arch-peace editorials

23 August 2008

Olympic Musings

"The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well." (Olympic creed, Pierre de Coubertin)

By the time this editorial gets posted, the 2008 Beijing Olympics will have been in full swing. I thought why not join the festivities and reflect on the Olympics movement – or join the media (at least English language-based) in bagging the Olympics (poor air quality and terrorism have been popular). I decided to attempt not taking either route and reflect on the Olympics material culture – and Beijing’s is undoubtedly some of the most impressive to date, in ambition, scale, quality and speed of production. This is part of a meticulously choreographed media exercise, by the Chinese government, to impress the world and also its own citizens – providing material evidence to match its superpower aspirations whether economically, militarily or culturally. Judged by the way history is often (and inescapably) materially framed, they are certainly on the right track – as it is empires and their built legacy, remnants from the ancient superpowers such as Egypt, Greece, Rome, China to modern empires such as the British, French, American, that continues to inspire and leave ensuing generations in awe. On the contrary, societies that are more sustainable and operate within their ecological limits often do not leave monuments, culturally inscribing on the earth more lightly.

Nicolai Ouroussoff of the New York Times asked rhetorically “…One wonders if the West will ever catch up?” The answer for him seemed to be a resounding “no” – and on this many others have rationalized in political terms that such achievement is only possible in totalitarian regimes. Maybe that is an irrelevant question as, arguably, the West does not need to catch up (of course, no one should if the broader objective is for a more sustainable world) – Beijing is already embedded within our modern legacy, where it is no longer valid to discriminate into “East” or “West”. At Beijing, we merely taste the latest maturing fruits of the 18th Century Industrial Revolution and the interwoven religion of neoclassical economics. Besides, the designers of most of these mega-projects are Europeans, fully collaborating with the Chinese in their quest for supremacy in the oil and coal fuelled economy – at least in the accumulation of symbolic capital in the case of the Beijing Olympics.

Moreover, the Beijing Olympics in self-proclaiming itself as the “Green Olympics” is only consistent with contemporary public relation best practice in paying lip service to the concept of sustainability. In stark contrast with those self-delusions (the ‘peace’ and, more recently, ‘green’ feeling billions around the world experience together every four years), both China and the world continue to gratify their addiction to oil through drilling in ecologically sensitive landscapes and seascapes, energy intensively extracting oil from tar sands (now that oil prices has been manipulated (?) to make processing dirty oil economically viable) and, in many countries and regions, destabilising politics and societies in the process of extracting oil. Worst environmental practices are also easily shared and transplanted such as large-scale desalination plants that make extreme resource blind developments possible from Victoria (planned) to Dubai.

These issues may never be effectively addressed while Climate Change, in which the entire world’s environmental problems seem to have been reduced into and entrapped, is an almost impenetrable conundrum. It is obvious that emission targets to deal with Climate Change cannot be met if China, India and other developing economies are left out of the equation. Yet, this also raises ethical and moral dilemmas. Developed economies have defined, through two centuries, a hegemonic ecologically disastrous path towards material wellbeing. In asking developing countries to hold back on burning coal and oil that powers economic growth, we are asking the billions living in poverty to defer what they see is their right to a better quality of life that we already take for granted.

Alex Fernside of MCC, having watched the Olympics opening ceremony performances and its implied symbolisms, argued that we have our priorities wrong in our futuristic focus for a sustainable future. We must plan/design for a greener present rather than towards a less certain future. This idea potentially redefines the priorities of “sustainability” – one that calls for a refocus on the here and now and not planning for a sustainable society in 2030 or 2050 – which, in effect, is merely deferring our present responsibilities to future generations (while conveniently deferring critical decisions to future politicians). Besides, if Climate Change and its impact projections prove accurate, it requires radical societal changes now rather than present incremental practices to avoid worse case scenarios. Cities can no longer afford just to accumulate isolated symbolic green icons such as CH2 (a drop in the ocean of unsustainable building stocks in Melbourne), collectively feel good about it, and market it for all its worth. We have to make sure refinement of such practices and experimental attitudes quickly permeate the broader city, whether in new projects or retrofits. Maybe it is through these finer actions where our ‘salvation’, if time permits, lies – in the defining, inventing and practicing alternative paths towards material wellbeing and quickly, unselfishly sharing and disseminating to other societies aspiring to our lifestyles. On that note, one wonders how historians in 3008 will interpret (or misinterpret!) the remnants of the Beijing Olympic monuments.

Sidh Sintusingha

Architects for Peace, August 2008


arch-peace said...

Thanks for this important and timely editorial Sidh. You have touched on so many critical and often avoided issues. The demand placed on poorer countries to “defer what they see is their right to a better quality of life.” In the meanwhile our own efforts are slow and rather focusing on how life will be in the future with no much consideration for what we can do now to change or minimise the damage. I agree very much with Alex Fernside and I am curious about the use/abuse of the term “adaptation” in this regard. Many of our design studios and conferences use this concept which avoids facing the present and evade discussing how we arrived at this point.

I have to admit that I am one of those that was mesmerised by the opening of the Olympic games. Rich visuals that were simple at the same time carefully crafted to deliver snaps of Chinese history and achievements, without becoming crass and propagandistic. The spectacle was immense yet it very much relied upon the collective, men/women-power and I think it conveyed a sense of optimism because of it. From this point of view, I though it was ‘honest’, immensely powerful and ‘minimal’ at the same time. Honest because the power was in their own sense (and display) of the ‘collective’—and if that is what their political system claims to be about, that was the essential element used throughout the opening and with great success. It is too easy to put the opening down to an expression of totalitarianism, but this requires much more qualification and discussion than what the media offers. Discussion in which the political, environmental and social aberrations of all, particularly the so called ‘West’, are placed on the table.
Looking forward to the comments and to your next editorial or article.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the throughtful comments Beatriz. I totally agree that there are huge limitations implicit in our design studios - and I am talking about the ones consciously engaging with "sustainability". I find that the best we can do is to expose and open up the students to these critical issues/thinking and hope that it instil passions and create momentums that sustains them into their professional and individual lives - and that they are not quickly blunted by the dominant hegemonies. Writing now, interestingly one of the hegemonies of greed and extreme, unregulated capitalism is in the process of being dismantled. Sadly, many in "mainstreet" will suffer - but it does provide a great global opportunity and space to reflect and, if this opportunity is seized, even meaningfully change. As an aside, this is probably why the November US election is the most important in a very long time - it is a, potentially, critical fork on the road to two very different global futures between an Obama and a McCain presidency. Unfortunately the world could not vote and in a sense, we are living in a "totalitarian" regime of sorts!


Post a Comment