As published in Radical Philosophy 163
In recent years, architects have found themselves increasingly commissioned to design entire new cities: a phenomenon that has been accompanied by a commitment to those terms of ‘sustainability’ which now seems inseparable from the urban project itself. While ‘sustainability’ remains a vague concept at best, it nonetheless presents itself with an urgency similar to that which galvanized many of the great movements of modern architecture vis-à-vis the city. And as in these movements, underlying such urgency is a rhetorical reference to collective fear of some palpable sort, whether it be fear of revolution (Le Corbusier in the 1920s), fear of cultural tabula rasa (Jane Jacobs and Team X in the 1950s and ‘60s) or our new fear: ecological collapse (‘green architecture’).
It is obvious that the myriad ‘eco-city’ projects popping up all around the world would not be viable if not for the fact that they appear against a background of immanent ecological catastrophe—a condition of terrifying proportions—and clearly the rhetoric of sustainability is driven by such fear. Yet upon closer inspection the precise essence of this fear is far from clear. Indeed, in light of ecological catastrophe, and amidst any fetish for windmills or vegetation, architects have cultivated what seems to be a curious nostalgia for the present—a pragmatism whose lack of patience for the past seeks a kind of reconstitution of the present in imagining any future. To understand this impulse, and the fear that lies at the core of today’s urban project—the ‘eco-city’—it seems appropriate to interrogate the architectural rhetoric and forms of representation used to animate it.