Sustainability. The magic ingredient that added to any project makes it more palatable, or is intended to do so. However, even when we talk about sustainability, certain categories of sustainability seem to trump all the others, betraying the deep bias in our post enlightenment society. The first category that is implied is economic sustainability, especially when we talk of the politics of countries with regards to their debt, or with projects that are meant to ‘pay for themselves’ in the long term, like for example the justification for charging tickets for London’s proposed Garden Bridge. The second category is environmental sustainability, often invoked by architects and developers to justify their building projects as in line with the acceptable norms of CO2 emissions. Then there is social sustainability, that focuses on working directly with communities and civil societies to identify what projects will be socially sustainable. But there is a fourth category that is being overlooked and that although it has been knocking at the doors of the discourse of the building industry for decades has still not achieved the widespread currency of other sustainability categories, this is the category of ‘cultural sustainability’.
In fact, this category has presented itself to those who follow architectural debates in many different guises, through other words and topics that have entered and then quickly exited the transient intellectual trends within the architectural profession, possibly because they were not held together by one single wider category as is proposed here. We have called cultural sustainability with the following words: genius loci, historical sense, context, townscape, place, character, critical regionalism. All of these, are none other than different yet interconnected branches of cultural sustainability.
I welcome a broader introduction of this category within architectural discourse and hope it will become as important and relevant as economic, environmental and social sustainability are today.
The impetus for this work came from seven years of teaching a Diploma Unit in collaboration with Rik Nys at London Metropolitan University. Many of these ideas have been explored together with Rik and our students, in a group of study under the banner of the postgraduate Unit 2, now carried by other tutors at what is now The Sir John Cass Faculty of Art, Architecture and Design.
Sustainability: A Cultural History