Humanity has evolved, for hundreds of thousands of years, in the context of the natural environment: hundreds of thousands of years where our species prospered with what nature provided. While today we’re almost completely conformed by the built space we still long for and seek nature, and we still obtain clear mental and physical benefit from contact with the natural environment’, says Tiago do Vale, Tiago do Vale Arq.
As a discipline, Architecture aspires to change the natural world into a human ideal. The metamorphosis from nature’s unpredictability into vitruvian “stability, utility and beauty” has been one the of the most central architectural purposes since the beginning of time: it is, in fact, one of the most basic human motivations, from the sheds to the city. Having said that, it is clear that to create our extraordinary human ecosystems the price of sacrificing natural ones was always paid. Architectural impact never happens without environmental impact.
A few months ago I bumped into a most interesting article by Jose María Eguileta Franco (the Director of the Archeology Department of Ourense, Spain), versing about what northern Spaniards call the “uglyism phenomenon” in architecture, but from an archeological point of view.
We know this phenomenon very well in Portugal too: a range of buildings, mainly from the second half of the 20th century, arbitrarily, unsustainably and inconsequentially built with “poor taste” that, added up, disqualify the landscape where they are integrated, both in the cities and the countryside (where their impact is more glaring). That the phenomenon exists is granted. The question is: it exists why?
It’s common to defend that these chaotic landscapes come from allowing untrained, uneducated people with no regard for patrimonial, landscape or architectural questions to design and build on the territory.
The thing is: the timeless, harmonized, deeply qualified, ingrained with and off the place landscape whose loss we mourn was, itself, built by untrained, uneducated people with no regard for patrimony, landscape or architecture. Realizing that, what did really fail during the second half of the Portuguese 20th century?
The “good taste/poor taste” discourse is always a less familiar territory for an architect. Architects work based on rational responses to specific questions, rooted on their knowledge of their field: “taste”, in its arbitrarity, doesn’t constitute a useful strategy to reach the best solutions.
Vernacular architecture didn’t, equality, aim for “good taste” but for solutions capable of the most efficient answers to the required functions, in that specific place, using the available local materials, economically. This is the purest definition of sustainably. These were time-proven solutions that, even if conceived by uneducated people, emerged from a rich and vast knowledge shared by dozens of generations of builders throughout the centuries, that had no other ambition than to be the best constructions possible.
Unfortunately, in Portugal as in other countries, the incorporation of the modernist imaginary led to the absolute rejection of all that was vernacular. The rejection of all this accumulated knowledge, unfortunately, wasn’t substituted by any knowledge of any other type. We could imagine that the vernacular knowledge would be substituted by the academic knowledge of the modernist architects, but the truth is that the per centage of building conceived by architects was negligible at the time.
All this knowledge was replaced by “taste”.
Mid-century “taste” resulted in a landscape built throughout by the same model of light concrete structures with thin single-pane brick walls, massive technical shortcomings, lack of salubrity or thermal comfort and completely ignorant of the place, its circumstances, local resources, opportunities, and particularities.
For the entire Portuguese 20th century a repetitive architecture was built by agents without training or knowledge of architecture: vernacular wisdom was violently replaced by a full absence of knowledge.
Architects have today, building by building, the obligation to do a better job and to insert back “knowledge” into the landscape, at least as much as our pre-modernist ancestors did. It’s time to fix things up.
Vernacular was good architecture, not only because it generated magical places that did their job, but also because -as any proper architecture- it was intrinsically sustainable. This is the model we need to look up to.
Though we still are riding the ancestral wave of desiring to transform the world in so many regards, sustainability in architecture has become an angular stone in architecture for the last decades of the 20th century, and its concept evolved towards the holistic -but equally vague- definition of “minimizing the environmental impact of building”.
Beyond its effect on a place’s ecology, the construction of a building requires hundreds of products that are, themselves, composed by elements from thousands of places on the globe. The production of each of those individual elements has an impact on their natural environment. It is, so, a simple definition but a definition that has a planetary impact.
Having said that, reducing sustainability to a “minimization” is insufficient for the future: sustainability can’t be a measure of how “less bad” a building is. While the effect of a single building may not seem of great consequence for the environments the cumulative effects are devastating.
Though it’s Society that always pays the hidden price of negligent construction, it’s not Society’s responsibility to change the construction agents practices. This obligation belongs both to promoters and architect.
Humanity has evolved, for hundreds of thousands of years, in the context of the natural environment: hundreds of thousands of years where our species prospered with what nature provided. While today we’re almost completely conformed by the built space we still long for and seek nature, and we still obtain clear mental and physical benefit from contact with the natural environment. It’s unquestionable that the connection with nature increases people’s health and well-being: even the visual presence of a tree is notoriously capable of decreasing stress level in those inhabiting built environments.
It’s obliged to a radical paradigm change that accepts Nature as a starting point, as a generator of architecture, an architecture that uses the natural systems locally available as project themes and that takes inspiration from the million years evolution engineering.
Including the place in our architecture, the present nature, the local materials, and the local climatic potential is the only way to produce trulls sustainable buildings.
Remembering W.G. Clark, “the most important quality of architecture is how it relates with a place on Earth and how it dignifies it. That’s why the architecture we admire the most, be it the product of an individual or of a civilization, is the one that was built with a sense of belonging and of loyalty to the natural landscape”.
With promoters and constructors, we need to decide to contribute in the direction of a greater environmental responsibility.
Once that compromise is reached, sustainable construction will be the norm.