The machine is broken: thus states the title of Bjørn Berge’s 2011 Arkitektur article responding to contemporaneous changes in Norwegian building code. He expands to argue against the increasingly significant and compulsory place of technology within the built environment and the corresponding incidence of building users’ alienation, not just from the external world, but from experiencing their internal environment.
Berge is far from alone in his assertion. Emerson and Thoreau, writing during the industrial revolution, both cautioned against the ill-effects of rapid mechanisation and humanity’s sudden, wrenching divorce from nature: many recent studies validate their claims. It is a theme that has continued to fascinate and shock as more and more agricultural, industrial and social processes were first mechanised, lately digitised, but ultimately all commoditised. As people were increasingly transformed from active participants, growing their own foods and making their own clothes, to agents of pure consumption, more than the physical connection with nature was lost. Humanity moved from an age of personally defining our subjectivities based on lived experience to one in which even these were commodities constructed and controlled by what Guattari labels ‘Integrated World Capitalism.’
The consequences of globalisation and increased rates of consumption across the globe continued to place stress on resources and force producers to seek increased efficiency: in agriculture, this was borne out through greater mechanisation, the growth of monocultures and reliance on chemicals for fertilisers, herbicides, pesticides and so forth. Famously, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) rallied against the indiscriminate use of pesticides and the ecological destruction it wrought. Similarly high-profile, Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (2006) documented the disastrous potential of global warming due to anthropogenic carbon emissions driven by increased consumption in all sectors: nearly a decade later, we remain on target to exceed the ‘carbon budget’ to keep global warming within ‘safe’ limits.
My thesis worked from a scale of 1:250,000 to 1:20 to address some of the above issues at a community scale and provide one potential model for sustainable development. The area considered was the Somerset Levels, agriculturally significant and at an increasing risk of inundation and economic ruin due to shifting weather patterns. Torrential rains in the winter of 2013-2014 left 115km2 drowned from January until mid-March with 150 homes flooded and whole communities isolated. Since these events, assessments made by DEFRA and FLAG both recommended programmes of afforestation and reforestation in the catchment to detain stormwater and prevent the rivers overflowing.
My project built upon the assumption that such recommendations would, of course, be implemented and afforestation occur. Viewing forests as a valuable natural resource for livestock, construction and communities, my proposal for a Centre for Natural Building was to complement the strategy. A visitor centre and educational facility for the newly forested catchment of the Levels, it would promote engagement with nature and educate people in the use of locally harvested building materials – timber, straw and reed – working to lower embodied energy and carbon emissions in the built environment.