Graduate Architecture

Architecture and Environmental Politics

Excerpted from ‘A House in the Sun: Modern Architecture and Solar Energy in the Cold War'

In A House in the Sun: Modern Architecture and Solar Energy in the Cold War (Oxford University Press), Assistant Professor of Architecture Daniel Barber revisits the solar-energy experiments during the Cold War and looks at how architecture has engaged with environmental issues. Combining the history of architecture with geopolitical considerations, the book illuminates current debates around energy, architecture, and climate.

In the decade following World War II, there was a remarkable amount of growth in energy technologies. A global network of oil, carrying petroleum across oceans to power the cars and heat the suburban homes of the United States and Western Europe, was largely in place by 1953. Around the same time, the first energy-producing nuclear reactors came online in the United States, the United Kingdom, Israel, and France. An increase in proven natural gas deposits transformed domes­tic technologies, and a massive expansion in electrical grid and oil pipeline capac­ity brought energy to a much wider swath of the population. All of these were the result of a combination of economic arguments, political imperatives, and cultural and consumer desires. Growth in both energy resources and in energy efficiency was a necessary, if often unacknowledged, component of the postwar economic boom. The history of the postwar period— its struggles and crises, its wars, its periods of peace and its advancements in technology and quality of life—is closely related to energy.

There was also, after the war, a brief but remarkably dynamic interest in what we now call alternative energy technologies, including wind, geothermal, and solar energy. This book tells the story of little- known experiments in solar house heat­ing that were the focus of American elements of this alternative energy discussion right after World War II. The solar house serves as a framework to reconsider the interconnected histories of architecture, technology, politics, and economics in that period. As a multiply charged object in the midst of American suburban expan­sion, and then as a means to raise the standard of living in the developing econo­mies of the global south, the history of the solar house opens up a reconsideration of familiar narratives and assumptions about the postwar world.

A central aspect of this reconsideration is the role that architecture plays in social and political change. Solar buildings and experiments, as well as relevant publica­tions, symposia, exhibitions and competitions, and perhaps most especially new ideas and imperatives about engaging knowledge from other fields, helped to re­configure architecture as a profession and a scholarly field. Architecture became an interdisciplinary frame through which social, technological, and design experi­mentation encouraged new perspectives and new forms of expertise, focused on what we now call environmental concerns. These developments in turn helped to establish an intellectual framework, a funding structure, and an ethics of interdis­ciplinary practice, and facilitated a more general increase in knowledge about the global environmental system. At stake, then, is how architectural experimentation in solar energy contributed to the conception of the environment as a realm of social concern, and how these experiments encouraged new professional practices and cultural responses.

At the same time, this book is not just about architecture. It is also concerned with the technological developments and the new forms of social and political or­ganization that reflected and informed these architectural ideas— a constellation of interconnections that allows us to think differently about the premise of and pros­pects for environmental change. In particular, knowledge of the global ecological system— and a fervent interest in operating upon it— became an important part of the professional practices of architects, engineers, energy forecasters, and others at mid- century. This was over a decade before the elegant scientific analyses of Rachel Carson brought these concerns to a wider professional and public audience, and more than two decades before the oil crises of the 1970s. Indeed, many counter­culture architects who have been recently celebrated for their environmental in­novations in the 1970s looked back to these immediate postwar experiments for information, inspiration, and direction. What is the significance of suggesting that an environmentalist culture emerged amidst the technological and political aspi­rations of the Cold War, rather than as part of the free- thinking of the counter­culture? Such a shift in historical perspective allows us to reconsider the texture and context of environmental politics. It also places some of the familiar tropes of mid- century architecture in a new light, as design experiments are revealed to have been instrumental in the emergence of a new way of thinking about the contingent relationships between human and natural systems.

Reprinted with permission. © Oxford University Press 2016