03 January 2009

towards a critique of sustainability

From the latest issue of Volume: a decent critique of that ever-elusive term "sustainability." The very word, emptied of meaning through overuse, increasingly dominates architectural design and discourse, and—frankly—it drives me crazy. People use it all the time without really knowing what they are talking about. I always ask: sustainable of what? Too often the word becomes appropriated as a band-aid, cure-all additive that can be applied as environmental/ecological veneer to an architectural project, like icing on a cake. But the word has become such a all-encompassing buzzword, a signifier onto which so many different aspirations and agendas have been projected, that it doesn't really mean anything anymore.

Panayiota Pyla's article in Volume starts to address these concerns and formulate a real critique of sustainability. Pyla focuses on the the historical underpinnings of the contemporary sustainability movement—from Rachel Carson's Silent Spring to the UN environmental conferences of the 1970's—and how these precedents can inform the potential pitfalls that we face by investing such uncritical faith in the S-word.

The crux of Pyla's argument: "Perhaps the key issue here is to be vigilantly aware that as a concept and as a practice sustainability is constantly running the danger of turning into a totalizing doctrine that subsumes critical thinking."

And another key section:

Maybe it is good that sustainability does not have a fixed or coherent definition. Maybe it should never have one! Because if the technical questions of energy efficiency or the technocratic questions of efficient resource use or even the questions of socioeconomic management end up constituting THE definition of sustainability in architecture, this will threaten to reduce design to a series of small decisions (on materials, energy or feasibility) that will ultimately have less to do with design and more with management or with political correctness.
Apropos of the flawed LEED rating system, which constitutes the mainstream standard of sustainable design in this country, these are some wise words.

Worth a read.

[via Archinect]


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