Tuesday, April 17, 2012

What can we learn from our predecessors?

Many worried people today are hoping for alternative energy sources. But a traditionalist like me is pessimistic about the future and optimistic about the past.

Right now we are exploring wind power in large so called “farms” around shores and islands all over Europe, mainly. There are also so called bio-fuel but we know that this is merely food deficiency at the other end. Today we know that these alternatives are just marginal to the old “free flowing oil” and coal. The technology behind is extremely expensive and can cover for just between 1- 2 % of current demand and will need a lot of our conventional energy (oil and coal) for maintenance and function.

So – is the party over? Maybe not quite but let’s start brain-storming about a world of less abundance and its impact on construction and planning here in Botswana.

We start with finding out what architects were forced to consider in time of crisis e.g. reconstruction after WW2 in Europe.

Finland comes to my mind – a country that came out from the WW2 on the wrong side and was boycotted from the various aids at the time. Thus completely void of steel for reinforcement of concrete, plastics and the like and other materials on the “right” and supported side (West).

Architects in Finland had to use the local materials – brick and wood predominantly.

And became masters in using it in new configurations. And had to keep buildings to a scale and height that was possible. Hence an architectural marvel happened – Alvar Aalto and his designs! He is the modern master of building in bricks and using wooden structures together with it!

This became his “functionalism” but is called “organic building” by the adoring pundits of today. We must learn from his example in a world of less abundance!

Another famous architect of a more voluntary “less abundant” kind is Ralph Erskine. His buildings (and town plans) are also “organic” – as grown out of the ground. For him, his attitude was not unavailability of modern materials. Rather a self imposed restriction due to his Quaker background – a kind of environmental attitude – he managed for instance to build a large student facility with library, dining hall, sports centre in a beautiful meadow full of century old oak trees without knocking down a single one (Stockholm University)! Hope I can show you some pics one day.

As architects and planners you are familiar with these icons and I don’t have to be long-winded. They both bow to nature and teach us to live and build with nature. Believe me – we have first class examples for our future dealing with a world of less abundance!

Our problems will most certainly be not so much possible design principles as convincing our clients what must be done. And the number of clients will also be less abundant – a situation we must learn to live with for the future, unfortunately.

This will mean a lot for the university and architect’s studios. We better prepare for a widening of our responsibility with more concentration on environmental issues, I guess. We will have a lot of problems created by the economy and industrialization that have been running without harness for long. But the “Jack of all trades” label we have might be useful for us.

I will go on with this issue of the architects and townplanners in the future in coming writing, if you don’t mind.

I will end with a memory of my first meeting with Alvar Aalto:

At a study tour to Finland in 1993, some students (me included) were invited to meet the icon AA at his office outside Helsinki. Our prof Gunnar Hoving, was schoolmate to AA in the early 20-ies. We met AA dressed in pyjama and gown at 11oo in the morning after he, as usual, had spent his night with a project.

Hoho–Gunnar, some more Arrrkkitects to be?”
“Well, my boys (looking sternly at our oldest one – 42yrs old) and little Lady (looking at a scared 19 yrs old girl among us) – you are going to be Arrrkkitects? 

But times are wrong! Gunnar and I were lucky – the party’s over now! You might be fine draftsmen for some time but the INDUSTRIALISM you are working for is committing suicide!”

He didn’t mention oil and resources, then – but he meant that “development” was outside reach from governments and commoners/voters. In the hand of a few feudal “kings”! This we heard from AA who was known as being conservative!!

Of course he asked some trusted staff to show us his latest “organic” designs, meanwhile himself and Gunnar had a quick glass of some kind.

He never discussed his own creations – “you see what you see and nothing is hidden, but maybe, implicit – if you see what I mean”!

As I said- this was in 1963! But the future was already evident by then.

So “implicitism” was born to me and the only -ism among architects I accept but, naturally, never understand fully. The same you see in Erskine’s and F L Wright’s works or any other fine Architect’s creations – art and metaphysics in holy merger!

(Continuation > click HERE to read Future Ain’t What It Used to Be)

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