The Ecological Sensibility: Between Ruskin and Banham

Promotor: Lara Schrijver

Contemporary architecture seems to be increasingly described as sustainable, circular, re-usable, environmentally friendly or carbon hostile, as being recycled, upcycled, downcycled and recycled once more, and coloured in shades of green no one even knew existed. Indeed, most of the words we use to describe architecture today seem to have shifted in a new direction – in the direction of ‘ecology’. Yet, it is not always clear what such ecological notions in architecture mean. The above terms are often used interchangeably, and even in ways that lead to opposite outcomes.

Drawing from contemporary posthuman theory, this dissertation proposes the notion of an ‘ecological sensibility’ to describe this general re-orientation of architectural discourse today. The roots of this developing sensibility are traced back to two defining moments in Western modern history: the Romantic response to industrialization and scientific progress in the nineteenth century, and the rise of environmentalism and techno-optimism in the second half of the twentieth century. To do so, it takes the work of John Ruskin (1819-1900) and Reyner Banham (1922-1988) to navigate the theoretical notions of nature, materiality and technology, around which this ecological sensibility seems to revolve.

As such, this dissertation demonstrates two things. On the one hand, while ecological debates in architecture might appear as something new, the themes of nature, materiality, and technology around which they revolve run deep in modern architectural history. Yet, on the other hand, it also demonstrates how the way we understand these notions does seem to be changing. Throughout much of modernity, these themes have been understood within strict binary oppositions: in short, nature in opposition to the human, the material in opposition to the immaterial, and technology in opposition to the organic.

Today, however, these binary oppositions are actively being questioned and approached from more hybrid perspectives. Tracing these notions throughout modern architecture history, especially in the work of Ruskin and Banham, it becomes clear that the modern binaries through which they were framed were perhaps always already untenable, and that things have always been entangled with each other. The questions with which Ruskin and Banham struggled as well as their peers, remind us of the impossibility of holding on to the modern insistence on such strict binaries. Instead, a contemporary ecological sensibility revolves around the hybridization of these themes. What emerges from this is a politics of vitality that might illuminate our contemporary struggle with the environmental crisis.

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