The Politics of sustainable architecture

It is easy to see the solution in all of our problems within buildings, but to call it the only solution would be ignorant. This perspective is black and white in the sense that a city needs buildings to create negative space, which in other words is infrastructure. Within This negative space there are a variety of layers that make up the urban context. These layers consist of roads, pedestrians, sidewalks, landscape, and buildings (public/private) that when woven together make up the urban fabric. Each layer needs the other for it to function properly. Most people’s perception of a city can be physical as buildings clearly dominate skylines and are overwhelming to the human size. We tend to forget about our surroundings and of the experience of getting to these massive buildings. Every building within an urban environment has a certain approach, character, and exterior space that define it. These out-door functions are part of a different urban layer that are experienced around a building.   

Essentially, a developer commissions a project for its profitability, but becomes an issue when it is not economically feasible for it to become a reality. This also affects social welfare and becomes an issue when it is not considered. These two aspects of real estate should be combined to answer social and economical issues that could possibly be the answer to the quality of buildings and social environments that are built.

For example, after the collapse of the Soviet Union there was a rapid change in ideology, which caused twenty years of instability and confusion within the people in Russia. While, the soviet regime enforced the idea of social equality for the entire country to follow, the new ideology instilled individuality and privacy to each citizen. In the middle of all of this, architecture stands as a reflection of the society and prevailing political system.

What we see in Moscow today is the result of social development and as a consequence, a transformation of the urban environment. For example, Moscow’s master plan proposal in the late 1990s main priority was to invest in the development of privately owned land for the use of a commercialized central business district. The lack of urban policy forced the city to obey the laws of the market, therefore Moscow began to develop spontaneously.  As a result, private investors have gained unprecedented power and have subjugated all features of the urban environment. This has caused transformations within the city’s urban fabric that have turned it somewhat chaotic. Through the existing urban fabric, new architecture has sprouted, displacing outdated structure and changing the physical body of Moscow. An example of this could be seen in Moscow, Russia’s own Moscow City business district. ‘Moscow City’ was supposed to become a symbol of financial capitalism and that of a prosperous and revived Russia. But it turns out that Moscow City is not suitable for use. Moreover, it is just a big grandiose decoration that has failed to fit the existing urban context. This unfinished business center is currently only half completed and has already failed to meet functional needs such as transportation and other aspects that are essential to the urban environment. This complex of buildings was not only separated from the context and infrastructure, but from the culture of the nation, while at the same time reflecting the moods prevailing in the country. The city of Moscow is currently trying to find a sense of identity and which way of development to follow, either choosing a more western or European approach which hasn’t yet worked on this particular part of the earth.

So what I am trying to say is that architectural decisions cannot be made without taking into consideration not only social and economical aspects but also political aspects and meet certain regulations that will ultimately drive the design process. What is working for Europe is not suitable for Russian reality.

Norwegian millionaire Graham Hill proposes a new life style with his recently formed company called life edited. The basic ideology is using a small space to its potential, housing all the things a person might need, while being suitable for the use of many people at a time. While still being a great idea, this same approach could be seen in previous historic examples such as the communal housing experiment that was started in the USSR in the late 1920’s. The basic idea was also using a small space efficiently while utilizing low cost building materials. Hill’s proposal may be suitable for some parts of the world but unfortunately, not for Russia where the average person has different methods of how a family of four to five people can share one room. The idea of saving space has been instilled in our culture from long before and has changed throughout the years on how we use one particular space. I feel that the majority of the population in Russia would be really surprised that their way of living could be ecologically/economically deliberated. For the past 20 years, the idea of social welfare has grown and people have obtained the possibility to afford larger living spaces after so many years of living in smaller spaces. Many people will not accept the idea of downgrading to a smaller space unless they are not satisfied with this type of lifestyle that was inaccessible for them before.

Another example to be considered in Russia’s Eco-Architectural context is the Active House which became the first and the only net-zero building in the country. It was built just two years ago located in Moscow region which is towards the outskirts of the city. The cost of this self-sufficient dwelling is $1 million, which is the income of an average Russian person throughout his/her lifetime. Developers are aware of this, therefore a project like this is used as both a research tool and a way to appeal to wealthy Russians.

I’m not trying to say that the path of sustainable development is wrong and that we shouldn’t work towards it, but rather to find a deeper meaning to sustainability than just “good intentions” that could appeal to the masses to build a better future for generations to come. The idea of sustainability becomes the last thing on the average persons mind when they are trying to survive economically. This problem could be solved by bettering a country’s economic situation, but that is a different topic for discussion.

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