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Architects of Change

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More than a decade ago, I sat down with the head of the academy of architecture in Pyongyang. The school was housed in a large, drafty building in the center of North Korea’s capital. Students were building models out of cardboard and wood. A few were in front of state-of-the-art desktops using the computer-aided design software that had become indispensible to modern architects. But there was one element missing from the architecture program. North Korean builders paid virtually no attention to energy efficiency.

This seemed odd to me at the time. In 2000, North Korea was still recovering from a major food crisis, which had been precipitated by shortages of energy used to power tractors and produce fertilizer. Its manufacturing sector had also collapsed, and its energy grid was in a perilous state. North Korea didn’t even have enough energy to extract its only source of fossil fuel, coal. During the winter in Pyongyang, everyone wore warm coats inside their offices because there was no heat in the buildings. 

For a regime desperate to conserve energy for its industrial and agricultural sectors, building more energy-efficient structures seemed a no-brainer. And the head of the architecture academy was certainly interested in sending a delegation to the United States to learn more about double glazing and passive solar construction. But someone higher up in the North Korean government did not see the light. So the energy-efficient architecture exchange never went through, and North Korean buildings continued to be too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer.

The flaws in North Korea’s architecture reflected the larger inadequacies of North Korean society: too much emphasis on the monumental, too little concern for individual comfort, and no provisions for environmental sustainability. To reconstruct North Korean society, there was no better place to start than rebuilding North Korean architecture. But reconstruction was not yet in the cards.

In North Korea and elsewhere, architecture provides the language and metaphors of reform. We start with the proper foundation. We consult with the architects of our policy. We draw up careful blueprints. Indeed, architecture and politics have long been entwined, whether in Thomas Jefferson’s commitment to erecting public buildings that reflect American values or in Albert Speer’s translation of Nazi principles into grandiose edifices. It’s no surprise that the Masons – a semi-secret society that ties its creation rather fancifully to the builders of the great pyramids – were at the forefront of revolutions in Europe and, through Masons such as George Washington and Ben Franklin, in America as well.

In literature, too, architects are powerful political symbols. In Ayn Rand’s 1943 bestseller The Fountainhead, Howard Roark is the architect as demi-god, a creator who cares nothing about social responsibility and wants only to build houses for individuals craving solitude. He insists that the architect’s vision cannot be compromised and even destroys his own building when others mar its integrity. Brought to trial for this offense, he gives a final oration that divides the world into creators and parasites, praises the virtues of selfishness, and makes architecture into the supreme act of the ego’s transformation of surrounding nature. It was only a few steps from Howard Roark to Margaret Thatcher and the architects of the neoliberal revolution. 

But aside from the occasional architect-autocrat – Frank Lloyd Wright was famously tyrannical about clients maintaining his houses exactly to specifications – Ayn Rand’s understanding of the profession was as deficient as her knowledge of economics and politics. Architects work through a set of overlapping relationships with clients, construction firms, and public officials (as Tracy Kidder’s book House so concretely demonstrates). Architects are team players. Their creations, even the mansions for the 1 percent, are embedded in the social fabric of utilities, land use, taxation. More ambitiously, architects can be part of grander social schemes.

Consider the latest project from the Open Architecture Challenge. Every other year, the group Architecture for Humanity comes up with a competition for architects to deploy their skills for the common good. This year, the challenge is to come up with alternative uses for military bases. This is not only a serious effort, it’s an urgent one.

“In the United States alone more than 235 military sites are scheduled for closure or realignment,” writes Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) contributor Chris Bystedt in Repurposing Military Bases. “The U.S. military was under orders to downsize 5 percent of its entire infrastructure on or before September 15, 2011 in accordance with the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) ruling. The ruling will force the relocation of more than 125,000 military personnel and their families. It’s not just inside the United States. Dotting the global landscape, decommissioned military installations leave their mark. They are symbols of triumph, pride, pain, and the unforeseen consequences of military aggression. These abandoned structures and ghost towns can disrupt neighborhoods and split entire communities.”

You might think that military bases would be the last place that architects could effect social and environmental change. But in fact architects have already successfully transformed military bases around the world. I visited a base in Banja Luka in Republika Srpska that had become an art school. The Philadelphia naval shipyard has become a hub for sustainable energy projects that has attracted, among other things, a solar panel manufacturer.

Of course, not all architects are going to offer communities with military bases such sensible alternative uses. Like poor Benton Harbor, Michigan – profiled in the recent New York Times Magazine – architects and urban planners may well offer golf courses. They might offer luxury resorts and energy-inefficient McMansions.

But if even North Korea is willing to consider green buildings, then architects are really onto something here. For, you see, the North Korean elite did eventually see the light on energy efficiency. Several years after I failed to convince the bureaucracy of the importance of the subject, the North Korean government signed a deal with a Swiss NGO to establish a center on energy efficiency in Pyongyang. It also agreed to work with the Fuller Center for Housing, based in Americus, Georgia, to build 50 energy-efficient houses for farmers working in a tree nursery just outside of Pyongyang.

If you build it, they will eventually come? Not exactly. But in this particular field of dreams, if you keep talking about building it and describing the advantages of building it and arguing that in today’s climate-change world there are no alternatives to building it, they will eventually come around.

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