Sunday, 21 March 2010

Is Sustainability the new grand narrative for architecture?


When answering this question we must first ask, what is sustainability? and, what is the grand narrative? By addressing the former, I will attempt to clarify sustainability's meaning in today's world and in addressing the latter, I hope to understand how previous grand narratives have come to be and in doing so understand sustainability's role as a possible successor to previous narratives. Sustainability in architecture is a widely used term but if we can better understand what it really means, its role in today's and tomorrows architecture will be clearer.


As one of the most popular terms used in describing new architecture it is a very difficult word to obtain a definition for. In 1987 the United Nations commission on Environment and Development produced a document called Our Common Future in which sustainable development was described as “development that meets the needs of current generations without jeopardising the needs of future generations” (1). If we apply this to architecture the meaning of the word sustainable assumes that through unsustainable design of buildings we will eventually run out of materials/ effect the climate in a bad way and make it harder for future generations to design and build buildings. This does still seem quite open to debate and has been since it was published. It was further cemented into the theory of global policy making in Rio in 1992 at The Earth Summit. They produced 27 principals, one of which stated: 'the right to develop must be fulfilled so as to equitably meet developmental and environmental needs of present and future generations'. (2) I say theory because the practice of such development is rare. Most development since 1992 has been based on economics and an old fashioned insatiable desire to continue to grow. Instead of real influence on a global scale the UN seemed to have achieved an outlining of a way of life that was agreeably sustainable but unrealistic in our current economic setup. 2002 saw the World Earth Summit in Johannesburg once again outline the idea of sustainable development but by now the summit had attracted many critics with the USA not attending. Another summit is set for 2012 but even the UN appear prone to greenwashing at this stage. As far as an understanding of what sustainable development means it has achieved some success.

If we look to the meaning of the word Sustainability it simply means to endure or an ability to be maintained or preserved at a certain rate or level. Architecture has achieved this many times over in the past. We simply have to look around us to see buildings from hundreds of years ago. Their ability to endure has had little to do with green technologies or energy efficiency but rather an enduring importance to us as a people. Should this not be of equal consideration when designing? Environmentalism has turned sustainability into something new. Something with a broader meaning. It suggests a more holistic approach. In architecture, green design has taken up the challenge of meeting the needs of sustainability through the implementation of a set of guidelines and rules.

In the UK and Ireland BREEAM and BER are such systems. In the US the LEED system is used. They are the standard in measuring a buildings energy efficiency, one of the aspects of a buildings sustainability yet BREEAM themselves call their method " the standard for best practice in sustainable design" (3) In Ireland the BER is issued by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland. The LEED system avoids calling itself a measurement in sustainability but claims to measure "green design" (4). This association with sustainability has given way to a widespread acceptance that such systems are the only tangible indicator of a buildings sustainability. This has in turn led to architecture striving to achieve a high rating while sometimes neglecting many other aspects of sustainability. Like any other factor of designing it can become damaging to the overall outcome if it becomes an overriding factor in the design process. A building focusing on achieving a good BREEAM or LEED will suffer the same fate as a building whose overriding factor is trying to look modernist or striving to fit into the zeitgeist. It is unsustainable. LEED has awarded 'platinum' awards to car show rooms, car parks and even airports. I appreciate the buildings desire to use less energy but to assume that is all there is sustainability is questionable. The ratings themselves leave a lot to be desired too. They all work on a points system. Tick certain boxes and your rating gets higher but many of the requirements are projections based on the assumption that a building will be maintained in a particular way. What is to stop a design firm filling in energy savings light bulbs on the BER application form? Who can tell what will be used 5 years down the line? The whole idea of setting out a way of measuring sustainability has led to an over reliance on the system. The responsibility lies with us all. Do we really need another car show room or airport in our town? Ideally, our planning authorities would implement more stringent rules on what can or can not be built but in a capitalist system this becomes impossible. If we don’t build it someone else will. The same is evident in our building regulations. In Ireland, the Department of Environment were forced to issue minimum requirements for room sizes in apartments to counter the box apartments that were being built during the boom. As soon as they were issued these minimum requirements became the standard size of a bedroom in a new apartment. One could walk into any new apartment and feel like they were standing in a carbon copy of their own. Architecture is a client-services industry just like any other. Will an architect turn down a job if the developer does not like his sustainable approach? Will the developer sacrifice 10% of his budget when he can save that money and use an unsustainable method? Not in today's system. There are exceptions but on a scale large enough to effect our climate they are negligible.

They tell a story of a man who asked a socially conscious friend:

"If you had two houses what would you do with them?"
"Keep one and give the other to the state", the friend replied.
"If you had two cows what would you do with them?" the first man asked.
"Keep one and give the other one to the state" the friend replied.
"If you had two chickens, what would you do with them?"
"Keep them both" the friend replied.
"Why?" the first man asked.
"Because I have two chickens", the friend replied.

Varinda Tarzie Vittachi
Executive Secretary
World Population Year, 1974 (5)

Sustainability or sustainable architecture has developed its own meaning and application. It's true meaning is rooted in our very survival but its application is diluted by the constraints of our current global economic system. This has led to an effort to transfer responsibility to the proletariat as the powers that be have failed to agree on a common response. See Copenhagen Climate Conference.This has had a damaging effect. Sustainable design has become associated with making sacrifices. If the government of a country asks its people to turn down their thermostat to be more 'sustainable' the population automatically associates sustainability with a lack of comfort. It is obvious that architecture has a huge responsibility to respond to this but how? There seems to be a very simplistic approach emerging. Take green roofs for example. Of course they have their merits both sustainably and aesthetically but does anyone really believe making a building green, literally, is the answer to sustainable design? Is that an example of an emerging architectural language? A grand narrative?

The grand narrative

With the establishment of postmodernism and its ideas about how knowledge is shared, the rejection of the grand narrative meant architecture has fragmented into many smaller narratives. Jean-Francois Lyotard coined the phrase meta-narrative in his work: The Postmodern Condition. He simplifies the idea of postmodernism into the idea that we do not believe in grand narratives anymore. (6)
In architecture this is evident in the abundance of recent movements or styles that do not relate to each other. It could be argued that the grand narrative is dead and it has been since the end of the modernist movement. Even modernism as a movement is hard to define. It contains many other narratives like structuralism, brutalism, minimalism and the international style but all are related to each other in some way. This relationship between the styles has become unclear and fragmented. Is this what Lyotard meant when he described our "incredulity towards meta-narraties" ? If so a look back at the causes of previous grand narratives may indicate whether sustainability can be the common goal that unites newer movements in architecture or even become a style in itself.

The modernist movement, was a reaction to a changing political and social landscape using the victorian era as a tide to kick against. In architecture this is evident in the return to simpler less ornate forms. It also utilised new building technologies and materials. The idea that form follows function suggest a search for meaning or reason in design in the materials and functions themselves. Not in the traditional or historical forms. As if architecture and in a broader sense art wanted to start again. This is a rejection of what has come before. A realisation that the world is more complex than the current holders of power realise. Could that be a main ingredient in the establishment of a new grand narrative?

The style or narrative preceding modernism is a collection of styles evolved from a collection of neo-classical or revivalist styles. They were partly a reaction to the surviving baroque and rococco styles but also an attempt to rekindle the purity and solidity of ancient architecture. This coincided with huge unrest and war all over Europe. Was this architectural grand narrative an attempt to restore some idea of power and a common goal to the masses?

If we go even further back the architectural grand narratives become harder to define and are easier to understand as a period of time as opposed to a grand narrative. Baroque from Rennaisance from gothic from Romanesque etc. If we can take any one common theme from the birth and evolution of past grand narratives it is that they usually coincide with great social change. Each time a new grand narrative emerges it is the result of a reasessment of values or goals as a people or a way of tackling large problems. Can the same be said of Sustainability?


Architecture has always been a reflection of society. Like any art it reacts and reinvents itself within its social/ political/ economic context. I believe our craving for a grand narrative within a postmodern capitalist system has led to a slight misunderstanding of Sustainability. It is not just about energy efficiency. It is much more complex than that. It is clear from our continued failings that the current approach is not working. If we are to continue down this road a much more rigorous approach to rating Sustainability needs to be established before Sustainability can be applied across the board and become a meaningful grand narrative. This approach seems forceful and does not fit in with the usual emergence of a narrative. It has to be something we all agree on from which we develop an approach as a people. There are trends emerging but I wonder how honest they really are. Previous grand narratives have coincided with great social changes and have usually had a common problem or broken system to kick against. This is where Sustainability occupies a strong position in its possible emergence as a true grand narrative. I wonder if the 2008 financial crash will provide a platform for new thinking and a fresh approach. I worry a harsher fall may be needed. Until then we will continue to occupy a kind of green limbo. I hope the current version of Sustainable architecture does not become an acceptable nod to our problems and establishes itself as a common style. Maybe a return to modernist thinking is the solution. Marshall Berman described modernism as a collection of visions, ideas and values. He writes “These world-historical process have nourished an amazing variety of visions and ideas that aim to make men and women the subjects as well as the objects of modernization, to give them the power to change the world that is changing them, to make their way through the maelstrom and make it their own.” (7)

5. environmentalism, T O'Riordan, 1981, Pion Limited.

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