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CRITICAL MERITS

TECHNICAL & PRACTICE

'Part bear-pit, part rigorous review' was how the Late-Nite Reviews (LNRs) were billed.

Organised by the Future Cities Project and supported by the AJ as part of Architecture Week, this was intended as an alternative crit where young architects could present their work to a panel of critics, commentators and peers.

Held at Alan Baxter Associates' Gallery, the event kicked off with a discussion on the theme of 'Sustainability' that became gradually more and more heated. Over the next few pages we provide a sample of the debate.

The LNRs are more than glorified student crits in that they aim to see whether architects can defend their work in the broader political context.

Moreover, they also challenge the critics - to see if they can justify their position. This was not a simple 'architectural' discussion then, but used architecture as a prism through which to discuss bigger issues.

The architects - chosen for their belief in the theme under discussion - were asked to present a scheme on that theme, the panel would grill them, then the audience would join in to ask questions and further explore the theme.

Devised and chaired by myself, in part to suit my cantankerous disposition, I am determined to take criticism of the event on the chin? provided that it is constructive.

Unfortunately, the only criticism that has found its way to my desk seems to have missed the point. Paul BeatyPownall of BPR Architects writes: 'Following [the] presentations the panel and audience were unable to return to the subject of architecture or make any reference to the projects being presented.

Instead, they insisted on exploiting the opportunity to preach about the need for sustainability and environmentalism? but for the majority of us we need to know how to continue being good architects, producing sustainable designs, rather than playing at being politicians or activists alienating the vast majority of construction professionals.' I'm afraid that I have to take issue with this description, which doesn't bear much relation to the debate that I went to. There was no three-line whip, and while some on the panel and the audience did indeed bang on about 'the need for sustainability and environmentalism', the whole purpose of this debate was to open up an arena of real critical enquiry about the merits of sustainability from first principals.

The reason for setting up the debate was my belief that there are already too many blinkered, pro-sustainability advocates who blindly believe that they have to produce sustainable designs without thinking whether the end result actually is a positive - or a negative contribution - to architecture's legacy. This open debate was devised to confront the notion that, as far as sustainability is concerned, 'there is no alternative'.

It was up to the audience to put their hands up and join in.

Anyway, a youthful Duncan Baker-Brown of BBM Sustainable Design and Pascale Scheurer, head of sustainability at Wilkinson Eyre eyed up the panel, including Karl Sharro, architect and author of the forthcoming, We Don't Need Sustainable Development; Mayer Hillman, architect, senior emeritus professor at the Policy Studies Institute and author of How We Can Save The Planet and Colin Fournier, professor of architecture and urbanism at the Bartlett School of Architecture and co-architect on the Graz Kunsthaus.

The Queensbury Rules were thrown out and the presentations began.

Duncan Baker-Brown presented SparrowHouse, a 'modest' residential project in Lewes, East Sussex, which addressed the theme from the point of view of recycled materials and the idea that 'eco-homes' can have a contemporary architectural language ('they don't need to be hairshirt? and they can be affordable'. ) The scheme comprises a 'low-impact, solar-powered house around a courtyard built with locally sourced environmentally friendly materials.' It was completed in early 2004 for about £1,400/m 2.Pascale Scheurer presented Wilkinson Eyre's exemplar school project, the Madjeski Academy. She approached sustainability through the use of 'innovative solutions? to help the environment as well as helping the educational environment.' The scheme includes natural ventilation flows that minimise the use of mechanical systems and reduce energy costs.

Duncan Baker-Brown: 'This small scheme is trying to achieve two things'? firstly 'it is an attempt at best practice in low-energy, environmentally friendly materials' and 'to show that environmental schemes needn't be ugly to be affordable.' Baker-Brown went on to explain that the intention was to create a house with the smallest possible 'ecological footprint'.

By using 'locally based materials, from within an area of 20 to 30 miles around the site' - like home-grown sweet chestnut as cladding and joinery - the SparrowHouse 'actually supports biodiversity, as the Romans taught us to'.

In the SparrowHouse, 'All waste products have been minimised and what there are are non-toxic? using materials scavenged from the local area.'

When asked whether he thought that 'scavenging', an activity reminiscent of Third World rag-pickers, was something to be proud of in the 21st century, Baker-Brown replied that building with re-used local materials was essential as it 'minimised the ecological footprint of a building' and it is 'important that we find these materials wherever we can'.

Pascale Scheurer: 'The fact that Dazed & Confused has a climate change special edition indicates to me that something important is happening in the acceptance of the issue of sustainability? it's becoming mainstream.' She explored the issue of social sustainability in her presentation showcasing a scheme designed to remedy failing schools in disadvantaged areas. 'These schools are not low aspirational. (We need) more money spent on research and development into energy-efficiency to provide children with the schools they deserve.' Asked whether she thought opening a window was an adequate technique for cooling down on hot summer evenings in our technological age, when air-conditioning tends to do the job more efficiently. Scheurer suggested sustainable energy strategies should be one part in the architect's armoury.

Mayer Hillman: 'I gave up practising architecture because of the damaging implications of building [and] while I admire the architectural solutions [in the two schemes] we must recognise that we are all fiddling while Rome is burning? the architectural profession should stop kidding itself? there is only one way to save the planet from total devastation and that is by a massive reduction in the use of fossil fuels.' By not admitting this, architects, especially those in positions of leadership 'like Rogers and Foster, are f***ing hypocrites.' Colin Fournier: 'We know that small actions can have unforeseen consequences. Modernism's problem was that it tried to subjugate nature.' Karl Sharro: 'At least Modernism presented a vision of a different life. All we have now in sustainable architecture is a campaign to maintain the moral highground? I can't really believe it, but it is true that nowadays architects have subjugated themselves to nature? we've heard it here tonight? No-one dares criticise the essence of sustainability? to challenge it is a bit like going to Mass and saying 'screw God.' architects need to take stock and ask themselves what the hell they are doing? we have reached a cultural low point where architects now see themselves as environmental auditors? Because of sustainability, architecture has become nothing more than a technical activity.' Pascale Scheurer: 'I agree that we have to question the sustainable agenda [but] we need people like Mayer to keep reminding us of our 'global responsibilities'.' Asked about carbon rationing, Baker-Brown was 'concerned' and suggested that we 'need to make more intelligent choices.' Hillman thought rationing CO 2 was essential. During the war, he noted, 'no-one pussy-footed around rationing? the same threat exists today.' Hillman believed that civil liberties came a poor second to saving the planet.

Characterising Hillman's comments as dictatorial, Baker-Brown and Scheurer were asked what they thought about being associated with the 'logical authoritarian' extension of the environmentalist argument. Scheurer said we need 'more people like Mayer.' Baker-Brown agreed forceful action was needed.

A questioner noted that 'icebergs don't lie'; another that 'sustainability is not a word, it's a movement'; and another audience member criticised Sharro for having 'blind faith in technology, rather than faith in nature.' Only one person praised the fact that 'man has triumphed over nature, which is the very essence of progress.' Oh yes, that was me. I went on: 'Prioritising - or privileging - nature is really just a coded expression of an retreat of humanism.' Summing up, Baker-Brown concluded that 'in the debate about sustainability, we need to be critical but relevant' while Scheurer noted that we need to challenge the 'cultural economic hegemony of capitalism/consumerism.' Hillman argued for a 'civil democracy as a movement to save the planet' while Fournier didn't believe 'for one minute? that sustainability (was) an orthodoxy, but [was] simply a paradigm that is shifting.' Challenging this non-orthodoxy, then, Sharro fired up a fierce debate when he admitted to being excited about the number of coal-fuelled power-stations to be commissioned in China. Such non-PC talk horrified most of the audience and panellists.

The argument continued in the pub.

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