I did not assume that anyone in the academic world would ask a practicing architect in the
21st century, given the architecture that we collectively produce, to participate in a conference on ecological urbanism. So, I'm very grateful that you challenge me, but I am also deeply aware that my presentation is defined by this doubt and this condition.
Because you invited me here, we did some research. We looked first at antiquity and realized that 25 years before Christ there was already a profound knowledge about ecology and how people should build to be economical, logical, and beautiful. Vitruvius (1), for instance, was completely aware that the sun would cast shadows at different inclinations depending on the orientation of the site, and that his architecture should address these conditions (2). Since the sun was shining from the south, the hottest parts of Roman baths should also be in the south
(3). This knowledge was not limited to individual buildings, but extended to the planning of cities that were effortless and logical, based on engagements with and an understanding of nature. During the Renaissance, this knowledge was cultivated and further amplified. A century later, the so-called Enlightenment broke out, and with Enlightenment came a formal launch of modernity. What we see is that the Enlightenment had a phenomenal effect on reason, in terms of triggering the apparatus of modernity in a surprisingly short time. Also inscribed in
Enlightenment were people like Goethe, who effortlessly combined art and science, and people like Caspar David Friedrich. His paintings show highly sophisticated and cultivated people in search of and interacting with nature in a way that doesn't show any tension or alienation; the interaction actually seems to work for both sides (4). Perhaps the very final outcome of this highly reasonable streak of our civilization is the nuclear power plant (5).
There is also an entirely different streak in our culture. It is a not a narrative of linear and reasonable progress, but a narrative of disasters and fundamental tensions between nature and mankind. It depicts nature as a kind of punishment of mankind and, occasionally, mankind as a punisher of nature (6, 7). That narrative, however we look at it – religiously or otherwise – is a fundamentally anti-modern one, which insists on apocalyptic expectations.
Friedrich symbolizes this feeling in some of his paintings, which generated a series of prophets. Perhaps Malthus was the first one, with his belief that a premature death must visit the human race. Others were Paul Ehrlich in 1968 (8) and James Lovelock (9).
What we have are two completely opposite strains, both with very eloquent and impressive practitioners. Both ideologies read the same phenomena in completely contradictory terms: one as a line of reasonableness and the other as a line of disastrous manipulation and wrongness. The confusion at the current moment is generated by the tension between these two lines. We are not able to disentangle them or understand when one of the traditions speaks and when the other speaks. This polarity is still operating and has been for a long time. To introduce a slightly more autobiographical moment, when I studied in London in 1968, I was taught in a school where tropical architecture was still on the curriculum. Although I didn't take it entirely seriously, I was fascinated by its teachers, who taught us an incredible respect for the landscape. They taught us to look at other cities to see how they work, and to look at seemingly completely non-architectural environments. For them, no issue was too humble or lowly. Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry (10) made drawings of open sewers and ways to clean them. That kind of humility in architectural education has practically disappeared.