When humans started creating what we call “architecture”—standing buildings made for a purpose—their motivation was simple. They were not stuck with problems of aesthetics or design. They created structures for their own protection from the elements.
Over time, these spaces came to hold meaning for us, and we desired to make them more permanent. As we began to form societies and changed from nomadic hunter-gatherers to farmers and eventually expanded to citizens of cities, our architecture became more constructed, invasive. Architecture began to allow mortals to leave an indelible mark upon the earth: the Egyptians and their pyramids, the Greeks and their temples, and the Gothic artists and their cathedrals. There are structures that have lasted thousands of years—and will stand for thousands more.
I don’t want this post to simply be a history lesson. But to understand where architecture is going and what it needs to do, we have to see what it has done.
Today, while we have almost infinite technological advances at our fingertips, many architects are not changing the real substance of architecture. We’ve been using the same construction methods for over 100 years. While many say that they advocate sustainability, they are not doing enough to innovate their field.
I think that Werner Sobek would agree with me. I had the privilege of seeing Sobek speak at Penn about 2 years ago, and he discussed several of his sustainable projects. He has started a program that he calls Triple Zero, which translates to zeros in each of the most important parts of a building: energy, emission, and waste. Each building (6 to date, all residences) can support itself by creating its own energy, uses materials and construction methods that do not create negative emissions, does not create any waste in construction, and if it’s demolished, can be completely recycled.
This is a relatively radical concept in the field of architecture: creating a building that has virtually no footprint during and after its use.
Others are starting to understand this concept on a larger scale. I just read a review of an exhibit at the MoMA that is a collection of proposals for how the city of New York will deal with the rising water levels in the next century. They foresee a city that has replaced much of its permanent infrastructure with new materials and formats, creating an environment that is largely permeable.
Some designers are now seeing that in order to be more sustainable, we need to be more harmonious with nature. This seems obvious, but there are many cues that we can take from the design of natural things in order to improve the performance of our buildings and environments. If you do the Google search for “biomimicry architecture“, you’ll be surprised at how much comes up. As of yet, it’s mostly an academic and theoretical ideal, but I think that this is where architecture will end up going in the next 50 years.
While the changes that we’re making now are helping us little-by-little to decrease our impact on the Earth, we have to radically shift our modes of thought on how we design and construct our built environment. It’s not enough to merely use thin veneers of sustainable materials. We must rethink the entire precedent of planning, architecture, and design that has gone before us for thousands of years. This is not an easy task, yet we are very capable. We just need to be willing.