CAPE TOWN MEDITATIONS
A couple of weeks ago I was asked by a faculty of architecture, in South Africa, to deliver the graduation address in the traditional ceremony that sends a new group of architects to the exercise of our profession and art.
That same day I read an article on global warming in Time magazine.
Later I finished reading an extraordinary collection of essays by Ivan Klima, the Czech writer and philosopher, which discusses the possibility of hope in our world.
Finally arriving home I still had the time to glance over the last issue of a well-known international architectural magazine.
The relationship between those four moments of a normal day’s chain of events is not, I believe, without a sense or logic.
My preoccupation on how to address the graduates, future professionals, made me more aware of the responsibility that in a world in crisis we have, and more worried about how to leave, for them, a significant message.
The explicit reference that Time magazine made to the need for a responsible and intelligent planning, avoiding over development, and sprawl, promoting better ways of transporting people and goods, and designing buildings for energy-saving; the profound and well rooted insecurity of the czeck philosopher on his search for a good reason for hope, gave me some clues for the message that I thought would be adequate to pass on.
It was only from the architectural magazine that I could not, or I was not able, to take the clues or a meaningful insight to help me in my address.
I thought that my message could take the form of a Hipocrates pledge or suggest a new reading of Hamurabi’s code of laws.
It is true that since King Hamurabi of Babylon wrote his code of laws, some 4200 years ago, or Hipocrates of Greece defined the ethics of the medical profession, more than 2500 years ago, the world has seen many changes and the professional associations have created a web of defenses to protect their members against their own ignorance, the callousness of their clients and the rapacity of their lawyers.
But it is also true that our profession and art are, now, much more complex and much more difficult and, perhaps, much more responsabilising than they were all those years ago.
They are more difficult for us today not only because of the accumulation of the knowledge that we must know, the depth of insight that we must acquire, the weight of history on our shoulders, but also because of the accumulation of our mistakes that contribute to the destruction and degeneration of the environment and to the erosion of the credibility in our competence.
They are more responsabilising because, in the global village, we can not escape the knowledge (and the conscientiousness) of the state of the world, of the human drama around us and, above all, the notion that there is no miraculous reversal of the negative trend and because that there is nobody else but ourselves to blame for the global disaster we are heading to.
For many years most of us, architects, have been concerned and have been acting as if the essential problems of designing a better human environment have been solved. As a consequence we dedicate our intellectual capacity to the spurious pursuit of stylistic fashions, sometimes masked with noble intentions like the search for a regional identity, we glorify technology as an end in itself, sanctify pseudo economy of means or justify arbitrariness as a mistaken form of creativity.
We forgot too fast that there was a time when “rationalism was not a style”.
We forgot that the great contribution of the Modern Movement was not, primarily, an aesthetic one but the definition of a decisive role for the architect in his contribution for the improvement of the quality of the built environment, to benefit the entire society.
We forgot, too easily, that the ideals of a new architecture were forged in the same historical moment when the ideals of a modern, democratic, free and responsible society were forged.
The profession of the architect, available to the people, in the city and in the countryside, and concerned with the design of all the physical structures that a society needs, at all economic levels and for all its functions, is a recent notion and not yet acknowledged or practicised in most parts of the world.
In fact we, architects, are, in general, a commodity that only the affluent can afford.
We should ask ourselves why.
But it is true that since the ideals of the modern movement were defined, the world has changed.
It changed in the sense that our spectrum of concerns has changed, and changed profoundly, as it was clearly proved since we discovered “The Limits of Growth” through the sages of The Club of Rome, some thirty years ago.
Then, in 1972, an international team, composed of the best scientific brains, in the world, published the results of a research on the predicament of human kind analyzing five basics factors that determine, and limit growth on the planet: population, agricultural production, natural resources, industrial production and pollution.
What the report made clear was that the future of the humanity was doubtful and bleak for everybody. The prediction was that rich and poor countries and people alike would suffer by the rapid dilapidation of the natural resources, if the present trends continued.
The world took time to wake up for the dangerous course of the misuse of the natural resources and environmental degradation that it is pursuing.
Two major international conferences, in Stockholm and in Rio de Janeiro, addressed the major environmental problems and managed to obtain a limited degree of commitment, from the big nations, on matters of environmental sustainability and regeneration. This was, as we well know, not enough.
The first cataclysms have begun. Abnormal weather in most parts of the world, floods, mud slides, earthquakes, the rising of the sea level, the drying up of internal seas, the melting of the polar ice caps, the hole in the ozone, the quick depletion of biological diversity, are now common concerns of every country and every region of the world.
They should be the first worries of every citizen of any nation of the world.
Architects and planners work in and transform the environment. At all scales of our activity we use and we modify the balance of natural factors either passively or actively.
The way we organize urban space or change the landscape; the use we make of materials or conceive the climatic response of our buildings; the amount of energy we spend on keeping our habitable spaces cool or warm, illuminated and ventilated; the ease of maintenance and durability of the structures we design; the environmental impact of the urban sprawl; the saving or wasting of water in our buildings, all these are aspects of our responsibility as architects that we can not alienate from our permanent concerns and, as such, refuse to take as mandatory design factors.
We have, it seems to me, a huge responsibility and the silence of our teaching on these subject matters is deafening.
Most of the specialized literature on architecture and planning is not addressing most of those issues.
It analyzes the technology and the economy of production, almost exclusively by their speculative performance or their limited structural merit or aesthetic appearance; it excels in subjective and abstract theorization about the designers intentions and constructs quick “schools” of thought, to be quickly consumed so as to give a chance to the promotion of new heroes that take architecture as a “performing art”.
The irresponsibility of the critics can only be matched by the irresponsibility of the architects, only matched by the greed of the speculator, which is only possible by the ignorance of the society in general.
Does this sound too harsh, too brutal, exaggerated?
Do I exaggerate when I point to the exponential growing of favelas, townships and shantytowns for the majority of the urban population of the world, growing at exponential rates?
Do I exaggerate when I see the center of towns transformed in human jungles?
Do I exaggerate when I know that wood and charcoal for cooking comes, now, to Maputo town from over 100Km away, having witnessed the cutting of forests in widening rings, and when I know that the desertification process will accelerate in the coming years?
Do I exaggerate when I watch the waste of water, clean and treated water, used in flush toilets and in the green grass of golf courses when millions do not have a safe litter to drink or to wash?
Do I exaggerate when I measure the megawatts spent to cool, warm, illuminate and ventilate buildings design by us for some of the best climates in the world?
Must I doubt when I hear the complaints of both, rich and poor about their daily waste of time, money, energy and patience going from home to work and back, mainly because of bad planning and social segregation?
Do I exaggerate when I see the use of expensive and imported materials and technologies, when the same performance and can be obtained with local capacity?
This litany could go on and on and get more and more focused on the objects of our daily decisions and choices.
But we are trained to consider other sets of values as more important.
Let us, then, go through the different scales of our work and responsibility.
What immediately comes to mind is a simple question:
- is good architecture possible and meaningful in the context of urban decay and badly planned urban environment?
- is the flower in the swamp a valid and adequate image, or a figure of dangerous rhetoric appealing to some pathologic poetical sense?
In other words:
- should we not be able to guide, intervene and participate in the whole process of the shaping, placing and relating the infrastructure and the constructions, necessary for a healthy and democratic society, in the urban or natural environment, without negative impacts?
It is obvious that the distribution of space among the members of a society is an exercise of power, of political prerogative and a product of economic speculation, a demonstration of social privilege, and the architect and planner can hardly, by technical means alone, resolve the problem.
However, we can influence the political process, and we must contribute to a more intelligent use of the ecosystem, to a more equitable division of the spatial qualities, to a more creative relationship between man and nature and to a healthier habitat, now that our societies claim the elimination of discrimination by race or culture.
Have we been able to do it or to convince our political masters to do it?
Or have we been the servants of the “developer” whose aims and objectives are, as a rule, to take the maximum profit from the land he acquires?
Is pure profit compatible with good quality of urban space and architecture?
The scale of the city is a continuum with the scale of the landscape, with the scale of the countryside, with the scale of the sea, with the scale of the open field, of the forest and of the mountain.
Can we make the conceptual bridge between the building and those dimensions?
Are we sensitive to the ecological, aesthetic and spiritual relationship between nature and buildings?
Do we play a role on the safeguard of those irretrievable dimensions?
Are we able, to design outside space as a connective element and improve the urban, or natural, environments by the correct scaling and sitting of our buildings considering the orientation, the climate, the topography and their urban function?
Have we been properly trained for that?
The natural scale and the scale of the city must be in balance. A balance made of objective dimensions that have to do with the physical and psychological benefits of clean air and sun, with oxygen production and sound absorption, with wind conduction and attenuation, with the ways the water run and with spatial containment within the wide horizons.
Do we have the courage to reconquer those dimensions?
From the landscape, and the city, to the building, the scaling down of our concerns is not a reduction in the importance or of the responsibility of our decisions.
The human habitat, or the structures for our economic, social and transcendental life, is our most primary and direct concern.
With it we associate concepts of security, both physical and subconscious; in it we must find comfort and, emotional economy; through it we project our social importance and find self-respect.
All these are levels and degrees of priority that we must understand and they must define a framework of reference to guide our design exercise.
They are not however all the design parameters, as you well know.
We must consider the economic constraints and the technological possibilities and the cultural environment, which is one of the most important dimensions in this complex equation.
For us here, in this underside of the world, the task of teaching and of practicing architecture and urban planning is, if anything, even more difficult than for our colleagues of the “North”.
Our students, and our professionals, are too dependent on the professional literature, almost exclusively produced by the most technologically advanced societies in the planet, and addressing, most of the times, situations of limited relevance to the order of our social problems .
Those societies, living in the upper side of the world, have created along centuries, an enormous patrimony of constructions and structures more than sufficient for their administrative, productive , habitation and other needs.
Those are societies, with stable or shrinking populations and characterize themselves by an over production of agricultural and industrial goods.
Their immediate problems are not, any more, to provide the very basic structures for their social and economic needs. They may still have social and economic problems but those can be solved by political means and do not require a basic structural adjustment to the physical reality.
One of the best examples I can give you to show a difference in concerns between our two worlds is, for instance, the new press box, just put up at Lords Cricket Field in London, that cost the “small” amount of $ 9.000.000 U.S.!!!
With that amount we could build, in Mozambique, all the primary schools, or all the rural maternities, that we need in a district of 100.000 people.
But is it relevant to compare, to draw conclusions, to analyze and criticize this kind of phenomena?
Are we speaking of the needs of the same species?
It seems to me that we are, and it seems to me that we have the right, and the duty, to judge and to condemn all the mismanagement of resources or excesses of waste and luxury, no matter where and why.
From that criticism, or through it, we may be able to construct and perfect a code of values, and a rationale, to guide us in this time of confusion and arbitrariness.
This right is given to us by the same reasons that justify the elimination of trade barriers and that proved the continuity of the natural environment, or by the same reasons that consider as a common patrimony the finite and non-renewable resources of the planet.
We cannot, on one side, accept those principles and, on the other, accept and contribute to the wasteful misuse of irreplaceable resources.
This may seem too far from architecture.
I think that it is not.
I think that there is, within our common cultural limits and standards of comfort a possibility to find, and to define, a set of parameters of objective dimensions, scientifically expressed and technologically resolved, to serve as our guidelines and reference in the exercise of architectural and urban design and regional planning.
Those parameters and dimensions have physical values and are sufficiently studied by psychologists, anthropologists and behavioral scientists to be used with conviction and to give to us all the authority we need to qualify our designs as correct and just or as unfair and wrong.
Those are values that can be expressed in physical terms of area and volume, temperature or humidity, candelas or decibels, pollutant particles per thousand or million parts of air, electromagnetic radiation or cubic meters of air, litters of water or kilowatts per capita.
I know that from this frame of referential values alone we will not cause architecture to be born, but it is also true, to me, that without those values no respectable architecture can materialize.
Those values are necessary but they are not, necessarily, sufficient.
What I also think, and risk to say, is that most of the buildings designed today are not, at any point of their conception, thought about in those terms or judged by their performance according to those references.
A discussion of the ethical relationship between those objective and physical dimensions and the quality of our design is what I have such great difficulty in finding in most of our magazines of architecture.
The limits of comfort and the limits of the economy in the use of resources can be measured and can be regulated. They have been, in fact, regulated in the more developed societies, but they have been, systematically, regulated by the definition of their minimum acceptable levels. What seems to me every day more urgently needed is the courage to regulate, and to limit, their maximum levels, or by what I could call "the moral limits", of waste and of misuse of resources that benefit, exclusively, a thin layer of privileged members of the human society.
I am fully conscious of the enormity of this proposal, in an historical environment where consuming and spending are seen as a moral duty by the masters and by the citizens of the controlling economies of this world.
I know that this proposal would be the last to gain votes on any political environment, even in this downside of the world which is paying for the pathological wealth of our northern rulers.
I know too well that the ambition of the underdog is to be able to climb to the same discriminatory privilege and the same exhibitionist attitude of his master and mentor.
But I also know, and I can see it growing every day, the cohort of destitute people for whom even the lowest limits of human needs and comfort are unthinkable of and undreamed of.
I know too well that the plight of underdevelopment has a corollary called over development, and that one cannot exist without the other.
I know that the models imposed on us by the carrot and by the stick, by the media and by the illusion, by the smile and by the gun, cannot be generalized and cannot be taken seriously as attainable for everybody, within, or without, the system that created them and that, now, dominates the world.
Elementary mathematics, based on easily available statistics, abundantly known by everybody, demonstrate the fallacy of the illusion. The pretexts to postpone decisive actions to stop waste are only too transparent in their lack of scientific basis. Nevertheless they are good enough to maintain in power, or to bring to power, any skillful manipulator of the willing voters all too ready to escape the brutal reality of a compromised future.
The price to be paid by all of us seems to be one of the most well guarded non-secrets that any common person with a minimum level of information and general culture can hide from himself.
If I have a fear it is that all this may sound too remote from architecture and that you may be asking yourselves why am I bringing these issues to this audience.
I will try to prove the relevancy of the discussion.
Earlier I mentioned ethics as a fundamental structure of architectural thought, and my astonishment at the generalized absence of that value in the theoretical discussions on the production of designed space in most of the specialized literature.
That absence is revealing of the lack of depth that we have reached in our field. It reveals our demotion from a position of social responsibility to a level of technocracy, form playing and profit facilitation.
I think that it is time to reverse this attitude and to bring to a central position in our speculations, and theorization, the universal dimensions that have to do with such vast problems as the energy and related issues, the human condition and habitat, the evolution of cities and, in general, the protection of the environment.
Wish we or not our actions and our projects will reflect on all those dimensions either positively or negatively.
Construction materials industry and the operation of buildings produce 73% of all carbon dioxide that is responsible for the warming of the atmosphere.
The destruction of the ozone layer is mainly due to the liberation in the environment of the chlorofluorocarbon (CFCs), 50% of which were attributed to materials and components used in the construction industry.
The tropical forests of the world are being cut down at a rate of almost 1% per annum to be used, mainly, in the construction and furniture industries: with them goes great part of our world’s capacity of absorption of CO2 and of oxygen generation.
Fresh water consumption doubles the rate of the natural replenishment of the aquifers.
The list of erosions to the environment could go on and on, but the figures given are enough to prove the responsibility of our activity in the maintenance of global equilibrium.
I think that we are living one of the most significant and dangerous moments of the life of man on earth.
We are, for the first time in the history of man, conscious of the menace that our actions may mean for our survival on the planet and, at the same time, we are conscious that the interdependency of all countries and of all man is an indispensable condition for that survival.
In other words: solidarity is not any longer a moral imperative it is, before anything, an indispensable strategy and a mechanism for survival.
It is, put in the simplest way, a matter of intelligence.
Our profession gives us the unique opportunity to participate fully, and directly, in this transcendental drama.
Can we refuse it and loose ourselves in the commonplaces of style and manner, of excess and waste, of the uncritical copy of the past or the uninformed science-fiction games, of theatrical antics or short lived fashion and behave like infantile and puerile members of the society?
Or should we take this opportunity to create a new world of spaces and forms, a new city and a new urbanity, a new way of understanding the landscape and region, a new relationship of man and nature and bring a real "new spirit" to the life and the city of man?
The need to invent is common to all men in all ages of history. Up to our days this need was an imposition felt by the society from the desire to conquer a better condition of life.
Now, invention is a necessity for survival.
This is the great difference for us, now.
As Camus said, fifty years ago: "the era of the irresponsible artist is gone".
Now, more than fifty years ago, there even less time and space for the vagrancy of the spirit.
We are living an urgent time. We have no space left for mistakes. We have no excuse for ignorance.
I mentioned, at the beginning of this talk, the need for a new code of rules to guide our newly graduated students along his professional life and choices. This seems to me necessary, as the school does not always provide a clear-cut set of options or can risk seeming less scientific or, in any way, dogmatic.
In the professional realm, however, mistakes of attitude or of technical choices will affect the life of real people and can destroy delicate balances.
It seems to me, then, a minor intellectual risk to propose to the future professionals, and to us all, a provocative "decalogue" to open the discussion of the issues raised in this talk.
So, and without any arrogance or even any solid assuredness, this what I collected as the essential principles for the exercise of the profession of architecture:
1. You shall not, in any way, design or participate in the design of any physical structure that may directly or indirectly contribute to the breaking down of the ecological balance or destroy the basis for the preservation of nature.
2. You will not, under any circumstances, consider the interests of your client, be it individual, corporate or institutional, above the interests of society in general, as collective interest must always be above personal interests.
3. No aspect of your design must cause, or contribute, or reflect any form of discrimination or vilification of any human being.
4. Your designs must be composed in such a way as to obtain a maximum performance in the use of energy and in the saving of water or any other non-renewable natural resources.
5. The fundamental objectives of your design for any habitable structures are, or must relate to the achievement of the ideal environmental conditions such as temperature, humidity, light and sound, the quality of the air, and, in general, to the elimination of physical and psychological stress, fatigue and depression.
6. The buildings that you design must contribute to the enrichment of the natural and of the man made environments, respecting those two realities by the understanding of their interdependency and considering their different scales.
7. You must not spend, or cause to spend, more resources and material means than the strictly necessary to achieve the environmental, spatial or aesthetic qualities that are coherent with the principles just enunciated.
8. Your buildings must be economic to run and easy to maintain and clean, repair and use.
9. Your buildings must always be conceived to last and to keep or to increase their original value.
10. Your designs must reflect a permanent effort to add to the vast richness of the architectural patrimony of the humanity, this being possible only through a profound search for your own poetical vision and through your own capacity of expressing the universal drama of man’s survival in nature and with nature and within the constant tensions of social life.