Editorial: After Zero

Editorial: After Zero

After Zero
Arjen Oosterman

From the moment sometime at the end of the seventies or the beginning of the eighties that progressive appeared to be conservative and vice versa for designers there appeared to be little more to do than base one’s work on individual taste. Tackling modernism as the dominant paradigm was old news, although some architects continued to indicate their infatuation with it. The rest is history. That, however, is perhaps the crux of the matter. With the proclaimed ‘end of history’ as the outcome of the victorious free market economy (also known as neoliberalism) architecture lost its direction. There was now space for all kinds of parties: a blob party, the traditional feast, a hardcore technoparty, an eco-garden party, a mega structure after-party and an endless chill out from on-demand individualism. If architecture limits itself to making small differences and nothing more than the difference, if architecture is satisfied with telling bedtime stories and no longer intends to contribute to the story, if architecture is primarily about providing wares and is not concerned with values, then history has indeed passed us by.

But look: we’ve hardly seen history off and it appears once again, smirking, at the door. The future is back! Architecture, which has been a bit out of focus lately, is once again alert. Sustainability came to the rescue, setting goals, objectives, tasks and challenges. And the new ‘paradigm’ is readily absorbed. Architects can save the world again! They advertise their ‘sustainable practice’ and ‘ecological design’. Schools offer master courses in sustainable design, while the building industry provides sustainable solutions and governments compete in a contest of sustainability politics. Sustainability has become a politically correct term, a label that makes whatever you want to do acceptable and good. No questions asked and no doubt involved.

Notabene, one of the top book and gift chain stores in Norway, will replace the metal shelves in its shops with Re-board board-based shelves to lower its climate change impact. Underpinning its commitment to a low-carbon future, Notabene will replace the fixtures and fittings in all its 130 stores with 100% organic recyclable materials.
(Press release Stora Enso Ventures, Norway, November 27, 2008)

The citation above from Notabene’s (what’s in a name?) press release illustrates the confusion surrounding this topic. It is one of many cases of useless destruction in the name of sustainability. Certainly now that the business world is invested in the sustainability market, it is of prime importance that a product or firm presents itself as sustainable. Whether its associated actions actually contribute to solving the global climate problem is not terribly relevant. This does not make it any easier for an assiduous group of architecture firms which have conscientiously tried for years to gather specialist knowledge regarding zero-energy buildings or maximal reuse of materials and components, for example. They are not easily differentiated from opportunistic braggarts. Is this leading once again to losing sight of the connection between means and goal?

This is not easily to survey. Indeed, a clear differentiation between making a future and the possible making of the future is important. Architecture is called to arms to rescue the world from extinction, or rather humankind from perdition. Architecture is expected to vanquish a giant with many names, to free the way to the ‘future’. What this future should be is rarely discussed. Nor has the true nature of this opponent been recognized. And this is remarkable since every soldier knows it is essential to know your enemy. So let’s try to describe the beast in order to get a better view.

It is no ordinary adversary; it is a huge and impressive multi-headed monster. As in the myth of Hercules fighting the Hydra, cutting off one head only produces two new ones. The example of energy consumption might illustrate the point. As regards buildings, the traditional response is: insulation. That reduces energy consumption, but also introduces the problem of ventilation (how to get fresh air in without wasting energy) and there is the problem of emissions (many materials produce emissions of some sort and since they are no longer expelled from the house, we are exposed to them much longer). So what is good for your purse and the climate might kill you! And this discussion is only about the technical aspect of the matter. This is the realm of invention and problem solving; it basically concerns our trust in the ability of science to come up with adequate solutions. Yet when we address a different dimension of sustainability, for instance social or economic sustainability, we haven’t a clue about what is actually implied, let alone do we have solution strategies.

Thus there is reason enough to examine sustainability – what kind and whose, for example – and to think seriously about the purpose of that survival, that is, the future to which it aspires and how we want to arrange the global society if sustainability conditions are met. Yet before we dive into the discussion and while the world begins to get serious about zero emissions, zero population and zero energy consumption, suddenly zero growth and zero profit appear as urgencies.

This brings into sharp focus the paradox that system growth is essential in order to challenge excess. Now decreasing growth or even recession will increasingly determine environmental goals, but as soon as the market recovers conversion to another way of producing, consuming and living together will be more distant than ever.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s plea (supported by an increasing number of world leaders) for government support to take the form of green investments is thus prudent, but has already been shot down by the neoliberal camp. While on the other side of the field leftists prepare to create their egalitarian society and banish all forms of exploitation which are fundamentally linked to the neoliberal social model.

In the meantime there will possibly be more space for another look at our urban condition. The credit crisis is forcing us to once again deal with the question as to whether we should continue to organize society primarily based on capital value. In the Netherlands in the 1970s the cry was: a place to live is a right. That right has never been achieved by tens of millions of people around the globe and it now appears that hundreds of thousands will be denied that right by house eviction. The fall of the Berlin Wall made it possible to speak about the ‘post-socialist city’. Isn’t it now time that the post-capitalist city be examined? Is it now not time to move beyond the city as a corporate logo, beyond the city as a creative playground for a privileged group and investigate the possibilities of the city anew as a society?

And is it not also a good moment to reassess the spatial order of cities? In the trio of food, fuel and finance the accent has recently lain on the latter two, but food production and distribution have long constituted major problems. Two centuries of industrial production and increasing scale have led to specialization (monoculture) and the expansion of production and consumption. Over time this process has become global. Yet yesterday’s wisdom is today’s criticism. Under pressure from discussions about the climate, it suddenly appears possible to organize food production and the city differently in order to produce more interrelated and integrated spatial models. Urban Agriculture (or Metropolitan Agriculture as some rather call this) hides some very divergent notions – from high-tech production in stacked landscapes to DYI variants for balconies, roofs and shrubbery with the primary goal of addressing taste and social concerns – but they all ask that new spatial models be developed.1

And yet that’s the good news in all this misery: architecture (through to the highest level of planning) is at it again. It can once again engage the political dimension of space by making clear the meaning of ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’, of ‘protect against’ or ‘live with’, of ‘open’ and ‘closed’ and of ‘living next to’ and ‘living with’.


1. In preparation for this issue we organized two meetings of experts, one on ‘Urban Agriculture’ at the Academy of Architecture Amsterdam whose participants included Peter Smeets (Alterra – Wageningen University), Debra Solomon (culiblog.org), Jago van Bergen (Van Bergen Kolpa Architects), Rutger Groot Wassink (political party GroenLinks), Amir Djalali and Arjen Oosterman, and a second on the ‘Post-Capitalist City’ organized in collaboration with the Van Abbemuseum (Eindhoven) whose participants included Kerstin Niemann (Curator, Van Abbemuseum), Stephanie Smith (Curator, Smart Museum of Art), Clare Butcher (Curator, Van Abbemuseum), Marjetica Potrc (artist), Andrew Herscher (University of Michigan), Femke Lutgerink (independent curator), Joost Janmaat (Partizan Publik), Gijs van Oenen (Erasmus University, Rotterdam), Chris Keulemans (writer and journalist), Mireille Roddier (University of Michigan), José Subero Diaz (Master Graduate, Design Academy), Simon Dermout Cramer (skater, Brabant Open) and Design 99 (architects, Detroit), Christian Ernsten, Amir Djalali and Arjen Oosterman.

This article was published in Volume #18, ‘After Zero’.

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Different models of urban agriculture confronted