The Great Leap Backward
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.