Architecture in the Ecological Age - a reflection on 1989

          The 1989 essay that follows this reflection predates the Earth Summit (Rio Summit) by 3 years. The sentiment in the essay on ecological breakdown and notes on possible solution was typical of those sensing disaster. The tone mirrors the scolding, pleading, didactic that is of the same vein of ‘Vers une Architecture’. On reflection the essay is, if not anything heraldic.

          Since 1992, with UN sponsored worldwide conferences on the environment (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change), global awareness on the critical nature of the situation have arrived. However, when one dwells on the 22 years that had passed with a total of 15 COPs (Conferences of the parties) hope is transformed into deep scepticism. The most recent failure in 2009 of the Copenhagen Conference (COP 15) where the key polluting nations staged a de facto ‘pull out’, any sensible discussion to reach substantive implementation of the terms in the Kyoto Protocol 1997 seems at risk. The USA to date had yet to ratify the protocol after 14 years.

          The emphasis of the conferences on climate change and greenhouse gas emissions is also a source of concern. It reflects as lack of appreciation of a greater ecological balance. The concerns of in 1989 with regards to a limited interpretation of the environment seem to persist. Continuing globalisation of the world economy creates a situation where capital and price mechanisms conspire to create patently absurd situations. Chickens bred in Brazil are flown into Singapore at prices that are still ‘affordable’. Can the ecology ‘afford’ this?

          In many ways the COP effort had also created a new kind of ‘green’ business; trading ‘green’ goods. This new business is in fact burgeoning and much money is being made from green certification to green substitution of products. Consumption is not targeted as an ill. In fact it seems ‘green’ consumption becomes an acceptable consumption. This strategy is purely palliative. The very high human population and consumption which is the underlying source of all ecological imbalances is not addressed. The use of price mechanisms like ‘carbon tax’ only propels more money to pay for consumption. It feeds into the necessity of the growth driven world economy.

          In architecture and planning, green and sustainability become a rising mantra and had driven the agenda to an unexpected direction. Instead of a planned decentralisation and de-intensification of human activity or the search for a truly Architecture of the Ecological age, the last 2 decades sees the arrival of the Mega Global City. Capital rich cities of 10 million and beyond in population vie with one another for position. There is even an acceptance that this form of human settlement as inevitably and dominant. In a twisted way it is argued that it is ecological as it avoids the settlement of rural space. What is forgotten is that it is precisely the disengagement of human populations from nature into cities that causes us to have a truncated sense of the ecology. The ecology does not stop at the city borders but extend to the next megalopolis and so one until it girdles the globe. That the politics of the Global Mega Cities promotes global growth based on consumption and the large scale transport of goods, humans and services worldwide seem to be conveniently overlooked. No city will consider it a triumph when they actually grow negatively. Extensive effort in sustainable research today is centred on shoring up the arguments for the Global Mega City. The ingenuity of design and research is now slaved to the promotion of the Sustainable Global Mega City.

The issues of 1989 seem mild on reflection.