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De-Industrializing the City
Alex Steffen, 8 Feb 10
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One of my favorite quotes by Bjarke Ingels:

"Engineering without engines. We should use contemporary technology and computation capacity to make our buildings independent of machinery. Building services today are essentially mechanical compensations for the fact that buildings are bad for what they are designed for—human life. Therefore we pump air around, illuminate dark spaces with electric lights, and heat and cool the spaces in order to make them livable. The result is boring boxes with big energy bills. If we moved the qualities out of the machine room and back into architecture’s inherent attributes, we’d make more interesting buildings and more sustainable cities."

These are all ideas very much at the core of green building, but there's a focus here that I think is important: that sustainable cities involve removing machines designed to do ecologically stupid things, and that new technology should reorient the city around the human body.

Fewer machines. Smart surroundings for people.

So much of the ecological destruction caused by contemporary prosperity is the by-product of crude, brute-force industrial solutions to fundamental urban problems (and magnified by the modernist glorification of those solutions).

Burning petroleum to drive pistons and turn wheels to move a big chunk of metal around the city is what you do when you haven't yet figured out how to make the normal needs of daily life readily findable and accessible: it's conquering space through BTUs, rather than data and design.

Building giant dams and piping rivers of water from those dams to distant cities, then piping away other rivers of polluted water to be treated in giant industrial vats with massive doses of chemicals before being dumped (semi-polluted) into the nearest river or ocean -- well, that's what you do when you are powerless to defeat bacteria with anything but brute force and petrochemicals. More complex, living systems (complete with rainwater harvesting, passive green infrastructure and graywater re-use) are already possible, and with lab-on-a-chip-level technologies, they can be made at least as safe as the 19th century water supplies most of us depend on now.

Hell, even manufacturing itself -- with its tsunamis of product directed at retail shelves -- is a brute-force, mechanized approach to providing the things we want. Much of what is manufactured is utterly transient in our lives: we use it, it breaks, we throw it out. Much of the stuff we buy is not used at all, or only a few times in a lifetime: its major purpose is to be stored as a symbol of wealth, safety or status (think outdoor gear, power tools, obscure kitchen devices). A lot of stuff is made, never touched, and thrown away (think of recent clothing store scandals). All of this stuff is industrial society's answer to the problems of household needs and human aspiration; all of it will look ridiculous in the very near future, when people aim to have access to stuff that they actually like and use, avoiding accumulating stuff that merely impoverishes them and clutters their homes (already "stuff" is acquiring negative connotations). We sit in environments designed to hold and display credit-leveraged objects, rather than promote the highest possible quality of life.

I could go on, but I think the point is made. Want to see the city of the future? Start looking for machines to replace.

(Image: Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieus, public domain)

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Interesting, but what is your definition of 'machine'? Would it include, for example, a solar powered water pump (aka a 'tree')?

I know this sounds a bit nit-picky, but I find it useful to dissect definitions to get to the heart of what is *really* required.

So, to elaborate, a machine might be described as something that is imposed on a landscape, rather than deriving from it ('mechanism' might be a useful label to apply to the latter category)

Motors are machines. Why? They require inputs (fuel, maintenance) to operate. They also also produce unwanted waste (heat, exhaust fumes)

An air-conditioning venturi is a mechanism (as is a tree!). Why? It requires no moving parts to operate, and it obtains the energy it needs (sunshine, wind) from the landscape.

I'm sure those definitions can also be picked apart, but I hope they are illustrative.

One final thought: could a machine be transformed into a mechanism?

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 8 Feb 10

Excellent post. I think that people are finally cottoning onto the fact that collecting *experiences* is more fulfilling than hoarding stuff that is never used, but merely occupies space waiting to impress cocktail party guests.

Posted by: Victor Escobar on 8 Feb 10

I have to admit that most Bright-green is too cornucopian for me to consider 'actually' existing in the future -- that being said this post outlines a tack more generally taken by appropriate technology. That there is an actual 'fit' between certain (NOT all) technologies and an ecologically-mutually-beneficial way of living in an environment.

Life should not be made simpler by using machines. Life should be made fulfilling by employing appropriate technology even if that means wood, mud, and rock, not titanium, carbon fiber and silicon.

Posted by: Derek on 9 Feb 10

Sweet post. I am however not too convinced that the core of the problem is what is being discussed. I would look more to the human ecology for that. What are our needs and what are their effects on the environment. What can we do to eliminate plastics, processed foods and the ridiculous amount of clothing and other luxuries we 'require'.
We should be looking into our minds, because therein lies the problem.

Posted by: Dominic Rassool on 9 Feb 10

Allow me to rephrase. I am sure that this is part of the solution, but what I mentioned above is also true.

Posted by: Dominic Rassool on 9 Feb 10

I agree with the general ideas outlined in the post; however, I think a larger part of the problem is unsustainable human population growth which leads to unsustainable resource consumption. In other words, lets make it financially (eliminate tax breaks for having children) and socially unacceptable to have 4, 5 or 19 children.

I am guessing this is a reference to waste water treatment plants:

"then piping away other rivers of polluted water to be treated in giant industrial vats with massive doses of chemicals before being dumped (semi-polluted) into the nearest river or ocean well, that's what you do when you are powerless to defeat bacteria with anything but brute force and petrochemicals".

A majority of the treatment technology employed by WWTPs does not involve massive doses of chemicals and a lot more of the treatment plants that I have been involved with produce a very high quality effluent. More pollution is typically found in stormwater runoff from agricultural land than the discharge pipe of a WWTP.

Generally speaking, people have no problem paying more for cable tv, but expect a fight if a municipality ask to increase a sewer bill to pay for WWTP upgrades. Also one of the reasons you see large industrial looking facilities is because the passive/natural systems tend to have a much larger foot print. The WWTPs are not powerless in defeating bacteria, it is the opposite. The reason you see those industrial systems is that they are designed and operated in order to provide an optimal environment for the bacteria to consume nutrients and organics, thus settling them out of the water and not allowing these constituents to be dumped in excess into our rivers and oceans. These systems give WWTP operators greater control over the treatment process than a wetland cell used for treatment(Disclaimer, not all systems are well funded or operated properly.)

Posted by: Jules on 9 Feb 10

I don’t know if you are spouting diverse references to get our hackles up and stir up a heated conversation, but that’s the effect your writing is having on me. I’m not sure of your intention with using Corbu’s modern city image, but it brings to mind the nightmare of steel and glass in cities such as Houston, and the blight of abandoned high-rise, low-income housing in downtowns everywhere. In contrast, Frank Lloyd Wright used low-tech, local building materials, most of which are disintegrating and requiring a fortune to save the historical model.
I fall some where in between, living in a rural area of the Midwest, using those “useless” power tools at least weekly, to build and maintain against age and the elements, storing surplus and recycled building materials for future projects.

I see solutions on a smaller scale, like recapping shallow wells on old farms so the runoff from cattle and farm chemicals don’t continue to contaminate the aquifer. Another key to safe water would be a place to easily recycle unused pharmaceuticals so they don’t end up down the drain, forever treating us all for illnesses we have yet to suffer.

On manufacturing, there is a lot more going on than mere product development for consumption. The bigger problem is that we are losing most of it to factories overseas and we will have to use more of those “driv(ing) pistons and turn(ing) wheels” to get necessary machinery to the U.S. I agree that we need smart design and efficient energy use, but why can't we build some of it locally?

Why is it that greed and litigation get in the way of current “good ideas” such as wind turbines? It seems to just take one person of means to throw a wrench in an entire county’s project. What we need to work on is getting people to think unselfishly, and globally. I find a walk in an indigenous, old forest, (or what’s left of it from all the clearing to produce more farm land) to clear my head and see the “big picture.”

Posted by: Deborah Lucas on 10 Feb 10

Thanks for this, Alex.

In my experience on a transit agency board, which is subject to indifferent and underfunded maintenance. I have learned to favor designs that require little maintenance, and fail gracefully,

The amazing mechanical complexity of modern buildings can be a liability as they age. I talked to a friend about the challenge of life-cycle maintenance and replacement for complex systems, and that got him thinking about the high-rise condo complex he lived in. When he did some research, he found miles of pipes, ducts, and wires and hundreds of breakers, instruments, pumps, and other devices in his building which took a terrific amount of energy to produce, and would require more money and energy to replace over time. It works well now, as the building is quite new, and real estate prices are high, but how will it work decades from now, as major systems need major repairs, and the building becomes old and unfashionable?

Designing the simplest possible buildings using solid state technology that relies on gravity, daylight, and other natural processes is the best way to ensure they last and remain functional no matter what the future holds.

Posted by: Tom Radulovich on 11 Feb 10

there are a number of european architects that have been doing exactly this - i recently posted about a firm in freiburg (pfeifer_kuhn architekten) that has been completing incredible projects at or near passivhaus energy reqs, with little to no insulation and passively heated/cooled spaces.

it's definitely possible, but it is going to take motivated developers. i've never understood why people prefer shutting themselves off from the outside world and wasting money to move around air.

also, bjarke's been pushing a subtle green theme for years - it comes into play on several projects, but mostly as a footnote.

Posted by: mike on 14 Feb 10

I underwrite this statement and applaud its conclusions. This is the bare bones essence of the fix we are in as a civilization. We are stuck in a 'gottahavethistobesuccesful' paradigm of ownership, resource waste and competition. Best arguments against this I recently read in 'hot, flat and crowded'. Fortunately that book also offered some robust solutions and answers.

Posted by: Khannea on 16 Feb 10

Le Corbusier is a ridiculous creature; this quite ugly man set in progress an architectural and planning process to the annoyance of many. How anyone who called himself "the crow like one" came to such prominance is beyond me, the architectural period of 1920 - 2010 was all rather uneventful,and in my esteemed opinion only the chrysler building and the sydney opera house are worth any mention. Someone ought to start a "le corbusier is a tit" fanclub, id pay some moolah to join that!!!
(p.s im from new zealand, and this is the way we talk down here, therefore I regard that i havent breached the worldchanging protocol in terms of so-called "insults" and "abuse" + the blokes 6 feet under anyhows so never mind!)

Posted by: steve on 17 Feb 10

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