Vassilis Sgoutas, UIA Honorary President
Main objectives of the project
What type of affordable housing can the planet afford?
When I was 18 years old, in Cape Town, I was given a banned book entitled “From Malthus to Mao Tse Tung”. Ever since that day, Malthusian theories about the overpopulation of the planet have haunted me. And they do so ever more today.
But what does the continuing unabated increase of the world’s population entail for us architects?
All these new arrivals on the planet will need spaces in which to live. Add to that the hard surfaces of all kinds – roads and other infrastructure, and then the picture will be complete.
A few words about space
In Tiziana Panizza’s eye-opening “Book on Urban Thinking” there is a quote from Eero Saarinen: “In order to live we need space in which to live”. This sounds like a platitude. But it is not. Space means land. But although we often talk about the limits of the sea, of the sky, of air, much less often do we talk about the limits of land. But land also has its limits. It is not inexhaustible.
We are reaching the stage when in order to build buildings on virgin land, we will need to give proof that we have demolished a building of equal surface – this would be a sort of quid pro quo. And always remember that the planet needs open land because it needs to breathe.
What then are our future choices? Build with solely the planet in mind, or continue on the present catastrophic for the planet course? If we do not safeguard our free land, what will our future options be? To live on the sea, or even under water? Is that our dream for the future?
However much we make our architecture more environment-friendly, this will never suffice unless we reduce the size of the buildings we design. And also reduce their footprint.
A factor that undeniably leads to the need for more buildings and more housing across the globe is, as I have already said, the continuing increase of the world’s population. But also the exodus from poverty, which is of course welcome, but leads to greater building needs too, and, also, to greater energy consumption and pollution, as we have very dramatically seen in China, where the exodus from poverty has led to a significant increase in pollution. So we need to compensate for all these increases in demand for livable space through the architecture we create – all of our architecture, including affordable housing.
Intelligent ways can and must be found to lessen the overall size of buildings and their footprint, and very particularly their footprint on free and vacant land. Size matters, footprint matters, the balance between built and paved land as juxtaposed to unbuilt and unpaved land matters for the survival of the planet.
For me personally, the most significant lesson has been my own country house. Built on a very large piece of seaside land, it is only 90sq.m. in size, and with only limited external paved areas. It is accessible only on foot through a 120m long footpath starting from where the public road ends.
The biggest vindication for me is that my children and grandchildren do not want it any bigger. So what for me had been an instinctive decision, for them it is already an ingrained belief. And we are all in content, and the planet has been respected.
The reason why this Madrid AHA Forum is so important is that it deals with types of buildings that are repetitive – because housing often is. Housing and repetitive housing can have an influence on climate and on the planet – as long as we downsize these buildings and what goes with them.
One-off signature buildings mean nothing for the planet. They are the wrong architectural role models.
Yes, we need affordable housing and affordable buildings
Affordable for those that build – the state or whoever funds the housing
Affordable for those that finance by themselves
And, most importantly, affordable for the planet
Has the time now come for a different logic, for a logic more compatible with the challenges of climate change? Has the time come for us to build smaller buildings, and to live, us ourselves, a less wasteful in everything life?
And that this smaller footprint be the contribution of each one of us, and also a marker of our sensitivity towards broader values. And a statement that the survival of the planet matters for us.
If this sounds like a plea and entreaty; yes it is.
Let us use this Madrid Forum as an alarm bell about the size of our buildings, the size of infrastructures and the size of our lifestyles.
Let us say “build small, live small”. And let this be our contribution for a more sane use of that precious gift – free and open land.
If, however, we have the impunity to carry on with our present way of building and living, regardless of other considerations, listen to what poet Heinrich Heine once said to his wife:
“Don’t be afraid my dear, God will forgive me, that’s his job.”
In our case will he, should he?
“I don’t think that posterity has the right to forgive”.
This is what Elon Amos said in his book “The pity of it all”.
And how right he was. Posterity does not have the right to forgive.