The Future of Architecture = No New Buildings

November 29, 2011

You heard it here first. NO NEW BUILDINGS. The future of architecture hangs in the balance–a balance of energy and environmental constraints that will profoundly alter the way humans interact with their environment. For centuries architects have seen themselves as creators of the built environment–almost exclusively new buildings, landscapes, infrastructure, transit systems. For the first time the profession is being forced–against its collective will–to consider the unthinkable. Can the earth sustain an entirely new infrastructure under present conditions? If not, how much of the built environment will be “new” architecture during the next century?

In my recent lectures and writings, I have begun to consider a startling alternative vision for the planet and its human-made environments. What if, in the name of resource and energy conservation, the most energy and waste intensive endeavor, building, was limited to the alteration, conservation and reuse of existing structures? I am not the only person to have this vision, but I suspect most other proponents are environmentalists, not architects.

Conservation of the biosphere, according to pioneers such as Ian McHarg and Aldo Leopold, must account for a “right relationship” between all human endeavors and the planet’s fragile ecosystems. If building new bridges, highways, and larger buildings consumes too much energy and generates too much waste, why not consider repairing and conserving what we already have, much as our brethren in ecology have done with existing “natural” systems? Does this sound revolutionary? If the answer is yes, avant garde architects should be pleased, because revolution has been the watchword of our “progressive” artists for more than a century.

I suspect, however, that those contemporary architects who see themselves as occupying the “cutting edge,” like the team recently assembled by Frank Gehry for his new technology lab, are heavily invested in the status quo of wasteful, energy hogging high-tech wonders. They won’t want to forego years of “research” into absurdly expensive building systems simply to answer a pressing need for real solutions to the energy crisis that might be considered “low tech” or even “no tech.” As Jens Braun put it in his Quaker blog, it may be time to look at all new construction technology as un-green, or better, time to consider low tech alternatives to what we have been building for a century or more.

Should architects abandon the search for new built form in order to address the environmental crisis? Perhaps not, but looking at this presumably extreme alternative would be refreshing, useful, and maybe even revolutionary, in the way that Kuhn’s “scientific revolution” hypothesis described paradigm shifts. I am going to stay with this idea until I run out of reasons to abandon it. Building conservation has a lot to offer the architectural profession, and architects are certainly going nowhere with the current program.

5 Responses to “The Future of Architecture = No New Buildings”

  1. Excellent suggestion! I’m a homes journalist in a small city and for eight years I have shunned topics on new homes (unless they’re extremely green) and have instead focused on imaginative people who live in older structures. New homes in suburbs generate waste and take up land that could better be used for forests or fields.

  2. Thank you housesandbooks, keep up the good work.

  3. I think this an extreme version of my own views as a preservationist but a fascinating one. With empty buildings in some locations and need, or desire, for more space in others the response is more building “here”, abandonment and demolition over “there”. The role of activists and government environmental agencies should be to redirect businesses and organizations to empty structures. More incentives for re-use and rehabilitation would be a good start.

    I do not think there will be or should be no new building but I do think there should be a reorientation away from “empty” rural lands or demolition of existing structures. Architects definitely have a role in re-use if they accept it as a creative challenge instead of an unfair limitation on their artistic visions.

  4. Joe said

    This idea is both appealing — and crazy. Would the residents of the Rio de Janeiro and Mumbai slums, trailer parks in Tornado Alley, crumbling concrete apartment blocks in Siberia and North Korea and the unwatered houses of Johannisburg be satisfied with the “alteration, conservation and reuse”?

    The practice of architecture is linked to population growth, political and economic forces, and deep cultural traditions. Architects can and should work holistically to improve the human condition and built environment for many reasons, not only for sustainability and historic preservation.

    • Joe: Thanks for your excellent criticism. I agree that there is no real possibility of giving up on new buildings, especially in areas where the populations is ill-housed and far from cities. One of our great problems is that architects do not, as a rule, serve these populations at all any more. We should be working more holistically around the world to improve the conditions of human beings, and I hope that soon we will renounce the world of Starchitects and start doing so.

      There is, however, a massive stock of good buildings in cities all over the world that could be retrofitted for housing, especially in light of the new redundancy caused by office and factor closings. I would guess that in Novosibirsk, Mumbai, and Rio there are plenty of good buildings now vacant that could, with the right kind of government incentives, be put to use as low income housing for stanty-town residents. Unlike architects, poor people are not concerned with how radical and innovative their new homes will be, but whether they are warm, convenient, and solidly constructed. New construction causes more waste, and uses more energy, than anything else we do as humans.

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