Monday, April 23, 2012

Blues for Pablo (Miles Davis)

I must start by welcome Mr G S Manowe (GSM) to Boidus and his column “Going Green”.

I felt a bit uneasy with the thought that I had to go into “the Green Fields”, as I have difficulties to differ from wizard-ism and plain-talk pragmatism. But I’m sure that that GSM doesn’t have this problem, being a senior architect with many years experience.

As he mentioned in his writing in the February issue, 40 % of the world’s total energy demand and close to 70 % of the total electricity consumption goes to the building sector, as well as 65 % of the worlds waste. 

These are figures that should make us in the architectural and planning fields a bit uneasy, to say the least. The situation is precarious:

We all in the development professions have without much intelligence (but it has been warnings), been picking the easy reached, low hanging fruits for more than two centuries of industrialization. And, gee, what a boom – for a few! But now we have to face a situation when the fruits are not so easy to reach and we have to pay a price we never considered before. That’s the energy or peak oil bubble! There is still energy/oil there but to a price we never could imagine (if we didn’t read the warnings). If we are careful in the use of the remaining resources, we might have time to adjust peacefully. But time is slipping and soon it’s too late to adjust in some kind of order. In principle, that’s what I have been saying so far in my Boidus columns.

We here in Botswana have, in my opinion, a quite unique situation. Most of our building material used today is imported and we must pay heavily for transportation. So it has been for many years and no one has said with emphasisBOTSWANA MUST SECURE A PRODUCTION OF BUILDING MATERIALS OF ITS OWN!  

We have all the needed resources and hopefully an energy situation that other countries will envy within short (based on our own recourses, too). The problem, as far as I can see, is that we have not created a local and modern self-sufficient building tradition – we are thoughtlessly copying the so called developed countries that are soon in the gutter. Sky-scrapers, glass, aluminium, steel and more of highly embodied energy stuff, as I indicated in a previous blog, are the theme of the day – imitating the western model.

Consequently, I think we architects and town planners have to study design and building against the situation of less energy abundance.

And how to handle such a situation of “less abundance” was the reason for me to mention Alvar Aalto and the situation in Finland after WW2. Amazing what kind of art can come out from such conditions, isn’t it?

I guess there is more to say about Alvar Aalto - interviewed, he was always sparing his words – the quiet creator of art that talked its own language! However, in an inspired situation, he spoke. For instance:

“Architecture has often in these days been compared to science and its methods have been endeavoured to become more “scientific”. Even to become a science by itself by including more of complex mathematics.  But it is no science – it is a synthetic process, a conglomeration of thousands of important human functions and will be so to the end of humans” (Nov 1940).

Further – “If architecture will have a deeper human value, it must primarily sort out the economical side of it” – and this gives me a point in this discussion.

This “economical side of it” is changing rapidly just now. All imported goods, are excessively expensive due to escalating transport costs. This is not a good basis for a sustainable construction industry in Botswana.

As we have most of the needed raw materials available, and soon a self sufficient power/electricity production, we have to localize the production of building materials. And use less of high embodied energy materials – more of traditional building materials.

It was interesting to read Mr Mokwete’s presentation of his project in Maitengwe in the latest issue of Boidus Focus, although I don’t think that vernacular design is the only concept for the future. But the project clearly shows that simple, traditional materials still are in use and there are skilled builders that can handle them, still.

The Maitengwe project also indicates that traditional thatching grass still is available and will guarantee a healthy indoor climate. But it is a material that is hard to find to decent prices these days as it must be collected from nature.

Now I happen to know that thatching grass can be commercially grown and harvested like in SA and we currently have to buy our thatch from there to a high price.  But this is not necessary. A few hundred small farmers here could plant and grow it and provide for a growing market here. Maybe, we should start with some small project like Maitengwe and then go on with more substantial, long lasting and reusable building materials?

But there is obviously a long way to go for the use of traditional materials and constructions. To me, it looks like the regulations we have are deliberately cutting out the use of traditional materials, today. I need help from practising architects and designers to clear this issue – please, let me know the situation with all kinds of examples you can pinpoint!

I know that the Lobatse Clay Works haven’t become a success – but I haven’t seen the real reasons why, yet. A thorough analysis of this project must be made – maybe it needed some kind of protected market as most of industrial projects in smaller countries need. But this is nowadays totally ignored by the neo-liberal economy preached by IMT, World Bank and other Washington Consensus organisations. As if the protected market wasn’t the prerogative for western development, once upon a time!

There are many aspects to discuss on this issue of “securing a production of our own” and I will be back on these aspects in later blogs.

To conclude this one, I will be quoting Ralph Erskine from his lecture at the Royal Society of Arts in 1982:

“Energy is a valuable but not inexhaustible and often much polluting resource. Buildings consequently must be simple and well insulated in both hot and cold climates. The size of windows must be restricted. Glass architecture, often considered to be beautiful, must be regarded as a symbol for a naive, lavish and irresponsible culture. A new and well thought-out, responsible architecture must be worked out.”

And this has very much to do with “Going Green”, I assume.

May I suggest that Boidus Focus put a small sum into the printing of a car-sticker for me and my friends? If you read this, you know what it should say!

Pablo Casals once said : "Situation is hopeless- lets take another step."

As it has been noted by some readers, my “homepage” on the Web isn’t known to all of you. If you google  <>  you find the start of it with some essays on Sowa Town (now close to a 20 year celebration) and background to this project. More will come if the Web server functiosn more than every second day and the power cuts will be for more places than Gabane, just.

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