Architecture: A Search for Hope - Sustainability

By Lynette Gurr


Architecture reflects as a mirror the sentiments, politics and philosophy of our times. In 2010, at an interdisciplinary colloquium on “Hope”, I presented Berlin’s Reichstag, the new German Parliament designed by Foster + Partners, as an architectural symbol of hope for a reunited East and West Germany. The reconstruction of this iconic building established a vision for the future - reconciliation with a Germany whose past was tainted with some of the greatest horrors of the twentieth century. While the Reichstag’s dome was a symbolic, political gesture, a quintessential strength of the dome was its technology that addressed key political and architectural, challenges of the twenty-first century – sustainability, energy conservation and the environment.

From a heritage perspective, building conservation is a sustainability issue. Retention and adaptive re-use have enormous energy-saving, as well as aesthetic and social, consequences. In 2010, in Australia, Architects, Jackson Teece, re-developed the Perpetual Trustees building at 39 Hunter Street, Sydney. The building won Australia’s first 6 star Green Star Heritage Commercial rating and demonstrated the potential to revitalise heritage buildings through the application of innovative environmentally sustainable Green design.

Both these projects are multi-million dollar projects. However, money is not the main issue for sustainability – the key component is genuine commitment. Even a relatively simple task of specifying a kitchen sink or tap becomes a political issue associated with sustainability, climate change and the environment. Have we factored in the carbon footprint associated with transporting product across the globe, water-efficiency, consumption and harvesting, recycling materials… Realising the importance of these issues, governments introduced incentives to use solar power, insulate homes and harvest water. While mismanagement had some devastating consequences, these were innovative ideas and such schemes need to be pursued, rather than abondoned.

Each individual architectural professional should make a conscious commitment to an awareness of the ethics of what we encourage others to consume and the impact it has on the environment in which we live. The architectural profession has a significant role to play in educating, firstly themselves, then clients and the general public, about sustainable material selection and design solutions. Otherwise, the chain of causality can result in devastating consequences:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

2011 started with a series of natural disasters that shook the foundations of Hope - floods, earthquakes, tsunami, cyclones and hurricanes. The fortitude of survivors and their sense of hope, is uplifting. From tribulation comes strength - from crisis, opportunities. Our architectural training provides us with skills to create our environment. The issue is not ‘too big’ when you believe the power of the movement is in the hands of individuals, regardless of where your architectural training has taken you professionally.

Our current economic climate highlights the vulnerability of the architectural profession - architecture is a barometer of the times - economic, political, social and artistic. A downfall in work results in redundancies and lay-offs. What strengths can we find amid this climate? The Enemy at Home, an exhibition at the Museum of Sydney, depicts the resourcefulness of German internees in Australian “Concentration Camps” during World War I. Despite their predicament, I found inspiration from the ability of internees to focus positive energies creatively and resourcefully - theatrical performances, learning to photograph and draw, completing a scientific study, learning a trade, living harmoniously in extreme conditions. In the words of one intern - “To rest is to rust”.

Perhaps the current climate provides an opportunity to expand our architectural skills and knowledge-base and re-think sustainable design as part of the solution for a positive future – architecture can provide hope.