Friday, May 13, 2011

infrastructure and abundance

Rome has the world’s most picturesque plumbing. The constant flow of water from the city’s numerous fountains celebrates the surplus reaching the city from distant points through the region’s extraordinary system of aqueducts. Like religious offerings, these prolific fountains celebrate abundance by sacrificing a portion of the surplus publicly. These excessive displays are literally displays of excess.

The fountains have also served a political role for millennia. The Roman nobility and emperors who completed aqueducts commemorated their feats with monumental fountains, and the popes of the Renaissance and Baroque followed suit. In each case, the fountain proclaimed the responsible party’s benevolence to the city – the water that came from the aqueducts made whole districts habitable – and supported their claims to consensual rule.

Every society has its equivalent celebrations of abundance, its sacrifices of surplus as signs of fecundity and prosperity. The problem comes when such displays are no longer sustainable. The American muscle cars of the 1960s (as many as four cylinders for every seat!) drank copious amounts of gasoline because, frankly, we had copious amounts to be drunk, and the disastrous environmental effects of petroleum consumption were not yet understood. Before 1973, this could be appreciated as an affirmation of prosperity, abundance and technological sophistication. Now, it seems inappropriately decadent, and rooted in technological backwardness.

The environmental turn in architecture and urbanism will probably generate its own excessive displays of abundance. Like a lot of architects, we’ve been giddy with the idea of covering our roofs and walls with vegetation, as if growing gardens on every building surface could ward off the specter of our continuing consumption of unrenewable resources underneath. As if covering the building with green could guarantee it being Green. The question for us is what kind of bounty architecture should now celebrate.

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