Tuesday, May 12, 2009

conference summary

“ to the more cynical, architectural fascination with this new concept has yet another significance: the concept of sustainability gave architecture a new purpose. According to this point of view, sustainability emerged not a moment to soon…just when the profession’s search for meaning (e.g. historicist trends of the late 20th c.) or the egocentrism of the signature designer (e.g., the legacy of modernism) had led to dead ends.” - Panayiota Pyla,” Counter Histories of Sustainability”, Volume #18

To talk and reflect on the full pack of presentations and debates that were collected under the term of “ecological urbanism” , means one has to summarize, conceptualize, ignore and amplify, all in an attempt to define, retroactively, an agenda. Such superficial agenda will be traced through three sections. The first would be the departure point of the conference, its keynote lecture. The second will focus on its structure and the third on its unexpected moments.

The keynote lecture, aimed at providing the framework for the whole conference, brought together Rem Koolhaas and Homi Bhabha, an unlikely combination of European late avant-garde (using Michael Hays’s terms) theorist turned into world famous rationalist practitioner and a post colonialist scholar with humanist and poetic inclinations. Koolhaas, type casted as architectural prophet, was expected to provide a new direction for architecture, steering it out of the financial crisis and its own impotence in addressing real world problems. For those with such high expectations, only painful sobering awaited. Koolhaas presented a futile trajectory, looking back at well-known historical moments in architecture, he lamented these modes of knowledge that were lost soon after. His conclusions however, shed no light on the future of architecture, design, ecology, urbanism or anything in between. Bhabha’s presentation, while displaying a certain amount of charisma and vitality did no better, and the discussion of Lagos, a project that was presented more than five years ago, seemed to be superficial and anachronistic. Ecological urbanism kept on being an opaque and amorphous idea as it was before and the conference was launched under the grim shadow of failed prophecy.

On its aims, the conference sought to establish an inter-disciplinary platform of discussion about the city, nature and ecology. Hosted by the design school, its structure gave a surprisingly small portion of its share to those engaged with design. Most presentations and their following debates were made through the lens of technological aspects of development, may it be electric cars or water management systems, leaving very little room for discussion about speculation, aesthetic qualities, the role of architecture, landscape architecture and urban planning and the directions theory and practice might take. Sustainability exposed its ugly side, as an all embracing, all including term that hides behind moral justifications and as such cannot be criticized and be reflected upon. Choosing not to oppose such prevailing techniques of oppression by including designers in the programme proved to be a problem. Inter disciplinary turned out to be the weakest point of the whole event as it faced the problems of design by simply putting them out of the way.

Salvation, so it seems, came surprisingly from the other side of the Atlantic, through the presentations of Andrea Branzi and Stefano Boeri, and to a certain extent through that of Inaki Abalos. Branzi, a figure of almost mythical status in the Italian neo avant-garde, gave a presentation that was exactly the opposite of everything else in the conference: anti-rational, anti-technological and completely aesthetic. He attacked sustainability and environmentalism as creating problems rather than proposing solutions and challenged the whole notion of minimizing the human footprint on the planet as the only viable solution. In a rare moment, when challenged by Matthias Schuler and responding that beauty might be more important than survival, two world views clashed: that of the technocratic, progressive view that seeks to improve human condition through technological innovation and the opposing view of deep pessimism and negation of progress and in fact the whole tradition of rational thinking, predominant in western civilization since the enlightment. Stafano Boeri, acting as narrator for Branzi’s presentation, conceptualized three current trajectories in contemporary design and its reconciliation with nature: the first is technological mimesis, reproducing natural forms by technological means. The second is confinement which deals with dominating nature through agriculture and progressive means. The third trajectory for Boeri is autonomy, which he interprets as a challenge to the current separation between human and natural environments. Illustrating this concept with images of cities reinhabited by natural forces (animals in the streets, plants covering buildings), Boeri sought to outline an ecology in which humans exist with no superiority over other forms of living. For the first time in the conference, a new concept of operation seemed to emerge. One that is not absolute and oppressive but rather multi-faceted and complex. Suddenly designers seemed to have an important part in the definition of a shared vision about the future of humans and their role in the environment. Their disciplines may have found a new purpose beyond the notion of sustainability and the cynicism that followed. For the conference and for the idea of ecological urbanism, that was the best provocation to be hoped for.