15 September 2009

Architecture as a philosophical contribution to sustainability

Trying to locate a point of departure (or rather point of entry) for the upcoming investigation of Malmø, I found a need to pause and move backwards in my line of thought.

This spring I wrote a essay at the University of Bergen titled “Sustainability and perspectives of value – Architecture as a foundation for an environmental ethic.” The main source of inspiration for the text was an interview I read many years ago with the Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa. (The interview is from the book ”Shaking the Foundations. Japanese Architects in Dialogue”, which in my previous investigation was found to have very high emotional value, but only medium practical value. Using a quote here possibly increases this value..) Kurokawa states the following, an antithesis to modernistic planning:

”Let´s take the example of mixing factories and housing which would normally be prohibited by functional town-planning theories. Ordinarily a factory should be located far away from housing, but I think that only by living with the factory can we control its pollution. If we needed a big atomic power station we should build one right in the center of Tokyo. There you can see it and feel its output and only then does it really come into people’s consciousness. Under these conditions we might be able to control what’s going on around us and take action concerning such things as power stations. This is the basic idea of symbiosis – the very antithesis of Functionalism.”

The main argument of my text was that sustainability in an architectural context is not primarily a question of technological nature. Like Kurokawa states in the interview above, the potential of architecture is much greater. What Kurokawa is implying, relates to the theory of virtue ethics; we act according to how the world is presented to us. Architecture does not only impose physical opportunities or restraints, it presents us to a hierarchy of values. This hierarchy can be either explicit or implicit, but it is always there in one way or another. The hierarchy of value I am talking about is not intrinsic value, in the sense that “this building is good or bad in it self”, nor is it necessarily political either. It can be as simple as a chair being 43 cm high, and in that way saying something about the average height of a Norwegian adult (but this could of course be political). Just like I found when rearranging my bookcase, some sort of hierarchy will always be present when dealing with physical objects; some things must necessarily be above, below or next to other things, they can’t all be at the same spot (neither in time, nor in space).

Today we build factories where they can’t be seen. We put our waste in the dustbin and a day later it is gone – from our house and our mind. We buy food in the supermarket, and we don’t have a clue where it comes from. (My British aunt living in London was disgusted when she saw me eating a blueberry straight from the bush – she would “never have eaten anything that was not bought in a shop.”). Electricity forms maybe the best example, it presents itself to us as a highly abstract phenomenon; I plug my computer into the wall, turn it on, and write these words. I don’t really even think of it as consuming energy, I simply press the “On-button”. In reality this energy has a highly concrete origin, it is water falling down a hill and into a turbine. Or it is coal being burnt, heating up water, producing steam.

The modern world detaches our actions from their effects; there is no apparent link between me drinking this electrically heated cup of coffee and the rise of the ocean. As Kurokawa states, we can only “take action” when the world is presented to us as moments of relation, or interdependence. These thoughts are related to what Ábalos writes in the text “I would prefer not to”, when he states what has been quoted many times during the last two weeks: “A credible map of sustainability has yet to be drawn.” The title of his text implies that this map is maybe not one of technology, but one related to perspectives of value.

All this thinking was trigged when Ragnhild presented Malmø’s ambitious environmental goal of 25% reduction in CO2 emission within 2012. I therefore wish to investigate how Malmø seeks to fill their goal, and at the same time try to map Malmø with Kurokawa at the back of my mind, trying to find any existence/non-existence of “atomic power stations”.

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