Architecture, more than any other cultural medium, is an expression of its time. Once a new building has been erected, it is likely to last for generations; the sites we know today bear the hallmarks of the past in which they were created. If architecture is consciously or unconsciously a receptacle and expression of the culture of a society at a particular time, then each new concept or design for a building holds both its present and its futurepast. Naturally, this also means that an interest in these contents and a critical relationship to them is necessary for one’s own work; if the product of our activity is going to pass on the manifestation of what future generations will measure our present age by, then we ought to give it some thought.

It is futile to ask whether it is the social and cultural phenomena of an age that are reflected in its architecture, or the architec-ture (and the architect) that to some extent gives an age its form. I would consider that the first alternative is more likely, although in some fortunate cases a form may develop as a thought gains currency, so that they become almost synonymous with one another.

One phenomenon of our age’s culture that cries out to be physically manifested, since it is so present in everyone’s consciousness, is without doubt our interest in sustainability and ecology. This interest stems from a concern about the wasteful and careless treatment of the natural environment, as well as a worry about the survival of the planet and its population. Horror stories about the imminent overpopulation of the world, the disappearance of natural resources, about climate change and the resulting natural catastrophes are all familiar accompaniments to any consideration of this subject.

Building as such is affected by this, without doubt: for one thing, built structures are the greatest enemy of the natural environment, contributing to the waste of land and resources as well as the excessive use of fossil fuels and pollution of the atmosphere. Carefully thought out buildings can indeed slow down the catastrophic change of our environment and may even halt it.


For another thing, architecture, whose presence is everywhere, is more suitable than any other discipline as a medium to express a change in the antagonistic relationship between nature and civilisation in a visually comprehensible way. Architecture could become an agent of a changed attitude and practice in dealing with nature and natural resources. Besides serving the purposes of their owners and users, buildings have to fulfil a fundamental duty towards society, that is, towards the urban environment in which they are located. If this built environment that constantly surrounds everything changes, the people within it will change as well.

That a turn of this sort would become necessary was clear at the latest after the report on The Limits of Growth issued by the Club of Rome in 1968. However, another twenty years or so were to pass until the majority of society really reacted to the conclusions it drew. In the meantime, a variety of fringe groups had prepared the ground. Consequently, eco-architecture was difficult to integrate in its early years; it tended to be practised by apolitical loners, and it was anti-establishment, anti-industrial, anti-urban and characterised by a yearning for some vague notion of a pre-civilised state.

Another twenty years later the world has become digital and global, the rate of technological progress has accelerated enormously and inexorably, and climate change is well on its way. At the beginning of the 21st century, architecture, too, is at last starting to react significantly to the paradigm change. In this context, it is possible to identify three main trends in Europe.

The orthodox green groups of the late 1960s still exist. The ideas that tended to be propagated by hippies in the past are now the domain of “experts” who want to get to grips with them in a scientific manner. This approach emphasises the quantifiable aspects of building rather than the qualitative ones. In Germany, the chief result of their activities has been the enactment of energy-conservation laws, which drastically reduce the permissible energy consumption of buildings. In Britain and America similar organisations have also set up schemes to evaluate and list what is sustainable in building, awarding credits according to listed criteria so that buildings fulfilling enough of these criteria can be BREAM or LEED certified. Among the aspects for which credits can be awarded are the use of recyclable materials, the use of renewable energies, integration with public transport, the provision of bicycle parking, and neighbourhood support. These lists are very useful as planning aids, even though they include some items taught in first-year design seminars: solar orientation; adequate natural lighting of all work areas and massing the building to reduce surface area.

Beyond that, these lists are of little use as blueprints for a new type of architecture: they are no more than compilations of functional requirements, directives on ways of working, summaries of measurable quantities that ultimately give no information about the architectural quality of a building. On the contrary, architecture and aesthetics tend to be looked at sceptically in such circles. As described so aptly in the guidelines on ecological building for German local government departments, “Buildings are temporary depots for future building waste”.

The political movements that sprang up in the late 1960s initially included ecology in their programmes as a topic of only secondary importance. The Left revered the city of the 19th century and supported numerous initiatives to preserve it. This rever-ence was often linked to criticism of excessive property speculation in particular, but in general to criticism of a post-war policy that, owing to its almost naive trust in technology and progress, and its desire to change and improve (almost) everything that had gone before it, destroyed much that deserved to have been kept. This reverence increased along with criticism of capitalist society in general, and of its mistakes in the areas of town planning and architecture in particular – and from this criticism grew the myth of a better past that ought to be re-established in a new urban framework. Hand in hand with this new conservatism came a deeply rooted scepticism towards progress and technology in general and a yearning for an undisturbed identity, especially in Germany.

For many people, even today the term “sustainability” is connected not just with the desire for a responsible approach to the natural resources of the planet, but also with a yearning for continuity and familiarity. In the contradiction between the momentum of global developments and the wish for personal stability, the aesthetic of the past seems to promise an obvious way out of the dilemmas of the present. This is why sustainability in architecture is closely associated with the way things have always been – after all, such problems as environmental pollution, resource shortages and alienation from other people didn’t exist before, so can’t we simply go back to the good old days? This instinctive and erroneous conclusion is deliberately maintained by historically eclectic architecture out of sheer opportunism. It tries to convey the message that what looks like an old building also functions like one, and that what looks as though it is old will also last longer.

So people’s unease about nature is assuaged, since their own willingness to accept real change is pretty low. They would really prefer to spare the planet without changing their habits of consumption. That’s why the term “sustainability” has spread so quickly throughout the retail industry, applied to consumer goods from books to clothes, from food to cars – everything is organically farmed, carefully processed, fair trade, good for one’s health, and more ecological than ever. The message this broadcasts is that you can have both: unbridled satisfaction and Ecological orrectness. Sustainability, here, is not a question of doing without, but of improved quality – quality that justifies a higher price and also placates the conscience. The classical cliché of luxury (old, monumental buildings, for example) comes together with added ecological value in an iconographic “coherence” that does not require any explanation.

The third trend influencing the shape of sustainable architecture covers an entire genre, dedicated to incorporating ecological building in the tradition of a language that stands for technology and progress. In this case, the performance-related aspect of building – the fact that a building, like a car or a machine, should be judged according to its performance data – leads to the false conclusion that ecological architecture should develop exclusively from consideration of the functional form. “Form follows performance” arouses memories of the early years of functionalism and Le Corbusier’s appeals to the architectural profession, in which he invoked the beauty of purely engineering construction (in contrast to the eclecticism rampant at the beginning of the 20th century) and seemed to suggest that beauty could virtually be calculated. The impression given here is that ecology is a question of cleverer technology. Progress then lies in optimising systems; of course this would also include developing materials to the limits of their capacity. Today the process begun by Buckminster Fuller is looking for new models in bionics, with the idea that the buildings could behave like animals or other natural phenomena. Here too, iconography plays a critical role. Buildings with biomorphic forms are supposed to function like living organisms as well. In view of the relatively primitive nature of building, there are few respects in which this comparison with complex living organisms can hold true. The synergy with nature remains a mere intent, however; behind the mimicry of engineering supposedly approaching the natural, one glimpses what in reality is the pure chauvinism of feasibility, the wish to out-manoeuvre nature with what are effectively its own means and thus to consolidate power over it. If the things created in the course of doing so ultimately fail to satisfy the requirement of sustainability in their performance and expression, this is, so to speak, a natural side effect.

It is certainly correct that numerous ecological aspects are quantifiable and that therefore the success of different architectural strategies is to some degree measurable. And it certainly isn’t wrong that components that were developed wholly on the basis of their functionality (with response to climate, for example) may develop a performance-related aesthetic. At the same time, however, in the assessment of what could be sustainable there still remains a large area that is not measurable, which is left up to the subjective judgment of individuals (the designing architect on the one hand and the subsequent user on the other). The ecological movement came into being to create a world worth living in for this generation and for those to come. It is left up to our own personal experience exactly what an environment worth living in is. To put it more precisely, to a large extent the quality of life offered by the built environment can be measured only by our own, personal, sensory apparatus. The term “comfort”, which is frequently used (even by engineers) to describe such things as user satisfaction at the workplace, is evidence of the inexactitude of our way of looking at such things. Sustainable architecture therefore has to address and stimulate the senses of its users.

What makes the scientist feel uneasy should be a welcome challenge to the architect, because it means that a space for interpretation has opened up in which architects can ply their proper trade. What is needed is built spaces whose material quality, lighting and colours stimulate the senses, spaces on a scale that evokes feelings of shelter and security, as well as astonishment and surprise; spaces that do not fob off the fear of an uncertain future with the same old clichés, but seek to allay it intelligently, transparently and comprehensibly. A building ought to be able to react intelligently to the needs of its occupants, but the occupants ought to learn to understand the building, too. The primary instrument in this is bodily perception, which also opens the way (at least for the sensitised user) to an intellectual understanding of ecological concepts. That is why we shouldn’t just ask ourselves what sustainability looks like, but also what it feels like, what it sounds like, what it smells like, and ultimately what it really is: what is the character, the personality of sustainability?

Ecological Correctness is often accompanied by a sour puritan expression, as if something has to taste bad in order to do you good. By contrast, the strategies employed by industry aim for a kind of harmless luxury (the cars of the future are supposed to have a top speed of 300 km/hour while emitting no pollutants into the atmosphere). We believe that the truth probably lies somewhere between the two. Without doubt, ecological building will have to incorporate the intelligence of technological developments. On the other hand, it has to express its qualities in the intelligent economy of reduced means, because obviously the luxury of sustainable architecture cannot be bought at the price of increased consumption. Less really has to be more – variety and beauty have to be found in what is simple. However, this beauty can not stem from clichéed images (as Le Corbusier correctly noted), nor is it born of the rigour of rational thought alone (as we know from looking at the products of functionalism). The challenge presented to architects at the moment is to develop a language of their own from the various tasks they face, using the available means, their intuition and a determination to create spaces that communicate with people on an intuitive level. The architectural media available to them are the classical ones of space, surface, light and colour, which have nothing more to offer than their concrete presence, but, if used intelligently, will do more than just create buildings that fulfil their purpose in an efficient and economic form. They can help to generate an architecture that opens up such freedom of imagination that it will be loved for generations to come.


Published in Sauerbruch Hutton. Archive. Baden: Lars Müller Publishers, 2006