My recent post about the architecture—or rather lack thereof—in the film Avatar evoked an unusual amount of reaction. Some felt that I had joined the cult of avatar-of-earth worship the film espouses; others thought that I showed signs of resisting the truth of Mother Earth's and Pandora’s (the planet on which most of Avatar takes place and which is a more luxuriant version of our own) sanctity. Finally, one reader accused me of refusing to take a stand.
So let me say this: I was pointing out that architecture as the making of buildings might not matter much in this debate in the future. In the here and now, I do think that making buildings is as often as not a waste of natural resources. I do think that most buildings further our divorce from our natural environment through designs that can only work with air conditioning and artificial heating, and that allow us no experiential relationship to that environment. I applaud the statement of intent written by Jeremy Rifkind and signed by most of the architects in the last Venice Architecture Biennale that they wanted to work towards the design of buildings that were net producers, rather than users, of energy, and I think this is a feasible goal.
I also think that the earth has become deified instead of reified, and that “sustainable architecture” has become both a fashion and a religion. Like most successful styles, it in fact justifies itself by claiming to be pursuing a higher truth—in this case that of saving this planet. The goal justifies many design crimes, from the relatively minor ones of the production of phenomenally ugly buildings (the guru of green design, William McDonough, is responsible for some especially egregious examples), to the creation of spaces and forms that are not particularly good for either the inhabitants or their surroundings.
Stylistically, “green” architecture often makes one of two mistakes: it either asks us to believe that the display of gizmos such as solar panels, water collectors or windmills is justified by their function, and that they do not need to be integrated with the overall design; or it mistakes “organic” design for the appearance of organicity, as if making something curved or green in color makes it more natural.
Most effective “green” techniques are in actuality no more and no less than common sense: providing good ventilation, orienting buildings correctly towards winds and sun, storing heat, and recycling waste water are all things architects should do as a matter of course. So is using new technology such as geothermal wells and flexible solar panels. There is no reason, however, to believe that a solar panel has any relation to either the human body or the landscape around us, and thus needs to be a defining element of a façade.
The deeper issue, as I noted above, is the question of whether we should build at all. I am enamored of the Dutch architect Willem-Jan Neutelings’ notion of “lazy architecture”: sometimes doing nothing, or at least very little, is more than enough. In the project-oriented world of Dutch architecture, when a client comes to you with a building project, what they are really asking for is a way to house or re-house their family or organization, with a series of ancillary goals (greater comfort, visibility, or access, for instance). Those are not always best addressed by making a building. Sometimes a renovation or even just an ad campaign might work just as well. We need to think of architecture as a way of understanding and reshaping our environment in a critical and responsible manner, not as the production of buildings.
Finally, I would go even further: given the way we have and are continuing to devastate our environment, we should make a simple rule: for every square foot of land given over to new construction, a foot should be given back to open space; for every acre taken over by sprawl, an acre of unused urban land should be freed up; for every meter, a meter, for every hectare, a hectare. Let’s not just build, but unbuild. Our earth might not be a goddess, but until we can travel to places like Pandora, it is all we have.