FAQ - Frequently Asked Questions / 10


















-What is your attitude to the "Green Movement" and to "Sustainability"?


Just as all buildings today seem to be becoming blobby and egg-shaped, restoring themselves to a primordial unity, innocence and pregnancy after the orgy of 'deconstructed' sharding and shattering of the recent past, so 'sustainability', the most primal of all human ambitions, has come to hold centre-stage.

I gave a crit recently at my alumnus, the Architectural Association. Half way through the day I began to fall prey to a sense which I came to call a 'Rip van Winkle' effect. I saw the student architects doing almost exactly what I was doing in the late 1950's. There were the same blobby, shardy, aimlessly repetitive, contra-formal, treacly/crystalline shapes, desperately aping the given data of 'natural', 'given', circumstances, desperately longing for some magic trick that would translate them into a positive formal state. Vitalism, Empiricism, Topology reigned. Nothing seemed to have changed during the past 40 years...........had the clock slipped back or what?

Then, one evening, a bright graduate from the RCA enthused about my student days in the 1950's referring to them as "The Golden Age".

I was beginning to sense that there was something very peculiar about the current strategy concerning 'sustainability'. My understanding crystallised after reading, in a new Mag. called "EcoTech" (no spacing, no punctuation, no grammar, no slavish submission to the Past) a canonic definition of 'Sustainability' produced by the World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987, which proposed "Sustainable development is development (word used twice) which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs".

This sounds very good. What is odd about it is that it also sounds exactly like the idea, that I well remember being eagerly announced at Lawrence Alloway's ICA, during the Golden Age of the late 1950's, that "Every generation would rebuild the world in their own image". The assumption behind this notion was not the Golden glow of a primordial state of natural innocence, but the limitless energy of a new invention: Nuclear Power. The Atomic Glow of the 1950's shone upon a life liberated from want through the new abundance of the huge wartime economy, now churning out consumer durables, cheered-on by mass-media advertising, obsolescence-inducing fashion cults and hysteria-inducing rock-and-roll.

It was not until the 1960's that Scientists, not Artists or Poets, and women like Jane Jacobs and Rachel Carson, not men, blew the whistle on the orgy of what the Smithsons called, approvingly, "Growth and Change". Back in 1969, I was teaching in the Alternative Technology Unit at the Architectural Association. Well 'teaching' is hardly the word, sharing a sense of doom contemplating windmills, chicken-shit bio-gas, composting commodes and varieties of solar power system, might be more accurate. The Students were apathetic. If persuaded of ecological criteria, they doomed themselves to 'drop-out' into Sixties Wood-Butchery and other 'dome-home' community politics.

The architectural fallout from Sixties Green Culture was zilch. The only practical application of these things in Britain was occurring in Wales. I designed, in 1970, a new house, for a friend, with wind-cowls, and my first big project, in 1976, for a 100-Metre long Warehouse started out with them as well. It was all about 20 years too soon. Besides which they were, as the vast cowls one sees today, more symbolical than mechanical. I was spared legal suits concerning sound propagation, lack of privacy and lack of security that the mega-vent EcoTech Architect must guard against today. I am the last Architect to criticise a symbol. But column-capitals as vent 'cowls' really is a bit 'Mechanix Illustrated' for civilised, literate, people. This 1960's, 'Ecologist'-led, movement was, if anything, dead-against Architecture, Cities and Humanity altogether, all which 'Mother Earth' would do much better without. It was not an encouraging ethos in which to teach Architecture, or begin a Consultancy. But this was when, in 1973, JOA finally was founded, essentially out of despair at ever getting anywhere through 'orthodox professional channels'..

I had already served four years in the Government, trying to persuade it (back in 1962-4) to adopt the terrace housing that is now, extraordinarily, 40 doomed years later, the Policy of New Labour, New Britain. Old Labour preferred suburban capitalist plots, (too dispersed for 'pedonville' yet too congested for 'autoville') on which the poor would have more space to accumulate the consumer durables that both Left and Right knew was what would keep them busy and unconcerned with the levers of government. (See FAQ No.7:"Housing")

It was clear to me, 30 years ago, that the problems of 'sustainability' were not 'techie'. The technology was available. What was lacking was "something else".

The problem of 'sustainability' could not be more wrongly put than in the phrase from the World Commission. They way they phrase it makes it sound just like the way the World is today. It implies such radical changes in 'fashion' that 'future generations' are certain to want to 'do it differently'. We are advised to 'develop', let us say 'build', in such a way that future generations are not constrained from 'building a different world' for themselves. What can this mean but lightweight, temporary buildings that 'leave no mark' upon the ground?

Yet, strangely enough, this was how we were advised to build in the 1950's. We were advised to build light, temporary structures, so that every new generation could dismantle them and then go on to 'make its mark' and 'build their own world'. This is why, one may assume, the buildings of the late 1990's and the late 1950's look exactly the same (barring the odd extract-cowl). Yet is this 'modesty' (all the way to thatched, biodegradable, houses) concerning contemporary development the correct response? Is it not a complete fraud? How 'temporary' are these skeletal new buildings with their (low thermal mass) lightweight walls and roofs, all tricked out in slatted lumber? Do they sit any more lightly on their land than a heavy structure of cast concrete frame and floors, a masonry over-walling, and a clay tile roof? Both terminally alter their site with their footprint, footings, slabs, drains, services, landscapings (artificial mountains, lakes and all) and so on. Both give rise to permanent alterations in the surrounding flora and fauna, let alone major works of transport and services infrastructure..

It is an illusion, a fallacy, and a downright lie to pretend that what one builds today can be readily and easily 'unbuilt' by 'future generations'. What is true, instead, is that if our regard for our successors is genuine, that we will build for them structures, in every department of human culture, whose 'project' our successors will want to take up and run-with into the future. The West was never built as a mere sprint this way and that, or an endless recycling of the same old 'Vedic' catastrophe. It was a relay-race in which every generation took-on the 'long-running project' from its predecessor and handed it on, 'much improved', to its successor. The 'Ark' of the West is not destroyed each time it lands. It can be re-used, floating off with its cargo to ride out the succession of cataclysms.

What is true, concerning the present, is that the West has appeared to lose its enthusiasm to 'sustain' projects of any longevity. Sustainablity is not about resting on the earth as lightly as the 'deconstructed' flotsam and jetsam thrown up by the fashion-driven restlessness of the present time, but about being so sure of what one is doing that one builds structures, in all of the departments of culture, which one knows that future generations will want to sustain and improve-upon. The question "how does one come to know this and have sufficient confidence to act to lay this kind of burden upon the Earth and upon the Future?", is, for the West, a relatively novel one. It seems that it has no 'sustainable' answer at the present time.

Should we decide that this degree of knowledge and confidence can not be obtained, then the project of the West is over. A corollary will be that Architecture, one of the key media in this project, because of its role in 'embodying the project', will be no more. Building will just be casual, and deliberately inconsequential, thatching.

The situation has not come to this, even although many, of philosophical skill and little technical knowledge, proclaim that it has. What is characteristic of the present time is an extraordinary level of dissimulation concerning how it is that the West is, in reality, shaping the Global Future ever more totally and determindedly, while deliberately remaining blind, or keeping quiet, about the new kind of world that it is bringing, with very little hope of reversal or escape, into existence.

As to what JOA have achieved, it must be obvious that our work sought to do more than is current 'good practice', which is to say apply technical ideas that were already in circulation in the 1960's. We have not neglected the simple physical notions of thermal mass and of insulation and of natural lighting and natural ventilation, along with the more mechanised notions of a sealed shell with heat-recovery ventilation. All of these things have been built-into our designs. JOA won its first EEC Thermie grant in 1989 with the Project for the "Which" magazine laboratories for Milton Keynes.

However it is intellectually puerile to elevate such notions into the basis for a EcoTech style composed of farmyard hardwood weatherboarding and exposed galvanised steel topped-off with rotating wind-cowls. One would hope for more of Architecture than that it celebrated getting rid of stale air. What, anyway, of night, when most socialising takes place. What good to the mind is a black glass atrium ceiling and some creaking cowls?

Commuting to work and travelling around by car and plane continues to grow exponentially, on the global scale, expelling more carbon dioxide than the buildings of the Western cultures that have dis-urbanised during the late 20C. The lightweight, ephemeral, shanty-town Architecture of our own culture, terminally unsure of its long-term intentions, scraps and renews its urban structures with monotonous predictability and suffocatingly banal scenarios. Today people discuss the likelihood of a 'Sixties Revival'. Styling rules Architecture (even to the extent of 'green styling') and creative, inventive 'conceptually-sustainable' long-term city-planning is non-existent.

In JOA we have been working-on a view of the human lifespace that owes everything to the past, and yet nothing to it. The view of the past I appreciate is that of Max Beerbohm, who described it as 'absurd'. What is the point of venerating something that no one will ever fully understand and that, anyway, one can never do anything about? The past, like the Human genome, is merely the most important subject for Study, because we are its product, and we, who live today, are the 'past' of the 'future'. We, in JOA, have merely examined the evidence of the Past so as to obtain from it the knowledge that is needed to design the game of lifespace-making according to more practical rules.

The most important of these rules is precisely the one that is leading to the destruction of our physical habitat. This is the law of the Machiavellian State. The modern state descends from its blueprint invented at the beginning of the Renaissance in Italy. It has not yet changed, and it is hard to see it altering. The political and cultural inventors of this state saw the need for it to have a single territory whose borders were secured by a centre of military power. This power would be paid for by taxes levied not on peasants and paid in kind, as were received by the feudal church and aristocracy, but in money paid by merchants. The money would be created by the credits required for manufacture and trade. This would occur in the 'Ideal City'. The high level of culture required to advantage the products of manufacture, in the marketplaces of competing States, would be created and supported within the Court of the Ruler. This was the function of the Courtly Culture, with its poets and philosphers, painters and musicians - to promote trade. Finally the ruler, the Managing Director of this enterprise, was as everyone knows, not conceived as an hereditary post. The 'Prince' had to be a professional, chosen for his skill in the practice of a 'statecraft' that Machiavelli, and others, attempted to explicate.

This clearly rational design, whose parts acted together with the simplicity of one of Leonardo's machines, was dressed-up, somewhat confusingly, in an 'Antique' garb. I go into the reasons for this in FAQ No. The invention of the 19C was the introduction of the universal suffrage to chose the 'Professional Ruler' - or Politician. However, every increase in the democratisation of the choice of the 'Prince' was equalled, if not outweighed by an increase in the Kafkaesque bureaucracy of the State, whose purpose was to stabilise and counterbalance any fashionable or eccentric vagaries introduced into the direction of State Affairs by the 'popular will'. The underlying mechanism has not been altered. The State still supports its unitary boundaries. It still guards them with a complex military apparatus. It still pays for this with a taxation on trade. It still encourages trade so as to enlarge its tax revenue.

This trading has steadily expanded to enlarge far beyond the luxuries of a Princely Court. Everything in every citizen's life is sucked-into the economic furnace from which runs-out the gold of Revenue. Fashion and Design now address the desires of the Ordinary Man, who, increasingly dissatisfied with this lowly epithet, desires to be, if not 'superior', then at least unusual, odd, strange and even kinky. Fashion and manufacture eagerly provide for every 'taste'. None of this really matters to the State, and those who serve it, providing that the money moves around and leaves a scraping, a shaving, a fraction of it at every turn, for the State to collect.

It is this, of course, that prevents 'green policies'. The State can never, and will never, countenance any diminution of its Revenue. It can not suppress 'development' for to leave anyting 'untraded' is to forego its Stately 'profit'. That would be to lose its power to preserve itself and all whom it shelters. The State, and its powerful servants, are always conceiving of ways to create more 'business'. The core problem of Sustainability is how to sustain the State while enhancing our natural habitat. How do we make a 'business', circulating taxable 'monetary' credits, out of a different kind of 'life-game' than the very 'physically-oriented' one, consuming every material in sight, which people play today?. This is clearly a major, even seismic, cultural shift. How is one to move-over from a primarily physical set of life-games, which is so characteristic of the dominating, North European, cultures of the West, to another set of primarily conceptual territories? It is this problem, conceived in these terms, which have been the 'field of work' of JOA over the past 40 years.

It is for this long-range strategy that we have invented our set of integrated physio-conceptual architectural tools. It is for this that we have tried to synthesize something novel out of what are conventionally considered incompatible: machines with monumentality, philosophy with decoration, pragmatism with ritual. We are inventing a lifespace-quipment for this 'new Culture' - one in which conceptual games will dominate, yet physical powers flourish as well. The fact that we have proved these things in action only opens up a way forward. It does not exhaust the project! I do not think it even defines the Project! I know only that it takes it further than the current fads and fancies of the 'sustainablity style' architecture of the present day.

The mental set of this contemporary 'sustainable' architecture is so compulsively , one may even say evangelically, physiological that it contributes nothing to the long-term needs of the 'Green Project'. It is my opinion that it sets the present version of the Machiavellian State even more securely in its materialist mode of consumption - reinforcing it indeed, by proffering a greater physical efficiency in the lifespace-games people play with a materially-conceived reality.

After the 'Which' Project, the one that comes closest to providing a blueprint for our methods (apart from one huge omission) is the "Judge Institute" for Cambridge University.

The phenomenon of Houston is, according to the contemporary standards, entirely unsustainable. Its contemporary culture depends on its land being inhabited as if its citizens lived on the Moon. All of its new buildings are sealed and climate-controlled. It has no Metro or even long-distance trains. Everything is so motorised that one can not walk anywhere. Yet Texas is the size of France, so Houston, even as the 4th biggest city of the USA, has a generous 'ecological footprint'. And who is to say that if, one day, cars and air-conditioning systems burnt hydrogen, and no longer thundered and roared, that the 500 square miles of Houston would not become viable, at least physically? Anyway, I love its people dearly, polite, amiable, unhurried, citizens of one of the great polluting cities of the globe! In Duncan Hall they encouraged me to build the antithesis to their own disurbane culture. Things want to 'right' themselves. In the end, this kind of event leads me to hope that they will, so long as someone invents the tools.

Our building in Holland is the strangest of them all. In a country which, of all countries, is the most aware of what is, and is not, 'physically sustainable' we have built (or, more precisely the Dutch built for us, for JOA were -unlike everywhere else - allowed no part in the constructive process) a pure icon. Our building ignores all of our technical imperatives, being built inefficiently, specified without regard to efficient servicing or maintenance of fabric, and constructed of defective materials. Yet it is, in external appearance, almost perfect and extremely carefully assembled.

This experience is more fully explored in "News from the Front" at the end of "Duncanology Part 2: Claude's Key"

It is easier to live in Europe than it is to inhabit certain 'advanced' territories of the USA. Yet it is clear to me, at least, that the ideas, when they come, will come from America because it is only in America that one finds people with the will, confidence and power to change the 'American Way of Life' which is, as was the British in the 19C, exported globally along with American Capital.

Yet why should a particular 'culture' become globalised in this way, giving its natural owners a confusing sense of being both superior as well as disposessed of their exclusive birthright. It would be preferable that an 'universalising' aspect of culture were invented in the full knowledge of its artificiality so as to work to enhance and preserve the parochiality of the remaining distinct cultures of the globe. This, also, has been an idea behind our inventions in JOA. It may go some way to explain our interest in Oriental Architectures. Ancient Hellenism is, for a Modern, a door through which one must pass into Egypt and Mesopotamia, from whence Greek Architecture came, and then, beyond them to India, China and all the rest. 'Universalising' can never mean, only, 'American English', in Architecture, merely because this is the Lingua Franca of the globe. Universal means an absolutely and totally artificial and synthetic cult within which all of the parochialities can each find their own unique expression.

It is this Universal cult, with its universally sustaining 'emplotments', that is the missing catalytic component preventing the efficient clarification and precipitation of the local, and necessarily diverse, Cultures of Sustainability.


End of FAQ No. 10: "Sustainability",

Return to "The List of FAQ's"".  



* JOA can be reached by E-Mail at anthony@johnoutram.com , by telephone on +44 (0)207 262 4862 or by fax on +44 (0)207 706 3804. We also have an ISDN number : +44 (0)207 262 6294.




John Outram