Books about sustainability are hot. Each metier, from biology to architecture, puts in its tuppence worth when it comes to offering new insights, innovations and preferably concrete solutions for the unsustainable way in which mankind is destroying the earth. That is partly why the subject has become totally obscured. The Why Factory, the research cell within Delft University of Technology headed by Winy Maas (MVRDV), therefore took  up the gauntlet, took a step back, and looked at the green issue from a ‘new’ perspective. Maas presented the book at the NAi last month.

Almost three-quarters of the book is contemplative. Some 22 observations illuminate the green issue. Some observations deal with the obvious difficulties (‘The Complexity of Green is Paralyzing’ and ‘Materials are Depleting’), others with misconceptions (‘Eco-Cities are too Small’ and ‘There is more than One Green Crisis’). The final quarter of the book reveals what exactly The Why Factory itself has to say. One thing is the development of the Green City Calculator; an instrument that can measure and compare the greenness of cities. Maas terms this instrument the ‘Esperanto’ among sustainability tools. By first arguing that innumerable such instruments exist and then adding another one is evidence of either boundless belief in being right or of naive ambition. The fact that this all-embracing tool is being developed with commercial partners (ARUP, DGMR) is at the very least questionable.

Finally, Maas showed nine scenarios that can really make a city green. He argued that each scenario aims for a world that is finer than the world in the animation film Avatar. With these scenarios we can finally say ‘We’ve done it’ and can finally enter the post-green era. After the book presentation the architects André Kempe, Duzan Doepel and Nanne de Ru made statements about the green issue, and they then discussed the issue with one another.

Both Doepel and Kempe drew explicit links between sustainability and their background. Doepel grew up in South Africa and explained that a developing country has other concerns than those that occupy the West. From an African perspective sustainability is a luxury problem. Doepel only learnt about the subject after he came to live and work in the Netherlands. Kempe pointed out that his youth in East Germany was all about frugality and modestly — important characteristics for sustainable behaviour according to him. De Ru, born and bred in the rich and hedonist West, spoke about comfort, enjoyment and beauty.  

All three architects argued that the influence of architecture itself in making a more sustainable world is small. Doepel argued that just one percent more buildings are being added around the world. So the biggest effort should be made in adapting and revitalising existing development. A sustainable intervention is only possible if a number of buildings, or preferably urban districts, are connected to one another. Doepel came to this conclusion during a study in which he tried to develop sustainable methods at the scale of a small neighbourhood. Doepel discovered that this was too small a scale for substantial gains in terms of improving the sustainability of a neighbourhood.
Kempe added that sustainability is largely a media hype. While the subject is discussed everywhere, the United States is planning to build two hundred new coal-fired power stations, simply because such stations are the cheapest way to generate energy at present. For Kempe this is one reason to concentrate solely on his profession: making buildings. Those buildings should then be made as well as possible. The aspects the architect has to address were determined more than two thousand years ago by Vitruvius: utilitas, firmitas and venustas. Kempe urged the audience to ignore media trends, to work in a controlled manner, and extract maximum quality from the budget.

De Ru, too, expressed faith in the architectural object with his observation that a good architect has to design and build a good building. This line of thought ends with a comfortable and luxury building. Context is an important factor here. A building that makes the most of the context automatically exploits the natural aspects of the site. De Ru had two apt examples from his own work: a high-rise hotel with facades that are more open or closed depending on their orientation, and a villa on Cyprus fitted with a heavy roof of vegetation to cool the spaces sufficiently, thus negating the need for mechanical services. De Ru emphasised that making a green roof was never a starting principle, but simply a means to make a beautiful and comfortable house.

Spread from the book

After the short presentations, Maas admitted he was surprised by the reserve displayed by the architects with regard to the subject of the book. During the ensuing discussion Maas failed to carry the architects to a bigger scale. And it was Kempe who offered sternest resistance. He simply didn’t believe in the theme of sustainability as a separate part of architecture. Combating the depletion of fossil fuels demands a form of ethics in which the world is no longer based on growth. De Ru countered by stating the expansion and growth can indeed go hand in hand with sustainability. Using alternative sources of energy solves every limitation. De Ru: ‘You can shower all day if you’ve a solar boiler on the roof’. Maas added that mankind is too curious to deliberately avoid making progress as Kempe advocated.

The discussion highlighted perfectly the contrast between analysing and intervening. This contrast is also apparent in the book. Green Dream succeeds much more in the former. While the analysis is clear and structured, the scenarios are pulled out of a tall hat like rabbits. True, the idea of a green utopia with the aim of a post-utopia in which mankind can indulge his hedonist lusts again on earth may sound exciting, but all proposals are based on the application of a single intervention on a huge scale that solves all problems — a typical reflex from architects that has often surfaced down the ages. And Maas is no stranger when it comes to a holy belief in the power of architecture to effect change. The subtitle ‘How Future Cities Can Outsmart Nature’ emphasises this bravura all the more. And thus the book, which initially does the right thing by taking a much-needed step back and sensibly analyses the green question, ultimately ends up going off the rails.