The Indicator: Terra Vague

The Indicator: Terra Vague

Sustainability and Form have dominated architectural discourse, trapping the discipline between utopian play-acting—promising what it cannot deliver—and computerized “gaming” of design extremism.”

– Mark Jarzombek, “ECO-Pop” in Cornell Journal of Architecture 8:RE, January 2011.

In what he calls ECO-POP, Mark Jarzombek, associate dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at MIT (i.e. someone with credentials), draws attention to how sustainability is deployed as an ideology and visual trope more than as a repertoire of achievable, well-thought-out strategies. This is my unabashedly biased interpretation of his manifesto-like article—in fact, let’s just call it a manifesto.

Like nature or culture, he explains, sustainability exists as a sort of terra vague (my term). It suffuses architecture (still dominated by un-sustainable practices) in a warm eco-glow without the challenges of actual implementation. This is sustainability as buzzword and rendered appearance.

Until architecture can free itself from the signifiers sustainable, green, eco-, it will not be able to achieve a significant integration of sustainable (that word again) practices. By integrated, I mean an intrinsic part of the design process and resultant environments. It should be a given that green is architecture and architecture is green. As Architecture 2030 declares, the problem is the building sector and the solution is the building sector. This is the case no matter what the signifiers are.

I am proud to be a LEED professional, but what would the profession be like if it simply absorbed all such initiatives and made them redundant? All the benefits of the rating and tracking system aside, what if there was just architecture again, in the broader sense of a total environment and all that implied? Rather than clients paying for LEED, they would simply pay for architecture.

The German philosopher, Karl Friedrich Eusebius Trahndorf is thought to have invented the term, gesamtkunstwerk, meaning a total work of art or synthesis of arts. Though commonly applied to aesthetics it may be used to denote a synthesized totality—as distinct from an assemblage. Of course, what we don’ t need is another signifier to qualify architecture. There shall be no gesamtkunstwerk architecture. No more green architecture. No more sustainable architecture, or even parametric architecture. Just architecture.

Gesamtkunstwerk is relevant because it can remind us that architecture synthesizes intellectually, culturally, and materially. I totally forgot what my point was. Right. That we can get rid of the term green architecture.

This should make the green skeptics happy—though being skeptical about being green is akin to being skeptical about gravity. I think what the anti-eco’s are really pointing out is that so much of the sustainable movement is mere ideology and green-washing. This was part of Mr. Jarzombek’s argument. If it becomes a given of the design process it will cease to be mere ideology. To reach this critical mass, it has to make economic sense.

What it comes down to is the other green. Show the client the numbers. How much will it cost? How much will I save? What are the economic incentives? Green architecture (Didn’t I say we should get rid of this term?) does make economic sense and there are all indications that it will make even more economic sense in the future. Currently, green architecture doesn’t necessarily have to cost any more than regular architecture. Even way back in 2007 a report published by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development demonstrated that the “green mark-up” was 5% or less. When you factor in the life-cycle costs, green architecture proves to be even cheaper than the regular brand. Moreover, technologies, like PV, that were once out of reach for first-cost reasons are trending toward lower prices and higher efficiency. It’s all about the numbers. The mark-up for active systems is trending down. For passive strategies, there doesn’t have to be a mark up.

When the true economics of sustainability are better understood and able to be clearly communicated to clients, then the need for sustainable architecture as a version or brand will disappear. There will be no more need for ideology when practice has completely taken up its cause. This will return architecture to the true sense of gesamtkunstwerk, as opposed to it’s current divided identity.


Follow the link for more on Star Strategies + Architecture’s on-going O’ Mighty Green project.

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Cite: Guy Horton. "The Indicator: Terra Vague" 21 Jul 2011. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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