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Awful warnings on the pressing need for sustainable cities

If the truth hurts, this, as Richard Branson says, is going to be agony! The awful lesson of Beijing, where the uia has been holding its Twentieth International Congress, is that architecture is currently on a disastrous track and that practice and education must refocus their respective agendas if they are to address this crisis properly.

Speaker after speaker put sustainability at the centre of their agenda for the twenty-first century city. Great academics, like America's Ken Frampton, and China's Wu Liangyong, catalogued the combined damage to the rich urban fabric of our nineteenth century cities and the ecology of our planet, through modern technology and its impact on planning and architecture.

Of course, we all know about the escalating environmental damage caused by our failed land-use/transport policies which have led to the wholesale destruction of our cities. And we know that we remain powerless to stop it.

But that is only half the story, in which architecture can perhaps claim to be at best uninvolved and at worst innocently compromised by the insane ambitions and greed-ridden agendas of others.

The other half of the story is that market democracy has sired an architecture that is increasingly incapable of serving its most primitive purpose: providing safe shelter. Our modern cities continue to be torn apart to accommodate ecologically destructive buildings that have insatiable energy demands for even the most basic functions of ventilation, lighting and cooling. The message of Beijing is that this has got to stop, for old cities and for new, and that such buildings should be seen not as pristine monuments to progress, but as misguided and vile examples of so-called technological development.

But there are rays of hope - such as the example of architects like Ken Yeang. He calls for a 'scientific' response by an architecture that will be vanguard to a radically new approach, informed by a significantly different primary ambition: ecologically sustainable design in every aspect of the building's agenda from position to positioning, from energy input to waste output, and from materials selection to component recycling. And underlying all of this is the implicit requirement that architects must become scientists in order to both lead and serve these objectives. No longer can we tolerate the selfish or the irresponsible designer who leaves an environmentally destructive legacy due to ignorance. For them, the game is up.

It will, of course, take the combined influence of the market and legislation to finally break capitalism's stranglehold on change: educated consumers will force increasingly accountable companies to demand environmentally responsible performance from developers and property companies. And governments will impose taxation penalties throughout the market to encourage the awareness and endeavours of all whose trade relies on buildings.

But the riba must also play its part with schosa. The institute is involved in the validation of more than 100 schools of architecture generating some 12,000 newly qualified architects each year. As the world's biggest validation service, the riba is in a unique position to encourage and assist the schools in repositioning themselves to lead the designing disciplines in this urgent agenda. And lead they must, for only architects combine the breadth of involvement and experience with the creative capacity to envisage alternative, aesthetically pleasing, socially functional and ecologically sustainable urban futures.

But we must work hard with our schools to re-orientate the teaching programmes so that appropriate emphasis is placed on sustainability in every aspect of every student's work. And these adjustments to curriculum which we must work through with the schools, must be underpinned by an internal and external examination system that ensures a focus on sustainability as the primary concern of all who wish to be involved in building process, whatever their specialist input.

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