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The so-called sustainable buildings of today often fall short of genuine sustainability. Instead, the concept is reduced to mere clichés and greenwashing. In this article, we delve deeper into the underlying factors concealed behind the sometimes eco-friendly exteriors of contemporary architecture.
1. It’s Made Out of Non-biodegradable Materials
An unholy alliance of construction companies, whose sole goal is short-term profit, and modernist architects, terrified of not appearing as progressive, leads to new buildings being dominated by non-degradable materials like glass, plastic, and steel. This quote by architect Eric Norin sums it up well:
“I would like ecology in urban planning and construction to focus much more on natural or unnatural materials. Take, for example, an abandoned cottage from the 1850s, with wooden walls, clay tiles on the roof, a chimney made of fired bricks, and an iron stove. In 300 years, it will no longer exist. This is because natural materials return to the forest without harming it.
If we build according to nature’s rules and materials, rather than fighting against the laws of nature, we will have a very easy building to manage when people stop using it. A house built in the 1980s with aluminum windows containing argon gas, plastic films, glass wool, and synthetic fibers will partly remain after 300 years. There will be piles of phthalates, plasticizers, and polymers that nature cannot break down. These toxins leach into the water that animals drink.”
2. The Buildings Are Unmaintainable
In the 1960s, a group of forward-thinking architects conceived Plug-in-City, envisioning a future where buildings could be easily replaced like fashion accessories. Unfortunately, this once utopian idea has turned into a troubling reality. Unlike older structures that endured for centuries, many modern buildings now demand extensive maintenance or become obsolete within a mere fifteen years.
This trend poses a significant environmental challenge. The shift from traditional materials like wood, bricks, and stone to concrete, composites, and plastics is a major contributing factor. These so-called “low maintenance” materials often prove “unmaintainable” in the long run, leading to their disposal in landfills. For instance, a wooden sash window may require regular repainting but can last for centuries, while a damaged plastic window typically ends up as waste.
3. It’s Ugly – And People Don’t Care About the Preservation of Ugly Buildings
Stephen R. Kellert, a Professor of Social Ecology at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, argues that the green movement’s pursuit of sustainability often misses the mark. It neglects the essential aspect of fostering physical and mental well-being that establishes an emotional connection to a place, thereby motivating people to maintain and preserve structures over time. People are naturally inclined to keep, care for, and repurpose buildings that they find aesthetically pleasing and emotionally meaningful.
Unfortunately, many buildings constructed in recent decades are deemed unattractive, making them more prone to demolition and replacement. Architects today dismiss aesthetics as subjective and unnecessary. They pursue novelty and shock value, resulting in anti-human structures that fail to uplift spirits.
4. They’re Not Made for Walking
Taking a stroll is not only good for your mental and physical health, but also creates less air pollution and results in fewer emissions compared to using motorized vehicles. According to a recent Swedish study. modernist urban settings tend to discourage people from going on spontaneous walks, whereas urban areas featuring traditional architecture have a positive influence on individuals’ inclination to take leisurely strolls.
In fact, the reason modernist architecture looks the way it does is partially because of motorized vehicles. As an example, office buildings often have long horizontal windows on monotonous facades completely stripped of any speed-slowing ornaments, to mimic the fast lanes of car culture. Among functionally separated residential buildings, it is still common to find asymmetrically or nostalgically placed windows on old glass/metal/concrete facades that are either equally stripped of expression or so exaggerated in their color choices that one can perceive all their details even when passing by at highway speeds.
5. The Aesthetics Is Bad for Everyone’s Health
It’s established that beautiful urban architecture has the same positive impact on our physical and mental health as green parks. In fact, researchers say that ugly modernist architecture might even give some people headaches and cause migraines. This while city landscapes that are perceived as beautiful not only make people happier but also prolong our lives. Click here to read more about why ugly architecture is bad for your health.
6. It’s Sold Using Greenwashing and Abstract Narratives
In a previous article, we described how today’s architects refer to abstract ideas when explaining why their buildings look the way they do. This way of thinking is also used when creating “sustainable” structures. But a building doesn’t become sustainable just because you adorn it with potted plants and fancy words. Concepts like “vertical gardens” and facades with greenery attached are mainly popular because they look eco-friendly. Behind all the trees, bushes, and grass, there are often high energy consuming buildings made out of synthetic materials.
Now, the trees and bushes themselves could at least have some positive effects like promoting the cooling process and reducing air pollution, even though it doesn’t make up for a badly constructed building. What is even worse is when people simply redefine the meaning of the word sustainable. The quote below is how a professional jury motivates why a meaningless building called Hage which consists of a rusty roof in the middle of nowhere won a Swedish Architectural Award in 2023.
“Hage expands the sustainability issue. Here, sustainability is not created through predefined models or norms, but rather through the ambition to build a culture that can endure in the location.”
Not only is it the ambition (instead of the result) that makes the building sustainable, but it is the ambition to build a culture that can endure in the location. What does this even mean? Does it imply that people will utilize the structure for a while? Isn’t that the fundamental purpose of any building?
The only thing the jury is clear about is that it does not create sustainability through predefined models or norms. Of course, this should be considered a bad thing. This way of “re-imagining” what sustainability is simply greenwashing.
Reimagining Architecture for a Sustainable Future
In summary, today’s architecture faces six critical challenges: non-biodegradable and unmaintainable materials, aesthetic neglect, a lack of walkability, health concerns, and greenwashing. To ensure a sustainable future, we must embrace nature’s materials, prioritize beauty and well-being, design walkable cities, and demand genuine sustainability. By reimagining our approach to architecture, we can build a better, more sustainable world.