arch-peace editorials

16 January 2006

Climate change: designing with sense of reverence

By Stephen Cameron

In his closing comments as a judge for last year's residential design competition run by Japan Architect magazine, Richard Rogers made the revelatory statement that: 'It is no exaggeration to say that architects are indirectly responsible for about 75% of climate change.' An interesting, if rather frightening thought, and a poignant reminder of the real-world consequences of every line we draw and every material we specify. The responsibility we bear in both the bringing-into-reality and ongoing use of the buildings, spaces, landscapes and urban environments we design is immense and perhaps easier to look away from than face up to every day. Given that, on the whole, architects tend to be inclined more toward the poetic than the statistic, it is easy to understand the bureaucratic boredom inspired in us by the various “green” building rating systems, not to mention their being yet another obstacle to the realisation of our ideas…

But, of course, in order to change anything in the world – you yourself must be the first to change. I found a clue to making this necessary change recently while reading the excellent book Herzog & DeMeuron – Natural History. Describing his encounters with artist Joseph Beuys, Jacques Herzog explained that Beuys, with his workshop “an enigmatic world full of unsightly, odorous materials”, introduced him to the idea of the many layers of history embodied in every material we put to use. The idea that a copper sheet or timber batten or ball bearing goes through many different stages of production and passes through many hands before it even reaches us is, I think, an incredibly poetic one. While the term “embodied energy”, measured in kilojoules or some other scientific term usually has the architect rapidly losing interest, thinking of the same thing as 'embodied history' or, better yet, 'embodied memory' leads to a much deeper comprehension of the fascinating complexities involved in the process of taking a raw material and using it to make architecture.

True, we cannot escape the fact that it is our job to modify environments, cut down trees, burn energy. To do this responsibly and sustainably however, we need to develop a far greater degree of respect – reverence even – for the materials we use, spaces we make, and environments we work in. Perhaps if we can do this ourselves, then instead of treating their buildings simply as products, the people who inhabit and use these spaces will absorb some of the same sense of reverence.


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