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Rural romanticism

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Spirit and Place By Christopher Day. Architectural Press (Butterworth-Heinemann), 2002. £24.99

Christopher Day's commitment to the creation of a sustainable environment is well known and, in many respects, beyond criticism. His concern for the discovery of better ways to build is widely shared: the impact of buildings upon the global environment and on individual well-being are issues that few would exclude from the agenda of theory, education and practice.

Day's new book rehearses the wide-ranging arguments of his earlier texts, Places of the Soul and Building with Heart, and adds to these new, and in some cases not so new, material drawn from the fields of environmental science and design. In that respect the book might be seen, quite straightforwardly, as a primer for sustainable design.

The relevance of the vernacular in informing new design is a theme that has been explored critically and fruitfully by many others. The case for the use of renewable energy in place of fossil fuels, the adoption of strategies for energy conservation and the reduction of embodied energy in building materials, are all shared by many others, as are the arguments for preferring the 'natural' in favour of the 'artificial'.

Equally, Day's social and cultural concerns find close parallels elsewhere.

But this work is not just another contribution to the open debate about 'sustainable' architecture. (Isn't this already an overused, ill-defined and, thus, unhelpful term? ) What we have in fact is a kind of hermetic tract driven by undoubted conviction, but which, by virtue of this, as conviction becomes ideology, is partial, closed and ultimately limited.

Looking from an open and, perhaps, more pragmatic perspective, it is those matters that Day chooses to omit, or in some cases to misrepresent, that need to be noted.

There is an undoubted appeal in the pervasive and gentle ruralism of much of the text.

Who could oppose such sweet reason? But this is juxtaposed with a representation of the city that, more by implication than by demonstration, is false, impractical and probably irresponsible. To characterise all cities as noisy, polluted, stressful and alienating, while failing to acknowledge the rich physical, social and cultural opportunities that they offer, implies a kind of moralistic rejection of the city, leaving it without hope.

The other significant omission from Day's 'hidden agenda' is his reluctance to acknowledge that 'conventional' architecture might be an effective agent for environmentally and socially responsible building. It is surprising that there is no acknowledgement of the work of the many committed designers who, since the socalled 'energy crisis' of the 1970s, have embraced these concerns.

The work of, for example, Feilden Clegg, Alan Short and Bill Dunster in Britain, and Ken Yeang, Thomas Herzog and Alexandros Tombazsis around the world, is convincing proof of this. In their differing ways these architects and many others build upon the paradigm of architecture as a culturally grounded, socially responsible, practical art, that has demonstrably served humankind well, and bring it to the service of the complex contemporary world.

It is more likely that a sustainable future, in all the meanings of that term, will be secured through the continuity of the logical, material and cultural ground of conventional practice, than by resort to the small scale, anti-urban and ultimately sentimental prescriptions offered by Day in this book.

Dean Hawkes is professor of architectural design at the Welsh School of Architecture

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