Architecture and Energy: The Influence of Climate and Region
Buildings are not sustainable, neither are cars or shoes or smartphones, they can only be more-or-less efficient in their consumption of resources and so moderate the environmental effects of human activities.
The smallest meaningful unit of sustainability is probably the city-state, or the city and its surrounding region, though with contemporary trade and commerce the boundaries of regions have literally become global. Romantic proposals for solitary, sustainable buildings in the landscape are dream-images or, at best, experimental laboratories for the real work of reckoning with regional arrangements of production and consumption.
Since the beginning of the modern period the idea of the region has served as a counterweight to the abundant appeals of universal, technological civilization, which has brought dramatic increases in wealth, power, longevity, and freedom. Narratives about regions offer local identities based on climate, geography, and longstanding cultural traditions of settlement. In its simplest form, this can be understood as a longing for the conventions of agricultural civilization even as they are overwritten by the mobile, media-based themes of liberation and globalization. Le Corbusier thought that one task of a modern architecture was to reconcile that opposition, to resist the eclecticism of vernacular nostalgia by using "scientific means" to engage the specificities of climate and topography. In different ways, that has been the appeal of critical regionalism, bioregionalism, bioclimatic design, watershed politics, even Ecotopia, which offer methods by which social and aesthetic forms of identity can be explained.
The central role of energy in global, industrial civilization is well-established; fuels have largely replaced the laborers and slaves of agricultural civilization and wholly surpassed them in capacity. The portability and energy density of fossil fuels have engendered radically new forms of settlement and mobility over the last century, dramatically altering the connection of architecture to its climate and region. As the transition from fossil fuels begins, those connections will change again, not back to purely agricultural patterns, but to new kinds of production, new terms of identity, and new types of architecture.
As a contribution to the DOE funded Energy-Efficient Building HUB (EEB Hub) we are inviting an international group of architects and theorists to address the influence of climate and region on Architecture and Energy. We will convene a public symposium at the University of Pennsylvania on January 25, 2013, which will be assembled in a book to be published in 2014.