TCS Daily

Gimme Shelter

By Austin Williams - June 2, 2003 12:00 AM

Several years ago, Martin Valatin, representing the (non-Orwellian) organization Architects for Peace and Social Responsibility, wrote glowingly about the Mathare squatter settlement in Kenya - a place where 400,000 human beings were forced to live in an abandoned quarry. "In spite of the crime, drugs and unsanitary congestion there's a spatial richness in places like Mathare," he said, "and a dynamic attitude to shelter which, to those used to a more product-oriented building industry, can seem quite refreshing."

To the more crude architectural commentators, like Valatin, not even malnutrition and disease shatter the romance of the simple life, especially since the United Nations Habitat Declaration, the formal document on global strategies for human habitation, concludes that "those living in poverty are, in fact, rich in innovative faculties". Some might say that it's incredible what people can do with a tarpaulin and a sheet of cardboard, but relativizing the issue of underdevelopment has had serious consequences for the Developed World.

Redefining 'progress' and 'development' into a value judgment goes back a long way. In the same year that Gro Harlem Brundtland was coining the phrase 'sustainable development', the 1989 Caracas Report on Alternative Development Indicators suggested that "if governments of the South can create a consensus amongst themselves around lists of indicators (such as 'net forest destruction', 'extinction of species', 'secondary school enrollment' ratios, etc) which are ways of measuring social development and environmental quality and sustainability, they will be creating something which can rival orthodox ways of measuring 'progress', such as growth in GNP." This erstwhile academic debate has now become the accepted wisdom.

Jean Nouvel, recent winner of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) Gold Medal, notes that on "the other side of the glorification of Western 'progress' ... it is possible to use local resources (wind, sun, ocean) before it is attempted ... to offer development help with exorbitantly expensive infrastructure systems of Western buildings and ways of thinking." Nouvel's comments represent more than the simple fact that it is cheaper to build with local materials; he offers under-development as a lifestyle opportunity.

Nowadays, the noble savages' "dynamic attitude to shelter" and their admirable ability to deal without the fripperies of modern life, never fails to impress the Western chattering classes who seem increasingly to believe themselves to be worse off - corrupted by their own materialism.

Such is the current level of self-doubt in the West, that architects, traditionally renowned for making bold statements, are now marketing themselves on how small an impact they can make on the world.

Aros Architects, currently building an €80 million hollow statue of Buddha on a 16-hectare site in northern India, to house monastic quarters, offices and ancillary accommodation, etc., opt for the self-sufficiency model. At a height of 152 meters - half as tall again as the Statue of Liberty - the bronze edifice will contain internal spaces of cathedral-like proportions. However, even with such a magnificent feat of engineering, the designers pride themselves on the fact that it will have zero-impact on the environment. Thus, instead of using the opportunity of this mega-project to kick-start a decent infrastructure provision in an undeveloped region of India - potable water will actually be stored in internal aquifers, solar panels will provide electricity to service its own needs, and waste will be treated on-site. Thus anti-social self-sufficiency effectively pulls up the drawbridge on universal provision.

Minimizing one's impact on the environment has replaced the traditional architectural aspiration to make a maximum impression. Indeed, it comes to something when double Stirling Award-winning architect Chris Wilkinson pontificates that "it is a pity that many of our man-made structures are so heavy and monumental. I prefer the aboriginal concept of treading lightly on the earth."

Ken Yeang and Bill Dunster similarly laud the environmental credentials of eco-towers for their small footprint. They also admire their high density, natural ventilation, solar panels and CO2-guzzling trees at various storey heights. So convincing is this new breed of high-rise buildings that pride themselves on how small they are (in environmental terms), that even arch-anti-development guru Herbert Girardet hints that skyscrapers are the best way to have minimal impact on the environment.

US architect HOK's 355,000-square-meter Daewoo Tower design celebrates its so-called minimal impact by using gravel and reed bed waste treatment instead of the new-fangled mains sewage system. Its minimal impact is slightly upset by the fact that its natural waste treatment sterilizes a large portion of the 8-hectare site (which in the old days used to be called 'pollution'). But here we see the logical consequence of sustainable architecture offering a parochial vision of the future. That parochialism - masquerading as a critique of big infrastructure and corporate technology - often manifests itself as making do with less. Lowering our horizons. And the poor of the Third World can definitely show us a thing or two about that.

In my view, architects should stop celebrating - and lauding - the natural environment. Whether that means 'building big' is for individual architects and related professions to decide. But at the very least they should start thinking big again - challenging social, infrastructural and environmental constraints rather than accepting them as sacrosanct natural boundaries. As long as architects justify their projects as having nominal impact on the urban or natural environment, even tall buildings will be no challenge to small thinking.

Austin Williams is the Technical Editor of the Architects' Journal.

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