50 years on: Our attitude to environment and architecture has hardly changed
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 TreeHugger.com, 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 2012Tagged in: environment, green movement at 50, nature
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