In a new book about how humans build and shape the environment around us, Julia Watson, argues that traditional indigenous techniques are the most efficient. Forget techno-carbon capture, smart cities, and other buzzwords; the best approaches already exist and we just need to use them. In her book, The Power of Lo-TEK, she looks at communities from Peru to Iran and how their indigenous approaches to building homes, farms, or other places has been honed over hundreds of years to find the best way to build.
Lo-TEK explores 18 indigenous communities, organizing them by the type of landscape each inhabits: mountains, forests, deserts, or wetlands. Case studies include the living root bridges created by the Khasi in Northern India; the waffle gardens of the Zuni tribe in New Mexico; aquaculture around the floating villages of the Tofinu people of Benin; the qanat underground aquifers in Iran; and the mudhif reed architecture of Iraq. Watson approaches each of these case studies like a cultural anthropologist and an architect, laying out the different spiritual relationships each community has with its environment, the history of how they created their engineering techniques, and detailed diagrams that explain how the techniques work.
Watson sees her book as today’s version of the Museum of Modern Art’s influential Architecture without Architects exhibition of 1964, which discussed the merits and sophistication of vernacular design from the past—design that architects at the time had dismissed in favor of modernism.
It’s well established that the suburbs are bad for people’s health, the environment, mobility, and are associated with many other societal ills. However, amongst people who don’t live in the suburbs there is a profound distaste in sub-urban living that suburbanites don’t seem to understand. The revulsion people have to the suburbs predates our collective knowledge of the harm suburbs cause, so what is causing this disgust of the suburbs? That’s what Suzannah Lessard investigates in an essay in which she connects how we talk about (and conceive of) physical space influences our thoughts about it.
The problem with transcendence for progressives is that it is conservative in a profound way. I would venture that Howards End expresses a conservativism in Forster, in the sense of valuing what has accumulated over time, and the ways in which it can amount to something more than the sum of its parts, its uses, its price; a conservativism that was at odds with his progressive values yet could be expressed through a relationship to place depicted in Howards End; but only because that world was depicted as sufficiently obsolete that issues of power and status, of exclusion and exploitation, were not at play. The actual form of suburbia, in contrast, breaks up landscape into tiny pieces, spreading out indefinitely, undoing the pastoral terrain as context—as something larger than ourselves. It balkanizes an age-old archetype of providential order—much as most progressives would resist that quasi-theistic idea. The pastoral landscape is the last resort of secular humanists in search of a quiet expression of their sense of transcendence—and the suburban formation destroys that. Long-shot speculation? Well, yes. But maybe it opens a tiny chink in the mystery of suburbophobia.
Architecture is all around us and most of us don’t even think about it. The built environment shapes how we think and provides (or denies) us with options on how to navigate the world and engage with it. This means that if we change the built environment we can change the planet. Years of thoughtless car friendly development have contributed greatly to the climate crisis and now architects are doing what they can to mitigate harm.
In May, some of the world’s leading UK-based architects joined forces to call for industry-led action on the twin issues of climate change and biodiversity loss. The “Architects Declare” group includes firms such as Foster + Partners, David Chipperfield Architects, and Zaha Hadid Architects.
In July, we reported that the City of Utrecht Council, in collaboration with advertising agency Clear Channel, has transformed 316 bus stops across the city into “bee stops.” The adaption involved installing green roofs onto the bus stops, creating bee-friendly spaces for the endangered species.
Inefficiently constructed housing is a problem for the planet and people. Poor insulation, intensive manufacturing process, and costs all have long term impacts on energy usage and people’s budgets. There is a solution to this that has been used the world over: building homes using dirt. Sod, adobe, and other materials have been used to make homes for millennia and perhaps it’s time we return to these natural methods. Iceland is one such country where the discussion of returning housing to its roots is alive and well.
Still, when discussing the contemporary benefits of turf homes to Sigurdardottir, she is largely positive about it. “Turf houses with their grassy green roofs are perfectly environmentally-friendly buildings and sustainable,” she says. “The material is taken from wetland areas where the grass root is thick and strong. It lasts for decades in dry weather and rots eventually like wood, just a little faster. [It] is then used as a filling in new walls or put into holes to smooth the meadow or spread it over it like fertilizer. Dry turf provides good insulation against cold weather.”
And there’s a growing coterie of people asking questions about the contemporary applications of turf homes. Last year, an exhibition in Seltjarnarnes called Earth Homing, Reinventing Turf Homes sought to explore the contemporary applications of turf houses.
The housing pattern pictured above is not sustainable, nor is how we as a species consume the planet’s resources. A way to think about our sustainability is to think of it as an annual budget and by August we’ve already consumed our annual supply of renewable resources, meaning the rest of the year is over budget and we have to consume non-renewable resources. A way to reduce our carbon footprint to help us survive the ongoing climate crisis is to move people into urban centres and depopulate large swaths of the planet. By leaving large open areas for nature to thrive we can help the planet deal with the 8 billion people consuming all of its resoruces.
So emptying half the Earth of its humans wouldn’t have to be imposed: it’s happening anyway. It would be more a matter of managing how we made the move, and what kind of arrangement we left behind. One important factor here would be to avoid extremes and absolutes of definition and practice, and any sense of idealistic purity. We are mongrel creatures on a mongrel planet, and we have to be flexible to survive. So these emptied landscapes should not be called wilderness. Wilderness is a good idea in certain contexts, but these emptied lands would be working landscapes, commons perhaps, where pasturage and agriculture might still have a place. All those people in cities still need to eat, and food production requires land. Even if we start growing food in vats, the feedstocks for those vats will come from the land. These mostly depopulated landscapes would be given over to new kinds of agriculture and pasturage, kinds that include habitat corridors where our fellow creatures can get around without being stopped by fences or killed by trains.
This vision is one possible format for our survival on this planet. They will have to be green cities, sure. We will have to have decarbonised transport and energy production, white roofs, gardens in every empty lot, full-capture recycling, and all the rest of the technologies of sustainability we are already developing. That includes technologies we call law and justice – the system software, so to speak. Yes, justice: robust women’s rights stabilise families and population. Income adequacy and progressive taxation keep the poorest and richest from damaging the biosphere in the ways that extreme poverty or wealth do. Peace, justice, equality and the rule of law are all necessary survival strategies.