By Peter Droege
7 November 2011– From his forthcoming book chapter
Droege, P. (2011). Beyond Sustainability: Architecture in the Renewable City. In Crysler, C. Greig, Stephen Cairns and Hilde Heynen. Eds. Sage
Handbook of Architectural Theory. Thousand Oaks, CA and London: Sage Publications. www.renewablecity.org
New concepts enter architecture, landscape and urban design. Mitigation, adaptation, zero-emissions, climate protection, low carbon, carbon neutral or post-fossil design are to resuscitate meaning in that worn word, sustainability.
Even terms borrowed from psychology are rallied to the battle: resilience denotes the presumed ability to brave the adversities of climate change, energy and economic risks.
The deluge of words belies the fact that comprehension and action lag behind the pace of climate change. Atmospheric Carbon dioxide concentrations exceed safe levels by more than one third (Schellnhuber 2009, Hansen et al. 2008).
To refer to this enormous problem as a “sustainability challenge” is to marginalise, even trivialise. Naked survival is at stake. Were serious activity to suddenly break out at a large scale, much of the environmental, social and economic costs of the fossil and nuclear energy regime could be limited.
And by all indications, employment generation and wealth creation could be boosted across the socioeconomic spectrum.
What holds sustainability back?
A lack of focus is missing, for one. Many sustainability programs, like emission trading, are aimed at proximate forces rather than root causes. Statements like “one of the biggest challenges facing us today [is] rapid urbanisation” (UCL 2009) are typical remnants of 20th Century discourse: rapid urbanisation can surely be a problem but nothing like its trigger: the world of cheap and abundant fossil fuels.
Seen in this light, 20th century architecture manifests the great fossil fuel age. It is one of the central cultural landmarks of the machine age’s great natural resource extraction drive.
The inexorable decline in non-renewable resource production capacity, too, casts a stark new light on architecture’s role, and that of the building industry architecture it stands for.
Yet despite or perhaps because of their overwhelming presence, the fundamental role fossil fuels play in the manufacture of our spatial and cultural world is not well understood.
The cultural imprint left by the century-long firestorm of a worldwide carbon fuel combustion wave is deeply ingrained in cognitive and behavioural patterns.
Vested industry interests, perennially focused on short-term profits prevail. As a consequence, while it is scientifically not difficult to grasp that a bold transformation of the global energy regime is needed and possible, there is still a painful level of resistance to change.
This is manifest in the language deployed, often in lieu of action. Sustainability is a bruised and feeble term, twisted in “triplebottom- line” and other open-ended interpretations.
This includes the circular definition famously placed into circulation by Gro Harlem Brundtland, former Norwegian Prime Minister.
The final report “Our Common Future”, released by the World Commission on Environment and Development she chaired from its inception in 1983 until its conclusion in 1987, states: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.(WCED 1987).
The smooth twoliner quickly conquered the world – without clarifying how one could determine what future generations‘ needs might possibly entail.
In the ensuing fog, all and sundry became “sustainable”. It was generally ignored that the word has a precise meaning: in order to be truly sustainable, actions or processes cannot be based on non-renewable resource flows and use patterns.
Sustainable growth while coal power prevails, or ‘‘sustainable use of fossil fuels’‘ are paradoxical propositions, each a textbook oxymoron.
Yet this focused understanding existed throughout history, such as in early industrialising development in Europe. During the 17th and 18th centuries it had become clear that the excessive felling of trees for thermal energy production, agriculture expansion, early mining structures and fleet construction had emerged as a profound challenge of sustainability.
It had resulted in widespread deforestation across the continent until the rise of coal – then regarded as a limitless and benign resource – ironically made it practical to issue calls for sustainable forestry, for example those made by Saxony court official Hans Carl von Carlowitz (1645–1714) in his Sylvicultura oeconomica (von Carlowitz  2000).
In charge of Saxon mines, von Carlowitz also oversaw the management of forests, source of timber for construction and energy for expansive silver extraction operations.
These were the base of the political ambitions, societal opulence and architectural grandeur projected by Augustus II the Strong, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland (1670–1733). Von Carlowitz‘ tree-management program had been informed by Jean-Baptiste Colbert’‘s (1619–1683) Grande rêformation de forêts, the 1669 Grande ordonnance to protect France’‘s forestry reserves advanced by the country’s powerful contrôleur général – finance minister.
It was intended to ensure that a sustainable stream of timber was maintained for Louis XIV‘s epic shipbuilding campaign. Founded on such kindred concepts, von Carlowitz documented a comprehensive strategy of planting and management also bringing back to life knowledge lost during the Thirty Years War (1618–1648).
Sustainability was a clearer vision in these seemingly simpler times. It needs to be regained, if we are to move beyond the misty myths of sustainability that fog urban and architectural design discourse today.
Energy and urban civilisation in the 21st Century Human civilization has come to be seen as predominantly urban: the end of the 20th Century is often celebrated as an Age of Cities.
Since 2007, United Nations population statistics have allocated more than half of the world’s population to urbanised areas.
This is taken as an indication of a planetary destiny – even if much of present growth occurs in the impoverished megacity slums throughout the structurally adjusted developing world (Davis 2006).
Urban centres emerged as the engines of the global economy: much of urban literature lionized cities as drivers of prosperity and home of the creative classes, even when highlighting the great equity gaps emerging (Droege 2006 references Florida 2002; Castells 2000; Hall 1977; 1998; Sassen 2000 ; 1991; Mazza 1988; Jacobs 1985; Friedmann and Wulff 1976).
A worldwide urban marketing drive resulted in the process, yet little effort is devoted to understanding the most potent yet fleeting growth driver: cheap and abundant fossil fuel.
Among the most successful and articulate of urban analyses of the 1990s, Saskia Sassen’s influential editions of Cities in a World Economy (Sassen 2000 ) managed to describe the global urban system without reference to the underlying fossil energy economy, the very engine that also structures and propels the global financial industry, focus of her The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo (Sassen 1991).
Sassen‘s work is not alone in exhibiting this deep cognitive break; it runs through the entire literature genre. It is akin to the gap between shadow and reality in Aristotle’s Allegory of the Cave: the financial world and urban socio-economic structures represent what the shackled prisoners read in shadows before them on that cave wall, while the great fossil fuel frenzy powering it represents what was carried behind them, casting shadows.
Financial activity is the ‘‘froth on the churning, petroleum-rich global resource consumption and value-adding streams’‘ (Droege 2006).
It is associated with power, connoting both heroism and grand villainy.
Many leading architects make their living stage managing this reality, like Rem Koolhaas ‘‘surfing’‘ the froth in unapologetic ways.
Great structures of the recent past come to mind, from New York‘s Rockefeller Plaza to Kuala Lumpur‘s Petronas Tower, from the entire Pudong skyline in Shanghai on to Beijing‘s CCTV headquarter, and, as pièce de résistance, Dubai’s waterfront, most memorable mirage of a fading age.
Other examples of late 20th Century urban literature are equally reluctant to focus on root forces of the contemporary explosion in urban growth. Peter Hall’s grand work on Western urban history, Cities in Civilisation (Hall 1998), describes the electrification of Berlin as powering its cultural ascent early in the 20th Century, yet, too, misses the grand narrative of fossil fuel’s profound impact on the rise of modern cities and contemporary urbanism. Kevin Lynch’s posthumous release, Wasting Away (Lynch 1990), took a long look at refuse and discarding in nature and human civilization. Yet modern waste belching fossil energy systems figured in it secondarily if at all, let alone the wasteful and risky nuclear fuel cycles and their enormous costs.
This omission is surprising because of his personal misgivings, the rising expressions of anxiety throughout society, and since one of his mentors, Lewis Mumford, had focused on that very nexus so clearly (Mumford 1961). Indeed, Lynch himself had not felt that the book had been ready for publication. Others positioned along the more to less critical spectrum of a recent literature stream – from Manuel Castells, Edward Soja and Aihwa Ong to Katharyne Mitchell and Kris Olds – stayed clear of energy aspects, despite or perhaps precisely because of overwhelming role in shaping social and cultural realities and the very organization of globalizing metropolitan systems.
Mike Davis‘ acidic insights, too, ignored the smoking gun of fossil fuel dependence, even if his focus did scan nearby territory. In his City of Quartz (1992), gasoline could have emerged as one drug in the cocktail of cultural hallucinogens that explain the depth and breadth of urban paranoia.
And the more recent Planet of Slums (2006), with its topical focus on the bulging of squatter settlements in the structurally adjusted developing world, set the stage for a blistering analysis of the fossil-fuel connection – but one that is yet to come. Even Davis’ 1999 Ecology of Fear, so firmly focused on Los Angeles as a city at the brink of environmental cataclysm, missed the very root resource causes of ecomayhem.
David Harvey‘s Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference (Harvey 1996) framed many relevant issues but also avoided the globalizing fossil and nuclear energy dependencies, and the effect these had on cities: both directly and by proxy. Since then, a new critical genre of theoretical writing began to focus on environmental upheaval – for example on the profit-making opportunities of what Naomi Klein has termed ‘‘disaster capitalism” (Klein 2007).
Still, while her book examined climate hazard battered New Orleans and the pretext its 2005 drowning provided for the privatization of the local education system, or its role in boosting contract security forces, it does also not yet quite fully focus on the unfolding surge of profits to be made from battling climate change induced calamities or oil resource wars.
Seen in a historical context, the emergence of a Kleinian disaster capitalist period can also be seen as an early stage of what Meadows has described as the period of civilization in overshoot, when the economic costs of correcting the effects of pollution, including that of excess greenhouse gas, begin to outstrip the gains to be made from ravaging the Earth’s resource base (Meadows 1972; 2004).
Among those who have been regarded as both theorists and practitioners of architecture, MVRDV stands virtually alone in having at least taken up the challenge of confronting the emerging reality, epitomised in its eco-friendly ‘‘club sandwich’‘ Dutch Pavilion at the Year 2000 World Expo held in Hannover, Germany. After a series of speculative published works the firm has generated towards the end of the first decade of the millennium hybrid energy projects like the poetically named ‘‘Logrono Montecorvo Carbon Neutral Eco City’‘, located in the Rioja region of Spain (2009), developed with Spanish partner GRAS (MVRDV 2009).
Yet from an urban planning and architectural theory viewpoint, these are rare exceptions, still regarded as marginal if obligatory oddities, a fact attested to by the very placement of this section in this Handbook.
But perhaps this should come as no surprise as even bona fide and very substantial energy-focused works of the past tend to tinker at the edges. Peter Newman and Jeff Kenworthy’‘s fundamental early work in the 1980s, with its focus so squarely trained on transport energy consumption in cities, too, did not entirely address the fuel replacement challenge of the fossil dependency syndrome and the tasks this poses for policy, design and cultural therapy.
Their powerful observations of the gasoline waste inherent in sprawl inspired the compact city policies of countless municipalities since 1980s and expressed in the oeuvre of revered thinkers such as Peter Calthorpe, Sim van der Ryn and others subscribing to the virtues of dense city cores and transit-oriented development.
Even when and where this actually proved successful, the approach was only based on the hope of curtailing, not actually replacing the use of non-renewable resources. And even here, the rebound effect meant that the lower cost or freed capacity brought about by journeys thus saved opened the way for increased demand – not even considering the general rising trend in car use (Herring and Cleveland 2008).
Professor Peter Droege is General Chairman, World Council for Renewable Energy