All change comes about gradually, unless a major unexpected event occurs. For several decades we have been witnessing a slowly maturing concern with environmental issues, citizens’ rights and the quality of democracy. We are in search of a new equilibrium, ensuring justice and respect in all fields, from economics to architecture, from diet to basic rights. A recent book entitled “Complain” by Stephan Hessel - co-editor of the 1948 Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man - describes the need to revive and practise a peaceful revolution. The Universal Declaration is based on simple but basic definitions. These would suffice to bring radical change to present-day politics which, even in this field, has lost its way, harried by conflicting interests and a crushing economic system. This is not beside the point: it is essential we realize where we stand and what is happening, since architecture is an expression of a period’s culture, politics and ambitions. We must therefore understand this period of ours. There is a pronounced gap between ambitions and reality when it comes to sustainability - a term whose meaning I would leave to common sense and not get involved in defining. The gap is due to the historical situation: we come from a culture of major industrial transformation which has both improved our quality of life, technology and development, and belatedly presented us with a steep environmental and social bill that has planet-wide repercussions in terms of survival. Whenever anything degenerates, someone always suffers and in this case it is nature: silent, unrepresented, unprotesting. And not only nature: other areas losing out are basic rights, social conquests and the under-represented half of society who raise their voices on the networks and via humanitarian associations. What seems to me most unusual and challenging here is the progressive rise of an illusory reality muscling in on real reality, living a life of its own - more to the point, living our lives. A new car advertisement bids us imagine a world where we can drive at breakneck speed, scale mountains and safely traverse empty, clean, unpolluted landscapes or cities. This is a far cry from reality. But this is what many nowadays believe in, despite the evidence of traffic, pollution and the paradox of power-speed-consumption. The problem is not making clean cars, but that they no longer fit in our towns. Our relationship with technology is alien in the extreme: we don’t know what we are using, we are unable to mend it, so we chuck it away. We confuse the polystyrene wrapping our foodstuffs with food safety instead of food speculation - and maybe not so safe after all. When we see fruit on the tree we are afraid it may not be good, uncertified and without a plastic wrapper. An odd way of viewing reality. Architecture itself has got into this pattern with peaks and troughs of delusory reality. It too has gone ‘pop-commercial’. It uses the communication media of advertising and consumerism: it too cons us it is building wacky towns and crazy buildings where we lose sight of the connection with town living, while the relationship with man, technology and the environment comes second, if not nowhere at all. Buildings defying the laws of gravity and the canons of vulgarity, straining for a modern idiom that is uncultured and often alienating. But where’s the harm in it? Pop-stars there are who will tell us these are times of consumerism and communication, that this is expedient. We talk of democracy, environment, expediency, then decide it can all wait till some other time. The antidote to facile expediency/opportunism is the labour of implementing democracy, a fragile mechanism most of the time, beset by habit and entrenched privilege. But where does sustainability come in? In this far from easy situation, given the state of the market and our need to structure our work, sustainability gets reduced to an accessory, like throwing in another level of complexity, often of a bureaucratic kind, or something for engineers to get their teeth into. Such an approach is far too bound up with the technological performance of constructions, or at best with reducing consumption. But consumption all the same. A technical and a logical approach seeing building as primarily a great industry to consume technology and energy, and a town as a place to exploit the ground, much like intensive farming. With such a mentality there is no room for real change.Far too long we have believed in this illusion of technology, clean and simple, all artificially controlled, light- and air-conditioning, curtainwalls regardless of climate however brilliantly manufactured, work space and conditions worthy of the assembly belt. Why, oh why did we sweep away the relationship/wellbeing model in favour of complex artifice? Vastly expensive, to boot. Changing means rethinking certain basic aspects of the relationship with technology and with context, reconstructing identity landscapes. In our towns, in Italy especially, we need to restructure the way we live in our buildings, as well as revising our professional image. We shall never succeed in changing anything if we don’t change the basis of our habits and relationships and fail to accord architecture its proper dignity. The height of absurdity is when we lavish care on mainly aesthetic sustainability and not on the quality of human relationships - loyalty, trust, respect. Contracts tend to be based on conflict, not results; all too often they bind architects to a responsibility beyond their powers or proper ambit, all geared to the industrial model requiring product perfection or else money back. As though our job were a linear trouble-free process without issues, when the creative component is decisive for the result obtained by a process of constant interference and adulteration. This punitive mentality stems in its turn from a market/consumer approach. Once again, we need to re-examine the values and liabilities at stake. The point is that sustainability is being seen not as a great opportunity to review the basis of the rules, but only to add another one to them. Respect for the environment, why yes, but only so long as it doesn’t begin to mean real change. The fallacy that is beginning to emerge now in this unfamiliar environmental chicanery is that we think nothing needs changing in order for everything to change - which just doesn’t work. Instead of pipe-dreams, we should be pursuing our real dream of a more inhabitable city with no cars and lots of public transport, helping us socialize more and see this town of ours as the place of human relations, joyful mingling in buildings that strive to keep up to date but with more empathy, less alienation. Cities where noise is replaced by silence or sound, where instead of being a problem of energy of quality, buildings become the solution to energy and socializing, not places that make us ill, but ones that nourish (through relations, work and culture), places of peace and quiet, not fear. I am not one of those who justify modernity by the principle of breaking with the past in one long exhausting provocation for provocation’s sake. Who knows, anyway, how long the set up we happen to live in will last? Maybe the most interesting signals are coming from the grass roots, the people who live in towns, too long designed by arrogant planners without consulting them. But these, like many another sign of change, are side-issues to a world bound up with profit and development and success, unaware that progress is something subtly other. There are many issues on which we need to do some hard thinking, a whole new approach to architecture and its priority themes: the environment, consumption, comfort, beauty. I am not positing a world without big works of architecture: that is fundamental for the future, an expression of intelligence, talent and the culture of our times. My point is that we should urgently change our approach to the rules, the targets we set ourselves, if we really want a new (and ecological) era to begin. I would like to see a genuine peaceful student revolution demanding more rigour and more qualified teaching in school, with environmental issues heavily present on syllabuses. Too often we detect a kind of guardedness here: the sector is too self-referential, cut off in its own jargon like a closed system with its own awards and ‘in’ culture, oblivious to reality. But how on earth can reality not be part of this process? That shows the fragility of a system when it stems from illusion and not from an inspiring dream. The laws of illusion go with exclusive processes, profits for the few, an economic machine that even manages to keep politics in thrall to illusion. Illusion creates frustration. Dreams inspire campaigns (I have a dream, not a nightmare). The delusion of politics is that our contemporary image is really about skyscrapers - simple, anonymous, repetitive: that is the law that suits global economies. Politicians are the last to have bothered to understand our cities’ character, their DNA; and so we have a glut of pointless monuments to power, obliterating character and identity. Milan built a modern avant-garde identity for itself by Milanese research - sophisticated, painstaking, innovative - and thus created an international culture. But the international culture we are witnessing these days will turn Milan into one of many world look-alikes in the banalization that is globalization. Such buildings suck us into globalization to the delight of global finance but not the citizen. The city the people see is a mushrooming illusion which they fail to recognize; meanwhile they are asking for more public parks, more art, more pedestrian precincts. They demand more respect, more clean air, more consideration for their children. Amid the clash of this worldwide conflict, cities are degenerating, globalizing against themselves. The gap widens between their past, rooted in a unique and personal culture, and this image which is totally alien to the city. Globalization, that illusory dream of modernity, has lost credibility; it will be swept away by a much more real vision: closer to dreams, but this time real dreams. Sustainability on our view should respond to this dimension, take root in the networks and in relationships, not just in financial plans. As Jaime Lerner says, it should practise urban acupuncture, heal our towns. Energy is invisible, and what can’t be seen can be described however anyone likes - which is its worst feature. But with this new outlook maybe for the first time ever we are tackling a truly global, planet-wide topic on which each of us has something important to contribute, for the planet and for the people. Imagining sustainable buildings means establishing a deep connection with the climate and locality. Imagine a new style of building in which the relation between architecture and engineering is not just technological but genetic. In form and matter and not just machinery. We must imagine low-tech buildings where form and materials are made to work more, becoming new agents of the result, materials performing a task. Such a process seems to me much closer to the complexity of nature and less like mechanical artifice. We need to ask ourselves the questions all over again. Do we want buildings that reduce CO2 emissions? Then we must make sure architecture takes on board the basic values that underpin the architect’s trade. We must contain and check that non-creative extravagance which leaves idle space and indulges in scene-painting that fails to speak. Amid the complexity of things we must learn once more to see the fundamental values, such as people’s basic rights. Sustainability will not come without determination to defend the people and give them the tools to live together properly. Over and above technology and performance we must set the beauty of emotions, the pleasure of being together and sharing space in common. Until we shake off the legacy of last century and its entrenched habits, it will be hard to express a new society through architecture, a new way of cherishing our social capital and natural capital. Here lies the challenge: despite those who see sustainability as a surface accessory or trend, we must daily strive to improve our work, build better buildings inside and out; imperfect, no doubt, but marking the dawn of a new era. It is time we believed in a dream and left behind us the world of illusion.
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