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Chris Stewart

Collective Architecture's Chris Stewart discusses his overlapping roles as architect and member of the Scottish Ecological Design Association in promoting green design to a wider audience.

Fortnightly Blog 11 - Alienation, Resurrection and the Cult of Sustainability

April 29th, 2014

Can't follow the language, not read the rule book, is it that difficult to understand. Over devotion to cause, life outside a group, us and them. Deal in guilt, talk of saints, stamp out dissent. With the recent passing of the first full moon since the equinox (how we date Easter), now seems a decent time to consider what is a movement when it stands still.

In 1972 Jimmy Reid spoke of alienation as part of his inaugural speech as rector to Glasgow University. A cry for those who are unable to shape their destiny and our common environment: all that is good in our heritage involves the recognition of shared humanity and Jimmy hoped that his generation would move us towards that goal. Published in full by the New York Times and described as the best speech since the Gettysburg address, this was over forty years ago and things have not got much better.

In 2010 Harry Burns presented the Kilbrandon Lecture, recently retired as Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer, Harry was one of those students who sat in the Bute Hall and listened to Jimmy. Visceral and heart felt, those words sunk into his consciousness, but demanded to be proven, measured and ticked off. The brilliance of Burns was to statistically show how Scotland’s poor health can be linked, to our poor control of environment. This was 5 years ago, Burns has proved to us how bad things have really got.

In 2014 Sandy Halliday spoke at SEDA’s Research Conference about the History of Good Ideas. A Mechanical Engineer, Sandy set the context of sustainable development through a comparison between the stress / strain of a material and the environmental melt down of our planet. We were introduced to the elastic region, where deformation is temporary; the plastic region where permanent changes begin to occour; and the completely broken region when any stress or strain will have a catastrophic affect. Taking from the likes of Rachel Carson, Victor Papenek, and Patrick Geddes we were reminded of 12 good ideas to help keep us flexible, ranging from bio diversity through to political decentralisation, nothing new but shockingly simple. The Club of Rome formed in 1968 raised similar thoughts, that was 45 years ago. Sandy spoke yesterday and pointed out that these 12 good ideas have now turned into 12 lost oppotunities.

How do you measure happiness, by measuring unhappiness. Burns has logically shown that the depth of misery in the West of Scotland concentrated in Glasgow’s East End, can be expressed by our mortality. Scotland’s life expectancy from being mid-table, is now the worst in Europe. Blamed on our lifestyle of fags and booze, this does not explain why countries with a greater consumption of these drugs live longer. The difference stems from other factors, in particular the inability to control your environment. No doubt Mr Burns had a more medical agenda but for an architect this link is profound. We have always known that foul environments forced on the many by the few were not good for you and we have always known this is more complicated than we dare to think; but when it comes down to life and death this should be more simple.

Is it a surprise that when housed in something that looks a filing cabinet you feel a bit sick; that the construction industry’s best solution (passivhaus) suggests you are not allowed to open a window and that the ability to use an on / off switch has become increasingly difficult. There has to be a new way to measure sustainability, beyond the limitations of a BREAM tick-box and the art of Post Occupancy Evaluation. Quoting Vitruvius, ‘Firmness, Commodity and Delight’ with an emphasis on delight; Richard Atkins by assessing environmental, social and financial equilibrium in the built environment has shed some light on a way forward. Small gains across a range of interventions can add up to significant overall improvement. We now see numerous grant funded projects where valiant groups struggle for a few thousand pounds to plant a vegetable patch or mentor local children, there was a time when these were real jobs built into our social fabric. For the last 30 years markets have driven economic and social development, the Reid Foundation have put forward an alternative Common Weal where society takes that lead.

In his 1972 address, Jimmy used an anti metaphor, ‘we are not rats in a rat race, we are human’, to point out a basic truth. Religion requires a similar leap of faith, while as animals we are endowed with immense instinct, we know what is right or wrong. Sustainability needs to look beyond it’s sect, become more catholic and set a path towards something new.

'If we suspect a problem we should talk it up not down' Bill Bordas.


Dr Jonathan Charley will discuss 'The Ecology of Disaster' at a joint SEDA and Architecture @131 May Day Green Drinks at Strathclyde University. Check for further details.

To learn more about the Reid Foundation and the Common Weal please visit

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