Mutual Deformations – Towards a Green Agenda in Architecture
– A talk given to green Building Conference 2009
I was asked in a recent interview if I would call myself a “green architect”…. 2 My immediate gut response was “no”, 3 not because I have a naturally contrary personality, 4 but because this term “green” seems to me either too limiting, or too wide, as it is currently purveyed. 5 I wasn’t sure what I’d be buying into, or even how the term is purveyed… and so I have started 6 to think around the question of what a ‘green architecture, or what a ‘green agenda’ for architecture’ might be:
7 I suppose my most visceral first thought was that I have a certain resistance to definitions that start to imply a ‘style’, 8 or that might lay down a rigid set of determinants that would serve to limit (or pre-figure) 9 what for me is always a ‘free’ act of design…10 I do not consider ‘style’ a generator for design at any level. 11 Style is an outcome…
12 My planted buildings, for example, which might be considered ‘green’, are outcomes, not pre-figurations… 13 they came from response, 14 or from more complicated ideas of blur and of framing… 15 From ideas of view, of point of view, of mirroring, of expansion and heightening of consciousness of place – 16 These buildings do not set out to be ‘green’ . 17 These buildings came from mutual conceptions of landscape and architecture, 18 of mutual becomings in space and time..19…. 20 I also talk about other less ‘green’ work of mine in terms of landscape, 21 and these buildings do not have planted roofs to make them ‘green’ – 22 they are buildings mutually conversational with their locating landscapes, simply…23
24 The best definition of style as I know it comes from my favourite philosopher Gilles Deleuze: 25 He defines style as a “linked series of postures”. 26 Style, therefore, must come after the fact, 27 a cumulative and recognisable result of the actions that have already been realised…28 So – I don’t start from any notion of ‘green’ in these terms… 29A planted roof does not a green building make…
30 If we work back from style, possibly the most limited of commonly ‘limiting’ definitions, and 31 perhaps what was not in fact even meant by the question, 32 I would ask, then, how is this term “green” 33currently understood, locally? 34Is ‘green’ still the application of passive energy systems to a normative architecture? It seems to me that “green” is still largely conceived in architecturally un-experimental South Africa as a 35 term for applied systems –solar geysers on a Tuscan house …36 Grey water collection to a suburban house form… These are systems which are not seen to substantially change architectural form and language… They are pragmatic applications applicable to anything… I too have dealt in applied systems, but this, to me, does not define me as a ‘green’ architect…
37 How else could we describe ‘green’? In other and equally pragmatic (and equally limiting) terms, I would say that South Africa has a fairly established 38 tradition of climatic response, -here is a well-thumbed book dating from the 70’s I found on a South African bookshelf… 39 The roots of ‘green’, these are logical design strategies which are currently being stressed all over again – a return to the basics – and these should – 40 in my opinion – form part of the knee-jerk arsenal of any architect worth their salt. Nowadays we have 3 D modeling programs which can predict sun penetration into a building in a second, unlike this intensely laborious drawing I did in 1997 for a house in the Waterberg.. 41These strategies have, after all, over the many generations, generated all sorts of local typologies – we need look no further 42 than the Transvaal verandah house, as a quick example… 43 We are no strangers to the benefits and calculations of sun angles, spatial routes to natural ventilation, solar absorbtion of natural stone tiles and concrete surfaces, and we can easily take on the simple techniques of energy capture in our immensely livable climates… 44 All too easy to accommodate sub-surface bed insulation, shading, or solar glass, low E glass – 45 All these are less and more expensive types of applied material strategies… Beyond common sense design, I don’t think we can really count small scale, 46 expensive green ‘solutions’, particularly in private housing, when everybody still careens about the country in Porsche Cayennes to get to their second, greener homes?
And does a site specific, contextual climatic response qualify one as a ‘green’ architect? I’m not sure – perhaps, partly.
47 So to my last, and most exigent definition: The scientific, the economic, the social views of “green” architecture would see it in terms of the “triple bottom line”, which would involve all categories of social, economic and environmental sustainabilities. 48 Within the architectural process, there exist both the temporal and the spatial conditions of manufacture and use-over-time. 49 Concrete, bricks, steel, glass and aluminium will never qualify as “green” in their manufacture, 50and they are limited in their re-use without serious energy consumption during re-processing. 51 Basically, unless you are making 52 straw bale or adobe buildings, carving into rock faces or recycling material into new kinds of small-scale 53one off configurations, architects seem limited, currently, to a series of strategies to offset energy consumption… 54
These offset strategies can take a number of forms – 55 in one sense, ‘offset strategy’ takes into itself a range of energy-producing technological experiments, which in these slides show you ideas about harnessing human movement and pleasure on dance floors, 56 then an experimental house that uses a curtain to generate energy – 57 and there is investigation all over the world about harnessing existing movement: road surfaces, and car braking systems for example: all these are strategies that can be turned to re-powering the city – 58 but all these attempts, are as yet small scale – 59 they have not, as yet, turned to a more major re-conception and strategies for realization 60 that in a larger sense redefine our patterns of living, building, and use.
61This word “offset” seems to me extremely interesting: Principally: when does ‘offset’ strategy start to become ‘avoidance strategy’?
“Avoidance and offset strategies”, as I see it, manifest in several ways, and all of these ways have ramifications for the quality of South African architecture and cities and our social possibilities:
62 The first ‘avoidance of architecture’ as I see it, is currently configured in this country around the ‘give the client what they want’ scenario that I see ruining so many opportunities for 63 fresh and innovative thinking in the formation of the architectural and urban body … 64 This is a scenario that I see every day condemning us to the perpetual unrolling of an anonymous and franchised landscape 65 that we still somewhat optimistically refer to as ‘Joburg’… 66 a landscape of botoxed, faked up, 67 overweight and under-conceptualised building taken hostage by developer-led ‘style’ bound up with the lowest common denominator of unschooled and undiscriminating client-led desire.
68 I see an architecture stripped of its power, its vocabulary become weak and emasculated, servile… Architects in this country find themselves cast out of their historical roles as urban visionaries, cast out from their historic positions of the keepers of a certain sphere of necessarily experimental knowledge: I see architects either ignored, or reduced to decorators, to a wasteful element… 69 I see architects out of tune with their power, with their imaginations, with their voices and their visions: Architects have been reduced to the lackeys of city planners and developers … 70 I see a built architecture out of step with the future, a dangerous ugly wasteful and often cruel architecture essentially contemptuous of humankind and the world… There is a defeat of hope and optimism perpetuated through all the architectures I have shown you above into our society: across the board from rich to poor .. In so many ways, we seem locked into the old centrist paradigms. Real architectural thought appears avoided. Voided.
71 The second ‘offset strategy’ I see is more obviously bound up with my conception of a green agenda: This strategy would act to continuously separate architecture and landscape from one another… 72 This strategy would perpetually condemn landscape to the “offset strategy’: to exterior decoration, to carbon offset, to the planting of trees…, as mitigation to the built, or as excluded terrain 73 and thus to something ‘set apart’ from architecture… something inimical…something perceived as either decorative, ameliorative, or “natural”, innocent, something external or other…
74 I see in the current South African approach to its city growth a landscape which cannot be called ‘green’ in any terms 75 other than those of the ‘offset’: It may be harsh judgement, but into this offset category I would include both 76 fenced private gardens passively surrounding their houses, 77 and those neglected parts that form the public domain, 78 largely made up of planted traffic islands, which seem fairly continuously non-integrated with the architectural body, and along William Nicol for example are falling prey to some of the most hideous exterior decoration I have ever seen …
79 Across Joburg I see a continually unfurling default landscape which forces endless circuits of travel and traffic and distance, 80 which is socially stratified and non-inclusive, 81 which still appears to buy into old zoning schemes which essentially act to divide and control – 82 I see an urban landscape which does not seem to re-use or re-imagine itself in any real way – 83 an urban landscape which is continually laid out, 84 raw and naked, or pretentious, fortified, fenced and consumptive, 85 its older parts forgotten, 86 neglected, 87 abandoned, 88 forgotten, 89 misused and abused through neglect 90and the failure of imagination and 91desire towards the making and participation in 92 a new hybrid society. 93 Its new landscapes are reconfigured as decoration, mitigation – 94 its parks –both new and old – are fenced or considered dangerous. 95 Its inner wastelands – 96 which hold huge and vibrant opportunities for reconfiguration of ourselves – 97 are left for dead… a symbol of our lack of societal imagination and mutual good intent..
98 All of the above criticisms form a wide-ranging set of what I would call offset or avoidance strategies… These strategies are, to my mind, what keep us so disastrously out of our future, and leave us way out of any ‘green agenda’. If a real engagement is sought with the “triple bottom line”, (which as I said would involve all categories of social, economic and environmental sustainabilities), then it would seem to me that the first engagement would take place at the level of societal attitude and the public domain.
99 As far as I can see, a real ‘green agenda’ must act to transform our highly divided and mutually distrustful South African publics… A real ‘green agenda’ would seriously challenge the insidious public/private divide that so dangerously cuts through our South African cities and which acts to curtail so severely the formation of a truly public domain in this country.
100 Think Melrose Arch, for example, and all those gated enclaves… I regard these as deeply cynical projects, essentially, in their fortification against the public and their entrenchment of elitist access and control. I would add that all our fences and walls, most critically, enact a further separation of architecture from the very problematic urban conditions which could stimulate it into inventive action. Fences limit architecture to weak acts of facadism. Fences are a very crucial avoidance strategy.
101 To me, the greatest potential of a “green agenda” would hold within itself the possibility for ratcheting up ‘urbanity’, for funneling new and more creative modes of living and working and connecting at a landscape-urbanist-infrastructural as well as a more intimate architectural scale… In other words, I would see this ‘green agenda’ having broad ramifications for the spatial re-distribution of city-components, with what I would conceive of as a concomitant renewal or alteration of societal relations…
102 A “green agenda”: then, is going to mean a move into urban innovation, and that requires a complex and rich re-imagining of ourselves and of our societies. How can we do more with less? How will we re-direct our material flows? How do we live closer to ourselves and closer to our imaginations? All these problems are enormous design stimuli. I want us to begin this move into re-imagination of ourselves…
103 I consider design a form of research – I have recently initiated a series of design masterclasses for professional architects which seeks to re-imagine Joburg, in the process aiming to open up all the problematics I have discussed above.… 104 In my opinion, the introduction of the Gautrain and the BRT offer Joburg for the first time in at least 100 years a potentially seriously PUBLIC platform which has the potential to radically restructure the urban body.
105 I’m going to describe quickly of the scenarios we’ll be looking at – we’ve already done two, so I include now some of the images produced thus far.
What if the M1 Highway became defunct as a private transport route – 106 what if it were replaced by a high speed transit system – 107 what if this broad strip of land became home to the many workers who service the suburbs – 108 an erasure of the financial and material suck of 109 daily transport from home to work and back again … 110 What new kind of public interaction could be achieved, 111 what new societal urban landscapes born? 112 What kinds of buildings would we see – 113 and what kinds of social space? 114 What new patterns of dissonance and coherence? 115 What new linkages and connectivities?
116 What if every property owner were forced to provide 3 public functions along their boundary walls? 117 What if the suburban traffic conduits became reconceived as urban parkland, kitted out with spaza shops, public urinals, lighting and benches, urban lounges, playgrounds? 118 What would happen to that tightly controlled line between private and public? How would society change? What would your contribution be to your boundary wall, to the public domain? 119 How would you deal with the perceived threat, with your received histories, your prejudice?
120 What of the inner city, and its signs of re-use, new use, and abuse? 121 What if there was a wholesale optimistic reinhabitation of the city centre 122 and our industrial graveyards and wastelands? 123, What would this mean for your daily pattern of social contacts? 124 What if the inner city had large swathes of its ground floor removed, and 125 was re-conceived as an urban surface – an urban landscape of flows, 126 markets, 127public life, 128 park life?
129 I am utterly convinced of the fact that architecture frames us just as we frame it. 130 That the experience of architecture can change thought and lived experience.
131 As I am wont to say, I consider architecture an art, a complex technical and cultural and philosophical spatial language. 132 Architecture is one of humankind’s most potent material manifestations, and is, therefore, 133 extremely revealing of the way we conceive ourselves, 134 the way we construct our particular places and selves and aspirations in time. 135 As an architect, I see architecture naked and unashamed in its ability to expose our attitudes – both to ourselves, and to others.
136 If you think of architecture as landscape-forming and not simply as a container for style driven interior decoration or as a fashionable-or-not means to keep the weather out, then 137 you can see that it is not just the spatial medium in which we construct and house our desires and our necessities. 138 Architecture is also a kind of constant companion within and without which we experience our very particular human becomings in time, in space; 139 within and without which our very particular humanities are framed, grounded and directed. Architecture quite literally frames our view, it conditions our seeing, it interferes with perception. 140 It is, in other words, active in the formation and re-formation of ourselves, and our relations between ourselves: we call this “society”.
141 Architecture forms our ‘constructed landscape’: 142 it constructs the spatial tone of our cultural, 143 physical, mental, spatial, relational, and 144 discursive or societal relations and aspirations. 145 I am interested in architecture, in its forms and processes and experimentations, which I see as being inextricably linked as well as mutually contingent and deforming.
146 I have, for a while, been interested in what I like to call the “mutually deforming relationships” that exist as a 147 force-field between landscape and architecture. I like to think that I work in this mutually moving field, and that this field 148 opens itself very widely to creative thinking, because, simply, it is RELATIONAL, and is to certain extents, then, vulnerable and explosive. Just like a human relationship.
149 As I said earlier, Landscape is often mistakenly taken for NATURE, and is thus constructed as inimical to architecture. Nature implies something ‘natural’ – untampered with, unconstructed by the seeing eye – innocent, in other words… I will quote James Corner – the English landscape urbanist – who has written that 150 “Landscape is both spatial milieu and cultural image. As such, and as with architecture, “the construction of landscape space is inseparable from particular ways of seeing and acting”.
151 In other words, as we frame the landscape, so it frames us. We are always in active and mutually deforming relationship… Here is the philosopher Nelson Goodman writing in the 60’s in his book the Language of Art: 152 “To a complaint that his portrait of Gertrude Stein did not look like her, Picasso is said to have answered. “No matter, it will”… Goodman continues to say that “… Nature imitates art is too timid a dictum. Nature is a product of art and discourse.”
153 And so I see both Architecture and Landscape dealing most crucially in representation, in artifice, both sets are able to cross all the boundaries between the imaginary/mental and the physical – 154 they are both absolutely involved with ways of seeing… and ways of acting.
155 Architecture and Landscape are two conditions long considered as opposite, and two conditions utterly informing and informed by our very living and seeing. Land is too often regarded merely as ‘passive’ –an available site to be built upon, conquered, covered, 156 or else it is treated as a simple, sometimes beautiful backdrop. Philosophically or otherwise we can no longer afford to conceive of ourselves in our world as stably defined entities in opposition: 157 these previously apparently ‘clear’ states can be seen now, to slide about in a mutually contingent continuum of movement and mutual affect – 158 Now the old oppositions form fantastic fields of mutual deformation and possibility: 159 the play between ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ opens a huge door to thought and architectural potential…
160 So we are part of a fluid quantum universe which has moved philosophy from these fairly static states of ‘being’ to the far more potent movable feast of ‘becoming’. 161 I like to think we act on one another and our domain in powerful and creatively unpredictable force field of mutual becoming and deformation. 162 Really, what we are, in Deleuzian terms, what we are as human beings with imaginative minds, is a dynamic threshold between the 163 virtual and the actual. So you see, as I see it, this thought casts us, most excitingly, into a constantly creative state 164 in a perpetually oscillating field – a field, now, perhaps, of GREEN…
165 Can we find here – in the mutual possibilities of architecture and landscape – an inventive strategy towards the 166 making of robust and inclusive buildings and cities which use energy-consumptive materials, but which use them as instruments 167
towards infrastructural longevity and change and 168 generosity in mind? Can we invent strategies that are able to adapt multiply over time…? 169 Are we able to conceive new spatial distributions of work and play which can radically reconfigure our societies and urban landscapes and start to make sense of what might be termed ‘common purpose’?
170 Are we able to conceive new urban landscapes and new architectures that start to become landscape forming – 171 that start to contribute to mankind’s view of itself, that start to ratchet up the relations between the earth and mankind? 172 To my mind, along with these inventions comes a certain lively experimentation, and a 173 sometimes uncertain set of new imaging techniques…
174 A ‘green’ consciousness is at the forefront of most contemporary architectural production, certainly in its imaging. 175 In their massing, in their conceptual formal agendas, these buildings start to talk of geographies, 176 of weathers, of the texture and form and scale of the land and its inhabiting organisms, 177 of the mathematics of the bio-sphere.. 178 These are projects that are literally ‘landscape-forming’ – they are also often infrastructural.
179 Architecture has always reflected the philosophical and scientific construction of its day – 180 astrophysics and classical constructions of the universe are extremely readable through the architectural canon…181 There may very well be a distance between artistic and ecological approaches,182 however in these images one can start to see the results of a green consciousness conducting research through design. 183 I don’t know if any of the examples I am showing here would 184 base themselves on performance based agendas that go beyond the usual application of systems – 185 but – all these buildings at least APPEAR to form infrastructures, and appear to be conducting research of various kinds. 186 These buildings appear to form Organisms which work across a range of concerns…organisms which physically inform what Mark Swilling has called the ‘social metabolism’..
187 I am most interested in how these buildings might change the mental frames of their users 188 towards a heightened awareness of environment: 189. of how these buildings might exert ‘agency’, in other words… 190 how they might influence attitudes.. and consequently, 191 action in the world.
192 I would point out that most of these buildings I am showing are the result of international competitions – in other words – that this is how innovation is sought from the architectural fraternity globally, and this is how the world grows and changes and renews its imagination. 193 In SA, we get calls for tenders, which are entirely based on a written team make-up, and have no relation to design ability or calls for innovation. The brief is always considered a given.
I believe that architecture, like science or philosophy, should be able to experiment within its field, taking on conceptual problems and interests much larger than itself. 194 Architects are, after all, the specialized operators of the many tools of architecture, all of which add up to an act of translation: not the client, not the developer, not the tender evaluator. Architects are able to offer many and different nuanced visions of an optimistic and vital world which is able not only to shelter and sustain us, but to inspire us… We make our (built) world, after all, and we should be held accountable for the envisioning of that world.
195 Most importantly, I conceive one of architectures’s primary roles to be that of the speculative, experimental and inspirational re-framing of South African society post ‘94. As architecture, landscape and urbanism, are, really, forms of the self-imagination and re-imagination of a PUBLIC, it is this realm that needs the most serious re-
envisioning. It is within the re-imagination of this realm that I believe we find the keys to a ‘green agenda’.
196 And so I will define a ‘green agenda’, then, as a mode of thought that runs the gamut of societal, economic, political, cultural and ecological relations. It should be a MODE OF THOUGHT in which all futures become uncertain – experimental – and quantumly imaginative.
And all the generosities I have spoken of here would apply.