“I’m really into circles these days” – Ray Cole

by Ian Ross McDonald
This occurred to me last May while listening to Ray Cole and Peter Busby present their ongoing collaborative efforts concerning green architecture.
(No-wait, I mean ‘sustainable architecture’ (no-no-wait, ‘regenerative’ (no-no-no-wait, I mean – whatever: do you see my point?)))
Not to denigrate Ray or Peter – they are both enthusiastic and earnest in their pursuit, but Ray’s playful infatuation with circles echoes a broader lament at the dilution of meaning in words like ‘green’ and ‘sustainability’ and both betray the environmental movement’s inability to define itself consistently and then project itself to the general public clearly. (Pandas excepted, of course.)

(c) Ralph Rapson: Ralph Rapson’s 1945 Case Study House No. 4. Telling evidence of where North America thought it was headed in the 1940s. Clearly a future bright with technology and clean laundry.
To be sure, it’s not an easy task when the definition of ‘green’ has become so varied that a ‘green’ garbage bag doesn’t seem like a contradiction in terms. And ‘sustainability’? What does that mean, anyway? Cutting back, Reformation-style and making due with less of everything except hairshirts? Or is it Kurzweil’s dream of an über-tech society with lots of stainless steel and moulded plastics?
This is a compounded problem for architects and other designers who communicate primarily through images and the question of what sustainable architecture looks like is a good one. Does it look basically the same but with a more efficient fridge, or does it look like a radical transformation?
And it’s not an immaterial question. The last time design presented a reasonably consistent message was a half-century ago and it hinged on The West’s faith in technology to usher in a better society. Case in point: I find it impossible to not think of The Jetsons whenever I come across Ralph Rapson’s Case Study House No. 4, and in spite of its failure to deliver on its promise of cars that fold into briefcases, I think The Incredible’s nostalgic animation is testimony to the capacity those decades old images had to convince us of their truth: technology will save us.

The agenda has shifted to more difficult terrain now – a strategy to address the environmental question – but in many ways the task remains the same. How do we talk about, represent, and implement a strategy for architecture to address the environmental question?
Which brings me around to Ray Cole and Peter Busby’s fascination with circles, because from the sounds of it, they think they’ve found a way.