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Sustainability issues will grow in the new, warmer millennium

Two architectural icons, in becoming the most memorable images of the New Year celebrations, demonstrated architecture's enduring capacity to capture the public's imagination and to lift the heart and spirit of the community.

However, and despite the commendably hard work of architects Julia Barfield and David Marks, the millennium wheel (unlike the dome) could not meet its obligations to time: failing to gain safety certification, it revolved empty on the night.

Time fascinated Lewis Mumford, who wrote a delightful essay which charted the increasingly regulatory impact, in recent centuries, of time upon our lives and work. Mumford drew the distinction between 'mechanical time' - strung out in a succession of mathematically isolated instants - and 'organic time', which moves only in onedirection through the cycle of birth, growth, development, decay and death.

It was not until the mid-fourteenth century that the sub-division of hours and minutes into units of sixty became common. Then, with the growing realisation of the importance to maritime navigation of precise time-keeping, the need for an accuratesea-going clock - not reliant on a pendulum - was recognised. During the eighteenth century, John Harrison dedicated his life's work to creating such a machine - a story told in Dava Sobel's enchanting book Longitude, which was recently serialised on Channel 4 television.

But it was Harrison's arch rival, Nevil Maskelyne, who brought the prime meridian (0degrees) to this country by relating his Nautical Almanac to Greenwich. Thereafter, in 1884, 26 countries agreed that Greenwich should be the prime meridian from which time zones the world over would run a legislated number of hours ahead of, or behind, gmt. Pre-dictably, the proud French continued to use 'Paris Mean Time' until 1911.

In the modern, global economy, all this has had increasingly significant implications - for example, London's ability to trade with Tokyo and New York on the same work day has enabled it to dominate international commodity markets since the 1980s.

But as we enter the new millennium it becomes quite clear that 'time is running out'. One recent prediction suggested that by the year 2200 - just 200 years - global warming will put Norwich, Cambridge, London, indeed all of Norfolk and Lincolnshire, and most of Suffolk and Kent, under the sea.

Others anticipate the even worse scenario of a destructive 11degreesC rise in average global temperatures by the end of the third millennium if consumption of fossil fuels continues unabated. However, if co2 emissions are reduced by 60 or 70 per cent, a mere 2degrees rise results - which is apparently tolerable.

Here the twentieth-century's struggle between totalitarian communist regimes and the liberal democracies comes into relief, for it is the pursuit of individual freedom that now drastically threatens our ability to curtail the excessive demands of (free) consumers which spell doom for this planet.

In this context, architecture's immediate challenge must be to posit alternative futures for humanity in terms of sustainable patterns and modes of settlement and development.

But to meet such a challenge, architecture must be appropriately oriented, and used in a responsible way. That means architects must achieve and maintain effective influence within the political and development decision-making processes, and greater capability in terms of designing and delivering moreecologically sensitive building types.

What is now needed is a crusade through which British architects and the riba address both their obligations to future generations - with respect to the delivery of a truly sustainable environment - and the opportunity to lead the development and construction industries towards that goal.

In this respect we have a happy coincidence in that our current president is a main player in a major uk-based practice which is now active in exploring sustainability in the arenas of both policy and practice.

Obligation and opportunity confront British architects and the riba as never before.

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