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The Big Green Future GSD Ecological Urbanism Conference and the future of architecture. By LEVI DUDTE


H ARVARD Graduate School of Design conducted its capstone conference of the year, “Ecological Urbanism: Alternative and Sustainable Cities of the Future.” Four days of exhibitions, presentations, lectures and panel discussions filled Piper Auditorium in the GSD’s Gund Hall. A motley group of figures that ranged from worldfamous architect Rem Koolhaas to environmentalists, engineers, designers and academics to the mayor of Boston and the President of Harvard herself, Drew Faust, examined the roles of architecture, design and planning in our immediate past and imminent future. The weekend offered just that, a review of recent speculative practices and an attempted (but often obscure or problematic) vision into societies and built environments of the future. The conference reflects an adoption in the design professions of a recent shift in the global discourse that now exists under the term, “sustainability.” We can trace such a discourse through theoretical and practical manifestations in the 20th century to religious, cultural and philosophical origins even deeper in humanity’s recorded presence on the planet. See “The Tragedy of the Commons,” an article by ecologist Garrett Hardin published in Science in 1968 that attempts to sublimate a model of collective human behavior into a sort of morality, and Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth as notable examples in the development of the historical conversation on sustainability, environmentalism and a general concern for the degree to which human lives are tethered to the earth and its natural processes. This historical discourse, especially in combination with the recent, inauspicious collapse of the international economic system (a fact considered particularly fortuitous by GSD Dean Mohsen Mostafavi), sums to an individual and collective WO WEEKENDS AGO THE


imperative in humanity’s present and future. Tropes from this discourse were few and far between (functioning sporadically as inspiration) as much of the conference’s conversation was substantive and problematic with present professionals and academics concerned primarily with the implementation of such an imperative within design professions. But, despite their general thematic cohesion, these mixed speakers certainly spanned the gamut of conversational tone and perspective. The keynote conversation brought to center stage internationally renowned Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, Harvard Professor of English and American Literature and Language and Director of the Humanities Center Homi Bhabha and architectural theorist and GSD Visiting Associate Professor Sanford Kwinter as moderator. Koolhaas gave the first presentation, offering the audience his own brief history of architectural time, beginning cutely in the Renaissance and culminating in a quiet condemnation of showy, consumptive skyscrapers and the architectural attitude they represent. His slim narrative traced architecture’s arc into its own arbitrary realm: complex, sheer forms outlining an urban skyline and representative of little more than capital. Koolhaas seemed intent on tiptoeing his celebrity cautiously away from this gigantic, judgmental crevasse he himself had opened, sneaking around its edges and with snide commentary and sly quips nudging his peers and their buildings into the pithy fires and damnation of Koolhaasian hell. He joked about Renzo Piano’s recently-completed California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, pointing at the simple arrows Piano had placed on a drawing of the building to illustrate sunlight and air

circulation. He smirked at a prominent New York Times critic’s article on the building, inviting the audience to join him some subtle sense of superiority. One sensed that sifting rhetoric might be the craft more responsible for Koolhaas’s status than his spatial creativity. His vertiginous, cunning lecture landed poorly on one particular audience member, an irritated, blackrimmed-glasses-wearing woman who issued an impromptu, unstructured polemic at Rem during the allotted audience question session without allowing Kwinter or GSD staff to accommodate her. (“I don’t think I need a microphone!”) Her attempt to expose irony and topple one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People of 2008 was kooly dismissed. This irony was thick in Piper’s sterile, white atmosphere though, cleared slightly by the panel discussion that followed Koolhaas’s and Bhabha’s individual addresses. (Regarding Bhabha’s address, the intelligible portions were interesting and provocative on the humanistic plane he had been invited to represent.) As a panel, the three men played their stereotypical roles perfectly: the demure architect murmured softly and only with permission amidst Professor Bhabha’s grandiose spoken prose and gesticulation and Kwinter’s pointed attempts to agitate his guests. Bhabha extended in conversation a theme that he had outlined in his lecture: the significance of organic action and creativity in architecture’s interstices. Bhabha tethered this theme to his concrete experiences on a recent return trip to his hometown of Mumbai, India, whose populace he praised for its incessant ingenuity in crafting its own built environment, largely without the aid much capital or the counsel of ye almighty architectural gods (read: Koolhaas and the GSD). The

entire discussion converged on what Bhabha termed the “existential” state of ecological urbanism, viewing the future of architecture as a sort of a bottomup design and planning methodology, wherein architects and urban planners incorporate, even mimic the organic, interstitial growth currently putting cracks in their superfluous sidewalks and excessive superstructures. All of this highfalutin chatter became relatively self-evident over the remainder of the weekend, as the rest of the conference featured examples and proposals from actual practitioners. It is these men and women who carry the persistent torch and the moral imperative of the historical discourse and its culmination in our current existential listing. Perhaps the conference’s most poignant moment came during the audience question session after the translated lecture by Italian artist and architect Andrea Branzi, who engaged the historical discourse by criticizing environmentalism and environmentalists for their oversimplification of the problems and solutions inherent in the future of humanity. Matthias Schuler, an environmentalist wearing (you guessed it) black-rimmed glasses and a dirty green sweater, asked Branzi whether, in order to secure our future survival on this planet, the human race and its architects should surely prioritize economy over beauty. The whitebearded Italian peered dimly at the frozen, silent audience and uttered his assured response: “No.” Branzi’s message swept the room like a cool Mediterranean breeze, reminding those present that the future should not be a question of quantitative manipulation or efficiency, but of spirit. Levi Dudte ’11 (ldudte@fas) likes to hobnob with the kool kats. 04.16.09 s The Harvard Independent

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