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Ecological Architecture: A Critical History


By James Steele. Thames & Hudson, 2005. 272pp, £28

'The ecological approach to building is the great untold story in the architectural history of the past century', says this book's jacket. And with Vitruvian certainty, if not elegance or economy, James Steele opens his account by proposing three 'Constant Determinants of an Ecological Aesthetic': respect for traditional knowledge, as embodied in vernacular architectures; the inescapable role of technology; and the need to address the challenge of the urban future.

Any thought that this triumvirate might structure the subsequent argument, however, is quickly dispelled, as the bulk of the book is devoted to 25 case studies, framed by rather perfunctory theoretical essays.

In his opening salvo, subtitled 'reconfiguring the modern project', Steele has interesting things to say on the alliance between environmentalism and nationalism as a response to colonialism, but allows himself too little space to develop his arguments in adequate depth.

The case studies themselves are well presented, and range far and wide in the search for key figures in the new ecological narrative, embracing such disparate designers as Mackintosh and Foster, Le Corbusier and Buckminster Fuller, Kahn and Miralles.

Alongside these would-be heroes of his revisionist history, Steele also addresses topics such as solar heating, passive ventilation, tent technology and the New Urbanism. The latter is praised for its commitment to 'traditional knowledge', but then swiftly condemned as a 'slickly marketed diversion' that refers 'back to a time of social segregation' rather than embracing the racial diversity of the modern city.

In a similar critical volteface, the late Samuel Mockbee, founder of the acclaimed Rural Studio, is offered as an altruistic 'role model for the new generation' and then found, like Frank Lloyd Wright before him, to be driven by 'sectarian nationalistic motives' - leaving the reader to wonder who or what might meet the author's stringent, if never systematically worked out, criteria for an earth-friendly, non-sectarian environmental practice.

The book's concluding section offers little help.

A brief essay revisits the opening themes of 'Tradition, Technology and Urbanism', and then - inverting the 'rst two for no apparent reason - Eisenman's digitised 'landform architecture', exemplified by the Ciudad de la Cultura de Galicia; Ando's large-scale, landscape-based works, such as the Hundred-Level Garden of the Awaji Yumebutai Park; and the recent 'greening' of Los Angeles are explored as potential exemplars.

Both Eisenman's and Ando's approaches are found to be deeply flawed, and the book ends gloomily, by rehearsing the global implications of Garrett Hardin's classic essay 'The Tragedy of the Commons', and arguing that the 'electronic revolution' threatens a 'final distancing from nature' and the severing of connections to history and geography. These ideas are borrowed and asserted rather than persuasively argued.

The book's title presumably alludes to Kenneth Frampton's acclaimed account of Modern architecture, but its organisation is more like that of Frampton's Studies in Tectonic Culture, and shares that book's structural weaknesses - in spades.

Steele has many interesting things to say, but lacking a strong narrative thread to bind together such a disparate range of material, his book has little of the clarity one expects of a history - 'critical' or otherwise. It surely wanted to be a polemic, and is probably best read piecemeal: as short, stand-alone essays many of the case studies are useful fragments towards a re-reading of 20thcentury architecture from an ecological perspective. But cumulatively they do not add up to the revisionist history promised on the cover.

Richard Weston is professor of architecture at Cardiff University

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