How do we come to terms with the fact that Sustainable Architecture can encompass everything from Japanese microhousing to Mexican shopping malls? The new book Hyperlocalization of Architecture: Contemporary Sustainable Archetypes by Andrew Michler gives us some new tools to understand this vast, disorganized movement. I recommend it to anyone who wants a richer understanding of what's going on, globally, in architecture.
Michler traveled to several destinations around the globe and found (for the most part) unfamiliar architects working out new ideas about sustainable architecture. The format, which juxtaposes interviews with the architects and well-illustrated projects, is outstanding, because the reader can toggle back and forth to assemble meaning out of words and images. The effect is one of discovery. What does Sean Godsell mean when he talks about "playing with childhood memory"? I turn the pages and begin to locate what this means in the building images. Michler also offers some interpretive passages, and rather than being intrusive they tend to offer more clues.
Michler's book is full of wonderful revelations. The real strength of the book is in its curatorial sense of adventure. Who knew, for example, about the wonderful Spanish architect Berta Barrio and her projects such as Biblioteca de Can Llaurador? Now I do! I love her notion that "We are not comfortable if we are just looking for shape when we design." (This theme of anti-formalism seems to run through the book.)
Like me, Michler loves Japan and seeks to understand its peculiar customs. His observant essay "Japan Condenses" begins with this paradox: "A new house may have practically no insulation but the toilet seat is always heated." What does this mean for Sustainable Architecture? His answer cleverly touches on everything from building science to urbanism to Japanese shopping habits. Michler's ability to deftly connect the dots across disciplines results in insights which are both smart and fun.
I wish Michler had included London, which has in my opinion the most well-developed building culture in the world. I expect he stayed away since he is understandably averse to the 'starchitects' like Zaha and Foster, and because global capital is driving much of the agenda in the city right now. Still, I think he would have found some smaller firms --- like Cullinan Studio, Waugh Thistleton, and Juice Architects --- doing exceptional work and exploring new ideas with an exciting pragmatism.
Of course Sustainable is a slippery word and it's a common criticism that Sustainable Architecture is interpreted differently in different places. But I think Michler wants to celebrate that Sustainable Architecture will look different in one place than another. And his term Hyperlocalization even suggests, I think, that sustainability goals will be achieved differently in one place than another. In other words, Michler is arguing For a Contingent Architecture, one produced as people respond to the peculiar physical and cultural needs and opportunities of their place.
I would argue that this is akin to the developmental period of modern architecture in the 1920s. At that time, architects all over the world explored new ideas about space and form, and though they shared a basic agenda, they produced different kinds of buildings. California's modernism was different from Paris', which was different from Germany's, and so on. Did Bijovet and Neutra wring their hands about the fact that their strains of modern architecture were different from one another? Of course not!
Likewise we shouldn't be anxious about the imprecise definition of Sustainable Architecture. What Michler's book finally shows us is that the world of architecture is pluralistic and dispersed, and it's at the beginning of a profound revolution; this is really exciting stuff.
Disclaimer: Andrew Michler is a friend. But I wouldn't write anything here that I don't believe.
Related: Elrond Burrell's review (May 2016)