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SUSTAINABLE ARCHITECTURE | A Cautionary Tale


©Jun park & Tsung Pei Lin

Stepping away from the architectural discourse for a moment to look at the macrocosm of our contemporary society, there is a real issue of our reality, our perception of it and how it informs our understanding of said reality. Although objective facts, or knowledge seem to be the remedy of such issues, it is our dependence on this, to be absolute, that is the crux of the issue itself. Knowledge is the human recognition of a truth that can always change and be replaced. It is a pragmaticism that has penetrated deep into every realm of our life, and devoid meaning and enjoyment.


This essay attempts to demonstrate a caution in the attempt to fix all architectural issues and purely justify design through these objective facts in the form of sustainability. There is no doubt that the rapid adaptation of sustainable architecture is essential and there exists a moral responsibility for architects to understand the reality of our architecture within the ecosystem. An attempt to reconcile with the fragility of our environment. However, it is the discipline’s emphasis to distance itself from physical reality through self-congratulatory humanitarianism that is concerning. Where architecture’s value is no longer as freestanding artwork, but instead, validated through its relationship to the environment, determined by quantitative performance.


Rather this essay prompts a further integration of Graham Harman’s Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO), returning to the etymology of the term ‘Philosophia’, meaning the love of wisdom, its beautiful pursuit as establishing objects as deeper than its integration in an ecosystem.


It seems that dialogue exists only about the knowledge that can abstracted from objects, resulting in a one-dimensionality that has now dominated the architectural landscape. As such, an environmentally sustainable building will incorporate green walls, or construction methods using recycled materials, overmining a building’s existence. In doing so, it has effectively turned the form into a tool and thereby in the “Heideggarian idea of the tool as forgotten background equipment, one can argue that architects of the past century have been unwittingly complicit in making architectural form invisible to the consciousness of its users”[1].


Furthermore, there is also a growing concern of the de-emphasis of the architectural object as its own entity. Instead, architectural sustainability seems to follow Bruno Latour’s ‘active network theory’, which considers all objects to be the sum of all their relationships and their effects on other objects. The constant association of buildings and their impact on the environment. Hence architecture has become morphed into the pragmaticism of global networks in the realms of ecology, politics and environmental sustainability, thereby losing its “wonder, mystery, surprise, and power they hold”[2]. The same mysterious awe and sublime of the pyramids of Giza, or the stout Roman architecture that talked of some godly language to bring the people out of the dirt and experience something other than this reality. An object’s real existence is all withdrawn from each other and its deeper reality is not just these relational qualities.


The key component of OOO is understood here, whereby an objects genuine reality is deeper and withdraws behind its external effects of theoretical or practical encounters. As such the reality of objects lie outside the realm of human knowledge, and an attempt to demystify these objects to the point of it being known would convert the object back to the unreal.[3]Hence architectural sustainability’s insatiable desire to quantify. It is important to note that although this line of logic may come out as negative theology, Harman believes in the reality of love and justice, and how we don’t have knowledge of it but can experience this indirectly.


This oblique access is through the ‘allure’, the immeasurable power, mystery and fascination, thereby prompting the interesting conclusion in shifting the focus of philosophy as a vigorous art[4]. This is especially interesting since it is this new direction that can create vast new meanings in the realm of metaphysics, and with art having the ability to have an almost endless representation and medium. Harman’s reinterpretation of the analogy provides an initial framework and line of argument in inferring the metaphysical concept into the world of architecture.


It is important to understand that this is not a negative absolute on the idea of mining, since they are forms of knowledge it is undoubtedly how human perception naturally works to understand our external world, and thus has been and will continuously be exceptionally valuable to us. As such the knowledge attained in sustainable design has furthered quality of life and spaces, whilst being cognisant of societal demands. It is rather that we have an opportunity that has not been exhausted or even explored enough, and the reason for such is what we value in society today, quantitative knowledge.


Sustainable architecture and its unparalleled dependency on the rationality of climate design methodologies and the logistics of performance status, inevitably conveys how quantitative knowledge is dominating our built environment. And it is a concerning fact. If quantitative knowledge is the only dominating factor in designing a piece of architecture, then the architecture essentially becomes a competition of functionalism, a mere contention of knowledge and equipment. However, the adaptation of sustainable architecture is an essential and irreversible trend. To contain the artistic quality of architecture within the realm of quantitative knowledge, we should then explore the possibility to comprehend the unquantifiable ‘mystery and fascination’ in resembling the beauty of spatial experience.

This new line of possibilities is made even more significant when compared to the dominating relative truth value seen in the contemporary rationality that has spread its roots into how we value politics, economics and the social sphere. We have impoverished the external world and its reality by bringing an insatiable desire to demystify it. It has resulted in the classification of objects and beings within a rigid framework, as opposed to exploring the intricacies of the objects as separate entities, thus bringing the observer into a zone of safety. To pursue OOO, we must see past our human conditioning and become uncomfortable.


In response to these surmounting architectural anxieties, Mark Foster Gage advocates that the true power of architecture arises in its realism; most applicable in its aesthetic qualities[5]. It is this pursuit in aesthetics that is crucial to OOO as it deals with the broader philosophical, political, and social questions of how we interact with and understand the reality of this world. Also given how much life today occurs within the sphere of architecture, there is a possible moral obligation to see through the new possibilities that can come to light of architecture that informs our perception of collective reality. Architecture is the backdrop to our daily existence, but nonetheless as David Ruy describes it “Architecture is the first thing that tells us what reality looks like”[6]. This new line of possibilities stems from the key aesthetic principle of OOO, where the real and sensual is distinguished through design qualities that allude to the existence of deeper realities lurking beneath the perceivable surface. Sense and inference as opposed to values of discovery of knowable absolutes.


Therefore, it is evident of the almost infinite possibilities that Object Oriented Ontology provides through its assertion that reality is radically different from our formulation of it. It is this constant pursuit of the withdrawn reality of objects that can justify arts and architectural objects as an envisioned separate entity with its own qualities, rather than its entire validation coming through sustainability.



BIBLIOGRPAHY

[1] Gage, Mark Foster, Killing Simplicity: Object-Oriented Philosophy in Architecture, (Anyone Corporation, 2015) 98 [2] Harman, Graham, Ruy, David, and Gannon, Todd, The Object Turn: A Conversation, (Anyone Corporation, 2015), 74 [3] Harman, Graham, The Third Table: 100 Notes, 100 Thoughts: Documenta Series 085 (USA: HatjeCantz, 2012), 8. [4] Harman, Graham, The Third Table: 100 Notes, 100 Thoughts: Documenta Series 085 (USA: HatjeCantz, 2012), 11. [5] Gage, Mark Foster, Mark Foster Gage. (USA: Rizzoli International Publications, 2018), 15. [6] Harman, Graham, Ruy, David, and Gannon, Todd, The Object Turn: A Conversation, (Anyone Corporation, 2015), 75

Author:

Jun park & Tsung Pei Lin