Sustainability: Sustainable for who…

On the McDonough Partners site, their philosophy states, “As designers, we promote a positive vision of the future, based upon the belief that many of the environmental problems we face are, at root, design challenges ( And then on his personal website, William McDonough says, “I see design as the first signal of human intention” ( When it comes to architectural design and theory, there exist this need to unify beings, our places and our spaces through a re-conceptualization of the natural and social.

In Cradle to Cradle, William McDonough and Michael Braungart, writes that “inventive machines that use the mechanisms of nature instead of harsh chemicals, concrete, or steel are a step in the right direction, but they are still machines” (p. 598). Within this passage, they introduce the idea of industrial re-evolution which is looking at the developing of industrial systems in a new way, through creating partnerships with nature and instead of producing things that destroy natural spaces begin to utilize natural spaces where human beings become “tools of nature” (p. 598). Design today includes looking at the natural as an agentic being that can both influence and shape design in a more active way. It is no longer being conceived as a space to penetrate, manipulate, invade, and destroy. The industrial re-evolution also represents a shift from the obsession of history, reconnecting with history and toward a movement obsessed with sustainability.

Alberto Perez-Gomez describes the crisis that faces architecture “has its roots in a historical process touched off by the Galilean revolution” (p. 517). Turing the design on itself, McDonough sets the working framework for the 21st century designers. He sets the groundwork for 21st century design by taking consideration, as stated earlier, an obsession with sustainability. The core principles of McDonough’s framework, as stated on his design website, are derived from nature and include that everything is a resource for something else, use renewable energy, and celebrate diversity. Yet, the obsession with sustainability presents the conundrum inherent with this obsession of sustainability, what is sustainability?

In this particular piece itself, there is no clear definition of sustainability except that the reader must assume that by utilizing natural spaces and the energies that these spaces produce to create social spaces will be enough for these spaces to sustain themselves immemorial. Michael Braungart outlines that this obsession with sustainability has to do more with creating buildings and systems “that give more people more of what they want, need and love.” He further expands, “imagine buildings so delightful, so expressive of the world’s diverse interactions between nature and human culture, so comfortably affordable for so many, so able to inspire wonder in the living world, that the demand for them is driven by the pleasure from the bottom up (p. 600). This drive to create new and diverse buildings presents the issue with the social, the desire to create something with meaning and the drive to be individuals. But if design is obsessed with creating, where is the sustainability in creating, re-creating, or inventing and re-inventing to make something anew?

Martin Anderson from The Federal Bulldozer describes the issue with federal urban renewal programs. He states that the federal urban renewal program is sometimes privately referred to as the “Negro removal program” (p. 345). Then, Herbert J. Gans from the Urban Villages written in 1962 describes the paradox with slums with renewal programs. With these pieces in mind, urban renewal programs are just a euphemism for gentrification of spaces. With the consideration with this newfound obsession with sustainability, it begs the question, who will be benefiting the most from this obsession?

It can be argued that this re-conceptualization of the natural and social as both being interconnected and influencing each other simultaneously and synchronously only benefits the ones at the top or the ones who influence the capitalistic modes of production. The obsession with sustainability may take into consideration design as being the first step of human intention but the obsession with sustainability has very little to do with humans as agentic beings. The obsession with sustainability for design is obsessed with turning the natural space into a space to be penetrated, manipulated, invaded and destroyed. Capitalism, eh?