By Albert Dijk
Nowadays, sustainability is seen as something extra, as an upgrade of the design. This situation differs from the way it used to be. Within history we can see an integral approach for a design which is sustainable. This change is applicable on a lifestyle. In former days the relation to nature was an element that was included within the design. It was not seen as something extra but an irreplaceable element of architecture. The role of the designer should change from someone that is judging only from the point of view of aesthetics toward a role in were the sustainable elements of a building are dealt with first hand and integral with the design. Not a temporal addition when sustainability is a hot item.
Vitruvius started with making a list of criteria for judging the quality of a building. Not with rules for a building. The result can elevate a building into architecture. Therefore it makes a difference between a building manual and architecture and raises architecture to the level of all the other human activities that are regarded as aesthetic – such as poetry, music, and painting. This relationship, especially with painting, is what I am interested in. Paintings always, and profoundly in the renaissance, had a documenting element. It shows how people lived in a certain era and helps us to paint a picture of that time These paintings also show how people were thinking. In a lecture during a seminar Ecological Urbanism in the GSD Harvard Rem Koolhaas is emphasizing on this relationship. He is referring to the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich. In here you see how people are living in harmony with nature. The way of living is different from the way we are living now. It is this fundamental difference that is now causing all the commotion in relation to sustainable design.
Vitruvius used six criteria for the judgment of a building but they are all coming forth out of the relation a building has to nature. ‘He recognized from the outset that there were different responses to the need for shelter, some people piling up leafy branches, others digging caves, and still others using logs.’ All buildings, or huts, or caves, or in whatever way they may be defined, started with the intention for shelter. A protection against the elements. The orders, which were an important part of his interpretation of quality, have originated in nature. ‘He drew a parallel between the elaborate system of proportions inherent in the orders and the natural proportions of the human body.’  He did not only look at the relation between building and nature, but the use of the buildings was for nature; human.
When the renaissance was there, Vitruvius’ book was the reference for how to create architecture. But his book was rewritten several times. Alberti gives us new criteria’s that are updated to the zeitgeist of is era. But what we see is that nature is still the base for architecture. He uses four questions of which one is: ‘How good are the qualities determined by nature? – comprises all the external factors: “weight, lightness, density, purity, durability, etc.”’ This way of thinking about the relation with nature can be found all over in this era. Characteristic for this can be the famous figure of Laugier. In 1755 he draws the following image.
Where and why is this role of the architect changed? The role of the architect became smaller. The architect became the one that was concerned with a building manual. Not with architecture. In that sense architecture lost its dept. During the industrialisation the relation between nature and architecture was fainting. We see that money is determining the architecture, a decisive event. The homes are not a shelter and related to the surrounding but a mean to shelter as much persons as possible for low costs near the factory. The building manual was invented. Even catalogues with rooms were available. The element that elevated buildings into architecture was lost. Functionality replaced nature and therefore the role of the architect.
On the other hand, there is still a relation with nature as such. Corbusier developed a system, Le Modulor, for the human scale of architecture which relates back to the way Vitruvius saw it. The natural proportions of the human body are the starting point. Also Charles Jencks identifies a movement which states that architecture should reflect certain ordening principles found throughout nature. This way of thinking is, according to Jencks, called the Metaphysical School of architecture. In 1960 most idealist architects held the belief that a form can grow almost naturally out of primary structural elements and this can provide the ordening device for a whole building. A good example for this way of thinking is the Palazetto dello Sport of Pier Luigi Nervi. But it is highly focussed on the structural part of a building and is not integrated with the overall way of dealing with architecture. Jorn Utzon, also placed in this movement, has developed a way how to deal with this organic growth. He calls this additive architecture. All buildings should, like plants do, consist out of elements that can form any structure. “Such a real Additional-principle guides to a new form of architecture, to a new architectural expression, which (…) could have the same attributes and effects similar to trees in the forest, animals in groups, stones on a beach…”
We may say that it has not been completely abolished, but the major part of the architects does not relate anything to nature. The role of an architect limits itself till building. But now this role is changing again. We can see a tendency for reviving architecture and nature.
Return to the state of nature. Lieven de Cauter and Rudi Laermans are pleading for the state of nature. They describe a state in where everyone lived peacefully. The best definition is perhaps offered by Rousseau. ‘Let us conclude that wondering in the forests, without industry, without speech, without shelter, without war, without ties, with no need of his fellow men, nor any desire to harm them, perhaps without ever recognizing anyone individually, savage man self sufficient and subject to few passion, had only the sentiments and knowledge appropriate to that state.’  This free way of living was before society. Society brought on rules and judgement and formed a collective. All terms which were not there in the definition of Rousseau. But now we see that this state has returned and that there are only individuals. They indicate three states of nature: anthropological, political, and environmental. Of course the last one is where my interest lies. A state of the return of nature and the new war against humanity itself (and of everyone against everyone for survival) or the coupling of man to environmental resources and conditions. We are more concerned with this relation with nature. In my opinion they do not describe accurately when this state of nature was lost and why so, but they do indicate a movement which is concerned with the relation between men and nature.
This is noticeable in the temporal movements we now see. But they are all going along with a trend. Like I mentioned above, there is a fundamental difference in the role of sustainability. According to Lefebvre, we are now living in the urban society, so there is a different relation between architecture and nature. First of all this word is invented, next to durability. It seems we have something new; otherwise there would be no need for a new word. But this definition of the word sustainability is not easy to define. Sustainable development is ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’ This quote out of the famous Brundtland-report indicates that the way we are living now does not guarantee the same conditions for our future generations. So as a designer we have to come up with solutions that reduce our impact on nature. Instead of creating a synergy between architecture and nature, we see that nature has to be protected. Our relation with nature as such has changed drastically.
The awareness is finally rising to take nature into account. But still we are dealing in the same way with nature as Vitruvius already described it. We are not doing something ‘new’ as the word sustainability would imply. For instance cradle 2 cradle is trying to create awareness of the materials used in a building. But Vitruvius already defined that economy is the quality of proper management of materials and the site with regard to both cost and good judgment. The way hunters used all elements of a kill. The flesh, the bones, and the skin all were useful. There is no waste. It was a change in society that made it possible to be selective. That allowed us to create waste. The harmony found in the paintings of Friedrich is not there anymore.
Now, we are witnessing several solutions to make the definition of Brundtland possible. But they all are about a singular aspect of sustainability: flexibility, durability, temporality, materials, transport, etc. They do not tend to find an integrated design solution. The diagram below illustrates how designers are thinking about sustainability. It is separated from the conditions for a living. The conditions mentioned, liveability, safety, comfort and money are in a separated box and are much closer to here and now than sustainability. I have explained that we moved away from an integral approach. The arrow in the diagram indicates that we should place sustainability much closer to what is happening now and here. But I think we have to take it a step further. The diagram has two circles, but in my opinion this should be one. Then we can say that sustainability has become a part of our social understanding and thus will automatically be a part of buildings. For sustainability cannot be reached with buildings only. It has to be part of society.
The way of how contemporary buildings are developed is partly the cause of the unsustainable approach. A developer, like in its name, is only the developer of a building. When it is developed, he will have made a profit and the building does not belong to him anymore. He is not interested in the costs of use, but only in this short time span to make a profit. For him, sustainability therefore becomes an additional cost and will degrade his profits. But when the total costs of exploitation and demolition are weighted when the building is erected, we will see that using these sustainable measures increase profits. And this integral approach will benefit. We have to keep in mind that it is not only the architects or designers that have to change its role, but like I have mentioned a change in society.
But we are back on the way of establishing the relation between architecture and nature again. We will have to. The awareness for the need of sustainability is rising throughout society. The role of the architect and the designer is perhaps not that creative and innovative as is apposed, but if we return to the state of nature we should look more into what has already been done in earlier stages of the nature state. The role of the designer is one of continuously convincing the importance of sustainability. But not presenting it as something extra. From the start sustainability should be integrated and the design should not be possible without.
1. Hearn, F, Ideas that shaped buildings, 2003, The MIT press, Massachusetts, p.39
2. Rem Koolhaas and Homi Bhabha in conversation, Ecological Urbanism, 3 April 2009, GSD Harvard
3. Hearn, F, Ideas that shaped buildings, 2003, The MIT press, Massachusetts, p.46
4. Hearn, F, Ideas that shaped buildings, 2003, The MIT press, Massachusetts, p.47
5. Charles Jencks, Modern movements in architecture, p. 43
6. Jørn Utzon, Pustet, 1999, p. 12
7. Rousseau, J, Discourse sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inegalite.
8. Our common future, 1987
9. Hearn, F, Ideas that shaped buildings, 2003, The MIT press, Massachusetts, p.41
© 2013 Buro A.D.