For the Number 06 issue of AGORÀ magazine, it was decided to deal with a topic that I personally find difficult to argue: climate change related to Architectural discipline. A matter of undoubtedly major importance, especially in the latest period, but on which I am personally very skeptical. Being a topic that – without mincing words – I unwillingly deal with, I decided to develop the following text by speaking for the first time in first person and developing the discussion around doubts, personal observations and reasoning collected in recent years. No universal truth, just simple and personal considerations.
The title that was given to the editorial for the sixth issue of AGORÀ magazine and which briefly summarizes the topic that will be discussed in this quarter is: “CLIMATE JUSTICE AND ARCHITECTURE”. The short text that follows this title, and which can be read as a whole in the section of the website dedicated to the sixth issue of this magazine, describes the tragic climatic situation that we hear more and more about, recalling new synergies among mankind, nature and architecture and wondering if it is possible to transpose green ideologies “in terms of architecture to face a global emergency”¹. To summarize, avoiding excessive generalizations, this issue of the magazine will develop the theme nature-architecture, a topic that will be discussed in the multiple interpretations offered by humanistic and scientific disciplines.
There are several reasons why I am very averse to dealing with such a topic and why I never wanted this subject to be discussed in AGORÀ magazine in recent months. The climate change issue is certainly sensitive and important, far be it from me to say otherwise. Since the first industrial revolution, we began to poison the planet more and more by exploiting non-renewable natural resources without restraint, creating catastrophic damage to the ozone layer that protects us from UV rays, polluting and covering with concrete much of the landmass and shamelessly promoting the development of the greenhouse effect, consequently changing temperatures. Today, when I think about climate change, my concern is, perhaps with a slight opportunism, the future of my children and their judgment about me (us). Why am I saying this? Because the issue we are dealing with is really significant. It may seem obvious and long-winded to say it over and over again, but that’s how it is. It is an important matter, it is a matter that involves everyone, it is a popular matter. And that’s why it is often used as a mask, as a pretext to soften or improve something that would ordinarily be criticized or ignored.
So, the word “green” and the prefix “eco-” have become two brands. Two terms that serve as a label, as something that makes us feel like we owe the world something less and like our conscience is clearer when we know we have them in our hands. The ECOlogical car, the GREEN skyscraper, the ECO-friendly water bottle, etc… In short, for better or worse, in recent years these two words have been associated with any kind of object. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good that the world has reinvented itself in favor of products and solutions with less impact on the planet but… Are there any “buts”? Well, yes, there’s a few. I believe that all the “buts” can be included under a single expression: greenwashing. This phenomenon, if it can be defined in these terms, basically finds an expression in an attempt to assert the sustainability of objects, products, companies, etc… omitting, however, the real impact of the latter on the environment. There are various shades of this phenomenon. There are those who pass off a product as sustainable with no evidence, there are the ones who define something “green” without saying how much it actually is and perhaps neglecting the term “disposal” and there are also those who boast of promoting a virtuous behavior, when in fact the only goal achieved is the minimum threshold of environmental compatibility imposed by law. Of course, all this is also found in architecture in its different forms.
For some years now it seems that a new (and fake) architectural element is becoming more and more popular on buildings all over the world: the tree. If I had to date the advent of this new element, I would probably take 19 November 2014 as the reference date, the year in which the Bosco Verticale in Milan won the International Highrise Award, a biennial award that selects the most beautiful skyscraper in the world. After this day, buildings increasingly adorned with plants have appeared on social networks, in magazines and in university classrooms. A real contamination. Something that most people may or may not like, but that most people accept. Why? Well, of course, because it’s labeled GREEN. How could you fail to take pride in having a house that is saving the world? Then, you might not even know how your life is improving, but… hey, if you have a wild pear tree and an oak on your balcony, something has to happen. I mean, the Arbutus Unedo (aka strawberry tree) wasn’t put outside your window for nothing. And indeed, it is true, it is estimated that the over 20,000² plants on the two towers absorb about 30 tons of CO2 per year³. But therefore, all the other buildings which do not have plants on their balconies are not eco-sustainable? No! And here is the rub. Although the trees that cover the facades of the buildings are “beautiful”, they are not necessarily an element that ensures the sustainability of the building we are watching. Paradoxically, but not so much, there are buildings even without balconies where to place plants, which are more sustainable than the Bosco Verticale (without detracting from the latter project). This is the first problem: the image conveyed. The GREEN brand is so exasperatedly used and misused that every time a tree is placed on a building, the collective idea that is conveyed is that the building is eco-sustainable. On this thought, the hypothesis of an actual change falls. Green persuades, and often deceives.
A second problem, even if it is not quite correct to define it as follows, is due to the social dynamic that is created. In the society of appearance, it is really difficult to remain consistent, especially if you want to try to appear sensitive to environmental issues. This inconsistency is given, for example, by living in a building at the highest level of sustainability, and then having in the garage the latest model of the most powerful SUV in its class. Or having an electric car to reduce emissions and not being vegetarian. Yes, because for those who don’t know, 15% of greenhouse gases are produced by intensive livestock farming, especially of sheep and cattle⁴. The same cattle that, every day, we find in the form of food on the table. In short, in our heart we are all ecologists, but being a real ecologist is quite another thing.
The third problem I would like to talk about still falls within the discipline of architecture, and it refers again to the topic of the image. I know that at this point in the text I might seem unaffectionate and completely apathetic towards environmental issues. Well, in the next sentences I will sound like this even more. As sensitive as I am to environmental issues, I cannot help but stand by the discipline that inspires me every day. In response and in opposition to a conformist and entirely uninterested passivity of a group of people who says “poor Earth!” in order to show off, I answer “poor Architecture!”. Because although it is true that the world must be preserved, this cannot be done at the expense of our culture and even less at the expense of Architecture! With the superficial image that a tree on a balcony is better, out of a naïve and prissy vision, than a facade made of béton brut, we are moving towards a type of architecture devoid of any theoretical thought behind it. Switching from the Pirelli skyscraper to a generic tree-lined tower which might hide a false message is not acceptable.
One could say that architectural changes are inevitable, as was the transition from Neoclassical to Modern at the beginning of the 20th century. Evolution is a continuous process and it is fair to make progress in architecture too. But in order to move forward, a substratum consisting of the architectural theory is essential. In fact, it is this latter component that outlines the fine line between Architecture and construction.
Translated into English by Luna Lebang.
¹ Lucia Arrighi e Morgana Nichetti, Editorial Number 06, CLIMATE JUSTICE AND ARCHITECTURE, AGORÀ magazine, www.agora-magazine.com, last modified 01/07/2020, date of consultation 01/07/2020.
² Stefano Boeri Architetti, Bosco Verticale, www.stefanoboeriarchitetti.net, date of consultation 22/03/2020.
³ Benedetta Bacciali, Non solo Boschi Verticali, le città foresta sono la nuova frontiera della forestazione urbana, Lifegate, www.lifegate.it, last modified 05/10/2018, date of consultation 22/03/2020.
⁴ Franco Grilli, I gas serra nell’atmosfera? Sono colpa delle mucche e dei loro rutti al metano, Il Giornale, www.ilgiornale.it, last modified 08/10/2018, date of consultation 22/03/2020.
– Emilio Ambasz, Architectura & natura. Design & artificio, Mondadori Electa, Milano 2010.
– Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen, Kevin Roche: Architecture As Environment, Yale University Press, London, 2011.