FOR most of us, buildings are functional. We live, work and store things in them. They are as much a part of us as the nest is a part of a community of termites.
Were this all there was to say about buildings, architectural historian Barnabas Calder might have found his book easier to write. He is asking “how humanity’s access to energy has shaped the world’s buildings through history”.
Had his account remained so straightforward, we might have ended up with an eye-opening mathematical description of the increased energy available (derived from wood, charcoal and straw, then from coal and then from oil) and how it transformed and now, through global warming, threatens our civilisation.
But, of course, buildings are also aspirational acts of creative expression. However debased it seems, the most ordinary structure is the product of an artist of sorts, and to get built at all, it must be bankrolled by people who are (relatively) wealthy and powerful.
This was as true of Uruk – perhaps the first city, founded in the area now called Iraq around 3200 BC – as it is in Shenzhen, the Chinese former fishing hamlet that is now a city of nearly 13 million people.
While the economics of the built environment are crucial, they don’t make sense without sociology and even psychology. This is particularly the case when it comes to what Calder calls “the mutual stirring, the hysteria between architect and client” that gave us St Peter’s Basilica in Rome and the New Century Global Center in Chengdu, China, the world’s biggest building by floor area.
Calder knows this: “What different societies chose to do with [their] energy surplus has produced endless variation and brilliance.” So if his account seems to wander, this is why: architecture isn’t a wholly economic activity, and certainly not a narrowly rational one.
At the end of an insightful, often impassioned journey through the history of buildings, Calder does his best to explain how architecture can address the climate emergency. But his advice and encouragement vanishes under the enormity of the crisis. The construction and running of buildings account for 39 per cent of human greenhouse gas emissions. Concrete is the most used material on Earth after water. And while there is plenty of sustainability talk in construction sectors, Calder finds precious little sign of real change. We demolish too often, build too often and use unsustainable materials.
There may be solutions, but we won’t find many clues in the archaeological record. As Calder points out, “entire traditions of impressive tent-like architecture are known mainly from pictures rather than physical remnants”. The remains of civilisation before the days of fossil fuel only offer a partial guide to future architecture. Perhaps we should look to existing temporary structures – even to some novel ones used in refugee camps.
Rather paradoxically, Calder’s love poem to buildings left me thinking about the Mongols, for whom a walled city was a symbol of bondage and barbarism. They would have no more settled in a fixed house than become enslaved. And their empire, which covered 23 million square kilometres, demolished more architecture than it raised.
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