The Idea of Sustainable Architecture

Many years ago, our college teacher started his lecture on history with the words: “We learn history, so we don’t have to repeat it.”

However it is this very thing that is happening right now all over the world and moreover we have found a word for it: ‘self-sustainable’. We also use this word in building and architecture however if architecture had not been ‘self-sustainable’, all buildings of other years would already have disappeared.

If we look and observe architecture we find that all throughout history buildings were very self-sustainable; which is to say closely related to the local climate use, cultural use of space, materials and sense of beauty.

Unfortunately we have now ‘gone global’ and virtually all architectural variations have disappeared. Industry has taken over and so has transportation. With the result that one find exactly the same kind of architecture, be it in Alaska or Ethiopia. One has to go back to the past in order to encounter local, or if you want to call it, to find Bio-Architecture.

Now looking for sustainable architecture, we have to compare it with non-sustainable. In other words we have to choose and include many alternatives of technologies to cope with the variable needs of the people living in that area. If we take a good look at the way the tribes in the Amazon make their habitat, we will discover many excellent structural solutions to the often harsh conditions of heat or rain, using always only local materials. Again, looking at the past we shall notice that if an architectural design was not sustainable it would never have left the drafting board.

During the first half of last century a German philosopher Hans Vaikinger wrote much about this; that in our thinking we should avoid ‘because’ but rather use ‘similar’.

That is, instead of explaining some idea through logic, as was done the last two centuries, the explainer will give an example of a similar idea. This way of looking at reality has become common in many cultures, for instance Zen and Sufism. An ‘alike’ situation told as through anecdotes or humorous incidents will make the listener observe with humour and make his own conclusions. Only recently he is mentioned again, what with our growing

interest in the oriental approach to creative thinking and using the right hemisphere of our brain.

We notice a similar linguistic situation with the word ‘green’. In the not so distant past, it was used to describe a color or in nature a ripening process. Today, due to our corruption in the use of language – very apparent in politics or commerce – this word is used in many situations, and usually not saying anything. Which of course is the idea behind it – to be able to say something and afterwards not be responsible for the consequences.

Nevertheless, all is not lost in our way of understanding and teaching of architecture. May I remind you to the incredibly beautiful capital of the Aztec Empire ‘Tenochtitlan’ – their architects were known as ‘tlayoltehuani’ or ‘those who use their hearts to make things divine’.

Why divine? Because this is to say, using our heart, our intuition, our right side of the brain to bring out again a more responsible architecture to be enjoyed by the people, as they roam around the built spaces that are well integrated with the surrounding nature.

We should not forget that after all the role of an artist is to keep awake the divine part which exists in every human being.

By Johan van Lengen, written  in response to the recent flooding disaster in Bom Jardim and Nova Friburgo, Rio de Janeiro.



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