Image credit: ManTownHuman
"We, in ManTownHuman, believe that a more critical, arrogant and future-oriented cadre of architects and designers can challenge the new eco-centred, bureaucratic, anti-intellectual, fragmentary, localising consensus and in this way can lay the ground rules for overcoming the cosy rut in which architecture now finds itself."
Every now and then a subject for a post comes along that is so wrong headed that I struggle with whether I should fan the flames of publicity, or leave it well alone. But as the recent spate of climate conspiracy paranoia (and again, I am not talking about legitimate concerns over certain scientists behavior) shows, bad ideas have a habit of spreading—whether we talk about them or not. I fear that the ManTownHuman manifesto might be just such an idea. I first heard about this document via Rob Hopkins over at TransitionCulture, who wrote about a debate on Transition Towns that featured himself and Alastair Brown of ManTownHuman, in which Brown aparently suggested that "real resilience comes from expanding the human footprint." I first wondered whether Rob might be overreacting a trifle. After all, while Alex Steffen's writing about the Darker Side of Transition Towns may have mischaracterized Transition Towners as overly technophobic, he did have a point that it's important not to focus solely on limits and restrictions. Optimism and ambition must have a place in our quest for a truly sustainable future.
But reading through the ManTownHuman manifesto, it's easy to see that this is an entirely different beast. A beast born of the same kind of arrogance that leads folks to assume that human progress can be prioritized without any regard to its dependence on the natural world around us. The manifesto essentially claims that architecture is being held hostage by Government-imposed (and self-imposed) values of restriction, caution and sustainability, and suggests that a new found sense of optimism, ambition and, yes, arrogance could free the discipline from its apparent malaise.
It's hard to know where to start with what's wrong with this document. But in the end it all comes down to the myth that we, both as individuals and as a society, can somehow do as we please without any heed to the consequences:
"Architects now feel morally justified in interfering in personal choices and boast of the need to change peoples' behaviour. In reality, citizens' private lives and personal choices, however nonconformist - should be their own business."
On the face of it, such appeals to freedom are appealing to many. But when you scratch beneath the surface they sound like the cries of a willful toddler. It is impossible to pursue individual freedoms without effecting or impacting on the freedoms of others—either positively or negatively. Similarly, it is impossible to 'exploit' (and I am using ManTownHuman's own deliberately provocative wording here) the natural world without effecting other people's ability to do the same. And in the end it is impossible not to interfere in personal choices or change peoples' behavior—the unsustainable architect does it just as much as the sustainable architect.
If you build a car-dependent city, you create a car-dependent culture. If you create an energy guzzling building, you manipulate human behavior to encourage energy guzzling humans. In fact, The ManTownHuman manifesto explicitly calls for architects to "impose
humanity's vision on the world around us", as if humanity has one vision or one voice. Any such movement would invariably interfere with my personal choices for one, and not in a way that I relish.
Nothing exists in a vacuum - whether it's economics, architecture or an individual's chosen lifestyle. Good architecture needs to be open-minded and forward thinking, yes, but it also needs to recognize and adapt to the context within which it operates. Manifestos like this one may make for great rallying cries for the bigger-is-better crowd, but ultimately they rely on an absolute impossibility—that resources are limitless, and that each of us is free to do exactly as he or she pleases.