Work/Life balance

In January, as I do every year, I resolved to balance work and life in a more mature way. It’s now September 16th, and….well, we’re not quite there yet.

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Beyond the building

I would like to think that the theme of this year’s Architecture Biennial in Venice – “Out There: Architecture Beyond Building” – was inspired by my book Beyond The Object. But as it was published back in 1987, I’m not going to demand a credit – except here.
Exhibitors responded to the “beyond building” theme in two divergent ways. The big-name star architects (or “i Big”, as they’re called in Italian), who clustered in the 300-metre long Corderie dell’Arsenale, appear to have been assimilated into an abstract world of money and pure form. Among huge shiny objects, curiously dated images of all things “network” were projected onto vast screens. There were “Do Not Touch The Exhibit” notices, too – but one didn’t really want to. On balance,i Big served a joyless meal.
A much higher-energy spread was presented by Emiliano Gandolfi in his survey of experimental architecture in the big Italia building. The 40-plus groups present were ‘street’ in all senses of the word. Installations by IDLab and Aether actually made me smile – and how often does that happen at an architecure show?
For me, the project that best captured what’s happening was the Polish “Hotel Polonia: The Afterlife of Buildings” (see pic above). Six shiny new buildings were first photographed by Nicolas Grospierre, and then Kobas Laksa worked on them visually to answer the question, “What will the future hold for these buildings once a dramatic reversal of social and economic relations occurs?”. If you ask me – or look at the blogs – “a dramatic reversal of social and economic relations” is happening right now – so I’d love to see Laksa visualize, say, the Lloyds of London (insurance) building in 2020…
Speaking of which, The Stern Review, released two years ago, stated that failure to tackle climate change could cost the world – and by implication, its insurance companies – up to 7 trillion dollars.. Today, “fears are growing over the financial health of American International Group (AIG), the world’s biggest insurance firm”.
John, I love what you write. Not piffle, obviously. I love your focussed catholicity, and your real concern that things are not in a good way. I really feel for your attempt to situate a radical critique in the mainstream of operations, and to couch it in digestible, manageable concepts and language.
I don’t agree with the way you understand entropy in relation to sustainability, however! At least not by the following para:
“What would architects design, if they did not design buildings?” My question is
not a rhetorical one. The inputs and outputs of industrial society are wildy out
of balance – and that includes its buildings and infrastructure. We have reached
the end of a brief era in which we could burn cheap fossil fuel, and despoil
ecosystems, mindless of the consequences. We need to re-imagine the built world
not as a landscape of frozen objects, but as a complex of interacting ecologies:
energy, water, mobility, food. Our life-sustaining ecologies, especially, need
to be nurtured, not swept away, built over, or diverted. The need for new
buildings will be rare. Sometimes the design choice will be to do nothing”
Assume we have nothing on the planet, no fossil fuels, nothing. All toys taken away. This is your implication. What have we got? We have one and a half energy sources: solar, and tide (moon gravity). We have knowledge. The most efficient energy system every devised, all things considered, is the leaf: and we can create lots of those. And the mind, well it just keeps on trucking. I just don’t believe that even with that uber-minimalist eco-design set – sun and the mind – we cannot create and sustain magnificent societies.
What’s worrying to me in what you write is uncertainty over whether you think that, post-oil-toys, we will have to be farmers and craftspeople (à la Kunstler), or you think we need to just need to find ways to stay innovative and ‘modern’ in the post-oil-toy age. My scientific view is that entropy is not merely a function of the universe winding down, such that post oil we have less ‘low entropy’ to burn – i.e. just the sun – and this means we will need to live ‘simpler’ lives, because all the oil-based stuff we have now will be kaput.
Entropy is, in fact, it is a complex function of energy AND knowledge. We have energy BUT we also have the mind. This is the point Georgescu-Roegen makes in ‘The Entropy Law and The Economic Process’: entropy is an instrumental-anthropomorphic concept, and theories of it, including statistical, have not been able to rid it of its anthropic ghost. If this were not so, we would not be able to find ‘new’ uses for what we previously considered waste or otherwise functionless/valueless. Who would have thought that so much power and value would be carried in a vehicle as simple as a glass rod (i.e. fibre optics fibre)? Who would have thought that something as simple as reflection would power the intformation revolution (i.e. internal reflections down fibre optics)? Okay, so to deliver information down glass, we had to discover lasers: but who would have thought pulsing light into a ruby crystal would have it come out all straight and neat? The point is: the richness of the world that leads to value and welfare is not inherently reliant on high-energy-intensity. It’s also reliant on intelligence and information intensity. So I think it’s crude and misleading to imply that when oil runs out, climate and resource snafus kick in, etc, we won’t have anything to do as designers.
You of all people will know why nature has evolved fractal forms. It’s not because they’re nice. Self-repeating forms bla bla is just language and bandied about. Fractal – which stands for fractional dimension – is a phenomenon nature evolved to break as far as possible the link between volume (of biomass) and surface area (for light absorption): and thus to optimise radically the prospects of survival. Trees (and lungs) are elegant (inside-out, in the case of trees) Menger sponges, which have freaky ratios of volume to surface area: within given volume, leaf surface area (2D) reaches for infinity, while biomass volume (3D) hunkers down low. Trees look 3D, but they are really desperate to be resource-conserving 2D objects – they just take advantage of a 3D world to get more 2D action going. Their dimensionality is thus ‘fractal’ between 2 and 3.
In short, strict entropy constraints gave us nature as we know it: and I don’t see nature tending towards blobby, cautious sloths trying to conserve their energy, which is how I read the implication of your “sometimes the design choice will be to do nothing”. Fractional dimensionality is just one of many lessons for human design in the future, we haven’t even begun to implement it. And this, of course, is an architectural strategy (surface area to volume, being one of their concerns). Architects will be very very busy in the low entropy world you allude to.

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From facades to flows: book launch in Venice

A short final reminder that the Italian edition of In The Bubble will be launched at the Architecture Biennale in Venice this coming Saturday (13 September). The book moment on Saturday follows my lecture at the Dutch Pavilion in the Gardini which is scheduled for 15h-16h. My talk is part of week long exploration and debate on the capacities and capabilities of architecture – beyond building. My brief is to discuss “what would radical ecology imply for architecture?” The Netherlands contribution is organised by the Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAi) in collaboration with STEALTH.unlimited

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Drops in the ocean – and in the sky

Steve Messem (who led our sustainable tourism design camp at Dott 07) writes with news that his next installation – Drop – takes up residence beside Crummock Water in the Lake Distrrict, UK. You’ll find his 7 metre (20 foot) reflective raindrop near Haus Point between Buttermere village and Lorton from 7am tomorrow morning (11 Sept). It will stay there – or so Steve hopes – until the end of Saturday.
This the second amazing droplet I’ve heard about today. Just before Steve’s email arrived, I was reading about “cloud albedo enhancement.” This is the proposal, first made in 1990 by a scientist called John Latham, that controlled global cooling – sufficient to balance global warming resulting from increasing atmospheric CO 2 concentrations – might be achieved by seeding low-level, extensive maritime clouds with seawater particles. The sprayed seawater droplets, Latham proposes, would “act as condensation nuclei, thereby activating new droplets and increasing cloud albedo”. Latham reckons that spraying clouds with seawater on a large scale could help hold the Earth’s temperature constant for many decades.
The scheme is ecologically benign – the only raw materials being wind and sea water – and “if unforeseen adverse effects occurred the system could be immediately switched off, with the forcing returning to normal within a few days”. Latham acknowledges that “questions and concerns would need to be satisfactorily examined before any justification would exist for the operational deployment of the technique” – but I reckon he can speed up that process by going into partnership with Steve Messem. If Latham’s planet-wide aerosol spraying looked as gorgeous as Steve’s Drop, surely none of us would complain.
I’m not being unserious here. I learned about Latham’s proposed feat of “geo-engineering” from a book called Kyoto2: How to Manage the Global Greenhouse by Oliver Tickell. Kyoto2 is basically the blueprint for a new global climate treaty. Based on the latest climate science (summarised clearly in the book) a replacement to the existing Kyoto protocol must achieve a level of atmospheric CO2 below 350 ppm. Otherwise stated: if we are to stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent “dangerous anthropogenic interference in the climate system”, the North will need to reduce its carbon impacts by 98 per cent.
Put baldly like that, most of us will feel like giving up on the whole enterprise. I know I do. The thing is, Kyoto2 describes a plausible path from here, to there in policy terms. What’s missing is the aesthetic-cultural impetus that we’ll also need to make that change happen at a political level.
That’s where projects like Drop come in: 98 per cent less has got to feel like 98 per cent more.

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Palin’s poisonous pump and dead ducks

A diary piece at daily Kos investigates the environmental impacts of the so-called Palin Pipeline. It points out that the pipeline is not a conduit of natural gas to US consumers, but (as the map shows) to the tar sands of Alberta, Canada where it will be used to power the extraction of oil. Canada has the world’s second largest reserves of oil – 180 billion barrels – but 95 percent of these are embedded in its tar sands. According to desmogblog, the production of a barrel of oil from oil sands produces three times more greenhouse gas emissions than a barrel of conventional oil – so Palin’s pipeline will fuel a massive new source of emissions even before the extracted oil itself is used.
Its impact on water systems will be just as damaging: The water requirements for oil sands projects range from 2.5 to 4.0 barrels of water for each barrel of oil produced, and at least 90% of the fresh water used in oil sands works ends up in vast toxic lakes. The ones in Northern Alberta span 50 square kilometers and can be seen from space as shown here:
These tailing lakes are so toxic that ‘propane cannons’ and floating scarecrows are used to keep ducks from landing in them. If the ducks land in them, they die.
The real story here is the imminent construction of the biggest eco-poisoning pump in history. But that’s an abstract idea, so we’ll probably have to use emotive images of dead birds.

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Green noise: expert meeting

The biggest challenge we face in City Eco Lab (see below) is the explosion of public events, media channels, reports, platforms, trade shows, and government initiatives, at all levels, to do with sustainability. Paul Hawken’s WiserEarth web portal, alone, alone lists over 100,000 non-profit projects and organisations. In the UK, the Transition Towns movement is growing virally. Across Europe, thousands of other initiatives are bubbling away beneath the radar of mainstream media and education. This explosion of energy and diversity is great, but does beg the question: are any more new initiatives needed? if so, what kind? and who will pay for them? Doors of Perception will host a discussion among city managers, policy makers and design producers during the design biennial in St Etienne. If you think might want to join this meeting, plan to be there for Saturday 22 and Sunday 23 November.

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City Eco Lab – Preview -70 days to go

This two-week-long market of sustainability projects opens in 70 days from now in St Etienne, France. We have set out to design a scalable, reproducable event, at the level of a city-region, that will materially accelerate its transition to sustainability. As with Dott07 in North East England, citizen co-design of projects are at the core of the City Eco Lab experiment.
In the food zone, projects to do with production, distribution, storage, and composting will surround the biennial’s best restaurant, Cantine 80km. (It’s called that because 80km is the limit beyond which transported food has to be refrigerated). The Cantine will feature Green Maps to help visitors identify and contact suppliers directly. Nearby, Debra Solomon will present the Lucky Mi snack wagon from the Netherlands, including its high-performance sprout-growing module. Also in the food zone, visitors will be able to pickle vegetables using locally-sourced pots, and babies will make bread. Francois Jegou will present scenarios for enhancing AMAP, the French network of of community-supported agriculture systems; and we’ll see how AMAPs compare with the new spin-farming idea from the USA – and alternative trade networks for coffee.
Casino, a big supermarket chain, will present its state-of-the-art green labeling scheme. St Etienne’s architecture school will launch Soupe de Ville which is based on ingredients grown within city limits (some by the architects themselves). Visitors will also be able to compare small, medium and large-scale composting solutions: these include the beautiful pots of the Daily Dump system from Bangalore; London’s SEED foundation proposal for a neighbourhood green waste service in which the celebrated Rocket composter accelerator is used by a new social enterprise; and a high-tech, industrial-scale system in Clermont Ferrand.
City Eco Lab’s mobility zone will be mainly about bicycles, and especially their potential use to de-motorise the distribution of 7,000 items of freight about the city each day. Prototypes of new bike-based services will be presented by Les Cousiers Verts and by La Poste. Plans for a city-wide car share system conceived for poorer people, will be shown – and compared with Dott07’s Move Me project presented by David Townson.
The central area of City Eco Lab will ask: what exactly is an “eco quartier” (neighbourhood)? Live projects on show will deal with energy, water and mobility. A team led by Justine Ultsch at St Etienne’s city hall will explore ways to re-open Le Furan, the city’s built-over river. Tools to capture and clean rainwater will be on show, next to a description of Melbourne’s extraordinary plan to turn that whole city into a water catchment, and Rotterdam’s vision of itself as a water city. A unique array of dry toilets will be on show, together with proposals from an Australian designer, Dena Fam, of ways designers can make them physically and culturally more attractive. A community-wide energy dashboard will be demonstrated by Magalie Restalo. Half way through the event a town hall meeting, convened by the Maison du Quartier,wil discuss what to do, and how, with the ideas and scenarios emerging from the City Eco Lab marketplace.
Continuing the water theme, plans to remove 60 dams from the Rhone will be presented by the World Wildlife Fund’s Martin Arnoud. Designers Hugo Bont and Olivier Peyricot will demonstrate their proposal for large scale urban fish farming. The artist gardener Emanuel Louisgrand will recreate elements of his stunning l’îlot d’Amaranthes gardens from Lyon.
Next to the Eco-Quartier zone will be the “Germoir” (Nursery) co-designed by the rural design collective Pomme_Z. Here, school students from the region will work on live projects to reduce their schools’ environmental footprint. Five schools are involved in this Defi Eco Design, which is based on Dott07’s Eco Design Challenge for schools in the UK. Defi Eco Design is the trial for a larger programme that it’s hoped will be launched in 2009.
In addition to these daily-life zones of City Eco Lab, a large Cabane a Outils (Tool Shed) will contain some of the resources citizens will need to start their own projects. The Tool Shed will feature books and films 9in English and French); a database of environmentally high-performance materials; a selection of software platforms; templates for new economic models; a map of skills available within a 100km radius of the event; and a range of environmental monitoring instruments and off-grid media tools.
City Eco Lab will also feature a Club des Explorateurs (Explorers Club) in which a wide varietry of groups will meet to discuss practical ways to enhance or scale up their projects. Companies, community groups and grassroots projects from across the Rhone-Alps region will participate – often together with international visitors. The Explorers Club will be located next to to a Salle des Cartes in which a wide variety of resource maps will be presented by a team from The Why Factory led by Winy Maas and colleagues from TU Delft in The Netherlands. 15-30 November, St Etienne, France.

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Liminal space

Next week the team at St Etienne City of Design returns from its vacation ready for a massive final push towards 15 November. That’s the date when when their biennial opens, and Doors of Perception has to fill its 5,000 square metre shed with a heaving throng of eco projects. Our event, City Eco Lab, is going to be amazing, and fab – but one is nonetheless envious of the artist Richard Serra who has filled his much bigger space in Paris with a few large objects.

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Alternative trade networks and the coffee system

Every day 1.5 billion cups of coffee are drunk somewhere in the world – quite a few of them in this house – but few of us in the North know much about the 25 million families that grow and produce this valuable bean.
After reading a new book called Confronting The Coffee Crisis I feel better informed not just about the negative aspects of the story – but also motivated to explore practically the potential of emerging alternative trade networks to change the bigger picture in profound ways.
In a system that can involve as many as eight transactions to bring the coffee to market, coffee farmers receive less than two percent of the price of a cup of coffee sold in a coffee bar or roughly six per cent of the value of a standard pack of ground coffee sold in a grocery store.
So far, so outrageous. Less well-known are the damaging effects of these unequal power relations embedded in global coffee networks: threatened livelihoods, greater poverty, malnutrition, deforestation, and out-migration. A “bigger, faster, cheaper” mentality has created a dynamic that exploits the most vulnerable at the bottom of the supply chain.
The intensification in production that started with the green revolution is based on the use of external inputs like chemical pesticides and ferttilizers, and machines and large scale irrigation to boost production. This technology generates economic concentration, social exclusion, the rtise of expensive ‘patented’ seeds, and the depreciation of natural capital via compacted, eroded and degraded soils, the loss of biodiversity, the pollution of groundwater.
Awareness in the North of these problems fuelled the rise of fair trade systems – but their proliferation has now become a problem on its own. It’s easy to be overwhelmed buy a choice of options that can include “organic”, Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance Certified, Utz certified, shade-grown, Bird Friendly, and so on.
Producers have a host of new practical problems to deal with. When Fair Trade adopted a certification-based model, they introduced more coffee-industry actors into what is now a billion dollar global market. At least 200 certifying agencies now audit farmsteads and post-harvest processing, storage, and transport across a global span.
Certification has enhanced the livlihood of certified coffee farmers – but the financial and bureaucratic costs are substantial. Certification services are arrayed along a transnational “chain of custody” and documented by an audit trail. Producers feel the effects as they are asked to jump through more and more hoops in order to access high value markets.
Although certified markets create consumer awareness of the inequities of coffee production, they often operate within the traditional coffee commodity systems which continue to be controlled mainly by large scale roasters and retailers.
The saddest development documented in the book is that Fair Trade is losing its social-movement identity in a bewildering welter of competing labels, brand names, product logos, and other marketing messages. “Direct producer-consumer solidarity ties are giving way to an individualistic consumer politics of choice as the FT labeling system becomes institutionalized,” say the authors.
But the book ends on a positive note, and emphasizes that it’s not a simple matter of ‘traditonal’ vs ‘modern’ farming. Interactions between local livelihoods and global actors do not automatically have to be negative
Traditional ‘shade-tree’ coffee systems, with their diverse shade tree species and multiple use strategies, are sophisticated examples of the application of ecological knowledge and can serve as the basis of sustainable agroecosystems of the future.
The potential is there, but the challenges are significant. Scaling up traditional-progressive systems confronts the a daunting array of quality hurdles. The most fascinating section of the book for me is the following quotation from the the Mexican agronomist Eduardo Martinez Torres, as he explains that quality control only begins with the growing:
“Next comes choosing the right time for harvesting; harvesting only mature berries; not allowing harvested berries to heat up; sorting berries on intake; making sure the beans don’t crack during the depulping process; double sorting after depulping; making sure fermentation lasts the right length of time, ie between 24 and 48 hours, depending on the altitude and average temperature; thoroughly washing the berries; grading; properly drying, preferably both in the sun, as well as in the drier to avoid mildewing; the drying temperature should be moderate. The temperature should never be turned up to speed the process and save time, since an uneven drying process can significantly damage bean quality. When drying is done on patios, layers should not be too thick and beans should be constantly stirred. Never mix together beans of different grade of quality, beans at different stages of dryness, or beans from different altitudes. Selection, patience and care are the operative words during processing, since all these things make for the best bean quality and, consequently, the best price for the product”.
Hmm: so coffee is a complex business. But the book is filled with examples of growers groups that have been able to achieve remarkable progress by pooling expertise and resources that deliver a lot of the value currently added (if at all) by layers of intermediaries.
Of particular importance are alternative trade networks and the nascent Community Agroecology Network (CAN). Alternative trade networks emerging in the coffee system are based on lessons learned from farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture, and attempts in other markets to connect producers and consumers in more direct relationships that are socially just and ecologically restorative, and promote mutual learning and positive change.
Alternative trade networks redistribute value through the network against the logic of bulk commodity production, reconvene trust between food producers and consumers during the direct exchange of goods.
In Agua Buena, Costa Rica, the farmers’ cooperative has developed the capacity to ship roasted coffee directly to North American consumers’ doors. Coffee delivery depends on the postal service, and direct exchange is difficulty; however email and Internet chatrooms facilitate these interactions.
Two other projects also deal with alternative trade networks. The first, Feral Trade, created by the artist Kate Rich, has been trading goods along social networks since 2003; their first transaction was the import of 30kg of coffee direct from El Salvador to a cultural centre in Bristol, UK. The import was negotiated using only social contacts, and was conducted via email, bank transfer and SMS.
Then there is the Fair Tracing project whose aim is to to support ethical trade by implementing Tracking and Tracing Technologies in supply chains to provide consumers and producers with enhanced information. The idea is to It will give producers a better overview of the value chain and price structures along it, and to empower consumers to trace a product’s origin and value chain.
I’m hoping to involve the Community Agroecology Network (CAN) and Fair Tracing in City Eco Lab, this November, to see what knowledge and expertise might be shared between them and organisations like AMAP in France. Watch this space.

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