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Modern Environmental Awareness

By Luigi Prestinenza Puglisi -

For Marshall McLuhan, modern environmental awareness began in 1969 with man’s arrival on the moon. From out of space, the earth appeared like a spaceship lost in the cosmos. But it wasn’t so much spatial conquests rather the oil shocks of the seventies that jolted us into a realisation of the state of the planet and its energy resources. It started with the 1973 oil shock that raised the cost of a barrel of oil, and culminated with 9/11/ 2001 when black gold, terrorism and Islam became an explosive mix. As a result, ecology came to be seen as a way of putting out the lit fuse. ‘Ecology’ sums up our aspiration to live in harmony with the planet, acting in an environmentally responsible way. It expresses all our longing for a better world; a magical formula that will give us back the earthly paradise we have tainted. With this sort of ideological thrust, even Italian architects, traditionally unimpressed by anything not exclusively linguistic, have espoused the environmental question with a vengeance. All the signs are that “the environment” will be a burning research issue for many years to come. Confirmation of this comes from the fact that for all its dazzle and glitter, the old Star System - with little or no environmental credentials - is now considered humdrum. Starting with Massimiliano Fuksas’ intriguing “Less Aesthetics More Ethics” at the 2000 Venice Biennale, there has been a general call, even from celebrity architects, for architecture to look more to its ethical role. As happens with all magical words though, the term “ecology” is given different meanings by its many users. So today Italy is the scene of feuding families of ecologically correct architects. The dividing line is how they relate to technology and formal research. There are the Luddite environmentalists for whom every building is a threat to the eco-system. They head the picket line against “cementification” even in cases like the Niemeyer auditorium in Ravello, hardly an uncontaminated natural spot. Then there are the traditionalists who set store by vernacular architecture. Assiduous attendees of conferences by Leon Krier, they are regularly readers of “Abitare la terra” edited by Paolo Portoghesi. A third category is the low-tech school. Their language is that of the avant garde, implemented through intelligent use of natural resources and relatively simple appliances. Their members include very young groups like Avatar and 2a+p. Avatar’s project for VeMa presented at the recent Venice Biennale demonstrated some unexpected usage of bamboo, while 2a+p have been working for some time on using natural greenery in the building process. The fourth - “contextualist” - group comprises a series of architects whose major focus is the contemporary metropolitan landscape, i.e. a landscape in which architecture and nature intermesh, losing their original identities. There are several approaches to this theme. Large practices like Benini often see things in terms of putting as much as possible underground and interspersing the above-ground structures with lots of greenery. Other, decidedly experimental, teams like T studio and Metrogramma produce projects where the extended geographical dimension envelopes the architectural aspects. “Technological Humanists” form the fifth category. Among their number, Renzo Piano and Mario Cucinella whose concern for advanced technology does not, however, produce the fanciful excesses of many high-tech buildings, nor the complacent self-importance - bordering on virtuoso mannerism - of some soft-tech installations like Norman Foster’s and Santiago Calatrava’s latest creations. Then there are the architects who work with digital science and interrelations. For them, the smarter the building, the more capable it is of providing feedback, the more it will resemble a living organism. Although, in my view, a promising field of investigation, this approach seems to have fallen out of favour. This is because we live in times where anything new causes alarm. Yet, if I can hazard a forecast, our fearfulness will be short-lived, and it will be these new technologies to provide us with most of the innovations that will improve they way we live in the near future.

Luigi Prestinenza Puglisi

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