Utopian Solutions to Real Problems
Architects have always been at the forefront of envisioning fantastic new models and paradigms for living. More often than not those visions tend to neglect the diversity and sometimes impossible collage of forms that results from a city built by its own citizens. See Le Corbusier’s Radiant City or Antonia Sant’Elia for example.
However, with all of their many faults, grand Modernist proposals were still earnest attempts to compile the world’s many problems, analyze them, and offer solutions. When Corbusier dreamed of tearing down all of Paris and extruding skyscrapers on an endless grid of parks one can’t help but recognize the urgent attempt to make sense of a rapidly changing world. To neatly and summarily solve many pressing issues in one bold, tidy statement is, after all, what architects are hired to do every day.
Luckily, many architects today are looking forward by not only admitting that they alone cannot solve all of our city’s problems, but also by embracing the unpredictability of a dynamic city (while also positing that sustainable cities can be messy and eco-friendly at the same time). One recent instance can be found in Popular Science’s Life On the Edge: Four Visions For Inhabiting a World Transformed By Climate Change.
The first characteristic that strikes one when looking at these four different visions is the small scale and adaptability of each design. Here are four human-scaled building blocks to deal with climate change. Each one offers a projection of one instance in a very different environment; nowhere is the hand of the architect constructing a rigid formality to the city. Instead, we find some possible solutions to some very specific, entirely environmental and climatic changes that can be endlessly formed and modified.
All of the projects deal first-hand with self-sufficiency in terms of energy production – this isn’t anything new in the realm of architecture, but in terms of scale, I think (and correct me if I’m wrong, I’m sure there are more examples out there of this) these projects are some of the few that stand out in their self-resignation as components to a whole system rather than trying to be single, bold statements of sustainability as a mere marketing tool (Dubai, anyone?). Rather, their bold statement is our impending crisis of climate change. If, for example, New York City does become “an archipelago that could lose as much as a fifth of its landmass by 2080” and Mustafa Bulgur and Sinan Gunay’s City(E)scape proposal for self-sufficient modules suspended from Manhattan’s skyscrapers becomes a reality, then a wonderfully anarchic agglomeration of individuals within a collective network of support (literally and figuratively) becomes a daring new paradigm for sustainability. No single building (or architect) here will save us.
However, the social interactions between those single buildings and the people contained within are given little consideration in these four designs. What kind of public life can result from these new forms? How would habits and ideas change by living in these environments? Sustainability means far more than energy independence. As a concept it needs to infiltrate our daily lives as a theoretical shift that changes public perception of space, economics, social realities, health, art, politics, etc, etc. And without that fundamental shift, we won’t find ourselves anywhere near a City(E)scape in 2080. But we will find ourselves under 30 feet of water.