“Marty, you’re not thinking fourth-dimensionally!”: Building a greener future

By Ian Ross McDonald
At larger scales architecture’s speculative nature is most obvious.  What’s really curious about architecture’s projections into the future is that they are typically upbeat and full of sunshine.  We will design our way out of this mess! Le Corbusier’s various city-planning exercises were optimistic.  Le Plan Voisin, La Ville Contemporaine, and his plans for Algiers, for all their naiveté and colonial prejudices, were in part statements about architecture’s capacity to affect “positive” change.
Want a more recent example?  How about Seaside, the idyllic town showcased in The Truman Show.  Say what you want, but this you have to admit: it is a very clear essay in community building.
In general, what sets architecture’s future projections apart from other speculative endeavors like writing and filmmaking has been its relentless optimism.  I defy you to find more than a handful of architects out there drawing up plans for an architectural Handmaid’s Tale or Mad Max.  Personally, I think this is because the act of making is an intrinsically hopeful one: building is a belief in a tomorrow.
What distinguishes speculative work in 2010 is that it is tempered by a keen awareness of environmental pressures and an attempt to position design as part of a larger systems-level response.  It was with this in mind that a colleague and I developed a studio for the UBC School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture.  The studio identified various critical variables (natural resource commodities as well as cultural and demographic shifts) and following an initial period of research students amplified the variables’ magnitudes.
Systems diagram (c) Esteban Matheus
Systems diagram (c)  Esteban Matheus
The effects were startling.  Sea-level rise.  Mass population migration.  Constricted oil supplies.  Fresh-water shortages.  And yet, Kevin Costner did not make an appearance.  The world did not end: the most successful strategies were more like judo than architecture and redirected or redeployed phenomena to serve a useful purpose.  The results were refreshing.  An expanded Richmond levee system that incorporates energy generation and reconstitutes a more flexible soft edge between land and water.  A reimagining of public space and housing in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
(c) Ryan Marshall
As is usually the case, we weren’t alone, and perhaps the best recent example of similar ideas was the MoMA’s Rising Currents, which brought together a collection of some of the most accomplished designers in New York and asked them to speculate about design responses to significant sealevel rise as it impacts Manhattan.
Hard to say what all this means ultimately in terms of design’s speculative nature, but personally I find the projects’ groundedness comforting.  Comforting enough, at least, to think we’re on the right track…
[Click here for a look at the most popular design and architecture posts from Treehugger’s Lloyd Alter].
Ian Ross McDonald is a licensed architect in the province of British Columbia and has taught at The School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture since 2005.  He teaches in the graduate vertical studio stream as well the core undergraduate and graduate courses in design media.  At present, his interests centre around the question of suburban settlement strategies and the potential role that architecture may have in addressing the long-term social and material effects of collapsing systems. In addition to teaching, Ian maintains an active professional life as an associate with the firm Bruce Carscadden Architect.