Rating tools like LEED in the US, or Green Star in Australia, do not adequately penalise buildings for high energy consumption related to transport. In transit oriented development (TOD) contexts, treating transportation as a minor component makes sense. Buildings within walking distance of good public transport, are already doing a lot to minimise energy-use related to travel, so naturally call for scrutiny of their immediate impacts: heating, cooling, lighting, water consumption, embodied energy, expected lifespan, etc..
What though of buildings outside of cities or at their margins, where there is no frequent public transport? Looking holistically at the energy needs of buildings like these—especially ones in mild climates, that have minimal heating or cooling needs anyway—means taking full account of the car trips they cause. Green ratings tools cap the total number of points that can be raised by sensible siting, to roughly the number a project can raise with economising desk lamps and tap fittings. They don’t deduct points for siting buildings so wantonly that energy consumption related to travel, could exceed the energy needs of the worst glass box of the 70s, relying entirely on air conditioning.
The architectural press regularly celebrates passively heated and naturally ventilated buildings in beautiful hinterlands, or near to beaches, with functions related to education, leisure or tourism. Many of our profession’s exemplars of low impact architecture, are weekenders, that were built so their owners could escape from the city in cars. Whatever energy buildings like these might require for heating or cooling, pales compared to the energy spent connecting their users to cities.
So should architects be encouraged to boycott commissions like these, on sustainability grounds? That would be problematic, not only because of lost fees. Retreats from the city have been constructed all throughout history, dating as far back as Hadrian’s Villa, and even before that the Palace of Knossos. Frowning too heavily on unnecessary developments outside our cities, would disregard a seemingly innate human need to occasionally get out of town.
It is a conundrum deserving a thought through response from the architectural community. The response we have now is simplistic, borne largely of snobbery. We deride project homes and subdivisions as though they are unrivalled in the damage they cause, forgetting some of our discipline’s most acclaimed works of sustainable architecture, in peri-urban locations, result from patterns of human habitation that are even more wasteful. Behind euphemisms like “sea change”, or “tree change”, is a phenomenon we could as easily name “hyper-sprawl”. Cars stuck in traffic en route to eco resorts or interpretive centres, are as blameworthy for jams as those heading home to McMansions. Rainwater tanks on the buildings we drive to, don’t mean our car trips have somehow done good. Neither do cars that use half as much energy, excuse twice as much driving. Arguably, no level of LEED certification, no number of Green-Stars, and no amount of critical acclaim from other architects, can redeem buildings that aren’t near to transit, if we are serious about fossil fuel use, or global warming.
Believers in the future of cars may protest that one day cars could be running on renewable energy. But even if renewables did replace oil (and weren’t undercut by electricity made from nuclear power), cars and roads would still disrupt natural flora and fauna. Particles from tires as they wear, or oil leaking from gaskets, would still pollute creeks. “Green” cars would still cause congestion in cities, have an associated death toll, and have a deleterious impact on public health and wellbeing. And in places where we try to all come together, like town centres, car parking would continue to push us all further apart.
Cars are a big problem, that architects exacerbate every time they say, “it’s okay, we’ll just drive there”. What we need are strategies to mitigate the environmental cost of our desire to escape from the city. The first must be to recognise that all sprawl is sprawl, no matter how green-washed or architectural, and start reducing the rate at which we are building beyond walking range of frequent public transport.
But there’s another approach too. We could re-conceive the retreat. Rather than seeing these as places we race to in cars with maximum haste, to have the most possible time there relaxing, we can start imagining retreats as places to hike to, sail to, or ride to on bikes.
Works of architecture invite us to move, because they don’t move. Movement is like an absent presence: so conspicuous by its absence, that we start designing it in. A labyrinth on the floor of a pilgrimage church, that you’re meant to walk around before you walk down the aisle, is a good example of a way to make the long walk to reach this building, an actual part of the building.
Then there are buildings that act like portals upon mechanised modes of transportation, and give them an aura of magic. St Pancras in London was designed to inspire people to travel by rail rather than horse and carriage, the rival mode at the time it was built. Likewise an airport like Eero Saarinen’s Dulles Airport in Washington with its wing-like roof that appears to be flying, brings with it the message that flying is more exciting than rail or sea travel.
But it was driving that architects of the twentieth-century did the most to promote. Pioneers of functionalist design theory, like Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier, assiduously conceived most of their buildings as destinations for people to arrive at by car (1). Functionalist theory often meant little more than making buildings function for car-use.
The overall composition of Walter Gropius’s Bauhaus building in Dessau, provides a grand entrance for cars, under a bridge, flanked by projecting wings. It was completed in 1926, the same year Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler merged their car making companies to make Mercedes-Benz, and when an explosion of car making enterprises across the US meant Henry Ford could no longer make one model only, and so introduced his Model A. It was a time when progressive architects could anticipate a future when everyone would arrive at their buildings in cars.
However, that was not yet a reality. Car ownership for most people would not occur until after WWII. Germany’s network of autobahns had been discussed, but actual work on their making was a decade away, when Adolph Hitler made them a national priority. Basing a building plan on the assumption that most people would be coming by car, in 1926, was premature. Yet Gropius was unwilling to consider anything else. Preliminary drawings of the Bauhaus Building (by Carl Fieger, not Gropius himself) all make a central feature of a bridge spanning a roadway (now Bauhausplatz) to create a grand gateway for the arrival and through-passage of cars.
What is most telling, is Bauhausplatz did not exist at the time. It was only much later that an estate was built and with it this street. Prior to that, the bridge of the Bauhaus was purely symbolic, built in anticipation of an imagined future when all buildings would be designed in symphony with networks of roadways, that at that time, barely existed.
The idea of cars for the masses, and networks of controlled access highways, were still only dreams when Le Corbusier presented his own version of a building contorted for cars to drive under and through. His Villa Savoye (1928) would have a U-shaped driveway contained within the space defined by the building’s structural columns. Like the Bauhaus, it imagined a future when buildings would always and only be arrived at in cars.
It would be wrong to say Gropius and Le Corbusier simply guessed right, about buildings becoming destinations for cars, when in reality, these architects and their like minded contemporaries were instrumental in shaping that vision. Without their works, Sigfried Giedion would have had little upon which to hang the main thesis of his influential book Space Time and Architecture (1941), that led a generation of architects to view freeways and their collapsing of space into time, as a notion upon which to ground architecture. Giedion didn’t tell architects they were puppets of Henry Ford, or of oil companies, but heirs to Einstein’s thinking. They were representing the fourth dimension (time) in their work, the way Picasso had been doing with his cubist paintings. In architects’ imaginations, something as banal as a vehicular entrance meant a house was in tune with cosmology.
As Tom Wolfe announced (with a tone of dismay) the Bauhaus would in time completely change our house. One of its legacies would be entrances to buildings that celebrate cars, and denigrate other means of arrival. A populace who has accepted this vision, is a populace ready to elect politicians who build them more roads.
The preceding historical narrative was fabricated with the specific aim of dragging the past into the present, to illuminate a current dilemma. In all but a few countries, like Denmark and the Netherlands, escaping the city is treacherous, without a car. Unlike the Netherlands, we have not linked minor farm roads with bike paths to make a bike-friendly alternative to our national motorways. Neither have we built separate bike paths parallel to our twin carriage highways. Our shining examples of non-urban bicycle infrastructure have seldom gone beyond the conversion of disused rail routes into bicycling trails, with a thin smear of bitumen.
Like Germany’s road network at the time of the Bauhaus, most countries’ networks of bike paths are in their infancy. They are bound to expand though, beyond urban districts, because where cycling has changed transportation before (ie., in Denmark and Holland) extensive networks of non-urban bike paths and bike routes have developed in tandem with bike paths in cities. We can expect our current rail trails and bike paths in parks and reserves, will eventually be patched to low volume roads, reengineered to favour cyclists, because that is how the Dutch countryside was cheaply and effectively opened to cyclists, in the wake of major improvements to city bike paths in the late nineteen seventies. The current bikeification of cites world wide is an indicator of safer cycling outside of cities to come.
The rest of this essay will look at recent architecture, and actions by architects, that are inspiring cycling, in ways paralleling actions by Modernist architects that helped inspire personal and public investment in driving.
1. Antonio Amado Voiture Minimum Le Corbusier and the Automobile MIT Press