Sustaining Architecture in the Anti-Machine Age Edited by Ian Abley & James Heartfield.Wiley-Academy, 2001. 240pp. £19.99
Prefacing 'architecture' by 'sustaining' rather than 'sustainable' sets a saucily polemical tone, further spiced by the qualifying phrase 'in the anti-machine age'. Ian Abley and James Heartfield have an agenda for the growth of a high level of efficiently industrialised buildings, accelerated by deregulation, and running on hydrogen fuel cells. This would doubtless sustain architects. Whether it would help to sustain a high quality of architecture is contentious.
To address the issues, there are contributions from more than 20 other authors (not counting case studies from practice). At 240 pages of small print, albeit well illustrated, this is a densely packed volume. To dip in, or skim-read, would be to dilute the diversity of takes on socio-economic aspects of sustainability. Nevertheless, the claimed 'full range of sometimes opposing views' is misleading.
Predictably, there is a bias towards the Abley/Heartfield thesis, partly counterbalanced by a number of neutral and objective appraisals. To have obtained a stronger dialectic, one would anticipate green protagonists such as Peter Smith and/or advocates of brownfield urban regeneration, such as Richard Rogers.
The book also appears very UK-centred.
Although Buckminster Fuller is deservedly mentioned, contemporary US issues discussed, Ken Yeang cited and Foster's Tokyo tower project illustrated, relevant activity in continental Europe is absent. Could this be because steady advances have been made there in terms of industrialised and sustainable architecture without having resorted to deregulation?
Carping on about new Part L regulations is irritating, when nearby countries have long dealt with stringent thermal standards without stultifying architectural verve.
Moreover, the anti-interventionist propaganda sometimes seems illogically choleric.
A flawed planning process is not in contention, but repeal of the 1947 Act is another matter.
Problems are presented to the occlusion of opportunities. Challenging the need for energy-efficiency measures with reference simply to global warming predictions ignores their 'added-value' implications.
Contributors avoid recognising that the physical syntax of green design tends to be risk-free, is not in opposition to prefabrication and is easily measurable. For instance, breathing construction avoids interstitial condensation, uses prefabrication-friendly insulation, and evaluating its performance is straightforward.
Refreshingly, complaints are moderated by some 'tongue-in-cheek' contributions, for example, Martin Pawley's concept for literal 'broad acre' plots invites a smile. Could jobs, income, inclination and opportunity really coincide for such a pastoral idyll as his, even if technology can posit practical answers to the distended servicing infrastructure? There are also ironies, given the tilt of the book, such as Phil Macnachten's grass roots evidence that people see through 'spun' information. Such is the leavening in the dough of a complex mix.
For all the reservations the eco-community will have, the book is timely, providing considerable, considered polemic, insight and information, all well referenced. Paul Hyett sets out the RIBA stance unambiguously in the first chapter. Towards the middle, James Heartfield, tackling appropriate technology in a global context, stops short of saying that the crux for developing countries is the question of who owns it, rather than a question of technology per se.
Further on, the Whitby Bird team backs up the expectation of several authors with regard to the hydrogen fuel cell by giving practical information on this renewableinclusive technology.
Two sci-fi proposals by Jonathan Schwinge are invigorating, particularly the 'Lost Exchange' proposal in Liverpool to redress the 1980s devastation of English ship-building. Then, near the end, Peter Walker succinctly delves into the changing position of the architect between the demand and supply sides, advocating a move back towards the former.
Unfortunately, not much of the text binds the politics in with a discussion of aesthetics, and so the book misses the aesthetic threat from the shallow architectural eco-cliché, which is already becoming a ubiquitous masking device for not very clever buildings. Experience seems to suggest that deregulation is liable to make this situation worse in an effort to divert attention from lower standards.
Colin Porteous is senior lecturer in architectural science at the Mackintosh School of Architecture and author of The New EcoArchitecture