50 years on: Our attitude to environment and architecture has hardly changed

Lloyd Alter
square milan 50 years on: Our attitude to environment and architecture has hardly changed

A public square with statue in Milan, now turned into a parking lot, demonstrating how we have given over our public space to our automobiles. Photo credit Lloyd Alter 2012

So much has changed in terms of our built environment over the last fifty years. In 1962 the International style ruled our skylines, and people lived and worked in towers with floor to ceiling glass, made of carbon-intensive concrete and sealed with petrochemical caulks and neoprene. Developers plundered the countryside building faux Georgian tract housing. New motorways were being built everywhere to accommodate the ever increasing number of gas guzzling cars. Innovative architects like Peter and Alison Smithson were reinventing housing with projects like Robin Hood Gardens.

Today we build taller towers with better floor to ceiling glass; instead of an insulating value of next to nothing, they have double that, almost nothing. We are still cooking limestone and crushing rock to make concrete, responsible for 5% of all CO2 emissions worldwide. Prince Charles is building faux Georgian tract houses. People are reinventing  housing and tearing down Robin Hood Gardens. Cars are everywhere; they are cleaner but marginally more efficient as they got bigger, heavier and air conditioned.

In North America, houses tripled in size, sprawled across the landscape and created a society where for the most part, people are trapped in their cars; the density is so low that no other form of transportation works. To keep all those cars running, they are boiling rocks in Alberta. The country is run by people who think that sustainable design and mass transit are a UN plot to control their lives.

The fact of the matter is, our attitudes and practices with respect to our built environment have changed remarkably little in the past fifty years. When architects and engineers gave a moment’s consideration to energy or transportation issues, they stuck green gizmos like wind turbines or solar panels on the roof or dream of pod cars like the PRT at Heathrow rolling down the streets. The answer to our problems was just to add more stuff, preferably sexy high technology. And then we drive our cars to it.

There are glimmers of hope. The transition town movement that started in the UK is spreading around the world, with its “community-led responses to climate change and shrinking supplies of cheap energy, building resilience and happiness.” Young people are giving up on cars and taking to their bicycles.  The internet revolution is changing the way people work, reducing demands on the transportation system and the need for ever more office buildings. Growing numbers of architects and planners believe that our homes and cities built before we became dependent on oil worked rather well, and that they are models to be preserved and emulated, rather than demolished and replaced.

But the last fifty years have mostly just seen more, more and yet still more of the same. Architects, engineers and planners have little to celebrate on this anniversary.

Lloyd Alter is Editor of Architecture and Design at Discovery Communication’s, He is an architect and teaches Sustainable Design at Ryerson University School of Interior Design.

Image: A public square with statue in Milan, now turned into a parking lot, demonstrating how we have given over our public space to our automobiles. Photo credit Lloyd Alter 2012

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  • Another Person UK educated

    China is preventing Japan getting use of the Rare Earth`s to make the motors for the electric cars affordably.

    You could ask;- “Where are the solar panels on the roofs and bonnets/hoods/trunks of the electric cars”?
    You could ask;- “Where are the fold-away mini wind-turbines on cars, for when parked to charge the batteries (on windy days)”?
    You could ask;- “Who is building solar charging stations at the supermarkets and superstores (and at work), to charge your car while you shop (or work) an hour to a day”?

    But that is enough `free` help for today. Who is paying?

  • Pacificweather

    That’s a bit harsh on environmentalism. Removing DDT and pollution from rivers and seas is a good thing whatever you think of the CO2 argument. Natural methane, permafrost melting. Nice and warm. Hmmm.

  • Robert Evan Hardy

    Post war prefabs often outlived their design lifetimes 3 or 4 fold. With proper maintenance sip built buildings will do the same. 

  • scarletbm

    We have advanced in so many ways re: education and its’ by products but unfortunately we have not advanced at all in the context of logical thinking and practice. Our dilemma has been caused by a regressive ruling system as opposed to a more beneficial and progressive one. Invention and design is only useful if it implemented responsibly. Catastrophically, 50 years later, it is quite clear that this has not been achieved.

  • nubbin1

    Unrealistic drivel from a soft minded idealist. Where are the original ideas in this piece? Nowhere – just derivative prattling and a rehash of othersoften misguided and narrow viewpoints. Just because an architect can sit at home and work, doesn’t mean everyone can. One side bemoans the loss of manufacturing in the UK, yet the other side rails against “carbon emissions” from factories. You can’t build a JCB in your dining room!

    The usual hooks are all here – climate change, filthy, evil cars, public transport is the answer, etc. etc. Great – let’s all buy a shiny new hybrid car – because the manufacturing of that only produces water, fluffy clouds and pretty butterflies, surely? Or an electric car which will save the planet by having zero emissions – err, except for all that CO2 that the power station emits to provide the electricity to charge it.

    There is plenty of mainstream domestic architecture that massively reduces energy use – nothing new to see there.

  • Joe

     I think your definition of “massively” and the author’s may differ, particularly concerning how much change is really sufficient to get the environmental crisis under control. That’s the divergence of views here.

  • Enoch

    There is definitely a lack of integration. Not just in architecture and the environment. There are too many odd ideas out there cobbled together creating disharmony.

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