When Sebastian Tombs, Chief Executive of the RIAS recently announced that “sustainability has been recognised formally by the RIAS as one of the keys to successful development of the built environment’ he was simply voicing what is now a commonplace assumption; that Sustainability Rules OK.

Admittedly, there appears to be no alternative to sustainability, but since nobody really knows what it actually means, it seems that we require yet more unelected officials or subjective appraisal tools – in this instance called the Sustainable Design Accreditation Scheme – to give us a few clues. Over the last four or five years, we have allowed the interminable rise of eco-auditors to pontificate on our behalf and tell us what we’re doing right; and where we need to pick our socks up. Not in architectural terms of course, but in the use of energy, transport and the devilish emission of the dreaded CO2. Architecture normally takes a back seat.

It would be very easy to be cynical about the massive industry that is sustainability. After all, everywhere you look there’s another unaccountable snake oil consultant suggesting that we adopt a new software programme, attend a £750 residential course, or appoint a sustainability guru (usually them) to ensure that we are not personally liable for the flooding of the Maldives or the death of the Lesser-Spotted Booby or somesuch – creatures that can’t cope with the miserable British climate getting hotter.

But to be against sustainable development requires a more positive intervention in the debate than wishing it away, or condemning the motives of its advocates. As it happens, those who are in favour of sustainability, at least, seem to have conviction on their side together with a certain amount of moral authority. Meanwhile those who are cynical about sustainability actually convey the notion that we re all helpless in its throes – and unintentionally reinforce the very notion that there are no alternatives.

But being against sustainability does not mean the promotion of unsustainable development. In fact, what we need is a stand against the concept of sustainable development in order that we might reclaim the notion of real development. “Development” is what architects used to do, but now the concept – with no prefixes, and no pretence of predetermined outcomes – has disappeared from the lexicon of architecture. In its place we have the weasel word of sustainability that actually symbolises the most reactionary philosophical trajectory of our times. One that celebrates low aspirations; condemns human agency; and undermines the true notion of progress.

Risky business

Sustainability is also the political framework that intellectually underpins the growth in risk management as well as the precautionary principle. It is held to be the basis of a generalised mood of miserablism and, what Professor Frank Furedi has called, ‘the culture of fear.’ Low aspirations manifest themselves in the tendency for architects to avoid issues that might subsequently be shown to be harmful to future generations. This is more than a justifiable fear of litigation; it is a fundamental loss of nerve in experimentation and change. Under the orthodoxy of sustainability, nature is sacrosanct and human intervention is almost by definition, harmful. The funny thing is that it is seldom possible to predict, let alone understand, all possible scenarios resulting from an action – that is the nature of risk-taking. Thus sustainability tends to reverse the burden of proof of harm, and so it is hardly surprising that we are uncomfortable with trying new things.

So-called experimentation in benign technologies, such as solar power and other renewables is fine as far as it goes, but because of a belief that anything other than renewables needs to be doubly justified, it has managed to proscribe the much-needed debate about the future of energy provision. No-one dares mention nuclear (even though it produces no CO2 emissions). Worse still, the presentation of energy supply as small-scale, local and non-reliant on national service providers has also undermined the concept of universal provision.

Today, such is the glorification of ‘the natural’ that even Jean Nouvel, past winner of the Royal Institute of British Architects Gold Medal speaks parsimoniously of development. For him ‘progress’ is a Western concept (both terms have an implicitly negative conotation in his eyes) and he advocates a different model. “It is,” he says, “possible to use local resources (wind, sun, ocean) before it is attempted… to offer development help with exorbitantly expensive infrastructure systems.” Nouvel’s comments represent more than the simple fact that it is cheaper to build with local and natural materials; he implies that it is better [ITALS] to build locally. Tell that to a peasant farmer in Rwanda craving a big house, functioning infrastructure, a television and a means to escape the vicissitudes of nature-dominated subsistance.

Noble savages?

Several years ago, Martin Valatin, representing a group called Architects for Peace and Social Responsibility, wrote glowingly about the Mathare squatter settlement in Kenya – a place where 400,000 human beings were forced to live in an abandoned quarry. “In spite of the crime, drugs and unsanitary congestion there’s a spatial richness in places like Mathare,” he said, “and a dynamic attitude to shelter which, to those used to a more product-oriented building industry, can seem quite refreshing.”

To the more crude architectural commentators, like Valatin, not even malnutrition and disease shatter the romance of the simple life, especially since the United Nations Habitat Declaration, the formal document on global strategies for human habitation, concludes that “those living in poverty are, in fact, rich in innovative faculties”. Some might say that it is incredible what people can do with a tarpaulin and a sheet of cardboard, but relativising the issue of underdevelopment has had serious consequences for the real development of the under-developed World.

The consequence of all of this has been that minimizing one’s impact on the environment has replaced the traditional architectural aspiration to maximise one’s impact. It comes to something when double Stirling Award-winning architect Chris Wilkinson pontificates that “it is a pity that many of our man-made structures are so heavy and monumental. I prefer the aboriginal concept of treading lightly on the earth.” Such is the current level of self-doubt in the West, that architects, traditionally renowned for making bold statements, are now marketing themselves on how small an impact they can make on the world.

Ken Yeang and Bill Dunster similarly laud the environmental credentials of eco-towers for their small footprint. They also admire their high density, natural ventilation, solar panels and CO2-guzzling trees at various storey heights. So convincing is this new breed of high-rise buildings that pride themselves on how small they are (in environmental terms), that even arch-anti-development guru Herbert Girardet hints that skyscrapers are the best way to have minimal impact on the environment.

In his final council meeting as RIBA President, Paul Hyett called on members to be at the forefront of the battle to ‘save the planet…(to) save humankind from a looming ecological crisis.’ This humble initiative would be his legacy, he hoped. The idea that architects can save the world may figure only in the wildest fantasies of some, but the belief that we should all do our bit is central to the sustainability cause. By behaving responsibly, by trying to do what’s right, by making an effort, we can be seen to be acting sustainably. To inculcate this depressing message, the RIBA launched its enhanced sustainability syllabus in June 2000 to teach Agenda 21, resource management and responsibility to the next generation of architects. . In effect the next generation of architects will have endured a 7-year course of social policy masquerading as architectural education.

In my view, architects should stop celebrating – and lauding – the natural environment. Whether that means building big is for individual architects to decide. But at the very least architects should start thinking big again – challenging social, infrastructural and environmental constraints rather than accepting them as sacrosanct natural boundaries. As long as architects justify their projects as having nominal impact on the urban or natural environment, avoid risks, scrimp on resources and flaunt their aversion to the national grid, even tall buildings will be no challenge to small thinking.