The Paradox of Sustainable Architecture: Durability and Transience

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  • To convey the might and prestige of their empire, the Romans constructed enduring architecture as symbols of their long-lasting reign.
  • Emperors employed grand public works as assertions of their status and reputation.
  • Conversely, Japanese architecture has long embraced ideas of change and renewal, evident in the ritualistic rebuilding of Shinto shrines.
  • A practice, known as shikinen sengu, is observed at Ise Jingu, where the shrine is purposefully dismantled and reconstructed every twenty years.
  • Across the world, philosophies around permanence and impermanence pervaded architectural traditions.
  • Amidst the climate crisis, how do these tenets apply to modern architectural design?

Contemporaries continue to create structures as symbols of power, prominence, and pride. Olympic stadiums, for example, represent a country’s ability to host global events and leave behind iconic landmarks. These structures often render obsolete once the events conclude, raising concerns about their long-term viability and sustainability. For instance, the Bird’s Nest Stadium in Beijing, despite its initial grandeur, struggles to attract consistent usage and generate revenue. Similarly, the construction of the Athens Olympic Complex of 2004 and the Montreal Olympic Stadium of 1976 have burdened future generations with high maintenance costs once the buildings were no longer in use.

Ruins at the Colossium, Rome. Image credit: Mathew Schwartz

The modern architectural practice operates within a consumer society that seemingly embraces “planned obsolescence”. The prevailing belief is that buildings must be continually updated or demolished to make room for new constructions. Just as with the Olympic stadiums, traditional shopping malls have been made irrelevant with large-scale societal shifts like the rise of online shopping and changing consumer preferences. Architects and designers now face the challenge of reimagining spaces to remain relevant in a rapidly evolving world. Adjusting to varying needs and shifting societal behaviors is crucial for contemporary practices.

With an aim to create adaptable structures that could evolve according to societal needs, the architecture of the Japanese Metabolist movement structurally acknowledged that Japanese cities were in a constant state of growth. Inspired by the fusion of architectural megastructures and organic biological growth, the movement sought to create dynamic buildings that would “metabolize” to meet expected future needs. However, a significant oversight was the failure to anticipate that the movement itself would eventually become outdated.

The Nakagin Capsule Tower in Tokyo, designed by Kisho Kurokawa, is an example of ambitious Metabolist architecture. The tower was conceived as a modular system, with individual pods capable of adapting to different uses and being moved in and out of a central core structure. Despite its innovative design, the building ultimately failed to live up to its promise of transformability in response to evolving societal needs.

Nakagin Capsule Tower. Image credit: Arcspace

Following suit, ephemeral architecture emerged as a response to the fast-paced nature of our contemporary world. It focuses on creating structures and spaces designed for a limited lifespan, ranging from hours to a few years. This architectural approach has gained significance as it offers flexibility and adaptability. By embracing impermanence, resources are utilized efficiently, and structures can be easily dismantled and repurposed.

The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival offers immersive experiences through temporary structures, however, it has been subject to criticism for its environmental impact. The construction and dismantling of these structures often require substantial resources and generate significant waste. Issues such as the use of non-recyclable materials and excessive energy consumption have raised concerns about the sustainability practices of these events.

Mpavillion Studio All. Image credit: John Gollings

Advancements in technology have ushered in a culture defined by accelerated trends and immediate gratification. What naturally follows in a capitalist society are issues of disposability and obsolescence. Architects are faced with the challenge of designing for a future that is ever-changing and increasingly complex to predict. Balancing the desire for architectural permanence and cultural preservation with the need to adapt and evolve becomes a crucial question in shaping the architecture of the future. How can architects navigate this landscape of uncertainty and embrace the inevitability of societal progress and change?

As we face the future with a sense of urgency, driven by global time horizons like the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the architecture community grapples with questions on the approach needed to address the ecological crisis. Sustainable architecture is an evolving discipline, continuously reshaping its meaning. By definition, the term “sustainable” explicitly indicates durability and longevity, suggesting that green architecture should be everlasting. However, it is also closely associated with ideas of minimal environmental impact, implying that sustainable architecture should be transient, evolving, and “light”.

The Beijing National Stadium, better known as the “Bird’s Nest”. Image credit:

This paradox within the definition of sustainable architecture demands exploration and introspection. Is sustainable architecture meant to be permanent or impermanent? Is there a way to strike a balance between these seemingly conflicting characteristics? Ultimately, the pursuit of sustainable architecture must navigate this dichotomy by embracing both longevity and adaptability, creating a built environment that is truly sustainable for the future.


This article was first published in ArchDaily and is republished with permission.



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