Geography and Architecture

Geography and Architecture was the title of Prof. Peter Kraftl's talk at this month's joint meeting of the Civic Society with the Royal Geographical Society. A geographer himself, he fascinated a packed audience with his explanation of why geographers study architecture or, as he explained, the art of place making. For him, buildings are a key cipher for helping us to understand a number of themes which are relevant to the contemporary world; from climate change to education and from consumerism to city planning.

Peter explained that unbeknown to us, buildings, of our own construction, frame our everyday lives. We don't think about them, yet they influence our daily activities and as communities our social interactions. Often, they act as totems for social or political attitudes. The Millenium Dome in London, for example, was used by protagonists to represent both a dreadful waste of money and a positive image of a progressive future. So how do geographers study buildings? Firstly, they seek to place building styles in a cultural context. Thinking about the USA, the historic building styles range from Spanish adobe and French Colonial to New England, based upon the areas' varied historic cultural backgrounds and climates. The variations in style ensured that the buildings were all fit for purpose. In short, buildings can tell us a lot about the people who constructed them. This point was all the more telling when Peter turned to Las Vegas. Here, the "Strip" is in effect a temple to consumerism, its buildings reflecting retail and gambling pleasure; a fantasy land which is aggressively marketed. Perhaps this is an extreme example, but our own shopping malls reflect this principle in a more subdued manner. Often, especially in the USA, the building itself becomes the advertisement!

With these thoughts kept in mind, Peter moved on to talk about buildings creating atmospheres through design. New Labour's secondary school building programme sought to create places that were inspiring to communities. They aimed not only to be schools, but were the centres of community regeneration. This was done by designing school buildings which promoted a positive sense of feeling. At the other extreme, he showed pictures of a small alternative education building designed for younger children. Hobbitt-like, it was grass roofed and divided into small, cosy rooms for homely activities, thus seeking to nurture learning in a safe and positive atmosphere.

Peter moved on to talk about tall buildings. Why so big? How do we interpret this? He suggested that size might be related to other criteria, not just physical "bigness". The size of the company occupying the building, for instance, might have demanded a large statement building. He was also interested in the social outcomes for large high rise buildings. In Singapore, most residents live in government-owned high rise blocks, since space is at a premium. High rise living is seen not only as socially acceptable but even sought after. Brazil has constructed many high rise blocks to rehouse residents of the city slums. Again, this has been seen as a positive act. However, in the UK, there's an ambivalence towards high rise. In London, high rise has been seen in some areas as much sought after; in others, a social blight. We have demolished many public sector high rise blocks as social failures. The answer is complex and depends on a balance of social, cultural and physical factors, which in the UK we have failed to understand.

Peter concluded by touching upon that overworked word "sustainability". He implored us not to be fooled by the assertion that buildings are sustainable. Buildings leave one of the largest carbon footprints on the planet, generating 50% of all carbon emissions. This comes from the energy expended in the digging up raw materials, their conversion to building materials and the associated energy and transport costs. The principle of sustainability works better when looking at decisions on the grouping and location of buildings, whether in small clusters or settlements.

Even the most sustainable building will be less sustainable if its isolated location generates excessive travelling to access services. The extreme example he showed us was of the Earth Ships in New Mexico. Constructed of recycled materials, and in themselves very sustainable, their residents have sought an isolated area for seclusion; so generating excessive travel costs. Back home, we finished by looking back at past sustainable housing successes; Bournville, Welwyn Garden City and Letchworth. They are still promoted as examples of "good physical and social planning". One wonders if our own Darwin Park development will be thus revered in years to come. Have we learned from past mistakes and taken on board the best of what has gone before? Peter certainly left us with much to think about.

Roger Hockney
April 2016