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Will architecture save the world?

Will architecture save the world?
Enric Ruiz-Geli, a famed Barcelona-based architect, proposes to consider structures as constructions with purpose. His view of bioclimatic architectural projects is that of constructions elaborated with the future in mind: reducing energy consumption and material needs while facilitating mobility and interaction, the projects he designs are simultaneously technical and ideological. Technical for their new materials and innovative construction techniques; ideological for the higher mission they strive to achieve.
 
As inspiring as it may be to some, Ruiz-Geli's discourse - who recently presented his work at the Summer school on Management of Creativity in an Innovation Society -, is unfortunately one that is both misinformed and misleading. As is often the case when creators jump in the political arena, his views are approximative and not sufficiently based in fact. His arguments are addressing the link between architecture and global warming, and developed along the lines of an immediate need to reduce energy consumption in order to diffuse the effects of the latter. Thus, although the architectural dimension of his proposition is indeed quite inspiring, it is weakened by the logical shortfalls of his arguments, which need to be revisited.
 
First, the idea that we will reach "the end of oil" anytime soon is a misconception [Ruiz-Geli argues we'll run out in twenty years]. The argument has little to do with geophysics or technical ability to explore and exploit, but rather lies in the economics of resource exploitation. The rationale is simple : as we consume more oil and the stock - proven or estimated - diminishes, prices will go up. Hence, with the reduction in stock, the price will slowly increase until the product is so rare and its price so high that it is entirely replaced by alternative sources of energy ["negawatts" may also be an alternative]. That said, it would certainly be more interesting to estimate the progression of these values and their impact on consumption, rather than following random estimators of the remaining quantities, most of which imply business-as-usual scenarios that assume we will keep utilizing it at current rates. Let us finally point out the fact that the question of remaining oil reserves has little to do with global warming : if we had oil left for a thousand years, global warming would still be an issue.
 
The second thing Ruiz-Geli fails to acknowledge is that architecture isn't really a solution for the short-term problem he evokes. If indeed we are to run out of petroleum by 2030 (see previous argument), architects will not be of much help. If indeed the globe is warming and temperatures are sharply rising above bearable levels, it is not through large-scale architectural endeavours that we will be able to adapt and survive. To think that we will be able to destroy, retrofit and build anew structures that have been edified over thousands of years, and make them compatible with contemporary imperatives within a few years, is not practical, and does not contribute positively to framing the set of solutions correctly. In countries with significant architectural heritage - take Italy's southern cities of Naples, Rome or Palermo - where a strong preservation policy prevents individual economic agents from undertaking urban renewal projects unless following very strict constraints, such a suggestion is not only impractical, it is simply unrealistic. Hence, to believe that architects will "save the world" by adding marginal technological innovations to their construction or renewal projects, and that these will have a significant impact on meta-issues such as global warming, isn't an accurate assessment of the discipline's influence looking forward. Whether we believe architecture is a service or a self-standing, self-justificatory practice, it relies on a praxis that can have a significant impact on the world. An impact that can be measured by considering its influence over decades, centuries and millennia ; not years.
 
Alas, the right question may not be what we can do to reduce consumption and live in harmony with nature - a romantic, moral and quasi-religious objective that one may chose to adopt or not - but rather what we can do to stave off and cope with the inevitable consequences of the environmental disruptions of the 21st century. Although architects may chose to do whatever they want - they are, after all, designers of modern art - policies should be conceived to prompt them to focus on issues such as efficient cooling, pervasive lighting and interoperability of structures in a way that makes them adaptable to the needs of a post-global-warming humanity.
 
The hope that we will be able to reduce oil consumption through alternative, responsibility-based arguments, has somewhat vanished since the Rio and Kyoto agreements based on such soft law have failed to materialize. At any rate, even a reduction of 50% in world consumption of petroleum-based products will generate a positive CO2 output, contributing further to the problems related to global warming. Such a reduction would only decrease the rate at which we add more CO2 and that, most environmental prophets fail to take into account. What we need is not more prophets. What we need is enlightened policy-makers who will act with conviction to help us prepare for what may be the greatest challenge humankind has ever faced. And that, is an immediate need.
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