Currently our urban design and development practices work within the framing of modernism, which positions humans at the centre of existence that prioritises the status of objects and operates through the technology of machines. The processes engaged by modernism involve the simplification of systems to command their obedience, without any ideological commitment to return something in exchange for their servitude.
In modern cities we have delegated their development to planners, architects and engineers, assigning roles to people, as one would identify parts of a machine. Consequently architecture is productised and exported as ready to inhabit buildings, or pre-packaged modular units that are exported all over the world. Modern architecture has become a kind of giant gadget – perhaps, in the not too distant future, every city will even have it’s own ‘app’. Recently, Pegasus Global Holdings has proposed a Centre for Innovation Testing and Evaluation, a full-size city without inhabitants to become a huge research facility where scientists can conduct urban scale experiments. Examples cited include, the testing of non-lethal weapons. In my view, this kind of proposal is the embodiment of modernism at its most absurd. How much of this pre-fabricated infrastructure is going to end up in our landfills? This seems a deeply depersonalised view of the way that we live and to identify a different system that may be able to underpin architectural construction. Cities cannot be meaningfully recognized by their parts – they function as whole – and their character is emergent being co-authored by its communities. Cities are being robbed of their relationship to people and reduced into modular, meaningless items.
Cities are not machines for living in – despite what Le Corbusier’s doctrine insists. They are much more magical and strange than that. Cities are about people. As such, they cannot be ‘solved’, productized or homogenized. Cities are people that need to be engaged in culturally beneficial exchanges between individuals, communities, societies and nations. A city is a place you want to live in, grow up in, fall in love in, see your family thrive in and when you pass on, you will bestow it with traces of your life that remain entangled in its fabric. After all – it is your city.
I have become interested in the ideas of ‘deep’ ecology, which is a politicized view of the environment that aims to adopt a non-anthropocentric view of the natural world. It proposes an alternative kind of practice that is in contrast to a ‘shallow’ engagement with nature in which technological fixes improve the compatibility of machines with nature according to a set of predetermined parameters. Shallow ecology does not address the ‘deep’ systemic and societal issues that underpin the industrial destruction of the biosphere. [[Næss, Arne (1973) 'The Shallow and the Deep, Long-Range Ecology Movement.' Inquiry 16: 95-100]]. ‘Deep ecology’ also embraces an ethics of ecological practice in which a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community but is wrong when it tends otherwise. This is in contrast to modernist principles that rely on the market place for guidance on whether a shopping mall should be built on virgin land, rather than whether the act is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. ‘Deep’ ecology also reduces the status of objects, or products – which are considered as being of secondary importance, to the relationships between things. By decentring the production of objects, the modern and post-modern obsessions that commoditize human history through industrial practices, can be offset.
For the everyday urban planner and construction engineer working on a building, the ideas of deep ecology are likely to feel strange – probably New Age-y. Yet they are grounded in a scientific practice of complexity that ALSO embodies an ethical perspective. To those that who have been schooled in sciences such as, engineers – this is unfamiliar terrain and the biggest challenges are pedagogical ones. We urgently need conversations that deal with the modernist imperative that is so pervasive in our society, in every sphere. Right now modernism dominates ecological narratives in the quest for ‘green’ products, technologies or the construction of carbon-zero cities.
We need to find new ways of talking about our shared challenges and visions of what a ‘good’ result of ‘sustainable’ development are. Sustainability, like everything else in this modern age that has purchase, has been abstracted and productized to become data sets of carbon counts and LEED standards – as a kind of industrial conservation exercise – that will respond to some greenwash and re-branding. Cities themselves are not broken. The concrete and brick and steel are not accountable for our damaging environmental practices – yet we find a way to absolve ourselves of the consequences of our choices by blaming their material properties. In my view, the term ‘sustainability’ indicates the need for a systemic change in thinking and these dialogues need to be kept alive across generations. We may not be able to radically change the way that steel or concrete are made but we can change our ways of thinking. We need to resist pessimistic discussions about ages of austerity and going ‘without’ if we are going to inspire youth. They need a positive role to play in our shared future and we must find new places of abundance that can fire up their imaginations and engage their passion. If we care about successive generations then we have a duty to change our current practices and think much longer term about our collective survival. We need to find a way of shaping a legacy that we can be proud of – not because we’ve created a technological fix within a production cycle of 3-5 years – but because we’ve forged an enduring vision that can be shared and aspired to across generations.
‘Deep’ ecological design practices raise questions about our agency within the biosphere and are essential in shaping human development. Its practice accepts the co-authorship of cities with other non-human agencies and identifies ways of working with them to find new construction approaches for human development where buildings are not ‘made’ for but ‘evolved’ with their inhabitants. With the advent of ‘living materials’, which share some of the properties of living things, like algae facades that can use sunlight and carbon dioxide at a building interface to form biofuels, architecture is re-inhabited by techno-political-social-cultural acts of design that do not strive for the production of objects and artifacts but synthesize systems.
Living matter, as a co-author in the evolution of cities invokes a new category of architectural materials and technologies through which we can imagine buildings – that are not assembled as a set of objects but are transformed by, extruded from and evolved within bodies and materials. They generate a whole new set of processes, technologies, lifespans and expectations of whose performance needs a different kind of evaluation that exists beyond – but does not exclude an appreciation of – mechanical efficiency, or geometry.
Living materials and their technologies work with the unique qualities of living things such as, their robustness, flexibility and capacity to deal with a changing environment whose goals are steeped in ‘persistence’ narratives rather than odes to ‘efficiency’. ‘Deep’ ecological architecture does not strive for objects as its primary pursuit but generates materials, meanings and physical traces as a consequence of the entangled web of human and non-human agencies, in which human engineers and designers can strategically act with significant force.
When people and biota are entangled through mutually supportive relationships and connecting technologies, they begin to dissolve the distinction between architecture and landscape and subvert dualistic practices. They create systems in their place that connect the interests of one with the interests of all through positive and negative feedback loops, which characterise natural cyclical events such as, expansion and reduction, or circadian rhythms.
A ‘deep’ ecological engagement with materials has far reaching impacts on human history and the production of architecture. It requires reflection on what groups of participating things actually constitute a human body, a building, a community, public and private spaces, or the city as a whole. Moreover, these questions call for consideration of the moral, ethical, political and social status of non-human assemblages within urban communities as well as our responsibility and accountability for them.
Inherent to a ‘deep’ ecological architectural practice is the question of time itself, since our cities are evolved, not made. While urgent action is needed to remediate the damaging impacts of industrialization on the natural world, truly sustainable impacts evolve on a longer scale and are shared over generations. Antonio Gaudi’s ‘La Sagrada Familia’, has caused wonder and inspired generations despite its incompleteness. Could the idea of a building in continual evolution offer a new paradigm for the practice of the built environment? And how do we keep youth meaningfully engaged in a vision of a longer-term development – in which cities and people co-evolve towards a common goal?
Subsequent generations need to share our dreams and learning experiences – rather be issued with directives for questions that we simply do not know the answer to – in a manner that forges greater biospherical narratives. We will not achieve a ‘quick fix’ to the way that we currently pollute our environment, we have become too comfortable with an ideology of disposability – and leaving our comfort zones of familiarity certainly won’t be easy. But we have much to look forward to. We will discover different styles of living and ways of loving the age we’re alive in – providing we keep our ways of thinking open. We may not be ready to change. We may not have the current mindset to make the necessary leaps of imagination today. But the next generation certainly does have this ability. And if we want to resist the wrath of the ‘sixth’ great extinction – then we have absolutely no choice but to try.
Rachel Armstrong is a Co-Director of AVATAR (Advanced Virtual and Technological Architectural Research) in Architecture & Synthetic Biology at The School of Architecture & Construction, University of Greenwich, London. 2010 Senior TED Fellow, and Visiting Research Assistant at the Center for Fundamental Living Technology, Department of Physics and Chemistry, University of Southern Denmark. Rachel is a sustainability innovator who investigates a new approach to building materials called ‘living architecture,’ that suggests it is possible for our buildings to share some of the properties of living systems. She collaboratively works across disciplines to build and develop prototypes that embody her approach.