2011 AIA Convention: Hot, Flat, and Out of Control

Courtesy AIA

In his travels, New York Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman has sometimes been stunned to see the speed at which new Manhattan-like skylines are sprouting up around the world, to accommodate escalating urban populations and the desires of a rising middle class. When he visited Doha, Qatar, once a sleepy fishing village, he saw that an “entire field of skyscrapers — glass and steel, all lit up at night, just like ours, all air-conditioned 24/7, just like ours — had blossomed from the desert floor like wildflowers after a flash flood,” he remarked in a 05.12.11 keynote at the AIA Convention.

That globalization and homogenization makes the world seem “flat,” he said. Add climate change and an escalating population, and you have a planet that is ever more “hot, flat, and crowded.” Resulting demands on the environment and natural resources are pushing the ecological balance to a tipping point.

America must take the lead in shifting from “situational values” (doing whatever’s most expedient in a given situation) to “sustainable values,” Friedman said. That’s especially true in architecture, here and abroad. Not everyone might believe in global warming, but a “flat and crowded world will be enough to make every architectural firm from Shanghai to London to Kansas City need to and want to be in the green building business,” he declared.

In a keynote the next day, Jeb Brugmann, founding partner of innovation-process consultancy The Next Practice, offered a different spin on the role of architecture in a time of environmental crisis. For him, the world isn’t flat but instead is “increasingly customized,” since cities are looking to their own unique, underutilized assets to find ways to boost their resources and their livability. (In NYC, the High Line comes to mind.)

These days, sustainable design is critical not just for individual buildings, but on a metropolitan scale, according to Brugmann. This is a practical imperative, since over the next four decades, the global urban population will shoot up by 80% (an additional 2.8 billion people), he explained.

One sign of the times is “the development of an entirely new genre of master-plan development, the eco-district, where we’re not only optimizing the building… we’re optimizing the city as a place that produces resources,” he said. Ideally, instead of being a drain on a region’s resources, cities “actually in the future will provide a net contribution of energy and perhaps even nutrients to the broader regional area.”