Perhaps one of the most resonating splits of the twentieth century was the independent development of technology from its previously parallel development with material. As Christopher Hawthorne noted in his articulate lecture, architecture is a perfect example of the way this shift has influenced the creation of the modern built world while also illustrating the potential future of technology and building as changing course from the permanence and fortitude of the past to a future of ephemeral softness.
Up until quite recently, a majority of buildings were constructed of raw materials and basic techniques. Woods, mined metals, iron ore, copper, terra cotta, brick; these were, until quite recently, the building blocks of the modern world. In the early 1930’s building steel arrived, a weld-able metallic alloy, flexible and strong enough to allow for buildings to stand tall and not be solely supported by the curtain wall. Suddenly structures could, logistically, be fifty stories high with outer walls of glass. These building went up, taller and taller, while the image of built progress became cityscapes that shined with glass and metal, shiny and unnatural.
In many ways the design of these skyscrapers aptly represent the culture of modern man. The building’s interior space is broken up into individual cubes, everyone with their own similarly sterile and identity razing cubical, all hard and soft wired with computers, phones, printer, fax machines; small spaces that can reach out to the corners of the world. The conference room and the shared kitchen represents the existence of communal behaviors, the corporate art collection displays the authoritative wealth. Each structure has its own master, the one with the money to build the thing, flexing his fifty-floor power with some sort of gold-plated sign. This is Semper’s new Caribbean hut or Pugin’s Gothic church; not an alter to god or an outward manifestation of psychological complexities of the unique lives of the people within; these structures proclaim: we built this ourselves and we don’t need anyone.
But then this powerful building style became equitable with dramatic and far-reaching disasters and death. The environmental crisis gained political prominence and media attention and with this buildings—being the producer of 90% of greenhouses gases—became a social issue. The enormous architectural accomplishments were massive consumers of energy and materials, and suddenly this way of building had to be rethought. September 11th happened, the marvel of the skyscraper now included fantasies of previously unthinkable horrors. The new and celebrated technological building progress was overshadowed by a new question: for what? The tension that had been created by modern building’s marriage command of technology was eased by a new proposition for building: sustainably. It is here that two terms never before considered as a pair were joined: sustainability and technology.
The re-thinking of building to include sustainability has taken on moderately a confusing form, the most flamboyant of which can be seen in Foster + Company’s carbon-neutral, 100% sustainable city of Masdar in Abu Dabi. This city, as Hawthorne stated, “is like a walled in medieval city,” and everything about its design is high technology. The fact that that a city in the middle of the desert can be called ‘sustainable’ may be due to sustainability’s loose definition, often based on the notion of preserving the earth for future generations. Although I find that the future generations definition is a little wanting for clear terminology, I do think that it offers an interesting read of Masdar. In the history of high technology (maybe beginning in the 1940’s until present time) there has been little to no longevity in the products created. Rather high-tech has inspired a ceaseless race to innovate, develop and consume. But how does this rapid evolution of technology translate to the infrastructure of an urban environment? Will future generations want to live in Masdar, or has the now high-tech sustainable city created an infrastructure that this not malleable to change in time? The creation of a city like Masdar, with a permanent form and hard infrastructure, in the name of sustainability but may be equivalent to permanently fixing your VCR into the foundation of your house in 1985 and wishing you could remove it in 2010. It is fixed in place to the design of its time, unable to change and grow, it becomes dated, stale and in need of repair techniques that no longer exist.
The issue presents a new read of what sustainability might actually mean: not a system based on environmental impact, but one that can transform through time and not create an environmental disaster when it dies. Perhaps sustainability is about the creation of soft, impermanent systems, things that can shift in meaning and form through time and then die without inciting a great deal of destruction. Do we always need to build and design for permanence and innovation or it is time to begin to create for breaking-down; can we begin to add for subtraction. This perspective adds a layer to the future generations definition of sustainability, transforming it from the issue of leaving the planet intact for the future to the issue of the inheritance that we gift to the generations of the future. Perhaps Masdar will be as well received by the future as a VCR would be for Christmas today; not so appreciated.