Is it possible, at this late hour, to salvage the term ‘sustainable development’? Could we, through some shift in perspective, redefine an idea that seems to decline in value as it increases in popularity? Or do we cast it out, onto the pile of once meaningful words killed by conceptual decay and strategic misuse?
In architecture, ‘sustainable development’ is ubiquitous. It has become an essential part of developerspeak and a prerequisite to almost any expression of urban ambition. In China, the phrase is wielded by government leaders at all levels like a mantra, mercilessly repeated to justify any plan in any context. It is emblazoned on the billboards of coming-soon golf courses and on the sides of factories; it is invoked, without irony or noticeable wavering, in defense of river damming and cloud seeding.
But perhaps the People’s Republic, with its enormous, differentiated population, presents our best hope for making something of sustainability. Its disparities and seemingly infinite needs make both the technophobe (Prince Charles) and technophile (Lord Foster) approaches to sustainable development equally unworkable. Something like a third way is needed in China, a modest modernism that encourages development through the enhancement of tradition.
“High science and low technology” is how Edward Ng, Professor of the Department of Architecture at The Chinese University of Hong Kong, describes the Maosi School, a low-rise, earth-colored campus located in rural Gansu Province. Ng led the team that designed the school, and he is unambiguous about its significance: “School buildings are important for showing the way,” he’s stated, “and there are so many of them yet to be built… Our designs will shape the next generation of schools in China.”
There are many things that make the Maosi school sustainable – its emphasis on local construction materials and methods and its use of passive heating and cooling to name a couple – but the most significant may be its advocation of education as the cornerstone of development. Rather than imposing an alien approach from the parallel universe of modernity, the architects maximized local tradition and infused it with the benefits of 21st century climatic studies and computer models. The essence of the modern – efficiency, humanity, productivity – is achieved, but in a manner that empowers the users to build further. “With the eco-school project the villagers can re-understand their own tradition,” Ng and his collaborators explain. “The school illustrates to the locals a feasible way towards an ecological architecture suited for the conditions of China’s Loess Plateau.” In the process they offer an equally feasible way to (re)imagine development – not as an exercise in catching up but of tying in, a messy, liberating process of applying new practices to ancient principles.
Having followed the “development = economic growth” model to the cliff’s edge and abused sustainable development to the breaking point, we find ourselves in desperate need of new ideas for how to structure the future of modern life. The Maosi school, an apparatus for expanding life’s possibilities built in a landscape of limitations, offers an alternative, maybe even a way out.
Originally published in Domus July 2009.