the innov(e)tion magazine n. 4
the IS

Sustainability is a highly ambiguous concept, above all in the field of architecture. Sustainability, repeated like a mantra, should be the keyword for a more eco-compatible future, a future in which living is not in opposition to the preservation of the eco-system should be the keyword but is both compatible and homogenous with it. However, this onslaught of sustainability is not concerned with critically verifying just how far strategies and tactics really are eco-compatible and eco-friendly nor with establishing how marketing and the market itself have slyly worked to impose products and solutions that are ecologically and philosophically problematical. Some time ago a cynical comment was made that the real business of the 21st century would be the sustainability industry. There is nothing wrong with making sustainability a business; the problem crops up when it is transformed into a claim emptied of any substance, presented in an uncritical and false way bordering on the fraudulent. A single, terribly efficient word describes this situation perfectly: greenwashing. This is the formula with which many subjects have created or recreated an eco-friendly virginity by stating, with the noisy support of the media, that they are now supporters of the cause of sustainability. But this sustainability, expressed in purely marketing terms, becomes something unsustainable, the negation of itself. Every one of the many aspects of the "green question" needs to be rescued from this short-circuit and becomes the object of thoughts which are neither obvious nor taken for granted. It should be detached from the empirical games played by the media and becomes part of a logical idea, a project/idea coherent in every one of its points. And then, in the practice of architecture, the theorem of sustainability and knowledge of the impact it creates is substantial, given that architecture is one of the main embodiments of global warming. The greater part of the elements necessary for sustainable architecture, in fact, already exist: it is simply a question of appreciating and developing them in an adequate manner. For example, by exploiting the material resources to be found nearby, by creatively adapting to what the locality has at hand and is available. By being freed from the obsession for energetic efficiency, which risks replacing one system of wastage with another, the most logical and justifiable solution, even from a conceptual point of view, is the one which leads us to intervene with low intensity, using traditional materials and techniques, and trusting to inventiveness and creativity for transforming and adapting them to the aims of contemporary sustainable architecture. In the last issue of domus that I edited I published a very particular project which is a good illustration of the procedure I believe expresses an idea of sustainable architecture. This is a recently completed intervention originated by an Italian architectural studio in Khartoum in Sudan. The plan recuperated a hundred old and abandoned containers used some years earlier for the construction of a hospital (which in turn was "sustainable") and turned them into a residential unit annexed to the sanitary campus. The dynamic of this project lies in a double function: on the one hand its exploits a nearby haul of jettisoned material (the containers) that would have been difficult
to dispose of, thus turning a negative factor into a positive one. On the other hand, by immobilizing the containers, genuine allegories of our system of mobile consumerism, the intervention offers a responsible vision of a way of constructing. These themes of recuperating objects and techniques, and of the "localness" of materials considered in a creative way, are also enriched by the idea of maintenance, the great reject of contemporary society. Maintenance means the exact opposite of the disposable objects of the consumer society: it means knowledge and know-how that improve, repair, and adapt existing objects through particular interventions, with minimal costs and consumption, and simple and elegant solutions. This way of considering architecture is called urban retrofitting, and some Italian studios make a systematic use of it, favoured by a clientele sufficiently enlightened as not to be swayed by the siren-voice of sustainability marketing.
There is a strongly moral sense behind this idea of recuperating the heritage of buildings fallen into disrepair by following a secular and unprejudiced rule of recycling. Why not undertake recycling procedures that can reactivate our existent heritage, modelling it according to, not just current, but future standards for dwelling, energy, and the environment? Why not offer high quality and eco-environmentally responsible spaces within the reach of everybody? Why cannot the intelligent saving of resources and energy go hand in hand with the beauty and quality of the inhabited spaces? To build the future through the digestion and the knowledgeable overcoming of failures and false starts is the typical way that crafts — in the most positive sense of the word — conceive of sustainability. To conclude, I believe that the much abused concept of sustainability has for a long time been the hostage of financial and media workers who have had the ability to spread the word through statements which, in fact, negate the essence of the practice. Sustainability does not have to be classbound or colonialist. Let's sustain sustainability, efficiency, intelligence, maintenance, the landscape, and fragility: let's act in such a way that these ideas do not remain the useless tools of unsustainability.