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The New Eco-Architecture: alternatives from the Modern Movement

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The New Eco-Architecture: alternatives from the Modern Movement Colin Porteous. Spon Press, 2002. 212pp. £27.50

Lots has been written about Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright but, argues the author, 'it is surprising how little acknowledgement there is of their strong 'green'relevance'.So, asks Austin Williams , what should we deduce from this?

Porteous, in this incredibly well-researched book, which oozes with architectural technical proficiency and relentless empirical data, sets out to show that environmental considerations governed much of the thinking of the various masters of the Modern Movement. It is difficult to assess clearly, though, whether he is saying that these early designers were the forerunners of today's eco-conscious design, or that he is simply saying that there are 'eco'aspects to Modernist architecture which have been overlooked. Both, I think.

In the first part of the book, he examines the heroic period of the Modern Movement (starting his thesis in 1927), to explore the 'tenacity'of environmental detailing. Passive solar design, he points out, had its origins in Mies' Tugendhat Haus of 1930 rather than in the Trombe walls of the '60s.

OK, that's reasonably interesting and straightforward; that the radicalising period of the 1920s gave rise to experimental architecture, leading to a new appreciation of environmental factors such as thermal mass, solar gain and ventilation.But the key point for Porteous is the direct connections with today, which he explores in the final part of the book.While 'the semantics may only date back a decade or so, 'he says, 'the issues were an intrinsic part of the birth pangs of modern architecture'. Or, put another way, 'the words of Chris Smith in 1997 echo those of Le Corbusier in the 1920s'. This is where I have to take issue.

Although he refers to a dialectical relationship between 'continuity and intermittence', he is blind to the differences of historically specific conditions. While he relies on a lot of empirical research and primary source material, he doesn't provide equivalent rigorous contextualisation.

The thesis becomes the starting point to be proved rather than investigation leading to result, and often he avoids conflictual facts.

The 'semantics'of environmentalism, as he puts it, is what sets today's concerns apart from other periods in history. Indeed, Porteous' interest in writing this book is a product of today's conditions. Conversely, the naturalist and social hygiene movements which were legitimate intellectual generators for some in the 1920s (well explored in Ken Worpole's Here Comes the Sun), would be too explicitly eugenic for today's ecoadvocates. Or are they?

Peter Davey writes in the foreword that 'there is enough evidence to show all but the most boneheaded that radical changes are taking place in the climate of the planet, which will alter it from the one in which humanity evolved to a state that it will almost certainly be inimical to our species'.

Well, boneheaded or not, eulogising the era of human evolution is too Social Darwinist for my liking.

To suggest that today's world is an improvement on previous generations may be a curiously unpopular thing to say, but the main way in which things are worse is in the relentless pessimism of our age. Porteous'claim that 'it has been the 20th century that has exponentially abused the biosphere to the endangerment of natural eco-systems'compounds the rhetorical fiction.

Porteous says that 'the basic proposition of this book is to fill a gap with the benefit of hindsight' but also that he aims 'not to post-rationalise'.

A valiant effort, but unfortunately, I fear, he fails in his second objective.

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