Lately everyone seems to be talking about the significance of sustainable living, the necessity for reducing our average carbon footprint, the importance of recycling, reusing, retrofitting, weatherizing, greening, and purchasing products made of recycled materials… (Notice they did not say do not buy as much, just buy different, but still a lot). Still, many people are very confused. The first question that comes to mind is: “Why is this my business?” After receiving their answer (that humankind is steadily moving towards extinction) their question tends to be: “Why me, I’m too small?” After they realize that they are one of the billions of humans polluting, littering etc., they realize that their contribution is significant enough. Then, the defense mechanism of “I’m gonna be dead by the time this happens” kicks in. However, if it does not, if they consider themselves not disconnected from humanity, then the natural reaction of many is to be concerned and seek ways to help improve the situation.
A few years ago this happened to architects. Not the professional architects of course, but students at various architecture schools. I was one of them. We heard about sustainable architecture, its purpose and its potential, and we were encouraged to jump in and start a new architecture movement for a sustainable future.
As I looked through all the guidelines of what was described as sustainable architecture, I noticed that much of the attention was on using a bunch of methods and materials during the design and construction of the building. What I did not see was guidelines that described how the architecture of our homes and our cities today could keep people from driving everywhere, having four cars per family, using endless plastic bags, replacing trees with pavement, leaving their lights and computers on all night, or buying a million different chemical substances that inevitably end up in our water. Nothing really made sense to me, and it felt like everyone was starting at the wrong place. But what was the right place?
At that point I decided to leave architecture school for a while. I left and returned home to Greece. I had missed my parents, but inside me there was the desire to isolate and reflect on this question, so I took off and went to Mount Athos along with my father. We stayed at a monastery where we always stay, and spent our time fishing and hiking. Between these endeavors, I would sit at the balcony of the dormitory and look at the courtyard of the monastery. I remember realizing that the monks seem to constantly be working. I had been among them before of course, but I had never taken an interest in observing their lifestyle. I also noticed that most of the monks were out working in the fields, and few were in workshops painting pictures (that would later be available for sale), or repairing the many structures of the monastery. I was amazed. This was a society of active, calorie-burning individuals, who produced their own food, walked to work instead of driving as they worked only a few feet away from where they lived, knew enough about pretty much everything at least at a basic level, which allowed them to repair the building, and expressed themselves creatively through artistic and spiritual tasks. Let’s sum up: a) Proximity of live/work/interract places, b) agricultural microeconomy, c) Physically active life, d) spiritual and creative outlets. To these, let me add “sharing” pretty much everything, from machines, to food, to each other’s skills. They also ate together while listening to scriptures.
I must admit, I am not a religious man. I have heard it several times from my grandmothers about my attitude towards religion. I must say, however, that there was something spiritual and beautiful about this small religious community, and when I say “spiritual” I mean so in it’s purest form, the most basic levels of living, where the life of the individual becomes impossible to distinguish from the collective life of the community.
The notion of sharing, living and working locally, helping each other, using and re-reusing equipment and materials, living off the earth and simply burning more calories than we intake, became clear in my mind as the basic guidelines for successful sustainable living. I realized that the secret as far as sustainable architecture is concerned does not lie in the scale of the unit as much, but in the scale of the community. Somehow it seemed impossible all of a sudden to achieve sustainable living in American suburbia. No matter how much we push ourselves to be optimistic about it, suburbs and sustainability do not go together. In essence, the suburbs in the U.S. are based on the opposite principles of what I described above. They are based on a culture of disconnection, of isolation from the street and the neighbors (and sometimes our own family members), fragmentation of life, lack of proximity, lack of integration of functions (what Jacobs described as eyes on the street – storekeepers keeping an eye on children playing on the streets – is missing), and most importantly, lack of sharing and Absolute reliance on the car, which means a) pollution (Hybrids included), b) sitting down for an extra two hours each day.
Considering how vast the “problem” (and to me it IS a problem) of the suburbs is, it is hard to ever imagine us in the Megalopolis transforming life for the better… Unless there is a return to the cities, and unless the suburbs slowly transform into actual communities like the one I described above, and unless the people realize that the essence and the only solution to returning to sustainability is in the building of communities, not the building of barriers, which so much of suburban sprawl is about. After we reach these realizations, and after we figure out how to deal with the suburbs, we can Start playing with composting toilets, recycled drywall and all the other techniques and materials that sustainable architecture proposes. Until then, we will still be sitting on a ticking bomb.
I keep photographs of the monastery and often look at them. Some call these monks anachronistic. I call their community “sustainable”, and call on us to use it as a model for the design of our own communities.