energy, Economy and Environment
[in Japanese], Japan, 2006).
19 Minna Sunikka-Blank and Yumiko Iwafune,
‘Sustainable Building in Japan – Observations on a
Market Transformation Policy,’ Environmental Policy
and Governance (2011). A journal paper accepted to be
published in a special issue focused on Japanese policy
review, forthcoming DOI: 10.1002/eet.580.
20 Fumiaki Kuraishi, ‘Opportunity and Challenge,
Changing Housing Market in Japan’ (presentation
made to The Asia Builders’ Week Japan Management
Association [JMA], Japan, 2003).
21 Ministry of Construction, Housing Demand Survey
(Tokyo: MLIT, 1998).
22 Kenzo Tange and Noboru Kawazoe: Katsura:
Tradition and Creation in Japanese Architecture (New
Haven: Yale University Press, 1960).
23 Yukihiro Kawazu, Nobuhiro Shimada, Noriyoshi
Yakoo and Tatsuo Oka, ‘Comparison of the Assessment
Results of BREEAM, LEED, GBTool and CASBEE’ (paper
included in the Proceedings of the 2005 World Sustainable Building Conference, Tokyo, Japan, September
24 Bruno Taut, Housing and People of Japan (Tokyo:
The Sanseido Co., 1937).
Durability in Housing – The Aesthetics of
the Ordinary p. 198-212
1 Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of
its Technological Reproducibility,’ in The Work of Art
in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility, and Other
Writings on Media, ed. Michael W. Jennings, Brigid
Doherty and Thomas Levin (Cambridge: Belknap
Press of Harvard University Press, 2008), 40.
2 Aldo Rossi, L‘Architettura della Città (Torino:
CittàStudi, 2006), 497.
3 Ibid. p. 509.
4 Ibid. p. 498.
5 The Architect 5 (1988).
6 Vittorio Magnago Lampugnani, Die Modernität
des Dauerhaften: Essays zu Stadt, Architektur und
Design (Berlin: Wagenbach, 1995), 33.
7 Ibid. p. 37.
8 Thomas Herzog, ‘Einfachheit und Dauerhaftigkeit.
Ein Versuch,’ Der Architekt 3 (1988): 196-197.
9 Vittorio Magnago Lampugnani, Die Modernität
des Dauerhaften: Essays zu Stadt, Architektur und
Design (Berlin: Wagenbach, 1995), 34.
10 Ibid. p. 73.
11 Uta Hassler, ‘Das Dauerhafte und das Flüchtige.
Planungsleitbilder und die Zukunft des Bestehenden,’
in Nachhaltigkeit und Denkmalpflege. Beiträge zu einer
Kultur der Umsicht, ed. Marion Wohlleben and H.R.
Meier (2003), 43-53 & 49.
12 Margrit Hugentobler, A. Henz and S. Gysi,
Nachhaltige Stadtentwicklung: Ein Evaluations- und
Handlungsforschungsprojekt in der Stadt Zürich.
Synthesebericht (1997), 22.
13 Margrit Hugentobler and S. Gysi, ‘Sustainable
Urban Development in Zürich. Learning from Successful Projects,’ in City and Culture. Cultural Processes and
Urban Sustainability, ed. Louise Nyström (Kalmar,
1999), 306-320.
14 See ‘Facts on Living in Zürich,’ in Wohnen in
Zürich. Programme, Reflexionen, Beispiele, ed. by the
City of Zürich (Sulgen: Niggli, 2006), 187.
15 The share of non-profit housing (communal housing
and cooperatives) in the city of Zürich is high, almost
25%. For more information see Statistics Zürich:
html (accessed April 2011).
16 Margrit Hugentobler, A. Henz and S. Gysi,
Nachhaltige Stadtentwicklung: Ein Evaluations- und
Handlungsforschungsprojekt in der Stadt Zürich.
Synthesebericht (1997).
17 Gilles Deleuze, tran. Tom Conley, The Fold:
Leibniz and the Baroque (London: Continuum,
2006), 144.
18 The interdisciplinary SNF funded project ‘On the
Career of Durability. The Biographies of Appreciated
Apartment Houses from 1900 up to the Present’ was
carried out by Marie Glaser (project leader), Anna Joss,
Annelies Adam and Sabine Herzog from 2007 to 2010
at the ETH Wohnforum–ETH CASE, Department of
Architecture ETH Zürich. The findings (with English
subtitles) are at:
(accessed April 2011).
19 Roderick Lawrence, ‘Integrating Architectural,
Social and Housing History,’ Urban History Vol. 19,
no. 1 (1992): 39-63.
20 Clifford Geertz, ‘Thick Description: Toward an
Interpretive Theory of Culture,’ in The Interpretation
of Cultures, ed. Clifford Geertz (New York: Basic
Books, 1973), 3-30.
21 In recent years there has been a proliferation of
writing on the meaning of the house and the home as
a multidimensional concept. Environmental, social,
ethnographical, psychological, philosophical as well
as geographical studies have dealt with the concepts.
Referring to all of them is not possible. A helpful
discussion is provided by C. Despres, ‘The Meaning
of Home: Literature Review and Directions for Future
Research and Theoretical Development,’ Journal of
Architectural and Planning Research, Vol. 8, no. 2 (1991):
22 In this work, Schlögel’s goal is to break down the
conventional chronological approach to history and
to add the perspectives of place and synchrony to it.
It is not, after all, only chronicles and books that serve
as sources of history, but also timetables, address books,
maps or buildings. They bear witness to civilization
and make history tangible in the truest sense of the
word, becoming in themselves a part of historiography.
Karl Schlögel, Leggere il Tempo Nello Spazio (Milano:
Mondadori Schlögel, 2009), 314. The German title: Im
Raume Lesen wir die Zeit: Über Zivilisationsgeschichte
und Geopolitik (2003).
23 Roderick Lawrence, ‘Integrating Architectural,
Social and Housing History,’ Urban History Vol. 19,
no. 1 (1992): 39-63.
24 Johann Friedrich Geist and K. Kürvers, Das Berliner
Mietshaus 1862-1945 (München: Prestel, 1984).
25 Marie A. Glaser, A. Joss, A. Adam and S. Herzog,
Zur Karriere des Dauerhaften, Hausbiografien
wertgeschätzter Wohnungsbauten aus den Jahren 1900
bis zur Gegenwart Final Report (Zürich: ETH, 2010).
26 Quartierspiegel Sihlfeld (2006), 25.
27 Robert Bischoff (1876-1920) and Hermann Weideli
(1877-1964) owned a well-known office, and were
responsible for building the Café Odeon at Bellevue,
among other things.
28 Transcript of the interview at the Housing
Administration City of Zürich (2008), 2.
29 Setting up common baths was a normal practice
in housing construction at the time, (housing was kept
as low-priced as possible) according to the original
construction standard of the settlement industry I (BEP)
as well as the Limmat I municipal housing development.
30 Housing Politics of the City of Zürich (1957), 53.
31 Stücheli Architects, Documentation, Zurlinden
Residential Development (Bauherrschaft City of Zürich
LV: Construction project file LV, May 17, 2006), 6.
32 Roderick Lawrence, Housing, Dwellings and
Home: Design Theory, Research and Practice
(Chichester UK: John Wiley, 1987).
33 ‘The reserves have not been as rosy … as it actually
could have been because of the housing development’s
age. The reason for this is that maintenance work or
repair work used to only be carried out on an individual
measure.’ Transcript of the interview conducted at
the Housing Administration City of Zürich (April 8,
2009), 6.
34 AStRP (1004) Housing Colony Zurlinden, Housing
Renovation, City Council Resolutions LV (May 16,
35 AStRP (1317) Housing Colony Zurlinden, Façade
Renovation Block III, City Council Resolutions LV
(May 19, 1961); (2931) Façade Renovation of Blocks II
[…] City Council Resolutions LV (November 5, 1965).
36 Replacement of windows (without those in the
stairwells) occurred 1977/1979.
37 Transcript of the interview conducted at the
Housing Administration City of Zürich (April 8,
2009), 5.
38 Residential Development Zurlindenstrasse,
Description of Housing Development LV, (January 10,
39 Transcript of the interview conducted at the
Housing Administration City of Zürich (April 8,
2009), 5-6. The cost of a three-room apartment with
approximately 70 square meters of living space was
on average 600 Swiss Francs before the renewal and
940 Swiss Francs after. This is still well below the
average monthly rent in Zürich, which was 1,236
Swiss Francs in 2006.
40 This cooperation started with the initiative of the
tenants who began to communicate actively with the
Housing Administration City of Zürich in an early
stage, after receiving the first official information.
This action was seized by the administration and the
communication process was structured in a participatory manner: negotiations were possible regarding
the joining of apartments and the new kitchen furnishings.
41 ‘We are a fairer landlord, as a local authority. For
example, it takes a lot for a tenant to be evicted. More
than with a private landlord.’ Transcript of the interview conducted at the Housing Administration City
of Zürich (April 8, 2009), 12.
42 Roderick Lawrence showed there are factors that
impinge upon the daily life of residents, like the layout
of rooms and the materials of furnishing, which can
easily be overlooked by architects, planners and housing managers. The involvement of the tenants in
housing upgrade and renewal projects supports the
long-term acceptance and appraisal of residential buildings. See Roderick Lawrence, Housing, Dwellings and
Home: Design Theory, Research and Practice (Chichester
UK: John Wiley, 1987), Chapter 8. Also, for further
information see the well-known German handbook
on participation in housing: K. Freisitzer, R. Koch and
O. Uhl, Mitbestimmung im Wohnbau: ein Handbuch
(Wien: Picus, 1987). Also, see M. Hugentobler and
M. Brändle-Ströh, ‘Sustainable Urban Development:
A Conceptual Framework and its Application,’ Journal
of Urban Technology Vol. 4, no. 2 (1997): 85-99. This
article discusses concepts of public participation in
sustainable housing development and renovation that
count the participation of residents as a factor of
successful action on the social level. And finally, see
M. Hugentobler and S. Gysi, ‘Sustainable Urban Development – Learning from Successful Projects’ in City
and Culture, Cultural Processes and Urban Sustainability,
ed. Luise Nyström (The Swedish Urban Environment
Council, 1999).
43 Transcript of the interview conducted at the Housing Administration City of Zürich (April 2009), 7.
44 Ibid. p. 4.
45 Approaches in sustainable development of urban
neighborhoods count participation as factor of success
on the level of social sustainability. See M. Hugentobler
and M. Brändle-Ströh, ‘Sustainable Urban Development: A Conceptual Framework and its Application,’
Journal of Urban Technology Vol. 4, no. 2 (1997):
85-99. Also, see M. Hugentobler and S. Gysi, ‘Sustainable Urban Development – Learning from Successful
Projects’ in City and Culture, Cultural Processes and
Urban Sustainability, ed. Luise Nyström (The Swedish
Urban Environment Council, 1999).
46 In order to adhere to the characteristics of listed
properties, no wooden court balconies were erected.
Cf Mehr als Wohnen (2007), 52.
47 Läufterli, Swiss German for a ‘small window in a
48 Stücheli Architects, Documentation, Zurlinden
Residential Development (Bauherrschaft City of Zürich
LV: Construction project file LV, May 17, 2006).
49 Transcript of the interview conducted at the
Housing Administration City of Zürich (April 8,
2009), 1.
50 Ibid. p. 9.
51 The Zürich apartment vacancy rate was 0.07%
in 2010.
52 Transcript of the interview conducted at the
Housing Administration City of Zürich (April 8,
2009), 10.
53 Ibid. p. 10.
54 Transcript of the interview conducted at the
Housing Administration City of Zürich (April 8,
2009), 11.
55 Interview II (2008), 00:06:49.02.
56 Transcript of the interview conducted at the
Housing Administration City of Zürich (April 8, 2009),
3; and Interview I (2008), 00:00:51.00.
57 See Roderick Lawrence, Housing, Dwellings and
Home: Design Theory, Research and Practice
(Chichester UK: John Wiley, 1987). Also, see S. Pikusa,
‘Adaptability: Designing for Functional Adaptability:
a Lesson from History,’ Architecture Australia Vol. 72,
no. 1 (1983): 62-67.
58 Old buildings from before the 1960’s often possess
inherent adaptability. The apartment contains rooms,
halls and passageways that can accommodate multipurpose domestic activities. Changes in use are possible within the space. As Pikusa states, ‘the inherent
adaptability is built into the initial design, giving the
occupant the choice through intentional ambiguity,
within fixed physical constraints of a given plan …
The plan characteristics make a wide range of interpretations possible and there is a minimum of design
features that would inhibit particular choices of use.’
See S. Pikusa, ‘Adaptability: Designing for Functional
Adaptability: a Lesson from History,’ Architecture
Australia Vol. 72, no. 1 (1983): 62-67.
59 Tour of apartment I (2008), 00:07:41.01.
60 A high volume of research has been carried out on
the process of ‘home-making.’ For important literature
see Clare Cooper Marcus, House as a Mirror of Self:
Exploring the Deeper Meaning of Home (Berkeley: Conari
Press, 1995).
61 Documentation of the municipal Zurlinden
housing development, hg.v. LV der City of Zürich
62 Interview II (2009), 00:13:26.02.
63 ‘There are a great deal of unsavory characters in
Fritschistrasse, groups of youths and the likes. It has
been bad in the last ten years.’ Interview II (2009),
64 Interview II (2009), 00:26:11.03.
65 Also, see design details in Lawrence (1987);
Hertzberger (1977); Henz (1995); and Beisi (1994).
66 Michael Alder Interview in Archithese 1 (1984): 8.
Environmental Issues as Context p. 213-226
1 Georg W. Reinberg, Le Architetture di Georg W.
Reinberg (Firenze: Alinea Editrice, 1999).
2 Roberta Morelli, ‘Architettura ed Energia: Una
Nuova Cultura Progettuale,’ in ed. Luisella
Gelsomino and Ottorino Marinoni (Bologna:
Editrice Compositori, 2009), 44.
3 Stefano Bucci, ‘Ricostruiamo le Mura,’ L’Europeo 12
(2009): 15-18.
4 Oriol Bohigas, ‘Spazio Collettivo ed Edifici
Residenziali. Il Progetto Urbano Come Architettura
della Città,’ in ed. Luisella Gelsomino and Ottorino
Marinoni (Bologna: Editrice Compositori, 2009), 16.
5 Ibid. 17.
6 For the Italian debate see: Stefano Boeri, Arturo
Lanzani and Edoardo Marini, Il Territorio Che Cambia:
Ambienti, Paesaggi e Immagini della Regione Milanese
(Milano: Abitare Segesta Cataloghi, 1993); Francesco
Indovina, trans., La Città Occasionale (Milano: F.
Angeli, 1999); Guido Martinotti, Metropoli (Bologna:
Il Mulino,1993); Paolo Portoghesi and Rolando
Scarano, ed., Il Progetto di Architettura (Roma:
Newton & Compton Editori, 1999); Eugenio Turri,
La Megalopoli Padana (Venezia: Marsilio, 2000).
7 Laura Thermes, Tempi e spazi: scritti teorici: la città
e il suo progetto nell’età posturbana (Roma: Diagonale,
2000), 95.
8 Paul Ricoeur, Parcous del la Reconnaissance (Paris:
Stock, 2004), Italian trans. Percorsi del Riconoscimento
(Milano: Cortina, 2005), 4.
9 Emery Nicola, L’architettura Difficile. Filosofia del
Costruire (Milano: Christian Marinotti Edizioni,
2007), 8.
10 Marc Antoine Laugier, Essai sur l’architecture
(Paris: 1753, 1755), Italian trans. Vittorio Ugo, Saggio
sull’architettura (Palermo: 1987).
11 Raffaele Pugliese, La città e la Ragione. Norme
Morfologiche e Costruzione della Città (Milano:
Guerini Studio, 1997), 13-14.
12 Christian Schittich, ‘Editorial,’ Detail 6 (2008): 354.
13 Ibid.
14 William J. R. Curtis, Modern Architecture since
1900 (Oxford: Phaidon, 1982), 471.
15 Luca Molinari, ed., Ernesto Nathan Roger.
Esperienza dell’Architettura (Milano: Skira, 1997), 279.
16 Manifesto by Antonio Sant’Elia made on July 11,
1914, included in Alberto Sartoris, Antonio Sant’Elia
e l’Architettura Futurista (Milano: Sapiens, 1993).
17 William J. R. Curtis, Modern Architecture since
1900 (Oxford: Phaidon, 1982), 471.
18 Luca Molinari, ed., Ernesto Nathan Roger. Esperienza
dell’Architettura (Milano: Skira, 1997), 282-284.
19 Ibid.
20 Title of the original copy of Ernesto Nathan Rogers,
‘Il Passo da Fare,’ Casabella 251 (1961).
21 Ernesto Nathan Rogers, ‘Le Preesistenze Ambientali
e i Temi Contemporanei,’ Casabella-Continuità 204
22 Gio Ponti, ‘La casa all’italiana,’ Domus 1 (1928): 1.
23 Fulvio Irace, Milano Moderna. Architettura e Città
nell’Epoca della Ricostruzione (Milano: Federico Motta
Editore, 1996), 50.
24 Fulvio Irace, ‘La Facciata Alleggerita nel Processo
di Rinnovamento dell’Architettura,’ in ed. Giovanni
Morabito (Roma: Gangemi Editore, 2004), 202.
25 Ibid. 204.
26 Ibid.
27 Ibid. 211.
28 Cino Zucchi, ‘Mario Asiago e Claudio Vender.
L’astrazione Quotidiana,’ in ed. C. Zucchi, F. Cadeo
and M. Lattuada (Milano: Skira, 1999), 43.
29 Ibid. 128.
30 From the internal project report prepared by the
31 Ibid.
32 Studio Albori, ‘Architettura Per La Città Densa’
(presneted at the Milan Triennale, Milan, Italy, 2009).
Magic, Inc. – Reframing the City p. 227-242
1 Robert A. Heinlein, ‘Magic Inc.,’ originally
published under the title, ‘The Devil Makes the Law,’
in Unknown, September 1940, Vol. 4, no. 1, ed. John W.
Campbell, Jr. (New York: Street & Smith Publications,
Inc., 1940). Fittingly, the plot of the story hinges on a
bill that is surreptitiously submitted to lawmakers by
representatives of the organization by title alone, so
that its contents wouldn’t be revealed until it was taken
up in committee: ‘A Bill to Establish Professional
Standards for Pharmaturgists, Regulate the Practice
of the Pharmaturgic Profession, Provide for the
Appointment of a Committee to Examine, License and
Administer (Pharmatergists).’ Clearly, it isn’t really a
proper title – rather an omnibus on which can be hung
any kind of regulation, including, in this case, abridgement of anti-monopoly regulation. Such political
committees as semi-public bodies have ample precedent
(i.e. the Bar Association, the American Medical
Association, World’s Fair Corporations, etc.), and with
a few strategic nominations they can easily turn into a
tax-funded oligarchy.
2 See Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic
(London: Penguin, 1991).
3 The Greek words rendered as miracle in English
Bibles were semeion ‘sign,’ teras ‘wonder’ and dynamis
‘power,’ which in Vulgate are translated respectively as
signum, prodigium and virtus. For more on this, see
the Online Etymology Dictionary, available at http://
(accessed April 2011).
4 See Frei Otto, Frei Schriften und Reden, 1951–1983
(Braunschweig: Vieweg Verlag, 1984).
5 Institute of Cognitive Science, Department of
Neurobiopsychology, Universität Osnabrück; the
project report is available at /~feelspace/downloads/feelSpace_
finalReport.pdf (accessed April 2011).
6 Richard Sennet, The Craftsman (New York:
Penguin, 2008), 127-128.
7 Adopted by Resolution 31/ 72 of the United Nations
General Assembly on December 10, 1976. The
Convention was opened for signature in Geneva
on May 18, 1977.
8 Massimo De Angelis and Stavros Stavrides, ‘On the
Commons,’ An Architektur 01.23 (2010).
9 David Bollier, ‘Reclaiming the Commons,’ Boston
Review Summer (2002).
10 Ivy Lee is also credited with inventing the press
release, and had many high profile clients, but lost
public credibility himself when it became known
that he was a war profiteer who worked for both the
US and German governments during the wars.
11 From the author’s personal project experience.
Also, see the article Plumbers Unions vs. Waterless
Urinals by Brian Doherty, available at http://reason.
com/blog /2010/06/24 /plumbers-unions-vs-waterless-u
(accessed April 2011); also see the article Philadelphia
Plumbers Union Pipes up About Waterless Urinals,
US Water News Online, available at http://www.
html (accessed April 2011).
12 See the interview of Jane Jacobs: Urban Visionary
Speaks Out, on the website Designing Active
Communities, Promoting Healthy Lives, available
jacobsfullinterview (accessed April 2011).
13 Richard Sennet, The Craftsman (New York:
Penguin, 2008), 119.
14 If you visit the district of Langstrasse in Zürich on
Tag der Arbeit (Labor Day), euphemistically referred
to by locals as the milieu, hundreds of black-masked
protesters pass through the neighborhoods leaving a
trail of destruction. As they pass through these neighborhoods certain agents provocateurs smash out the
windows and doors of banks, jewelers and tram stops,
spray-painting anti-capitalist slogans. All the while
accompanied by police escort they are herded through
a carefully chosen path, the police stand by and watch
bemused so long as they damage only property, and
not people. The following day the insurance assessors
come and tally the damage; glass installers and graffiti
removal services are retained; and within a week the
trail of destruction is meticulously replaced with
gleaming new installations better than the last. While
this at first appears enlightened tolerance, the policy
of law enforcement can be seen as the strategic cultivation of a public justification, by publically discrediting
the anarchists, for the need to provide more power to
law enforcement.
15 See ‘Toronto G20 Unrest: Civil Rights Groups Seek
Inquiry,’ BBC News, February 28, 2011. Available at /news/world-us-canada12599964 (accessed February 29, 2011). As a further
and well-publicized instance blurring the lines between
law and order, events related to the G20 Toronto
Summit in 2010, Ontario’s ‘Public Works Protection
Act’ which, without being announced to the public,
vested police, security guards or peace officers with the
authority to ‘require any person entering or attempting to enter any public work, or to approach thereto
to furnish his or her name and address, to identify
himself or herself and to state the purpose for which
he or she desires to enter the public work, in writing
or otherwise.’ The widely documented reality was that
the police proceeded to require identification from
any passersby on public property within 5 meters of
the fence – arresting them if they refused to provide it
or to move on. Even these powers were clearly overreached in at least two instances: one, in a related event
elsewhere, three agents provocateurs (later acknowledged by the police to be their own officers – somewhat
embarrassingly, after several attempts at denial, and
only when it emerged that the readily identifiable
boots the three wore were police-issue) attempted to
incite a mob and thereby provoke the riot police on
the scene by throwing rocks and other aggressive
behavior; another, police some 2 kilometers from the
aforementioned public works fence patrolled a public
park, interrogating and searching anyone they chose.
16 From the author’s personal project experience;.
Also, see the entry for ‘Alamosa Skatepark Environment,’ Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, available at /wiki/Alamosa_Skatepark_
Environment. (accessed February 27, 2011).
17 Philip B. Kurland and Ralph Lerner, ‘Article 1,
Section 8, Clause 8,’ in The Founders’ Constitution. Vol. 3
(Chicago: University of Chicago, 1987), 333-335.
18 See Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: the Rise of
Disaster Capitalism (New York: Metropolitan/Henry
Holt, 2007).
19 Neil Levine, Modern Architecture: Representation
and Reality (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009),
224. As Levine writes ‘… what [Mies] liked to refer to
as “the will of the epoch”, and what the US President
Dwight D. Eisenhower was to describe in early 1961
was the growing danger of America’s “military-industrial complex.”’
20 See the interview of Jane Jacobs: Urban Visionary
Speaks Out, on the website Designing Active Communities, Promoting Healthy Lives, available at /aln/profiles/ jacobsfullinterview (accessed April 2011).
21 See ‘Rip!: A Remix Manifesto,’ Brett Gaylor, director, and Girl Talk, performer, May 19, 2009. Available
at (accessed December 11, 2010).
22 Genevieve Sherman, ‘GSD Throwdown: Battle for
the Intellectual Territory of a Sustainable Urbanism,’
Urban Omnibus. Architectural League of New York
November 17 (2010). Available at (accessed
December 10, 2010).
23 Beveridge, Charles E. and Paul Rocheleau. Frederick
Law Olmstead: Designing the American Landscape
(New York: Rizzoli, 1995), 43-44.
Constructing Sensuous Ecologies: Beyond
The Energy Efficiency And Zero-Carbon
Argument p. 243-258
1 L. Pérez-Lombard, J. Ortiz and C. Pout, ‘A Review
on Buildings Energy Consumption Information,’
Energy and Buildings 40:3 (2008): 394-398.
2 R. Saidur, ‘Energy Consumption, Energy Savings,
and Emission Analysis in Malaysian Office Buildings,’
Energy Policy 37:10 (2009): 4104-4113.
3 M.A. Delucchi and M.Z. Jacobson, ‘Providing all
Global Energy with Wind, Water, and Solar Power,
Part II: Reliability, System and Transmission Costs,
and Policies’ Energy Policy 39:3 (2011): 1170-1190.
4 V. Fthenakis, J.E. Mason and K. Zweibel, ‘The
Technical, Geographical, and Economic Feasibility
for Solar Energy to Supply the Energy Needs of the US,’
Energy Policy 37:2 (2009): 387-399.
5 R. Costanza, J. Cumberland and H. Daly, An Introduction to Ecological Economics (Boca Raton, Florida:
St. Lucie Press, 1997).
6 R. Costanza, ‘Toward an Ecological Economy,’ The
Futurist 40:4 (2006): 18.
7 W.J. McDonough and M. Braungart, Cradle to
Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (New York,
NY: North Point Press, 2002).
8 G. Mangone, ‘In Search of Symbiosis: Constructing
Built Environments Based on Site Thermal Climatic
Characteristics,’ Interdisciplinary Environmental
Review 11:1 (2010): 57-68.
9 For more on this, see M. Begon, C.R. Townsend
and J.L. Harper, Ecology from Individuals to Ecosystems
(2006); Available from:
(accessed June 2011).
10 E.P. Odum and Gary W. Barrett, Fundamentals of
Ecology (Thomson Learning, 2004).
11 R.F. Noss, ‘High-risk Ecosystems as Foci for
Considering Biodiversity and Ecological Integrity in
Ecological Risk Assessments,’ Environmental Science
& Policy 3:6 (2000): 321-332.
12 Ibid.
13 I. Maddock, ‘The Importance of Physical Habitat
Assessment for Evaluating River Health,’ Freshwater
Biology 41:2 (1999): 373-391.
14 N.A. Campbell, Jane B. Reece, Martha R. Taylor,
Eric J. Simon and Jean L. Dickey, Biology Concepts &
Connections with Masteringbiology (San Francisco,
CA: Benjamin-Cummings Pub Co., 2009).
15 R.F. Noss, ‘High-risk Ecosystems as Foci for
Considering Biodiversity and Ecological Integrity in
Ecological Risk Assessments,’ Environmental Science
& Policy 3:6 (2000): 321-332.
16 C. Norberg-Schulz, ‘The Phenomenon of Place,’
Architectural Association Quarterly 8:4 (1976): 3-10.
17 C. Norberg-Schulz, ‘Heidegger’s Thinking on
Architecture,’ Perspecta 20 (1983): 61-68.
18 T. Ando, ‘Toward New Horizons in Architecture,’
MoMA 9 (1991): p. 9-11.
19 M. Merleau-Ponty and C. Smith, Phenomenology
of Perception (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul and
New York: The Humanities Press, 1974).
20 D. Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and
Language in a More-than-human World (New York:
Pantheon Books, 1996).
21 C. Norberg-Schulz, ‘Heidegger’s Thinking on
Architecture,’ Perspecta 20 (1983): 61-68.
22 T. Ando, ‘Toward New Horizons in Architecture,’
MoMA 9 (1991): p. 9-11.
23 M. Merleau-Ponty and C. Smith, Phenomenology
of Perception (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul and
New York: The Humanities Press, 1974).
24 B. Burklin, ‘A Collaborative Model for the Construction Industry,’ in Connected Real Estate: Essays
from Innovators in Real Estate, Design, and Construction,
ed. K. O’Donnell and W. Wagener (Walmer, Kent:
Torworth Pub., 2007).
25 D. Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and
Language in a More-than-human World (New York:
Pantheon Books, 1996).
26 M. Merleau-Ponty and C. Smith, Phenomenology
of Perception (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul and
New York: The Humanities Press, 1974).
27 S.R. Kellert and E.O. Wilson, The Biophilia
Hypothesis (Washington, DC: Island Press, 1993).
28 S. Kaplan, ‘The Restorative Benefits of Nature:
Toward an Integrative Framework,’ Journal of Environmental Psychology, 15:3 (1995): 169-182.
29 R. Berto, ‘Exposure to Restorative Environments
Helps Restore Attentional Capacity,’ Journal of
Environmental Psychology 25:3 (2005): 249-259.
30 B. Wilshire, Wild Hunger: The Primal Roots of
Modern Addiction (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman &
Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1998).
31 D.W. Orr, Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect (Washington, DC: Island
Press, 2004).
32 S.R. Kellert, J. Heerwagen and M. Mador, Biophilic
Design: The Theory, Science, and Practice of Bringing
Buildings to Life (Wiley, 2008).
33 C. Norberg-Schulz, ‘Heidegger’s Thinking on
Architecture,’ Perspecta 20 (1983): 61-68.
34 D. Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and
Language in a More-than-human World (New York:
Pantheon Books, 1996).
35 D.W. Orr, Earth in Mind: On Education,
Environment, and the Human Prospect (Washington,
DC: Island Press, 2004).
36 D. Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and
Language in a More-than-human World (New York:
Pantheon Books, 1996).
37 S. Kaplan, ‘The Restorative Benefits of Nature:
Toward an Integrative Framework,’ Journal of Environmental Psychology, 15:3 (1995): 169-182.
38 R. Berto et al., ‘An Exploratory Study of the Effect
of High and Low Fascination Environments on
Attentional Fatigue,’ Journal of Environmental
Psychology 30:4 (2010): 494-500.
39 H. Staats, A. Kieviet and T. Hartig, ‘Where to
Recover from Attentional Fatigue: An Expectancyvalue Analysis of Environmental Preference,’ Journal
of Environmental Psychology 23:2 (2003): 147-157.
40 S. Kaplan, ‘The Restorative Benefits of Nature:
Toward an Integrative Framework,’ Journal of Environmental Psychology, 15:3 (1995): 169-182.
41 Ibid.
42 R. Berto, ‘Exposure to Restorative Environments
Helps Restore Attentional Capacity,’ Journal of
Environmental Psychology 25:3 (2005): 249-259.
43 S. Kaplan, ‘The Restorative Benefits of Nature:
Toward an Integrative Framework,’ Journal of
Environmental Psychology, 15:3 (1995): 169-182.
44 R. Berto, ‘Exposure to Restorative Environments
Helps Restore Attentional Capacity,’ Journal of
Environmental Psychology 25:3 (2005): 249-259.
45 R. Berto et al., ‘An Exploratory Study of the Effect
of High and Low Fascination Environments on
Attentional Fatigue,’ Journal of Environmental
Psychology 30:4 (2010): 494-500.
46 H. Staats, A. Kieviet and T. Hartig, ‘Where to
Recover from Attentional Fatigue: An Expectancyvalue Analysis of Environmental Preference,’ Journal
of Environmental Psychology 23:2 (2003): 147-157.
47 D. Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and
Language in a More-than-human World (New York:
Pantheon Books, 1996).
48 R. de Dear, ‘Thermal Comfort in Practice,’ Indoor
Air 14 (2004): 32-9.
49 C. Binggeli, Building Systems for Interior Designers
(Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2010).
50 P. Teuffel, Smart & Adaptive: Why? How? What?
(Delft: Delft University of Technology, 2009).
51 Construction industry research has determined that
60% of construction costs are due to waste; another 30%
is dedicated to administrative costs; and only 10% of
costs are derived from value-added activities such as
labor and materials costs. Project clients, owners and
operators bear approximately two–thirds of this expense.
For more on this, see Kevin O’Donnell, W. Wagener and
Mark Golan, ‘How Technology Transforms Built Envir­
onments,’ in Connected Real Estate: Essays from Innovators
in Real Estate, Design, and Construction, ed. K. O’Donnell
and W. Wagener (Walmer, Kent: Torworth Pub., 2007).
52 W.J. McDonough and M. Braungart, Cradle to
Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (New York,
NY: North Point Press, 2002).
53 G. Mangone, ‘In Search of Symbiosis: Constructing
Built Environments Based on Site Thermal Climatic
Characteristics,’ Interdisciplinary Environmental Review
11:1 (2010): 57-68.
54 K. O’Donnell, W. Wagener and M. Golan, ‘How
technology transforms built environments’ in Connected real estate: Essays from Innovators in Real Estate,
Design, and Construction, ed. K. O’Donnell and
W. Wagener (Walmer, Kent: Torworth Pub., 2007).
Symbiosis and Mimesis in the Built
Environment p. 259-271
1 D’Arcy Thomson, On Growth and Form (London:
Cambridge University Press, 1917), 11.
2 Robert Venturi, Complexity And Contradictions In
Architecture (Chicago: The Museum of Modern Art –
Papers on Architecture, 1966), 82.
3 In its physical acceptation, the word environment
indicates all those energy balances that can be controlled through the use of mathematical equations.
The physical dimensions of the environment in regard
to comfort are the thermal, the luminous and the
acoustic ones.
4 Le Corbusier, Toward an Architecture, trans. John
Goodman, intro. Jean Louis Cohen (Los Angeles,
California: Paul Getty Trust, 2007), 217. Translation
of the 1928 Vers une Architecture, 2nd ed. (Paris:
G. Crès, 1924).
5 Ibid.
6 Steven Szokolay, Introduction to Architectural
Science, The Basis of Sustainable Design (Oxford:
Elsevier, 2008).
7 Le Corbusier, Toward an Architecture, trans. John
Goodman, intro. Jean Louis Cohen (Los Angeles,
California: Paul Getty Trust, 2007), 314. Translation
of the 1928 Vers un architecture, 2nd ed. (Paris:
G. Crès, 1924).
8 Alison Smithson, ‘The Work of Team 10,’
Architectural Design 34:8 (1955): 380.
9 Hashim Sarkis, ed., Le Corbusier’s Venice Hospital
And The Mat Buildings Revival (New York: Prestel,
2001). See the essay included from M. Addington,
N. Kienzl and S. Intrachooto, p. 66-79.
10 Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradictions
in Architecture (Chicago: The Museum of Modern
Art – Papers on Architecture, 1966), 86.
11 Ibid.
12 Hugh A. Williams, Zoomorphic, New Animal
Architecture (London: Laurence King Publishing,
2003), 25.
13 K. Lagios, J. Niemasz and C. F. Reinhart,
‘Animated Building Performance Simulation (ABPS)
– Linking Rhinoceros/Grasshopper with Radiance/
Daysim’ (paper included in the proceedings of
SimBuild 2010, New York City, United States,
August 2010).
14 Ibid.
15 Werner Blaser and Helmut Jahn, Architecture
Engineering (Basel: Birkhäuser, 2002), 13.
16 Jürgen Schmidhuber, ‘Low Complexity Art,’
Leonardo, Journal of the International Society for the
Arts, Sciences, and Technology 30:2 (1997): 97–103.
17 D’Arcy Thomson, On Growth and Form
(London: Cambridge University Press, 1917), 7.
18 Dennis Dollens, ‘Digital-biomimetic Architecture’
(lecture presented at the University of Barcelona,
Spain, March 29, 2006).
19 Janine Benyus, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by
Nature (New York: Quill, 1997).
20 Dennis Dollens, ‘Digital-biomimetic Architecture’
(lecture presented at the University of Barcelona, Spain,
March 29, 2006).
21 Ibid.
22 Hugh A. Williams, Zoomorphic, New Animal
Architecture (London: Laurence King Publishing,
2003), 31.
23 Ibid. p. 20.
24 D’Arcy Thomson, On Growth and Form (London:
Cambridge University Press, 1917), 19. Those words
were used in regard to the static dimension of the
environment. They are however also true in the other
dimensions of the physical environment – acoustic,
luminous and thermal.
Aesthetic Potentials in an Open Network
Inventory System p. 272-283
1 James Surowiecki, ‘Waste Away,’ The New Yorker,
May 6, 2002. Surowiecki describes McDonough’s
view of a closed loop cycle as being comprised of two
types of products. The first type is made of biological
nutrients that completely degrade, using the waste to
create the ingredients for new products – a perfect
self-supporting cycle, setting aside the moral dilemma
raised by encouraging a throw-away culture. The
second type, technical nutrients, are designed products
such as steel, plastics, glass, polymers, etc. that can be
reused over and over.
2 For more on this see: Walter R. Stahel and Geneviève
Reday, ‘The Potential for Substituting Manpower for
Energy,’ The Product Life Institute (1976), available at /en/cradle-to-cradle
(accessed February 2011). Stahel and Reday predated
McDonough’s ‘cradle-to-cradle’ philosophy by nearly
two decades when they argued that by increasing the
period over which products and goods are used, the
amount of waste produced and resources used will
decrease. They labeled this approach as ‘product-life
extension’ that would support business opportunities
such as reuse, repair, reconditioning and recycling.
This would create a self-replenishing economy that in
turn would reduce dependence on raw materials while
creating new business opportunities.
3 Salman Azhar, Michael Hein and Blake Sketo,
‘Building Information Modeling (BIM): Benefits,
Risks and Challenges’ (paper included in the
Associated Schools of Construction International
Proceedings of the 44th Annual Conference, Auburn
University, April 2, 2008). To paraphrase the Azhar,
Hein and Sketo article, Building Information Modeling (BIM) represents a process of design development
and the use of a computer model to simulate the
planning, design, construction and operation of a
facility. The resulting model, a Building Information
Model, is a three-dimensional digital representation
of the facility that contains data of key building components and its projected energy use. By generating
and analyzing this information during the design
process, decisions can be made about the construction
and facility operations.
4 Wei Shi, Haiyan Xie and Raja R.A. Issa, ‘Integration
of BIM and RFID in Steel Construction,’ Journal of
Building Information Modeling, Whole Building Design
Guide Spring (2010): 29-30. Available at: http://www. /references/jbim.php (accessed February
2011). This article describes how Radio Frequency
Identification (RFID) tags can support the tracking of
building material deliveries to a construction site as
well as their installation. BIM components that include
references to RFID tags can automatically update building product and erection process data when linked to
mobile scanning devices. RFID can also help the BIM
team develop an optimal sequencing plan, decreasing
the duration of the project and meeting technological,
budgetary and safety requirements.
5 John Przybyla, ‘The Next Frontier for BIM: Inter­
operability With GIS,’ Journal of Building Information
Modeling, Whole Building Design Guide Fall (2010):
14-18. Available at:
jbim.php (accessed February 2011). Since BIM models
tend to be context free, facility owners are starting to
use Geographical Information Systems (GIS) to reference their buildings to a given environmental context.
The open architecture of GIS makes it especially useful
as a ‘geographic window’ into the building data that
exists in BIM models.
6 For more on this see Nadav Malin, ‘Building Information Modeling and Green Design,’ BuildingGreen.
com, Environmental Building News (May 1, 2007).
Available at:
article.cfm/2007/5/1/Building-Information-Modelingand-Green-Design/ (accessed January 2011). As an
example, the popular and user-friendly Google
SketchUp offers a 3D modeling interface and the
ability to assign characteristics to design objects. Most
CAD software packages have some capability to import
models from the SketchUp software and to export
simplified models out to it. To ease the transition
between SketchUp and energy modeling software, the
US Department of Energy (DOE) has released a plug-in
for its EnergyPlus modeling engine, which is available
for both the free and the full versions of SketchUp.
7 For more on this see Supplier Management, United
Parcel Service of America, available at: http://ups-scs.
com/transportation/supplier.html (accessed February
2011). UPS’s Supply Chain Solutions allow users to
track packages from the point of shipment, through
distribution channels and to the end users. They manage
and monitor documentation for regulatory compliance,
service and repair of customers’ products. By providing
feedback to point-of-origin suppliers, designers could
evaluate the environmental impacts of building materials and the track chain of custody requirements using
a similar, but open source system.
8 For more on this, see the Recommended Format
for Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS), available at / hazcom/msdsformat.html
(accessed May 2011). MSDS follow a standard 16-section
format established by the American National Standards
Institute (ANSI). The information of greatest concern
to workers is featured at the beginning of the data
sheet, including information on chemical composition
and first aid measures. More technical information
that addresses topics such as the physical and chemical
properties of the material and toxicological data appears
later in the document. However, ecological information
is not yet required to be included on the form, though
one would hope that this will soon change.
9 Paul Hawken, The Ecology of Commerce: A Declaration
of Sustainability (New York: Harper Collins Publishers,
1993), 171. Hawken describes how a new ‘green tax’
could be substituted for income, payroll and corporate taxes. The purpose is to move away from taxing
goods and start taxing pollution, environmental
degradation and non-renewable energies that are the
result of industrial processes. The obvious challenge
is trying to calculate the actual costs of these outputs,
so by including them in a final price, consumer costs
would increase in direct proportion to the amount
of environmental degradation caused by a product’s
manufacture. Prices would decrease for those products
that cause less environmental harm.
10 For more on this, see The Footprint Chronicles,
Patagonia, Inc., available at http://www.patagonia.
(accessed February 2011). By selecting a garment on
the company’s website, one can find out how much
energy was consumed by its manufacture, transpor­
tation and delivery to the Patagonia distribution
center; the distance that the raw material traveled
from its original source to the center; and the total
CO2 emissions and the amount of waste generated.
11 For more on this see About LEED Online, Green
Building Certification Institute available at http:// /main-nav/building-certification/leedonline/about-leed-online.aspx (accessed May 2011).
Through LEED Online, project teams can manage
project details, complete documentation requirements
for LEED credits and prerequisites, upload supporting
files, submit applications for review, receive reviewer
feedback and earn LEED certification. It provides a
shared network where members of a project team
can work together to document compliance with the
applicable rating system.
12 For more on this, see the new iPhone Red Laser
Barcode Scanner at Adazon, Inc., available at http:// / blog / how-to-information/newiphone-red-laser-barcode-scanner (accessed January
2011). The software behind Red Laser allows a user to
receive, move, ship, adjust or take a physical inventory
with a mobile barcode scanner. The scanner tracks
items where they are located rather than at one central
station and provides detailed information about each
product, including off-site inventory, overstocking
reports and transaction details.
13 For more on this see: About FSC – Forest
Stewardship Council available at
about-fsc.html (accessed April 2011).
14 Kimon Onuma, ‘Integration Today Using Open
Standards: BIMStorm™, Rotterdam to Los Angeles
and Beyond,’ Journal of Building Information Modeling, Whole Building Design Guide Spring (2008):14-18.
Available at /references /jbim.
php (accessed January 2011). Onuma created BIMStorm™, an open source collaborative tool for modeling buildings without requiring proprietary software.
It is scalable in the sense that it can be used by any
number of users and allows architects, designers and
engineers to work on the same model from different
cities or countries. Through a cloud computing collaborative process, it leverages the web-based BIM
capabilities of Onuma’s software to enable data sharing among multiple software programs including BIM,
GIS systems, Google Earth and other sources.
15 Chris Anderson, ‘The End of Theory: The Data
Deluge Makes the Scientific Method Obsolete,’
Wired June (2008). Available at http://www.wired.
(accessed January 2011). Anderson argues that at the
petabyte scale (1,000 terabytes), information has
moved beyond the classic scientific structures of
analysis and understanding. It is only through mathematical models, data crunching and powerful processors that useful information can be distilled out of
the massive amounts of data at our disposal.
16 Al Gore, Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the
Human Spirit (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company,
1992). Gore describes how the military system of categorizing conflicts as local skirmishes, regional battles
and strategic conflicts can be used for understanding
environmental crises (strategic conflicts including
struggles that threaten a nation and must be considered
in the global context). For example, air and water pollution can usually be considered local crises; acid rain,
contaminated aquifers and oil spills tend to be considered regional crises; and increased global warming due
to CO2 emissions can be considered a global crisis.
17 Michael Conard and Kubi Ackerman, ‘Designing
a Foodshed for New York,’ Oculus Winter
(2009/2010): 30-31.
18 Christian Norberg-Schulze, Genius Loci: Towards
A Phenomenology Of Architecture (New York: Rizzoli
International Publications, Inc., 1980). Norberg-Schulz
defines a place as the totality of concrete things having
material substance, shape, texture and color; together
these things determine the environmental character and
atmosphere of a place. By moving away from abstract
concepts and mental constructions, the phenomena
of place take over as the way we perceive our environments, whether rural or urban.
Sang Lee is an architect based in Rotterdam. He is the
principal of, an experimental design and
research practice he founded in 2007. He has taught
architecture and served as a critic at numerous universities in the US and the EU. Currently, he is Senior
Lecturer at the TU Delft Faculty of Architecture. He
co-edited The Domestic and the Foreign in Architecture
in 2007.
Kees Doevendans is Associate Professor of Urbanism
at the Faculty of Architecture, Eindhoven University
of Technology. His current research work is focused
on the theory of urban paradigms for the post-carbon
age and the notion of beyond-sustainability. He served
as the faculty’s director of international programs and
coordinates joint research projects between the
Municipality of Eindhoven and Stichting Interface TU
Eindhoven Faculty of Architecture. Doevendans was
the coordinator of the project, Sustainable Brainport,
of which this book is an outcome.
Nezar AlSayyad is Professor of Architecture, Planning
and Urban History and Chair of the Center for
Middle Eastern Studies at the University of California,
Berkeley, and President of the International Association
for the Study of Traditional Environments. He has
authored and edited several books including Dwelling,
Settlements and Tradition, Consuming Tradition /Manufacturing Heritage, The End of Tradition? and Cinematic
Gabriel Arboleda received his M.Sc. in Architecture
Studies from MIT, and prior to that an architect’s
diploma from the Universidad del Valle in Cali,
Colombia. He is a Ph.D. candidate in Architecture at
UC Berkeley, with a dissertation on ethno-engineering
and development practices in Latin America. Both his
theoretical and practical work have centered on issues
of alternative technologies, participatory design
and planning, and the so-called culturally appropriate
Vinayak Bharne is a practicing urban designer and
Lecturer in Urban Design at the University of Southern
California in Los Angeles. His research focuses on the
nexus on contemporary urbanism, public policy and
the global water crisis. He is the editor and contributing
author of the forthcoming book The Emerging Asian
City: Concomitant Urbanities & Urbanisms.
Keith Bothwell RIBA is Senior Lecturer at the University
of Kent School of Architecture, Canterbury, specializing in environment and sustain­ability. He developed
this interest while studying at the Bartlett School of
Architecture. In 1996 he completed his M.Sc. in BioClimatic Architectural Design, researching the pedagogy of sustainable design for the Building Research
John Brennan ARIAS is Senior Lecturer in Envir­on­
mental Design at the University of Edinburgh and
program director of the Master’s Program in Advanced
Sustainable Design. He is a partner in Brennan &
Wilson Architects whose built work received the Saltire
Prize for Housing and was selected by the Architecture
Foundation for its exhibition and publication New
Architects: A Guide to Britain’s Best Young Architectural Practices.
David Briggs AIA is an LEED accredited architect based
in New York. He founded his practice, Loci Architecture in 1993, focused on sustainable design. He cofounded Gowanus by Design, a non-profit community
organization in Brooklyn studying the environmental
impact of the Gowanus Canal’s recent designation as a
Superfund site on the city’s planning efforts. He studied
architecture at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
Luca Finocchiaro studied architectural engineering
at the University of Catania in Italy and received his
M.Arch. from the Glasgow School of Art, Scotland.
He is currently a post-doctoral researcher at the
Norwegian University of Science and Technology in
Trodheim, Norway.
Kenneth Frampton is Ware Professor of Architecture
at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and
Preservation, Columbia University. He is the author
of several acclaimed books, most notably Modern
Architecture: A Critical History, Studies in Tectonic
Culture: The Poetics of Construction in Nineteenth and
Twentieth Century Architecture, Modern Architecture
and the Critical Present, American Masterworks, Le
Corbusier, and Labor, Work and Architecture.
Marie Antoinette Glaser is a cultural anthro­pologist
based in Zürich. She studied German literature, cultural anthropology and European anthropology at
Ludwig Maximilian University, Munich and received
her Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of
Vienna. Since 2004 Glaser has been Research Associate
and Lecturer at the Center for Research of Architecture, Society and the Built Environment, Faculty of
Architecture, ETH Zürich.
Anne Grete Hestnes is Professor of Architecture at the
Norwegian University of Science and Technology,
Trondheim and the director of the university’s Center
for Zero Emission Buildings. She studied architecture
at the UC Berkeley and the MIT. In 2005 she was awarded
an honorary doctorate from Chalmers University for
her work on sustainable development.
Glen Hill is Head of the Architecture Program and
Coordinator of the Sustainable Stream of the M. Arch.
Program at the Faculty of Architecture, Design and
Planning, University of Sydney. He has published
numerous articles on theoretical and philosophical
critiques of technological approach to ecological
sustainability in architecture. He recently published
Design, Heidegger and the Earth: the Unsustainability
of Sustainable Design.
Stefanie Holzheu studied architecture at the Bauhaus
University Weimar and is the founding principal of
ALEATORIX, an experimental research and design
practice based in Rotterdam. Her current research
and design work is focused on aleatory automata and
mediative building envelopes.
Louisa Hutton is a founding partner of Sauerbruch
Hutton Architects in Berlin. She studied at Bristol
University and the Architectural Association in London.
Prior to founding her practice with Matthias Sauerbruch, she worked with Allison and Peter Smithson.
She taught in numerous architecture schools and since
2008, at the Harvard Graduate School of Design as
Visiting Professor.
Daniel Jauslin is a co-founder and principal of Drexler
Guinand Jauslin Architects. He is Researcher at the
Department of Landscape Architecture, TU Delft. He
has worked on research and design projects for minimum-impact housing at TU Darmstadt, sponsored by
the German Federal Foundation for the Environment.
The project received a national award from the German
Energy Agency in 2009.
Ralph L. Knowles is ACSA Distinguished Professor and
Professor Emeritus of Architecture at the University of
Southern California. He is the author of seven books
and the inventor of the Solar Envelope zoning method.
He received numerous awards including the AIA Medal
for Research, the NEA grant, the USC Associates Award
for Teaching Excellence and the Passive Solar Pioneer
Award from the American Solar Energy Society. His
book, Sun Rhythm Form, received the Phi Kappa Phi
Scholarly Book Award. In 2006, he published Ritual
House: Drawing on Nature’s Rhythms for Architecture
and Urban Design.
Kengo Kuma is the founding principal of Kengo Kuma
Architect and Associates in Tokyo and a Professor of
Architecture at the University of Tokyo. Previously, he
served as Professor at the Keio University and as 20072008 Plym Distinguished Professor at the University
of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
Giancarlo Mangone is a principal of Symbiosis Sustainable Design+Consulting, based in West Palm Beach,
Florida and Delft, The Netherlands. He is pursuing his
doctoral work on the performance potentials of hybrid
microclimates on the built environment at the TU
Delft Faculty of Architecture. He studied architecture
at the University of Florida, McGill University, and
the University of Virginia. He has taught, lectured,
and developed research projects in numerous schools
in the US and Europe.
Elisabetta Pero studied architecture and received her
Ph.D. in Urban and Architectural Design at Politecnico
di Milano. She participated in various urban research
projects in China, Italy and New York. Since 2000,
she has collaborated with several architecture firms and
participated in the development of economic houses.
Harald N. Røstvik AS is a practicing architect and prin-
cipal of Solar Architects & Consultants in Stavanger,
Norway. He is also Professor of Architecture at the
Bergen School of Architecture, Norway. His practice
specializes in sustainable building designs with a focus
on renewable energy. He has been also involved in
several electric vehicle initiatives. In 2009, he served as
the chairman of the steering committee for the 24th
Electric Vehicle Symposium (EVS 24). From 2000 to
2005, he was a member of the International Energy
Agency’s Sustainable Solar Housing task group.
Matthias Sauerbruch is a founding partner of
Sauerbruch Hutton Architects in Berlin. He studied
at the University of the Arts in Berlin and the Architectural Association in London. Prior to founding his
practice with Louisa Hutton, he was a partner and
project leader at the OMA London. He has taught in
numerous architecture schools including the AA, TU
Berlin, and since 2008, at the Harvard Graduate School
of Design as Visiting Professor. He is also a founding
member of the German Sustainable Building Council.
Matthew Skjonsberg is a project leader at West 8 in
Rotterdam. He studied architecture at the Taliesin
Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture and the ETH
Zürich. He lectured and led workshops at numerous
schools, including ETH Zürich, the Berlage Institute,
Harvard GSD and Parsons New School of Design. In
2008 his work Performative Corridors, Addis Ababa,
Ethiopia, was featured in the Swiss Pavilion during the
2008 Venice Biennale.
Minna Sunikka-Blank is a registered architect and
Lecturer at the Department of Architecture in the
University of Cambridge and Fellow in Architecture at
Churchill College in Cambridge. Her research focuses
on environmental architecture, sustainable building
policies and energy use behaviour. She has worked on
Environmental Impact Assessment, urban renewal and
comparative policy analysis in Finland, the UK and in
the Netherlands and published several books and
articles on the subject.
Patrick Teuffel received his Ph.D. on the application
of adaptive systems in architecture and engineering at
the University of Stuttgart. He founded Teuffel Engi-
neering Consultants in Stuttgart, specializing in nonstandard and lightweight structures. Since 2008 he has
been Professor of Architectural Engineering at TU
Delft, where he founded the Adaptive Building Systems
research group for bionic and performative design and
adaptive building systems.
First, I would like to thank the City of Eindhoven and
the TU Eindhoven Faculty of Architecture for their
support. Their Sustainable Brainport and its crucial
funding allowed me to embark on this book.
The Netherlands Architecture Fund also contributed a generous publication grant to the realization
of this book.
I am especially grateful to Dr. Kees Doevendans,
the project coordinator of Sustainable Brainport at the
TU Eindhoven Faculty of Architecture, who patiently
oversaw the progress of the book. Without his guidance this book would not have materialized.
Lisa Hosale, the book’s copyeditor, persisted with
the texts above and beyond her responsibilities. I
would like to thank her for her thorough and caring
Finally, I would like to thank the scholars and experts
who reviewed the articles and provided invaluable
criticism and advice.
This book was made possible by the financial support
of the Netherlands Architecture Fund and the
Interface Foundation, the Faculty of Architecture,
Eindhoven University of Technology.
Editor Sang Lee
Lisa C. Hosale
Text editor Cover Image Haru Ji & Graham Wakefield
Artificial Nature: Fluid Space is an evolving art installation that is a programmed, self-sustaining, digital ecosystem as an immersive environment, with organisms
that consume, grow, metabolize, reproduce and respond
to activities within an endless fluid envir­onment. An
artificial nature is not a simulation: it is a new realm
with its own logic, life forms and relational dynamics.
Book design Piet Gerards Ontwerpers, Amsterdam
(Piet Gerards & Janneke Smeets)
Printed by DeckersSnoeck, Antwerp
© 2011 The authors and 010 Publishers, Rotterdam
ISBN 978 90 6450 752 6
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