However, a more holistic view suggests that this be rephrased as "think globally, think locally and act at whatever scale opportunity presents itself." That is, the conceptualization and understanding of sustainability must occur simultaneously at macro and micro levels in order to incorporate the complexities whose synergies are at the heart of any comprehensive ecological program.
Increasingly, we are finding resonances between maintenance of place, of genius loci, and global ecological survival. These result from several fundamental conditions. Much of what is valued by humankind is the result of a long, evolutionary process in which the growth and development of habitation of the planet has been informed by interaction with context.
Understanding the intrinsic value of what currently exists produces attitudes which are far more likely to embrace adapting and reusing, rather than demolishing and replacing — an integral aspect of any sustainable planning effort.
It is interesting to note that the global/ local precept was an underlying idea of Patrick Geddes's 1915 work Cities in Evolution. In addition to the influence exerted by his own writing, the Scottish biologist and proto-ecologist had a profound influence on social and environmental leaders including Lewis Mumford and Barry Commoner, particularly as he discussed the interrelationship between built form and solutions to social problems.
It is also interesting that, although Geddes's earlier work is generally associated with pre-Raphaelites and particularly John Ruskin, his later view of the interconnections between social and spatial phenomena — namely, that planning and building design are inextricably tied to the larger ecosystem as well as to social and cultural patterns — informs and is informed by Modernism.
By extension, it is apparent that the integrative holism essential to Modernism must also be fundamental to any meaningful program for comprehensive sustainability, and that resources must be used directly, in their highest state.
However, the inevitable conclusion that existing rather than new structures must be the primary means for meeting the bulk of our programmatic needs should not be seen as either reactionary or a movement toward reduced quality of life. To the contrary, increased use of existing buildings, and the associated reduction in new construction, offers several important cultural benefits and also produces more jobs per dollar.
Extended use of the building inventory reinforces an important physical component of our cultural continuum. Elimination of casually commissioned new construction increases recognition of the cultural value of those new buildings determined to be necessary.
Recently, we have seen the proliferation of physical replicas of landmark buildings and locales. This has dramatically increased the level of cultural background noise, of cultural entropy. At the same time, we have seen ecologically and economically vulnerable elements of our world threatened and destroyed by pressures for expansion and growth. Some of these pressures arise from the need to meet very legitimate demands, but many do not.
Regardless, authentic places are becoming ever more precious, and the imperative to reuse resources at their highest Second Law value is a strong pragmatic argument for the preservation of these places.
While Modernism resulted in large part from capabilities that occurred only with the availability of large quantities of energy, it was also an intense investigation into cultural and social questions associated with the new technologies. The timeframes of the petroleum era and the advent of Modernism are interdependent, yet recent enough that we are just beginning to place these two phenomena in a common framework.
The Modern movement is about 100 years old. It is just 150 years since the beginning of commercial extraction of petroleum.
Related to the history of human culture, it is essentially irrelevant whether oil will run out in 25, 50, or 100 years. The Paleolithic cave paintings in Lascaux, France have been dated to approximately 14,000 BCE. Sumerian written culture began about 5,500 years ago, with intensive agriculture starting nearly 2,000 years earlier. The origins of the Xia dynasty in China are about 4,000 years old.
The Greco-Roman traditions of art and architecture started more than 2,500 years ago, yet much of contemporary Western culture is a manifestation of a continuous evolution from these foundations. This is to say that both the petroleum era and the Modern movement are brief blips on the timeline of the human species.
With remarkable shortsightedness, we have come to believe that the petroleum-era paradigm, which was made possible by the availability of plentiful cheap energy, represents the natural order. In fact, it is not sustainable and it is tending toward catastrophic results.
At the same time that the widespread use of petroleum was changing economics, technology, and production, Modernism was formulating a set of ideas and processes to access the benefits inherent in this usage and to address the problems that it created.
In considering its potential as a basis for planning and architecture in the context of finite resources, it is critical that Modernism not be seen as a style or a body of work based on style. That certain groups of Modern buildings are similar in appearance does not result from the casual application of stylistic features, but rather from carefully considered responses to a common set of problems resolved in a particular cultural and historical period.
Our context is characterized by the realization that essential resources are absolutely finite and by the corollary that sustainability in its broadest sense must be a primary criterion in the allocation of all finite resources.
The immense impact on resource use inherent in planning and architecture, and the analytic structures integral to Modernism which provide an armature for design based on context, offer a way forward.
Discuss this article in the Architecture Forum...
Carl Stein, FAIA, is a founding principal of Elemental Architecture LLC in New York City. He has practiced architecture in tandem with research throughout his career, focusing on energy-efficient design and historic reconstruction. Stein has an undergraduate degree in physics from Middlebury College and studied architecture at the Cooper Union. He has taught at the City College of New York's School of Architecture and is the author of Energy-Conscious Architecture from NCARB.
This article is excerpted from Greening Modernism by Carl Stein, copyright © 2010, with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton.