Running On Empty

A new exhibition considers the lessons of the 1973 oil crisis.

With fuel prices reaching record highs and concern about the planet’s dwindling resources mounting daily, Mirko Zardini, director and curator of the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA), thought the time was ripe to revisit the moment when the reality of an energy crisis first crashed into the public consciousness. The exhibition 1973: Sorry, Out of Gas, on view at the CCA until next April, considers that decade’s oil crisis and the architecture community’s response, which included sig­nificant experiments and research that Zardini fears are now being ignored. “Architectural thinking is very strange,” he says. “These peo­ple were heroes for a few years, and they have been forgotten. I feel that it is intellectually necessary to go back and pay homage to their contributions.” But if the show is in part a celebration of green pioneers like Michael Reynolds and Steve Baer, it is also a warning to contemporary architects enamored with solely technological-driven solutions, and a call for societal changes to combat looming ecological disaster. Metropolis editorial director Paul Makovsky recently spoke with Zardini about the exhibition, the challenges facing sustainability in the future, and why Switzer­land may be the new promised land.

What exactly is the idea behind this exhibition?
We want to say that nothing has changed. When the price of oil decreased in the eighties and nineties, most of us were very pleased to forget the crisis of the seventies. Today we have to confront this political problem again, as well as really analyze the shortage of natural resources. The awareness of environmental degradation was not as high in the seventies as it is today. But, since then, our decisions have become much more difficult politically, socially, and environmentally.

In a certain way we lost the last thirty years, and that is the point of the exhibition. In spite of the contributions of the seventies, when people and groups realized that the energy problem is deeply related to a society’s way of life, we are still attached to technological solutions. To think that the energy crisis will only be solved technologically is very reductive, and that scares me.

How did groups in the seventies understand the problem differently?
The Do-It-Yourself movement, for instance, raised the very important point that there are different levels of intervention, that each of us can get involved politically at different levels of the process. That for me is crucial to our future. With the increasing cost of energy, some argue that it is inevitable that the market will foster technological solutions and alternative sources—but we also need some political decisions supporting these options. We need to evaluate properly, for example, the investment that a country like Germany made in wind and solar energy. In the seventies there was a lot of criticism of the ideal of the American suburb and the car. Is the car sustainable? What are the alternatives? I want the exhibition to raise a lot of questions. Looking back at the contributions of that period, we can start a discussion on how to take advantage of past experiments.

Let’s talk about those experiments. What architectural projects did you revisit?
We looked at all the pioneers—people such as Steve Baer, Michael Jantzen, Michael Reynolds, and Malcolm Wells, who designed and built innovative homes to gain independence from existing energy networks. But I’m really fascinated by the work of groups like the Underground Space Center, at the University of Minnesota; the wind project of Farallones; the Ouroboros; the New Alchemists; and the Centre for Alternative Technology, in Wales. These organizations produced alternative social visions and introduced energy-related issues that considered such problems as food production and waste recycling. They were inserting the problem of energy into a wider spectrum, something we all have to do.

But Steve Baer, a pioneer in the geodesic movement, says those dome houses don’t work. Weren’t some of these groups utopian in their thinking?
Perhaps. But while utopian thinking isn’t often the solution, it always raises good questions. We can learn a lot from the contributions of those years. Energy conservation is still important and can be achieved in a much easier way than the production of alternative energies. There are steps that have already been tried and tested in large-scale operation with national problems. For example, with the energy crisis of the seventies the idea of insulating buildings became a crucial point in the general legislation of Switzerland. It’s not by chance that today Switzerland is experimenting with a very interesting hypothesis, which you could look at as utopian or not.

And what is that hypothesis?
They are trying to develop a 2,000-watt society, whereby each person would cut their rate of energy use to an average of no more than 2,000 watts per year—without lowering their standard of living. It is an interesting paradox that Switzerland, a so-called capitalist financial center, is developing such a form of social control. Even Ivan Illich, who asked whether we are addicted to energy, saw the energy crisis as a very ambiguous political concept. Increasing energy production won’t address the basic question of how much energy we really need.

You conclude your text in the exhibition catalog with a discussion of Irving Kristol’s 1975 essay “The Future Is the Past,” which predicted that the near future from the eighties onward would mirror the recent past.
Unfortunately, Kristol was right in his prediction. It isn’t possible to think we can still afford to prolong existing trends with only minor adjustments. We need some major changes, and that is why we could at least start by retrieving those experiments that a large group of people who thought differently produced over three decades ago, which were once so hastily and thoughtlessly cast aside.

What do you see as the major challenge of sustainability today?
The idea of sustainable development today looks to me like a minor adjustment. I find philosopher Slavoj Žižek’s analysis of contemporary society very interesting, particularly when he says that everybody likes war without the consequences of war. “Sustainable development” is a phrase so ambiguous that it’s very often used in thinking you can keep development and just take away all its negative aspects. I don’t know if that is possible. Frankly, I have no answer, but it sounds to me like an easy way to put our conscience to rest, to think that everything will be easy, that everything will be possible. We can find solutions, but it won’t be easy.

Find out more facts about this story on the Reference Page: November 2007

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