The Place of Sustainability

The Place of Sustainability. Image: Alessandro Calvi Rollino Architetto The Place of Sustainability. Image: Alessandro Calvi Rollino Architetto

In the second part of the first decade of the 2000s, I felt very dissatisfied with the current status of architecture, which had reached a peak of extreme formalism far beyond the premises of postmodernist and deconstructivist trends, which dominated the architectural debate over the last decades of the past century. With the definitive capillary diffusion of CAD technologies, since the early 2000s or shortly before, new formal possibilities offered by alternative geometries and new modes of digital representation gave the architect the possibility to easily break any tie between architecture and the physical environment. Architects’ souls often lost themselves roaming freely across the unlimited horizons of the newly discovered digital realms. Editors of specialized magazines and books didn’t miss the opportunity to ride this new wave of digital expressionism in architecture, which had its worldwide celebration at the 9th International Architecture Exhibition in Venice, Italy, 2004.[1] As time passed by, and as the recent technological news and curiosity were metabolized, I began to wonder about the increasing gap between concrete and abstract values of architecture. As a consequence of the growing gap, I lost any confidence into ‘specialized’ architectural magazines, journals, books, or exhibitions; all of a sudden, I decided to cancel my subscriptions to over a dozen of architectural magazines and journals, and I began to turn my attention to more concrete and global issues and, despite my profession, I began to distance myself from architecture as my ultimate and specific domain of knowledge. A new awareness which, far from being a personal feeling, I formalized as a turn from space to place at an interdisciplinary conference held in Oxford, UK, in 2014, a decade after the aforementioned international exposition (see the paper A From Space to Place: A Necessary Paradigm Shift in Architecture as a Way to Handle the Increasing Complexity and Connectivity of Real-World Systems).

In those years, parallel to the journeys of architects in virtual and mental spaces, there was a growing number of professionals who (re)discovered the concrete place of architecture and, with it, the complex reality of phenomena determined by physicochemical, biological, and ecological processes, in addition to the more traditional worries concerning social or even symbolic processes (all of the architectural -isms belong to the domain of abstract, intellectual or symbolic processes, in the end). In that paper, I sustained that, for architects especially, it was the new overall ecological sensibility that facilitated, or is facilitating — the process is still in progress, actually — the return (from the abstractness implicit with space) to the concreteness of place. As a first step, my turn back to place began by reading books about sustainable architecture, green architecture, passive architecture, eco-architecture and the likes. In the beginning, a malicious doubt pervaded my mind after decades of postmodernism, deconstructivism and the multitude of -isms that tried to capture the impact of digital technologies on architecture, in the two decades across the year 2000: Was this new wave of architectural environmentalism or ecologism, behind the so-called ‘sustainable architecture’, just another temporary trend for architects and the building sector?[2] I couldn’t find any kind of enlightenment within the domain of architecture or the building sector (you cannot ask the grocer if the fruit he/she sells is tasty), therefore, I had to step out of those familiar domains, and reflect about the meaning of this new wave of ecologism or environmentalism at large, and find their connections with architecture, going beyond its traditional social and symbolic values. That’s how my current journey in-between the concreteness of place and the abstractness of space began. At that time, it was a difficult choice for me, given that this change of perspective would have probably affected my way to design; however, I couldn’t neglect what I perceived as a patent truth: ‘it is now absolutely clear that environmental awareness should draw a proper epistemological line of demarcation for disciplines like architecture and urban planning’.[3] Now, the question was rather complicated for me: how could I get orientated in the exterminated and unfamiliar world of environmental and ecological issues and find the basic connections, cultural and philosophical other than scientific, between this new sensibility towards nature, architecture and planning? That was an unknown universe for me: how do you orient yourself in a place that you do not know? You need a map. And that’s what I’ve done: I drew a basic map of facts and happenings to inquiry into the place of sustainability.

RSAP_016_01_Flammarion Engraving 02_96dpi
Image 1: elaboration based on a wood engraving by an unknown artist, first documented in Camille Flammarion’s book, L’atmosphere: météorologie populaire, 1888.

This is the text I wrote in 2011, the time I made that map, to illustrate the reasons for it.

Nowadays everything has to be green and sustainable. Things that are neither green nor sustainable, can become green and sustainable by means of conscious or unconscious green-washing operations. The great deal of information that we can get every day from traditional media like books, television, newspapers, magazines and the even greater amount of information that we can get from digital media, make our way to get oriented between the many folds of environmental or ecological thinking, very difficult, notably because green messages are sometimes contrasting, if not misleading or false, and rarely supported by accurate or scientific reasoning based on official sources. The speed of information, which is a typical trait of our contemporary society, coupled to the plain adoption of immediate information that we can get from generic internet searches (where web-pages are indexed on the base of algorithms that follow market logic) result in a superficial attitude increasing confusion and uncertainties in dealing with such a ticklish argument — the human relation to the physical environment. People involved in the production of culture, have the responsibility to pursue their research as thoroughly as possible to avoid inaccuracies and incongruities. Mapping the place of sustainability is a possible way to illustrate a green universe yet to be discovered; it’s a kind of astronomical map trying to define relationships and connections between some epochal events that gave birth to institutions, lines of thought, scientific and official documents, whose purpose was to redefine the relationship between man and nature, hence to redefine the sense of our dwelling  on the Planet Earth.

Like any map, this is just a faint image of reality; nonetheless, it gave me the confidence to explore a new world — a new domain of knowledge concerning the profound connection between man and nature — without getting lost. I conceived its basic structure  after reading the book ‘Nature’s Economy’, written by Donald Worster, a distinguished American Professor specialized in the history of ecological ideas.[4] In a more or less arbitrary way, I considered the year 1945 as the starting point, when nuclear bombs determined the end of the Second World War; and I put the central focus around the end of the ‘60s and early ‘70s, when man, for the very first time, had the opportunity to see the Planet Earth as a whole, from the distance and the outside — thus, the period  I cover with the map is what Worster defined ‘The Age of Ecology’.[5] Regrettably, for the sake of simplicity and communicative intent regarding the overall readability of the map and its scope, I had to exclude some important layers, which, at first, I wanted to include: I’m speaking of those literary, philosophical, ethical and scientific works especially, which contributed to develop the proper milieu to support the related cases for environmentalism and sustainability as we know them today (I refer to the works of Gilbert White, Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, John Ruskin, Ernst Haeckel, Alfred N. Whitehead, Arthur G. Tansley, William M. Wheeler, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Eugene Odum, Barry Commoner, Jeremy Rifkin, Hans Jonas, Michel Serres and many others, many of whom are the extended subject of the aforementioned book by D. Worster); I’m also speaking of other events or institutions that played some role in the environmental debate, but I couldn’t include them without undermining the immediacy and readability of the map. Despite these limits, I began to consider that map as an inclusive and open map, where many layers could be added and overlap the underlying structure, maybe modifying the disposition of its parts to allow room for other parts – events or entities – but maintaining its main focuses and fundamental connections or creating new ones (like an organism whose degree of complexity can grow through time).[6]

Here you can download the .pdf vectorial map that you see as the Featured Image of this article. By clicking on the icons or texts of the map you will be redirected to the websites that host the original documents, reports, papers, charts, histories or Institutions that contributed to shaping our current vision regarding the relationship between man and nature. Active links to official documents, reports, papers, declarations, charters, Institutions, events etc. can also be found in the section just below here.

Dates, Places, Events and Useful Links

16 July 1945, Alamogordo, New Mexico, USA — The First Atomic Bomb Blast, (Trinity Test); a brief video here.

2 September 1945, Tokyo Bay, JAPAN The end of WWII was formally signed, aboard the United States Navy battleship USS Missouri, after Japanese Emperor Hirohito already had announced the Japanese surrender to Allied Forces on the national radio, on 15 August 1945.

16 October 1945, Québec City, CANADA — 42 countries gathered in the Château  Frontenac, Québec, Canada, to create FAO — the Food and Agriculture Organization.

24 October 1945, Washington, USA — The United Nations (UN) officially came into existence, after the Charter of The United Nations was adopted and signed on 26 June 1945, in San Francisco. ‘The name “United Nations”, coined by United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt was first used in the Declaration by United Nations of 1 January 1942, during the Second World War, when representatives of 26 nations pledged their Governments to continue fighting together against the Axis Powers’.

16 November 1945, London, UK — The Constitution of United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) was signed, after a United Nations Conference was convened in London from 1 to 16 November 1945.

17 December 1946, Paris, FRANCE — The first movement of European spirit (European Federalists Union) was founded; months before, on 19 September 1946, Winston Churchill already called for a ‘kind of United States of Europe’ in a speech he gave at the University of Zurich. On 18 April 1951, the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), was established by six founding members — Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands —, who signed the Treaty of Paris. On 25 March 1957, the six members signed the Treaty of Rome, setting up the European Economic Community (EEC), which on 1 November 1993, after the Treaty of Maastricht, became the European Union (EU).

5 October 1948, Fontainebleau, FRANCE — The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (hereinafter referred to as IUCN) was established.

23 March 1950 — Entry into force of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), which in 1951 became a specialized agency of the United Nations.

28 January 1951, Geneva, SWITZERLAND — The Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR) was founded.

29 April 1961, Morges, SWITZERLAND — World Wildlife Fund (WWF) was founded.

22 April 1970The first Earth Day was celebrated.

1970, Vancouver, CANADA — The Canadian ‘Don’t Make a Wave Committee’ against US nuclear tests on Amchitka Island was officially established; ‘In 1971, a small group of activists set sail to the Amchitka island off Alaska to try and stop a US nuclear weapons test…, their old fishing boat was called “The Greenpeace”.’ In 1972 the movement and organization known as Greenpeace was officially founded.

5-16 June 1972, Stockholm, SWEDEN — The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment convened under United Nations auspices, takes place in Stockholm.

15 December 1972 — The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) was established by General Assembly resolution 2997 (XXVII)

12-23 February 1979, Geneva, SWITZERLAND — The First World Climate Conference (WCC-1), sponsored by the WMO and other international bodies, took place.

1980 — The World Conservation Strategy (WCS) was published; it provides both an intellectual framework and practical guidance for the maintenance of essential ecological processes and life-support systems, preservation of genetic diversity and sustainable development.

19 December 1983 — The General Assembly of the UN ‘welcomed the establishment of a special commission that should make available a report on environment and the global problematique to the year 2000 and beyond. The commission later adopted the name World Commission on Environment and Development’ (WCED). The Chairperson of the Commission was the Prime Minister of Norway, Gro Harlem Brundtland.

22 March 1985, Vienna, AUSTRIA — Conference of Plenipotentiaries on the Protection of the Ozone Layer, otherwise stated as ‘Vienna Convention’.

4 August 1987Our Common Future: Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED).

16 September 1987, Montreal, CANADA — The international treaty known as ‘the Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer’ (a protocol to the Vienna Convention) was open for signature.

6 December 1988 — The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was set up, endorsed by UNEP and WHO. It provides at regular intervals assessment reports (AR) on the state of knowledge on climate change.

26-28 April 1989, Helsinki, FINLAND — First meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP-1) to the Vienna Convention on the Protection of the Ozone Layer.

2-5 May 1989, Helsinki, FINLAND —  First meeting of the Parties to the Montreal Protocol (MOP-1).

1990, IPCC First Assessment Report 1990 (FAR) — First Scientific Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

27 June 1990,  Brussels, BELGIUMGreen Paper on the Urban Environment by the Commission of the European Communities.

27-29 June 1990, London, UNITED KINGDOM — Second meeting of the Parties to the Montreal Protocol (MOP-2).

29 October – 7 November 1990, Geneva, SWITZERLAND — Second World Climate Conference (WCC-2).

17-19 June 1991, Nairobi, KENYA — Second meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP-2) to the Vienna Convention on the Protection of the Ozone Layer.

October 1991, Gland, SWITZERLAND — ‘Caring for the Earth: A Strategy for Sustainable Living’ was published.

3-14 June 1992, Rio de Janeiro, BRAZIL — The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) known as ‘The Earth Summit’ took place in Rio de Janeiro.

June 1992, Rio de Janeiro, BRAZIL — The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was open for signature. The Convention sets an overall framework for intergovernmental efforts to tackle the challenge posed by climate change due to emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. The UNFCCC entered into force on 21 March 1994.

June 1992, Rio de Janeiro, BRAZIL — The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (UNCBD) was open for signature.

June-August 1992, Rio de Janeiro, BRAZIL — Rio Declaration on Environment and Development.

June-August 1992, Rio de Janeiro, BRAZIL — UN Statement of Forest Principles.

June 1992, Rio de Janeiro, BRAZIL  —  Agenda 21, a comprehensive plan of actions developed to lead environmental development into the 21st century with its goal of sustainable life on Earth, was adopted.

27 May 1994, Aalborg, DENMARK First European Conference on Sustainable Cities & Towns. The ‘Aalborg Charter’, which provides a framework for local sustainable development and calls for local authorities to engage in Local Agenda 21 processes, was signed.

28 November – 9 December 1994, Nassau, BAHAMAS — First meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP-1) to the Convention on Biological Diversity.

17 June 1994, Paris, FRANCE The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) was adopted. It entered into force on 26 December 1996.

1995 – Second Scientific Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change  — Second Assessment Report (SAR): Climate Change 1995.

28 March – 7 April 1995, Berlin, GERMANY First meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP-1) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

29 September – 15 October 1997, Rome, ITALY — First meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP-1) to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).

1-12 December 1997, Kyoto, JAPAN Third meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP-3) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The Parties agreed on the adoption of the ‘Kyoto Protocol’, which entered into force on 16 February 2005.

2001 – Third Scientific Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — Third Assessment Report (TAR): Climate Change 2001.

26 August – 4 September 2002, Johannesburg, SOUTH AFRICA World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), where the ‘Johannesburg Declaration’ on sustainable development was adopted.

June 2004, Aalborg, DENMARK Fourth European Conference on Sustainable Cities & Towns – Aalborg+10 (2004)

2007 – Fourth Scientific Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — Fourth Assessment Report (AR4): Climate Change 2007.

31 August – 4 September 2009, Geneva, SWITZERLAND Third World Climate Conference (WCC-3).

May 2010, Dunkerque, FRANCE Sixth European Conference on Sustainable Cities & Towns – Dunkerque 2010.

18-29 October 2010, Nagoya, JAPAN 10th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP-10) to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.

10-21 October 2011, Changwon, REPUBLIC OF KOREA 10th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP-10) to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification.

21-25 November 2011, Bali, INDONESIA 9th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP-9) to the Vienna Convention.

28 November – 9 December 2011, Durban, SOUTH AFRICA 17th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP-17) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

20-22 June 2012, Rio de Janeiro, BRAZIL United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), where the outcome document ‘The Future We Want’ was endorsed.



[2] By the term ‘environmentalism’ we mean ‘a new moral consciousness’ which began to take form after 1945 under the threat of the atomic bomb, and ‘whose purpose was to use the insights of ecology to restrain the use of modern science-based power over nature’; in Donald Worster, Nature’s Economy, A History of Ecological Ideas (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 343-44. As for the term ‘ecology’, which was coined by the German biologist Ernst Haeckel in 1869, it has a wider meaning and scopes: ‘the word “ecology” is derived from the Greek “oikos”, meaning “household”, and “logos”, meaning “study”. Thus, the study of the environmental house includes all the organisms in it and all the functional processes that make the house habitable. Literally, then, ecology is the study of “life at home” with emphasis on “the totality or pattern of relations between organism and their environment” to cite a standard dictionary definition’, in Eugene P. Odum and Gary W. Barrett, Fundamentals of Ecology, fifth edition (Belmont: Thomson Brooks/Cole Publishing Company, 2005), 2.

[3] In Nicola Emery, L’Architettura Difficile: Filosofia del Costruire (Milano: Christian Marinotti Edizioni, 2007), 167. The translation from Italian into English is mine.

[4] Donald Worster, Nature’s Economy, A History of Ecological Ideas (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

[5] Ibid., 342.

[6] If some reader is interested and wants to contribute, expand or modify this work (which covers the period 1945–2012), I can send the source file, made with Illustrator. The ultimate intent would be to create a three-dimensional interactive map, where the reader can navigate in, turning on and off certain layers, so that complexity and readability can go hand in hand.


Works Cited

Emery, Nicola. L’Architettura Difficile: Filosofia del Costruire. Milano: Christian Marinotti Edizioni, 2007.

Odum, Eugene P. and Barrett, Gary W. Fundamentals of Ecology (fifth edition). Belmont: Thomson Brooks/Cole Publishing Company, 2005.

Worster, Donald. Nature’s Economy, A History of Ecological Ideas. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.