Sustainability: advancement vs. apocalypse

Rem Koolhaas 

Keynote lecture on two strands of thinking in sustainability: advancement vs. apocalypse,

Ecological Urbanism Conference,

I did not assume that anyone in the academic world would ask a practicing architect in the 21st century, given the architecture that we collectively produce, to participate in a conference on ecological urbanism. So, I’m very grateful that you challenge me, but I am also deeply aware that my presentation is defined by this doubt and this condition.

Because you invited me here, we did some research. We looked first at antiquity and realized that 25 years before Christ there was already a profound knowledge about ecology and how people should build to be economical, logical, and beautiful. Vitruvius (1), for instance, was completely aware that the sun would cast shadows at different inclinations depending on the orientation of the site, and that his architecture should address these conditions (2). Since the sun was shining from the south, the hottest parts of Roman baths should also be in the south (3). This knowledge was not limited to individual buildings, but extended to the planning of cities that were effortless and logical, based on engagements with and an understanding of nature.

During the Renaissance, this knowledge was cultivated and further amplified. A century later, the so-called Enlightenment broke out, and with Enlightenment came a formal launch of modernity. What we see is that the Enlightenment had a phenomenal effect on reason, in terms of triggering the apparatus of modernity in a surprisingly short time. Also inscribed in Enlightenment were people like Goethe, who effortlessly combined art and science, and people like Caspar David Friedrich. His paintings show highly sophisticated and cultivated people in search of and interacting with nature in a way that doesn’t show any tension or alienation; the interaction actually seems to work for both sides (4). Perhaps the very final outcome of this highly reasonable streak of our civilization is the nuclear power plant (5).

There is also an entirely different streak in our culture. It is a not a narrative of linear and reasonable progress, but a narrative of disasters and fundamental tensions between nature and mankind. It depicts nature as a kind of punishment of mankind and, occasionally, mankind as a punisher of nature (6, 7). That narrative, however we look at it – religiously or otherwise – is a fundamentally anti-modern one, which insists on apocalyptic expectations. Friedrich symbolizes this feeling in some of his paintings, which generated a series of prophets. Perhaps Malthus was the first one, with his belief that a premature death must visit the human race. Others were Paul Ehrlich in 1968 (8) and James Lovelock (9).

What we have are two completely opposite strains, both with very eloquent and impressive practitioners. Both ideologies read the same phenomena in completely contradictory terms: one as a line of reasonableness and the other as a line of disastrous manipulation and wrongness. The confusion at the current moment is generated by the tension between these two lines. We are not able to disentangle them or understand when one of the traditions speaks and when the other speaks. This polarity is still operating and has been for a long time.

To introduce a slightly more autobiographical moment, when I studied in London in 1968, I was taught in a school where tropical architecture was still on the curriculum. Although I didn’t take it entirely seriously, I was fascinated by its teachers, who taught us an incredible respect for the landscape. They taught us to look at other cities to see how they work, and to look at seemingly completely non-architectural environments. For them, no issue was too humble or lowly. Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry (10) made drawings of open sewers and ways to clean them. That kind of humility in architectural education has practically disappeared.

But it’s not only about humility. They were also interested in the tropics as a special domain, which is now the front line of the tensions and impossibilities that we are confronted with. They looked at these areas in great depth and were able to analyze to what extent this climate required specific architectures and planning. The studies also examined how an architecture could emerge that would actually persist in this climate without the degree of artificiality that we now take for granted. What I find touching in retrospect is not only the earnestness of this discourse, but also the conviction that they had relevant knowledge worth teaching. The equivalent of this kind of knowledge today is rather tenuous in our academies.

They developed a repertoire of measures, avoiding air conditioning and the trappings of typical Western architecture, and created strange prisons of avoidance. They also created an aesthetic that was able to renew modern architecture, which at the same time was running into issues of Puritanism and unpopularity. They not only worked on architecture, but also on cities or villages. I am impressed by the perhaps condescending, but still highly efficient didactic intensity of this kind of effort. Even the simplest words were explained in plausible language. As a student, I cannot say that I embraced this knowledge. But in retrospect, I was being confronted with knowledge that was on the way out because it was in the way of development. That is one of the tragedies.

I have since become increasingly involved in researching Africa and the tropics, and have found examples of engineering for Lagos by an East German firm. They seemed to ruthlessly turn Lagos into a modern metropolis, making everything local disappear. But upon closer inspection, the project coexisted plausibly with expressions of poverty and of social improvisation. Though it appeared completely chaotic, things actually worked extremely well in a process of mutual interdependence. There is a subtlety to this kind of engineering that is not visible at first sight. But if you look over time as the infrastructure decays, you see that it has a certain depth (11).

That depth came not from the capitalist West, but from the Communist world, which influenced Africa in the 1960s and 70s. It was so frugal, so efficient, so methodical and so coherent that it could actually realize complex and subtle entities. In the period between 1965 and 75 there was an incredible ability to take difficult conditions seriously, to take different climates seriously, to take the question of energy use seriously and to try and combine the words “design” and “science”. Unfortunately, 30 years later, these words are further apart than ever before.

This joint entity, design and science, was stimulated and sponsored not only by designers and scientists, but also by free-form intellectuals like Marshal MacLuhan and Ian McHarg, a sociologist who, in Design with Nature, wrote one of the most subtle manifestos on how culture and nature could coexist.

At a reunion on a boat in the Mediterranean in 1965 (12), the anthropologist Margaret Mead and other intellectuals discussed at a very high level of intelligence the issues that we are discussing now. They produced sketches in which, almost as a matter of course, human energy, solar energy, and commercial forms of energy are intertwined and mixed in ways we barely know how to do now. What I find particularly impressive in the handwriting of these sketches is how enforced and urgent it is compared to our current, more smooth and perfect renderings. These sketches show the inevitability of nature and networks operating together.

Perhaps Buckminster Fuller’s contribution to the field was the apotheosis of this combination of nature and network. He did the most with the least, producing on the one hand diagrams of ponderous simplicity. On the other hand, he worked on radical inventories of the world, both of cultural and natural elements, documenting the neck-and-neck race between them in a very forward-looking way. For instance, this group was appalled by the predominance of American consumption. Fuller was able to show, in diagrams produced for a mainstream publication, how the problems of the world could be resolved by switching military resources into other domains (13). This kind of clarity doesn’t exist at this moment at all. It is the absence of this kind of clarity that makes us so desperate for a degree of coherence.

Fuller also made a diagram of energy in the world running in certain kinds of streaks or vents, therefore enhancing the entire efficiency of the system (14). There’s more about it later. Now, if you put everything that’s happening in the late 1960s and early 70s in a cloud or cluster, it seems that there is a very confusing mixture of good and bad. But if you put the events into different zones or categories, a pattern emerges. There are of course many crises, but an explosion of green consciousness as a response to those crises. At the same time, a highly developed and imaginative form of engineering, theorized by Fuller and others, was put into practice: the bridge across the Bosporus, the reversal of a river current to irrigate entire parts of Siberia, the spread of computers, the Concorde, the World Trade Center, and the first international conference about international environmental issues.

Against this backdrop came the first Club of Rome meeting, which talked about the limits of growth (15). It was a reasonable and dramatically illustrated argument about the limits of resources, and showed how in the next hundred years we have to be more careful and more restrained in our consumption. But then the market economy was unleashed in the mid 70s. The market economy had a devastating effect on the knowledge that had been accumulated at this point. This forced the apocalyptic streak of the polarity that I defined at the beginning.

Twenty years later, the Club of Rome is completely open about the fact that “global warming, water shortages, famine and the like, would fit the bill … In searching for a new enemy to unite us.” In the same year, they even suggested that “democracy is no longer well suited for the task ahead” (16, 17). You see a perverse amplification and intensification of the arguments: seemingly rational, but actually on the apocalyptic side.

So, these two tendencies almost merge, or the evidence that they use is the same. But one continues to use the evidence for a rational and reasonable future, such as the application of atomic power. In France, about 80 percent of electricity is generated from nuclear energy. The country in which the Enlightenment began is still the most enlightened nation, in a way, with its energy policy.

Scientists like Freeman Dyson relativize the disaster of CO2 levels, saying that actually they could also, in certain areas, have a positive effect (18). He is, of course, completely vilified for these statements. But this kind of thinking leads perhaps to a school of thought that engineering can finally offer a number of strategies that could help us.

Then there is the apocalyptic streak, which portrays trains powered by coal as a holocaust (19), and which develops more and more extreme scenarios (20, 21). For example the deadline on intervention that the Club of Rome envisioned in its first report has been revised to four years, confronting all of us with a desperate time limit.

We have an energetic crew of people working on the problem, but we doubt their seriousness and whether they have the necessary information at their disposal. Interesting accusations emerge: “White people with blue eyes have caused it”. “America can no longer dictate”. “Western consumption is no longer necessary”. “The dollar has to be abandoned”. What you see is a push back of the American position (22, 23, 24).

Now, what about architecture? I think what the crisis will mean for us is an end to the ¥€$ regime. For those who didn’t recognize it, this is a collection of masterpieces by architects in the last ten years (25). It’s a skyline of icons showing, mercilessly, that an icon may be individually plausible, but that collectively they form an ultimately counterproductive and self-canceling kind of landscape. So that is out.

Unfortunately, the sum total of current architectural knowledge hasn’t grown beyond this opposition. That is where the market economy and the evolution of architectural culture have been extremely irresponsible in letting knowledge simply disappear between the different preoccupations. I still think that architectural dialectics are between buildings like Falling Water and Farnsworth House, and are therefore not deep enough.

We have all of these images of buildings that do not perform correctly, but our answers are not necessarily very deep. I don’t exclude myself from any of these comments, as I hope you realize. Embarrassingly, we have been equating responsibility with literal greening. The boutique of Ann Demeulemeester in Seoul, for example, covered entirely in green (26). Even significant buildings by serious architects, such as the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, for me almost fall into the same category (27). What is very difficult about architecture today is that architects themselves are the main commentators, using a language that is either outrageously innocent or deeply calculated – probably both – but in a shocking way. If you read the criticism in the New York Times by Nicolai Ouroussoff, the architect’s commentary seems to work very well, because Ouroussoff is extremely happy with this building. A question that doesn’t seem to be asked is: is it all so necessary? And, do we need more aquariums? We have a kind of Parthenon with a planetarium, a piazza, and a rainforest. I would politely submit that it is not a Parthenon. In Abu Dhabi, Foster makes a much more serious effort with his zero-carbon city, Masdar, which will have no cars and will be carbon neutral by using technologies that are still to be revealed.

I didn’t really want to talk about our own work, but there is one project that resonates with the material here. It also indicates the direction in which I think we need to move: we need to step out of this amalgamation of good intentions and branding in a political direction and a direction of engineering. We are working on an analysis of what Europe could do with power harvested from the North Sea. Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Holland, Belgium and England all have large territories on the North Sea (28). We have divided them into sections, which means that Holland could be conceived as having a new shape, extending into the North Sea.

The project imagines that wind energy could be combined, and that supply and demand could be regulated (29). A single ring of integrated wind turbines would not only generate energy, but would also have additional benefits like the reuse of some of the redundant oil-extraction apparatus, and potentially even generate its own tourism. A single ring could generate more energy than the Middle East currently produces each year (30). Looking even further, there would be a potential North-South connection to try to exploit the specific potentials in each area: wind, tidal, and solar. All these sources of energy can be mobilized into a single European grid (31). It’s simply through the combination of politics and engineering that this needs to be addressed.

In working on this material, I discovered that what we are doing is inadvertently exactly what Fuller proposed when he looked at the map forty years ago (32).

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