Sustainability is the latest buzzword. It’s not cool to be unsustainable! Yet few people take the time to question what this means, and what it means depends largely on who is using the term. Bankers and politicians (in this day of the “Free” market economy) use it in a financial sense – things have to pay for themselves and turn a profit. Borrowing is sustainable when it is within certain inflationary limits. Architects and planners talk about sustainability in terms of energy-efficiency and environmental balance –sustaining the resources of the planet for future generations. Fortunately, this is the meaning that is gaining increasing public prominence, though not as rapidly as many of us would like. But there is another meaning to the term that does not have the same currency value out there in the world, and this is the notion of social and cultural sustainability – that societies and cultures ought to be able to sustain themselves and their unique identities into the future – that Native Americas, Croatians, Celts, Aborigines, Maori, Saami and other cultures, tribal or otherwise, ought to be able to sustain their languages, customs and unique ways of making their world in the face of globalisation and neo-colonialism. This understanding of the term is not common and would seem strange to most people – although they could probably identify it with their own social and cultural circumstances. It's a meaning that directly opposes, commodification , colonialism and capitalism. It recognises that the creation of one's own world is not only a human right, but an absolute necessity - if we want to create ourselves as true human beings. It was this notion of sustainability that lay at the heart of the Arts and Crafts Movement so vocally espoused by that remarkable British Marxist William Morris. Morris believed that human labour and control over the means of producing one's world was the way to emancipation and true creativity. In criticising capitalism, Morris was aware of its destructive properties for the human spirit and for the planet. And so this meaning is not so very far removed from that more common meaning of environmental sustainability that is emerging again today. When we look at indigenous or pre-colonial cultures we see that their ways of shaping their environment is intimately connected to their sense of identity – of who they are as a culture. When we go to Greece to visit Santorini or Mykonos, we don’t go to see it because it looks like Los Angeles or Auckland. We go because it looks Greek, because it is Greek. We go because it is different, and this difference is a fundamental quality that needs to be sustained. Unfortunately this kind of social and cultural sustainability gets lost – buried under the other kind of sustainability – not only the one that worries about the important issues of dwindling oil stocks, global warming and climate change, but more significantly, the one that focuses on economic sustainability, that is tied to the “free” market and to corporate profitability at all costs. It is this process of globalisation that threatens to eradicate the differences in our world by separating cultures from the processes and materials by which they create their own environments and replacing them with processes, materials and products from distant and cheaper places. If we look at these traditional cultures that we say we value so much, we will see that they were based on plenitude. – the people had enough and were not driven to consume the way that we are. Their cultures were based on production, rather than consumption. These older cultures maintained a balance between their available resources and their own consumption. Consumption in our modern world is different. It is driven by a manufactured scarcity that impels us to use more than we have or can afford, and that therefore requires us to consume resources that lie beyond our own immediate environment – little caring what the consequences might be for the cultures who live in those places – Bengaladesh, India etc. – or for the planet. It is for this reason that my own design work has a deep engagement with sustainability - a concern with resource conservation and sustainment but also echoing the kinds of architecture that were produced by the Arts and crafts movement - William Morris, Bernard Maybeck, Green and Green etc. who took craftsmanship as their highest ideal. This is why many of the projects I have worked on have been self-designed and self-built by my clients. Because I see the necessity to support their creative energies and I celebrate their ability to make their own world.
This PDF presents a general outline, with images, of my ongoing engagement with sustainable design issues since 1973.
To download the PDF click here.
The file is 17 megabites so be patient!