Object Lesson


The Great Leap Backward

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Everybody has a doomsday scenario these days. Climate change. Peak oil. Unchecked immigration. Big government. Nuclear conflict. You name it. Could any or all of these factors, unchecked, lead to an unravelling of American, or even global, society? A growing number of people seem to think so—including architects. Not for nothing did Al Gore pack the house at the AIA convention in San Antonio with his grim forecasts about the environment.

A lot of architects are doing more about concerns like global warming than just sitting and listening, if the results of the first annual R+D Awards are any indication. The winning entries, without exception, set aside the notion of unbridled progress. The central idea of each of the five winning teams lies in a well-established technology, rethought and incorporating more recent advances. Take, for instance, Kennedy & Violich Architecture's Soft House. With its use of photovoltaic curtains, it couldn't be more up-to-the-minute. But bear in mind that the architects are actually using a new technology to reduce the house's reliance on other technologies, such as artificial lighting, air conditioning, and the larger energy infrastructure.

For hundreds of years, scholars have pondered the cause of past civilizations' failure, looking for patterns and pitfalls to avoid in the future. Edward Gibbon, for instance, blamed the fall of Rome on a loss of civic virtue and the advent of Christianity, in his seminal text of 1788, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. As recently as last month, the BBC and other media outlets reported that the 12th–14th century temple complex of Angkor in Cambodia was in fact, at 1,160 square miles, the preindustrial world's greatest example of sprawl—and that a failure to maintain the city's infrastructure brought about the civilization's collapse.

Joseph A. Tainter, an anthropologist and author of The Collapse of Complex Societies (Cambridge University Press, 1988), takes Gibbon's ground-breaking study to an entirely new level, questioning why the Western Roman Empire collapsed in the fifth century but the Eastern Empire managed to survive for another thousand years. As Tainter sees it, the Western Romans responded to the growing internal and external pressures of empire by increasing the size of the army and adding layers of bureaucracy and regulation. They responded to an unbearably complex situation by making it more complex. The results, as every schoolchild knows, were disastrous. Hello, Dark Ages.

In the East, by contrast, the Byzantine Empire survived thanks to a strategy of simplification. Cities, the army, and civil administration all underwent a deliberate reduction in size. (The Byzantine population was also reduced in size, but unintentionally, by a plague in 541–542.) By simplifying, the empire became more resilient and flexible. (Hear Tainter make the argument himself at archaeologychannel.org/commentary/Tainter.html.)

Architects are uniquely positioned to advocate for change in our society. But the kind of change that's required today isn't another modernist Great Leap Forward, where we run roughshod over everything that's come before in our zeal to reach the next big idea or technological solution. Progress is no longer about wiping the slate clean and starting fresh. With sustainability and related movements, we're witnessing the advent of true postmodernism—not the superficial style of the 1980s, but a fundamental shift toward informed simplification and wholistic problem-solving. How Byzantine.


Comments (8 Total)

  • Posted by: redman58 | Time: 9:40 AM Tuesday, September 25, 2007

    There is no lack of good ideas out there, just large audiences willing to poke holes in good ideas instead of rallying around and making them great ideas. The incredible specialization in each discipline has reduced the once general mechanic, carpenter, politician, developer, or engineer to a level where if he states a new process or technique he will be ridiculed for not seeing the minutiae of different variables he will be faced with. When in fact because he has a wider view of multiple techniques he might be able to leverage a process from a different discipline and provide a better idea or new standard of design. We can only hope that a new climate for tearing down ideas will not be long standing and will soon change to one of cooperation for bettering the world we all are forced to live in.

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  • Posted by: William A. Polk | Time: 7:20 PM Monday, September 24, 2007

    Collapse by Jared Diamond presents an interesting analysis of a number of societies that have not succeeded and a number that have. It's worth reading.

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  • Posted by: dwellsokc | Time: 3:44 PM Monday, September 24, 2007

    Informed simplification used to be called appropriate technology. Good philosophy & good practice. I recommend that we as a profession become better informed (less ignorant) about the good side of global warming. Are there real benefits that the eco-celebrities (and some editors) would rather not promote?

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  • Posted by: dwellsokc | Time: 3:08 PM Monday, September 24, 2007

    Informed simplification... It used to be called "appropriate technology." Being in a unique position to advocate change in our society is a pretty hefty load. You better be sure of your facts! How many of you out there can list the benifits of global warming? Why aren't we, as responsible architects, better equipped to answer that question? The simple, informed answer is: ignorance.

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  • Posted by: anwana1 | Time: 9:56 AM Friday, September 21, 2007

    Great Post..

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  • Posted by: anwana1 | Time: 9:55 AM Friday, September 21, 2007

    Great Post..

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  • Posted by: jciasto | Time: 2:34 PM Thursday, September 20, 2007

    The projects listed in the September 2007 issue under the Lightweight Façade Systems were very interesting. For the non-residential projects, how did these system function with perimeter fire containment requirements? Or did these projects not require this feature? Thanks.

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  • Posted by: anwana1 | Time: 8:39 AM Wednesday, September 12, 2007

    Good Article..

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About the Blogger

Ned Cramer

thumbnail image Ned Cramer is editor-in-chief of ARCHITECT, and editorial director of ARCHITECTURAL LIGHTING, ECO-STRUCTURE, and METALMAG, published by Hanley Wood, a Washington, D.C.-based business media company. Prior to joining Hanley Wood, Cramer served as the first full-time curator of the Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF), where he organized public programs and exhibitions such as "A Century of Progress: Chicago's 1933-34 World's Fair" and "New Federal Architecture: The Face of a Nation." At CAF, projects under Cramer's direction received support from foundations and corporations such as Altria, Boeing, the Driehaus Foundation, the Graham Foundation, and the McCormick-Tribune Foundation. He speaks regularly on architecture, design, and related issues. The Avery Architectural Index lists nearly 100 articles with Cramer's byline, many written in his former capacity as executive editor of Architecture magazine. The recipient of an Arts Administration Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, Cramer has held positions at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Menil Collection in Houston. Cramer is an alumnus of the Rice University School of Architecture. He was born and raised in St. Louis.