Today we will be looking at Owen Hatherley’s “Living Facades – Green Urbanism and the Politics of Urban Offsetting,” in MONU’s Exotic Urbanism issue. It is a great article that takes a rather cynical viewpoint of the recent sustainable design efforts. His article is important for two reasons—to caution us of the appropriation of PHRWEEU imagery by governments and corporations to provide a positive public representation of their ‘eco-friendly’ actions (if they even exist in the first place), and to remind us that the history of “green” design goes back farther than most of our historical amnesia will allow us to remember.
Hatherley begins with an allegorical recount of the completely shocking and grotesque story of Josef Fritzel. It turns out that part of Fritzel’s positive public image was reinforced by the fact that he built and maintained his very own… roof garden!! In this introduction Hatherley succinctly summarizes the issue of using a green veneer as a political strategy (the Trojan 'Green' Horse of Strategic Engagement):
Although it is obviously crass to extrapolate from the life and inclinations of this inhuman character to the wider issues of ‘green’ urbanism, it does suggestively make a certain connection. On the surface we have a sign of civic-mindedness and environmentalism, and on the inside…we have an unimaginable barbarism.
Hatherley then goes on to remind us that the concepts of green roofs, living facades, and vegitecture are not actually all that new. He points out that green roofs and living facades have actually been around since the days of Romanticism. He describes how architects during the Romantic period would design new buildings “as if they had always, already been overtaken by undergrowth, fronds, weeds cracking cement and stone. John Soane…commissioned the draughtsman Joseph Gandy to render his new Bank of England…as a crumbling, overgrown relic.” Hatherley then gives us an abridged history of how these concepts have infiltrated and evolved in architecture and literature over the last couple of centuries, including J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World, John Foxx’s The Quiet Man, and the exotic jungles of Brazilian LA Roberto Burle Marx, placed in direct contraposition to the hard-edged concrete edifices of early modernism.
From Hatherley’s article we can easily postulate a couple of questions Contemporary PHRWEEU practitioners will have to contend with as this burgeoning discipline defines itself. How is PHRWEEU different from these historical examples? How can it differentiate itself from the co-opted versions demonstrated in Hatherley’s argument of the political offsetting of sustainable design?
As for the questions about political offsetting, I think Hatherley makes a strong argument for rethinking the role of the ‘green’ in ‘green design.’ When speaking about the living facades now in vogue, Hatherley suggests that
this is a remarkable transparent semiotic strategy, wherein by sticking natural materials onto a building’s façade, the impression is given that it is somehow in tune with nature rather than a hugely expensive, unsustainable waste of energy and resources. It is by no means clear that renewable technology itself is so picturesque.
It reminds me of a recent comment on archinect which offered a critique of MVRDV’s latest competition winning entry regarding the weight of the soil and planting, the additional strain it will place on the buildings structure, and invoking Buckminster Fuller’s approach to highly efficient, materially minimal structures. These arguments bring up another question for PHRWEEUrbanists: in the end, which approach is more sustainable?
MVRDV - Gwangyo Power Center, via Bustler
For the question about history, I would argue that what is different with the new PHRWEEU compared to the architectural fantasies of the Romantics (which would later inspire Speer’s theory of the ruin-value of architecture) is that what is now sought are strategies of immediate nature, immediate wildness, and immediate ‘ruination’ (for the last point listen to Libeskind describe his latest skyscraper for New York). PHRWEEU is looking to coexist with the natural world and encourage positive productive benefits through increased diversity, instead of allowing ruination be a state that is returned to after we obtain our use-value from a structure and abandon it to entropic processes.
Tune in later this week for more from PHRWEEU. Until then, I look forward to hearing comments, criticisms, questions, and suggestions from all of you.
Best Wishes and Happy Holidays!