Building in a new world

7 min read

To create architecture, we must anticipate the future. We must identify and solve both current and future problems regarding building, living and working; the organisation and design of our cities; our infrastructure and how the world built by humans interacts with nature. To create architecture, we must today design the buildings of tomorrow that will be people’s homes the day after that. This work requires wide-ranging skills and insight. In particular, it requires us to imagine a concept, a vision, of the future.

In 1992, Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the end of history and with it the end of the future as a quest for utopias. Anyone who took a moment to consider this theory soon realised that Fukuyama’s dictum was a fallacy. Today, we know that we require a completely new relationship with the future. If we continue as we have been doing, then it is clear that this will end in a man-made catastrophe, whose extent is already visible on the horizon. We need a new narrative for the future in the sense of a shared objective, embedded in a global set of values.

Prof. Werner Sobek (born in 1953 in Aalen, Germany)

Joint action for a liveable future

Continuing population growth and the immense pent-up demand in the Global South for education, health and prosperity mean that things simply cannot go on as they always have done. Add to this the emerging consequences of global warming - from failed harvests and famines to the resulting mass migration. Parallel to this, the number and complexity of our problems have become too large to be solved by one single nation or alliance of several nations. The entire global community must take concerted joint action and focus on problem solving. Self-interest should no longer be allowed to dominate the agenda. Priority must now be given to finding shared solutions to shared problems.

These range from stabilising permafrost soil in northern Siberia to addressing the problem of refuse in the world’s oceans; from saving ground water reserves in California, Spain and elsewhere to international coordination of tree-planting activities. 

To sum it up in a single phrase: we need international solidarity. Top of our list should be the unconditional recognition of others as human beings with equal dignity, and the restoration and management of nature as the single most important enabler of human life. This is exactly what the last of my 17 Statements, published in 2020, calls for. It reads, Natura mensura est. Nature is the measure of all things. The Enlightenment credos of “I, the subject vs nature, the object” and “I am the opponent of nature” must become “Nature and I are one and the same”.

Paths to sustainable building 

The precepts regarding the preservation of nature as the fundamental basis for humanity’s survival at all costs are completely at odds with the prevailing belief structures in many countries – not only in the Global North. They foresee continuous growth accompanied by maximisation of profits. People in the Global North make continuous demands for ‘more’ and ‘bigger’. If the global community were to follow this lead, then we would need to create another three planets equivalent in size to today’s Earth by 2050 merely to achieve equal prosperity in the field of building. That this would lead to an immediate ecological collapse is self-evident. 

Correspondingly, the building activities of the future must address issues regarding the appropriateness of solutions and environ-mental compatibility. We must change how we build. But how can we bring society’s new shared objectives, a new way of dealing with nature and new building technologies, under one roof? How can we not only come up with new ways of building, but also ensure that they are adopted?

For too long now, we have viewed our future from a personal perspective. Perhaps sometimes from a family-based perspective, but very rarely from a national and almost never from a global perspective. Today, it is becoming ever more apparent that the actions of others (even if they live thousands of kilometres away from us) impact our own living environment and could even destroy it. We have come to realise that there is no concept for creating an accountable relationship between the citizens of the world and the nature that surrounds us.

We must therefore develop a shared vision of the future. It must also include perspectives that are based on scientific findings. On the other hand, as Hans-Georg Gadamer said, we must accept the limits of the great legacy of our scientific culture. If we fail to do this, we will undoubtedly end up killing ourselves.

The challenges of our time 

We must develop this grand narrative now. A narrative that provides us with a coherent framework to understand the world and formulates the implicit guidelines for social coexistence and human interaction with nature.

Peter Sloterdijk has said that the hallmark of humanity is the fact that humans are faced with problems that are too difficult for them to solve, but that they do not have the option of deciding not to address these problems because of their difficulty. It is therefore superfluous to even ask whether it is already too late to develop our vision of the future, our grand narrative. Even if Ernst Bloch is correct in his diagnosis that our society is suffering from utopian malnutrition, or is perhaps even impotent when it comes to anticipation, our only choice is to try!

The project is complex and no-one has a full understanding of all the interrelationships. Nevertheless, progress in the sense of Ernst Bloch’s educated hope is possible. After all, we have a number of benchmarks, or certainties, which we can use as guides to move forward. 

The fields of global population, nutrition, use of resources, waste creation and changes in land use and their interrelationships are key factors in this context. They have all been the subject of detailed scientific research. The next generation (i.e. until 2050) will see the world’s population grow by approximately 25%, while climate change is expected to result in lower levels of food production than we have today. Parallel to this, those of us who are not impoverished will require and con-sume dramatically more resources as we ex-perience greater growth and prosperity. This will, in turn, result in more waste and further changes in land use.

Focus on population growth

The majority of global population growth will be in Africa and Southeast Asia. Africa’s population alone is forecast to increase by around 1.2 billion people by 2050. This is equivalent to some 46 million people per year. Viewed in terms of the building industry, this means that Africa must achieve a construction volume equivalent to current levels in Germany every two years. It is highly unlikely that this will be possible, since resources are limited. There are also other factors, such as shortage of skilled workers to build the many homes, schools and hospitals required by so many people. Planning and organisation of drinking water provision or the disposal of waste water and litter will also be a challenge.

[Translate to englisch:] © Büro Uebele, Stuttgart
[Translate to englisch:] © Büro Uebele, Stuttgart

We must provide these regions with assistance to overcome insufficient budgets and lack of expertise. But we must not do so by transferring our traditional solutions to these parts of the world. Instead, they need our help to develop new, appropriate solutions. The Global South’s greatest opportunity is that it can no longer make the same mistakes as we have. Instead, it can bypass whole chapters in Europe and North America’s history of urbanisation and colonisation. These chapters included building cities designed around cars, using combustion-based systems to provide hot water and removing nature from human living environments.

Living in harmony with nature 

In regions with high population growth, we must successfully build homes for people that enable them to live decent and healthy lives in harmony with nature. If we can achieve this, it could serve as a handbook, as a role model, for the whole world. But this will not be easy, because we must do so without increasing the negative impact of the building industry (which accounts for approx. 60% of resources consumed, more than 50% of all waste created and over 50% of climate-damaging emissions worldwide). We must reduce this impact to a minimum. This will not be possible if we continue to use the conventional building techniques that are common in the Global North. In future our goal must therefore be to construct more buildings for more people but using fewer materials and creating lower emissions.

I estimate that this will require a two-thirds reduction in the current level of building materials used. In other words, the global building activities of the future should require approximately only one third of the materials used today for comparable activities. As regards emissions, net zero must become standard for both grey emissions and also in the usage, renovation and demolition phases.

The building of the future

The building of the future must make efficient use of material and generate no emissions. Our homes will no longer have chimneys, we will use more secondary building materials and all structures will be designed to be fully recyclable. In order to minimise transport-related emissions, materials will be supplied and disposed of locally. We will no longer create waste anywhere along the process chain. Our energy supply will be solely electricity based. 

This will enable us to make great strides on our journey to creating electric cities, which can also be quiet and have clean air. And we will bring nature back to urban areas. For climate reasons, to improve biodiversity and, probably the most important reason, because people demand it.

If, instead of having their own cars, people in the Global South make use of well-organised car-on-demand solutions, then their cities will require only half the roads and parking spaces of those in the Global North. The cities of the future will be characterised by public spaces, be this for urban gardening, playgrounds or many other purposes. They will also be full of trees and green façades, and have attractive areas where residents can spend time together and interact with one another. Perhaps the newly built world of the Global South will have what we have lost in many other places: architecture that makes people feel at home.

Trilogy of Werner Sobek:
non nobis – About Building in the Future (in German)

Volume 1: Ausgehen muss man von dem, was ist.

Volume 2: Die Randbedingungen des Zukünftigen.

Volume 3: Bauen in einer neuen Welt (from autumn 2024)

Portrait Page 26: Rene Mueller

Graphics: Büro Uebele, Stuttgart

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