Saturday, April 4, 2009

Architecture Imagined as Ecological - by Guest Blogger Javier Arbona

Javier Arbona is a University of California, Berkeley PhD candidate in geography with a background in architecture and urbanism.


Architecture imagined as ecological

The all-encompassing discourse of sustainability is tangled up with global geopolitics at every turn, but that discourse hides its tail. What’s worse is that “sustainable architecture” can be the proverbial “greenwash,” as I think has become more than evident. We would only have to pass a roll-call of all the eco-resorts done in years of economic fluidity. Thinking about a sustainable practice is (still) supposed to arouse in us a moral instinct of how to satisfy our needs without “compromising the needs of future generations”. The small house movement serves as a good example of an architecture informed by notions of what is said to be ‘basic’.

Our “needs,” however, are a mirage. We know that they are essentially malleable. They’re subject to crass marketing manipulation. They evolve through the sieves of culture and desire. They’re hard to pin down and it’s no accident that capitalism pulls the rug from underneath us as soon as we try. Besides, unless the global economic crisis ends up destroying capitalism, we satisfy our so-called needs through an increasingly global economy, despite the localist and nationalist fantasies some may have. Even if we didn’t have capitalism, we’d still have trade, and subscribers to notions of Malthusian natural limits fail to adequately take this into account. Sometimes the sustainability talk sounds to me even xenophobic in its suggestions that a certain number of citizens will have a right to the city (blurring further the notion of what is natural: Numerical limits? Naturalization, as in citizenship?)

The ideologues of sustainability might deny that it is an issue of power and not morals, but it is. It has to do with who determines how much is a reasonable need for some and not others, both at a local and global level. By the way, I’m sorry for even using these terms like “local” and “global” because they pertain to imprecise scales, especially when ecological processes are involved. But none of this has slowed down the field of architecture. As often times is clear in the works of architects like Michael Sorkin and other adherents to the “ecological footprint,” design indexes how much nature is judged to be fair and balanced according to some metric of consumption.



  1. Jav+
    Well said -- Great comment!
    But, I do disagree with Sorkin being hailed as an architect of clarity.
    He performs much better as a simple design critic.

  2. Yes, yes. And this is part of why Abalos' comment regarding ethics (roughly, that architects should not concern themselves with ethics, unless I misunderstood him) was so wrong and potentially destructive. (And, of course, any plea to consider aesthetics before ethics misses that -- for very good reason -- aesthetics is considered a subset of ethics in philosophical discourse).