Although it is impossible to prove, it seems obvious that in the period since the end of World War ii more buildings have been produced than during all of the seven millennia of human construction activity that preceded it. This unprecedented building boom has accompanied an exponential population increase, from 2 billion in 1927 to 7.7 billion today, along with a radical depletion of rural areas, resulting in well over 50% of humanity residing in urban situations.
So considering these numbers it might sound absurd to pronounce “we do not need any more buildings,” and such a statement will certainly be interpreted as an assault against architecture. Please do not get me wrong: I love architecture and have an undying respect for the profession, and it would not be in my own interest to abuse the field, seeing that I make my living from mediating its output. Everywhere I look, however, I see empty buildings, both in urban environments and in abandoned countrysides, and it makes me wonder why more have to be built. I also notice an abundance of underused structures, often with their lights burning throughout the night, a sign of extravagant waste, and ask myself why so much of the contemporary city has been programmed for single uses? The mismatch of people in need and empty space prompts me to conclude that there are enough buildings already, we just need better allocation.
A simple rebuttal to my queries, however, might be: “It’s the economy, stupid,” since at least a third of any successful city’s well-being turns around construction. In the liberal economy that prevails, the creative energy of developers and their designers gets inevitably channeled by profit-driven motives toward the deleterious cocktail of demolition, extraction, and construction with imported materials. This habit of creative destruction, inherited from the carbonholic industrial past, was once regarded as ‘progress,’ but since the awareness of climate change must now be reclassified as damage. Any act of construction, no matter how ‘sustainable,’ contributes to inflating rather than calming the planetary dilemma of impending biological extinction. It is a matter of degrees. Meanwhile, the combination of vanity and greed that lurks behind so much of contemporary architectural production has unmolded some of the largest and most costly structures in history, not to say the most frivolous, while failing to cool down Global Warming.
Even the well-intentioned projects that obtain LEED platinum ratings use such distinction as a marketing device, a form of green-washing, while remaining in the service of speculative enterprises that refuse to relent in their exploitation of people and non-renewable resources. That the so-called Shard in London, Europe’s tallest structure, remains conspicuously empty a decade after opening provides me with a ready example of a monument to misplaced priorities. Designed with sustainable objectives, such as increasing urban density and reducing energy needs through double glazing, it looms over the Thames as a redundant icon.
In a liberal economy, the classic principals of sustainability – reduce, reuse, recycle – seem antithetical to making a profit. While some theorists preach ‘degrowth,’ no politician on the face of the earth can survive by predicating the idea of less development. Development remains the sacred grail of liberalism, and implies a strong construction sector. Even the United Nations agencies devoted to the virtuous mission of arresting climate change have difficulty avoiding the issue of growth, and thus promote ‘sustainable development’ rather than reducing or eliminating it altogether. Thus my admiration goes to those who occupy and reuse, which seems to me the most creative and sustainable thing we can do. If we returned to the villages, fixed up the old buildings, added a bit of infrastructure, and participated in their agricultural well-being, would we need any more new buildings?