Architecture, Environment and the Imperative of Responsibility

The Nordic Countries Pavilion, Venice, Italy, architect Sverre Fehn (1962). On the left, the ghostly image of the old big Y-shaped plane tree existing on the original site. The tree, which is not present anymore, was preserved by the architect, determining the shape of the structure and the roof of the pavilion, at the intersection of the concrete beams (Image: Alessandro Calvi Rollino Architetto).

I continue the series of articles on the relation between architecture and the environment, proposing a brief contribution I made on the occasion of a conference call promoted by the Landscape Research Group at the International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, in 2012; the issue of the call was: Ethics and Aesthetics of Architecture and the Environment; the title of my proposal was: The Architecture of Responsibility. The argument is more timely than ever, given that we are speaking of an epochal change of paradigm, concerning the vision of our common future of citizens in this unique place – the planet Earth. [1]

Over the last few decades, the signs of a global crisis related to unsustainable models of growth adopted by developed and developing countries are becoming self-evident: it is a diffused crisis, which has entangled economic, environmental, and social implications. Since then, people have been asking for remedies that political parties and deciders seem unable to take and share, at a global level. It is the crisis of a whole system: the modern society. This crisis will provoke catastrophes if urgent actions are continuously procrastinated. As philosopher Hans Jonas said in a famous interview of 1992, on the occasion of The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro, day after day we are getting ‘closer to the bitter end.’ [2] Thirty years have gone by, but the signs of such a crisis have gone worse and worse.

In regard to the environmental question, scientists, researchers, associations, and citizens from all over the world are trying to fight against global warming, the increasing levels of environmental pollution, the loss of biodiversity, the depletion of topsoil and the sea and forest resources, just to mention a few important questions on the agenda of many countries. The ineffectiveness or total lack of preventive, conservative and healing measures, will show their side effects on the economic system, and, in turn, the market economy, in abstraction from social community and biophysical interdependence, will be subject to distortions, which are already showing social effects – increasing unemployment, social distress, reduction of the welfare state, poverty, etc. – in many countries, in addition to environmental effects.[3] In just one word, the model of development of the modern society is unsustainable.

The ultimate causes of such a deep crisis, go back in time to the origin of Western culture especially, and to a misconceived relationship between man and nature – what the ancient Greeks called ‘phusis.’ [4] With the diffusion of Monotheism, the worship of nature ended and man’s road eventually diverged from nature, leading to a series of dualisms culminating in the philosophy of Descartes, and the deterministic and mechanistic vision of the world, firmly established since the XVIII century. This new vision exacerbated the divorce of man from nature, which, more than ever, became an object to study and to observe from without; a dominion controlled by technology and industry. This is how the modern mind and modern Science emerged. The first and main product of that new vision, the Industrial Revolution, allowed man to modify and exploit the environment to his custom, until the subsequent predation of natural resources, coupled to the will of unlimited growth of the market economy, took us to the present global crisis – economic, environmental,  and social crisis – so tough to overcome that the future of our and others species is at risk.

Which solutions? At the outset, we need to conceive a radical shift in the relationship between man and nature: thinking of an eco-systemic analogy, we must shift from a parasitic relation to symbiotic coevolution between man and nature; [5]  a symbiotic relationship where the Leviathan – the technical society of human beings – and Gaia – the Planet Earth,  that is nature – can find a dynamic balance for a benign integration. This is history’s bifurcation: ‘either death or symbiosis.’ [6]

How? New ethics is necessary since we are facing a completely new global situation and risks: usual virtues and fair behaviours could be not enough. It has to be an imperative of responsibility towards nature and the future: [7] like never before, Homo Sapiens has to think of a distant future.

In order to accomplish the enormous task of spreading and letting people accept the imperative of responsibility, collective forces and politics will play a major role. Nonetheless, every individual has to be aware of it and let actions and intentions coincide; this means that ethics – the regulation of acts – and aesthetics – the perceptible values as the product of acts – have to be considered complementary aspects of one and the same realm: the realm of nature.

If the individual is an architect, what is the product of his/her acts? Architecture. How does the architecture of responsibility have to look like? How to display its underlying ethical meaning? At the outset we have to expose the meaning of sustainability since the architecture of responsibility is necessarily sustainable (in this specific regard, see the article: Architecture as Place of Sustainability). Sustainability is a threefold concept related to economy, society and the environment. [8] The architecture of responsibility is about each one, therefore it is beyond the exclusive limits of environmental sustainability, which is too often merely identified with energy savings and the consequent reduction of carbon dioxide emissions. Of course, this is praiseworthy and necessary, but we have to globally compare the life of a building and its functioning to the virtuous ecological cycles and flows of energy and material resources through the environment. Again we have to fully explore the physical and biological integration between buildings and natural organisms – plants and animals: hence,  it should be a visible bio-integration, other than perceptible with all the senses. More generally, we have to inquiry into the relation between design and nature – we should design with nature –[9] reconsidering our relationship with space, landscape, place and the material substrate (i.e. ‘matter’ – either natural and artificial) that constitutes any place or location. [10] Comparative issues between biophilic attitudes and design, research subjects such as bio-mimicry, which drives to biologically inspired technologies, need to be carefully explored; again, we need to explore the possibilities to put into design practice the learning we can get from natural processes and forms, which are very promising possibilities. This is history’s bifurcation for architects: both ethics and aesthetics.

As it happened in the past with the role of the polis for the development of Western culture and its associated social and cultural values that changed the whole world, now the role of cities will be basic in order to spread the message of sustainability: here, both aspects of Biophilia [11] and Technophilia, so deeply rooted within the human mind, should be used as the guiding principles to reach for benign and seamless coevolution of human technoecosystems and natural ecosystems. [12]

Image 1:  Badel Block Redevelopment, Zagreb (HR), 2012, competition project – model (Alessandro Calvi Rollino Architetto, in collaboration with Ecologist Ivana Vojnic Rogic).
Image 2:  Badel Block Redevelopment, Zagreb (HR), 2012, competition project – render (Alessandro Calvi Rollino Architetto, in collaboration with Ecologist Ivana Vojnic Rogic).
Image 3:  Badel Block Redevelopment, Zagreb (HR), 2012, competition project – render (Alessandro Calvi Rollino Architetto, in collaboration with Ecologist Ivana Vojnic Rogic).
Image 4:  Badel Block Redevelopment, Zagreb (HR), 2012, competition project – Location plan (Alessandro Calvi Rollino Architetto, in collaboration with Ecologist Ivana Vojnic Rogic).


[1] This brief post, which, with minor changes for the present release, retrieves the proposal I made on the occasion of a conference call on architecture and the environment launched by ISPA in 2012, was conceived on the background of my research on the originary issues that  promoted the diffusion of a new sensibility towards the environmental question (I have dealt with this issue in the article ‘The Place of Sustainability’). I hinted at one of those issues with the reference to ‘our common future’, which is the name of the homonymous report of the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), released in 1987, which was a milestone for the environmental agenda of many Countries.

[2] H. Jonas, Dem bösen ende näher , Der Spiegel n°20, 1992. I have read the Italian version of the interview in: Jonas, Sull’ Orlo dell’ Abisso: Conversazioni sul Rapporto tra Uomo e Natura, edited by Paolo Becchi (Torino: Einaudi, 2000).

[3] This theme concerning the development of the market economy in abstraction from social community and biophysical interdependence is also developed in: E. Daly and J.B. Cobb Jr., For the Common Good (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994), p. 37.

[4] Concerning the elaboration of the notion of Nature as ‘phusis’ , and the dualisms that resulted (at the inception, the metaphysical dualism between ‘logos’ and ‘phusis’, on the base of which the dualism between man and nature followed), see M. Heidegger’s Introduction to Metaphysic (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), especially Chapter 1, where the definition of ‘phusis’ and its understanding as nature is given, and Chapter 4 – paragraph ‘Being and Thinking’.

[5] As regards the meaning of ‘coevolution’ in this specific context, see the work of the American biologist John Cairns jr., especially: Global Coevolution of Natural Systems and Human Society,  in Revista de la Sociedad Mexicana de Historia Natural n°47, 1997. Here, the link to the website of Professor Emeritus John Cairns, Jr.

I have used the strong biblical image of the ‘Leviathan’, to recall another type of contract – this time a social contract between human beings – exposed by Thomas Hobbes in his 1651 book Leviathan or the Matter, Forme and Power of a Commonwealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil. In my vision and auspices, as in the auspices of many scholars sensitive to the environmental question, any type of social contract cannot exist beyond the validity of a more cogent natural contract between man and nature (see note 6, below).

[6] M. Serres, The Natural Contract  (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1995), 34.

[7] H. Jonas, The Imperative of Responsibility: in Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984).

[8] R. Goodland, The Concept of Environmental Sustainability,  Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, Vol. 26, 1995.

[9] the reference ‘design with nature’ is about a milestone book for landscape architects, which should now be taken as an asset for any person interested in the relation between nature and the built environment – architects, planners, designers, politicians, etc. The book is: Ian L. McHarg, Design with Nature (Philadelphia: The Falcon Press, 1969). This title has also been taken as a reference by Malaysian architect Ken Yeang, a pioneer of ecological design, or eco-architecture, and planning since the early 1970s; Yeang is the author of Designing with Nature: The Ecological Basis for Architectural Design, (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1995). I am highly in debt with both authors.

[10] An example of this kind of total bio-integration between built and natural environment has been developed by the author, in collaboration the Croatian ecologist Ivana Vojnic Rogic, in a project for the redevelopment of a central district in Zagreb, Croatia: Badel Block Redevelopment, Zagreb (see Images 1, 2, 3, 4 above; here, a link to the project).

[11] Concerning the meaning of ‘biophilia’ see: E.O. Wilson, Biophilia (Cambridge:Harvard University Press, 1984).

[12] For further considerations on the meaning of the concept ‘techno-ecosystem’, see Chapter 2 in Z. Naveh, A.S. Lieberman, Landscape Ecology: Theory and Application (New York: Springer-Verlag, 1994).

Works Cited

Cairns, John Jr. ‘Global Coevolution of Natural Systems and Human Society.’ In Revista de la Sociedad Mexicana de Historia Natural, n°47, 1997.

Daly, Herman E., Cobb, John B. Jr. For the Common Good: Redirecting the Economy Toward Community, the Environment, and a Sustainable Future. Boston: Beacon Press, 1994.

Goodland, Robert. ‘The Concept of Environmental Sustainability.’  In Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, Vol. 26, 1995.

Heidegger, Martin. Introduction to Metaphysics, new translation by Gregory Fried and Richard Polt. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.

Jonas, Hans. The Imperative of Responsibility: in Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

—. Sull’ Orlo dell’ Abisso: Conversazioni sul Rapporto tra Uomo e Natura, edited by Paolo Becchi. Torino: Einaudi, Torino, 2000.

McHarg, Ian L. Design with Nature. Philadelphia: The Falcon Press, 1969.

Naveh, Zev,  Lieberman Arthur S. Landscape Ecology: Theory and Application. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1994.

Serres, Michel. The Natural Contract, translated by Elizabeth MacArthur and William Paulson. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1995.

Wilson, Edward O. Biophilia: The Human Bond with Other Species. Cambridge:Harvard University Press, 1984.

Yeang, Ken. Designing with Nature: The Ecological Basis for Architectural Design. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1995.