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A Paradigm Shift for Sustainability in Architecture: “Unbuilt” as an Option

© Dicle Sancar

What the words "sustainable architecture" first evoke in mind is probably highly associated with the process regarding the design and construction of new buildings, systems, or regions that are occupied with the solutions to reduce environmental impact. Believing that it is neither sufficient nor challenging enough to discuss only the "new", in the following essay I aim to emphasize the importance of the decision" not to build" in terms of sustainability in architecture. In this way, my source of inspiration was Homi K. Bhabha.

In Bhabha's words, "Ecological urbanism should reflect deeply on the unbuilt." (Bhabha, 2010, p. 81). Although he did not directly point to sustainable architecture, "unbuilt" as a concept to reflect on seems quite powerful. That was a point of view l had been thinking on, at least partially, for several years without exactly knowing what kind of activism it could be. I do think this is activism because especially when talking about disciplines (architecture/urban design/...) that depend on the construction, deciding not to build, or emphasizing the "unbuilt" is activism. I used to keep saying to myself "When l become an architect, what l do not do will be more important than what l do". I was promising myself that I would not play a role in certain types of projects which lack the sensibility of sustainability in architecture -an approach that evolved after Bhabha's words into one that questions whether we should continue to build

constantly or not.

“Sustainability in architecture is achieved with the use of design strategies in the built environment that reduce the negative environmental impact. Building an environment that is based on ecological principles and resource efficiency." (Archiol Competitions Sustainable Architecture – Competition Brief, n.d.). If the ecological design is the matter, we have to carry the responsibility[1]- or sometimes the burden- of our decisions on the built environment. Today, sustainable architecture has become a concept that is discussed quite commonly, yet understood poorly. It is possible to think of a building as architectural data and the natural or man-made environment as a system. Even if this data is qualified enough to serve without or minimum negative impact, it is still data that is given to the system and that occupies a certain space, thus, reduces the capacity of the system. What I mean is, even if we build all the buildings from now on with sustainability concerns, we will be still causing a certain amount of carbon footprint or we will be removing an untouched piece of nature, cutting down trees or we will be occupying a valuable open space within the city, which in total does not apply to the vision of sustainable architecture. As Jan Gehl states my point of view clearly "An endless number of green buildings doesn't make a sustainable city." (Rethinking the Future, n.d.). A building alone can be sustainable, but for the practice of architecture to accomplish the goals of sustainability, we should be considering the option of not to build -if to build is not necessary. Here are where the unbuilt gets on the stage. From my standpoint, there are several ways to discuss the unbuilt.

In the first category, the decision of the unbuilt is given to sustain a certain type of environment which is defined by the natural features. The natural environment (diagram 1 of the image) (i.e. mountains, forests, etc.) has a distinctive character itself that stands out by being untouched. Does it make sustainable architecture when we cut down all the trees and build completely ecological buildings? Decision-makers, designers, and the public should understand that the natural landscape is not an empty area to construct on, but an area that takes its power from the unbuilt. Le Corbusier (1961, p. 40-41) mentions this power as follows, “Composed of the expanse and gradations of the ground, of sheets of water and vegetation, of rock formation and the sky…the site is the nourishment offered by our eyes to our senses, to our intelligence, to our hearts. The site is the base of the architectural composition. ”In the light of this-depiction, we can say that the products of sustainable architecture rely heavily on the natural environment, as it is the main reason that this concept has evolved: to design less harmful and more eco-friendly environments. If we destroy the natural environment by building on it, what do we have left to sustain?

The second way to define the scope of the unbuilt can be open spaces, parks, and squares (diagram 2 of the image) which are, again, fairly important urban elements of architecture that allow the city to breathe both ecologically and mentally by relieving the tension caused by the rigidness and the density of buildings. The city needs a balance of buildings and gaps. Those gaps can contribute to sustainability if they have sufficient greenery and plantation to reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. They can provide fresh air which the buildings bereave from us. In addition to the ecological values of the gaps that equip the cities with greenery and fresh air, the next step is to transform this equipment into social public spaces which are significant for the health of a society, and this is possible with the unbuilt elements of the city. Again the question pops up, do we end up with a sustainable environment if we fill all the gaps in the cities with regular or sustainable buildings?

The last topic of the unbuilt can be our attitude towards the already built-up environment, namely the existing buildings (diagram 3 of the image) and architectural systems, and our decision not to build new ones. What I mean is, there is non-stop construction going in the cities without exactly knowing what for. Do you we need that many new buildings? Will they function the way they are assumed to do so? There are too many leftover spaces and abandoned buildings in and around the cities that have to is revitalized, repurposed, or restored if possible. Those "re-" methods are other vital tools that can be adapted to achieve sustainable architecture. Otherwise, those places turn into urban parasites and have the potential to become crime zones or unhealthy areas. While leaving them as such is not ecological, constructing too much is also not ecological. Constructing less protects the environment from being more damaged and the resources to are wasted unnecessarily. Even if the newly constructed buildings are sustainable, it would not mean much with that many dysfunctional and non-ecological buildings around. Also, such an approach is more sustainable in terms of economic and social aspects, since starting construction from the scratch is quite costly, and reconsidering the existing buildings that are currently not functioning well would be more beneficial for public health.

In brief, there is an undeniable role of the unbuilt as a possibility and method for sustainable architecture since it has the potential to provide ecological, economic, and social benefits, and there are many ways to achieve it. When people stop being after their profits in terms of construction and start understanding that not building is also an option, we will have a more holistic and more ecological approach towards our built and natural environment. A boom of sustainable buildings will is not successful in sustaining even the current situation of our environment since it has already been highly disrupted. Therefore, in Today's world, one of the most important concerns of sustainable architecture should be rethinking whether we can sustain and make the circumstances better without constructing needless buildings. If we aim to protect the environment via sustainable architecture, it means that we need the environment for our sustainable products to be meaningful. Although it is important to experiment with sustainable means of design, in my opinion -like yin and yang- the built and the natural environment will be more visible and valuable together with its opposite, the unbuilt.

[1]Ecological design as defined by Van der Ryn and Cowan (1996, p.18): “Ecological design is an approach to designing products with special consideration for the environmental impacts of the product during its whole lifecycle.” In the light of this definition that highlights the importance of “lifecycle”, the word “responsibility” is preferred.




I have recently graduated from Middle East Technical University (METU). I have always been interested in how the natural environment and humans interact, how nature can inspire us in our creations and how can we create in coherence with our environment. Therefore, I mainly study sustainability, and ecological design and have an interest in adaptive use, reuse-repurpose. On a much smaller scale, I deal with recycling/upcycling household waste and combine them with natural materials in order to design art pieces and functional objects. I have the vision to turn this hobby into a greater attempt and find less harmful architectural solutions in terms of materials and design.


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