“Free your mind.” – Morpheus, just before he takes a leap

by Ian Ross McDonald (previous blog)
The root issue is the impossibility of convincing anyone outside the discipline of architecture of the merits of our ideas when there’s barely agreement among ourselves about what it means to be environmentally responsible and we insist on employing an intellectually disingenuous language.
There is, for instance, no such thing as a ‘green’ garbage bag, except in terms of colour. More broadly, no one who has thought seriously about the environmental question thinks for one moment that the reigning king of built environmental standards in North America, LEED, goes nearly far enough. Intuitively, even my metaphorical maiden aunt understands this, which is precisely why she doesn’t care much to hear about it. The idea of ‘green’ architecture is to global warming what a garden hose is to a house fire: a signal that we know there’s a problem, even if we’ve misjudged the scale. ‘Sustainability’ is much the same in that it implies only managing to keep the fire from spreading house-to-house. (Mars is safe for now, thank goodness.)

Field Operations, Fresh Kills Park; Fresh Kills embodies the very essence of regenerative design. It may pre-date Ray and Peter’s model, but is consistent with their agenda, understanding its context as complex and multilayered, with the ultimate aims of restoration and generous public space.
Words matter, clearly, which is why it has been interesting to watch as the phrase ‘regenerative design’ has popped up with increasing frequency within architectural practice’s discourse – as usual, even unnamed, similar ideas have bubbled in design schools for decades at least – and why I’m half-tempted to make the case that Ray Cole and Peter Busby’s May presentation at the AIBC annual conference marks an important moment for how we think about architecture and the environment in this part of the world; let’s say that this May, ‘regenerative’ architecture as an idea entered into the mainstream of professional practice.
With my last post and the foregoing in mind, the advantage to ‘regenerative’ over ‘green’ or ‘sustainable’ is that the standard is clear: improvement over time. It’s not about doing with less, in fact it implies doing with more: a built substrate that actively improves its local environment – buildings and landscapes that remediate their local ecologies in the first instance, make energy in the second, and so on.
It’s a bit of a leap, and kind of makes me feel like Keanu Reeves watching Laurence Fishburne jump from one skyscraper to the next in The Matrix.

But it gets better, because what Ray Cole and Peter Busby are proposing is an index-less standard. It’s not like LEED at all. There’s no spreadsheet, just questions organized in spheres of various disciplines. The intent is for architects and designers to have with them from any project’s beginnings open-ended questions about how a building might improve an ecological system, provide habitat, produce energy, endure as public space,… By the way, notice how all those propositions are about improving the world, not just minimizing harm.
If you think about it, the framework of simply asking questions is a wildly radical departure. Like standardized tests switching from multiple choice to essay questions, it abandons the false-rational fantasy that complex, dynamic systems might be distilled to a single number. It stands in total opposition to how we think of most things.
Which brings me back to the start of my last post, and my complaint that the fundamental failure of the environmental movement has been its inability to consistently represent itself. For me, what makes Ray Cole and Peter Busby’s circle-based, index-less essay-question model for regenerative architecture compelling is precisely its risky embrace of imprecision and willingness to include inconsistency. And isn’t that a more honest place to start?