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Dare to Dream of Utopias

Werner Sobek

Dare to Dream of Utopias
By Werner Sobek -

Architecture takes many forms, but it is always anticipating the future. Indeed, the architects and engineers of today are currently planning the built environment of tomorrow. As such, it is their job to try and predict what the future inhabitants of this environment will expect, desire, and require. They can only assume part of the responsibility for this task, of course, and can only ever hope to perform it with limited success. At the same time, however, this anticipatory undertaking also presents architects and engineers with a great opportunity, as the structures that arise from their predictions will have a considerable hand in shaping tomorrow’s world and, with it, every aspect of our daily lives. In fact, it gives them the chance not only to design our built environment and how it fits into and interacts with its natural surroundings, but also to play a role in molding our social behavior and, ultimately, the entire fabric of our cultural existence.

This begs the question: what vision do today’s architects and engineers have in mind when they create the buildings, landscapes, and infrastructure that will make up tomorrow’s world? Are they aiming to continue along the current path with all the predefined limitations that come with contemporary building regulations and economic constraints? And, if so, is this even possible in light of how we interact with one another, in light of the great upheavals we face due to rapid global population growth and the changing climate of our planet?

It is surprising to have to note that the question of the future - the question of how should we build tomorrow? - has scarcely been asked by architects or engineers for quite some time. And yet, it is generally recognized that the construction industry is more responsible than any other sector for global warming, the unbridled consumption of resources, and the generation of gigantic amounts of waste. By the same token, of course, it also has a pivotal role to play in facilitating a healthy and, ultimately, a peaceful coexistence for the people on this planet. After all, what is architecture - to cite a quotation from Ernst Bloch that reflects my own expansive understanding of the term - if not “an attempt to produce a human homeland”?

Can our reluctance to deal with the future be traced back to the same phenomenon we observe in our society as a whole?
The same decades-old reticence that - despite the rise in tourist activity and the increasing reach of the international media - sees us retreating into a domain of our own devising, a self-defined sphere whose synapses are only connected to those zones of the outside world we still think we understand? Zones that fashion for us an image of the world as we would like to see it, a world we can cope with, a world where we can hope to find satisfaction, even happiness? An image that is largely anchored in the past and almost never in the future? Does this withdrawal into the past perhaps also stem from the sense of fear that grips more and more people when they think about their own future and the future of their children? A future they no longer comprehend, a future they can no longer influence, a future that seems to loom up at them, inevitably? As Paul Watzlawick remarked time and again, we need to believe that we live in a sensible, rational world for our emotional survival, as a life perceived as senseless would be unbearable. Does our retreat backwards, our withdrawal into smallness, our escape into the past, therefore arise from the feeling of “ultimate desperation” described by Ernst Bloch - the recognition of an imminent, intolerable inability to take action, the notion that nothing would change, even if one tried? We will all have to endure the devastating effects of global warming over the next few decades. So why is no one, not even architects and engineers, thinking about how we can actively shape the future?

Every exploration of future possibility, every utopian design, starts with the question of where one might begin. This should then be followed by enquiries into the constraints - and perhaps even the straits - within which this future still has a hope of being created. Setting goals gives direction to our thought and action, after all.

A few, easily graspable observations can help sketch out the initial context of the task ahead. The global population currently stands at 7.7 billion people, approximately 6.3 billion of whom live in so-called developing and emerging countries. Generally speaking, this means they have access neither to a reliable supply of clean water, nor a functioning system of sewage or waste disposal, nor a decent level of education and medical care. Eliminating this
deficit - making sure that even the developing countries can enjoy social stability, prosperity, and a declining birth rate due to this change in fortune - would necessitate, among other things, the creation of the built preconditions for these countries’ success, including supply networks, waste management infrastructures, hospitals, schools, universities, and much more besides. Such an undertaking would call for around 1,700 Gt (1 Gt = 1 billion t) of building material, or double the amount contained in the entire built environment today. This figure, which is barely imaginable for the expert and the layperson alike, can be translated into a form that is easier to remember and understand: if the same amount of material were used to construct a 30 cm-thick wall along all 40,000 km of the equator, the resulting structure would stand at a height of 56 km. One quickly realizes that such a project is out of the question. Not only because of the sheer mass of resources required, but also because the production of these building materials and components would involve a level of grey emissions that would so heat the Earth’s climate as to render the continuation of human life impossible.

Similar problems emerge if we consider the additional structures that are necessitated by global population growth. The planet’s current net population increase stands at 2.6 people per second. If we were to grant each of these individuals a reliable supply of clean water, functioning systems of sewage and waste disposal, basic access to education, and access to medical care, then we would (depending on the building code we selected) need to extract approximately 800-1,300 t of building materials from the Earth’s crust, process them into semi-finished products, and use them in structures every single second. The equivalent wall these materials would build around the equator each year would measure approximately 2,000 m high. Even this “relatively short” equatorial wall would raise concerns of resource availability and the impact of the resulting grey emissions on the climate.

Without going into such other key issues as energy production, water management, education, health and mobility in any detail, it is already clear that simply creating a built home for the people in developing countries and for the future citizens of our planet poses myriad problems of unprecedented complexity and scale. It falls to architects and engineers as a professional group to play a role - and perhaps even the decisive role - in solving these problems. Of course, such challenges will not be overcome with the same methods and tools we have always used, and certainly not if we operate within the same frameworks and set the same goals we have relied on in the past.

The answer to the question what next?, the question of where do we want to go?, naturally has to navigate a variety of technical and economic considerations and constraints. As implementing this answer will lead to some drastic transformations in nearly all our lives, however, it will necessarily also have to demand a sea change in our society as a whole. And that makes it a highly political matter.

As well as analyzing the current state of affairs, we might find it useful to return to our fundamental values when mapping out the road ahead. If we make the preservation of our thin layer of living space on this planet - a space Bruno Latour has called the “critical zone” - our highest priority, then my own thesis, that of Natura mensura est, would seem to tell us everything else we need to know. According to this concept, the measure of all things - the benchmark for all our efforts and actions - is not a god (Deus mensura est), nor humankind (the notion of Homo mensura est that has been espoused since the Enlightenment), and certainly not the individual (the idea of Ego mensura sum that is a lived reality today). Rather, the measure of all things must be the boundless drive to preserve nature itself. After that, humans living in the critical zone only need one more rule to enjoy life together in a rationally organized civilization: the unconditional regard for one’s fellow human as a being of equal value to oneself. This rule goes beyond Article 1 of the German Constitution (“Human dignity is inviolable”) by adding a moral dimension to the legal term “inviolable”.

The scale and complexity of the problems that lie before us are often concealed, denied, or drowned out by the usual medley of headlines that changes by the hour. Bread and circuses, pseudo-information and trivial entertainments are the distinctive characteristics of our daily lives. A society that exists in the here and now and has avoided talking about the future for decades will not have an answer to the question where do we actually want to go?

Architects and engineers will therefore have to play an extremely important role in our future. They will have to figure out how the built environment can exist in harmony with its natural surroundings. At the same time, they will also have to ensure that the preservation of nature’s ability to function remains the principal touchstone of their work. Moreover, they will have to kick-start the discourse necessary for this undertaking, then drive it forwards, formulate potential goals, and introduce these goals into the conversation. In short, it is they who will have to set our utopia in motion.

The question how should we build tomorrow? nests within the overarching question where do we actually want to go? Coming up with an answer to these questions calls for profound reflection and courage. It requires us to develop a utopia for our society as a whole. Not an unattainable “utopia” as we usually understand the term, but a utopia with positive connotations, one that chimes with Ernst Bloch’s concept of docta spes - a flourishing of hope for the future that is founded in knowledge and science.

As they begin the project of reshaping and reorientating the construction industry, architects and engineers must work with sociologists, ecologists, and many others to start a discourse that reaches across society. Although this discourse should, of course, be participatory in nature, it must certainly not lead with the question what would you like? To talk about the possible and the desirable, one must first have an idea of the impossible, of where the borders of terra incognita lie. To that end, we need a group of courageous individuals who can prepare the road ahead, who can seek out and discuss the utopian and the possible. In so doing, they will fail and lose their way. This is unavoidable. In fact, such failure is the privilege of those who take the lead. Perhaps Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s dictum “The greatest failure is the fear of failure itself” can make starting this journey seem less daunting.

We do not know who suppressed the future, who subdued our drive to establish a utopia. What we do know, however, is that we architects and engineers now have to reinvent our future and formulate it afresh. After all, if we do not, who will?

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