18.3 degree Celsius in Antarctica!! Deforestation that was equivalent to 8.4 million soccer fields over the past decade in the Amazon rainforest!! These unbelievable facts are the reality of our world as expressed by the actions of our aspirations, greed, and an anthropocentric worldview. In the design paradigm where grey reigned supreme, the discourse about the preservation and inclusion of greens as creating a common ground between urban (artificial) and nature environments was initiated in the domains of environmental sciences, primarily, and design fields later on. Ecological architecture emerged as an answer to the constant dilemma between ecology and the economy in urban affairs.
Before the ideas of commodification and consumerism ruled man, it was a simple need-based daily existence that determined his individual and collective life. Patterns of nature determined his life, and shelter-livelihood were derivative of nature as a provider. The building, as a sedimentary act and settlements, respected the natural patterns, and aspects of prospect, refuge, and profit got informed by living on higher ground and leaving the lower plains for natural flows. The famous Angkor Wat, a Cambodian temple that came about in the 12th century AD, is an example of harmony with nature.
A radical shift of attitude towards nature gets manifested by the advent of a mechanistic approach, a paradigm marked by reductionism, mechanism, and materialism. The Cartesian thought led to the development of science, and the reactionary chain events that followed the industrial revolution exhibited themselves in space with outright magnanimity, and the consumption of natural resources with bold conviction as being only for the human self, manifesting the advent of the Anthropocene. A more direct relation to the paradigm of design is the manifold acceleration in economic and demographic growth after the end of the Second World War. The seventies oil crisis knocked the wind out of the global economies, along with it, the realization of heavy dependency on the consumption of resources and its limited availability. Ecology has been a passive locale, in this world ruled by economic aspirations, on which architecture and cities exhibit themselves as spatial productions of human agency. The techno-centric worldview, where the natural environment is neutral stuff, and for the profitability for man, was challenged by an ecocentric worldview, where natural order was the primary concern, transpiring itself into the discourse.
Discourse of Environmental Advocacy
Environmental advocacy gained popularity in the 1960s United States, with respect towards the Native American way of life and prioritization of Ecology over the Economy. In 1962, the environmental science book, Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, deliberated on the overarching theme of human effects on the natural world. The book challenged the accepted norm and became a rallying point leading to the institutionalization of environmental advocacy. The action of building or architecture, from the deep ecologists’ perspective, is an interference with the natural environment and hence an anti-ecological act. From land commodification as an idea during colonization to shelter design, every sphere of physical and spatial development is on sensitive territories, and so there is a need for prioritization and finding balance.
Organic buildings are the strength and lightness of the spiders’ spinning, buildings qualified by light, bred by native character to environment, married to the ground. Frank Lloyd Wright.
Long before mainstream ecological considerations penetrated the dialogue of design, the master architect spoke of and practiced ecocentrism, the Falling Water being an example. Ian McHarg, in his influential book Design with Nature, brought the idea of the survey before planning to develop a regional assessment methodology emphasizing the preservation of existing natural systems. The introduction of sustainable development and urban greening into the ecology/economic discourse brought a middle ground for the earlier existing limit-to-growth theory and the rampant pro-growth theories. The Brundtland report of 1987 defined the role of ecological architecture as being sustainable, meeting the needs of all people without jeopardizing the necessities of future generations. The institutionalized system to ensure Ecological architecture got initiated in the 90s UK and USA, with the commissioning of certifications and green rating of architecture.
Ecological architecture as a mitigating measure
The city as a physical entity is the most extreme and brutal example of human influence and intervention on our physical environment, leading to systematic erasure of that which existed. Manhattan, for example, is consumed under the dominion and physical manipulation exercised by one species, not even acknowledging the existence of millions of other entities. With the cities across the world using the City Biodiversity Index, Ecological architecture finds importance as a mitigating measure to cover the lost score and ground. Environmental concerns and aesthetic shortcomings of brutalism and modernism have found an answer in ecological architecture. The simple act of adding a living green wall and green roof reduces the carbon footprint of the building while covering the harsh modernist style under the calmness of green.
Manifestations of the new style
As an urban design master plan for the Guangming Central District, the architecture and design firm SOM floated a proposal of transforming the small plot of agricultural lands into Shenzhen’s premier sustainable urban district. Almost half of the project is open spaces, and the project blurs boundaries between urban and nature, architecture and urban realm, economy, and culture. With the intent of giving hope for a better tomorrow, Tao Zhu Yin Yuan – meaning the retreat of Tao Zhu, by Vincent Callebaut is a twisted residential complex designed to minimize the carbon footprint of architecture. With 23000 trees and shrubs envisaged to cover the complex, it also includes rainwater recycling and rooftop solar panels. It is an exemplary attempt manifesting the ideology that a garden is no more side-by-side to the building; it is the building!
The momentum gained by ecological architecture discourse has led to green over grey, which subsequently has created a parallel movement in the institutional developments and media frenzy. To go green has become a fashion of the day, and certifications generate prestige for buildings and architects, developing an economy and advertising factor of itself. What is supposed to be a political responsibility and a genuine concern-based progressive development has fallen short of the materialization that is architecture. Ecological architecture in academia is still regarded as a separate entity, and not a de facto means of building design. The reduction of ecological architecture and sustainability as labels hinders the approach to percolate deep in all spheres of architecture and urbanism.
Look around and see, the solutions to land crunch and densification are subterranean and over/under-water cities and buildings. Along with excitement for such proposals, do we understand where we are moving forward with this predatory attitude of consuming and manipulating the world while deliberately being inconsiderate towards the non-human entities? The techno-optimism approach has prevailed over deliberations, and the idea of consumerism is not contested, with most practices looking at increasing generation and production.
The future of architecture lies in its ability to redefine its very existence and be a part of the natural ecosystem. In ecological architecture, the “cut back approach” prophesied by William Vogt as a way of life is the future of architecture and our world. Stop. Ponder. And if necessary, build.