By 2050, the world’s population will be somewhere between nine and ten billion.
This means that India will have a population of around 1.6 billion; Nigeria, 390 million; Pakistan, 340 million; Indonesia, 290 million; Mexico, 140 million; and Egypt, 120 million. In 1950, India had a population of around 360 million; Nigeria, 30 million; Pakistan, 40 million; Indonesia, 80 million; Mexico, 30 million; and Egypt, 20 million.
And we will not only be more numerous: we will also be richer, making greater demands, occupying more space and producing more trash.
Parallel to this demographic growth, there has been – and will continue to be – an equally undeniable growth of regional, continental and global regulations. The institutions devoted to the definition of international norms are countless (IMF, ISO, UNESCO, WCO, WEO, WIPO, WNO, WTO – whatever). As an example, the European Union is constantly producing legislation regulating any and all human activities: growing tomatoes, making sausages, hunting pheasants, stuffing rag dolls, boiling mussels, etc. This might have a comical aspect to it, but Europe’s regulation-making factory is not the exception. On the contrary, the EU seems to be a laboratory of regulations that will soon be imitated by the rest of the world. In fact, as clumsy as the EU might appear to those of us who live within its boundaries, it is considered an enviable model by similar multi-state institutions, such as the East African Community, the Arab League, Mercosur and Asean. Whatever romantic opinions neo-liberals may have, and whatever rabid protests populists might voice, population and regulations are both increasing in a seemingly inexorable fashion. If what we are witnessing is a population crisis coupled with the emergence of a large and complex bureaucracy, to use Wittfogel’s terms (1957), then the question is: Can we escape a new oriental despotism?
Ecology is a word that makes sense only in connection with the sheer quantity of the world’s population. Indeed, ecology means just about anything, considering that in 2050 the world will be inhabited by around 10 billion people. As such, ecology can be defined as the discipline that aims at the survival of the human species in the long term and pursues this goal by considering the world as a totality. Forget panda bears – ecology is realism starting from the totality, or global planning imposed upon individual decision-making, and so it is also, unavoidably, a kind of totalitarianism – one to be understood without any negative connotations, simply an undeniable condition that could produce several different political results. It is within the frame of this totalitarianism that we need to discover a way to regulate the ecological irrationality of the markets while nonetheless preserving a measure of personal freedom. It is within the frame of this totalitarianism that the alternative to pure despotism or some sort of polite and reasonable socialism emerges. In fact, when it comes to environmental issues on a global scale, only two alternatives remain: 1) non-ecology, or individualistic liberalism, otherwise known as the apocalypse; or 2) ecology, or global planning, also known as totalitarianism, of which there are two possible types: 2.1) ecology done the brutal way, or so-called oriental despotism, i.e., madness; or 2.2) ecology done the polite, reasonable way, or so-called socialism.
Ecology (i.e., socialism) is in need of a theory, but no such theory currently exists. Today, ecological thinking is in a much more depressive and amateurish phase than socialist thinking was before Marx (so far, it amounts to a bit of Jared Diamond and some WWF sentimentalism). Although we have no precise ideas about what such a theory should consist of, two things seem evident: 1) the misery of contemporary ecological thinking is, of course, a theoretical misery; and 2) new ecological thinking has to be developed from “the point of view of the totality” according to Lukacs’s formula. So, broadly speaking, ecology would first of all imply abandoning any spoiled irritation about realism, any nihilistic criticism of the universal, any unnecessary distrust of the common; it would also imply overcoming the uninterrupted denigration campaign against the totality that has been carried out by pretty much everyone over the last seventy years, from Arendt to Foucault, from Hayek to Altman, from Eco to Eisenman, from Popper to Rushdie.
Ecology means planning. Despised as the dumbest thing you could ever think of during the age of neo-liberalism, planning is the one and only solution if we want to survive. We simply have to love it. And, of course, while planning does not mean returning to some sort of easy-going technocracy, it certainly does imply an explicit refusal of the micro-scale obsessions and deliberate weakness of all of the recent pseudo-critical, pseudo-participatory, pseudo-antagonistic rhetoric (all of which ended up being nothing more than indirect neoliberal propaganda). Planning needs to consider global problems (such as modernism) and extended time frames (such as classicism) while imagining humble, local solutions applied by means of infinite variations, adaptations, compromises, replicas and copies. Most of the time, planning would operate ex post – as remedy – more than ex ante – as prevention. It would imply a controlled economy, but probably not a planned economy (forgive us, comrade Stalin). So, the planning we are proposing would not really be planning; it would just be kind of planning. In terms of territorial management, too, planning would be anything but modernist, and it would imply neither complete control nor a tabula rasa approach. Planning would be listening, observing, learning and only then correcting, while always accepting the logical priority of the existent over the new. If we were to imagine a reasonable, non-apocalyptic scenario for the future – a global soup of super-national entities (something like the Holy Roman Empire) in which super-mighty city-states and guilds (London, Istanbul, Moscow, Singapore, southern California, Switzerland . . . ) float about a more or less forgotten periphery – then we could also imagine an ex-post planning, one that combines the market economy with the interventions of super-national institutions every now and then, limiting the arrogance of corporations and citystates and thereby imposing moments of large-scale rationality upon the random development of the markets. In this optimistic scenario (something like a vaguely enlightened, generically socialist, modestly corrupt, fairly inefficient and unintentionally benevolent worldscale Pakistan), how would we go about planning? And for whom? What would the territorial consequences of the decline of the nation-state be? To put it in the terms of Dante’s Monarchia, how would we plan for the communes and how would we plan for the empire?
Within this scenario, a few reasonable ideas can be proposed. First, territories need to be recognized not according to existing administrative borders, but according to ecosystems and the organization of production. Individuating and naming territories from a global perspective is indeed the first and fundamental act of planning. The narrative of these regions is already encapsulated in their names, and if their definition is correct, then their potential is immediately visible: the Nile Valley could be planned; the Rhine Delta could be planned; the Po Valley could be planned; Lake Victoria could be treated as a city before it becomes one; Brazil could make big plans for its highways just as Germany did with the Reichsautobahn and the U.S. did with the Eisenhower expressways.
While actively promoting more regulations, international organizations keep on selling a second-rate American dream, promising underdeveloped countries that if they do well and open up their markets, they, too, will soon live the way people in New Jersey do: two cars per family, a large home with a 300-square-metre green lawn around it, maybe a swimming pool. And yet, as much as this does not correspond to the dreams of the Nile Valley farmer – and as unjust as this might sound – that farmer cannot become modern the same way farmers in the Po Valley did. He would not buy a Lambretta, then a black-and-white TV set and then a crappy FIAT. We all survive only if the Nile Valley farmer buys a cell phone, then a bike and then a personal computer. As extreme as it may sound, the alternative is extinction. Ecology is first an anthropological issue, and only secondly a technological one. Changes in social behaviour have the greatest impact (for example, if the world’s population became vegetarian, it would solve approximately 30% of our current environmental issues). Contemporary eco-friendly rhetoric is totally flawed: technology will not yield a solution. Solar panels will not save us, and neither will electric cars: the real solution is to be found in a series of changes in our social behaviour, or – even better – in our desires (for technology would then follow suit). Also, these changes are already known to us for the most part; from a scientific and technological point of view, they are nothing new. Indeed ecology is no novelty. In architecture and urban planning, the right ecological policies have been discussed since the 1970s, if not before, but they are still largely ignored because of the suicidal logic of the free market: suburban settlements waste endless energy (as well as destroy the social fabric) and should be abandoned; combinations of working and living spaces are desirable and the dumb aftermath of modernist zoning and construction standards should be eliminated from legislation; the use of local materials, local technology and local labour should be encouraged. The private ownership of cars is simply nonsensical, for shared cars would immediately solve all of the issues that are currently not being solved by the clumsy and hypocritical electric car. A taxation of individual airplane travel that increases with the number of flights taken (a kind of anti-frequent-flyer programme) might make sense. In northern Europe, interior temperatures could be kept significantly lower than the current average temperature of 22° C, and we could easily return to sleeping in cold bedrooms the way our grandparents did. Most of all, culturally imposed Western standards pursued merely as status symbols should be forced to re-adapt to their contexts. There is really no good reason for freezing interior office temperatures in Singapore; there is no good reason to wear a suit and tie in Thailand; there is no good reason for artificially produced lawns in the UAE; there is no good reason for having Christmas trees in Mexico . . . All of these policies are obviously valid from a technical point of view, and yet nothing happens anyway because they would require a radical redefinition of some of the standards of living to which we have grown accustomed. As much as ecology means exercising a certain degree of restraint, this does not mean advocating “prosperity without growth”. This perspective is simply anthropologically wrong (at least as much as classic liberal anthropology is). Aggression will not disappear, and neither will conflicts. But if the anthropological presuppositions of 19th-century socialism are not only wrong – for it seems clear that man is not “good by nature” – but also boring, the math of global population growth is undeniable, and socialism offers the only reasonable escape, provided that an appropriate anthropology is developed. In the end we just need an ecology based on a deep distrust of nature and a socialism freed from any naïve anthropological optimism. In the simple and amazing words of Paolo Virno, “the critique of the ‘monopoly of political decision-making’, and more in general of institutions whose rules function like a repetition compulsion, must be based on the assertion that man is ‘bad by nature’” (E così via all’infinito [Turin 2010], p. 154; translated by the authors).
For the average building constructed today, we presume an economic life span of twenty-five years, which implies that from now on we will have to renovate buildings heavily every quarter century in order to maintain them. But renovation costs are generally between 50 and 100 percent of the total investment necessary to build a new structure! In the light of this, it is difficult to believe in the salvific promise of cavity walls or HVAC systems like the “passive house”. All of these things are more likely to harm the environment than help it because of their maintenance costs and the trash they produce in the long run.
This economic cycle creates a situation in which architects have very limited budgets and no longer perceive buildings as an investment for future generations. Who cares about the ageing of materials? Who cares about future users and the transformations they might require? Who cares if a building looks nice? In the end, it is all just about making a quick buck. Capitalism has made mincemeat of architecture by reducing its longterm perspective to the twenty-five-year time frame of returns on private financial investments. In the context of these twenty-five years, firmitas, utilitas and venustas all sound like a bad joke.
No matter the political scenario, ecology forces us to think in the long term again. For all of the discussion about recycling, the truly important task is to produce things that could work over the long haul, and as far as architecture is concerned, this is entirely possible (there is enough evidence of this in the architecture of the past). What is more, compared to the evidently nonsensical time frame of contemporary capitalism, architecture is something inherently ecological, not because of some silly solar panels, but because of its slower time frame. If we were forced to build things to last 200 years, we would reflect upon what the future might bring and we would have to design buildings to be adaptable, solid and aesthetically convincing – just like the ancient Romans did.
If we look back, sustainability was always at the core of architecture. The aesthetic result was never in opposition to functionality or durability. In fact, Vitruvius, Alberti and Palladio can all be read as a guide to sustainable architecture.
So what kind of architecture would satisfy a contemporary, realistic and ecological agenda? What should the aesthetic of this realistic socialism be? Might the answer be a dry, elegantly reductive and committedly universal (and – because of that – thoroughly contextual) socialist realism?
• Turris Babel •
Turris Babel is Athanasius Kircher’s attempt to imagine the description in the Book of Genesis (10–11) that recounts Nimrod’s attempt to build a tower reaching the heavens. The story was of particular interest to Kircher as an account of the origin of languages (indeed, the second half of the book is devoted to Kircher’s theories on linguistics). In the first section, much as he had done in his Arca Noë four years earlier, Kircher proves that Nimrod’s ambition was intrinsically flawed: in order to reach the nearest heavenly body – namely, the Moon – the tower would have to be 287,543 kilometres high and comprise over three million tons of matter. The resulting uneven distribution of the Earth’s mass would compromise the balance of the planet and move it from its position at the centre of the universe, resulting in a cataclysmic disruption in the order of nature. In the amazing drawings that accompany Kircher’s geometrical demonstration, the planet with the tower looks like a gigantic Pinocchio head staring at the unreachable moon.
• Oriental Despotism •
Karl August Wittfogel’s Oriental Despotism (1957) is a curious book. It is highly verbose, terribly insistent and irritatingly anti-socialist, and perhaps worst of all, it never really sounds very sharp. However, despite all this it is difficult to deny that the author dealt with something of contemporary relevance. The book also provides a perspective on architecture. More than anything, when read today, it is a funny book.
The best part is the index, where the dry magniloquence of the topics is not hampered by the author’s didactic treatment. Consider, for instance, this sequence of chapters:
D. Further Construction Activities Customary in Hydraulic Societies
Non-Agrarian Hydraulic Works
Aqueducts and Reservoirs Providing Drinking Water Navigation Canals
Large Non-Hydraulic Constructions Huge Defense Structures
Palaces, Capital Cities, and Tombs Temples
E. The Masters of Hydraulic Societies – Great Builders The Aesthetic Aspect
a. Uneven Conspicuousness
b. The Monumental Style
c. The Institutional Meaning
• Mondo Cane •
It is possible that meat might soon disappear from the everyday diet and become once again exceptional and somehow associated with ritual, something like the hog hunting portrayed in the film Mondo Cane (Cavara, Jacopetti, Prosperi, 1962), in which the inhabitants of an island near New Guinea grow hogs for years before releasing them and then killing and eating them in an incredibly violent way. Maybe we will eat meat just to remember that we are carnivorous, just to accept that we are bad by nature. Might our future hold temples of meat? Slaughter feasts?
• Sixtus Had a Plan •
Sixtus V had a plan. It was not incredibly refined, for he was not a man of subtleties. He may have picked a relatively bad architect and he may have had limited resources, but he still had a plan – a simple one, a realistic one. He also had an idea: none of the city’s resources should be wasted. Everything in the city was to function or die. He probably even had the Septizonium destroyed because he could not see it working in the city. It looks like he operated with a funny, stupid brutality that lies somewhere halfway between Quentin Tarantino and Hippocratic medicine: quae medicamenta non sanant, ferrum sanat; quae ferrum non sanat, ignis sanat . . .
• The Barshch-Ginzburg Plan for Moscow •
The plan for the reconstruction of Moscow as a "green city" by Mikhail Barshch and Moisei Ginzburg was a radical proposal for the reorganization of Moscow, which in 1929 was a metropolis of two million inhabitants that could no longer absorb newcomers without seriously rethinking housing, industry, mobility and infrastructure. Linear housing developments combined with infrastructure left the city, leaving old Moscow as a park filled with architectural ruins. Together with the Barshch, Vadimirov, Ochitovic and Sokolov’s plan for Magnitogorsk, “Moscow as a Green City” is the urban translation of the GOELRO plan – that is, the plan elaborated by the State Commission for the Electrification of Russia. Ecology remakes the city, and so the old, unecological city becomes a ruin of the past. The Moscow project may have been crazy, but it was not at all utopian, just an (exalted) assessment of the country’s main asset: space. In Russia, this could somehow make sense.
• Robert Moses’s Dams and State Parks •
Robert Moses’s vision of New York was not confined to the city proper, but rather extended out to include the whole metropolitan region. Since his sphere of authority included all parks and parkways, he was able to stretch his influence to the very end of Long Island and later to the city’s upstate facilities. After systematically eroding the power of the old park commissioners – a bunch of highranking philanthropists – Moses introduced the notion of scale in park planning and, above all, shifted the parks’ purpose from conservation to recreation.
Meanwhile, in New York Moses was facilitating connections and mobility (at least for some parts of the population) through his brand new system of parkways, providing access to tourist destinations in Upstate New York. Once more, recreation was bound to infrastructure and on a monumental scale. In Niagara and Massena, two huge power dams bearing Moses’s name testify to the State Parks’ ambition.
"The Watts Bar Dam Visitor Center in Tennessee is the right place to re-read and re-think Manfredo Tafuri's Progetto e Utopia."
Reyner Banham, "Tennessee Valley Authority: The Engeneering of Utopia", Casabella 542-43 (January–February 1988), p. 74.
• An Appraisal of Minibuses •
In the 1990s, a silent revolution took place. The introduction of cheap Chinese-made minibuses changed the face of public transportation in half of the world. Indeed, minibuses allowed private operators throughout the Middle East, Asia, Africa and Latin America to provide an affordable and relatively efficient transportation service to a population that had not yet had regular access to public transit. Through innovative experiments run by a multitude of logistical geniuses in different parts of the world – and by developing use-models that varied according to each context – the minibus spontaneously resolved the inefficiencies of larger state-operated buses, expanding service to streets that were inaccessible to bigger vehicles. Minibuses are, indeed, typically smaller than buses and usually take passengers on a fixed or semi-fixed route without timetables, departing when all the seats have been filled. They can stop anywhere to pick up or drop off passengers. Minibuses are almost never stopped for long, and so they do not waste parking space. And since minibuses do not depart until they are full, they do not waste fuel. Developed in nofrills contexts, minibuses offer one of the few glimmers of hope if we want to think of an ecologically efficient and realistic use of contemporary technology. Socialism will arrive on a minibus, or it never will.
• Standards •
Protocols such as BREEAM, LEED, DGNB, Minergie, etc., might look stupid (and are primarly not-very-hidden attempts to privilege certain segments of the market), but at the end of the day they are better than nothing, for at least they introduce a kind of measurability into the discussion. Architects mainly see these standards as nuisances and do not realize their potential. CIAM’s architects were less spoiled and attempted to define standards by which to imagine a new society. Although they were pretty naïve and almost never right, at least they tried. Ultimately, they were pretty reasonable in their identification of the problem: theirs was a proper discussion – and more importantly, a proper discussion about a real problem. A world with five times the population of the 1950s has to engage in such discussion with five times the urgency.
• Calculations •
What if we built walls instead of filling buildings with foam? How much would it cost? Would it really be more expensive than what we are currently doing? Could somebody calculate this with a bit of precision? And how long would it take for this option to start being more convenient? Twenty years? Thirty? Fifty . . . ?
• The Rue Corridor Is Soooooo Good •
Cities should be made of blocks. Blocks are the most efficient formula if you do not want to waste energy. Blocks also reduce surface occupation and automatically produce programmatic complexity by bringing together different functions. What is more, blocks reduce useless open space on the ground floor, thereby giving the remaining public space a degree of urban density. If you ever wondered why we stopped building cities made of blocks, you probably thought it was Le Corbusier’s fault (i.e., his crusade against the rue corridor), but you’d have been wrong. It was not Le Corbusier at all: it was real estate.
In the end, the cities we live in are the product of the fetishistic protection of private property. (Why would we have to observe several metres’ distance from property borders when building if these borders were not sacred to our society?) They are the product of the dimensions of contemporary real-estate companies: they are too big to accept the city’s plans, yet too small to propose their own. Ultimately, a real-estate company always wants to build a freestanding tower, no matter the context. It justifies this by arguing that in doing so, it is leaving a lot of public space at ground level. And this is what is actually Le Corbusier’s fault. He’s the one who provided the argument they repeat over and over in city council meetings.
• Deregulation •
An increase in regulations on a global level might result in fewer regulations on the local one. It would make it possible, for instance, to purge urban legislation of the health-obsessed paranoia of the 19th century, for the concerns that generated this no longer exist in the hygienic conditions of contemporary European and American cities. A rule forbidding the construction of isolated buildings would overcome a lot of the unnecessary protection of private property. And indeed, in such a crowded world, why should we enforce maintaining a distance from property borders when building?
• On the Dullness of Japanese Architecture •
Can somebody explain why Japanese architecture is so cool?
If you have ever been in Tokyo during a cold winter or a hot summer, you cannot help but wonder why people in the West like Japanese architecture. No insulation, no screening from the sun, no thermal mass, no noise protection: welcome to the paper house.
• In die entgegengesetzte Richtung •
At the so-called Temple of Venus (or of Mercury, or of Echo . . . ) in Baiae (now called Bacoli) on the bay of Naples, there is a fig tree. In the beginning, the tree grew normally: its roots downward and its leaves skyward. When the roots pushed down into the ground, though, they encountered and penetrated the brickwork of a Roman vault buried in the earth beneath the tree. When archaeologists later excavated the Roman ruins, the roots were left there, floating in the air beneath ground level – and then they transformed into branches and leaves. So, from the top down, the fig tree has leaves, roots and then leaves again.
(Note: This story is entirely invented. The upside-down fig tree does exist, but we have no idea why it grew in the wrong direction.)