Architecture & Society

The regenerative approach to model an integrated urban-building evaluation method


In this paper we focus on crucial issues concerning the effectiveness of evaluation of sustainability in the built environment. The paper argues that we need to rethink the evaluation of urban-building sustainability from an integrative perspective. It advances a theoretical and methodological model based on the regenerative approach, which opens up a new way to deal with the sustainability of the built environment. An enlarged definition of urban metabolism is used to carry out the integrated evaluation.

Central in it is the concept of reliability, which expresses the ability of products and processes in the built environment to be adaptive, resilient and regenerative. We use reliability in a transversal manner through the process of making the built environment sustainable, referring it both to buildings and the regenerative process triggered by sustainable actions addressed to buildings. Holistic indicators allow assessing it quantitatively or qualitatively.

Through reliability we bring regenerative thinking from a theoretical to an operational level. When referred to buildings, reliability allows considering sustainable performances not usually assessed in current evaluations. When referred to processes, it helps to understand directions of change in relation to sustainability of the built environment. Our method can be easily associated to current evaluation systems exceeding their boundaries.

1. Introduction

During last centuries, the increase in knowledge and the associated technological advancements have determined an evolution of human societies superimposed on nature, with the results of jeopardizing natural systems. Becoming aware of natural resource depletion and environmental pollution is at the basis of the need to draw attention to a sustainable development, as defined in the Bruntland Report (WCED, 1987). This is considered a starting point of a major concern for the natural environment, which has to be interrelated with social and economic development, inter and intra generationally. Then, in recent years, the sustainability paradigm has been the leading guide for development at any scale of thought and action, pervading policies as well as practices of intervention in any field of application (Hecht et al., 2012).

The built environment is the most significant field of action for several reasons, both quantitative and qualitative: it uses natural resources and impacts the natural environment in a very relevant manner; it constitutes the socio-cultural identity of a place; it expresses the economic capacity of a society. Therefore the built environment has increasingly become the test bed of policies and practices of sustainability, the terrain for experimenting sustainable paths of governance and design so that buildings and cities have been focused subjects of interest and experimentation (Lewis et al., 2013) and sustainable buildings and cities the output of such commitment.

Now, after more than 25 years of investments in sustainability, the question is whether sustainable development is indeed sustainable (Blowers et al., 2012). The answer is arguable: it could be almost positive, if we refer to sustainability as the paradigm originating from the sustainable development definition above cited; it could be rather negative if we refer to sustainability as the ability to re-establish cooperation between the natural and the human worlds for a mutual beneficial development. The central difference resides in the approach used, which at the end defines a substantially different goal: in the first case, the sustainable development approach is aimed at reducing the natural resource depletion and the environmental impacts; in the second case, the approach is regenerative, i.e. aimed at reversing the present and persistent trend of consumption for regenerating the natural environment, indispensable for the human life (Cole, 2012a).

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Architecture and Society: The Major Linkages

Ismail Seragelclin 

The Most Social of the Arts? There is no art form that is as completely intertwined with a particular society as its architectural expression: for it is art that is physically rooted in the geographic location of that society. For the members of that society — and this is to no way deny that the society may be far from an integrated entity — it reflects both their aspirations, their artistic sensibility, and their economic wealth; the level of advancement of their technology; the elements of climate and topogra­ phy, and the structure of their social organisation. Not only does the architecture of any people physically express all this, being the net result of all the contradictions that society embodies, but is also helps shape the vision of the society of itself. It is both a mirror of that society's activities and an instrument shaping its identity.

Within this context, however, it is not clear to what extent the architectural profession, per se, is responsible for moulding taste, or merely for carrying it out. As Allsopp has stated: "The failure of modem architecture in recent years is only partly the fault of architects. The main burden of blame for inhumane architecture must rest upon clients who have failed to educate themselves for the great responsibilities they undertake" 1. It is for this reason that the AKAA has consciously underlined the collective responsibility of all involved in the proccess of creating a building which is deserv­ing of recognition.

It is undeniable that the taste of the governing elite is likely to dominate the pattern of buildings that give an area its easily identifiable character and that serve as landmarks and as exemplars of what the state's dominant elite promotes. As Oleg Grabar has noted, the form of the cities in the Muslim world was defined by the middle class, while the monuments were defined by the elite.2 This is not to say that artistic expression is totally constrained by societal reality. Without question artists — be they architects, painters or sculptors — play a role in defining, articulating and improving society's perception of itself and its perception of its aesthetic reality. As Hamilton once put it: "The artist, whether his medium is verbal, pictorial, plastic, or musical, is the man equipped with radar to penetrate the cultural fogs of the age."3

However, architects are more constrained than other artists. They have to contend with clients and financing, and they have to contend with the need for their creations to function properly and to meet a rigorous set of codes and restric­ tions. They interact with society much more than other artists, and they cannot function in isolation. Hence, architecture is by far the most closely linked of the arts to the reality of society in its multiplicity of dimensions, be they economic, social, cultural, political, institutional or religious.

Architecture and the "Image of Progress". In the context of the architecture of the Muslim world, I would like to emphasise that a central part of the problem which we confront in our Muslim culture today is that most of the ruling elites of our societies have gone through a process of disassociation from their cultural roots. This has led to the dichotomisation of cultural perception, where the historic heritage — cultural, religious, spiritual — is identified with the past, backwardness and poverty, while the image of "progress" is borrowed from elsewhere, namely the West.

Unless and until architects and intellectuals generally succeed in providing the ruling elites of Muslim societies with an alternative image of progress, they will continue to pay lip service to the need for cultural authenticity while their actions will speak more loudly than their words as they hurry to adopt the most superficial aspects of Western culture.

Architecture and Changing Cultural Identity. As we have seen, the architect is responsible, by the variety of activities that he or she undertakes, for the definition or "image of progress" that a society, or at least its elite, holds of itself. The physical expression of that society today in most Third World countries is closely identified with the Manhattan skyline, and leaves little room for a more articulated and sensitive response that is more respectful of cultural continuity and more responsive to climatic and site requirements. Unless architects can successfully convince the elites of their societies to replace their imported image of progress with a more coherent and effective one, there is going to be little chance to reverse that widespread degradation of the urbanistic character and architectural expression that is so prevalent throughout the Muslim world and more generally the Third World. The task of defining such an alternative reality for a contemporary image of progress in the Third World, of which the Muslim world is a part, is not an easy one. The designers who will cope with that task have to convince the "disassociated" de- cision-makers and the commercial elite of their societies of the superiority of the al­ternative that they present, to the imported model. Only if this task can be done will the secondary effects of this new indigenous alternative reality be achieved. Namely, that the architectural expression of the whole society will be gradually affected. The lower middle classes aspire to have residences and to work in places that are comparable to those of the upper middle classes, and the upper middle classes to have residences and to work in places that are comparable to those of the prevailing elite. By changing the architecture of the elite, architects can indeed change the perception of large segments of society as to what is desirable as an expression of modernity and of social status.

It is unlikely that architects will be able to do this alone. A wide variety of disciplines have to interact in order to ensure that the visionary efforts of imagina­tive, sensitive architects are not left in isolation, but that the intellectual underpin­nings that deal with abstractions and ideas, as well as with the social, economic and institutional realities of any societal system, are coherent and pull in the same direction. Without that, inherent tension is likely to continue and ruptures of a cultural and intellectual kind, at the very least, are bound to continue. 4 Architec­ture and urban planning will suffer in their inability to fulfill their assigned and noble mission of being the agents of progress rather than the servants of an elite. 

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