I watched the Stirling Awards for Architecture on Saturday with a deep despondency.
These awards are the Booker of Buildings. Although all manner of croneyism, politics and fashion determines who makes the short list they are as good a reflection as any of what the architecture and arts world see as the cutting edge of new design.
Watching it I can only conclude that architects exhibit a particularly interesting and complex form of denial. Architects are, in my experience, aware people with progressive politics. As a profession they have a huge responsibility for causing climate change (the energy consumed by buildings and their materials are the single largest source of greenhouse gases) and a huge opportunity to develop the forms and structures of a low carbon economy. And, to be fair, they do talk about climate change a fair bit in magazines and conferences and books.
But the people at the top of the profession who get the Stirling and Pritzker prizers and the Gold medals and the gongs and the big fancy projects are not building anything that remotely reflects the realities of climate change.
This is an extremely interesting period for architecture- the most inventive and expressive in thirty years- and that expression is being achieved through technologies and materials that are the antithesis of a low carbon sustainable economy.
Take concrete for example. Cement has horrible CO2 emissions- very high temperatures are needed to slake the lime which produces yet more carbon dioxide as a by product. Cement manufacture accounts for 5% of the worlds greenhouse gas emissions. If we were serious about climate change it would be used very sparingly indeed.
And yet the bookies favourite to win the Stirling prize was Zaha Hadid’s extraordinary Phaeno Science Centre. It is is a symphony in ‘compacted concrete’ – the concrete floors sweeping up and around the museum to create one organic whole. It creates a thrilling new language for concrete that will be imitated widely. But it pays a high price. It used 27,000 cubic metres of concrete which produced nearly 10,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide. Given that a sustainable level is probably not much more than one tonne of carbon dioxide per person per year, that is a huge footprint.
Architects adore reinforced concrete because it combines strength with immense sculptural potential. Another Stirling shortlist was a ‘brick house’ by Caruso St John, the most striking quality of which, despite its name, is the neo-expressionist crumpled lines of its concrete roof slab. There’s an awful lot of concrete in that house. It pays clear homage to Louis Kahn and the formal language he developed 40 years ago, a long time before we knew of the impending collapse of the world’s weather system.
The winner of the Stirling Prize is Richard Rogers’ Barajas Airport. An airport wins the prize! A parking garage for the fastest growing cause of climate change! The top architects probably spend half their lives in airports and are especially subject to the near universal denial about the impacts of flights. Yet, if we are going to deal with climate change this building type needs to become as obselete as the bear pit.
One reason that people don’t see planes as polluting is that it doesn’t feel dirty. There are no smokestacks or piles of coal. Planes feel (and feelings count more than reality when we assess impacts) very smart and white and clean. Rogers and his team have concentrated their creativity on creating an airport that extends that feeling- all open and bright and fresh.
But the openness and brightness of the interiors is made possible by large expanses of plate glass (and a lot of steel to hold it up). What we don’t see in the pictures is the huge cooling and heating plant which keeps it at a tolerable temperature. No doubt Rogers, who speaks often about climate change (his shortlisted Welsh Assembly building appears to have made a serious attempt to be green), has achieved a very high energy design by using lots of clever technology and design to keep the energy load manageable.
This is the nub. Modern energy saving technology is not being used to create buildings with zero emissions but is enabling increased transparency and expressive potential. This is exactly what is happening in the car industry where the main market for LPG and fuel cells is for sports utility vehicles- the heaviest cars ever built.
And one could expand on this point endlessly. All around the world the best and most creative architects are using new technologies to push the expressive potential of their buildings. Gehry faces his buildings with sheets or stainless steel and titanium (the most energy intensive metal of all). Rem Koolhaas has built a new library in Seattle with entirely glass walls and roof. Work was suspended on Herzog and de Meuron ‘s Olympic stadium in Beijing because of the costs of the 80,000 tonnes of steel involved in its construction. That’s 152,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide- an incredible indulgence…and so I could go on. None of these designs are models for a sustainable future. All the architects have won the Pritzer award- the highest award for architecture.
As you can tell, I love architecture but despair of what is being done with it. Modernism arose from an entirely valid critique that traditional building was not able to meet the needs and opportunities of the modern world. In fifty years time, as the seas are rising and the hurricanes are crashing every month into Florida these buildings will appear pathetically dated- the last decadent rococo flourish of the carbon age. So why, when all the scientists agree on the problem, are they still be built and lauded?
[A postscript-an article in the Guardian points out that many of the ‘iconic’ previous Stirling prizewinners have performed very badly. LINK…
OK, so we know that when you do creative things to roofs leak, and that some people can never be pleased, but my main worry relates to environmental performance. Many of these buildings have turned out to have awful heating/cooling/lighting-which can only be remedied by increased energy use. This only justified my prejudice that these buildings look good precisely because they defy good building precedence
Thanks to Nick White at Hockerton Housing Project (check their ecobuild out at www.hockertonhousingproject.org.uk) for telling me about the article]