Statement | Sustainable architecture lingers in the rhetoric

In the absence of bigger ideas, architecture has been under the spell of sustainability for about twenty years. However, a new Pantheon, or something close to it, has not yet produced the architecture of sustainability. Sustainability architecture has established itself, it is called, designing for the future. The recently completed Sluishuis in Amsterdam IJburg, i NRC praised, is an example. It is a residential building in modern dress. There are plants on the stairs and roofs. The developer talks about a “sustainable front runner” and says that the homes are energy neutral and yet have many windows. You hear much less about the technical feats required to water the plants and to hang the building dramatically over the IJ.

The fact that Sluishuis goes beyond the goat’s wool cliché of a sustainable house – a mud hut with a grass roof, a goat on top and a windmill next to it – would be a credit if the design were not so perverse on aspects of sustainability other than energy saving. After all, sustainability is defined in construction by divergent and sometimes conflicting criteria. In addition to energy, the soundness of material extraction, the possibility of recycling, the embodied energy (the energy required to extract, manufacture and transport materials), demolition costs etc. play a role. No wonder the reception of Sluishuis is economical. Sports school architecture, they said at my desk. Parsley architecture, the artist Ira Koers mocked such an architecture.

The design of Sluishuis has a lightness that deliberately breaks with architectural conventions and sobriety. It promises little more than an ideal for the future to be fulfilled by technology. We have seen this before in architecture, wrote the German architect Hans Kollhoff in his collection of essays Architects. Ein Metier baut ab. After the Second World War, the utopian City of Tomorrow, where people would live peacefully in apartment buildings among the green spaces of the suburbs, was quickly embraced. It resulted in equally hastily manufactured suburbs which were renovated not much later at the cost of a lot of energy, raw materials, climate costs and – not to forget – a lot of social suffering.

Also read: The house of the future? it looks like it

Kollhoff continues that the European city consists of solid buildings. The physical city was a prerequisite for the social modernization of the buildings and not the other way around. The aim of the renovation of the architecture was to improve the city. However, the European city assumed that the architecture corresponded to the conventions of building and housing. The city was not a playground for unqualified innovative thinking or the free market. But it’s not like that anymore.

Sustainable construction

I recently presented a renovation plan for post-war apartment buildings at a housing association. I undertook resident engagement and minimal demolition. Although they indicated in advance that they were interested in sustainable design strategies, the housing association mainly doubted whether this would be sufficient to reposition their product in the housing market. Relocation? Product? The housing market? Regeneration rhetoric and market thinking plague the social rented sector, sustainable construction is an optional aspect.

The construction industry is also far from ready to recycle raw materials. Architect William McDonnough, author of the book Cradle to Cradle, admitted this eagerly once, at a dinner after the book launch. He rejected the extension of the life of post-war apartments and the careful use of raw materials. Cut that mess, he said. Better show your intentions. The sustainability guru puts good intentions over efficiency.

Sustainability should not be an alibi for dismantling Bijlmerflats. Material saving!

It is unacceptable. The goals in the rhetoric of sustainability diverge and must be sensibly aligned. Otherwise, circularity, biodiversity, climate costs and energy savings will continue to topple each other, and the goals will continue to be stuck in intentions. The innovative sustainability rhetoric does not imply a vision for the future.

As long as recycling and waste sorting are not fully developed or simply have too many negative ecological side effects (think of the transport costs of collecting old paper), there is no other option but to be patient, sober and economical. Sustainability should not be an alibi for dismantling Bijlmerflats. Material saving, cooling, heating and circularity are ancient architectural themes. Learn from cities that built on what was there. Such cities accumulate knowledge and wisdom – and are unruly in their renewal.

For example, Florence arose in the Renaissance from local rubble. Roman finds decorated the palace. The smart natural stone facades appear massive, but are exactly as thin as the eye finds acceptable. When relevant, wafer-thin plaster was provided with natural stone patterns or decorations. Saving on materials became the art of decorating.

Catastrophic fantasies

Assuming that the production of sustainable energy will be in order, the use of local clay for bricks is not a bad idea at all. Contrast that with the ‘sustainable’ softwood that is hauled to the Netherlands from remote plantations. Although it has a favorable reputation, wood grows in monocultures that are the equivalent of battery cages – as if biodiversity were not covered by sustainability. Wood also needs constant maintenance and repair. It is silly to build with wood as long as brick houses can continue the Dutch architectural solidity.

Also read: Government architect Francesco Veenstra: ‘Yes, the Netherlands has become uglier in recent years’

I don’t want to think of the parsley city of Amsterdam of the future, where plants overgrow the canal houses, the roofs sparkle with solar panels, the historic interior has disappeared behind insulation packages and where moaning windmills close the horizon. I don’t even try to imagine the respectable future ideal that will undoubtedly follow. You already hear that buildings are actually small power plants that generate more energy than they use. Such fantasies are disastrous. As with the post-war suburb, people will later ask who ordered all this. A city has no regret-knob.

Finally, about the Roman Pantheon: a more sustainable building than it has never been designed.

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