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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  • Mathew F. Riley

     I realise the above article is predominantly about
    office/commerical/urban building but think the same attitudes apply to
    domestic building developments. We have just built a house using
    relatively ‘green/eco’ techniques – air source heat pump, solar PV,
    rainwater harvesting, SIPS building system – the valuer who came round
    called these new tehcnologies and building system ‘odd’ and admitted he
    had limited training in the new building techniques of today and of the
    forseeable future – how can this valuer provide a duty of care to me, or
    to the lender with no knowledge of what he was valuing?

    Also, when approaching numerous lenders for an affordable mortgage, all
    but 4 wouldn’t even consider us due to it being a non-traditional
    building – despite the methods having been approved by all the relevant
    organisations. I realise an element of this reluctance to lend is due to
    the economic climate, but the attitude of those with the ability to
    ‘get things moving’ is downright archaic to say the least.

  • Midwinter1947

    Heartily agree.

  • Andy Pritchard

    We have yet to see radical change in our work and building habits despite two very strong forces: telecommunications allowing reduced commuting and 9/11 which demonstrated that three skycrapers buildings were not only highly vulnerable to attack but also explode with freefall acceleration after a fire! Where are the eco-friendly homes? Where are the electric cars?

  • ArfurTowcrate

    The luddites and wreckers are busy planning their latest schemes. 

    In my home town of Croydon, developers are said to be fighting over plans to update the Whitgift shopping centre by knocking it down and replacing it with another monument to mammon, despite the evidence of numerous empty shops to demonstrate that the retail bubble has burst.  Their rivals at the other shopping centre (yes, we have two), Centrale, want to knock down a chunk of theirs and do the same. 

    And they plan to “improve” the road network to bring more car-borne shoppers into a wannabe city that has trams and pretends to want to replace the Wellesley Road triple-carriageways with a boulevard comparable to Las Ramblas in Barcelona. 

    Sustainable development?  ere’, you havin a larf? 

  • Firozali A.Mulla

    The upcoming Federal Reserve meeting on June 19-20 will be one of
    the most important events of the entire year. Faced with an economic outlook that’s
    clearly weaker than it was six months ago, the central bank ought to undertake
    a more stimulative course of action. And yet, there’s little indication that
    the Fed’s governors are considering any such thing. Even more remarkably,
    there’s almost no pressure coming from inside the political system for the
    federal government’s main macroeconomic stabilization agency to stabilize the
    economy. Instead, when Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke went to the Hill last week, he
    was hectored by conservative members calling for tighter money,
    while Democrats did nothing to call for the sort of pro-growth policies that
    represent their best hope for November. The left ought to be lobbying Bernanke
    for a looser money supply and more quantitative easing. Instead, the only
    criticism from the left that Bernanke took on the Hill was over the relatively
    unimportant subject of JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon’s role on the New York Federal
    Reserve Bank’s board of directors. It’s just not Democrats on the Hill who are
    ignoring the truly critical matter of Fed policies. As the annual Netroots
    Nation conference this weekend in Providence, R.I., attendees were
    all-too-aware that the weak economy is the biggest short-term threat to their
    larger political project. At the same time, they remained woefully uninterested
    in the subject of monetary policy, the main tool the government can use to
    boost the labor market. Instead, the economic policy discussion among
    progressives remains fixated on the politically impossible and substantively
    inadequate concept of fiscal stimulus. A Saturday- morning high-profile
    economic policy roundtable featuring Paul Krugman, AFL-CIO chairman Richard
    Trumka, and progressive think tankers Heather McGhee and Erica Payne drove this
    blind-spot home. The Federal Reserve was discussed only clankingly, and even
    that segment myopically focused on Dimon’s New York Federal Reserve role. I thank you Firozali A.Mulla DBA

  • Helen Wilcox

    Many people are stuck in an outdated paradigm – research Earthships (one in Brighton and one in Fife), look into the uses of hemp (aka cannabis sativa) for building and oils amongst many other uses. There are many sustainable and environmentally friendly options available but they usually carry one massive downside ( if you think economy is more important than humanity) and that’s profit – or lack of. Earthships are totally self sustainable, need no gas or electric or water supply as this is all incorporated into the design of the home. Hmmm, a house with no bills – that just wouldn’t do at all.

  • Pacificweather

    Why would anything change in the last 50 years? Nothing changed in the previous 100 years. Nothing will change in the next 50 years. Why, nobody has invented anything better that we like the look of or holds its value or you can get a mortgage on. More people may traval by bike than in the sixties but not as many as in the twenty and thirties and not enough to stop commuter trains being packed to bursting. With nearly 70 million people living in Britain, it will be the last country in Europe to change whenever change occurs.

  • David Cage

    Looking at the eco ideas we might just be returning to mud huts just as we are in line for a torrential downpour. Both ends are populated by fanatics for their viewpoints with no idea of in one case financial reality and the other no idea of social one.
    Electric cars powered by what? Wind farms. And these people are taken seriously by politicians. Oh I forgot  our leaders collect on the subsidies  but are of  course not swayed by the fat cash handouts one bit.
    Environmentalism will eventually die when the truth comes out about the bungle that was CO2 based global warming which became the world’s biggest backside protection racket. This will happen when one less dim media individual learns to ask why they had the right answer two decades ago when they only discovered several parts of the equation in the last two years becasue they cut the grants from those that wanted to look for the theoretically predicted huge natural methane sources. That is ignoring the fact that there are probably four more equally big sources that were pinpointed as likely but ignored in the “proven” science.

  • David Cage

     SIPS building system ….. No more than a glorified wooden shack with a plastic foam lining. How many of these will be standing in a century? A single dimension idea with no merit in that it has traded off every single long term requirement of a building in favour of good insulation. Even the ghastly and inappropriate corporate phalluses are more lasting in concept and in execution.

  • Another Person UK educated

    The Problem is that house designers don`t consider where workers work. Modern Tin Factories don`t get built in a design people want to live near. Houses are no more advanced than a hundred years ago really. Not in real terms they are not.
    Cities are too expensive to alter significantly; and nobody cares to re-develop existing assets. For example. Old rows of (small) terraced housing is pulled down as it falls into disrepair; BUT could have been saved much earlier, and each property, which was inadequate (in itself by being too small) could have been joined with a neighbouring property on the terrace and renovated. Apartment blocks pulled down could have been the same. They could have been turned into Maisonettes (to reduce noise) and renovated. Lifts could have been opened only by ID card. etcetera. But while there is no cohesive country (due to social & political fighting) there will always be INCREASING problems. Enjoy. I left by the need to breathe life.

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