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POCKETS – Modern civilization is a unified, all-encompassing system in which all parts are dependent on one another. You cannot get rid of the ‘bad’ parts and keep only the ‘good’ parts. Consequently, all ‘sustainable’ projects are also, to some degree, agents of ‘unsustainability’. Humans deal with this realization by clearly defining a limited area for which they can take full responsibility.

Are we going to talk about capitalism? One of the great contortions of sustainability has been to make itself seem compatible with relentless economic growth. (The ‘New Economy’. ‘Green Capitalism’. ‘Smart Growth’. ‘Resilience’.)

Simon Sadler, professor, University of California, Davis Until recently, questions about the world’s controllability or uncontrollability and the fate of mankind were subjects of the humanities. Today, it seems more vital than ever not to leave such questions entirely to people who believe in quick technological fixes. So if there is a philosopher on this plane, would he please contact the crew?

Mari Hvattum, Oslo School of Architecture and Design Each building can have a positive impact on the regeneration of the surrounding environment. Green buildings with a design reflecting local culture, and the capacity of meeting resource demands with renewables, can reduce inequalities in the access to essential services and create a new space for socio-economic interaction. This means that it is possible to extend our responsibility to an unlimited area.

Mario Cucinella, founding partner, MC Architects, Bologna


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What constitutes ‘sustainable’ wood? Cutting down a tree is always going to do some harm. A page from a press campaign that defends the credentials of the FSC against its competitors. Controversy arose in the run-up to the draughting of the new Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) guidelines. Several members of Congress wrote a letter to the US Green Building Council, urging them to accept as valid all credible forest management certification systems. Advert by the Forest Stewardship Council, 2012.

Purchasing reclaimed wood is often considered the ultimate ‘guiltfree’ alternative. Without cutting down any trees, the simple act of purchasing salvaged materials at what seemed like fair prices upset a faraway economy and led to the destruction of housing and heritage. How to act ‘responsibly’ in such a context? Founded in 1991, TerraMai conducts large-scale operations in the repurposing of wood reclaimed in Asia and sold in the US, “to help offset the demand for new lumber”. Controversy followed an article in the New York Times that suggested the American demand for such reclaimed wood was becoming a market force that encouraged the dismantling of existing Asian houses. a. & b. A house in Thailand being inspected by a wood trader. c. Reclaimed teak applied as flooring and wall cladding in a US home. Project: Reclaimed Teak, by TerraMai; Oregon, USA, 2007. Photos: Richard Humphries (a & b) and Gordon M. Grant (c)

This story reveals the utterly cynical side of sustainability – the authenticity of patina as the new gold. Interestingly enough, the reverse story is also true: many of our abandoned products (for example, our old engines, furniture, etc.) end up being re-used in developing countries.

Nanne de Ru, founding partner, Powerhouse Company, Rotterdam This is another example of the eco-aware West ‘exporting’ unsustainability to developing countries, just like relocating manufacturing to cheap-labour countries where environmental regulations are unenforced or non-existent. What’s needed is environmental auditing all the way down the supply chain.

Herbert Wright, architectural writer, historian and curator, London Look at the American couple, delighted with their ecological home: no trees were felled to make this beautiful, sustainable house! But what about the hole left behind when the wood was wrenched from its foundations in Thailand?

Caroline Maniaque-Benton, architectural historian, Paris


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The plaster in this ‘sustainable’ board is a waste product of ‘unsustainable’ coal combustion. By conveniently ridding coal power stations of their waste, isn’t this product a partner in crime? Off-cut of Cradle to Cradle certified plasterboard that consists of up to 15% recycled material and 85% new plaster, a by-product of coal combustion. Product: Cradle to Cradle Plasterboard, by Gyproc; Belgium, 2011.

Is it more responsible to support locally produced goods? At least that way we can be more aware of the side-effects of our consumption. Jars of lactic-acid fermented beetroot, cabbage, carrot and onion prepared during workshops held by the Transition Town movement, inspired by Transition Towns such as Totnes and established in Oslo since 2010. The movement sees climate change and the decline in oil reserves as a call for more resilience: “the ability of a system, whether an individual, an economy, a town or a city, to withstand shock from the outside.” Local food production is advocated as being more resilient than the import of vegetables from far away. Product: Lactic-acid fermented vegetables, by Omstilling Sagene; Oslo, Norway, 2010.


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It’s not a new idea to cut oneself off from the world. In this novel, a decent portion of the US no longer wants to be associated with the unsustainable rest and sets up a self-sufficient, steady-state economy. With a woman as president. A 1990 reprint (with new cover art) of a cult futuristic novel about a journalist visiting a utopian state organized on ecological principles. The author, an employee of the University of Berkeley, originally published the novel himself because he could not find a publisher. The book eventually sold more than 400,000 copies in the US alone. This one is autographed. Ecotopia, by Ernest Callenbach; USA, 1975. Cover art: Mark Harrison

Even to get an aspirin will be a problem ... In a self-sufficient community cut off from the bad unsustainable world, the decrease in resources might quickly become dangerous.

Peter Latz, professor emeritus, Technical University Munich


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Ted Kaczynski led a self-sufficient life in the Montana forests, without electricity or running water and with limited use of technology. After seeing the landscape around his cabin being destroyed for the construction of a highway, he started sending self-made bombs to different targets, including computer store owners, airline companies, and university professors. His letter bombs, sent between 1978 and 1995, killed 3 people and injured 23. a. Ted Kaczynski, known as the Unabomber, in an image used by press agencies. b. Archive photo of Kaczynski standing in front of his cabin, June 1972. c. The same cabin exhibited in the Washington Newseum, 2012. Project: Unabomber, by Theodore John Kaczynski; Lincoln, Montana, USA, 1978.

Sustainability is not a choice, an option, or a nice-to-have. It’s quite simply an integral part of our survival DNA.

Peter Swinnen, Flemish government architect (Vlaams Bouwmeester), Belgium Not only bombs! The local police documented Kackzynski burning logging equipment, shooting at helicopters, cutting down power poles, and putting neck wires across trails to stop motorcycle use.

Jozef Wouters, artist, Antwerp Sustainability as misanthropy and madness. Sustainability is burdened by this image problem, too.

Simon Sadler, professor, University of California, Davis Living in isolation off-grid opens dangerous psychological possibilities. Religious cults or survivalist communities may become highly sustainable ecologically, but may also be nests of extreme exploitation or violence. Staying on-grid means you’re connected not just to utilities, but to humanity too.

Herbert Wright, architectural writer, historian and curator, London


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Kaczynski’s cabin and Le Corbusier’s Le Petit Cabanon: both came to define the length/width of a (white, male, bachelor) Existenzminimum space of 3.6 metres. Coincidence?

Martti Kalliala, architect etc., Helsinki


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An attempt to make an island self-sufficient with technological add-ons: solar panels, methane fermentation, water recycling, etc. Although ‘isolated’, the planned economy of Gomera would still have been dependent on tourism, seaplanes, imported technology ... Drawings and diagrams from a regional planning study for an island off the west coast of Africa. A focus on environmental issues resulted in a proposal that sought to anticipate changes brought-on by an increase in tourists visiting the island. Rather than the more usual airport plus ring road arrangement, the architect explored the possibility of introducing other modes of transport that required a less obtrusive infrastructure. Simply built, self-sufficient houses relying on wind power and solar energy were planned. Anaerobic generators would digest human and household waste to make methane gas for cooking. Project: Gomera Masterplan, by Birkin Haward, Foster + Partners; Gomera, Canary Islands, 1975.

Micro-utopias of the privileged… keeping migrants at bay… feeling so good about our free-range chicken … What exactly are we sustaining? Sustainable ... for whom? We are ideologically against the idea of sustainability of a system we do not believe in. ‘Double thinking’ at its most explicit.

El Ultimo Grito, London


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Hailed as the biggest sustainable development in the world, yet only 6 km2 in size and unconcerned with anything happening outside its walls, is the project simply externalizing the undesired effects and internalizing the desired effects in order to become a pocket of sustainability in an unsustainable world? Or should it be understood as merely a lab? An early rendering of Masdar City, a master plan that when realized would house more than 45,000 inhabitants on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi, making it one of the biggest sustainable projects under construction. The morning sunlight in this rendering emphasizes the large wall that surrounds the city and helps to keep it cool. “The [project] is a good example of clearly-set boundaries, in this case even marked by a city wall. At six square kilometres, it is relatively small-scale, and the goals are clear: a carbon neutral, zero waste community. Because of these boundaries, I think it can succeed. Never mind what happens outside these boundaries, the car is parked outside the city wall.” John Roberts, Arup, 2008. Project: Masdar City, by Foster + Partners; Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, 2023

Great title for a book, that: A City is Not a Lab.

Mari Hvattum, professor, Oslo School of Architecture and Design “Already in the Bible the archangel Gabriel protected the walls of paradise with his flaming sword.” I am sorry, but I find that this project has the sustainability of a Rolls Royce. What is it that purchases sustainability here? Nothing can come from the place itself – it’s like adulterated wine.

Peter Latz, professor emeritus, Technical University Munich In 2008 Masdar was perceived as a hopeful new ecotown, like Arup’s unrealized Dongtan in China. In fact, it’s just a campus next to an airport. In 2007, Foster partner Gerard Evenden warned me: “We want to beware of misinformation, because this is a developing situation. There’s no instant fix.”

Herbert Wright, architectural writer, historian and curator, London Where does a ‘sustainable city’ as an object of measurement and comparison begin and end? The dilemma of the ‘city size problem’ pits the arbitrary legal or political border of statistical and organizational convenience against the more ambiguous borders defined by terms such as contiguous settlement, functional mobility, or economic influence.

Deane Simpson, lecturer, Royal Danish Academy School of Architecture, Copenhagen The dilemma: sustainability as exemplar or enclave. This has always been a theme in ecological architecture.

Simon Sadler, professor, University of California, Davis


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With everything being connected, and unintended consequences abounding, taking full responsibility is impossible. But where to draw the line? The perforated part of this building skin is considered sustainable because it uses less material. That is true if one only takes account of what is on the faรงade. The amount of aluminium ordered by the workshop that punches holes in it stays the same. Mock-up of the faรงade of an energy class A office building. The outer skin is said to be sustainable because it is made from 85% recycled aluminium sheets, which are perforated to reduce the amount of material used. Project: Fredrik SelmersVei 4, by LPO arkitekter AS, Entra Eidom,and FutureBuilt; Oslo, Norway, 2013.


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Solar-powered leisure boat in stainless steel with integrated solar panels. “We are well aware of the ecological problems and the influence of current lifestyles on our environment. This appears to leave us with two extreme options: we can either forego all the luxuries provided by modern industry and adopt a very modest ecological lifestyle or assume that we are not able to change the future and try to get all the excitement and fun we can, forgetting about the impact on the environment. There must be another solution that allows us to change the world without moralizing it.” Project: Ra Solar Energy Boat, by Christoph Behling & the Institute of Aerospace Engineering; Stuttgart, Germany, 1996. Publication: Domus, January 1997, p.80.

... Or accepting the need to take a step back from moralizing, and trying to understand how moral positions are constructed? They can then be questioned through different perspectives: whose interests are at stake? How do moral standards come about? How to revisit these moral positions? How to understand the sharing of responsibilities? etc.

Ariane d'Hoop, fellow, FNRS, Université Libre de Bruxelles

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